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Blurring the Lines Between Classroom and Community

Appalachia | May 17, 2021
Blurring the Lines Between Classroom and Community

Members of the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia team attended the virtual Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (VASCD) Annual Conference on December 3 and 4, 2020. The conference provided the REL Appalachia team with helpful and practical insight into what virtual and hybrid learning and leadership looks like across the Commonwealth at this challenging moment in time. Conference attendees also had an opportunity to enjoy inspirational keynotes from Dr. Chris Emdin, a social critic and science advocate from Teachers College, Columbia University; Hamish Brewer, a nationally recognized principal from northern Virginia; and Jennifer Gonzalez from the Cult of Pedagogy blog, a former National Board Certified Teacher and preservice university instructor. All three pushed educators in attendance to think differently about their roles, their sense of purpose, and their methods for engagement—particularly against the backdrop of the pandemic.

The potential for blurring the lines

In Gonzalez's keynote, she shared a vision for what she termed “symbiotic curriculum,” which blurs the lines between real life and school to make learning relevant in ways that can shape students' future career paths, build intergenerational respect for and trust in public education, and strengthen community ties. Gonzalez's vision for this potential future curriculum touches on several bodies of research, including strong evidence that curricula and programs that students view as important to their future can contribute to dropout prevention; 1 the association between authentic assignments and increases in student motivation; 2, 3 the potential for developmentally appropriate career exploration to benefit elementary 4 and middle 5 school students; and the idea that intergenerational learning can support a culture of lifelong learning, develop positive attitudes between members of different generations, yield mutual social and academic benefits for participants, schools, and communities, and build social inclusion, cohesion, and solidarity 6.

Gonzalez gave rich examples of symbiotic curriculum from across the nation that included:

Gonzalez recognized that incorporating this kind of innovation may feel overwhelming and paralyzing, but she encouraged educators to focus on helping one student at a time connect to their passions.

A blurry model at scale

One program in the REL Appalachia region that already blurs the lines between learning and real life is Simulated Workplace, West Virginia's statewide career and technical education (CTE) program that transforms CTE classrooms into business structures. In this program, students complete job applications, interviews, and timecards. They adhere to professionalism and safety standards, take on leadership roles, and serve on workplace teams in the context of a business they develop and run with guidance from their teacher and community professionals. 7 Currently, more than 1,200 Simulated Workplace businesses are run by 24,000 or more students annually, with 97 percent student satisfaction and 92 percent of students reporting improved critical thinking. 8

Learn more about REL Appalachia's work with WVDE's Simulated Workplace program in this blog.

Implementing such a student-centered, real-life program requires a significant shift in school culture, so the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) regularly surveys Simulated Workplace participants, including students, instructors, counselors, and administrators to monitor their experiences in the program. REL Appalachia partnered with WVDE and Simulated Workplace programs to support educators' use of survey results through coaching to identify evidence-based practices to improve school culture.

The resulting Guide for Educators, produced by REL Appalachia and freely available on our website, provides in-depth information about five evidence-based practices and examples of where they have been implemented, as well as additional resources to learn more.

Blurring-up the every day

CTE lends itself well to the blurring of workplace and traditional classroom lines, but what about students who may not be enrolled in a CTE course? How can educators infuse the spirit of Simulated Workplace—or what Jennifer Gonzalez called the “symbiotic curriculum”—into each day? Most schools include many line-blurring practices, such as internships or community-interest projects, for some select students, but how can schools ensure there are symbiotic curriculum opportunities for each and every student? What if you're a core content or other elective teacher, a counselor, or an administrator? Educators can follow these suggestions to begin to incorporate symbiotic curriculum opportunities in their classrooms:

  • Consider ways to democratize access to knowledge, empowering students—not just teachers and administrators—to use their voice for self-determination and to make decisions in the life of the school, which can yield significant benefits to well-being, behavior, and academic achievement. 9 In addition to more traditional roles like having students serve on a student council or other such advisory board, the entire student body can be involved in decisions such as selecting a learning theme for summer reading or agreeing to norms for a debate.
  • Create opportunities to use, showcase, and grow student talents through authentic work experiences, such as running an information technology help desk, working as a library volunteer, or serving as a peer mentor or tutor.
  • Embrace opportunities for voice and choice in determining how students achieve learning goals set by the teacher. For example, if a science teacher sets the learning goal as understanding the importance of germ theory to changes in public health practices, the student might have freedom to choose:
  • Interesting content (what they study, such as pursuing a newly-identified interest in the history of vaccines),
  • Process or methods of investigation (how they learn about the content, such as accessing documents from the National Institutes of Health and reading a biography of influential scientists),
  • An artifact that demonstrates their learning (what they produce, such as a multimedia timeline of key vaccine technological enhancements and public health acceptance), and
  • The methods used to determine fulfillment of the goal (how it will be assessed, such as through a co-created rubric).
  • Within classes, create rotating leadership roles that provide practice with executive functioning, listening, and communication skills with appropriate scaffolding (e.g., project management, prioritization, goal setting, summarizing, reporting main idea, notetaking, timekeeping).
  • Elevate the classroom environment to the importance of a workplace, which would communicate students' responsibility to learn as an important job during this season of their life and consider the classroom environment as the home of their learning and working community, fostering a shared sense of pride and ownership for the work that happens there. As an added benefit, nonacademic skills learned in classroom settings could transfer to work settings, too.

REL Appalachia thanks our partner VASCD for hosting an amazing conference that was chock full of authenticity and relevance. It helped to reconnect our staff to their sense of purpose, with a full heart and a vision for blurry teaching.

  • Institute workplace-like teams with a variety of skills and talents, not only for tackling course assignments but also for performance reviews, in which students can provide peer feedback and receive feedback on their work as a unit.
  • Find ongoing opportunities for students to share their work products broadly, from publishing essays online to posting pictures on a Twitter feed to hosting an exhibit of student work. The more eyes on their work, the more care students are likely to take—and the more pride they may feel.
  • Taking the idea of public feedback a step further, engineer opportunities for students to receive feedback from professionals in fields related to the course. This would help students make explicit connections to real-world work possibilities, allow for networking in the community for internships or jobs, and allow for the identification of the strengths students may not see in themselves. Examples include connecting a creative writing class with an author, a calculus class with an engineer, a geometry class with an architect, and a foreign language class with an interpreter.

A quick note: While these examples may lend themselves more easily to students at the secondary level, all of these concepts can be adapted for younger students with proper modeling and supportive scaffolding.

Blurry is imperative

The VASCD conference's theme broadly emphasized the importance of authenticity and engagement as key elements of powerful learning. At this moment, a pandemic rages, structural racism and injustice yields calls to action, and our planet warms. Students need the skills to tackle these and other real-world challenges, not just regurgitate basic facts; thus, their education should closely mirror real experiences. Plus, humans are social creatures, motivated to interact, engage, and belong. 10, 11 By honoring the desire for relevance and meaning-making with shifts away from “business-as-usual” lessons, students will see connections between their education and their postsecondary goals.

Resources for ongoing learning

To learn more about the VASCD, the Simulated Workplace program, and dropout prevention, check out these resources.

What Works Clearing House

Recent REL resources

  • Community Math Nights. This event page includes resources from a Community Math Night event REL Appalachia staff supported in schools in West Virginia focusing on mathematics at work, featuring job talks from community members who use math in their everyday work and hands-on math activities for families.
  • Supporting Positive Culture in CTE Programs. This blog details the partnership forged between REL Appalachia and Simulated Workplace and highlights the Strengthening Simulated Workplace Culture Educator Guide REL Appalachia staff developed to support West Virginia educators in continuous improvement planning upon receiving school culture survey data.
  • Dropout Prevention in the Time of COVID-19. This blog from REL Appalachia and REL Northwest recommends monitoring three areas that may indicate dropout risk, while simultaneously creatively engaging students in their learning.


1 E. P. R. Rumberger, H.Addis, E. Allensworth, R. Balfanz, J. Bruch, E. Dillon, D. Duardo, M. Dynarski, J. Furgeson, M. Jayanthi, R. Newman-Gonchar, K. Place, & C. Tuttle (2017). Preventing drop-out in secondary schools (NCEE 2017–4028). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE). /wwc_dropout_092617.pdf

2 L. B. Gambrell, E. M. Hughes, L. Calvert, J. A. Malloy & B. Igo (2011). Authentic reading, writing and discussion: An exploratory study of a pen pal project. The Elementary School Journal, 112(2), 234–258.

3 K. R. Wentzel & J. E. Brophy (2014). Motivating students to learn (4th ed.). Routledge.

4 M. Edwin & D. Prescod (2018). Fostering elementary career exploration with an interactive, technology-based career development unit. Journal of School Counseling (16)13.

5 Association for Career and Technical Education (2017). Career exploration in middle school: Setting students on the path to success.

6 A. Hatton Yeo & T. Ohsako (2000). Intergenerational programmes: Public policy and research implications. An international perspective. UNESCO Institute for Education. 001280/128018e.pdf

7 West Virginia Department of Education. (n.d.) Simulated workplace protocols. Cvjx6Qano?ref=Link

8 West Virginia Department of Education (n.d.) Simulated workplace home. EucBtk8A?ref=Link

9 A. Kohn (1993). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(1), 8–16.

10 R. F. Baumeister & M. R. Leary (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

11 A. H. Maslow (1968). Toward a psychology of being. Van Nostrand.


Laura Kassner

Laura Kassner

Deborah Jonas

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