Relationships Lead to Learning

Fred Delse
March 23, 2021

Freddie Veres is a high school advisory teacher at Big Picture Ukiah in California. The Big Picture Learning (BPL) model is centered around an advisory group that consists of about 15-20 students and their advisor. The advisor builds trusting relationships with advisees, helps them identify their interests, and supports them as they engage in authentic learning opportunities, particularly outside of school.

Creating relationships and community to support learning

Once they know you care, they will open up, and you can find out what they’re really interested in.

Freddie believes caring about students first as individuals is essential to helping them learn. He says, “If you're just sitting there in front of your classroom, espousing curriculum, and teaching to a test, students are going to push back. You have to put the vibe out there that you care about them, that you care more about them than you care about their scores. Once they know you care, they will open up, and you can find out what they’re really interested in.”

Freddie is always looking for ways to build relationships in his advisory. “So much of our students’ learning happens outside of school. It’s always hard to stay connected, let alone during COVID,” he says. For the past couple of terms, Freddie has used Unrulr with his advisory as a way for them to share their thoughts, interests, and learning.

Deciding on shared learning goals 

His first step in preparing to use Unrulr was to decide upon the “cogs” they would use. In Unrulr, cogs are the shared concepts, objectives, goals, and skills that the group is focused on. Each post needs to be tagged with one or more cogs.

“As with everything, I know that students’ buy-in will be greater if they participate in the creation of our cogs,” Freddie says. “This term, we’re trying something new. At the beginning of the term, we had a collaborative session in which we worked through a list of skills and goals and asked, ‘Why is this important for your life? Do you see you're going to have a much more difficult life ahead of you without it?’ We ended up with a great list including self-advocacy, financial literacy, community involvement, health, organization, etc.

“Once we had our list, we put the proposed cogs up on a Jamboard, and we went through each one to brainstorm some examples of ways they could show their developing abilities in each.

A Jamboard with student ideas about the key aspects to financial literacy

“Before students get back from spring break, I'll enter the cogs and example behaviors into the Unrulr Dashboard so we can start using them in the spring,” Freddie explains.

The Unrulr Dashboard where Freddie enters each cog.

Kicking off students with Unrulr

When Freddie first kicked his students off with Unrulr, he:

  1. Explained the purpose of Unrulr is to build community and to share evidence of learning.
  2. Shared his screen and stepped through example posts he had created.
  3. Showed the students how to create a post, step-by-step.
  4. Gave special attention to describing what makes a good caption.
  5. Highlighted the cogs available for tagging posts.
  6. Showed the students how to make a comment on a post.

A post Freddie (Michael) made to show his students how to use Unrulr.
A post Freddie (Michael) made to show his students how to use Unrulr.

Then, he had students use Unrulr for the first time. He asked them to:

  1. Install Unrulr on their device or have them access Unrulr on the Web.
  2. Sign in with their school account.
  3. Create their first post that includes a personal tidbit about themselves.
  4. Refresh the feed by swiping down from the top to see their peers’ posts.
  5. Comment on a peer’s post.

“I had all students make a sample post to make sure everyone has the technology, and they know the basic steps to use the app. Students took to it right away since it looks so much like social media,” Freddie says.

Sharing learning and making personal connections

Unrulr is turning the world into their classroom, and that’s a game changer.

When the students were ready to use Unrulr on their own, Freddie asked them to post at least twice a week showing progress on their projects or something that was personally meaningful to them. “My goals for the first couple weeks were to start getting students into the habit of making posts, to have students learn more about each other, and to get students to start internalizing our cogs,” Freddie explains. Soon, he started asking for daily posts from students.

“Every evening I spend a few minutes relaxing, going through the posts on my phone and commenting on every one. And sometimes we have a mini-conversation in the comments. That’s another way I show I care. Students can see it -- here’s a teacher who cares enough about me to make a personal comment at 7:30pm,” Freddie says.

A post with a mini-conversation.

“But more importantly, I learn things about the students I would have otherwise never known. This is useful not only in forming relationships, but also in helping me guide the students toward projects that they have passion for.”

Freddie provided an example of a student who posted a video of a car he really liked. The student was sharing a personal interest, and Freddie saw an opportunity to make a connection. Here’s how he tells the story:

“The day after I saw the student’s post on Unrulr, I said to the student, ‘Well, you know, I see a project in your future. You can learn about this car and what the history of it is. And the student said, ‘Oh, I'd be totally into that!’ And so we started talking about what he can do to hit some of the cogs, and he was just fired up about it! I told him it's not going to happen for a month or so because he had to get some of the foundational work skills first, but that was motivation for him.

The car post that helped Freddie understand the student’s interest.

“And that’s totally Unrulr. That’s never going to come up in the classroom. Unrulr is turning the world into their classroom, and that’s a game changer.”

Deepening learning through public exhibition

Because students have been capturing and sharing their work in Unrulr all along, it’s easy for them to use the tool to curate that evidence into their portfolio.

Learning outside of the classroom in real world settings is a big part of the Big Picture Learning. As part of the process, students do a public exhibition to demonstrate what they’ve learned from their experience in those settings. Freddie says, “The exhibition becomes a celebration of their projects and the things they really sunk their teeth into the most.” The exhibition also provides accountability that the student work is rigorous and meaningful for both the student and the community.

The audience for the exhibition includes teachers, mentors, school admin, family members, and friends. This group receives a tour of the student’s worksite and/or any physical artifacts of the work. The student also makes a presentation to the group reflecting on what they’ve learned and the process they used to learn it. This presentation usually takes the form of a digital portfolio review.

“Because students have been capturing and sharing their work in Unrulr all along, it’s easy for them to use the tool to curate that evidence into their portfolio,” Freddie explains.

Freddie showed an example of a journey post a student made in Unrulr for his semester exhibition. The student spent the semester working two internships: one learning construction and another working at an auto-mechanic’s shop.

An example journey post.

“During his online exhibition, he shared his screen on Unrulr and walked the audience through his learning journey. He narrated the visuals and described his successes, his challenges, and how he overcame them. He knows exactly what he did. He’s talking, we’re asking him questions, and it was really cool to see!”

A student doing his public exhibition virtually.

Going forward

Unrulr is a tool of the trade at this point. This is a foundational tool.

After a successful set of exhibitions last term, Freddie is continuing to deepen the use of Unrulr in his advisory. He is now asking his students to post more frequently and interact more on the app. Freddie says, “At first, their reaction was, ‘you’re asking too much,’ and now, all of a sudden, they're starting to get into each other's posts and comments, and our community is starting to thrive more than it has since COVID. It just takes some time to build momentum, but once it gets going, it's great!

“I’m also starting to have them do a mini-journey presentation in Unrulr every month. It’s an assignment, but they have a lot of flexibility to choose how they show their learning on the cogs. The fact that they have to get up in front of others keeps them accountable. If they’ve captured nothing during the month, they’ve got nothing. It’s embarrassing to stand up there with nothing. So they get better.”

Freddie is already thinking about how Unrulr will fit into the overall arc of his students’ careers at Big Picture Ukiah. He says, “Every year, I’m going to have that collaborative discussion with my students on the cogs. What are the life skills that you should have for graduating? These will be the cogs in Unrulr, and we’ll keep them there, year after year, adjusting as appropriate. In my opinion, Unrulr is a tool of the trade at this point. This is a foundational tool.”