TeachLab with Justin Reich

Imagining September with Neema Avashia and Jal Mehta

Episode Summary

This week on TeachLab, host Justin Reich is joined in a live webinar by colleagues Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School Of Education, and Neema Avashia, a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools to discuss the Imagining September report; a joint research project to identify values and priorities for reopening schools.

Episode Notes

This week on TeachLab, host Justin Reich is joined in a live webinar by colleagues Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School Of Education, and Neema Avashia, a Civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools to discuss the Imagining September report; a joint research project to identify values and priorities for reopening schools.

“We have to get smarter about how we structure ourselves in ways that actually are in service of kids learning.” - Neema Avashia


Resources and Links

Check out Imagining September: Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19

Check out Imagining September: Online Design Charrettes for Fall 2020 Planning with Students and Stakeholders

Check out Jal Mehta’s Book In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School

Full webinar link coming soon!





Produced by Aimee Corrigan 

Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley


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Episode Transcription

Justin Reich:                 From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. This week, I'm joined by Neema Avashia, an amazing middle school civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools, and Jal Mehta, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of the recent In Search of Deeper Learning. We talked to Neema and Jal about the release of two recent reports that the three of us were involved in, Imagining September; Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19 and Imagining September; Online Design Charrettes for Fall 2020 Planning with Students and Stakeholders. We recorded this episode as part of the live webinar with the live studio audience as they say, let's go ahead and jump into it and give it a listen.

Justin Reich:                 Well, it's 11 o'clock. Why don't we go ahead and get formally started. I'm thrilled to have all of you here to discuss this new pair of reports on Imagining September's ideas from multi-stakeholder groups, student groups that got together in April and May to start thinking about the challenges of reopening schools. For those of you who are joining us simultaneously online, please feel free to introduce yourself in the chat. Tell us who you are and where you're from and what your role is and what your schools are working on towards this fall. And most importantly, please share with us the questions that you have that we can answer. And I'm thrilled to have two colleagues, Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School Of Education and Neema Avashia joining me today. So Jal and Neema, thanks for being here.

Neema Avashia:           Thanks for having me.

Jal Mehta:                    Thanks for having us Justin.

Justin Reich:                 Jal, why don't we start with you. You've made this argument that a big challenge for the coming fall for schools is around managing uncertainty. What do you mean by managing uncertainty and where does bringing in the voices of students and teachers and families fit into that work of managing uncertainty?

Jal Mehta:                    Sure. So as we all can see, the news around the pandemic is changing daily. And thus in general, when schools and districts put out, "These are the 10 point plans and these are the things that we're going to do over this year or next year, over five years." In general, that way of working doesn't work that well because it's not that attentive to the needs on the ground and the way that things grow and adapt in particular contexts. But particularly this year, it's really hard to know A, what's going to happen with COVID? B, what's working? What is reaching students and what's not? And thus it seems like a really good year to try to give a lot of authority to people closer to the ground, give teachers an opportunity to listen to students and families and think about what they need and what's working. And then to share that knowledge.

Jal Mehta:                    One district with which we're working, Jefferson County, Colorado this last spring, they took Mondays as a day where the students didn't go to school and it was sort of exclusively a time for the teachers to talk with each other. And so if you're a middle school science teacher on a Monday, you could sort of say to other middle school science teachers in the districts like, "What did you do last week? What seemed to be working? What didn't and why?" And they really use that to sort of regroup for the following week. So I think that's the kind of organizational approach that we want to this year. And I think consulting students, families, teachers is really critical in making that go.

Justin Reich:                 So Neema, we started this process by really trying to bring the voice of students into these conversations essentially to say, if Jal's saying we need to have a bunch of experimentation, maybe some of the people who are best positioned to help us figure out what those experiments should be are the students who are in our classroom all spring. I mean, there's exactly one generation of American students who have experienced schooling during a pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about with your middle school students sort of how we set up a conversation with them to be able to get them talking productively about what they think school should look like next year and what they need?

Neema Avashia:           Definitely. I mean, I think the important thing for all of us to remember and this is our brilliant Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley's idea that the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power. This has been a really, really challenging experience for adults for sure, but for young people even more so. And so I think I was trying a lot of things in the spring. Some of them were working, some of them were really not working. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I've never done this before and kids had never done this before. And so the really important thing to do right now is ask kids what is working for you? What's not working for you? What should we do differently in the fall?

Neema Avashia:           And I also had in my mind that I wanted kids to know that we weren't necessarily just going to revert back to some idea of normal. I think there is this desperate need to go back to some sense of normal. And I'm not sure we're going to do that again ever. I hope we don't in some ways because normal didn't work for a lot of kids already. And so Justin and I worked on designing a power hour for my students where they got to come and really think about what are the parts of in-person school that they were missing the most during remote learning. And how could we think creatively about building a set of supports around them that elicited the same emotions and helped them to feel the level of connection that they felt to in-person schooling even if we're not able to be in-person with them.

Neema Avashia:           And it's the best conversation I think I've had about this issue thus far since May because they really were able to identify what didn't work in the transition. I think so many of us, our initial inclination was to try to replicate like, "We had six periods in the school day during in-person school. So now we're going to have six periods during online school." Or, "We're going to break it up into three periods one day and three periods the next day." And really looking back, I think probably the places that were most successful were the ones who said, "We're not trying to replicate in-person school." Because what kids said is that replicating in-person school didn't work.

Justin Reich:                 And what were the ideas that students came out with? So we have 15 middle schoolers, you'd invited two high school students, people who had graduated from the McCormick Middle School to come back in to sort of help be facilitators. And I think they helped spark the people's thinking, imagine what the transition to high school would be like but also just bring like a seriousness of the conversation. You were bringing alumni back to have this important power hour so that you can figure out what's going on here. What were the ideas that students came up with that you were most excited about?

Neema Avashia:           I think that one thing that kids communicated really clearly is that we have to figure out how to reduce the scale so that they were really interested in what it would look like to have fewer classes at a time, to have deeper relationships with a smaller set of adults to really streamline communication. And I think that that is the right inclination. I actually think more and more that it's the right inclination even when we go back to in-person school. But this idea that you do six classes for 50 minutes each doesn't necessarily lend itself to strong learning. And that we need to reconsider that.

Neema Avashia:           But some other things they came up with that I thought were really interesting were like, what does it look like to have social clubs in online space? Like, could we have a Minecraft club that meets? Could we be doing sort of like recess or hallway passing time in the context of an online schedule? Like how do we build in those social opportunities where kids are already in the same space and then we're allowing sort of like that social moment to be structured in. Because one thing kids were very clear about is that this experience really disrupted their social relationships. People were on radically different schedules from each other. They would text a friend and their friend would text them back six hours later when they woke up.

Neema Avashia:           And so if we aren't providing more support and structure around the social, I think that piece is getting really disrupted for students. And then Justin's favorite idea was from my student Olivia, who said, she wished there was like a button that she could push so that when she needed help, a teacher popped up on the screen, right? And was there to help her which feels in some ways, very outside the box. And yet, like that is what happens in school. You have a question, you raise your hand, the teacher comes and checks in with you about it. And so what does it look like to create that feeling of support, like an equal feeling of the level of support even if we're not in-person with each other I think is a question that is worth us really thinking about.

Justin Reich:                 I mean, I think holding some of students' needs even when we don't know exactly how to address them. So Olivia's need was, I need to be able to get help from a teacher, ideally the right teacher whenever I need it. And obviously no school system can instantaneously solve that problem but we can really listen to that need. We can hold that need in our heads and then we can continue to think iteratively, experimentally, maybe we can figure out a first try for that for September. Maybe we have to change it moving forward. But I think a great starting place is just listening to what students have to say.

Justin Reich:                 Now we originally asked three questions, and I've gotten the sense in our conversation since that two of them really landed. So the three questions were, what do you value most from school? How could you start to imagine some of the things you value most from school appearing in a new hybrid remote format. And what can you leave behind? What don't you need from the passive school? I feel like students in our conversation had less to say about what you could leave behind. It was really like, "What do you need?" And then let's start brainstorming what those needs might look like. Does that sound right to you?

Neema Avashia:           It does. And I would say, I think those are the questions we should be asking young people all the time. And in particular, those are the questions we should be asking our most vulnerable learners or the learners who are struggling the most or feel most disconnected because ultimately if you're not connecting and you're not succeeding, it's because we haven't figured out what you need and how to get it to you. So that question should be the same question whether a student is in-person with me or whether they're remote with me. Ultimately the question is like, what's not working for you here. And how do we make it better for you? How do we identify what you're struggling with and problem solve around that?

Justin Reich:                 Go ahead Jal. Yeah.

Jal Mehta:                    Yeah. Just to pick up on that, there's a process that the National Equity Project came up with, which is essentially to take your students and put them in concentric circles. And so in the inner most circle go with the students with whom things are going really well and then the next circle out are students who things are sort of in between. And then in the outer circle are the students for whom, really struggling, head on the desk, whatever it might be. And they found and I found because I've worked with teachers on this, that if you just pick one student in that outer circle and you have a really significant conversation and the conversation is less, how can I get you to do what I want and more like, where are you coming from? And where does this class and what we're doing sort of fit in your life, and how could we make this a more doable experience for you?

Jal Mehta:                    The teachers have found just starting with the one student, it does two things. One, it gives you sort of a sense of efficacy. You realize that a student who you thought you couldn't reach, there are actually are some things that you can do. And two, sometimes what works for that student won't work for others too. So that's just sort of picking up on Neema's idea. Neema, I wanted to follow up on one thing you said, the first thing you said, which was in middle school fewer not six periods, fewer adults for more time. One thing that's occurred to me in the pandemic is, if it's a hybrid model where students are physically in school some of the time, we're trying to reduce the amount of time that they pass between different adults.

Jal Mehta:                    And so, you can imagine a world where essentially you had like a humanities teacher in the morning and a math science teacher in the afternoon. And it would give the teachers fewer students that they were responsible for. And it would also give the students, if let's say it were every other day, then when you were home, you'd have two assignments to work on not six, just like one from each. I guess my question is like, would you and your colleagues that would require some stretching. Like you teach physics, you'd have to do some English or whatever it might be. Do you think that you and your colleagues would be able to do that? Do you think it would be better? Do you think it would be sort of too much of a reach? What do you think?

Neema Avashia:           I mean, I think I can only speak for myself. But I think that I'm pretty clear that what we were doing in the spring didn't work. So if we have ideas for things that could work better, I want to try them. I also think that idea is possible. Even if people stay in their content areas which is to say like, I teach on a team where we share 80 students. And there are four of us, a math teacher, science teacher, a social studies teacher and an English teacher. What if we split that cohort in half? And we said, "Two teachers to 40 students, you're going to have them for a six week stretch. They will only have you, they will have math and civics for whatever time is decided, two hours each. Those two teachers will figure out how they structure their time and their day in their schedule. Those two teachers are responsible for the communication with those 40 kids."

Neema Avashia:           Meanwhile, the science and the English teacher are doing the same thing for their 40 students. And then at the six week mark we switch. So there are ways to do it I think with the existing staff, that same number of kids, same number of people, but still get it smaller. And I think that's what we should be thinking about because the reality is, we're probably not going to see some mass influx of resources or people into our schools but we are able to think more creatively about how we use people. And that's I think a place where there's a really, really huge need to be having a conversation. Which is again, schools are such siloed places. I teach my content and that's what I do. And again, like pre pandemic maybe that worked. I'm not sure it did. But what we know now is that it really doesn't work to have six different adults who share 80 kids but then are teaching all this different content.

Neema Avashia:           We have to get smarter about how we structure ourselves in ways that actually are in service of kids learning. And I think that's possible even without pushing people outside of their content area. Because what if the arts teacher actually co-teaches with me. And so we're really thinking about an integrated civics and art course. And then there are three of us who are paired with our 40 students. And then we really can't get down the numbers of like 13 for advisory structure and it's all the same people but we're just organizing in a different way.

Justin Reich:                 I will say that one of my saddest days recently or bittersweet days recently was... I'm an alumni of Deerfield Academy which is a super affluent well-resourced private school in Western Massachusetts. And that's exactly what they're doing. They've decided to shift down to having students take two courses at a time in these smaller modules. I got that email the same day that I was reading the news about librarians in Boston losing their job and just recognizing like, "The schools serving the world's most affluent students have the resources to be able to pour extra into creating these kinds of new models and to paying teachers all summer to be able to work those kinds of things." Which isn't a reason to say that we shouldn't pursue those kinds of things but it is a reason to sort of as we look forward into the future saying, if we equitably funded schools, solving some of these challenges would be would be easier.

Justin Reich:                 I also wanted to put a pin in an important part of the conversation that you two had about reaching out and engaging students and bringing them in on this work, which is one of the great things about the conversation that Neema and I had with the students and it happened to be during the school year. So we got a pretty good cross section of typical students. Because we just asked one of your classes to come and participate with us. One of the things about reaching out and engaging students this summer is that in that work, it can be so easy to only reach out to the students who are in what Jal described as the center of those three concentric circles.

Justin Reich:                 I was in school districts task force planning meeting. And the most amazing students school board rep was there and read everyone the Riot Act about the things that they're missing and the missing pieces of student perspective. And of course it's amazing to have her as a super engaged club starting I assume A student on the school board doing that. But it's really important that that's not the only group of students that we're inviting into these conversations that we really have to reach out. And I think if we can't get hold of focus groups together, Jal's idea of like, how do we find one student and really think about what it would look like to decide a spring that would serve a student who we historically have not served well and start our planning and imagination from there.

Neema Avashia:           And I think it's really important to know in that, that like we have that data, right? All of us who are educators on this have had that experience of like, we had to make these spreadsheets this spring that were coded by like who's participating consistently? Who's participating sometimes? Who is not really engaging at all? And then what are we doing for the students who are not engaging at all. But those students in some cases were kids who had really strong relationships and engagement when they were in the building. And then it's really the transition to online learning through them.

Neema Avashia:           And in some cases, they were kids who struggled when they were in the building and also struggled then when they were out of the building. But they're all kids who by and large have a strong relationship with somebody. There's somebody who could reach out and have that conversation and ask, "What needs to change for all of this to work better for you?" And so I think part of the idea that we're sort of like flying blind with this isn't true because we have three months of information to go on. And we should be using it to really inform who we're prioritizing in the planning for September.

Jal Mehta:                    Yeah. And relationships is sort of one big theme are like first and foremost principle of our report. Another one was amplifying student agency and giving students more sort of control and purpose over there where I think we've seen that for those of us who are adults that working over Zoom is sometimes not as great as working in-person but you can go to meetings, you can discuss things, you can produce things, you can get feedback, you can use Google Docs. There's some loss but basically as long as there's a sort of a purpose and a direction and a goal, it's quite possible to work in this medium. And I think a big part of the challenge in the spring was it just kind of laid bare the fact that a lot of times, students don't really know like why they're going to school, they're kind of doing things because their teachers say that they should do them.

Jal Mehta:                    And that's sort of the main motivating force. And it's just really hard to maintain that as the main motivating force when kids are online. So in one sense, while it seems like a big part of the shift is we're moving to a different medium, there's obviously huge challenges with internet connectivity for a lot of kids. But when there is internet connectivity, if the activities are sort of purposeful and students have some control and agency over them, the medium can support that. And we've seen good examples from project based schools sort of all over the spectrum, sort of taking advantage of these possibilities.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. Definitely. We had a TeachLab podcast conversation with two people who are working in project based environments and what they said about the transition to online learning was we had to spend way more time making our instructions to students much more clear. But the model basically continued to work because it was about giving students some agency and how they were going to explore and do wherever we could, what they were going to explore that they were going to develop a certain set of skills in the context of things that they had some choice in agency and pursuing.

Justin Reich:                 And although I will say that they had spent a whole year face to face in-person with one another sort of building those structures and routines together. And will certainly have special challenges, starting this fall saying, "Okay. How do we get brand new students to a school accustomed to new routines and things like that. I mean, that was a big conversation that we had with the students at McCormick who really wanted to talk about what are we going to do for the sixth graders who were just showing up in the middle school? What are we going to do to bring our early use of buildings, our early connections. It really need to be about our newest students and the culture in them.

Jal Mehta:                    So Justin, let me ask you a question. I feel like even since last week when we released the report, our report is optimistic and kind of there are a lot of possibilities and different things we could do which would be good. But I feel like in the last week, the national conversation has kind of turned dark, kind of a pressure to open schools from some political folks and some real concerns on the part of teachers and unions that basically like teachers are being put at risk because of things that political leaders didn't do. I'm just sort of wondering how you're thinking about our report in the context of Wednesday, July 15th, 2020.

Justin Reich:                 So when I teach undergraduates who are going on to be teachers, one of the things that I tell them all the time is that you have to have a really strong internal locus of control as a teacher and then a really strong external locus of control as a citizen. And sometimes when I think about our report, I want to grab all the people who are practicing educators and be like, "Okay, practicing educators. No matter what the president does or the secretary does or the virus does, we're going to try our best to serve students." And in order to do that, because we know a lot of the things that we tried last spring didn't work, we're going to have tap on to some creative ideas and we're going to have to experiment some things and they're not going to work in the same place everywhere.

Justin Reich:                 And so let's really dig into these ideas in our imagination and our relationship with students and parents and families to be able to figure out what the best plan might be moving forward. And then, I don't want to be like, "Okay. Everybody turn your teacher brain off for a second and let's think about citizens. And think about how utterly outrageous the current moment is." Outrageous in the sense of it should generate in us outrage. The notion that on July 20th, the Senate is going to start picking up deliberations about how to fund schools and to begin to give the resources that we need that there are teachers that are writing their wills, there are teachers who are asking where cleaning supplies are going to come from. And their school leaders tell them that they should be ready to spend their own money buying bottles of Lysol and those kinds of things.

Justin Reich:                 It's all absolutely absurd and outrageous. And we should be in the streets demanding much, much better for our students. But all of that external context, I really hope that at the end of the day, educators will still say, "Okay." I don't know. I posted this on Twitter the other day that like, "America does not deserve our teachers. The kids do obviously but I'm not so sure about the rest of you." But the kids do deserve our educators. And so in that sort of space, we have to believe, "Look. With whatever resources we have, we have to do our very best to try to make a difference."

Justin Reich:                 So there's a certain steadiness that I feel like educators, especially those who are used to working in schools that don't have all the resources that they need to make, typically bring to this which is like, "Okay. The world is crazy and unjust but these kids are worth it." So while maintaining some work life balance and remembering that this is going to be a long journey and not a sprint, let's do the best we can with what we have to make it work. I know Neema, what have you been thinking in the last week as the world has been changing?

Neema Avashia:           I mean, I think what I feel like myself and a lot of educators are experiencing is this real disconnect between the sort of like stated goals and values of the people making the decisions and what we think probably the stated goals and values should be. Right? Because when I look at what the proposals are, I keep thinking about those Dessy seating charts, right? That they put out that are like measuring seat edge to seated edge. It's three feet and you can put 32 kids in a room. And I'm like, "Yeah. You could." When has that ever been good for young people? Like why is that what we're putting out as like something that we are backing as like quality and what we believe is right ever. Because I'm not sure I think ever 32 kids in a class is a good idea. And I especially don't think it. If they can't move and they can't engage with each other and they can't interact.

Neema Avashia:           And so it just feels so hard because I think all the things that we know about good teaching and learning feel like they have flown out the window right now, right? The models that are being put out there that I'm going to stand six feet away from students to instruct them. And it's like after 17 years of being told, "That's not good teaching. Good teaching isn't standing at the front of the room and pontificating. Good teaching is the dialogue and interaction and individual personalization that you do with kids." I don't even know how to do that as a teacher. And then kids can't get up, they can't move, they can't talk to each other. They can't interchange ideas. All the sort of ideas about learning that we believe in or have believed in for 17 years, no longer seem to apply.

Neema Avashia:           And I think as an educator, I just wish we were trying to think about what is the model that supports those values as opposed to what is the way to get everyone back into a building and screw values, which feels like what's happening right now. And I think there are just more nuanced ways for us to really think. We could prioritize our most vulnerable students for reentering the building. There is a way to do that without saying, "We're going to force and prioritize everyone going back in the buildings." And to be totally honest, given how hard remote learning was for those students, we probably shouldn't send all of our students back at the same time. We probably really need to take time with the students who struggle the most, really rebuilding their relationships with each other, with us, with school before we're like, "And now you're back in a class with 20 other kids and just like pick up."

Neema Avashia:           Because that's not going to work. If that child was already disengaged from learning, I just don't think throwing them back into a classroom where they're not going to feel safe because they've all heard the same messages that we've been hearing, which are like six feet distance, ventilation, all those things. And then the proposals that get put out violate all of those principles of safety that we've been told. Young people also live in the world we live in. If we don't create what they feel like are safe environments, there's no way they're going to learn. That's Maslow. And the ideas that are being put out by policy makers right now, violate Maslow which is the basic foundation of how we understand learning happens. If you don't feel safe, you can't learn.

Justin Reich:                 I think that's a huge point that policy makers have somewhat missed about how education works, which is that to reopen a grocery store, you have to make the grocery store be safe. If people have sort of feelings of being unsettled in the grocery store, they can still walk down the aisles and select food items and bring them to the front of the store and buy them. A school building can't just be safe, it has to feel safe. If we can make things technically safe by giving everyone coming in a scuba mask and breathing their own self contained air all day. And children and teachers were terrified and freaked out by seeing a sea of people in front of them walking around with scuba masks all day, then it wouldn't work. Because it is the feeling of safety and security that builds the relationships that allows us to talk to each other meaningfully to ask questions and all of those kinds of things.

Neema Avashia:           And lots of kids didn't feel safe in schools-

Justin Reich:                 To begin with.

Neema Avashia:           ... even prior to the pandemic. Right? So you already have lots of kids who have histories with trauma, who have anxiety, who have a lot of things going on for them that makes school hard period. And then you're going to layer on this feeling that everyone around you could get you sick or that you could get them sick or that you could get your family sick. I think I just feel like, has everyone forgotten what we know about human beings and the narrative of like, "This is better for kids." I understand sort of. And I also think like, "Do you know any kids?" Because I'm not actually sure that the children would agree with you that what you're saying is better for them. I think if they looked at those charts, they would feel freaked out as we do. Hopefully they haven't seen them yet because if they do, they're going to find every reason not to go back into school in September.

Jal Mehta:                    Yeah. All right. Let me add two points to this great dialogue the two of you were having. One, in a class I was teaching on deeper learning a couple of years ago, students were doing consultations to folks around the world. And one group of students was working with a school in India. And the first thing they tried to do was to help the teacher put the chairs in a circle. And they found that the chairs were bolted to the floor. And so the most basic thing that they were just trying to start the process with was being prevented by the conditions. And so I think that like as Neema is saying all of those... A lot of what we know about good teaching is about sort of cultivating the space and the relationships and the movement and so on and so forth. And so we really have to think about what is going to be possible and how as best as possible we can create those qualities some of the time. That's one point.

Jal Mehta:                    The second point is I feel like we are just headed towards a really bad place. There is a lot of support from the public for teachers over the last few years, all the polls show that people are very in favor of teacher strikes, teacher pay. But if we end up in a place where parents want kids to go to school or a lot of parents do that so that they can go to work. And teachers and unions are saying, "This is not safe for us. We will not show up." And then we have political leaders in very ham-handed ways, like inserting themselves in the middle of it when they are the ones who should have been handling the pandemic in the first place. It really could be a really horrible situation.

Jal Mehta:                    And it seems like a constructive way to go is at the district level to bring together, or the school level is to sort of bring together all the stakeholders, think creatively, think about the possibilities, create opt out options for both teachers and students. So maybe older teachers work from home. There were some students who actually liked being at home. They didn't like all the sort of like drama, the hallways and the peer relationships and just sort of preferred more time at home. One district we're working with Abbotsford, British Columbia, they reopened in the spring and they did start by bringing back their most vulnerable kids first, the kids who like physically needed to be in school to learn came back first.

Jal Mehta:                    So if we thought more creatively about the possibilities for both teachers and students and we were transparent about the risks, if we considered everyone's perspective and then we worked out a plan that everyone more or less was comfortable with and people who weren't comfortable with it could opt out and work from home. We would be in a much, much better place than if we just sort of like run through a one size fits all plan and be like, "Either we're going to open school or we're not. And you're just going to live with it one way or another."

Neema Avashia:           Yeah. The one thing I would add to that is just that I also think there can be a danger in symbolic listening which is to say, I think a lot of people have learned that they should hold stakeholder groups. But that doesn't mean they actually listen to the stakeholders. Right? And so for me, it's the commitment to listening that's the most important thing. And then acting on what you hear. Because we're in this very weird moment where people are like, "I'm listening. I'm listening." And then they just do the same thing they were going to do anyway even though they just listened to everybody. And so I think that really the idea of prioritizing your stakeholders or figuring out how you really allow your stakeholders beliefs to drive is the hardest part and the most important part.

Jal Mehta:                    Totally agree with you about symbolic listening. But trust is about reciprocity. If you say that you're going to do something for me and then you don't follow through, then we're worse off than we were when we started. And so trust is built on reciprocal action. So if people listen and then they don't draw on anything that they've heard, then who's going to show up for a stakeholder meeting the next time.

Justin Reich:                 These are such important conversations. One response I have Jal to your things are headed to a horrible place which is like a good bet to generally have in the American response to the pandemic. But sort of two things that make me hopeful about the relationship is that something like 72% of parents were satisfied or very satisfied with their school's responses this past spring, even recognizing how much less learning happened than was typical. And I saw a poll today, there was something like 58% of families are hoping to either be entirely online or mostly online.

Justin Reich:                 So I think there was some sort of surge of punditocracy that was supplemented by the federal government that was like, "The people are all demanding to come back and they're going to be really mad at the schools who don't." But actually, what other public governmental institutions in the midst of the pandemic have a 72% approval rating from the people who are closest to them. I think schools have an enormous well of Goodwill to draw on. And then I think as far as I can tell parents are also sort of increasingly looking around what's happening around the United States and being like, "Yeah. Maybe actually we should stay home." We don't want to. We know that these are terrible choices.

Justin Reich:                 We had a few questions that came from our audience that I wanted to get us to try to get some responses to. One was very early on from my dear colleague, Nat Vaughn in Midfield who asks around the sort of the feedback and the iteration. So Jal, you talked about taking one day a week to let people listen and connect. Neema, you said, "Why don't we do things more on a sort of six week system, an eight week system instead of having year long classes. Let's build a model and let's have a marker eight weeks into the year in which we say, okay. Let's try our best with this model for a while and then have a time in which we all agree to change it." Are there other key ideas or strategies that you can think about or want to offer about providing effective... I mean, sort of interim improvement and feedback sort of built into our returning plans?

Neema Avashia:           I mean, the one thing I'd say is just thinking about how you create those structures for feedback loops with students, right? Lots of colleagues were doing weekly check ins or regular surveys, trying to just sort of be asking what's working? What's not working? Similarly with families, really trying to push on like how do we continue that conversation and have that feedback loop with parents and with students be regular. And then the other piece of it that I think is worth considering is that starting over again isn't just good for adults, that starting over again is also really good for kids. Because if you've dug yourself into a hole and that hole never ends, then it's like, "This is a wash. I'm done for the year. This didn't work for me."

Neema Avashia:           But if at some point, if at four weeks or six weeks, it's like two different teachers are going to be reaching out to you and trying to connect with you and build a relationship with you. Maybe young people also are like, "I can try again." And then maybe for the next cycle, the learnings of those two teachers inform what the first few teachers did their second time through, right? Those opportunities to reset are really good for all of us I think in this moment.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. That's a great concrete suggestion. So as people are thinking about their plannings. I think in most schools kind of the semester, sometimes the quarter is the time in which we're somewhat open to reboots to reimagining to reshifting things. And we may want to try to think about having a few more of those moments also. I think another thing that I like about that is that there may be some plans that we put together that don't work that well in a week or two but maybe if we let them run through a little bit, they're more likely to be successful.

Justin Reich:                 But if you tell people how you're just going to have to wait six months to see this thing play out. No one's going to want to do that. They're going to want student change. When we say, "Hey, let's think about what this might look like in six weeks or eight weeks." That seems like it's more likely to be successful. So a second question that we got was around providing support and structure around social relationships. In our conversations with different kinds of stakeholders, what were some of the ideas that we haven't talked about yet that people were most excited about in terms of making sure that people stay connected to one another.

Jal Mehta:                    To flesh out this call a teacher button idea, which I think you've mentioned briefly at the beginning. A school in Madison, Wisconsin had created a system where essentially every group of seven kids had one adult in the building who was just basically on-call for them across the school day. So the idea is basically, they're sort of like, if you're lucky enough to have a caregiver who's home, who's not an essential worker, who's not remote working at that moment. If you get stuck on a problem or something, your parent can help you or your caregiver can help you. And the idea was like, let's have an adult in the building who is essentially like on call for you.

Jal Mehta:                    And the person who told us about this was the principal. And so he was running the school but he still had his seven kids who could text him at basically any time of day. And basically he said, "Look, the kid say that I have trouble with my physics homework." I can't do their physics problems but I could say, do you want to switch to English now? Do you need to take a break? Do you need a snack? I can check in with your physics teacher later and see if they can give you some help." Et cetera. So just sort of like to have one person who's an advocate. And the way that they'd done this as they'd included paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, basically everybody in the building was assigned to seven kids. And that's how they got into that ratio.

Neema Avashia:           I think something that we did at the McCormick, well a couple of things is we use restorative circles as sort of part of our school culture and climate at all times. And so we definitely carried that into online space and into remote space. So there were regular opportunities for kids to be participants in restorative circles even when we were remote. In my cluster, we did something called a community Zoom every week that was purely like we're going to play games together. We're going to do social things together.

Neema Avashia:           After the murder of George Floyd, we used the community Zoom as an opportunity to connect with kids. We actually did a series of Zooms that were sort of like around connecting with kids but also connecting them to elders in the community who could kind of talk about their experiences and how they were seeing this moment. So really making sure that it isn't just academic time that is the time that kids are interacting with each other or with school staff, but that intentional nonacademic time is also part of how you think about the school day. It's really important.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. That seems to me that one of the things that I am hearing from folks is in the midst of not only trying to reinvent schools for remote and hybrid learning but the pandemic has just revealed an incredibly powerful way these vast inequalities in our society. And that in the reimagining of the schools, educators and communities saying ourselves A, how are we going to bring the protests, the pandemic, all these kinds of pieces into our curriculum this fall? I mean, these are the things that are most top of mind for students and we're not going to be able to just say... I mean, I think we should at some place to say, "Hey, let's go get away from all this and study the Roman Empire because there's some pretty cool things that happened there."

Justin Reich:                 But we're also going to have to say to people, "Yeah. Let's help you as young people make sense of the world around. Let's have you as young people help us as adults make sense of the world around us." And also using it as a moment to say, "What are some additional approaches to anti-racist abolitionists teaching that we can do now?" Neema, how do you think about those questions for this fall? I mean, you're a civics teacher so there's lots of natural points for engagement in your typical curriculum. But with the teachers in your cluster, what are you all talking about related to these kinds of things?

Neema Avashia:           I think that we've sort of been in a little bit of a holding pattern around wanting to make sure that we have some clarity around what the structures are going to be like so that we can plan for those structures. So we had already talked about this idea of splitting so that whatever happens, we can split and that we can do that no matter whether we're remote, whether we're completely online, whether we're completely in person. We think there are some things we can do to make this work better for kids regardless. I would say one thing I've been thinking about a lot as a teacher is the need for having stronger through lines around learning that like one off lessons really don't work very well in virtual space. I don't think they work very well again in in-person space either.

Neema Avashia:           But so I've really been thinking about how to re-frame my curriculum around core texts that we are working through together. So if the unit is immigration, we're reading [Henry Gade's] journey and we're really using that and building content around that to sort of make sure that kids know this is the thing. And it also means that I'm going to go drop that book off to every kid. Right? So trying to figure out how do we create in-person contact even if we are hybrid or if we're completely remote. How can book drop-offs and how can those exchanges kind of be opportunities for relationship building and connection?

Neema Avashia:           Those are some of the things that I've been thinking about a little bit but I think we are a little stuck. I understand the desire to wait because we're waiting for Congress and we're waiting for whatever else, but from a teacher perspective, I want a plan. And I want to plan really well. And it's hard to plan well when it's like, "Well, you could be A, or you could be B or you could be C. It's like, I can't plan for three. That's not humanly possible. So I need to have a better sense of what we're doing in order to plan well.

Justin Reich:                 All right. I wanted to tell this story for a while about the three planning things. So I was at Charlie's Barber Shop in Porter Square and Jeff Riley who's the commissioner of education gets on NPR. And he starts talking about how every school in Massachusetts has to have an in-person plan and a hybrid plan, an online learning plan. And two chairs down the barber, he lifts up these... he is two chairs down because we're social distancing. He's not one chair down. The one chair down is blocked off. He is two chairs down. He lifts up his clippers and he says, "Every school has got to come up with three different schools. Every single one of them's going to be half-assed."

Neema Avashia:           That's exactly right.

Justin Reich:                 And I was like, that is some solid education policy analysis from the barber chair in Charlie's Barber Shop in Porter Square.

Neema Avashia:           Can Charlie be the new commissioner? Because like that's it.

Justin Reich:                 It wasn't even Charlie, it was Charlie's assistant barber who was doing it.

Neema Avashia:           Yeah. I feel really frustrated. What we know would help is to be able to plan more effectively, right? And really, really dig into how are we going to create really engaging curriculum? How are we going to deepen relationships? How are we going to do the things that we know we need to do for this to work better? And we can't because we have to have three options. And anytime you ask someone to do three versions of something, they're spending a third of their time on each one. Which means none of them are going to be very good.

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. So I think as soon as we can, narrowing in on some decisions will be helpful. And I mean, I think that the places that we're seeing making those decisions now in Los Angeles, in Oakland, in Atlanta saying, "Look. We just have to go online because it's the only safe one that we can count on. If we can decide to do this now, for four weeks, for six weeks then we at least all of us can plan for that imperfect circumstance and move forward and build on with that." Jal we lost you for a little bit there but we're delighted to have you back. What are the other thoughts that you have thinking about planning for next year or ideas from this process that have become newly salient to you in the last couple of weeks?

Jal Mehta:                    I think one really important idea, Someone in one of our Charrettes, Shanna Peoples who is a national teacher of the year said, "We really need to Marie Kondo the curriculum." And we wrote a little piece about that. And I think is it sort of temptation that kids missed March 15th through the rest of the year and to try to sort of stuff what they didn't do from that period into next year. And I think we should resist that temptation with all of our might. Marie Kondo as I think everybody knows by now as the Japanese cleaning expert who says that tidying your house will bring you joy if you keep only the items that spark joy.

Jal Mehta:                    I'd love to think that school could be only a place that sparks joy but even if we can't quite realize that, just sort of getting a sense of what is essential for next year and in doing so create the space for a lot of the things that Neema was talking about. Right? So we already had kids who had experienced a lot of trauma. Now, like everybody has experienced sort of a certain form of collective trauma. Kids haven't seen their friends in six months. So if we try to sort of overstuff what we didn't do until next year, we won't create the space.

Justin Reich:                 And Jal, I think what you were saying exactly aligns with what Neema is saying which is that, in trying to Marie Kondo the curriculum, I mean, another way to frame this is that we want to do fewer things well. We want to have fewer times when we're jumping from topic to topic, day to day but we pick things that we can work on for a longer period of time. And we go more deeply into those pieces. And I've been having lots of online and in-person conversations with educators. It intuitively works better in some fields than others.

Justin Reich:                 As a history teacher, I think of my work is kind of sampling from a cannon. In a typical year, it might be perfectly reasonable to look at eight units. But instead this year I'll do four units or six units or I'll plan for four units, I'll see if we can get to six units and I'll take a lot of the skill based things that were spread across those eight units and put them into four units. But doing fewer things more deeply creates the kind of simplicity that Neema highlighted is so important in the start of the conversation.

Neema Avashia:           But it is also, I think the opposite of what the press is going to be, right? The press, I already feel like the pressure is like, "How are we going to catch kids up? How are we going to catch kids up?" And what I feel really worried about is that we're going to say, "We're going to double the amount of time we spent on math and double the amount of time we spend on literacy." Not really considering that if we do that, the kids who have disengaged during this moment, we're going to lose them completely. I think again, this is where really prioritizing your most vulnerable learners become so important. Because I had eighth graders who from March to June, I had social interactions with them but they did not get online. And if we don't figure out how we're getting them to reconnect with school in ninth grade, we're going to lose them.

Neema Avashia:           And that means that it can't be that their experience of school is like, "You are so behind. We have to throw way more content at you." That's going to lose them completely. But I think what's unfortunate again, is that the people who are pressing so hard on this idea of like double up, double up, double up, don't seem to know children and don't seem to understand that for kids to feel like they can engage with learning, they have to feel held in that space. And if what I want to do with you is cram twice as much content down your throat, that young person has already seen that they can stay home and they can do other things and they can not do school. Which means like really the press for us needs to be... I mean, the thing I've been thinking about so much is like, what does it look like to create that sense of desire to learn and an excitement for learning in kids? And like, how do we use that as the thing that helps kids to reconnect with school?

Neema Avashia:           So really how do we use kids' interests and use their desires and use... They are learning. Kids are learning all kinds of things right now. They're just not necessarily learning algebra. Some of them might be but a lot of them are learning all kinds of other things. So how do we use their natural desire to learn and be creative to help them reconnect with school space instead of sending them the opposite message which is that the things that they were learning and doing outside of school aren't what's valued. What's valued is the standards. And if you're not doing that and you're not doubling down on that, then you're not learning or you're not progressing.

Jal Mehta:                    Totally agree with what Neema said. Just wanted to add that if we thought about this more concretely, there's some pieces of knowledge that are in the curriculum because how our curriculum is formed. Basically committees get together, they have disagreements about what should be important. And then they satisfy these disagreements by including a little bit of what everybody wants. But the reality is like if we gave an adult a quiz on mitosis, the French Indian War, et cetera, et cetera like a lot of stuff that you were exposed to at one point in life, you might not do that well on today.

Jal Mehta:                    So if some of that stuff got dropped really would not be the end of the world. Whereas we should keep our Shakespeare's, Darwin's, Du Bois’s, they are like some things that are essential that we want to keep in. And then there are other things which are skills, particularly reading and writing. And those things do accumulate through repetitions and practices. But there's no reason why those things can't be in the service of, "Okay. We're interested in George Floyd so we can learn more about the history of race in this country. We can write about that. We can write letters." Et cetera, et cetera. So there are ways to develop contextualized units that will build the kinds of skills that people want.

Justin Reich:                 Well, this has been an extraordinarily rich conversation. I'm really grateful to the two of you for highlighting all of these complex questions that schools and teachers and families and parents and states are wrestling with as we try to think about how we serve our students best in the upcoming year. If you had one final thought for teachers and educators and families, one thing to not lose track of in the midst of all the different kinds of conversations that are happening, what would your parting word be? Jal, let's start with you and then we'll give Neema the last word.

Jal Mehta:                    Well, we make a lot of sort of recommendations or offer a lot of ideas in the report. But we also wrote a second report which basically just shows you how to run your own design charrettes. And so if you could do one thing, it would not be to take any of the specific ideas we suggested, it would be to run your own charrette with students because that's how you'll figure out what it will work in your specific context. It's really not that hard. This whole process started because Justin and I were having a conversation about what next year could look like. And he's like, "What if we get together a few people and like storyboard it out?" And that was two months ago and here. No. Justin is very talented and did a lot of work.

Jal Mehta:                    But still, you're basically talking about holding Zoom calls with a process that we've given. And there are lots of other people who have processes that just ask people to identify their values, think about the constraints, think about what they're trying to do at their best and then to like brainstorm some possibilities. So the word charrette sounds fancy but basically that's what it is. And that would probably be my number one thing.

Justin Reich:                 How about for you Neema? What are your parting words to people?

Neema Avashia:           I mean, I think that we're preaching to the choir a little bit in this call, right? But what we need to happen is the choir has to get really loud. And the choir needs to get really, really loud on behalf of kids and families. And so I think there's the part around doing the design work with kids and families. And then there's a second piece which is like amplifying that. And Justin and I committed to the young people in the design work that we did with them, that we would get their ideas out into the world. And we have, I think it's like 4,000 people now who we shared these ideas with. Right? Which I feel pretty good about. I feel like I've done my part to try to get their ideas out in the world.

Neema Avashia:           But if each of us was doing that and really asking those deep questions and then really sharing the answers to those questions as broadly as we could, I think that's how the narrative changes. And I think that's the only way to change the narrative from being sort of focused on these really superficial sort of ideas about safety and cleanliness to being about what does it really mean to think deeply about learning?

Justin Reich:                 Yeah. And then maybe my conclusion of that will be, that work can a lot of times feel really good. It can feel really good to carve out a bunch of your time and say, "Let me listen to my colleagues. Let me listen to my students. Let me listen to my families and stay really closely connected to why I got into this work in the first place." Well, Neema Avashia from the Boston Public Schools and Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School Of Education, thank you so much for joining us. I hope people will continue to read the reports Imagining September, Online Design Charrettes for Fall 2020 Planning with Students and Stakeholders and Imagining September, Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19. Thanks to all of you who conversed with us during this conversation through your questions. Really great to connect with you all here. For all of you who are educators, I'm just personally so grateful for the work that you're doing in support of students in the US and in South Africa and in all the places in the world that you come to. So thank you for that.

Justin Reich:                 That was Neema Avashia from the Boston Public Schools, an amazing middle school civics teacher at the McCormick school and Jal Mehta, faculty member and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of In Search of Deeper Learning from Harvard University Press. Together the three of us worked on a project Imagining September with two reports, one about Principles and Design Elements for Ambitious Schools During COVID-19, a sort of storyboards and principles of what school could look like next year. And Online Design Charrettes for Fall 2020 Planning with Students and Stakeholders, a kind of walked through about how school leaders and community members can bring together students and parents and teachers and families to talk and to plan for the future of school next year.

Justin Reich:                 I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes on how educators from all walks of life are tackling distance learning during COVID-19. If you link into the show notes, you'll find a recording of the full webinar, links to the two reports and other resources about opening schools this summer and fall. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and was recorded in sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe until next time.