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COVID-19 Resources and Recomendations Shared by Educators from our Global Community

And the school year is over . . . just . . . like . . . that.  Summer has typically been a period of rest, reflection, and renewal for schools.  This year, amidst the shifting American educational landscape caused by COVID-19, which has itself illuminated great disparities among people in our country, and a heightened awareness of institutional racism and the Black Lives Matter movement as a direct result George Floyd’s death, I find myself wanting to do more:  more reflection and renewal in the form of action – and wanting to do these things in the spirit of companionship and accompaniment for and with others.

Here are three questions I am considering:

  • How do I listen to others with a spirit of companionship, accompaniment, and reconciliation?
  • How do I continue to be a servant leader and companion to students, families, and faculty/staff?
  • Especially, how am I a companion and how do I accompany our African American students and their families by listening and working with them toward change?

As I consider these questions, my summer plans include seven foci.

Focus One: Faculty & Staff Rest, Reflection, & Renewal Grounded in Mission

Toward the end of the academic year, we created, planned, and implemented numerous faith formation opportunities that allowed adults at school finally to take a step back to rest, reflect, and begin to renew.  These opportunities ground us in the mission of our work of Jesuit secondary education and supposed that we take a position of companionship – that we accompany one another in continuing to create community.

We shifted our final on campus Ignatian Evening that would have included dinner, fellowship, and prayer, to an online opportunity for a few hours one evening at the end of May.  The topic of our final online Ignatian Evening to end the year was Spirituality at Home.  Twenty-seven faculty and staff participated in this optional (Zoom) night of sharing, reflection, and prayer where we reflected on the changing contexts of our lives and how this context has shaped our faith life and prayer.

How did we officially end a year after two months where faculty and staff were engaged in remote learning?  We did not meet in person to celebrate or reflect at the end of our year because of local physical distancing restrictions.  Instead, on what would have been the last day of classes, we planned an optional online (Zoom) Ignatian Examen for our adults.  Two volunteer teachers began the Examen by simply reflecting on their personal feelings of consolation and desolation about the year.  These reflections led us to a traditional communal Examen, whereby we found consolation in returning to a familiar Ignatian reflection tool that we use almost daily during our on campus school year.  Thirty-two faculty and staff participated in this opportunity of shared prayer and reflection.

In early June, we invited faculty and staff back to our campus – for a celebration on our football field, where we honored retiring teachers and those with varying lengths of years of service.  While we physically distanced ourselves and wore masks per safety guidelines, this gathering was a tremendous social opportunity for adults to return to school and to see one another, listen to one another, and just be present with one another – albeit from a distance.

During this month of June, eighteen faculty and staff members are participating in one of four self-led retreats, in their own homes, with The First Spiritual Exercises:  Four Guided Retreats.  Our Jesuit chaplain and Jesuit scholastic provided resources and a retreat kick-off video, as well as ongoing spiritual support.  And because, “The Exercises also expect personal faith to be expressed in community and communal action,” we come together as a community once a week (Thursday nights) to support one another through Zoom meetings (Hansen, SJ).  Finally, a group of fourteen faculty is reading Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ, and coming together several times to discuss the book, again via Zoom or a safe, physically distancing get-together.

Despite obstacles, we accompany one another in community this summer.  How do we continue to model that accompaniment and companionship for our school in the coming academic year?

Focus Two: Stakeholder Input for Continuous Quality Improvement

Now more than ever we need to resist living in a bubble and acting in a vacuum.  It is important to continue to ask questions and gather opinions and perspectives from stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, administration, and school leadership – to keep growing in education and faith service to students and families – toward meaningful action.  Servant leadership depends upon stakeholder input and collaboration to move forward in positive and productive ways.  Here are some stakeholder areas of focus as we continue planning.

  • Each student at the school participated in end of the year conversations in groups of 4-5, via Microsoft Team Meetings.  The conversations focused around their remote learning experiences (and the year in general) as they relate to the six areas of The Profile of the Graduate at Graduation.  During and after the conversations, each student completed written responses to question prompts that gave the school concrete experiential data.  We listened. What were our students’ experiences? Moving into summer and into next year, what do our students want and need?
  • In mid-April, we reached out to every family via phone calls.  Soon, we will survey parents and have in-person conversations. How do we use resulting data to inform our decisions about what is to come?  How do we continuously listen to the needs of families during this pandemic?  And respond in helpful ways?
  • During remote learning, faculty (in departments) participated in frequent check-ins, facilitated by the principal’s leadership team.  Check-in data from faculty allowed us to see bigger picture consolations and challenges – lights and shadows – and improve the remote learning experience. What have we learned from faculty check-ins and how does what we learned inform our way forward in the summer and next year?
  • Finally, toward the end of the year, we surveyed faculty (for a second time).  The data from that survey reveals trends. How will we use the data trends to shape summer professional development, so we can adequately support and resource teachers in the coming year? 

Accompaniment and companionship assumes that we continue to reach out, listen to, and act upon stakeholder perspectives.

Focus Three: Developing and Fine-Tuning Our Way of Proceeding for the Coming School Year

In planning for the coming academic year, there are many unknowns and as a result many potential “return to school scenarios.”  We can plan, even though we don’t know . . . and we are doing so.  Our leadership team is certain about guiding principles that drive education at our school.

  • Mission:  we remain committed to our mission in the Jesuit tradition.
  • Safety:  we remain committed to the safety of our students, their families, and our faculty & staff.
  • Education:  we provide an educational experience that is mission-driven, predictable & supportive. After planning, we will be clear about student expectations, our academic calendar, our schedule, and our flexibility and ability to change with the circumstances (that are beyond our control). We are committed to continuing to build our strong educational community, by adapting to our changing context – whether that is on campus, remotely, or both.
  • Students:  we love and support students.  We want them to feel safe, comfortable, productive, and successful.  We will onboard students this summer. We will challenge students to understand and embrace the new educational landscape and, as leaders, to be stewards for safety and responsibility in our building and beyond.

We will listen to, understand, and celebrate students, especially black students and their families, by continuing to explore and improve (1) systematic institutional practices, (2) curriculum and co-curricular activities, and (3) the classroom experience (as measured by (a) listening to students, (b) through targeted class visits identifying specific cultural competencies, and (c) by identifying and addressing school trends as they relate to diversity and equity faculty conversations).  We are committed to students and families and will work with students and families to deliver the best educational experience for students that we can – preparing students for life beyond high school, into college. We are committed to working with families to make this work logistically and financially.

  • Faith Formation & Community:  we will develop a schedule and plan that includes creative student faith formation experiences and community-building activities.
  • Themes: we are committed to learning and teaching during these unprecedented times and helping students immerse in the big-picture themes in our country and world:  caring for youth & the marginalized, caring for our common home, and developing in our faith.  We are committed to helping students learn about the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is uncovering long-standing disparity among people and changing America and the world.

Keeping in mind these guiding principles, we are developing scheduling options that include on campus learning, facilities adaptation, on campus guidelines and safety measures, and remote learning.

Finally, we have working leadership teams on areas that focus on (but are not limited to):

  • Curriculum/technology/professional development,
    Resources for underserved and marginalized in our community ,
  • Community-building/faith formation,
  • Athletics,
  • Communications,
  • Facilities, and
  • Benchmarking.

While the process for fine-tuning and developing our way of proceeding is grounded in guiding principles, it is dynamic, generative, expansive, and creative.

Focus Four: Professional Development Summer Seminar

In direct response to faculty needs as identified by end of year faculty survey results, we have developed a four-day Professional Development Summer Seminar happening on our campus and streaming live that includes the following sessions:

  • Teaching & Learning in a New Model
  • Creating Classroom Models for Remote Learning
  • OnCampus Management
  • Microsoft Teams Management
  • Tech Tools Breakout Sessions (2)
  • Classwork, Homework, & Assessment
  • Curriculum – Right-Sizing Our Expectations, Innovation, & Creative Collaboration
  • Wrap Up and Work on Faculty Growth & Renewal Goals.

Each session includes resources, a brief context-setting piece, conversations, and work time – allowing teachers to learn about and integrate specific strategies into their existing courses.  While the Summer Seminar will happen in our Innovation Center, we will also provide live streaming sessions, making information available to colleagues across the country in our Jesuit network of secondary schools and beyond.

The Summer Seminar is a creative response to faculty and a resource for successfully teaching into 2020-2021.

Focus Five: Our Curriculum Design & Review Process (CDRP) Continues

When the pandemic forced us into remote learning, our school was on the threshold of forward-thinking curriculum work, immersed in our Curriculum Design & Review Process (CDRP).  This work included the development and implementation of a clear CDRP, which included ongoing curriculum writing and revision by departments and the formation and work of a CDRP core leadership team and core initiatives:

  • development of a student & teacher reflection & formative assessment tool based upon The Profile of the Graduate at Graduation;
  • creation, prioritization, and development of an extensive list of future curriculum ideas;
  • plans to develop a recurring process for external review of departmental curriculum;
  • development of curriculum lesson templates; and
    development of student and parent perception surveys, relative to curriculum.

As we move into 2020-2021, how will the pandemic, our experiences with teaching and learning, as well as our continued commitment to explore companionship, accompaniment, and reconciliation with black students and families around the issue of systematic racism change the landscape of our work and our curriculum?

Focus Six:  Resuming Faculty Teams With New & Emerging Questions

In addition to teaching, coaching, and moderating clubs and events, our teachers have had a commitment toward working on adult teams to support one another and provide ongoing resources and services.  How will these teams continue to meet and what are emerging questions?

  • Ignatian Charism Team:  How can we continue to imaginative and creative in providing relevant, mission-centered, faith formation resources and opportunities to adults in our new context?
  • Sustainability:  How can we revisit our Green De Smet Jesuit strategic plan draft, in light of the pandemic, as a complement to the Jesuit Universal Apostolic Preference Care for our common home, and through a lens of diversity & inclusion
  • CDRP:  What is our list of curriculum priorities for the future and how does that list change through the lenses of the pandemic, the JUAP, and diversity & inclusion?
  • New Teachers & Staff:  How can we continue to successfully onboard new teachers and staff, share about mission and teaching & learning, and build community?
  • Department Chairs:  In our new school reality and potential schedule changes, what is the role of department chairs and how will the role evolve?  What will our year’s topical schedule for meetings include?
  • Innovative Education:  Our school defined innovative education last year to include project-based learning, inquiry-based & blended learning, virtual reality, and networking.  In light of our current educational reality, how will this definition evolve and how do we continue to resource teachers?

Faculty teams are positive ways in which we live in companionship and accompaniment.

Focus Seven: Our Work with Diversity & Inclusion

Our school has been committed to working toward a more diverse and inclusive learning community.  Our director of diversity & inclusion is responsible for leading this work with students and adults on formation programming and advocacy/awareness.  In our admissions, in our financial aid, in our school resource allocations – we are doing more to listen to the experiences of students and families, examine how and why we operate the way we do, and make institutional changes.

One feeling of consolation I have had over the years is that we have been working on the work, we know that the work is ongoing – not perfect – and we are happily uncomfortable, realizing the work is never finished.

While retreating this June, I have developed a habit of daily prayer that concludes when I ask for particular graces or desires – things for me to think about and pray over during the day:

  • grace to forgive as I have been forgiven,
  • grace to understand that life begins in deep dark places,
  • grace for accompaniment and reconciliation,
  • grace for relationship,
  • desire for connection amidst division,
  • desire to commit to the sit (prayer),
  • grace to better reflect who I am,
  • desire for patience, attentiveness/listening, understanding, and humility,
  • grace for a heightened awareness of those around me,
  • desire for faith, simplicity, and understanding . . .

Today I realize how my current “asks” for specific graces and desires align to the current and evolving conversations and protests about race in our country.  How does this awareness propel me – from where I am – toward action in solidarity?

As a white privileged male, I can do more to listen to the experiences of black students, black parents, and black teachers.  I can do more by educating myself through professional development organizations and opportunities, and I can do more to work on the work as an ally.

Here is a dated but practical piece that continues to guide me in this work: For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies (Ariel).  And here is an important reflection I have also been using:  An Open Letter to My Fellow White Americans (Malone, SJ).  Finally, here is an important piece that helps shape my way forward:  When Black People are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs (Johnson).  In that piece, I am challenged to think and act in new and different ways, when Johnson writes, “It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way – be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home.  It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art.  It starts, also, with reflection on the harm you’ve probably caused in a black person’s life. It may have happened when you were 10, 16, 22, 36 or 42. Comforting as it may be to read and discuss the big questions about race and justice and America, making up for past wrongs means starting with the fact that you’ve done wrong in the past, perhaps without realizing it at the time: in the old workplace, neighborhood, classroom, softball field.  Maybe even the book club.”
We have more work do.  I have more work to do.  Here are some initiatives that currently excite me:

  1. Our past work around Courageous Conversations About Race within my own school and within schools across the country and our current work on curriculum pieces with the UCS province that help us learn about slavery in the USA and the role of the Jesuits. This work is not merely reading, but action that changes our educational landscapes.  This action looks like practicing habits of conversations with colleagues and it looks like curriculum resources.
  2. Our work with the UCS province that challenges us to a spirit of reconciliation based on the sin of racism.  I am also excited at the possibility of re-igniting and re-creating an Institutional Examen on Race, developed after the events in Ferguson, MO (Michael Brown’s death).
  3. Our teachers move through a yearly growth & renewal process.  In the growth and renewal process, diversity and inclusion is a Characteristic of Professional Excellence measured during class visits and through Cognitive Coaching conversations with faculty.
  4. The school partners with the Boniface Foundation that has helped us work with a consulting firm to administer a school diversity and inclusion audit.  Some of the results of the audit are helping us establish cultural competencies indicators specific to academic departments, which we will embed into teacher growth and renewal process rubrics for reflections during class visits that will help teachers track curriculum choices, classroom procedures, relationships, and interactions – as they relate to diversity and inclusion.
  5. During this year’s growth and renewal process, teachers participated in reflecting conversations.  Some prompts included in those conversations focused on diversity & inclusion.  In particular, “when you think about your classes, do you think about them through these lenses:  Learning Plans, Race/Ethnicity, and Socio-Economics?  If so, how do these lenses impact what you do with students?”

Teacher responses to this particular thread have been collected and analyzed to yield perception data trends and resulting tangible questions as we think about planning for ongoing institutional systemic changes:

  • Mission:  As we continue our commitment to diversify our student body, we work to align our way of proceeding with the Jesuit Universal Apostolic Preferences.  Specifically, how do COVID-19 and institutional decisions present challenges and opportunities for growth?  As a Catholic school, how do we welcome students of different faiths by celebrating those faiths
  • Equity vs. Equality:  How do we explore our desire and tendencies to create a vibrant and strong homogeneous community, while at the same time recognize and celebrate that a diverse student body and experiences is what makes us strong?
  • Preparedness:  How do we listen to the stories of black students and families and continue to learn about and address inequity in resources and preparedness? How do we listen to and respond to the challenges black students have in navigating through the dominant culture?  How do we work for and with others to develop strategies to help with preparedness and success?
  • Relationships:  How do we build relationships with black students and families by organizing structured opportunities integrated into the existing day and curriculum and way of proceeding that includes listening, companionship, accompaniment, understanding, and reconciliation – meeting students and parents where they are not where we are
  • Curriculum:  How do we network with outside resources (eg., UCS) and how do we create a diverse curriculum and equitable experiences that include more than just addressing history as it is written and presented but requires that content and experiences go beyond (texts) to include primary sources other than a Euro-centric perspective?  How do we address curriculum topics using direct and primary sources of the marginalized?  How do we put the marginalized of history “front and center” to tell their stories?  Finally, how do we see history as not just past, but current and on-going?  And how does a process of reconciliation begin, whereby we recognize racism as Church sin?
  • African American Student Support:  How to we continue to provide black students with support systems through existing programming outside of classes to include our black student affinity group (Black Student Union) and after school programming support?
  • Student Placement in Classes:  How do we begin to examine and change our practices as they relate to student placement in classes?  How are we in relationship with students, encouraging African American students to consider all options within the curriculum?  How do we start by tracking courses African American students take and why?
  • Teacher Education:  How can we challenge one another to be culturally uncomfortable?  What role does Courageous Conversations about Race have in our school in helping us shape conversations and actions?  How do we encourage participation in outside programming:  Educators for Social Justice, WE, UCS programming, etc.?
  • Exploring Impact of Language & Preferences to Shape Reality:  How do we enter into an exploration about how we use language and how our language preferences, habits, and predispositions in creating, planning, and implementing curriculum for classes shape reality?  What language and habits do we use?  What are our biases and how do these shape our student experiences in and out of our classrooms?
  • Explore African American Cultural Norms:  How do we learn about norms, practices, and cultural habits of those cultures other than the dominant culture, and how comfortable we are acknowledging those norms and celebrating those?

This list – of specifics as they relate to diversity and inclusion conversations and reflections, as well as the seven components for my summer work – is merely a start to reflection and action.  It is not exhaustive and it is not perfect.  As I am want to say, “these are in DRAFT forms.”  This summer, I am grounded in working on the work.  I know that the work is ongoing, not perfect.  I am am comfortable realizing the work never finished.

Note:  images used in picture