Sufficient Grace: Designing and Refining Distance Learning for High School

Reimagining the South’s public education on the cusp of COVID required us to dig deep. In education, I believe there exists a stream that compels most of us to always want to improve – to be faster, stronger, smarter. Yet, when the crisis of COVID escalated to full-on pandemic, that stream morphed into more of a reflective pond. Our scholars and families’ needs seemed to be astounding, and the room for error was large. We had to admit that we didn’t know what we didn’t know, but what we did know was that our commitment to both our mission and our core values would be battle-tested. We also knew that COVID took ahold of us while we were literally mending our community back together from a tornado a few weeks earlier. Lastly in our increasingly limited knowing, we knew we had a moral and ethical obligation to not only respond, but to respond quickly. As ground-shaking as our mission is on paper, our practices during this time had also better be as moving, especially given the alarming data coming from other parts of our nation around high schoolers. At the end of the day, buildings open or buildings closed, all parts – hearts, minds, and hands, had to stay connected to the work of intentional uplift of our key stakeholders: our scholars.

Delivering distance learning programming to high school students would pose unique challenges. Our high school is the lone high school in our network. We’re creating the blueprint for our success while simultaneously living it – getting it both wrong and right each and every day. Our first class just graduated last May, so we are still relatively new to the “big show” in the high school charter space. While there are many things to laud: like our composite ACT score – one of Nashville’s highest for open-enrollment high schools or our nationally-recognized computer science curriculum, we still knew that we had academic culture challenges to control for. Succinctly put, we’re still a high school with high school issues. Our scholars are teenagers who love us or loathe us at any given moment. Knowing this, distance learning was going to be a challenge because even in the best of circumstances; executing a high quality academic program at the high school level is not an easy task or exact science.

“HUMAN CONNECTION AND EXALTING COMMUNITY HAVE BEEN TWO OF THE MOST RESOUNDING THEMES DURING THIS TIME OF DISTANCING.”

Phase I of distance learning was an earnest lesson on intent vs. impact. Our Phase I approach to distance learning had one word at the forefront: simplicity. We tried and succeeded in creating a system that delivered assignments to scholars through a central platform. All assignments from all teachers were posted on Mondays through Google Classroom and scholars had until Thursdays to complete the work. We prioritized feedback and Office Hours. Our engagement numbers were relatively high the first week and then tapered off in the subsequent weeks. Office Hours actually never really took off. One of the insights gained during this time is that our students needed more from us. We were pushing out the work, but we were very detached from the aspect of the work that makes our classrooms what they are: social interaction. We underestimated our students – plain and simple. Reflecting back now, I realize that in trying to promote ease of use and simplicity, we lowered the bar for our students – something that we obsess about being aware of and actively working against. We took away the normalcy that our students look to us for and coated it in our good intentions. In Between the World and Me, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke of “good intentions.” He said, “Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” Of course we knew that our hearts were in the right place, but our praxis (our informed action) revealed a cultural cleavage that was hard to personally and forgivingly atone for. At the end of Phase I, we walked away with mountains of humility, fields of grace, and a Britannica’s worth of things still left to learn. During our sheepish cognitive reappraisal – we discovered some of the answer. There was one prominent difference between our programming and others: human interaction as the centerpiece. Human connection and exalting community have been two of the most resounding themes during this time of distancing. The sometimes-overwhelming number of resource emails, IG quarantine parties, and Zoom icebreakers tell us that folks, and especially children, need to know that they are cared for, missed, and loved. So, we pivoted to another phase of the work because for us, it’s truly about wanting our people – our scholars, families, and staff, to mention two things when they tell the story of RePublic Schools, post-COVID

  • We cared about our people. We checked in with them about their wellness. We linked them to resources.
  • Our mission was at the forefront of all of our moves. While we weren’t precise on all things, we knew that our mission to upend educational inequity in the South compelled us to create (and revise, when necessary) an academic program that our students could engage in to recoup as much class time lost as possible.

While we are excited about our changes, only time will tell us how successful Phase II will be. While retaining elements of Phase I, Phase II was revamped to mirror a college-esque student experience. Teachers hold two classes on their respective day – a morning and afternoon session. Each live class meeting consists of a whip-around to check in with everyone…to see how they’re holding up. Classes feature some form of direct instruction/modeling, rounds of interactive practice, and an assessment to gauge student understanding. On non-instructional days, teachers intellectually prepare for future lessons and make wellness calls to their advisory groups. We assigned ourselves two things to win on during this time: quality instruction and wellness checks for our students and their families. In this phase, we also have Self-Care Friday. When our teachers are done lesson planning and making calls – they go offline to be mothers, daughters, fathers, and aunts. Although we know what our mission charges us to do, we readily acknowledge there is no clear path to exemplar during this time. We hatched a plan, worked it, and then decided to revise the plan based on the more we learned as we went along.

Give yourselves some grace. We will continue to try to be innovative to meet our students at their collective points of need. Unknowns will continue to arise during this time and we will handle them as they come along. We encourage our colleagues during this time to prioritize wellness and make mistakes along the way to ultimately get it as close to right as they can. Yet the most important thing during reshaping of our educational landscape is to extend sufficient grace to all who dare to continue to make education accessible and equitable even in the face of great odds.

LaTrina Johnson is the Assistant Principal of Curriculum & Instruction at RePublic High School. She is an aspiring revolutionary with goals of becoming an “angelic troublemaker” for years to come.

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