By Hilary Kaltenbach
It’s Wednesday morning. Buses line the front of Methow Valley Elementary School, opening their doors with the familiar rush of air that signals the start of a day. Students jump the last step, streaming into the fall air. They pick up breakfast and head in twos and threes to their grade-level groups. It seems, at first glance, like a normal school day. Yet this isn’t a school day exactly, rather the elementary Learning Pods are meeting for their third week. Over 100 students have enrolled in this free option that provides weekly support and learning for any elementary student in the district.
We can thank 2020 for coining the term “Learning Pod.” As uncertainty about the school year loomed, parents sought predictable schedules and care for their school-age kids. Districts worked to re-envision schools within local health guidelines. Remote schooling seemed synonymous with isolation. Around the country, some families began forming small groups, “Learning Pods” or “Pandemic Pods,” often led by a paid educator, to meet needs for structure, academic instruction, and social interaction.
However, hiring a private teacher isn’t in many families’ budgets, especially in this year of instability. Questions about equity surfaced. An Aug. 17 article in The Seattle Times asked, “Who would be left behind when better-resourced parents pooled their money for private instruction for a few?”
The Methow Valley doesn’t follow the choreography of the national stage. In the larger conversation about education and access, about Learning Pods and equity, one piece is often missing: community. Here in our small valley, we see each other, even with our masks on. Through conversation in the aisles of the grocery store and the post office parking lot, we learn how we’re doing and what we need. Our proximity and relationships afford us an opportunity to see beyond our own daily schedules to the needs of the community. We have an opportunity to pool our resources for the benefit of not just a small group, but a larger one. We have an opportunity to say “yes” to sharing our time and talents.
The idea for a free learning option for all families began in just this way, as part of a casual conversation. “What if?” they asked. “What if Learning Pods were available for all kids?”
Setting the tone
As the Wednesday morning pods gather in grade-level small groups, leaders set the tone for the day. A story read aloud, hopes for the day shared,15 circles of students spread across the grass in the fall sunlight. Soon, pods embark on their activities for the day. Third-graders work collaboratively on solving treasure hunt clues. First-graders explore sound vibrations by creating kazoos. Sixth-graders finish their online class meeting and plan an activity to lead with their first-grade buddies. Kindergarten walks to the Classroom in Bloom garden to harvest carrots. A fourth-grader dons the “Plastic Bag Monster” suit as Methow Recycles leads a guest lesson. A fifth-grader works one-on-one with a math tutor.
In their pods, students learn to be curious about the world around them, to work together on a task, to listen to each other. Perhaps most importantly, each student has a leader who sees them, a mentor whose task is to connect, support and inspire.
Fifteen adults shepherd these young learners each week. These are the people in our community who said “yes.” They are former teachers, scientists, college students, outdoor educators and high school seniors. Every Wednesday morning they listen and corral, laugh and question. The partnership between the Methow Valley School District and the Public School Funding Alliance found these mentors a stipend for the time and energy they share with students each week. The school district also arranged bus pick-up and breakfasts, lunches and drop-offs. Students across the valley receive what they need: structure, academic support and social interaction.
It is easy to forget, against an incessant media backdrop of division, that we as a community possess great power. We, like our Wednesday morning mentors, can choose to connect with each other, support each other, and inspire solutions to our collective needs. The Wednesday Learning Pods offer an example of what we can achieve through partnership, through listening, through saying “yes.”
Hilary Kaltenbach, an educator and parent of one tween and one teen, currently serves as board vice-president of the Public School Funding Alliance. She lives in Winthrop.