Rethinking Teaching & Learning Amid the Pandemic

Our presentation to the UPrep Parent Guardian Association has turned into a post on the NAIS blog.

NAIS blog post

Adjusting Curriculum for Students During COVID-19

I have just published an article about making curriculum changes for this year to the UPrep blog. This is based on my recent presentation to families, who really wanted to know how we are working with our students to respond to the unfinished learning of last year.

Adjusting Curriculum for Students During COVID-19


Missing from your job description

Love this! From Seth Godin, via Leadership+Design. How many of these do you do and encourage others to do?

If you’re working in an office, here are some of the checklist items that might have been omitted:

  • Add energy to every conversation
  • Ask why
  • Find obsolete things on your task list and remove them
  • Treat customers better than they expect
  • Offer to help co-workers before they ask
  • Feed the plants
  • Leave things more organized than you found them
  • Invent a moment of silliness
  • Highlight good work from your peers
  • Find other great employees to join the team
  • Cut costs
  • Help invent a new product or service that people really want
  • Get smarter at your job through training or books
  • Encourage curiosity
  • Surface and highlight difficult decisions
  • Figure out what didn’t work
  • Organize the bookshelf
  • Start a club
  • Tell a joke at no one’s expense
  • Smile a lot.

Summer Reading 2021

Thought-provoking titles for our faculty and staff

Each summer, we select books for the UPrep faculty and staff to read and then discuss at the start of the following school year. The books reflect our priorities and initiatives and feature human stories. One should feel equally comfortable reading these by the poolside or in the library.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong

This is a “level 2” DEI book, a good choice for those who have done some work on their own identity, acquired a mental framework for understanding prejudice, and are ready to tackle the diverse experiences within broad race and ethnic groups. Cathy Park Hong is a poet and scholar who decided to write a memoir as a collection of essays. Hong guides us through different formative experiences that involve herself, friends, family, and communities. Always personal, often painful, the essays help us understand the diversity, interconnections, and nuances that underly lived experiences. If you are interested in writing, art, or Korean American experience, and you are willing to lean into some hard moments, this book may be for you. Please be advised that one story addresses an incident of sexual violence.

Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building Expressways to Success
, by Adratesha Fritzgerald

This book brings together two frameworks for educational equity—antiracism and Universal Design for Learning—to better serve students. Fritzgerald locates antiracist teaching practices within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, in which adopting certain teaching practices for all also disproportionally benefits disadvantaged students. This book provides conceptual backing for the kinds of learning management and “unfinished learning” practices that our faculty is preparing to implement with students in the fall. While this is the most “teachery” book on this summer’s list, Fritzgerald also tells the personal stories that ground instructional practices in real students. If you are committed to antiracism in teaching and want to develop the concrete tools to reach students, then this book may be for you.

The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life, by Shawn Achor

What if, instead of waiting for good things to happen so we can become happier, we tried being happier, and then made more good thing happen? Achor unfolds this simplistic-sounding premise with research and argumentation that makes for a compelling reading and may even shift your mindset! This year of COVID and racial reckoning put our resilience to the test. Achor explains how positive mindset is not about seeing everything with rose-colored glasses but rather embracing the possibility that we will indeed make it through hard times for the better. If you are seeking to develop your personal resilience, then this book may be for you!


Place-Based Learning in These Trying Times

Brian Gonzales, Emily Schorr Lesnick, and I created an on-demand session for the NAIS Annual Conference. We explore the opportunities we discovered to leverage sense of place when directing experiential education online. Examples include UPrep’s senior project (LaunchPad) and global programs. Conference registration is required to view the presentation.

One Year In

It’s been a year since the outbreak at Life Care Center of Kirkland set off a wave of school and community closures that we continue to live with today. What lessons have we learned and areas developed during this time?

Context enables or constrains possibility.

Regional context has had such a big effect on our ability to bring students to campus. Unlike most of the country, the west coast has largely held off from resuming any in-person learning this school year. The 74 Million newsletter published an amazing graph that showed how politics, not science, determined school reopening plans. Seattle and surrounding districts remain fully online today, so independent schools have had to proceed one small step at a time. Two weeks from now, we will move to a full-day, 50% hybrid schedule, which most independent schools across the country adopted in the fall.

Emotional well-being is critical to learning.

The pandemic and race issues have revealed that emotional well-being is prerequisite to learning. The SEL movement has argued this for the last decade, but the current crisis has made it more clear to everyone. While many students have done alright this year, others who were previously successful have deeply struggled. Some have even preferred to get away from the social dynamics of school, adding an interesting twist to the return to campus plans. When we do fully return to campus, we should continue to deepen our attention to student social and emotional health at school, including in the classroom.

Teachers and students have demonstrated incredible creativity.

On the positive side, the severe constraints of the crisis have brought forth amazing ideas for how to pursue learning and community within online and minimal on-campus learning. Borrowing from the principles of place-based learning, teachers and students have become so familiar with the new place (online, at home, their neighborhoods) that they have found different opportunities there. These include new learning apps, virtual galleries, online mentoring, virtual community service, finding resources in your neighborhood, completing physical activities by Zoom, and more. Teachers have sent lab and art materials home and welcomed individual students to campus for learning support, robotics team meetings, athletics pods, and music practice. Even our most experiential programs, such as intensives and the senior project have found new opportunities under difficult circumstances.

What students really learn from their classes

The attention given to “learning loss” has revealed differences in the kinds of learning people value most. Some have focused on content and topics, others on skills, and others on habits of mind. Teachers have reorganized their course calendars to cut topics, cover topics less deeply, or both. How far behind will students find themselves compared to a typical year? How much will the missed content coverage or skills practice matter to their subsequent work? These ongoing discussions about provides a golden opportunity to design a more coordinated academic program that drives toward clearer shared outcomes.

How to make up for missed topics

That discussion also determines what strategies will best support students this spring and next year. I have found the following report helpful: “Addressing Unfinished Learning After COVID-19 School Closures” (Council of the Great City Schools). We must take care to keep students at the center of our curriculum adjustments going forward.

Supporting teachers doing challenging work

Teaching is a detailed craft that does not easily pivot with the major changes we’ve sustained this year. Each step toward hybrid learning has necessitated changes to schedule and learning environment in order to meet student and family needs. Meticulous planning is an important part of the professional identity of many teachers, which has taken repeated blows during the pandemic. The teachers who design for student inquiry and leadership have found the shifts less disruptive, since students do more independent and group work when in these modes.

Disruptive innovation

Will the new education models developed during the pandemic stick, or will most schools will return to the prior models? Running online school for a year has reinforced how much people value the personal and comprehensive qualities of campus life. I am sure that some innovative new schools will get a boost, and some of our improved practices will continue, but they will be small compared to how badly many will want to recapture the social and academic benefits of attending school together, in person.

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.