The story of Sora Schools is one of overcoming assumptions and mistakes and growing from them. We’ve given our students real power to work with us to craft the school of the future. They, just as much as us, run our school.
To develop our education model, we had to string together ideas and components from many different industries and disciplines. We were also very careful to choose faculty who were strong with traditional academic subjects and systems, but also extremely open to doing something new and learner-driven. We are able to mold together custom curriculums for each student in real-time, mostly thanks to this great faculty.
We’ve learned a lot in our first year. Our model and resources are great, but it’s the people and the culture that make Sora special. The key to our growing success is our community.
The First Cohort
We started Sora with 8 students: 5 full time, 2 part time, and one student in our work-study program. Going into January, we’re adding 5 new students to our class. Most of our students still hail from the greater Atlanta area, but some are from the other parts of the country. However, the dynamics are the same, no matter where the students are logging in from. They still interact the same way and have forged deep relationships with their fellow students.
Many of our students came from a homeschooling background and never really worked in a project-based setting before, especially in groups. Some homeschooling co-ops and institutions have group sessions with project-like activities and workshops, but not much outside of a one-off session. During Orientation this past fall, our students worked in groups of 2 and 3 on a real-world project with a mentor from our mentor network. This was a fantastic experience for most, but the most exciting and surprising result was that the students wanted to continue working together in group projects. After that, the entire class decided to work together on an ambitious first project: build their own video game. The video game is still in production with a release date mid-2020.
Each student came out of Orientation with their own individual project plans and concepts. The projects consisted of building an algae farm, becoming a better project manager, writing a novel, building and launching a custom rocket, researching sterilization techniques, making a comic, researching essential oils, visualizing public health data, researching a WWI battleship, and so much more. The students presented their weekly progress in their Friday showcases. Many of these projects, due to their wide scope, are still being worked on.
The ones that were completed, like the rocket project, had their own presentation days where the students gave lengthy presentations to their Sora faculty and peers. When the rocket project was presented, our student gave an in-depth explanation of propulsion, aerodynamics, and parts of what she learned from speaking with a SpaceX engineer from our mentor network.
Of course, she also got to launch that rocket.
We’ve always pondered how we might let the students run their own school. Halfway through the semester, we decided to open our product meetings to students. In these meetings, students contributed to our product roadmap, gave feedback, and conducted their own experiments. Even now, over half of the class regularly attends these roadmap meetings (rightfully named Roadmap club) and have suggested many changes to our program that we have already implemented. One student, for example, wanted to try implementing student-only standups and a student-only mid-week project meeting. They experimented with that model during the following week, and we decided to integrate into the school schedule.
A Robust Online Community
Culture defines a school. I think it’s important to note that all 3 founders of Sora are part of Generation Z. We understand the internet and social media environment that our students are living in. Though we predict our understanding will quickly fade over the next few years, right now we have the opportunity to leverage this knowledge to build a school that’s culturally relevant and to position current students in key school-building roles.
Many cultural phenomena have surfaced since we brought students onto Slack. Names and profile pictures have quickly evolved to pseudonyms and favorite movie characters. Each student meeting and workshop yields numerous memes. We also have weekly meme tournaments where students make their own bracket and battle each other to see who can make the best meme. The faculty often join in the meme tournaments as well.
Students have also started a whole host of clubs. The most popular clubs are movie club, fantasy book club and a workshop on the physics of StarWars. Movie club mostly discusses Disney+ content, StarWars, and Marvel movies. Fantasy book club reads and discusses Six of Crows, among other book series’. The Physics of StarWars club formed around a book that attempts to connect real world physics to the lightsabers, warp drives and different planetary environments of the movies. Students self-study a topic each week and arrive ready to debate what they have learned. These clubs are fun, but also provide meaningful ways for students to level up their mastery of ELA and science topics, priming them for deeper application in their own individual projects.
Recently, Sora has focused a lot on peer-to-peer learning. A multi-aged environment like Sora bears a wide array of skillsets and content knowledge. As we understand where students are at with their academic skills, we make intelligent pairings between them.
For example, a student wanted to level-up their knowledge on a subject in Math. They posted about it in Slack, and then they were paired with another student who had some content knowledge on that subject. The student who instigated the session had the opportunity to self-study the subject ahead of the conversation. During the conversation, both students shared what they knew and reached a new level of understanding. The conversation was recorded and reported back to our learning experts for assessment.
This is only the beginning of the peer-to-peer learning nature of Sora. In 2020, we’ll be experimenting with more subjects and structures for pairing.
Career Skills and Mentorship
Sora’s mission revolves around first exploration, and then application. In both, we employ the concept of directness (working on things as close as possible to real world work).
This fall, several of our students had their first meetings with mentors from our mentor network. Our counselor worked with them to craft their first professional emails and form insightful questions for their conversations. This was an extremely positive experience for the students. Each student had valuable takeaways from the conversations and indicated that they would definitely want to do it again. One of the mentors has actually started a data visualization project with one of our students and the student submits weekly updates.
Starting in January 2020, we’re beginning to incorporate real-world work into each student’s day. This work consists of interning locally, remote internships, and creative project work. Our mentors have agreed to speak to groups of students throughout the semester. We’re also building out a more formal corporate partner network to offer our students internships for the summer.
Running a school is hard. We’re doing a lot of great things for our students, faculty, and community, but we’ve hit some bumps along the way. We’ve messed up meetings, experimented with extremely confusing schedules for both our faculty and students, and have only recently worked out kinks in our admissions process. Throughout this journey, each of our students have met these challenges with a smile or a meme, or sometimes both. Schools suck because they are so far removed from the students that they serve. Our students know that we hear them and though we make mistakes, they know that we all can learn from them. Transparency is an important cornerstone of our community. The more transparent we are with our shortcomings, the more we all can share the lessons in rectifying them.
Here’s to the new year!