Q&A: Curley School Principal Talks About Students, Staff Adapting to Online Learning

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Katie Grassa is in her seventh year of being the principal of the Curley K-8 School, and guiding the school community during this unprecedented times.

Curley School Specialist Team members during common planning time.

Grassa answered questions from Jamaica Plain News about how the school's community has adapted to online learning.

Q: How has your job changed since students were told they weren’t coming to school anymore?

Grassa: I’m leading a school virtually from my dining room table. I think the personal connections I have with people have changed. I’m used to using getting hundreds of hugs a day or high fives in the hallway, fist bumps from kids. But it has shifted to lots of waves and excited faces when I hop onto Zoom calls. Several teachers [and Grassa] have helped deliver Chromebooks to kids, and we’re waving from doorways and the sidewalk. They’re so excited when we come. We're letting them know we’re still there even though they may not see us physically every day.

Q: How many Chromebooks have you delivered?

Grassa: Me personally. I have delivered about 20. People from my school -- well over 100. We’re asking the kids to bring them to school when they return. We’re going to hopefully use them at school. That would be my hope.

Q: What’s your average day like?

Grassa: A lot of time online. Zoom meetings. All of our teachers are doing weekly planning meetings, and I can join in virtually. I like to join in with teacher lessons or on student work. Some teachers are doing a morning meeting, or they might be teaching a little bit of a lesson of a review with students. I'm doing hiring interviews of candidates for next year because we know what positions are open. We're doing tech support with families to help getting them online and supporting the use of things like Zoom.

That’s a lot of things. Or just checking in with staff and making sure kids are all okay. Our leadership team is checking with staff to make sure they’re okay and first taking care of themselves. If you take care of yourself you’re more likely to care and support others, which is the Curley Expectations.

Q: What is Curley Expectations?

Grassa: We care about ourselves, we care about each other, and we care about our school.

Curley School first grade team in a Zoom meeting.

Q: How did you work with teachers to adapt their classes to other methods of teaching?

Grassa: My teachers are amazing. I would say many of my teachers...Most of my teachers were using technology to some extent, more in higher grades with older students and less in younger grades. So some of what is happening is that some teachers have taught other teachers. We’ve been offering a weekly session for particular online tools. Some of us have done one-to-ones with teachers to provide a little support.

Sometimes we’ve taught ourselves before using it, playing with it and trying it. [Boston Public Schools] has done a ton of virtual lessons to sign up to a webinar, or one-to-one tech support. Teachers have signed onto webinars. I took a webinar before running our first staff meeting of 146 people. That was all my staff in that staff meeting. They can see me and I did a little Powerpoint presentation. What I wanted to do was review all the info people are getting, and what is the most important things to focus on. To read it, and hear it, and ask followup questions. I think it really helps the staff to stay focused and make communication clear and streamlined.

Q: What kind of work is being given to the younger students in first, second or third grade? 

Grassa: In the middle grades Google classroom was a platform teachers were using regularly and teacher would teach a mini lesson and students would go on and complete the lesson. I think it was the easiest transition in middle school because they had been doing that work. In the middle grades it is now a consistent daily use of what’s happening. In the lower grades it's shifting. [They] are doing virtual read-alouds. So everyday they’re continuing to do that every day. They’re videoing themselves, and maybe it's [the teacher's] voice and they’re flipping the pictures. They've found audio books and sharing as a read-aloud through a lot of video. Some are doing it on Zoom and they can see their friends. They can ask questions and the teachers can respond and they’re definitely very excited to connect with all their friends online.

Q: Are students and staff using Zoom backgrounds?

Grassa: A student taught me how to change my background. They’re teaching the adults some of their tricks.

Q: What kind of feedback have you received from teachers? Parents?

Grassa: I think teachers have had a lot of questions, "I want to teach something new but i know not everybody is online” or “How long are we going to be doing this? Should I plan for the short term or long term?” We don’t fully have answers for them. Teachers have said to me, “Wow, I want to try this in my instruction... And now I have to do this differently.” People have seen some pluses to using technology, but also concerns of technology as well. I think teachers are in agreement, teaching after March 16 will probably never be the same.

Q: How will it never be the same?

Grassa: I guess we don’t know what will happen when we return. I just think how we use technology will be very different. I hope how we think about the work students produce and really think about feedback models for students. Maybe it's a shifting of things from grading to feedback for kids. I’m thinking a lot of teachers are doing project activities to get them excited, so maybe it's shifting to project based learning in schools. These are just my personal predictions.

I think celebrating learning in other ways. There's a lot of learning into creating a fort at home. There’s a lot of learning going into cooking with your family. There's lots of learning, a lot of social learning [happening at home]. Staff have really been encouraging kids to do things with their families. We’ve done some fun things. My first grade wrapped up a week with first grade karaoke on Zoom. Teachers would play a song, and kids either made a microphone or used their hand as microphone. Kids were belting it out on screen. One of the sixth grade teachers did a movie night and hosted a movie on Zoom. Kids could talk and connect. Our musical we were doing was Willie Wonka, so a family did a streaming of the Willie Wonka movies to watch online for kids to have connections about how it was in the movie. [They talked about how] this was going to be in the play and these are the songs, and then some of the kids sang songs on Zoom.

Q: What about feedback from parents?

Grassa: Almost all positive feedback from families who have been impressed with the smooth transition and the quality of work teachers are asking students to do. They’re not assigning busy work. I've had more touch points with teachers these weeks then ever before. A lot of families you don't know what happens when your kid goes to school all day. When you ask students how their day is, they say fine. Now they can sit with them in that time and space, and hear conversations they’re having with friends and teachers.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

Grassa: I would say I’m so incredibly proud of the work my staff has been doing. The teachers at the Curley... before we even had any sort of regulations and restrictions and we'd all be at home... they were already curating ideas of what should happen and do virtual work for kids and they really jumped on it and shared with one another.

I hope in someways to create a sense of routine and system and connection with our kids to reduce any trauma they have of not being in school. And teachers are still making themselves available to connect with kids to have interpersonal connections online. Many kids will email, older teacher have google numbers and office hours and kids can call and check in and really have opportunities to stay connected.

We’ve also been feeding people out of the Curley. The Curley is a food distribution site. People can come pick up meals from 8:30 am to 11:30 am in the lower school building Monday to Friday. It's just for students. If there are families who need more our guidance counselors and my email is on the website and they can connect with us for more resources needed at this time.