Connecting Teachers and Students Across Communities: Campus Without Walls
In the early days of the pandemic, members of Open Opportunity—Massachusetts started discussing a question: how is it that in a time when all students are learning remotely, their zip codes still determine the quality of education they have access to? Why should learning be confined to the opportunities available in one school building? The group— a cross-sector coalition of more than 40 organizations co-chaired by BUILD CEO Ayele Shakur and the Rennie Center’s Executive Director Dr. Chad d’Entremont—began dreaming up the idea of a Campus Without Walls (CWW), where a student in one community could take a class taught by a teacher across the city, or even across the state.
In spring 2021, a pilot of Campus Without Walls was launched in Boston Public Schools, bringing together 16 schools, 13 community-based organizations, and two universities to serve 600 students in grades 6–12. For this pilot, now in its third semester, CWW recruited teachers who excel in their field, are committed to rigor and culturally responsive instruction, and are eager to engage in a more liberated approach to teaching. Then CWW supported these teachers in adapting or creating exciting, credit-bearing units within their curricula that can be shared virtually. Finally, teachers were matched to partnering classes in different schools, enabling two teachers to work together to facilitate a new learning experience for students. For the pilot, teachers sign their classes up to partner with another teacher on a course, but the eventual goal is for students to be able to sign up on their own and curate a schedule of courses from across their district that best meet their interests and goals.
The pilot showed a positive impact on students. Survey results showed a seven percentage point increase in students reporting their classes were relevant to their daily lives; a six percentage point increase in students reporting their classes were focused on topics they want to learn about; an eight percentage point increase in students reporting they were making progress toward their high school diploma; and a more than twenty percentage point increase in students reporting they received strong support from their school for remote learning during the pandemic.
Also critical is the ongoing peer support teachers receive by participating in CWW. To learn more about how CWW has impacted educators, we spoke with Casey Andrews, an English teacher at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, and Felicia Prass, an English teacher at Excel High School in South Boston. Through CWW, Casey signed up to teach a Feminist Theory unit focused on the question of “whose body is essential?” and Felicia enrolled her 12th-grade English class. The two had weekly meetings to collaborate on the curriculum. Read our interview with them to learn more about how this opportunity impacted their teaching experience. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What made you want to get involved in Campus Without Walls?
CASEY ANDREWS: I first heard about it during remote learning. My students were really disillusioned with school, and there were very few extracurricular resources I could offer them because we weren’t even in school. So I was excited about CWW’s dream of having students genuinely be able to take classes at other schools and, eventually, to be able to build this really interesting schedule based on their own interests and desires across schools.
FELICIA PRASS: This seems like a completely different and dynamic way of learning, with students having a lot of choice and flexibility and the ability to build something that’s truly based on passion and desire and interest, which is not usually the case with traditional schooling. I saw the pamphlet and I thought, this is really top-notch and different. It was like being handed a menu at a 5-star restaurant. I was immediately engaged by the variety of topics. Even the description of each course was presented in such a unique way to curate different topics and different themes. And I saw diversity in the teaching staff who were choosing to be part of this journey. All of those things were sparkling and truly have been engaging since the beginning.
Q: What was it like working together? How did this experience support you as educators?
FP: It was definitely refreshing for me because I’m the only 12th-grade general education English teacher at my school, and, though I have a department of English teachers in other grades, I never truly co-plan and I really do a lot alone. So just having someone like Casey, who’s interested in the work that she’s created and willing to share and see it evolve, that was really refreshing to me. That aspect alone was intriguing, to have someone I could learn from and be open to sharing my own ideas with. Having someone to share ideas around curriculum outside of all the administrative things we have to do was inspiring. We could talk about the work and not be so tied up with all the other things we have to do within the day at our schools.
CA: I went in expecting to share some resources and thinking, to some extent, it would be a one-way partnership. But I left feeling like my curriculum was completely deepened by thinking about how Felicia’s students were responding to it. Those collaborative shifts and getting to think about curriculum with someone on a weekly basis was wonderful and definitely benefited my students, too. Instead of me just teaching by myself, I was actually getting the chance to have intellectual conversations, which are sorely lacking in the teaching profession. I think students benefit from their teachers feeling that kind of affirmation. I am an intellectual who gets to have conversations about what text I want to teach and how I’m going to manage that and what that looks like in a classroom and how I want to change my curriculum. I felt like I taught this unit better because I was collaborating and my students probably benefited from my overall demeanor about the content.
Q: Would you recommend CWW to other teachers?
FP: I definitely would. I love being able to bounce ideas off of anyone, but especially someone who is equally interested in the themes I teach to my seniors. I appreciated the collaboration. Just to have someone who I can consistently check in with and learn from, I love that more than anything.
CA: There are people I would recommend it to and some that I wouldn’t. There are a lot of talented teachers who are overwhelmed right now, and the pandemic in particular is putting a lot of pressure on teachers. So taking on a new time commitment like this can be hard. But CWW is doing what they can to mitigate that. It is a really nice thing for teachers who want that kind of intellectual collaboration or want something dynamic or new for their students. It would be especially great for veteran teachers who want to expand and change their curriculum by collaborating with another teacher.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of CWW?
CA: I think it is attempting to do something that no one is willing to do because it is so difficult. The idea of being able to transcend the boundaries of our individual institutions and say students have a right to learn from all these people, I think the inspiration behind it is really beautiful. The fact that it is logistically difficult does not mean we should not try to do this for our students because if it is achieved it will be really profound opportunity. This is a very innovative idea so of course, it’s very difficult, because otherwise people would already be doing it.
To learn more about CWW, check out the Spring 2022 course catalog. And if you’re interested in signing up as lead teacher, applications are now open for the Fall 2022 semester! Apply now or fill out an interest form to receive more information.