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Episode 42: No More Islands — Gearing up for the 2022-2023 School Year

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.

Preview of Episode

Person: So, as much as I want to let go of so much of the standard practice for COVID  protocol and for remote learning and all of that, I do love the idea of keeping that technology available to the students so that we can do things like broadcasting concerts, and you can get a wider reach for the students to share all the things that they've been doing.


Ken: Hi. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Dr. Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform where we highlight resources the Department has to offer, as well as the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for students across New Jersey. Thank you so much for joining us.

In this episode, I'm going to be having conversations with educators about the ways that they're gearing up for the 2022-2023 school year. The episode is in three parts. The first part is a discussion between myself and a colleague here at the Department. The next section is a discussion between myself and a Milken award winner who you heard on the clip at the beginning of the episode. Then I talked with three Lighthouse awardees about the ways that they've been taking what they've learned and thinking about how to apply those lessons to next school year.

Just a reminder, our third Tuesday Twitter chat will be on July 19. Please join us at 8: 30 pm to talk about this topic.

And on another note, we're going to be taking a hiatus from the podcast and Twitter chat for a bit. We have a few other projects that you'll be hearing more about. And, in the meantime, please engage with the Department on our website, through our Twitter channel, and through all the other ways that you find out information about us.

I hope that you enjoy this episode and are able to glean lots of insights for your work this school year. Now we're going to jump into my interview with my colleague, Lu Pereira.

Interview 1: Lu Pereira, New Jersey Department of Education

Lu: So, my name is Lu Pereira and I am the Director for the Office of Student Support Services here at the New Jersey Department of Education.

Ken: Awesome. Thanks so much for joining me Lu. I'm so excited to have you on. We've worked so closely on so many projects and I'm really excited to hear what you have to say about social, emotional, and academic learning and gearing up for the upcoming school year, what brought you to this field. And, you know, you work a lot in social-emotional and I know that you've also done some work with academic learning, so what brought you into all of that?

Lu: So I think that's a that's definitely a long story. I was intending on going into law, so I was doing the whole thing. I was getting ready and taking my LSATs [law school admission test]. And then I actually got introduced to education through Teach for America, a well-known alternative educator prep program. I applied for that program and was selected.

And I began my education journey in Philadelphia. So I was working in Philadelphia for about four years. I started in the classroom and then became a Dean of Students. From there I had a brief stint in Camden, and then became one of the founders for…I was one of the founding deans for Mastery Charter school in Camden.

And I took the my experiences from Camden to with me to the [New Jersey] Department of Education where I've kind of built a career around supporting the whole child. I do truly believe that we need to attend to students' social-emotional needs, their physical needs, as well as their academic needs, to really support students in being successful, both short term and long term in education.

Ken: Yeah. When we were talking about who can we interview from the Department, your name was on the list. Right? Because this is something that you've lived and breathed for a long time. And I'm really excited to pick your brain a little bit.

So, in our pre-interview, we were talking about, like, how many different directions we could go in. And just like, what a big, big idea this is. What are just some kind of small tidbits that you want to share with folks, though, about things that you found valuable, as you framer this for yourself and for others.

Lu: Okay. So one of the biggest things that I feel like we're privileged at the Department is that we have the time to really dig into theoretical frameworks and really get to spend some time trying to understand, "why do these things work."

So when I came to the [New Jersey] Department of Education, I was introduced to the New Jersey Tiered System of Supports. To me, that experience has been…has shifted my philosophies on the way that we need to approach education kids.

So, the New Jersey Tiered System of Supports really aligns with that whole child philosophy that I was describing earlier, where you want to provide a healthy lifestyle. Before that, you know, you have to attend kids' safety in schools. We want to make sure that our kids are engaged and supported, and then ultimately challenged in schools. Right? We want our kids growing, and the only way that we experience growth is if we're challenged to think beyond what we're currently thinking. And, again, I feel privileged to be at the [New Jersey] Department of Education because every day I'm challenged with new insights, new perspectives, and new ways of looking at problems and the way that they're presented.

Ken: I think that that's super important for folks to hear around how tiered systems of support can really provide a framework and a structure to support whole students. And I think that, you know, part of doing that also is a collaborative piece. Educators have had a lot on their plate the last couple years. And I know that we at the Department have as well.

So what are some ways that you think about bringing people together around some of these ideas?

Lu: So I think you kind of nailed it, is that the pandemic can really be perceived as the great disrupter. And sometimes I think it's easy to overlook the disruption caused to the teaching and learning process, where, for years, we were able to rely on the trajectory that teachers would follow.

So, if I'm a third grade teacher, I could rely on that second grade teacher covering a certain content needs, so that when the kids were entering my doors, they had that full experience. The past school year, the past few school years has really caused us to rethink the pace and the sequence and the content that kids have covered, has resulted in that great pivot.

So how do you bring together folks on that front is really acknowledging that we're all in this together. We're all affected. We've all been affected in different ways by the pandemic. We can't overlook and understate the traumas that many of our families have faced and really kind of approached us with a sense of grace to say that "we're going to make mistakes as we try to engage." The challenge in the education system now is to engage in transformative education.

[end of interview 1]

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: Lu referred to the pandemic as the "great disruptor." And in this next interview, you'll hear themes about that disruption and how teaching can and should look different because of that disruption that students experience in both, like Lu said, teaching and learning throughout emotional, social, and academic aspects of students' lives.

Interview 2: Milken Educator, Sarah Mae Lagasca

Sarah: I'm Sarah Mae Lagasca. I work at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey. I'm on the vocal faculty and I teach voice performance for classical and contemporary and also music technology. I won the Milken Educator Award in April 2022 and I teach in Essex County.

Ken: A lot of folks have heard of the Milken award. They, you know, may have may have seen the award celebrated. Some folks don't know exactly what it is though. So what does it mean to be a Milken educator? And, you know, just reflect a little bit about what it's been like to receive this honor.

Sarah: I mean, to be totally honest, I'm glad that you're asking me this after the forum that we attended, because I too was like "what is this?" and "what's going on?" So the award is definitely meant to find young educators or educators who are early on in their career. From meeting everyone, I think that innovation, community, connection and also just like a love of teaching, [laughing] which is so weird to say, but also not weird in 2022 with so many people leaving the profession. They've been doing it since like [19]80 something, but it's definitely so imperative now. It's a so... it' was... it's a high honor and I'm still very grateful for it. [laughing]

Ken: That's great. That's great. I just love, love hearing about that. And I think that awards like this are so important because they really recognize people who are doing the work every day. And, you know, you didn't necessarily apply to this award, right? It wasn't like you sent Milken an application and were really seeking it out. You were doing the work, every day, in your classroom, and, you know, they chose to recognize you for that. And there's a reason. And I'm, you know, it's one of the reasons why I think the award is really special and I'm really excited that you're able to join me and talk about it.

So, you know, as you think about last school year and the high points, the opportunities for change, you know, there was a lot that happened. I think every educator, as they look back—and I look at myself as an educator at heart— so as I look back at the school year, you know, there was a lot of lessons learned. And some of those lessons came from the things that we did well. As you look back at this past school year, at 21-22, what worked for you? And what do you want to bring in to the 22-23 school year?

Sarah: One of the benefits of teaching music in a public school setting is that we can take our time. I know a lot of my colleagues who teach math and science and things that are held to a standardized test, they're on a schedule and they have to make sure that the students are pushing through ,which is mind-blowing to me how they do that with still like generosity and love in their classrooms. For music, I think it was one of the best things that students could have had coming back from remote learning and coming back from hybrid, because we got to slow down and we got to talk a lot.

So I prioritize literacy in our classroom of, like, how to read music, how to sight read for the vocal majors since I teach at a performing arts high school. So we did make sure that all of our tools and our tasks and our skills were there, but there were just some days when the students would come in and they were so drained from going from just sitting in their living room, sitting in their bedroom and doing work for hours without any human interaction, then going to, like, for our school, at least like nine periods a day, 40 minutes each.

And one day I just looked at my freshman and I was like "are y'all all right? Like, do you want to talk about anything?"And it was just a massive flood of "I don't know what I'm doing." And "is everything okay?" And "I feel so stressed out." "Is [this] what high school is like?" Because a lot of them hadn't had a normal year since like sixth grade. So it became standard practice in our room to just have a day where we go "hey, is everyone okay? What's going on?" And some days, they were solution-based. And some days, they were just like "I just need someone to hear about this." That kind of connection and that kind of ability to slow down and to just feel what the students are going through and what are things that we can do in this room together, while we're together, that can bolster your confidence, bolster your desire to keep on going. That was probably, among everything that I did to help them learn music, to help them learn literacy, to help them do all those things, that was the number one thing.

And it's, I know, it's like, you know, it's easy to do that in the music classroom, but it's also so essential for even students who are not even in a performing arts setting, which is why I think the arts is so important. Because if everyone expects you to do all of these things from like one to nine period the entire, single, like, every day of your life, then let there be that reminder that even outside of the music classroom, your teachers are humans and they do care about you and they want you to succeed. But they also know that we gotta keep on going even when it gets difficult, even when it gets tough. So serving that reminder to them of, like, being that adult in the room saying "hey, we're doing the same thing that you're doing and we're just trying to make it and we're just trying to make this space as safe and loving for you as possible," was definitely the most important thing that I did in the entire year.

Ken: I think it is just so important to make sure that students feel those connections in school. The research really shows that school-connected students are, you know, able to do just so much, right, when they feel that connection to school, when they feel connection to adults in the school. And, you know, creating that space for that I think really is important. And whether teachers are spending a full period, you know, at a regular clip, doing that or five minutes, or finding time outside the classroom to, you know, the class period, let's say to do that. It's just so essential for students to feel that connection.

So thank you for bringing that to everyone's attention. And I think it's such an important point to emphasize.

So as you think about gearing up for next school year, and, again, we're looking at 22-23, what are some opportunities, some new opportunities, that you're looking forward to?

Sarah: For our concert this past year it was decided—because of the data and because of looking at the state of the city of Newark—like, they decided to not…to make the concert virtual. So when they decided to make the concert virtual, all the students lost the ability to, you know, have their family with them to celebrate the hard work that they've been doing, but it actually turned out that I think, like, over 400 people logged in to see the concert, which is a crazy number to draw [laughing] for our community in particular. When I told the students that, they were like "whoa! Like 400 people?" And I'm like, "no, 400 logins. Like you don't know how many people were in that room with those people who were listening."

So as much as I want to let go of so much of the standard practice for COVID protocol and for remote learning and all of that, I do love the idea of keeping that technology available to the students so that we can do things like broadcasting concerts and you can get a wider reach for the students to share all the things that they've been doing. I know that a lot of teachers have been still utilizing Zoom and Webex like to show class projects and other things like that. I have a couple of things lined up with other schools that we did virtual choirs with over the the last two years that we were in lockdown and remote. So while, like, supplementing that not replacing, which I think was the big mood for  remote learning. So the idea that we can use this technology to add to the classroom versus having to flip everything around is very exciting.

Ken: I'm excited to hear how that goes.

So you mentioned earlier how a lot of educators have done amazing work, and how a lot of educators are also really feeling the intensity of the past few years. And maybe are feeling some of the burnout from that. Maybe [they] are feeling some of the stressors that come along with everything that we as an educational community have worked through.

So as you think about that, what encouragement do you have for other educators entering next school year, as they're thinking about gearing up, as they're thinking about the social, emotional and academic learning that's going to take place for both them and their students? What encouragement do you have for them?

Sarah: A lot of the times teachers that I see that "work the hardest"—and I put that in air quotes because it's an audio thing [laughing]—teachers that work the hardest are trying to contribute all of themselves often do so as an island. They're like "I can do this. I can google it. I can figure it out and I can do all of that by myself because I'm brilliant." Because you are, like, you are brilliant. At some point you have to just put that down and say "what are other people doing that I can definitely use in my classroom?" And that idea of not having to constantly fight and constantly rage yourself, and to just be like, "what is going on in other classrooms of people that I respect and how can I forge that connection with them?" has…is the number one thing that keeps me going when I feel like everything is bust, like, everything is wrong and everything is going terribly.

And we actually talked about it at the Milken forum that, like, one of the things that makes  an educator...a common thread between all great educators is that they are independent, like hyper independent. And that because they can solve all their problems by themselves, they truly can,  but allowing yourself to have that collaboration with someone else in your building, to have that time to talk to them and tell them what's going on, can definitely help you in your classroom and beyond, going into the next school year.

I think a lot of the time teachers get together and there is a point where we just need to vent and tell people what's happening in our building. But to be able to get past that point and point A to get to point B of "what are the solutions that are happening for you and your building?" is what we rarely get to because PDs [professional development] are so short. And meeting with people in conferences is so limited.

So when we get to the point of "here's what's happening in my building," to try to put just like 10 percent more energy into solving for solutions with other teachers in different subject areas, in different departments in your building. That can definitely not only solve problems in your own classroom, but also make your practice more refined and more inclusive and more available to anyone who comes into your classroom.

So we spent so much time in isolation, being isolated and being far away, I really welcome everyone in the education field for the next school year to reach out and connect to people, not only your students but other people in your building and your administration, to say "how can we do this together?" You don't have to be an island, like, you can you can definitely reach out and connect.

[end of interview 2]

Transition to Interview 3

Ken: Thank you so much to Sarah Mae for joining me. And thank you, listeners, for thinking about how this applies widely to so many aspects of school.

In part three of this episode, we're going to hear about the ways that educators from Lighthouse award districts and charters are thinking about getting off their islands and making those connections between their colleagues. I'm thrilled for you to be able to hear from this diverse group, from different types of schools and educational settings.

Interview 3: Lighthouse Districts

Sherry: Hi. My name is Sherry Knight. I'm the Director of Curriculum and Instruction in Burlington City, New Jersey and I also reside and work in Burlington County.

Dana: Hi. I am Dana Skillman. I teach fourth grade science at Paul Robeson Charter School in Trenton, New Jersey.

Ashanti: Hi. I'm Dr Ashanti Holley, Assistant Superintendent at Burlington County Institute of Technology and Burlington County Special Services School District. I reside and work in Burlington County.

Ken: It's great to have different folks from the central-west area of our state represented on this call. We have a pre-k–12 traditional school district represented, a charter school district represented, and we also have a county-wide technical school represented. So it's really neat to have diverse perspectives on this topic.

So to start out, I just wanted to ask how will you personally gear up for all of the learning that will happen next school year? I think as educators a lot of folks are thinking about "hey, as, you know, we're coming out of two years of having to make a lot of adjustments and really think about education in ways maybe we haven't before," you know, there is some kind of gearing up we're all gonna need to do for this upcoming school year. So how are you personally approaching that?

Ashanti: This is Ashanti Holley from Burlington County Institute of Technology (BCIT).

How I think I'm personally gearing up is doing a lot of reading, especially on futurists. And, you know, in the next five or ten years what is education going to look like for everyone. Because, as you know, the pandemic has really changed a lot of things. So personally I'm doing a lot of reading around futurists, doing a lot of action plans.

So we're big at BCIT on collaborating with all stakeholders. So getting together in a room with administrators and determining, "okay, these are some of the things that we have identified." And having an action plan for curriculum [and] instruction which infuses social studies standards that just came out, which is a huge thing that we'll be working on.

Also, I'm looking at SEL [social and emotional learning], which is another huge component with students and staff. So just having action plans for everything that we do and then book studies. We all need to be rowing in the same direction, the same way in our district.

So what kind of book...the book we're currently reading has been The Obstacle is the Way. But how we are going to use obstacles as we encounter in education and kind of row. So on a personal level, that's what I've been doing to kind of gear up.

Sherry: Hi. This is Sherry Knight from Burlington City School District. One of the ways I'm gearing up as well is by attending conferences. I just returned from the Model Schools conference in Orlando where I got some great ideas, new tips and strategies on things we can do to gear our staff up for our what we know now as our normal school year. I think it's important that we have some type of celebration to kick off the year. As you said, you know, we're coming back into what we now know as our normal. And being able to look at data and see where we are, what are our needs, what do our teachers need, what do our students need in order to be successful learners this school year.

Also looking to make sure that all of our materials are here on time and ready to go. That's going to be critical and important as we open the school year in September. And looking for training for our staff and administrators that will be able to help them to do job-embedded learning and teaching in their classrooms. So we're ready looking forward to it.

Dana: This is Dana Skillman. So personally what I have done this year for the first time ever was nothing. I took...I actually stopped organizing, planning, doing anything for the last two weeks. And now I'm going to go in and start kind of organizing, coming up with a plan.

But it was super important this time to make sure that I gave myself a break, because this was a really hard year. We all thought that it was a really hard year when we were virtual, but for some reason this year was even harder I think. When I was talking to teachers at my school, we almost felt like it was because we had to jump back in right. We went from being home completely 100 percent and then it was going back in a hundred percent.

And going from my students who, I had third graders last year. They have never...they had only been in school for kindergarten. So they didn't know how to interact. They didn't know how to do labs. They didn't know how to team build, you know. So that's what I'm doing personally, is trying to think of how I can start at step one without making them feel like they are less.

Sherry: This is Sherry Knight. I applaud you Dana for taking that time to do nothing, just to kind of regroup. That's certainly needed in that self-care and for the SEL for you.

Ken: I want to echo all of those thoughts. And I think that it's great to hear the balance of intense work and intense rest. We need to be able to say, "Hey, I'm going to go to a conference and learn from other people and stop doing the work…heavy-lifting myself, and learn from others about the heavy lifting that they're doing." And really take a moment to step back. I need to take two weeks and just completely unplug and just say "hey, this is time for me to have intense rest so that when I'm back in the classroom I can do the intense work that's require of me." And also kind of, like, look and plan as well, Dr. Holley as you were talking about, instead of kind of just actively doing the work all the time. Taking that step back and thinking more broadly about the things that  your staff and your students need. So I love that framing for kind of the gearing up of next school year. All the different ways that you have all pursued. It's great to hear.

So the next thing that I want to transition into is talking about collaboration, and thinking about how you're going to work inside of your community. We've heard a lot about how you personally are approaching this upcoming school year. Right? How you' you're personally gearing up for it. How are you going to collaborate with your colleagues to really propel students in their academic learning? Specifically, how are you thinking about academic learning for 22-23 school year?

Sherry: Hi. This is Sherry Knight from Burlington City School District. So, we're looking to do something new this year. We really want to engage our students. And I think Dr. Holley alluded to this as well. We want to use student voice. We want to hear "what do they need from us to be able to be academically successful in the classroom?" Using that information to foster PLCs [professional learning communities] with our students, with our staff as well as our students, including faculty meetings. Having those conversations with teachers and see what their needs are to make sure that we're providing them with the resources that they need to be able to teach the students.

We're gonna have opening day activities. We're inviting our students, our student leaders to come in and be a part of that opening day. Normally that's the big hurrah for the teachers to start the year. But we want them there too to see what we do, see how we pour into them on a daily basis, and also to complete our surveys. As Dr. Holley mentioned as well, we're doing surveys to see what, you know, we need to do collaboratively to make sure that we're meeting the students' and the teachers' goals.

Dana: This is Dana Skillman. So to piggyback off of that, we also are doing a big hurrah. [laughing]

We are...usually we do a staff picnic that first week back during PD. And this year we are doing a big back to school picnic for staff and students and their families, for everyone to come in kind of meet each other as far as collaborating with other staff.

I do a lot of end of year surveys with my students, and what can I do better as a teacher? What can we do better as a school? And then I share that with, you know, whoever wants to see that and hear that. And then, over the summer, we send out a back-to-school survey. "Okay, what can we do to help you with something happened over the summer that you feel like, you know, you need help with?"

We also are working together with this amazing...we started a panther pantry at our school where, you know, our families can come in and get food. And if they need clothes, they can come in anytime of the day that we're there. And we're also just, exactly what they both said, we're listening to the students. You know, they see things differently than we do. They hear things differently than we do.

Ashanti: Dr. Ashanti Holley, Burlington County Institute of Technology.

One thing that we're going to do in terms of collaboration is, when we get our NJSLA [New Jersey Student Learning Assessment] data, we're going to be doing a lot of data walks with our academic teachers to ensure that we can look at the data. We can see what the students specifically need. We do have an English and math specialist, so their primary goal is to work with the teachers. So look at the data. Meet with the teachers. Do you understand your data? Having data portfolios. And then even, breaking it down from there in which the teachers will meet with the students. "Okay, this is where you are. This is where you need to get to."

So this year is all going to be about collaboration with the data. We have our staff and student equity champions. One of our initiatives which we use to just ensure that everyone is culturally responsive. So they're like the pulse of the building when we talk about equity and diversity. So just ensuring that they continue with…our professional development this year is going to be, again, on specific culturally-responsive teaching strategies.

So we looked at changing our lesson plan template to make sure that the teachers are infusing those strategies that they've been learning for the last two years. So there's kind of a check and balance procedure for that, as well as through our walk-through tool. Making sure "okay, you learned all the strategies but now we're coming around to make sure you're utilizing those strategies." So it'll be a lot of collaboration in those two particular areas this year.

[end of interview 3]


Ken: Listeners, that's it. Thank you so much for listening to the DOE Digest. Thank you so much to all of the guests that have been with me this month and over all these years. And also thank you to Elizabeth Thomas, who has diligently and thoughtfully transcribed these episodes so that everyone can have access to their content. We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third, Tuesday Twitter chat.

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