Leading and Learning from a Distance
In Conversation with Morris Jeff Community School
Leading up to March 16, 2020, there were whispers that New Orleans Parish Public Schools might have to close. The leaders at Morris Jeff Community School began to build a distance learning plan. Within the week, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a directive for all schools to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Immediately, the question became, “How do we keep school going for our kids?”
Schools are navigating new challenges due to Coronavirus. Their actions have proven that educators are natural innovators who can make great things happen in less than ideal circumstances.
We virtually “sat down” with three leaders from Morris Jeff Community School to talk about how they are working together to support students and families and unpack what they have learned over the past few months.
— morrisjeff (@morrisjeff) March 26, 2020
LE: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us—especially on your last day of school. Can you tell us a little bit about Morris Jeff?
Ryan Ruyle, Middle School Principal: Morris Jeff Community School was founded in 2010. Following Hurricane Katrina, there was an empty school building that was closed after the storm. People in the community began to have conversations about whether a school would reopen, and, if so, what kind of school they would want as people from the Mid-City, Bayou St. John area. Over the next three years, they did a lot of community organizing, decided to reopen the school as a charter school, hired Patricia Perkins as head of school, and officially founded Morris Jeff Community School with 180 pre-K to second graders.
The school was focused on three big pieces. First, they wanted a curriculum that was rigorous but not solely focused on students doing well on tests. It needed to broaden students’ horizons. So, they chose the International Baccalaureate program (IB), which now covers pre-K to 12th grade. Second, they wanted the student body to reflect the racial and economic diversity of New Orleans. That has been accomplished by holding pre-K seats and removing financial barriers for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Third, they wanted Morris Jeff to be inclusive. There are no permanent, self-contained special education classes regardless of severity of different ability or giftedness.
LE: What worries you about the current crisis?
Julie Hitch, Sixth Grade Language & Literature Teacher: The hardest part for me is not being able to physically be with my students every day. When we’re in the school building together, I can read their faces. I can read their body language. I can see how they are doing emotionally. When I’m teaching a classroom full of students, I can see the looks on their faces that say, “I’m confused,” or “I need a little more help.” It’s really difficult to do that through the computer.
I’ve seen a lot of great work come from many of my students, but some have struggled to keep up with the assignments. That’s the piece that’s been difficult for me – trying to get all of our students completely engaged with distance learning.
Michelle Nusinov, Sixth Grade Math Teacher: The thing that I’m most worried about in terms of distance learning is how to continue to ensure equity for all of our students. We worked really hard in school to create thoughtful and engaging lessons that include every aspect of good teaching. I worry that some of our students who need the most aren’t getting the same amount of support at home as they were in the classroom. Students who seem to need less support socio-economically and emotionally are more likely to have people at home who can help them. It feels like even though we’re providing an amazing curriculum, we aren’t necessarily succeeding in providing equity for all of our students.
Ryan: About a third of our students have not participated fully in distance learning. Some of it is technology and internet issues, and we’ve done outreach to take care of those issues for students. Some of it is students who have family members who have been laid off or experienced homelessness during this time. Some of it is a lack of support at home around academics. It’s taken a lot of work these past months to figure out what the barriers are and how we can break them down. We feel very strongly that the learning has to continue for our kids, especially for our most vulnerable students.
LE: What conversations and work has taken place around equity in the past few years?
Ryan: We were founded as a diverse-by-design school. We knew from the start that diversity would be a strength of our community. After about three or four years, we really started looking at state testing data and behavioral data. We saw that even though our students were doing well compared across the city, there were large gaps within our school. Specifically, our white wealthier families and students were having more success than our students of color, particularly our African American boys. That set off a journey. We’re trying to be a more equitable school, and we’ve done so by looking at cultural relevance in terms of our texts that we’ve chosen as school and direct anti-racism training to be more aware of the biases we bring into class and pass on to students. That work eventually led us to Leading Educators to look at how we can be more equitable through really great instruction in ELA and math.
Julie: Through our work with Leading Educators, we’ve built a lot of knowledge about how all students need access to Tier 1 curriculum and how we need to provide the appropriate support. All students need access to that curriculum (we’re using the Wit and Wisdom curriculum). Through Leading Educators, we’ve been able to figure out and design our lessons so that they are equitable for all of our students. They’re all getting the same rigorous instruction.
LE: When you knew there were going to be changes in the school year as a result of this crisis, how did your team grapple with the range of needs of students and teachers?
Ryan: Leading up to the week [school was cancelled], there were whispers that our school district might close. Initially, New Orleans Parish Public Schools were adamant that we were not going to close without any confirmed cases at our schools, but that we should put together a distance learning plan in the event that we did close. Within the week, we were officially closed. Immediately on the administrative side, the question was, “How do we keep school going for our kids?”
That was not in doubt. We could not stop learning for very long. There were discussions around whether we could do fully live learning or whether we need to be asynchronous. We decided asynchronous learning would be the best choice because students and families needed flexibility around how and when they did their work.
One thing that we absolutely wanted to make sure we kept synchronous in the middle school was our advisory classes. Those are essentially our homeroom classes, but they are smaller groups of students with an advisor who uses a curriculum designed by our school counselor. That curriculum provides social and emotional lessons and lessons around how to be independent students. We wanted to make sure our students kept in touch with our school and still had access to social and emotional support. We kept live office hours for students to pop in as needed, too.
Julie: Advisory was really good to check in with students and see how they were doing. When we had our end-of-the-year student-led conferences, I had a parent who said, “Thank you so much for doing advisory everyday. That’s what really kept my girls going. They look forward to checking in every day to see their teacher and talk with their friends.” That was really powerful to hear.
I love a new challenge, but when we left the classroom, I really started thinking about the differences. How do I take best practices in the classroom and apply those to online learning? I don’t have the turn and talks. I don’t have the class discussions. How do I take these lessons and shrink them to fit our time? How do kids access the text when we don’t have a digital copy? There were definitely challenges, but advisory was a really good place for students to check in with us and for us to see how they were doing.
Michelle: I have friends in other schools in New Orleans, and a lot of them tried to start distance learning immediately on Monday or Tuesday. A lot of them quickly had to backpedal as they developed better plans. I was really impressed by Morris Jeff saying: We’re going to take a week and make sure we have things ready. We’re going to have discussions about our expectations for lessons and for students. Also, we’re going to give you this week to get yourself together because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Figure out what you need in order to be your best teacher and to support your students. That was really powerful for me.
After we went through our slides in advisory, I would stay an extra 10 or 15 minutes and let the kids chat, play Pictionary, share silly jokes and fun facts. It kind of normalized their experience and gave them opportunities to have social conversations with their peers – people that they really care about, but don’t necessarily reach out to very often. It was a way to make them feel connected to our school community.
LE: Can you share about the impact this has had on teachers? How are you all feeling?
Julie: Morris Jeff told us: take care of yourself. You need to see what your family needs. That’s been the attitude, that yes absolutely teaching is important but you need to take care of yourselves. Along with students having flexibility around when they logged on for lessons and when they did their work, the flexibility that it gave us throughout the week to be able to take care of our families and ourselves was very helpful.
Michelle: As a teacher, the teacher community is really important. Watching other people teach and watching other people interact with students inspires my practice. Distance learning has made that really challenging because you’re in your own bubble. If a student isn’t accessing your stuff, are they accessing other teachers’ stuff? We kept a spreadsheet to note whether kids were completing work or not so we could do community outreach and talk to families.
The thing that felt most normalizing and inspiring was when we started teacher professional development again. We had conversations about what best practice looks like in our distance learning classrooms, and how we can add things that will have a big impact, and how we can inspire each other. Even though those meetings for my math team were at 8:30 on a Friday morning, all of my team came and were really excited about things they could do to impact their classroom. That was a good change-of-pace in terms of teaching and teaching communities.
Ryan: During those first few weeks there was a lot of outreach I needed to do. Staff were all in different places physically and mentally, just like our students. It took a lot of outreach – seeing what people needed and asking how we could help them. It varied. For some, this was a great time for them to change some of their teaching practices or achieve better work-life balance. For others, it was isolating or overwhelming. It was teacher by teacher in terms of what support we needed to give.
LE: Where are you with your planning for next year, and how does professional learning fit into that?
Ryan: The big question going into the summer administratively is, Can kids and teachers safely be in a closed indoor environment together? If they can, how does that impact learning and the number of kids in school? Where is the learning? Is it continued distance learning, or is it a mix of in-person and distance learning, or is it fully back at school like normal in the fall? Those things are still unclear.
What is very clear is the importance and need for live lessons with students. Asynchronous lessons were helpful during this time since there wasn’t a full plan in place and it gave flexibility for staff and students. Ultimately, kids need to see their teachers and be with their classmates to learn from each other. We need to figure out how to do that regardless of the environment next year.
Michelle: Regardless of the setting we’re teaching in, I heard a lot of teammates talk about how the asynchronous learning we’ve been doing can support our diverse and inclusive classrooms. We can think about how we can use different access points that we’ve created to provide a high-level Tier One program for all of our students.
It’s been interesting to think about grouping and giving feedback right away and allowing students to do more or go deeper but in a specific way that we are guiding. Regardless of if we move towards virtual live lessons or if we’re back in school, we still have this good new strategic plan that we can use in our classrooms and virtually.
Ryan: The theory of action was a really helpful support that Leading Educators provided. Creating a theory of action as a middle school has helped narrow the focus on what we believe will lead to more students mastering grade level standards. We have a very clear through line that says for students to do that, teachers need to be highly effective in both their content and general teaching skills. For teachers to do that, administrators have to create enabling conditions for teachers to be their absolute best. We need to develop teachers regardless of what environment we’re teaching in. The need to continue to build our teachers’ skills and support them to be the best teachers they can is necessary regardless of budget constraint or how we teach next year.
At the end of the day, it’s clear how important school is as an institution. The most important focus is learning, but schools provide so much more for our communities. Whether it’s feeding kids, making sure they’re safe, taking care of their social and emotional needs, or preparing them for careers, there’s so much that teachers in schools do. As we plan to move forward, it’s important that we don’t drop off some of those services because we are distance learning. We still have to provide all of the services for students to make sure they have the best opportunities in their future.