Reflections on Six Months of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter

2020 was always going to be a milestone year. It was the end of a decade. We brought the UPrep strategic plan to its conclusion. New leadership joined the UPrep community.

Then the global pandemic and tragedies of black lives hit, and 2020 became significant for unanticipated and unwelcome reasons. I have been so proud of our school community through this all. The best qualities of our teachers, staff, students, and families have come forth in the face of adversity. Everyone has risen to the challenge.

When it became clear that COVID-19 infection posed a major threat, we planned decisively and pivoted quickly to close campus and move school online. While we didn’t know it at the time, our experience teaching intensives online during January snow days served as a useful, early test.

Once the first weeks passed, and it became clear that we would be online for a while, we adapted to our new reality and delivered an online school experience that was decent, given the nonexistent timeframe to prepare.

This summer, the strength of our culture of professional learning has been on display, as all teachers have attended external workshops on teaching online, our own staff have offered 15 internal workshops, and the school has supported everyone to evolve their curricula for the fall. The result will be a richer, fuller experience in online school for as long as it’s needed.

Empty hallway


home office

Temporary home office

Schools have experienced these three stages—pivot, adapt, and evolve—over the past six months. As events continue to unfold this year, we may need to repeat this cycle, hopefully in smaller degrees than the spring.

Black Lives Matter has mobilized people to identify what they can do to support racial justice in our community. We listened to our own students share their experiences in a discussion panel in the spring. We quickly added new learning materials to the summer professional development program. We are planning additional learning and program changes for this coming year.

The national education community has never before been so focused on addressing the same problems. As a result, the network and professional development conversations have been numerous, rich, and specific. Schools are tending toward action as much as their resources allow. Our memberships in national organizations and networks have been so valuable as we have learned and shared with each other. It’s been particularly great to see different approaches and recommendations, which help situate our plans within the regional and national landscape.

Global Online Academy norms and strategies

Two frameworks from Global Online Academy’s COVID-19 page

Looking forward, we have developed a promising reopening plan, which we will use to return to campus, with appropriate health measures, when it is safe to do so. This could take place as soon as October 5. Whatever this year throws at us, we will continue to respond with resilience, hope, and togetherness, for the sake of our students’ learning and emotional health during this tragic time.

UPrep reopening plan

12 Highlights From POCC

1. Co-chairs welcome

E-chieh Lin (UPrep), Mahtab Mahmoodzadeh (Overlake), and Dori King (OES) delivered powerful opening remarks to 7,000 attendees.

2. Opening Keynote with Dr. Joy DeGruy

The country’s racial history is hiding in plain sight.

3. Affinity Groups

Familiar faces from past POCCs

4. Grading for Equity with Joe Feldman and Mark Boswell

How does change happen in schools? Teacher leadership with an “administrator tailwind.”

5. Anti-Racist STEM Education with Alyssa Reyes and Moses Rifkin (UPrep) and Shaye Whitmer (Evergreen)

The Underrepresentation Curriculum Project, “a  modular, student-centered curriculum designed to examine and address equity and inclusion in science.”

6. Lola’s dance performance

Bold dancing to an audience of a thousand

7. Building Institutional Capacity for Sustained Conversation About Race

Eric Temple, Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA); Martha Haakmat, Haakmat Consulting

8. Valerie Kaur’s General Session

The Revolutionary Love Project

9. Islam in Context with Changa Bey, MICDS

Adjust spring program for students observing Ramadan

10. Wayne Au’s Featured Speaker Session

This was recorded live for The Straight A’s Podcast. Wayne is a professor at UW Bothell and editor for Rethinking Schools.

Wayne’s advice to new teachers: study your institution

11. Student-led Dialogue

I always love it when students lead the adults in conversation and activity.

12. Pedro Noguera’s Closing Keynote

Acknowledge the progress made, so that we acknowledge the work that has been done to this point.

An Exchange of SEL Ideas from Research and Practice

I recently attended the CASEL SEL Exchange conference in Chicago. This is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the defining national organization on which most social and emotional learning programs I have encountered are based. Our SEL Coordinator Emily invited me to attend with her. Going in a team is the best way to attend a conference! Social and emotional learning is one of five projects in the learning portion of our current strategic plan.

Attending to students’ emotional being and social skills have long been an informal part of independent school programs, often embedded in the culture of kindness and genuine relationships that characterize independent schools. In recent years, three things have changed to elevate the need for SEL in schools. First, brain science has caught up to conventional wisdom, deepening our understanding of how much emotional state inhibits cognition. Second, the world has become fraught with uncertainty and tragedy that hits close or directly to home. Third, students feel more anxious due to the immediate, unfiltered view that social media provides of their social standing and the world in which we live.

This was CASEL’s first national conference! With 1,500 attendees, 500 on the waitlist, and dozens of presentations and papers, the field has matured in a way that makes the path to school SEL integration stronger. In the past, I experienced SEL as a standalone field, a new world of student support to enter and learn. I first experienced SEL through wellness programs, light meditation, yoga, emotion thermometers, collaboration games, and getting in touch with one’s senses. It had value, but the road to full adoption in school would be long and challenging. This conference was nothing like that.

Dozens of sessions explored applications of SEL to many existing fields and types of teaching. The path to integration was well-defined and interdisciplinary. Here is the full program, and this is a list of sessions that caught my eye. The conference must have encouraged everyone to share, because I downloaded the presentation files and handouts for all of these, in addition to attending as many as possible.

Best Practices for Providing Professional Development to Build Classroom and School-Wide SEL Capacity and Collaboration
Molly Jordan, Boston Children’s Hospital)
Shella Dennery, Boston Children’s Hospital

Choosing and Using SEL Frameworks: Challenges, Opportunities, and Tools
Dale Blyth, University of Minnesota and Strategic Consulting
Stephanie Jones, EASEL Lab
Teresa Borowski, CASEL
Clark McKown, xSEL Labs

Embedding Social and Emotional Learning in High School American History: Teaching the Reconstruction Era
Dennis Barr, Facing History and Ourselves
Heather Frazier, Facing History and Ourselves

Embedding Social and Emotional Learning in Secondary Classrooms
Michele Tissiere, Engaging Schools

The SEL Integration Process Through Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment: A Schoolwide Approach
Molly Gosline, Adlai E. Stevenson High School
Tony Reibel, Adlai E. Stevenson High School

Integrating SEL Into Leading and Coaching
Wendy Baron

Reimagining Leadership to Create Equitable and Socially Intelligent Organizations and Teams
Kathleen Osta, National Equity Project
Linda Ponce de Leon, National Equity Project

Racial Equity in our Schools: SEL Is Necessary But Not Sufficient
Tala Manassah, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility
Cassie Schwerner, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Social Emotional Learning Skills in the Sex Education Classroom
Teagan Drawbridge-Quealy, Planned Parenthood League of MA
Jennifer Hart, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts

Harnessing the Power of Action Civics and Youth Voice to Support SEL and Academic Goals in the High School and Middle School Classroom
Brian Brady, Mikva Challenge Chicago
Michelle Morales, Mikva Challenge Chicago
Molly Andolina, DePaul University
Hilary Conklin, DePaul University

The Evidence Base for SEL: Current Status and Future Directions
Roger P. Weissberg, CASEL
Joseph A. Mahoney, University of Wisconsin, Superior
Ruth Cross, CASEL

Teaching the skills of civil dialogue also featured strongly in the conference. I leave you with this quote:

Debate is empathy and evidence coming together.

– Linda Darling-Hammond

Finally, we were pleased to learn that our SEL project has a contemporary focus. CASEL’s strategic priorities, as shared by Robert Jagers, Vice President of Research, look very similar to our current growth areas.

  • Equity
  • Adult SEL
  • Integration with academics

Attending the SEL Exchange equipped us with research and projects to better prepare students for their present studies and future lives.

New Spaces and Community Impact

The opening of school this year introduced an exciting new space to the UPrep community: our transformed Commons. Construction that started last May reached its end just before Labor Day, thanks to the effort and organization of our staff, architect, and construction teams.

Four years ago, the school comprehensively reviewed the campus, created a list of remodel and new construction projects that would improve the student experience, and then rank ordered them. Transforming the Commons rose to the top of the list, because it met several goals.

  • Improve the character of the Commons
  • Use space more flexibly
  • Provide more space for a growing student body
  • Upgrade and grow the kitchen

We improved the character of the space in several ways. When you walk in, you immediately notice a full wall of windows looking onto the Picardo Patch, the original and largest community garden in Seattle. This view was previously restricted to offices located along this wall. The second big change is the lighting: brighter and whiter than other spaces. Finally, enlarging the Commons makes it possible to have many different kinds of furniture: four-tops, long tables, high seating, the above pictured “farm” table, and soft, casual seating.

We also designed the Commons for flexibility, so that the limited space we have can be used for different activities throughout the day. The large room, flexible seating, and versatile displays support hosting events here. The Commons Meeting Room (not pictured) has large, sliding, glass doors so that it can integrate with the Commons during meals and events and close for meetings and classes.

Some features in the new Commons got a big upgrade. The new bathroom block features individual, private, gender-neutral stalls. The kitchen is modern, well-sized, and thoughtfully laid out. The display screens are coordinated and controlled using Raspberry Pi devices and touch pads. Wireless network and video connectivity exists throughout.

Beyond the Commons, we also installed flexible partitions between two pairs of classrooms in another building. Along with the Commons meeting room, these allow us to try three different ways to create a double-sized classroom, to inform how we design such spaces in the future. Larger spaces are essential to support intensive classes, class meetings, and special program days.

These changes did introduce new inconveniences. Since we could not add square footage during this phase of the project, we had to relocate some offices to different parts of the building. The staff room, College Counseling, and Makerspace were all affected. The latter two of these will ultimately gain brand new spaces when we build the second project on our list across the street.

Opening the transformed Commons generated new excitement and momentum, to build on the big changes we made to the school program in the last few years, and look forward to future construction and program development in the future.

Faculty Summer Reading 2019

Each summer, the UPrep faculty reads from a selection of books related to our strategic initiatives and professional growth areas. This year’s selections examine deeper learning, identity, and inclusion through research and memoir. Special thanks to Emily Schorr Lesnick and Veronica McGowan for selecting this year’s titles.

In Search of Deeper Learning

The Quest to Remake the American High School
Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine

book coverDrawing on hundreds of hours of observations and interviews at thirty different schools, Mehta and Fine reveal that deeper learning is more often the exception than the rule. And yet they find pockets of powerful learning at almost every school, often in electives and extracurriculars as well as in a few mold-breaking academic courses. These spaces achieve depth, the authors argue, because they emphasize purpose and choice, cultivate community, and draw on powerful traditions of apprenticeship. These outliers suggest that it is difficult but possible for schools and classrooms to achieve the integrations that support deep learning: rigor with joy, precision with play, mastery with identity and creativity. Harvard University Press

This book dives right into our ongoing work to bridge academic challenge and diversified ways of learning.

Whistling Vivaldi

How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do
Claude M. Steele

Claude M. Steele, who has been called “one of the few great social psychologists,” offers a vivid first-person account of the research that supports his groundbreaking conclusions on stereotypes and identity. He sheds new light on American social phenomena from racial and gender gaps in test scores to the belief in the superior athletic prowess of black men, and lays out a plan for mitigating these “stereotype threats” and reshaping American identities. W.W. Norton & Co.

While this book has been out for a while, it is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the long-term and deeply-personal impacts that cultural inequality has on individuals, particularly with relation to achievement gaps in schools.

When They Call You a Terrorist

A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele

When They Call You a TerroristPatrisse Cullors’ first book cowritten by ashe bandele, is a poetic memoir and reflection on humanity. A New York Times Best Seller – necessary and timely, Patrisse’s story asks us to remember that protest in the interest of the most vulnerable comes from love. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have been called terrorists, a threat to America. But in truth, they are loving women whose life experiences have led them to seek justice for those victimized by the powerful. In this meaningful, empowering account of survival, strength, and resilience, Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele seek to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. MacMillan

The memoir of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors describes her childhood and family encounters with the criminal justice system, her experiences in schools, and her work to co-create the hashtag that has rocked the world.


A Coming-of-Gender Story
Jacob Tobia

Sissy by Jacob TobiaFrom Jacob’s Methodist childhood and the hallowed halls of Duke University to the portrait-laden parlors of the White House, Sissy takes you on a gender odyssey you won’t soon forget. Writing with the fierce honesty, wildly irreverent humor, and wrenching vulnerability that have made them a media sensation, Jacob shatters the long-held notion that people are easily sortable into “men” and “women.” Sissy guarantees that you’ll never think about gender–both other people’s and your own–the same way again. Penguin Random House

The memoir of media sensation Jacob Tobia outlines their childhood experiences with gender and a path to gender healing.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable

Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

Michael Bennett adds his unmistakable voice to discussions of racism and police violence, Black athletes and their relationship to powerful institutions like the NCAA and the NFL, the role of protest in history, and the responsibilities of athletes as role models to speak out against injustice. Following in the footsteps of activist-athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, Bennett demonstrates his outspoken leadership both on and off the field.

Written with award-winning sportswriter and author Dave Zirin, Things that Make White People Uncomfortable is a sports book for our turbulent times, a memoir, and a manifesto as hilarious and engaging as it is illuminating. Haymarket Books

This book by former Seahawk Michael Bennett breaks down his perspective on race and racism, college and professional sports, and an athlete’s impact in the world.


Speaking About Intensives

In January, I shared stories and observations about UPrep’s first intensive term at our State of the School event. The following video is cued to jump to my portion of the presentation.

Our First Intensives are Complete!

We just finished our first intensives term, the result of two years of planning and collaboration inside our school and with school and organization partners. I have written a blog post for UPrep to summarize how our first intensives began to meet the goals for student experience established for this project.

UPrep’s First Intensives Were a Great Success


Independent Study: Art in Spain, Peru and Mexico

Three students recently completed an impressive independent study in painting and Spanish language study. Pursuing independent study requires initiative, perseverance, collaboration, and responsibility, and that’s just to get started! Students further develop these habits in the course of their study. The group designed a course overview, researched painters from Spain, Peru, and Mexico, identified common themes in their work, and produced a series of paintings in the styles they studied.

For their final project, the students created an interactive mural in the style of David Alfaro Siquieros, integrated the theme of community at UPrep into the piece, and displayed it in the main hallway for people to experience.

Students often see the connections between the subjects that they study but rarely have more than a passing opportunity to conduct deep inquiry in an interdisciplinary format. As part of our ULab initiative, we are removing barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration, launching more interdisciplinary courses within the school curriculum, and making the process to propose an independent study clearer and more accessible to students.

Assessment for Next Generation Learning

A new article from EdSurge describes a MIT effort to design assessments for next generation learning. “Playful assessment” captures curiosity, creativity and critical thinking within the natural context of student learning activities.”It emphasizes recognizing and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, and in response, identifying skills to improve on moving forward.”

While such habits of mind are recognized as essential for today’s learners and are frequently embedded in curriculum and lesson design, they are also difficult to systematically and accurately assess. Instruments such as the Mission Skills Assessment and SSAT Character Skills Snapshot have emerged in recent years but are disconnected from classroom curricula.  Effective teacher assessment is needed to both measure and deepen lasting next generation learning for students.

Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash

Three Kinds of Engagement

A wonderful, new synthesis of research identifies a main reason why students do not thrive in school and provides clear directions for improvement. The study, titled “Supporting Social, Emotional, and Academic Development” is published by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. While focused on public schools in Chicago, the study applies to any school where a gap persists between teacher expectations and student performance.

The study elegantly identifies three areas of student engagement: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive. The problem? Behavioral engagement is the most visible of the three, therefore teachers tend to focus on student behaviors more than their emotional or cognitive moments in the class. Most course and lesson design overlooks student emotional states and cognitive work. Interventions for low-performing students often focus on student behaviors and ultimately fail. From the study:

Lesson planning, content coverage, and test preparation can take all of educators’ time, leaving little time to reflect on why it is that not all students are fully engaged in the work that has been asked of them. A focus on student engagement requires a change in priorities from not only identifying how well students are meeting expectations, to also working to get all students able to meet those expectations.

The study is a potentially useful tool for school leaders, instructional coaches, teachers engaged in reflective self-improvement.