Elizabeth Allen as told to Liz Katz -- One of the most frequent requests we get at One Schoolhouse comes from schools who are considering moving a language sequence to online instruction. Schools want to offer more than one option in their World Languages department, but because the vast majority of students choose Spanish for their studies, it’s not financially feasible to have a single instructor teach two or three dozen students at four different levels. That’s when schools call us.
The follow-up question we inevitably get is “When a course is asynchronous, how do students get practice actually talking in a language?” To answer, I turned to Elizabeth Allen, who has been teaching with One Schoolhouse since 2011, first as a summer instructor and, for the past four years, as the teacher of AP Spanish Literature and Culture. Elizabeth was also a part of the facilitation team for our Summer 2020 professional development courses on hybrid instruction. At Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee, she teaches Spanish and has served as the chair of the World Languages department.
It’s true that natural conversation is difficult in online asynchronous instruction. In the classroom, teachers rely on that improvisational speech to gauge where their students are in terms of progress and mastery. In teaching online, I came to understand that although I couldn’t replicate the practice of spontaneous conversation, I could address and develop the same skills and interaction through different activities.
Conversation is efficient because it touches on multiple skills: passive listening, active listening, speaking, and cultural competency. Online, by creating new activities, I can get the same information about students’ progress and performance. For example, I can provide authentic language artifacts in the target language by embedding video in the course page, then ask a comprehension and analysis question for students to answer in a 15-second video. I’m still asking them to practice the same skills and providing feedback and assessment.
When students speak in my face-to-face classroom, I can rely on my gut instinct and experience to make a shift in activities and instruction based on their proficiency. Online, I have to have a clear vision and plan very early for differentiation. I build my course well in advance with all the resources I need, and then adjust within the class according to the needs of my students. In my online course, it’s actually easier to differentiate. I can provide advanced students with the activities they need to stay engaged and support a student who needs to work on their skills at the same time. Students are more receptive to differentiation online because they aren’t comparing themselves to each other—they’re focused on what they need.
When I teach AP Spanish Literature and Culture online, it’s not uncommon for me to get richer content through discussion boards—both written and spoken—than I get in a face-to-face classroom. I appreciate the depth that students go into when they’re working online. I think that’s in part because there are explicit expectations and rubrics for all the activities, and students rise to the high expectations we provide. I also think it’s because we focus on the skills we want students to master instead of the activities that give them practice. Thinking deeply about the student experience opened the door to a different kind of creativity in my teaching.
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States in March 2019, independent school leaders knew that every single decision needed to center on one thing: making school as safe as possible for their communities. As the spring continued, racist violence and the ensuing antiracist demonstrations emphasized that safety in schools requires the dismantling of policies and practices that center whiteness and perpetuate systems of privilege and inequality. The wisest leaders know that safety addresses many facets of experience: our bodies, our minds, our identities, and our relationships.
A year ago, I talked about wellness using the metaphor of the motorcycle. If we think about our academic programs as a motorcycle, then wellness and mental health have traditionally been a sidecar--nice to have, but not necessary. What COVID-19 has taught us is that wellness is actually the road we are all driving on. Our academic program is only going to stay upright as long as the road is smooth. If we don’t take care of our community’s wellness, we’re all one bump away from disaster.
What I hope we take away with us as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is that wellness can’t be an add-on side-car of a program. For too long, we’ve encouraged our teachers and students to practice self-care and balance while constructing workloads and expectations that undermined those things. Moving forward, addressing wellness isn’t going to be as simple as teaching kids how to do deep breathing exercises. Instead, we need to change the way we do school.
It’s a truism to say that crisis is both challenge and opportunity. In Fall 2019, most educators would have said that teaching their courses online was impossible. They would have said you can’t create a high school schedule that keeps kids in stable cohorts, or that they could have half their kids in their classroom and another half learning from home. And yet, by Fall 2020, they were doing all those things, and with successes to be proud of. If we can take one of the most basic assumptions of the twentieth century school--you have to be here to learn--and reconstruct it completely in just a few weeks, then we can also re-evaluate the elements of school that made it so difficult for our community to prioritize wellness.
Because we’ve moved through so many iterations of school this year, we have the opportunity to ask our faculty and students what made a difference. Was it a later start time? Genuine acknowledgement that the systemic injustice in our schools must end? Teaching or taking fewer courses at a time? Significant professional time for faculty? Adjusting curriculum? We can also ask students what they missed: unstructured time on campus, advisory, sports, activities?
It’s hard to say that the pandemic brought us gifts when it took so much away from so many. Looking back, however, we can see that the past thirty years in many schools narrowed a range of priorities for students until academic achievement overwhelmed them all. The pandemics pushed that range wider, so that health and safety, in all its forms, took up equal space, and that racial justice and equity were addressed with the urgency our communities deserve. As we move forward, academic leaders need to continue to maintain the values and practices that ensure every member of our community has the support, systems, and practices that allow them to thrive.
Shh… I’m going to let you in on a secret. Academic Leaders, want to know how to get your business office to love you forever? Go to their office at some point this spring, and ask: So, I know that we put in huge investments in order to make this school-year-unlike-any-other work… how can we maximize those investments as we head into the future?
I know, I know… we aren’t used to talking about investments and money, generally. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Academic Leaders started asking questions that never crossed their lips before:
These are the questions that our business offices deal with every day, but to get the most accurate and actionable answers, they can’t answer them alone. As Academic Leaders, we need to collaborate with our campus leaders in facilities, security, technology, and finance as never before. Our schools were better because of that collaboration, and that’s not something we want to lose post-pandemic.
Business offices in schools also are often the most outward facing of the departments within a school, because they have to be. They are constantly engaging with outside vendors (banks, food service, construction companies, etc.) that give them a window into the ways that culture and industry are changing. This also gives them insight into trends that will affect how schools operate and what that will mean for the student experience, sometimes years before it’s visible in the academic program. That wider perspective is important information for Academic Leaders to have, as we increasingly build competencies in our students that prepare them for life, not just college.
Collaboration with the business office and other outward facing offices (such as enrollment and advancement) might also help us think expansively about what our classrooms might look like in the future and what new opportunities are present in a post-pandemic world to reach more students in more equitable ways.
This is a guest blog post written by Liz Katz with Amanda Rosas --- Since the summer, many independent schools have been reckoning with their histories as predominantly white institutions. At One Schoolhouse, we know that we share this challenge--our staff does not yet reflect the diversity of race and identity in the United States. For us, as in many schools, taking on the crucial work of antiracism means recognizing that we have fallen short of representing the diversity of our student body, our schools, and our country, and working to remedy that inequity. As a supplemental school, we also have to consider how the work of equity and justice can be embodied in our mission to be a partner to schools in the process of transforming education. That means providing our schools with the courses they need to meet the needs of all their students. As a part of this work, we are excited to be adding Black Identity in the United States, and Latina/o/x Identity in the United States to our offerings in 2021-2022. Other initiatives are currently in progress and we look forward to sharing them over the course of the next few months.
Amanda Rosas is a Mexican-American educator who will be teaching One Schoolhouse’s Latina/o/x Identity in the United States in Fall 2021; she currently teaches Gender and Sexual Identity in the United States and the Spring Activism Seminar at One Schoolhouse. At Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN, she teaches Spanish and Social Studies and advises STAND, a student diversity and justice group. Rosas says that at most independent schools, “BIPOC students walk the hallways feeling like one of the few.” While independent schools have long supported presentations, student clubs and affinity groups focused on the experiences of students of color, they are also recognizing that these experiences can’t just be addressed as units or lessons.
Most education in the United States inaccurately centers the privileges of whiteness, Christianity, and heterosexuality. It leaves all our students with an erroneous understanding of history and erases the experience of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and non-Christian religious communities. Rosas observes, “When you put Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+ history at the center of a course, you don’t have these historically dominant narratives [of whiteness] threatening to take over. You take away those distractions. If you really want to center the experience of these students and give them space, this is the way.”
Course catalogs and curricula aren’t just an expression of how students spend the four years of high school. They are manifestations of a school’s values and priorities. That’s why the BIPOC experience needs to be both accurately represented and visible in the course catalog. Rosas reflects, “It’s powerful to see yourself represented in a course.” The self-determination, resistance, and contributions of individuals and communities who share their identity provide students with essential windows and mirrors. “You see people who are like you, people who have fought for you. You see that justice and hope are things that can happen for people who are like you.”
Students need courses that accurately reflect the complexities of identity and race in the United States. For many schools, creating these courses is part of an initiative that includes gathering information, evaluating material, and recruiting teachers. All of these are rightly time-intensive processes, but there are students in schools who need access now--two years isn’t a long time in the history of a school, but it’s an eon to a sixteen-year-old. To ensure that students can access a course of study that recognizes their needs, and as part of our mission to partner with schools, we’ve committed to expanding our catalog and offering courses that reflect the range of students and experiences in our schools.
A course catalog that gives equal weight to the experience of communities of color is a reflection of a school’s commitment not only to its students of color but also the work of dismantling racism and bias. Amanda Rosas saw the impact of identity-based courses in her Gender and Sexual Identity course first-hand: “[Student] saw that she could embrace her LGBTQ identity and take action to create a more inclusive environment at her school. It positioned her to see the world through a lens of justice...Bringing this aspect of self-love into your education is radical.” At One Schoolhouse, we want to partner with schools to provide courses that give students access to that kind of transformative experience.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)