Hands-on Work and Team Effort: Pandemic Learning at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center

Topics: Overcoming Challenges

Despite the challenges and adaptations that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center (YCC), team members discovered the benefits of teaching students in a more personalized way. To prevent the possible spread of the virus, YCC restructured learning in a team-based model that kept students learning with the peers from their dormitories, which YCC calls cottages.

“I don’t think we would have made the switch to project-based learning as quickly [without the pandemic],” said Michelle Pfaff, principal.

Shifting to project-based learning allowed students to find relevance in what they were learning and gave them some autonomy over how they could spend their school day. Students were asked to create their own business proposal. Those proposals spurred another thought – how could a student-led project incorporate service learning on the YCC campus?

The teenagers identified the basketball court as an area in need of repair and wrote up a proposal for giving it a facelift. They took measurements, created and voted on designs and researched enough to come up with an estimate of costs and a list of the tools and steps that were needed. The team of students dug holes for the new hoops, mixed and poured cement and painted the court.

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Two students who were involved in the project said the hands-on work and the team effort made the work hardly feel like school.

During a more traditional school day, both would find themselves counting down the minutes until the final bell.

But not when they were working on the court.

“It was more, ‘We got to go back already?’” One of the students, an eleventh grader, said. “If I do something I enjoy, I want to do it.”

YCC's Profile of a Life-Long Learner
YCC’s profile of a lifelong learner helps students and educators think about what qualities support the journey toward long term goals.

Seeing the project through to completion also brought a sense of pride and ownership that students may not otherwise feel through traditional classroom lessons, Pfaff said. The teenagers at YCC often experience instability and frequent changes, both in their personal and academic lives.

“These students don’t typically get to be a part of something all the way through and see it finished,” Pfaff said. “It’s really meaningful to them to be able to realize ‘I had this idea, people let me work on this idea and now I can see that this idea actually made a difference.’”

For a tenth-grade student, the project also helped him gain tangible skills he plans to carry into a career in construction.

“I put in hard work and hard work pays off,” the tenth grader said.

By focusing on essential skills and encouraging students to reflect on their own learning through journaling, Pfaff, said the shift in teaching models has empowered YCC students with tools they can take with them after their stay. YCC’s profile of a lifelong learner helps students and educators think about what qualities support the journey toward long term goals.

“We want them to be able to go out into the world and advocate for the supports they need – to be able to articulate their goals, say how they learn best and ask for what they need,” Pfaff said.

Guest post by Mara Klecker, a journalist in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Klecker is the daughter of two educators and has always called the Midwest home.

Time management. Responsibility. Self-advocacy. YCC students don’t always arrive with the capacity to do many of these things – but educators and staff are teaching these critical life skills and more.