Alec talks to Lillian Hsu and John Bosselman, of Latitude High School in Oakland about attending to community and shared meaning-making during the pandemic.
LILLIAN HSU: Schools are one of the last sacred community spaces in our society, a place where folks are able to interact in an intergenerational way and be able to mobilize together around a sense of purpose. And I take that charge really seriously as a school leader, that as we’re moving through this moment in time, how do we also help to preserve that sense of community that folks are drawn to our school for? And what does that look like in terms of continuing to sustain and nurture that community for our teachers, for our students, for our families?
ALEC PATTON: This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. You just heard the voice of Lillian Hsu, principal of Latitude High School in Oakland, California. This week, I talked to Lillian and John Bosselman, Latitude’s director of instruction, about what they’re doing right now to sustain their school community during this crisis. This is the second episode of our How We Do It series, but I’m a little hesitant to call it that because of what Lillian said to me when she saw the title.
LILLIAN HSU: Just thinking about the title of the podcast, like, How We Do It, right? I think that How We Do It is not really– yes, it’s helpful to hear the specific structures and schedules that different folks are using because we can get creative ideas that way, but I actually think the work in this moment of, like, how we do it is actually really about mobilizing people behind shared purpose and helping people to kind of do some meaning-making and processing of, like, what is our purpose as educators in this moment, and how can we be in service of equity while also tending to like the humans that are in our community at this time.
ALEC PATTON: So in this episode, we’ll get into the schedule and the structures of school, but we’re going to go deeper, too. Lillian calls this “going below the green line,” which comes from a diagram developed by Margaret Wheatley in 1983. I’ll let Lillian explain.
LILLIAN HSU: Margaret Wheatley is an organizational researcher who has done a lot of work looking at what sustains and nurtures organizations over time, and I have found her sort of Below the Green Line’s six circles model to be really helpful as a framework for keeping clear-eyed about what’s important in terms of school leadership. And so the short version is that most organizations pay most attention to the things that are above the green line. Those tend to be things like structures, processes. And what Margaret Wheatley is research really points to is the sense that organizations that really sustain and are healthy and generative over time are the ones where leaders are really tending to the pieces that are below the green line. And that really has to do with relationships, identity, and information.
What I’m hearing a lot about during this time of transition is, like, what are the schedules? How are people kind of setting up the way that they’re doing meeting time? What are their strategic plans during this time? And I think a lot of times, there is this sense that if we can just get the logistics right, that’s what is most important in these moments. And what I’m trying to get at is that what’s below the green line is actually what leaders need to be tending to in this moment, because just setting up a structure or a schedule, those things can always be changed and innovated upon, right?
And so in this moment in time, what we actually need is to be tending to people’s sense of meaning-making and their sense of identity and also how they’re operating as a team in terms of trust, because that’s what’s going to allow people to be at their most creative and generative to be able to navigate the ambiguity of this moment.
ALEC PATTON: We’re going to spend time above and below the green line in this episode. We’ll go above the green line because frankly, I think a lot of students’ approach to the schedule is really smart, and we’ll go below the green line because this pandemic is challenging our fundamental understanding of who we are and how we find meaning in our lives. And as Lillian said, schools are one of the few remaining spaces in our society where we can come together to address the really big questions. And at this point, you’re probably wondering just what kind of school Latitude High School is, so let’s get into that.
Latitude High School opened in fall 2018. They’re the only school in Oakland who admits students using a ZIP code-based lottery. The students come from 25 different middle schools throughout the Bay Area. They now have a ninth and 10th grade with a total of 100 students. 75% of those students get free or reduced lunch.
Latitude is a project-based school, and it’s designed explicitly to be a base camp for students who take extraditions out into the city rather than a final destination, where students are cloistered from the outside world. The home page of their website declares, “Oakland is our home. The Bay Area is our extended classroom.” So it’s not really designed for lockdown conditions. In fact, do you have a feel for just how awkward this transition is for them? Here’s Lillian explaining what the students were working on when California’s governor ordered all Bay Area schools to close in mid-March.
LILLIAN HSU: So when everything happened, our ninth grade students were working on project Arcade. They had been designing, storyboarding, and coding their own video games that were going to be part of a video game arcade for users that had disabilities. And so they were in the middle of doing their giant build processes as well as their design and coding. John, you can speak to some of what they were working on humanities.
JOHN BOSSELMAN: Yes, so in Humanities, our ninth graders. They had just pitched their radio podcast ideas to KQED, and they were in the process of taking their concepts that they’ve been studying on the housing crisis in the Bay Area and turning that into a feature story as well as a podcast that they were going to submit to KQED to be part of Youth Takeover,
You know, when we look at project-based learning and you think about the scope of a project, all of our projects are really at the part where they were starting to build the product pieces. And they’re really working on the pieces that required a lot of technical prowess and a lot of materials and resources that you really can only have in a classroom or in a school setting. So all the power tools, all of the podcasting equipment– you can make a podcast, anywhere with mics, we have professional quality microphones. So we were in that part of the time for projects.
Our 10th graders in their physics class were working on some of the pieces on the tiny house that we’re building for the first homeless youth encampment in the Bay Area. So we’re just kind of at that spot in the height of project-based learning when we got a word that we had a plan to close in a week, and then three days later, word that we did have to close.
ALEC PATTON: So the teachers figured out what their projects could turn into without the power tools, the recording equipment, or even the luxury of all being in the same room together. Here’s what they came up with.
JOHN BOSSELMAN: In Humanities for ninth grade, they were going to be drafting a feature story as a group about their topic from the housing crisis that we were looking at. So some students were studying the history of redlining in Oakland. Other students were studying gentrification. Some students were looking at the question of why are LGBT people, in youth specifically, homeless at higher rates than their peers. And students are drafting in a group a feature story.
And then as they pivot to the next phase of the project, they were going to be drafting a perspectives piece for our book We The Town that students will draft whatever they want to write about. And so do you want to write about the COVID crisis right now? Let’s give you a voice there. Are you interested in writing about another piece of your life? So what’s your perspective on where the town Oakland is at this moment? And our plan is to push that out on our 378 medium blog which we’ll be launching in a couple weeks time. So that’s what our ninth grade Humanities team is working on.
In 10th grade Humanities, they’ve been working on studying this question all year of why is Oakland a refugee city, and how is Oakland then a city of refuge for so many people throughout its history. They are working on op-ed pieces that they’re going to potentially submit to local publications. So we’re still trying to continue the work that they were doing prior but just in a more of a modified version.
In Design and Engineering, they worked on some versions of their video games, and they’ve now transitioned to some art exercises and some art activities to help give them some space to process the different pieces that are going on. And they’re going to be pivoting rather soon to a personal interest project, so a passion project. When our Design and Engineering team asked the students what they were interested in, many of them brought up things that really fell into the design and engineering space. And so those teachers are really thinking about how it is that they can provide that access for students to explore a passion and an interest of theirs there.
LILLIAN HSU: And then on the Physics front, you know, one of the pieces of feedback we heard from our parents was they were really delighted when before we closed, our Physics teacher Regina, she actually sent everybody home with a little physics packet, which is some really basic materials, but it allowed them to actually sew their own thermodynamic gloves and to do some experiments in labs from home. And so that was really well received by families, and we heard a lot of demand in our virtual town hall for just more hands-on mini labs or projects that students could do.
So Regina is actually working right now on assembling some really simple materials that will allow students to, at home, create 3D models of the communal spaces that they’re designing for their tiny house community before pitching it to the team there. So we still think that those hands-on, creative pieces that are so really tangible is valuable during this time, and I think we heard that loud and clear from our families as well. So we’re thinking about how to assemble and get some basic art supplies and just, like, building supplies to our kids so they can still have access to those experiences while away.
ALEC PATTON: That left a question of what school would look like starting on March 16, when Oakland’s Shelter-in-Place order took effect.
JOHN BOSSELMAN: Given that it was happening really fast, we tried to pull everything we could from all of what we knew from all different areas to try and put that into– OK, here are the guiding principles under which we’re going to go move forward and make decisions about things. And if we need to be flexible and adapt, we can be flexible and adapt to those but, like, what’s our core principles for our decision-making as we move forward?
ALEC PATTON: They set on three core principles.
JOHN BOSSELMAN: One was, how can we give kids consistency? So how can we create a schedule where they are consistently checking in with us as a school? How can we create a small group or a small sense of community? So how can they have time in a small group with an adult that they know or multiple adults that they know checking in with them. And then third, how can we provide them meaningful things to work on during this time?
Those initial three principles that we started off with when we initially thought, hey, this is just for two weeks, those three principles that actually really landed now into, like, how do we keep having our kids consistency? How do we keep providing them time and space to connect with each other and connect with us? And how can we give them something meaningful to work on during this time? And that something meaningful can be really different than what we initially intended.
So for some students, it might be, hey, I’ve got to take care of my family members because my parents are still working. The meaningful work for that student might be pretty different than the meaningful work you give to other students. And so being really flexible about how it is that we approach this moving forward.
ALEC PATTON: So that consistency, community, and meaningful work, how did you guys land on those three?
LILLIAN HSU: John speaks to this in terms of all the research into supporting students around trauma is really thinking about how to give them that piece around consistency and rituals and rhythms. Our community experience some of that upheaval earlier this year, actually, in the first month of school when we lost one of our students in a tragic car accident, and we experienced some dislocation as well. So we, as a school community, kind of went through it in the first month of school, and I think what we recognized was really important through that was being able to kind of give students those rhythms and rituals to hold on to and to really continue to think about ways of sustaining and nurturing community.
So I think that those are all pieces both based on the research as well as our own experience this past year that we really found anchored us and anchored our kids. And so it made sense in this time with another unexpected bump in the road for us to really think about what are those things that we hold most sacred during this time.
ALEC PATTON: Those three principles– consistency, community, and meaningful work– have grounded all the myriad decisions that the team have had to make over the past month. So let’s get into what they’ve actually meant in real life. We talked about meaningful work at the start of the episode with those projects. Now, here’s to the principle of consistency looks like when school moves online.
JOHN BOSSELMAN: We really tried to mimic as much as we possibly could the ways in which our school operates on a daily basis. And so typically, our students have three, two-hour blocks of time where they take Humanities for one block, they have a break, they take Math for another block, they have lunch and a break, and then they have Design and Engineering, and then they go to Advisory. So we tried as much as possible to keep with that same structure.
ALEC PATTON: But what’s happening in those two-hour blocks isn’t a two-hour online lesson with 25 students and a teacher all in a Google Hangout together. Instead, the class is split into groups of four to eight students who meet with the teacher in a Google Hangout for half an hour each. So a first-period Humanities class runs from 9 o’clock to 11 o’clock. The teacher meets with a group from 9 o’clock to 9:30, a group from 9:30 to 10 o’clock, and a group from 10 o’clock to 10:30.
From 10:30 to 11:00, there’s no scheduled group meeting. This gives time for the teacher to follow up with individual students and also for students to check in individually with other adults. For example, a student with an IEP might check in ed specialist of this time. Lillian credits John with designing this small group model.
LILLIAN HSU: He’s the one who had the really brilliant thought of rather than having two-hour blocks with 25 students really breaking them down into these smaller cohorts that are only meeting for 30 minutes each time with four to eight students. And I think that served our purpose as well in terms of connection but also there being enough airtime for that smaller group in those 30 minutes for students to really be able to have meaningful conversations.
ALEC PATTON: For the rest of the two-hour block, students are working on the tasks for that day, which are posted on Google Classroom. And as much as possible, these are a continuation of what students were doing when school is happening in real classrooms. It’s that consistency piece again. If you’re doing the math in your head, you might have notice that three group meetings doesn’t add up to 25 students. But it’s not just the classroom teachers hosting these group meetings. Ed specialists and instructional coaches take groups as well, and between all them, they’re making it work.
I was pretty lost the first time John and Lillian explained it to me until I imagined what it would look like in a real classroom. Imagine you’re teaching and your students are split into small groups, each sitting around at a different table. For the first 90 minutes of class, you do 30-minute check in, then you hit the three tables. Meanwhile, your co-teacher is doing check-ins with the tables that you don’t have time to get to. Then in the last half hour of class, you’re checking in with anyone who needs extra support. Got that? OK, now here’s how teachers take attendance. And quick note before Lillian explains this– she’s about to mention Slack, which is a messaging app that organizations use for internal communication.
LILLIAN HSU: As a school team, we’ve used Slack since the beginning of the year. It’s just a way that our team communicates. And so when we transitioned to online learning, the way we decided to handle attendance is that at the start of each Google Hangouts, if there is a student who is missing from your Hangout, teachers will Slack that to our attendance channel, and then there are a few staff that are on attendance duty during each block, and then we will be the ones who will immediately call the student. And a lot of times, especially in the first few weeks, was because students had overslept or just lost track of time. And so it was pretty easy way of them saying, hey, Mr. Carter is missing you in Math right now, and students might be like, oh, OK, I need to jump on right now.
Sometimes, it was because they were having some internet issues or Chromebook issues, so we could talk them through it. But then if there are students who are kind of repeatedly missing, the attendance team is keeping track of that in a little online tracker. And so once students have had three calls, we actually then connect with the student and have them complete a survey that gives us insights into what else might be happening on the home front to see whether we might need to personalize or customize for the students in a more radical way.
ALEC PATTON: And here’s what’s happening in those 30-minute small group sessions.
LILLIAN HSU: Teachers have been really inventive in how they’re using those 30 minutes. They’ve been trying to think about how they can bring a lot of the dialogue protocols that they would do in real life into those 30-minute virtual spaces. And so are humanities teachers are still working with doing Socratic seminars during our time. Our math teachers are still facilitating positive interdependence in terms of collaborative problem solving. So I’ve been really delighted with how creative our teachers have been in terms of how to make those 30 minutes still feel meaningful and still filled with student dialogue, and people are still continuing to evolve their practice in those ways.
ALEC PATTON: All of these structures only work because of teachers’ creativity, compassion, and sense of collective responsibility. And none of that is easy at the best of times, but it’s especially tough to sustain right now. And in order to answer how they do it at this level, we need to go below the green line– to identity, meaning-making, to culture.
LILLIAN HSU: I think, first and foremost, it’s about recognizing that the folks on your team are not just teachers, that they’re actually complex human beings with their own challenges, as well as joys that they’re experiencing in this really strange moment in time and allowing folks to really experience the full range of emotions. And so I think creating and carving out sacred time for folks to be able to process that full range of human emotion with each other. we’ve been doing that through dialogical pairs so that we’re carving out regular rhythms within our morning meeting times that staff can just talk to each other in pairs and really share what’s in their hearts at the moment.
So I think embracing the full complexity of what humans on our teams are grappling with during a really existential moment when we’re contemplating survival and we’re contemplating what it means to do right in this moment, I think that’s really important.
ALEC PATTON: This requires a willingness to get pretty intense, but it doesn’t mean being intense all the time.
LILLIAN HSU: It’s also just continuing to figure out how do you translate the textures and nuances of community into an online space. And so I think that means really thinking about how do we keep those human connections going, whether it’s through shared Spotify lists or creating, like, a secret Slack channel where we’re compiling kind of virtual birthday gifts for each other.
ALEC PATTON: Much of the same vein, that they’re having an online spirit week for staff and students.
JOHN BOSSELMAN: –where students are getting a chance to dress up in different ways, take pictures of themselves, post them, and we’ll also be giving them some additional prompts for those different pieces, and we’re connecting it to advisory.
ALEC PATTON: There’s more I’d like to get into about how Latitude High School is responding to this crisis from connecting to parents to helping everyone stay physically active, but this episode has already covered a lot. We’ve gone above the green line to look at scheduling classes and reimagining projects for working online. We’ve gone below the green line to examine those three core principles– consistency, community, meaningful work. And to talk about how to create sacred space where we can come together to make sense of our purpose as educators at this moment, and what it means to do right by our students in our community.
But I want to close to something that Lillian asked specifically to get on the recording at the end of our first interview, and it might be the thing that all of us most need to hear at this moment.
LILLIAN HSU: I think the one other thing I would just add, especially for folks who are just embarking on it maybe this week or this month, is to just give yourself and your team a lot of grace as you are moving through this process. I think it’s really important at this moment to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is like a first time for almost all of us in terms of navigating this process. So I just think it’s important that we are giving ourselves and our teams and our students and families lots of grace as we move through it. And I just also wanted to mention that I think there’s a lot of different perspectives on what equity means right now and how to be thoughtful around equity as we move through this new process.
ALEC PATTON: High Tech High Unboxed is written and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel with additional music by Brent Spirnak. Thanks for listening.