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  • Writer's pictureGreg Gentle

Learning in the Age of COVID: Orca Project Part 3

Learning in the Age of COVID: Orca Project is a three-part series featuring one organization’s innovative approach to address the challenges posed by the academic dislocation caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

We outlined Learning Pod goals and introduced the Orca Project in the first two parts of our series. We share some of our insights and recommendations for others interested in starting their own Learning Pod in this final installment of the three-part series.

The Big Three

The leaves have fallen. The clocks are turned back. Thanksgiving leftovers are all gone. Freezing overnight temperatures remind us that winter is on the horizon. And the Orca Project is nearing its fourth month of operation. We’ve seen a number of milestones including our first pod member exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms - a reminder that we are all vulnerable to this disease even with the best possible plans in place.

We have learned a lot. But we also know we are not experts in Pod Learning. There is no playbook. No exemplars to follow. No manual of “best practices” just yet. We are learning everyday.

The lack of a codified body of knowledge should not hold anyone back from starting a Learning Pod if this solution solves a problem.

To get started, we need three things: kids, space, and someone to lead the pod.

The Kids

We recommended pods of three to ten students in previous posts. Our original plans included space for eight kids. Initially we had five families looking for the solution we were offering. We had sixchildren ages 9-12 after one family opted out. Two sets of siblings and one child each from two other families complete the pod. We were intentional in our age span. Most high school kids are perfectly independent– possibly negating the need for a pod. Kids in grades kindergarten through second grade need more breaks, movement, and possibly—more staffing support. Our recommendation is to have a Learning Pod focused on lower grades (K-2), and another pod for older students in upper elementary and middle school.

The Orca Project has six students. We find six to be a great number. There is enough energy in the room to make it feel like a school experience without overwhelming the systems with a single pod leader. Eight is manageable as well. But more kids requires more space. Social distancing becomes more challenging. Providing focused academic support for more kids may also be a challenge.

The Space

One of our families has access to a newly remodeled warehouse that is closed due to the pandemic. We are lucky to have large open spaces and existing business class high-speed Internet. We use the main office space for our learning center. The second floor was once used for training and as a breakroom. It now serves as a community room for meals, pod meetings, and gaming. The space is complete with a video display and kitchen.

The back of the warehouse is perfect for indoor physical activities like pickle ball, frisbee dodgeball (with foam discs), and other games.

This is a unique and amazing space for us to utilize. Not everyone needs a warehouse, though. Church basements, empty retail spaces, YMCAs, Community Centers, and Park Buildings are all suitable for Learning Pods. We can be creative with our use of underutilized commercial spaces. Some Learning Pods in our area rotate between the homes of the pod members as well. Be creative. Use that network of friends and families to explore space options for your Learning Pod.

The Leader

Staffing a Learning Pod involves a number of considerations. What ages are your students? How long is the program each day? Is a professional educator needed? We have a former teacher and principal. He initiated the conversation about starting the Orca Project. However, a professional educator isn’t necessary to start a Learning Pod. Any caring adult can do this successfully.

The Learning Pod leader is more like a coach than a teacher. Here are a few attributes to look for in a Learning Pod Leader:

  • A playful, creative mindset. Pod Leaders need to create fun and sometimes challenging experiences for students when the school work is done and during breaks

  • Strong organizational skills. Pod leaders will juggle multiple schedules and learning plans

  • Patience. Kids are kids. Pod Leaders need to have patience

  • Flexible mindset. Some things don’t work out as planned, so the Pod Leader needs to quickly and creatively adjust thinking at times

  • Above average technology skills. Students connect to a wide variety of systems such as Zoom, Apple Classroom, and Google Classroom

The last one is critical. Pod leaders may be tasked to navigate multiple Learning Management Systems, email platforms, and have basic network skills to troubleshoot issues. But also have a plan for what the students do when they’re supposed to be in a classroom and the Internet goes down or the Internet at the district goes down. A backup Internet connection is a great option (some schools provide access points to students) as well.

We can’t plan for every possible problem we’ll encounter but we can look to how schools react to various situations for guidance so having a professional educator available if only as an advisor is great.

First Steps

A strong, positive relationship is the foundation of a successful learning experience. Get to know the learners and families before the program begins. We are in a better position to respond to each individual learner’s needs, empathize with their challenges, react to learning style, and engage them in their areas of interest when we know the students and their motivators.

We started with a Google form that was sent to families with basic questions like name, date of birth, emergency contacts, known allergies and other basic administrative information.

Next- we followed up with another survey to dive deeper into each learner’s personal interests, learning style, favorite literature genre, music interests, and hobbies. After receiving the interest inventories, we connected directly with each family and student hosting one on one Zoom meetings, and safely distanced face to face meetings. This personal touch gave families and kids the opportunity to connect directly with their Pod leader before the program started.

Giving students the time, listening to what they want, and basing decisions about how the program works provides agency in a time when the students might not feel like they have any control in life and is an important aspect of building trust. We can also use this time to create boundaries: yes, we will take what they want into account but there are other students with their own needs as well. This helps us be pro-active.

Pro-Active vs. Re-Active

Define as many parameters on the front end of the program to avoid reactive responses to issues. Clarity of expectations for learners and adults involved in the program promotes a healthy learning ecosystem. And good communication is a great skill in life. It is hard to think through every scenario to prepare for. Here are a few to have in place before we welcome the kids.

  • Sweat the small stuff--Establish community agreements for how and when to respond to various behaviors. What are the rules and how do you respond to the little things so they don’tbuild up to big things?

  • Clearly outline what happens when pod members exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. How long do they have to quarantine from the group? Do they have to test negatively before returning to the pod?

  • Define the program. How many students and what ages are served?

  • Promote transparency. What is the pod selection criteria for recruitment?

  • Distractions. Can students have mobile devices like cell phones and when?

  • Figure out the food situation. How are meals handled? Do students bring a bag lunch or is lunch provided? How about snacks and beverages (yes, they are necessary)?

  • Formalize financials. Is there a fee? What is the fee structure for the program? Is there a sliding scale? How are payments accepted? Do families still pay for services if they have to quarantine or have a period where they won’t be participating?

  • Be prescriptive about logistics. What is the pickup and drop off procedure? Can parents come in or just the students?

The list of considerations can grow lengthy. Not every detail we worked through is represented here and they can be different based on the needs of students and family. We recommend being prescriptive about a number of aspects about how the program will run but also being open to changes where needed.

Next Steps

Recruiting kids and families is the next step. The program goals will help determine who to reach out to. Are you a potential pod leader starting this to support your community? Are you a parent looking for a solution to help you get back to work? Both are great reasons. Both will determine how you move forward to recruit families. Start small. Ask a close friend, relative, or co-worker that might be interested. It is likely you won’t have any problem finding the right families ready for help.

Interested in learning more about the Orca Project and how we are doing things, or considering starting your own learning pod? Want to give us some pointers on things that worked? Drop us a line!

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