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Academic Spotlight: Lessons from Zaretta Hammond

Last weekend my colleague Steph Becker, fearless leader of Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, texted me a link to this podcast: This is really good… I’ve already sent it to my teachers.

And it is… a really good conversation with Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Zaretta touches on so many of the topics that have been top of mind for educators across our network: Partnering with families for remote learning. Consolidating student knowledge to minimize learning loss. Harnessing “the progress principle” to motivate students. Managing the impact of stress on working memory. This is just half of the list.

I was left craving hours more of Zaretta’s voiceover. Like so many of my colleagues in this work, I’m still teasing out lessons learned from the nostalgia of what we accomplished these last few dizzying months–and what we might have done better.

And while it’s true that this pandemic created circumstances far beyond our control and amplified the existing inequities that too many of our students face, Zaretta reminds us that our calling as educators remains fundamentally unchanged. Brains are “natural learning machines.” Our job is to let each student’s brain continue to “do what it naturally wants to do.”

At the same time, she quips, this abrupt, long-term school closure was somewhat of an Apollo 13 moment for educators across the globe.

Listening to Zaretta and looking back on the moment when we turned over the figurative coffer of “what we do have” like the NASA engineers in this scene, I can see two things glinting from the pile.

#1: Deeply-rooted relationships

Zaretta reminds us that parents and guardians are our students’ “first teachers” and to facilitate meaningful, student-centered distance learning requires deep, trustful partnerships between faculty and families.

It’s become clear to us that the relationships our schools teams have built so earnestly over many months and years has been our singularly most powerful asset during this time of crisis. Those long-standing relationships enabled us to connect with 100% of our families during our first week of closure and put a finger on the pulse of each family’s honest needs.

Because of this we solved straightforward obstacles, like technology gaps, quite quickly. But it also allowed us to establish shared goals with our families at the outset, offsetting the anxiety they felt about effectively facilitating student learning at home.

Establishing a precedent of frequent communication at the start of our closure facilitated the next key move for teachers to strengthen both relationships and learning: providing plenty of quality feedback to students about their studies. And just like in the classroom, our teachers were mindful of helping students see what they were doing well, leveraging the resulting dopamine drip to invest students in growing from constructive feedback, too.

#2: Best in class core curriculum

While we had initially omitted this from our principles for remote learning, sticking to our shared curriculum and contriving new approaches to maximize its value for distance learning quickly became a north star for our schools. Sticking with it didn’t just organize our work; it helped us better align our efforts with the kinds of cognitive and emotional wiring Zaretta makes the case for factoring into any plan for culturally responsive teaching, whether in person or at a distance.

Remaining steadfast with our shared curriculum allowed us to swiftly develop a clear-eyed picture of what knowledge and skills teachers could immediately start working to help students to consolidate. From early elementary phonics to middle school expressions and equations, our teachers immediately dug into improving students’ accuracy and automaticity of the skills they had already been practicing for six and half months.

It also allowed our network academic team to support lesson planning and assignment creation, so our teachers could put maximum bandwidth into customizing instruction and presenting the kind of academic feedback that builds students’ independence. Sticking to a distilled version of our curriculum, rather than introducing a host of digital platforms and resources that often aim to replace a great teacher at the helm of instruction, maintained the familiar routines our students thrived on at school and mitigated more undo stressors that impede learning.

Even more, keeping consistent the habits that students had developed in the classroom enabled teachers to more confidently transfer ownership to students over their learning.

At the outset we may have underestimated the need for–and the tremendous value of–students “owning” their own learning. And while we’ve shaped our classroom instructional practices to build students’ intellectual autonomy and ability to acquire knowledge independently over the long haul, well-intentioned teachers still often hold on too tight, fearing that students will wrestle unproductively with rich and rigorous content.

This period of school closure gave teachers no choice but to release students to navigate more of their learning at home and our students’ ability to meet this challenge is a powerful testament to the habits and mindsets our teachers socialized when they were in the classroom. (For more on how our leaders have helped students “get meta” about their own learning during the pandemic, check out this post on Principal’s Jess Aybar’s self-reflection tool.)

In the podcast, Zaretta mentions that one of her favorite aphorisms is “only the learner learns.” That is, “the focus isn’t on implementing strategies per se, but in mastering how to get a student to improve her ‘learning moves’ leading to deeper learning.”

As we reflect on our decisions this spring to prioritize enduring relationships with students and families, and sticking with our tried-and-true curriculum over gilded ed tech, Zaretta helps us recognize the power in how these principles worked to foster students’ thriving academic life at a distance–an important lens that we will carry close into the uncertain year ahead.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics for Partnership Schools.