Taking Care of Each Other: A Conversation with Joe Battaglia
Q&A 31 March 2021
By Joe Battaglia, The Met
In a very practical and purposeful sense, the real world is where The Met lives. Our design relies on students following their interest and passion and, as much as we can, making the things we do real.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction, The Met High School
In April 2020, Joe Battaglia, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at The Met High School, in the Big Picture Learning network, shared about why their learning community was so prepared to quickly pivot to virtual learning. We recently reconnected with Joe, now a year into the pandemic, to explore the challenges The Met has faced, the growth it’s experienced, how its co-designed learning model has evolved, and how they’ve deepened their commitment to equity.
Q. One year into the pandemic, how are things going at The Met High School?
Joe: We are still operating via a hybrid model and have most of our students on site one day a week. We also have different days designated for each grade level and students who need to come in and receive additional help.
Overall, we work hard to provide flexibility by ensuring each learner’s schedule is personalized and honors their individual and family needs, including families that opt to keep their kids at home. For kids who opt to come to campus, our priority is to make that experience meaningful enough to keep them coming back.
It really empowers our advisors to stay present to the students who are there in-person. They aim to maximize those limited relationship-building moments and find fun activities that engage kids’ curiosity and re-energize them after they’ve spent most days stuck in front of their computer screens during the pandemic.
Pre-pandemic, we utilized small rooms that served as spaces for maintaining very tight-knit advisory communities (which have as many as 16 students and as few as four). To maintain proper social distancing, we’ve pivoted to maximizing use of our common areas.
And, with the weather getting warmer, that creates an organic opportunity to use the outdoors as a resource by planning additional activities that include a physical fitness element, like walks, scavenger hunts, and geo tagging. As an example, there’s an advisory here today painting rocks to leave at different places around the neighborhood for other advisories who then leave their own rocks in the same place.
While we fully embrace that it’s okay to have adult-directed activities that benefit the entire learning community, our main focus is for learning to be driven by young people.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction, The Met High School
On any given day, you can feel really energized when you see all the amazing things happening despite all the restrictions. But, that also leaves you acknowledging that this is all still really hard.
There is a real need for advisors to balance meeting with students on-site and students doing virtual learning, which can be logistically overwhelming and require letting go of a certain amount of integration.
We support advisors to be okay with that because they want so badly to engage every young person equally. It’s a true dilemma that creates a lot of stress for advisors/educators.
We’ve given them encouragement to let go of trying to recreate how things typically flow when we’re not in a pandemic. That opens up the opportunity for advisors to give kids doing virtual learning a similar assignment to do in their neighborhood that enables them to feel included, engaged, and reinvigorated each week.
Q. In what other ways are you creating engaging opportunities for young people?
Joe: While there are certainly still a lot of internships happening in-person and virtually, which necessitate their own innovative and diligent work, we’ve also taken advantage of the current technological flexibility to expose kids to a variety of experts. As an example, we’re inviting someone from Santa Barbara, California who composes scores for movies and television to lead a virtual informational session. There are a few great advantages to this.
First, experts don’t have to be local to provide meaningful mentorship to our learners because they can just host conversations virtually and allow kids to answer questions in real time. And, a single conversation could be the catalyst for sparking a new interest in a learner.
Second, because it’s virtual, we can offer these opportunities to any (or all) of our 800 learners. They simply have to log-on. In the past, those opportunities were isolated to individual school buildings (The Met High School campus consists of four buildings or communities, all serving young learners aged 14+).
Third, we’re able to activate the adults at The Met to tap their networks and do some creative friend-raising. Establishing those relationships could prove to be valuable now and in the future for our young people.
To inform this work, we also analyze our data to see what internships learners have had over a two-year period. We’ve uncovered that a lot of kids are engaged in the arts community, whether that’s music, drawing, or video production. With that knowledge, we know that bringing arts opportunities forward has a good chance of piquing the unique interest of a particular learner.
With that said, while we fully embrace that it’s okay to have adult-directed activities that benefit the entire learning community, our main focus is for learning to be driven by young people. And, in some cases, we’re asking “What do you guys want to learn about”? Then, we identify a professional who can offer insights on that topic.
Q. These opportunities really help young people give their learning a real world context. That is so important. How does this focus connect to your identity as a learning community?
Joe: In a very practical and purposeful sense, the real world is where The Met lives. Our design relies on students following their interest and passion and, as much as we can, making the things we do real.
For example, we want learners creating projects that extend beyond our walls and impact someone in the community in a positive way, such as the COVID-19 response-focused projects completed last semester. Some advisors focused questions on solving problems that emerged in their community, because of the pandemic, such as healthy behaviors, creating awareness, and vaccine access. One student’s project was to create a series of resources and activities for other students to do to stay physically and mentally healthy while being isolated.
When a young person is completing a project for an outside mentor or writing a letter to a state Senator, the idea of it being “real” is baked into that. Our challenge, especially during the pandemic, is to find ways to help kids take some kind of action in the world that’s meaningful to them.
We usually label it project-based learning, but a better way to frame the projects is problem-based learning. Projects are often at their best when our advisors and students identify a problem in the real world and try to create a project that helps solve the problem in a very tangible way.
Q. Can you share about something that these unique circumstances have enabled that wouldn’t have been possible or wouldn’t have been high priority before?
Joe: Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we decided, as a community, to read Stamped: Antiracism, Racism, and You. The book reveals there’s segregationist and assimilationist thinking at play, alongside anti-racist thinking, across society. It then dives into the history of some cultural stereotypes that have been perpetuated, in addition to the history that undergirded justifications for historical enslavement of Africans—all presented in a very relatable way.
In preparation to create a curriculum around this book, we brought together a group of teachers, with support from administrators, to form an anti-racism group (ARG) that oversaw the design of specific lessons to implement through an excerpted approach to engaging with the book.
In the history of The Met, we’ve never read the same text as a community—educators, administrators, students—all at once. Our learning is always derived from what the learner wants to do, but we felt compelled to offer some very specific information for learners to reflect on and as a community, to advance our anti-racist stance by taking real action.
We also wanted to be true to who we were as a school, and in the last few weeks of this 16-week work, we empowered learners to do their own research project in an area where there’s intersectionality or that enables them to do a deeper dive in a specific area. They also had the option to introduce an additional advocacy activity or approach that aligned with what they wanted to accomplish through their project.
It was a challenging but enlightening experience for students and staff. It really pushed us to think about our values, how we authentically live into our values, and all the pieces related to that. And, educators and administrators are grateful that there was a very strong, positive, and genuine response from our young people.
Q. This is really deep work that many learning communities might avoid navigating. What makes The Met uniquely equipped for these conversations?
Joe: We’ve been on a four-year professional development journey of empowering adults in our community to do more self-identity investigation work—first initiated by a community-wide exploration of the work of Zaretta Hammond, a former English teacher who is engaged in “instructional design, school coaching, and professional development [work] around the issues of equity, literacy, and culturally responsive teaching.” That led us to create affinity-based book groups on the topics of whiteness, the Black community, historical representation, and intersectionality.
That was all interrupted by the pandemic last year, which, with current events, is what inspired us to introduce the Stamped initiative.
In addition to our own internal work, our Professional Development Director, Michelle Cox, and the ARG found an outside organization called Restore More to help us build our capacity and understanding of ourselves and our organization with an anti-racist lens.
This year, on our PD days, Restore More has been leading us through different activities that enable us to assess how we’re doing individually and institutionally with regard to our pursuit toward equity. They challenge us to pinpoint where our community identity is and isn’t in alignment with our goals and values.
We see that people are arriving at different places based on their prior experiences and education. For many people, it’s their first foray into gaining a deeper understanding of race and identity issues.
Reading Stamped was a very clear and organized way of touching on many intertwined themes. People are being stretched beyond their comfort zone into what is sometimes called the “learning zone.” And, as we, as a staff, seek to mirror the student learning goals our young people are pursuing, this is a way that we are investigating a goal of Social Reasoning (SR).
In this goal, we are attempting to think like historians, sociologists, and psychologists; and consider questions like: What are other people’s perspectives on this? How do diverse communities see this? Who benefits and who is being harmed by this issue?
We try so hard to take care of each other, whether that’s administrators taking care of staff or staff taking care of students and families.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction, The Met High School
This is hard work and a long journey that we’re on together, so we’re very intentional about being compassionate and generous to ourselves. Once our staff dove into Stamped, the pendulum really swung, and there’s been a lot of progress within our community.
The other benefit is, in a very pedagogical way, having everybody reading one text opens up the opportunity for educators to be in conversation with each other about the best practices for facilitating conversations with students around different lessons. This open communication helps us grow as a community in terms of our ability to navigate some sensitive, but critical, topics.
And, because our anti-racist group is run by educators who are writing a lesson curriculum that can be mapped and modified, nothing they’re doing is set in stone—leaving space to iterate and evolve. It also allows us to practice delving into the social reasoning, together, in a way that can be translated to other histories, cultures, and experiences.
The content around injustice and inequity is too large for us to try to teach everything, but a deep dive with transferable reasoning inquiry can help a student then use this as a template for the SR investigations that matter to them.
Our model necessitates that we be collaborative and respond to what’s happening in the moment because when learning is so individualized, things change every year. There’s always a new problem, and we hold the space for new protocols to be introduced based on any number of new challenges or dilemmas.
It’s very different from conventional education where a common curriculum often serves as a starting point before branching off to the individual. It almost feels like we’re working backwards, but we embrace this counter-intuitive approach.
Q. It sounds like there’s been so much growth at The Met during this time, but as you said, it’s not easy to stay the course. Do you have any advice for navigating all of this?
Joe: We try so hard to take care of each other, whether that’s administrators taking care of staff or staff taking care of students and families. And, what we hold in common is wanting young people to learn well. But, you can’t do that when you’re overcome with anxiety and fear, especially during a pandemic. It all goes back to being a learning community that lives in the real world.
This year has been hard for everyone, and our staff is very conscientious and wants to do the right thing for students. But, we don’t want people to feel burnt out. There are times that we have to be mindful and remind them it’s okay to give yourself permission to give as much energy as you can in the moment, realizing that pushing through is not good for your well-being. We’re not asking educators and staff to do the impossible.
By allowing staff to feel what they are feeling, they learn to extend that same grace to kids and their families (and each other). And, maybe that means being honest with young people that you’re struggling just like them and asking for some grace. And, if we can all embrace that belief, we have a better chance of getting to the finish line as a unified community.
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