How the Met Was Ready to Pivot Thanks to Their Start-Up Mindset

Q&A   30 April 2020
By Joe Battaglia, The Met School

 

When we initially set up our transition plan, we laid out our operating principles—focused on collaboration, holistic health, and community. And, we have made sure all of our decisions are aligned with those principles.

Joe Battaglia
Curriculum Director

Q: What are you most proud of in terms of how your learning community has responded to this new world of distance learning?

Joe: Oh boy, a lot of things. One is knowing our culture is built around this idea of being able to turn on a dime and be incredibly flexible. The Met has had a startup mindset since day one, which isn’t commonly applied to schools. With that in our DNA, we are always planning for unexpected challenges that might not be right in front of us yet. In the context of this pandemic, we were making work from home plans before we knew our buildings would be closed.

We wanted to strip back everything we do at the Met and for the first two weeks, have our advisors focus on six core categories of the individual learning plans every student works from—pandemic or otherwise. We told our advisors to simply do the best they could and encouraged everyone to be forgiving and simply observe what happens.

The hardest part in providing this guidance was knowing how much our advisors were going to want to do their best to serve every one of their students. They wanted to invest as much time as possible to ensure every student had plans that made sense to their new situations.

But, we needed to have them step back and see there would be new learnings not only from a professional standpoint, but from the personal side as well, given that many advisors would be managing their own children in their homes, while trying to work.

Additionally, many of our kids were going to have additional responsibilities at home like taking care of younger siblings and grandparents. Or, they were applying for jobs or working more hours at current jobs to help bring in income for families whose parents may have lost jobs as a result of the pandemic.

We had to balance our high expectations for kids with the additional challenges the pandemic was causing for the world at-large. As a school that is always reflecting on how we can improve or adjust, we have been able to share our successes and dilemmas each day and learn from one another.

Q: What has been a particularly difficult challenge as you’ve navigated this transition?

Joe: Rhode Island has been going slowly about this decision to temporarily close school buildings. They’re unwilling, thus far, to say we’ll be out for the rest of the year, so it makes it difficult for us to plan long term. We obviously aren’t the type of place to make everyone do a random writing assignment and hope that carries us to when doors will be reopened.

Rather, we always try to plan backward from what a typical year looks like, so we can have our students’ unique work align with the state requirements. Right now, even though internships and community projects are put on hold, we still want to provide our students with the opportunity to do relevant, independent projects. With that in mind, we had to assume we’d be out for the year and have students plan projects to run until June.

To help advisors who were particularly overwhelmed, like having three of their own kids at home that they were managing, we tried to develop some canned activities that still fit our goal of providing real-world learning activities, health and wellness activities, ELA activities, and other general life skills related opportunities. None of this is required, but it gave some people who were really overwhelmed something they could plug and play with in the first week or two.

Q: What unexpected challenges have your young learners been facing during this unprecedented shift?

Joe: It’s been interesting. To put a more conventional number to it, we’ve had 92% attendance, which basically means 92% of our students are showing up to their advisory period on Zoom and meeting with their advisor for one-on-one conversations each week.

Moving into our third week, some kids are showing up with less energy. Many are in communities that are even restricting people from taking a walk around the block, so it’s incredibly difficult. This has encouraged us to push out all kinds of resources related to health and wellness—guidance on how to eat well and encouragement to engage in mindfulness practices. But, it’s tough feeling cooped up for so many days.

The important thing through it all is relying on the relationships that have been built inside our advisories and not assuming this should be smooth sailing. We’ve heard other schools in the area are threatening kids that if they don’t show up online, then they’ll be held back. We’re never going to do that.

This has been particularly challenging for our seniors. Prom was moved to November of this year—after they’ve already graduated. Our valedictorian speeches (every senior at the MET gives a valedictorian speech) will all be conducted online. Our senior trips have been cancelled. All of those realities have been difficult to face.

The last thing I’ll mention is how difficult it is for us to maintain our reporting responsibilities. With all of our shelters closed, particularly domestic abuse shelters, there aren’t a lot of places people can go if things aren’t safe at home. This is a really toxic time for our kids who are facing those realities. Our social workers have been putting in a lot of work making sure they can respond to anything that is observed by our advisors or is directly shared by students themselves.

Q: Have there been powerful stories of learning in spite of the myriad challenges young people are facing?

Joe: Most definitely. We have a lot of young people who learn best through hands-on activities. And, without access to many of the internships that provided that, we’re creating ways to keep those opportunities going. One group had been working with a TV production studio, and the crew has continued working with the kids remotely.

They have their laptops at home, so they can continue developing skills with video editing with help from the studio’s mentors. One project they’ve taken on is producing weekly virtual “pick me up” videos. They collect videos and pictures from all the work Met learners have engaged in during the week and create a video that can be shared with the entire campus the following Monday, so they can continue to feel connected, even while being physically apart.

Another group of kids were partnered with a design manufacturer this year, and that company has started making facemasks to help protect people. Our students are helping sew masks in their homes. Getting them the materials was the biggest hurdle, but we got it figured out so they could continue contributing toward work they were interested in.

 

This isn’t a student who is going to thrive writing a biography on a famous architect. He needed to be engaged in hands-on learning, so we did everything we could to make that happen.

Joe Battaglia
Curriculum Director

For kids who haven’t been able to continue engaging with their internship partners, we’ve been encouraging them to do stuff around the house. One of advisors has been doing an “adulting” class where she does her laundry and challenges her students to make a video of themselves doing laundry. She’s also taught them how to make an omelet. Just exploring things we normally do as adults and noticing those are good learning opportunities for our kids, as well.

An advisory of juniors, who have been together for almost three full years now, did a show-and-tell from their house. And, as close as they were as a group, they were able to learn new things about how each of them lived outside of Met’s walls. They discovered one of their peers had a pet turtle, and they couldn’t believe it.

One of the more difficult challenges has been coming up with creative ways to virtually provide our Quantitative Reasoning (i.e. math) content. One math teacher has been doing videos called “Snacks with Matt,” which is 90 seconds of him eating a snack and not much else. But, the kids get a kick out of it, and it motivates them to show up just so they can see the new video.

There are all these little examples of how our educators are maintaining engagement and maintaining a level of humanity and fun during this time.

Q: How have seniors been able to adjust their thesis projects?

Joe: I was in a one-on-one meeting of a 12th-grade advisor, and she had a student who wasn’t able to do his senior thesis project with Habitat for Humanity. The advisor and I both weren’t sure what to do. And, I mentioned that he didn’t have to do this massive project. It simply isn’t the world we live in right now.

That gave the advisor space to take a deep breath and start thinking from scratch, rather than remaining tied to this great outcome she knew the student could achieve under normal circumstances.

What we ended up figuring out with the student was that he was living with his grandmother, and her dog could use a doghouse. The plan is for him to design the doghouse by researching ideas on Google, make 3D sketches on SketchUp, and then create how-to videos during the build. Our job is to get tools and materials to him, so he could make it all come together.

This isn’t a student who is going to thrive writing a biography on a famous architect. He needed to be engaged in hands-on learning, so we did everything we could to make that happen.

Q: Based on your experience with the Met’s transition to distance learning, what has been most helpful that you think other schools, regardless of their model, could benefit from during this time?

Joe: When we initially set up our transition plan, we laid out our operating principles—focused on collaboration, holistic health, and community. And, we have made sure all of our decisions are aligned with those principles. It keeps us all moving in the same direction and on the same page when communicating internally and externally.

The operating principles are updated as the days and weeks go by, but if we know that’s where we look when making decisions, we can make those decisions with confidence. It also helped when acknowledging the potential for burnout with our advisors. We couldn’t have that happen, so it’s been incredibly useful to be mindful of that commitment. All in all, I would simply say to streamline communication. Without it, I don’t think we would have been nearly as successful.

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