Category: HOS Blog

Practicing Kindness

Every now and then I see a few kind words come across my social media feeds, but most of the time these days, what I read there is not very kind. I realize our need for honesty and truth and for courageous conversations, but I cannot imagine these doing much good when not created in and shared from a place of kindness.

Lately, it seems that kindnesses are reserved for those who think, believe, act, and speak as we do—for those who are alike and not different from us. The deepening divisions between us have created chasms that keep us from sharing kindness across the divides. I don’t know what our GVP students and their families experience in the way of kindness in their everyday lives here in this country, especially as refugee newcomers. But I do know that as a staff at GVP, we do our best to embody and practice kindness in all of our relationships, especially with parents and students who have endured forced displacement and trauma of all kinds.  Kindness is central to fostering feelings of worth, inclusivity, and belonging. Kindness recognizes our shared humanity and mutual needs for care and consideration. Kindness is core to our work at GVP. 

In online dictionaries, kindness is often defined as the quality or act of being generous, helpful, humane, caring, and considerate. It is regularly associated with love and sometimes with intentionality. While on the surface, it may be easy to conflate kindness with niceness, I think that intentionality and action are core differences between being “nice” and being “kind.” Niceness doesn’t necessarily go very deep: someone can be nice without really trying or maybe without even knowing it. Being kind, on the other hand, requires intentionality--a determination or pre-determination to go deeper and move beyond surface-level cordiality. Acts of kindness may not always be nice, easy, or pleasurable. In fact, they may be uncomfortable and difficult at times. They require an intentional commitment to caring, even when it might be easier to walk away or ignore the needs of others. For me, being kind isn’t something that you are, but something that you practice. However, in order to be practiced, kindness must first be learned. 

For that reason, among others, kindness is one of our five GVP Community Core Values. It is a required response to others in our community at GVP; one that is taught, learned, and practiced. In counseling classes, Advisory group meetings, conferences, and classrooms, we talk about kindness. I see acts of kindness happening daily at school, even now when we are online. Recently, I saw students teaching each other how to use a Zoom “raise hand” tool, and I have seen them daily greeting each other and asking how they and their families are. I have seen students chatting other students to get them up for school or sending links to make signing in for class easier. Staff members have made weekly calls home to parents to check in on them and their families and have driven to students’ homes to provide technology instruction and meet connectivity needs and get students and siblings online for classes.

I have seen teachers jump in to teach and support one another when learning a new and challenging technology tool. I see staff members eager to listen and encourage one another and kindness in the volunteers who come to help pack up food and load the buses for weekly family deliveries. I see kindness when we actively celebrate each other’s birthdays with songs, messages, and notes. 

At GVP, we give Shine Awards when we want to thank others for the kindness and light they have shared, and while we often give out these Shine Awards in Advisory or Administrative meetings, now we also have a special chat room set up in our Google Suite for recognizing and “giving shine”. We intentionally practice, encourage, and recognize kindness in our community. 

The kindness that I witness daily at GVP is part of why our global village family of support is so strong and why so many people remain connected and involved in the GVP community for so many years. Our alumnae help with family interpretation, volunteer to give presentations, and engage in peer mentoring and alumnae leadership. Most of our volunteers come back year after year to support students and teachers in the classrooms. Many of these committed volunteers have served at GVP for more than 5 years and at least twenty of them have been with the school for over a decade now. 

While reading Inc. magazine online, I came across something I had seen about kindness some time ago. It said, “In a study conducted by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at University of California, Riverside, students were assigned to do five random acts of kindness per week for a period of six weeks. At the end of the study, the students' levels of happiness had increased by 41.66 percent. Being kind had a profoundly positive effect on happiness.”

Kindness is core at GVP, and joy is easy to see. One of my favorite things to do at school, when we are open for in-person classes, is to give tours to possible funders and new friends, and to educators from around the world. One of the recurring things I hear on these tours, and for me one of the greatest compliments for our school is that the students are so “full of joy.” I think that there are many reasons for this, but I know that the kindness shared and shown is an important one.

I hope that we will see more kindness in our world right now. It seems the divisions between us, on so many levels, have made it more difficult to reach out in kindness to one another. I think about the happiness and joy that is missed when kindness is lacking and the limits we put on ourselves and others when we are unwilling to live and practice kindness. I hope, too,  that these quotes will inspire each of us to consider a deeper practice of kindness in these times when it seems in short supply. I think that right now, we could all use more of it.  


"The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted." -Aesop

 "A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees." -Amelia Earhart

 “I think people are willing to talk about anything if you come to it with kindness.”- Jacqueline Woodson

 "Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate." -Albert Schweitzer

 “First and foremost, we need to be the adults we want our children to be. We should watch our own gossiping and anger. We should model the kindness we want to see.” -Brene Brown

“It is sometimes difficult to view compassion and loving kindness as the strengths they are.

"I think the associations people have with kindness are often things like meekness and sweetness and maybe sickly sweetness; whereas I do think of kindness as a force, as a power.” -Sharon Salzberg

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”-Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“When words are both true and kind, they can change the world.” -Buddha

Making connections

On Monday, August 31, we officially started our GVP online distance learning program for the 2020-2021 school year. We met with our 20 newcomer students and their families via Zoom and in-person during Orientation, completed the needed academic assessments, and welcomed our returning students back to school for assessments and a “refresher” course in technology and online class protocols. This was necessary as we were unable to assess students at the end of last year. With all that happened between March and August, we needed to be more certain of their strengths, gaps, goals, and learning plans for this new school year. 

There was much excitement and trepidation among all of us on staff on Monday, August 31. The many years of teaching and learning experience we share collectively is enormous; however, none of us has been prepared for full-time, online distance learning, especially as teachers at GVP where learning is hands-on, high touch, and highly individualized. On Monday at 8:45AM, the Educational Programs Team met in a Zoom Huddle. We shared our thoughts and feelings and strategized on how best to run the new online Advisory classes following the Huddle.

This year, we divided students into smaller groups for what we have traditionally called Homeroom, and we decided to embrace instead a middle school Advisory model to start the mornings. The main purpose for Advisory at GVP is to create and sustain a culture of connectedness—despite our physical distance. However, the Responsive Classroom approach that we have embraced at GVP for several years shows that there are many other powerful purposes for Advisory: 

  1. Building peer-to-peer relationships. (At GVP we assign “School Sisters” each year to serve as peer mentors to new students. Advisory groupings were designed with this in mind.)
  2. Energizing and engaging
  3. Reflecting and refocusing
  4. Getting what we call at GVP “classroom ready”
  5. Building advisee-advisor relationships among teachers and students
  6. Developing communication and social skills

On Monday during Advisory, teachers and support staff were taking attendance, sending out chats and Zoom links, calling students and parents and doing all that we could to support students logging in and joining their Advisory group. In the end, we had most of our students online for their first day of online classes. As the week went on, more and more students began logging in on their own and even chatting friends to get them up and online. By the end of the week, attendance was at nearly 100% with only two students out for technology and connectivity issues.

During our first official week, there were many challenges but also many beautiful moments. I was so impressed with one of Ms. Anne’s Advisory lessons in which she shared a video of young people greeting one another in Afar. This year, we have our first Afar-speaking students from Eastern Africa. Ms. Anne’s video sharing created a great deal of excitement and pride among the students. They shouted and clapped, “That is my language! That is right.” Throughout the week, students practiced greeting each other in all the languages in Ms. Anne’s Advisory group. It was beautiful to see and hear their appreciation for each other and for their languages and home countries and to see their courage in trying to greet each other using new languages.

Throughout the week, Ms. Katelynn, Mr. Crispin, Ms. Danielle, Mr. Madan, and Mr. Don made home visits to students to help with technology, to drop off food and school supplies, to talk with parents and students, and more. These home visits allowed us to connect even when we couldn’t connect online for classes. Students participated in music classes, Playmaking for Girls drama classes, and in counseling classes this week. As I checked in on them in Music, Science, Math, and STEAM, I could see the joy on their faces and hear it in their voices. I felt their eagerness and excitement to be back together and learning. While it has been hard for many of us to accept that our school will meet online for now, I think we are feeling the comfort of friends and our community of support for learning. We are feeling the power of connectedness and community even if it must come mostly through our phones and computers.  

I am deeply grateful for this global village and for all that was accomplished in this first week. It is so good to know that together we can make this work. I am hopeful and optimistic and look forward to all that Week Two will bring and the lessons we will share in our lifelong learning community, as this new chapter unfolds.

 

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”--Brene Brown

“The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one's appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.”--Amelia Earhart

 

 

We are lifelong learners. 

I am incredibly tired today, physically worn out. It took a very different kind of attention, focus, and energy to be at school with new students and families this week--to be out, to be social and interacting in person--yet in a completely different way. Ensuring that I am following and they are following all safety protocols, . I am grateful that the weekend is here. We made it through Week One of our reopening and return to school at GVP. 

It has taken a great deal from each of us to get to this moment, but the result of our intense planning, preparation, energy, and effort has brought us to a beautiful place.

I am so deeply grateful for the commitment to excellence, the enthusiasm, and the focus on students and families that runs through the roots and foundation of what we do at GVP. Each member of the team is committed to lifelong learning, creativity, risk-taking, and innovation for the sake of our students and school. We engage deeply in reflection, research, assessment, and re-imagining in order to bring the best that we can offer to our new and returning students and to the alumnae, families, volunteers, partners, and friends that are connected to our community.

So, while my body and mind are heavy and tired today, my heart and spirit are light. I am proud of what we accomplished together as a team. I am encouraged by the joy and eagerness of the new parents and students who came for registration and enrollment sessions at school. I am excited by the fact that every single one of our GVP returning students joined in our Welcome Back orientation sessions online. We had approximately 80% attendance on average across all classes and had 100% contact with every student and family. Given the myriad challenges and possible hurdles facing our families, I think this is extraordinary. For those who missed classes, they struggled mostly with internet connectivity and technology issues.

It took many hundreds of calls and chats and at least 5 home visits to bring us to that end result, but this is what is required of us right now in these unusual times. If we expect our students to come and learn how to use a stylus, Google Classroom, and Zoom raise-hand features, and if we want them to sing, move, learn and share while at home on computers, then we must be willing to put our relationships and connections first. And to put in the extra time and intentionality required to build and strengthen those. I know that this is why our students were in school this week. 

In addition to connecting with students and families, GVP teachers have learned to use Google Classroom, Zoom, Flipgrid, Screen Cast-o-matic, and more to make lessons online enjoyable, engaging, and reusable. We want to teach and support students to be both powerfully collaborative and strongly independent and invested in their personal growth and learning. We want them to be able to go back to lessons and videos that will be archived in the Google Classroom when they need reinforcement or remediation. We want to empower students to voice their needs, questions, and concerns and to take responsibility for their learning. We want to help them develop powerful digital literacies alongside new print literacies. While things will be different and less than ideal in many instances during this pandemic and remote learning time, there are valuable lessons to be learned and new learning for all of us. We will add to our toolboxes and build up our repertoires as both teachers and learners and be empowered to act in and on our world in new ways. 

So, I call Week One a huge success for our students and school. I look forward to what the next week will bring, as we welcome our newcomer students on campus for introductory technology and digital literacy classes. Our goal is to prepare them for online and at-home learning, but we will also be singing together and getting to know each other better—building a new learning community. Our returning students will continue with practice and preparation in online orientation sessions. On August 31, we will start “official” online schooling with all classes and a new schedule for all students. 

It feels good to be back in school. It feels great to be surrounded by such an extraordinary superhero team and a strong community of support. I am thankful for GVP and for the ways that our collective work changes all of our lives and offers us all powerful opportunities for learning.

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." – Alvin Toffler

"It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts." – Harry S Truman

"Development is a series of rebirths." – Maria Montessori

"Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change." – Stephen Hawking

A Different and Beautiful Kind of Day

Yesterday was the first day of school for GVP. As I arrived on campus in the morning, I felt excited and nervous—as I had every year before. But, things were so very different this year. I wore my mask into the school. I stopped at the front desk to take and record my temperature. I went to wash my hands, and then I went to prepare the classroom where I would be working.

I had to be sure that the tables and chairs were properly distanced, that the sanitizing station was set up and ready, and that the pens and pencils had been sanitized. I had not stopped by the other classrooms to say hello to teachers or to chat about the weekend. I had to think about everything differently. Think through all the new protocols. Follow them carefully. 

We held in person enrollment sessions for five new students and their families in three of our classrooms on Monday. As usual, we hired interpreters and picked up students and parents in our buses. As each student and family member boarded the bus, drivers took and recorded their temperature and handed them a new fabric mask generously donated by GVP volunteers. Once at school, we enjoyed snacks, learned new COVID-19 protocols, and then spent several hours going over waivers, agreements, filling out and copying all kinds of required documents for school here in the U.S., and getting to know each other. It was a huge departure from our typical GVP Enrollment Day. 

GVP Enrollment Days, for many years, took place in Clarkston—at the public library, GA Piedmont Technical College, the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, the International Baptist Church gymnasium, and the Clarkston Women’s Club. We would rent any large space we could find to accommodate all of our staff, students, families, interpreters, mentors, and family helpers. We didn’t have buses and bus drivers for many years, and we needed to make it easy on families to get to these events. We would share coffee and stories from the summer, complete forms, take pictures, and get to know our newest students and families. In later years and with buses, we started holding these Enrollment Saturdays in the Fellowship Hall in the church below our school. Enrollment days at GVP were always more like family reunions than school registration events. Smiles, stories, and big hugs abounded. We missed each other over the summer and our GVP family was finally back together again each August.

This year feels very unusual, but there is a quiet intimacy to these very small, socially distant enrollment days that I am grateful for. I enjoyed the simplicity and stillness of our first Monday morning, as I sat with a mother and her two girls, our Newcomer Teacher, and our Kinyarwandan interpreter in the large Community Room. I enjoyed the flow of our conversation without the many interruptions, movement, and noise that would be typical of the day. We sat apart and watched the GVP school video together. We watched videos of our GVP students’ singing performances at the Decatur Library, and we sang This Little Light of Mine together. Softly inside our masks. Mama Beatrice told the interpreter how much she liked the way that song sounded. It was a beautiful Monday morning.

This year, none of our returning students and families are taking part in an Enrollment Day event. We met with each of them and their parents online this summer to get them set for the changes ahead, and now we are focused solely on our newcomers. So, we sit at our separate tables, with hidden smiles, trying to learn about each other and sharing a new kind of welcoming experience. I pray that our new students and parents will know how much we care for them already. I hope that they can feel our love for them and our desire to provide their daughters with the best education possible, even in this strange year.

After our new students and parents went home on the buses yesterday, I joined GVP returning students and teachers for our online orientation—our afternoon Welcome Back sessions. We sang the Welcome song, which I can’t seem to get out of my head even now, and students asked many questions of me and their teachers. They want to go back to school together, in person. They want to know when this will end. I reminded them that even adults and leaders don’t always have all the answers. I don’t know when this will end, but I pray our students will come back to school with us online. We had less than a handful missing on Monday and only three out today. We have been and continue to prioritize weekly family calls, chats and check-ins with students, home visits, and food deliveries. We are putting relationships first. 

Our GVP teachers have been hard at work for several weeks now. They have pushed themselves to learn and use new technologies. They have had to make plans for their at-home work and for students’ online learning. They have had to rethink and reimagine almost everything in their personal and professional lives. It hasn’t been an easy time. The tensions, anxieties, and stressors have been high. Despite it all, this superhero team manages to support each other, to learn and stretch, and to strive for excellence. It has been wonderful to see teachers collaborating, teaching each other, and caring for each other so well. They are an extraordinary team.

I am not sure what this unusual year will bring. But, I remain steadfast in my optimism, and GVP remains strong in our commitment to creating a caring community of support for learning. As we move forward into each new and different day of this school year, I believe that the love we have for each other and that we center in our work will carry us through.  


"A love of learning has a lot to do with learning that we are loved." - Fred Rogers
 

"The giving of love is an education in itself." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend - or a meaningful day." - Dalai Lama

Relationships at the Core

Last week, I asked our Student and Family Support Team to pose a question to parents on their regular check in calls. I was hoping to learn how many of our GVP families will have an adult present in the home to supervise children during the day while parents are at work in August, September, and October. At GVP, we have been planning a hybrid reopening plan where we bring in brand new students and families to the school in the first two weeks for registration, orientation, assessment, and technology instruction and support. After that, all GVP students will be learning together in online classes through the end of October. 

As the faculty met last week to start thinking about collective planning, calendars and class schedules, and discussed how teachers might manage teaching their own children as well as the students at GVP, I started wondering and worrying about our students. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the young women at our school often bear the biggest domestic burdens in their homes as older sisters. They are most often the ones cooking, cleaning, helping to occupy and oversee siblings, and helping with homework, paperwork, interpretation, and appointments. The challenges for them in staying home and being the ones “in charge” of the household while their parents are at work are real and will require some careful consideration as we plan for the return of virtual school in August.

When the COVID crisis first hit, many GVP parents were furloughed from their warehouse and factory jobs. Now, most of them are back at work, and that will certainly have an impact on their children at home all day, often without adult support and supervision. By law, our GVP students are capable of staying home with siblings and acting as babysitters, but practically how can they manage online school, their siblings’ online school, preparing meals, changing diapers, cleaning, and more?

As I think about the challenges that we have to consider and as we carefully plan for online schooling, I am reminded of my own experiences as a “latch-key” kid in the 1970’s and 80’s. My single mother was a nurse. She worked swing shifts for years and often I was required to care for my little brother and sister and help my mother prepare for work. I walked my siblings to school, often walked to the grocery store down the street to bring home food, cooked, cleaned, ironed my mom’s uniforms (before the time of scrubs for nurses), and generally tried to keep my siblings entertained and quiet while my mom rested and slept. I remember the summers being particularly difficult, as I was responsible for my siblings for so many more hours of the day. I had to keep them occupied, keep them quiet and out of the house so that they wouldn’t create a mess or too much noise. There were many times that I wanted summer to end. I couldn't wait to go back to school where I could once again focus on friends and learning new things and leave my household obligations behind. As I also wrote in a previous blog, I always loved school, and now I know that this was part of it. School was often much easier for me to navigate than my home life. I was freer at school and had positive relationships with my teachers and most of my classmates. Of course, I cannot possibly compare my own experiences to those our students and families face, but I think that in some ways I can better understand our students’ desperation to return to school. In fact, that’s almost all we on staff are hearing from students these days. Students want us to know that they are ready to go back to school. They want to know when they will return. They miss their teachers, miss their friends, and want to go back to GVP—but not back to online school. 

I have been working with tweens and teens in schools for more than two decades now. What I have come to know is that most don’t come to school to learn. They come to be with people they care about and who care about them. I know that there are some students who really get excited by learning, but I have never heard a teenager say that they couldn’t wait to get back to school and start learning. What they typically say is, “I miss my friends. I miss my teachers. I miss my coaches and teammates.”

For all of us charged with bringing education to students online, we have to remember this and find new ways of connecting and putting relationships at the core of what we do and the top of our goals and priority lists. This is an extraordinary challenge in this COVID time. Even families homeschooling their children understand the value of community and social learning. They take their children on field trips with other homeschool families, meet in small learning groups, and engage in experiential learning outside of their homes. This is not possible right now in Georgia. We can’t take 48 students, 10 faculty members, and 5 volunteer chaperones together on our buses to public places for tours and learning visits. We have to maintain our distance and gather in groups of 10 or less. Finding ways to create social learning contexts, connections, and the closeness that permeated our small school in the past in our new online virtual classrooms is our great challenge in the coming weeks and months. 

I find myself thinking about the girls at our school so often now. I imagine they, like me, are growing very tired of being at home. They are likely very tired of the monotony and tired of the responsibilities. They may be tired of being so close to their parents. After all, what teenager really wants to spend all day, day after day for months on end, with their parents? These young women do want to learn, but they really want to learn at school and away from home where they often must manage numerous responsibilities in addition to learning. While I am excited about the start of school, I have a great deal of anxiety around our students and their abilities to manage so much. I am not sure they will find the time and space to focus on school from their homes. We will do our very best for them. We will try, assess, and adjust. We will absolutely put our relationships with them in the center of all that we do. 

I have been aware of the abundance of educational research that shows the value and importance of positive relationships on student success. At GVP, the connections between  social and emotional learning and academic success has been core to our educational model. Now, there are more and more researchers expanding this work in various fields. Social scientists, medical doctors, and mental health practitioners are actively engaging in research around relationships in schools. Recent studies have shown that positive climates and relationships in schools contribute to good mental health, optimism, and wellbeing in addition to academic achievement and school success. Educators continue to call for more research into the associations and interconnections between relationships and success in school and life for students. In particular, educators need to understand the practical implications of this research so that we can create policies that prioritize positive relationships and ensure that systems and structures are in place to sustain them. As a society we are learning many things through this unprecedented time in our history. I hope that some of what we learn about students will bring much needed change to our nation’s schools. 

No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship of mutual respect, teacher to student. ~ Dr. James Comer, Yale University

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave – to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential. – Malala Yousafzai

Here are a few powerful articles about girls, home, and school: 

A ‘Generationally Perpetuated’ Pattern: Daughters Do More Chores

Girls spend 160 million more hours than boys doing household chores everyday

COVID-19 school closures: Why girls are more at risk

Building a Bridge

In the past few weeks I have seen several articles describing the trend towards hiring private teachers and tutors and creating “pandemic pods” for teaching and learning for students in the coming school year. Wealthy parents with resources are actively seeking alternative ways of providing a strong education for their children while they continue to work. Articles in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Vanity Fair this week point out that this trend is spreading rapidly among the wealthy and that this approach to education mirrors the personalized tutoring and individualized instruction that royalty and the “ultrarich” have provided for their children for centuries.

As I reflect on how social crises, such as this pandemic and racial justice movement, amplify the inequities in our country, I am shaken by the ever-widening gap in our society and in our schools. As I think about our concerns at GVP over reopening and the continuance of a virtual school model, I am struck by the stark differences and huge divide between those with capital (material, economic, social, and cultural) and those without. 

Sometimes these feel impossible to bridge. But then, I remember that this is EXACTLY what we are here for and what we are determined to do. GVP arose out of a recognition that schools and their systems and structures were inherently unequal for students. There is much research that shows how once schools and funding for schools became tied to political districts and to property taxes the differences between schools in “high rent’ and “low rent” districts grew. In turn this has led, at least in the US, to an even more highly segregated school system. These separations and clear distinctions among schools and school districts are based not only on the color of one’s skin but mostly on the wealth and capital one’s family possesses. For decades we have seen a clear trend towards a deeper and more distinct divide between rich and poor in our nation’s schools.

So, how was I caught by surprise when I read these articles? How did I not already anticipate this trend? I guess I was so deeply contemplating how to support our school and students, as well as my own daughters in public school that it never crossed my mind. I had not even thought about all of those people around me who would be interviewing private teachers and making plans to form their own pandemic private schools. Now, I am even more concerned about what this new and unprecedented time will bring. Further divides? Clearer distinctions? Deeper inequities in education? Fewer opportunities for those who cannot afford or cannot access private and personalized tutors? What will this time of interrupted education mean for all of the children in this country who cannot access alternatives?

GVP was created as a necessary alternative. For students coming from other countries with limited English and limited formal schooling and with histories of displacement and trauma, a traditional public school in a “low rent” neighborhood often could not provide the resources needed to bridge the gaps. GVP is that bridge. For more than a decade we have worked to create an intentional bridge connecting newcomer refugee young women and their families to the local community and to the education, resources, and capital they need in their new home. GVP’s four pillars (Intensive English, STEAM, SEL & Wellness, and Mentoring) reflect our deep awareness of and commitment to these things. We recognize that success is not found only in and through a strong education but in having access and opportunities to gain the knowledge and resources of the larger community. Our refugee students and families need strong positive relationships, connections, access, and opportunities to learn and to lead. GVP is dedicated to providing these.

In the days and weeks to come, our great challenge is figuring out how to ensure that our new virtual model for schooling at GVP will allow us to continue to do these things--to reinforce or reimagine the bridge we have built. The educational program staff and teaching faculty are working diligently together to creatively think of ways to keep the closeness and connections we have already and allow for continued opportunities to engage in community through virtual and online modes as well as in person. We are preparing for more, rather than fewer, home visits. We intend to wear our masks and make trips to see our students and families so that we can touch base, tutor, and support as needed even from the sidewalk or parking lot. We plan to continue weekly phone calls and increase our one-on-one conferences with students and parents. We will be making one or two deliveries each week with our buses, delivering food, technology tools, and educational materials. We know that we will hire more interpreters than ever before to be sure our students and families understand what is expected and how to use the tools and opportunities offered. There is still much to do and uncertain times ahead, but GVP is very familiar with new and with uncharted territories. We will continue to reflect, reimagine, and respond as needed.
 

"The most creative people are motivated by the grandest of problems that are presented before them." - Neil deGrasse Tyson

"We should be creative, and we should accommodate the needs of every community to open up the democratic process. We should make it easy and accessible for every citizen to participate." - John Lewis

"We need some creative tension; people crying out for the things they want." - John Lewis

Moving Forward

Today I met with the teaching faculty and GVP’s Educational Coordinators to discuss possible reopening plans. We learned on Monday evening that our local school district has delayed the start of school by two weeks and has opted for a virtual school start. Somehow, actually hearing their decision and reading about the decisions other schools were making this week helped ease some of the stress and anxiety I had been feeling for the past few weeks.

 A starting point, a direction, and something to start working towards helped alleviate the anxiety that was causing my recent headaches and stomach upset. Now that we are all coming together, creatively and collaboratively crafting this plan for reopening, I feel like I can take some control, strategize, make my lists and plans, and start moving forward. I think that the waiting, the not knowing, and the unending thoughts and questions about what the new school year would be like was becoming too much for me. So, for now, I am thankful and hopeful and optimistic about the year ahead. I am certain that there will be difficult and challenging days, but today I am actually excited, for the first time in a long while, about the 2020-2021 school year.

This summer we met virtually with about 20 new families. We have accepted 23 new students, and we have at least 25 students returning. We will actually have one of the largest cohorts we’ve ever had at GVP. I am deeply grateful that amid the tightening restrictions on refugee resettlement and the pandemic, we have a wonderful group of students who are eager to join us and to go to school at GVP. These young women and their parents are ready and eager to access the education they want, need, and deserve.

Following several local school districts, GVP will also keep classes online at least through October 30. However, given the unique population of newcomers that we serve, we must dedicate the first two weeks of school to intensive orientations for new families and assessments for new students. We must provide them with the technology and tools they will need, as well as the instruction they require to use the software and applications necessary for virtual schooling. This means that we must begin with some in-person instruction before taking things online. So for the first two weeks, we intend to do our very best to welcome and support our new students and families, making sure they know that they are valued members of our community and belong in this place.

When we met in our teacher meeting today, our School Support Specialist shared how several students had been telling him during food drop-offs and through texts and chat messages how much they miss coming to school. He told us that they miss seeing their teachers and friends, and I thought about how hard it will be for them, learning at home and not coming to school. Almost everyone who visits GVP notes how different it is. People often point out how joyful our students are and how much affection and personal attention we give one another. We talk about GVP as a family, and we typically feel that way towards one another. On any given day, one will see students hugging, holding hands, and putting their arms around the shoulders of a friend as they walk down our hallway. Teachers greet students with hugs, high-fives, and handshakes before classes, and we talk about listening with our ears and hearts in morning meetings. The care and closeness are clear and creates a climate conducive to learning.

I know this is why our attendance rates before COVID were always so high. I know this is why students who missed the bus would walk or ride their bike those 4.5 or 5 miles to school. I also know this is why things have changed.

Since March, we have completed virtual classes and hosted 6 weeks of summer online camp. We have struggled with attendance throughout. One teacher brought this up early on in our meeting today. She asked how we can ensure that students understand that this is “real school” and that they will come. Unfortunately, I don’t know that we can ensure this, but I believe that maintaining a focus on relationships, community, and care for one another is our best bet. So much will be different this year and some of it might not be as good as what came before, but we also have a unique opportunity to connect in new and meaningful ways.

We are planning weekly food and materials deliveries for each family and intend to continue our weekly phone calls. We are also talking about making many more home visits than ever before. We have decided that masked meetings outside of a students’ apartment is probably the most efficient and best way of showing that we care and taking care of any problems. Our virtual end of year conferences and new family intake interviews went so well that we intend to use Zoom and WhatsApp much more often. I am hoping that one-on-one teacher and student conferences will also happen more frequently when other students aren’t always around. Perhaps this online option will open new ways of building relationships and connecting for us. We will see. Again, I don’t know what all this year will bring, but so far there has been lots of new learning and opportunities for rethinking and reimagining our world and our work. I look forward to new lessons and much more learning to come.


“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” - 
Martin Luther King Jr

“Life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you must keep moving.” - Albert Einstein

Day by Day

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at school. It felt really good to be there but very strange, too. I sat in my office with a mask on, signing student transcripts and recommendation letters for high school, paying bills for GVP, and preparing for the June Board of Directors’ meeting. My tasks were all pretty typical and mundane but felt so unusual at the same time. While much remains the same, so much has changed. 

Our board will meet together using Zoom again this month and will discuss and approve our 2020-21 fiscal year budget. Crafting a budget and estimating our revenue in this uncertain time has been a real challenge for me over the past month. I hear news of rising unemployment, political unrest, and stocks rising and dramatically falling, and I don’t really know what these things mean for the future of this unique and unusual private school. At GVP, refugee students and families pay no tuition and no costs of any kind. We are dependent on fundraising that comes almost entirely from friends, partners, and foundations to provide tuition for our students. We have to raise more than 70% of our annual budget every year, as we don’t yet have endowments in place. A strong and generous community of support surrounds us, so I remain optimistic--but struggle at times these days to do so. Times are tumultuous and turbulent, and I feel like I am trying to stay on top of the waves of emotion and change and trying to find some certainty amid the unknown. Thus, I am deeply thankful for the COVID response and relief funding that we have received or will soon receive. I am grateful for the generosity of the philanthropic community and our GVP family of support that ensures our continued work towards our mission.  

While I am not sure of much these days, I am certain that GVP is made up of amazing people. Volunteers, donors, partners, and mentors have been ready and eager to help. The staff has done an extraordinary and exceptional job of taking all that we do into new spaces and in new directions. Their resilience and abilities to adapt are awe-inspiring, and I am constantly reminded of the greatness and the goodness of our team and our community. 

It is hard to express what it takes to be an exemplary educator. Doing it well takes an incredible amount of intentionality, planning, preparation, creativity, energy, effort, and love. It also requires making time for rest and reflection. I am both thankful and concerned about the amount of preparation that the staff is doing and must accomplish this summer to make sure that we are ready for reopening in August. There is so much, but we all also need time for restoration and renewal, especially in this unprecedented season. 

I see many social media posts about the fatigue that people are generally feeling and facing these days. This COVID-19 crisis, alongside the recognition of deep and persistent racial injustice that is fueling the Black Lives Matter movement, has created layers of mental, emotional, and often physical stress along with a deep passion for change. For teachers and educators especially, these recent events are deeply entwined with plans for reopening and the care and support we offer for students and families. Many of our families need our support now more than ever. This is a transformational time and change can be worrying and wearying. Of course, change can also give us renewed energy, hope, and visions for a better future, but right now, I can feel the fatigue among many in our group and the need for some real rest.

Today I will send out those transfer packets and transcripts we prepared yesterday to mentors. I am deeply grateful to all the mentors who have supported GVP students and families through these transitions. I have more worries this year about how our graduates will handle entering high school in this unusual time. I am so very thankful that our community support and mentoring group are so strong because I know our students will face even greater challenges ahead. Navigating a new school—a big, public high school—is already difficult, but this year will certainly be very different, as registration goes online and class schedules and structures are yet to be determined. 

I was hoping to hear from our local school district this week regarding the reopening plans, but that did not come. For now, we continue to run our online summer club meetings for students and complete intake interviews with new students and families. We also completed another food delivery route this week and plan to do more in the coming weeks with support from a partner. We appreciate that we can provide this additional support right now, as it is one less thing for our newcomer families to worry about. I also worked today with our Curriculum & Assessment Coordinator and School Counselor & SEL Coordinator on a virtual presentation for the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools conference in two weeks. We were scheduled to make a presentation in Philadelphia this summer on SEL and arts integration at GVP, but we regrouped to create something specific to these unique times. We recorded a Zoom presentation entitled Strengthening Voices, Creating Communities: An SEL and Arts Integrated Approach during COVID-19. We have always been committed to sharing what we learn, do, and find to be valuable with others, and continue this commitment now. While we are tired, we continue our work day by day with excellence, courage, and creativity, taking inspiration and strength from the students, families, and communities that surround us and from the fights for equity and justice that call us to action. 

 

"Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong." - Ella Fitzgerald

"You must do the things you think you cannot do." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Change is Coming

I wrote my last blog one week ago, not imagining all that might happen in one week’s time. I am still trying to process all that is going on and can’t seem to put all that I am seeing, reading, experiencing, and feeling into the right words. There have been protests all around the country in support of Black Lives and in a collective stand against white supremacy and racism. There have been protests and gatherings throughout Atlanta and in Decatur where GVP is located, as well. Our country and our community are in the midst of a pandemic, a powerful protest movement, and a sharp economic decline, and meanwhile as a school we must continue our work to support students and families and reimagine ways of delivering this support and advocating for refugee families in the midst of it all. 

That wasn’t easy this week. The weight of this troubling time was palpable and the toll it is taking more evident. I could see fatigue and frustration levels were higher. Each one of us on the team is dealing with our own personal situations and stressors while doing our very best to support each other, our students and their families, and our own families and wider community efforts towards justice. While it was a challenging week, many of us found encouragement and comfort in our collaborations, continued work, and collective vision and hope for the future.  

It was also our first week of summer on the GVP calendar. The teachers have concluded their instructional work for now and started thinking about professional development and planning for next year. And, the administrative staff has gone to a four-day work week. We started online summer clubs this week, and planned another family food and supply delivery for Monday. We finalized plans for our first GVP DEI book club that will bring together volunteers, board members, and staff around texts and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We also started important new student interview and intake sessions online, and are beginning to put together our new roster and plans for our Welcome Unit in August. 

We always start every semester with an integrated unit of study focused on welcoming. This year we will do the same, but in different ways. Usually, we spend lots of time close together in our Community Room and Newcomer Classroom during the first weeks of school. We hold hands, we sing, we share our names and try out new greetings in different languages. We often create skits around school Core Values and you can see students close together, huddled up and collaborating on their lines and movements. We share about our families and favorite things to do in large morning circles. We make sure that we all understand our Community Agreements to 1) respect all people inside and outside of school, 2) dedicate ourselves to learning and helping others learn, and 3) keep our school safe and welcoming for all. I feel sure that our Welcome Unit will look much different as we start this school year but also know that there is much that we hope will stay the same.

I have heard that our County will reveal reopening plans next week. We are all excited and somewhat anxious to hear so that we can begin to create more focused plans and processes for GVP that will align with the County’s and best support students and their learning in the year ahead. This looks to be an unusually busy and unpredictable summer, following this unusual and unprecedented spring. We have much to do to prepare, but we are ready for the challenge and grateful that GVP remains strong, committed, and capable of continuing to provide excellent education and services to our students and families. Of course, this would not be possible without our amazing community of support.

I learned this week that the number of donating households to GVP grew from almost 700 last year to beyond 900 this year! It is incredible to think about the number of humans giving their time, treasure, and talent to our organization and, in turn, to ensuring educational equity for refugee young women. I am so grateful that this growing group dares to dream with us a better world. Today, I dream that the tumult of this moment in time will bring us to a world that is safe for people of color and where justice and equity for all is a reality and not simply a hope. I dream that the refugee young women at GVP will be catalysts and leaders for change. I believe that what the world needs now more than ever are competent, committed, and compassionate women, like our GVP graduates, to lead the way.  

 

"We need to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead." - Beyoncé

"A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." - Rosalynn Carter

"You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it." - Maya Angelou

Book Clubs and DEI at GVP

Last Thursday, we completed our final day of post-planning for teachers. We ended the day with an all staff Zoom session where we checked in and shared our superhero powers and names and welcomed a new staff member to our team. We also had an update on our DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiative from our DEI Leadership Circle. We discussed the role of DEI in these unprecedented times and focused on our collective commitment to inclusion that will increasingly involve our families, alumnae, and large volunteer community. 

Over the past year, GVP has made an intentional decision to work with Wings Uprising, a social good practice “committed to the vision of transformative justice, freedom and joy.” While always committed to equity and diversity, GVP did not have in practice a set of guiding principles for our work around diversity, equity, and inclusion and lacked a structure for weaving these throughout all aspects of our organization and community work together. More than a year later, Jai Simpson-Joseph, the founder and creator of Wings Uprising, has helped GVP craft DEI guiding principles, build a DEI leadership Circle, and put into practice our values and commitments around diversity, equity, and inclusion in myriad ways. In fact, last week I learned that our DEI Circle planned to start a DEI centered book club this summer among staff and community volunteers, and I can’t think of a better place to situate the study and discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Book clubs have been a central part of our work at GVP and were the center of my own practice of teaching and my dissertation research. Literacy has been a core academic focus for our school from the beginning, and we have had hundreds of volunteers over these last 11 years working one-on-one with GVP students to learn and practice reading in English. For the past 7 summers we have hosted a multi-week GVP summer book club for students, graduates, and their siblings. I have belonged to book clubs for most of my adult life and believe that there is great potential for learning, growth, relationship building, and transformative action in these groups. I have always used literature circles and book clubs in my English classrooms as a teacher at GVP and elsewhere, and decided they would be a powerful place to situate my own research around women’s language and literacy practices. 

As I studied book clubs and prepared for my language and literacy research, I found a few scholars such as Elizabeth Long who had spent a great deal of time studying book clubs and recognized the power and possibilities in them. However, in all my research, I could not find one example of a book club conducted specifically among refugee women outside of the school setting. In fact, I found that very little research had been done to study book clubs outside-of-schools, especially among non-white, nondominant groups. More research seemed warranted given their long history and increasing popularity, especially in the US as Oprah and others have made the sharing of books more popular than perhaps ever before. So, I conducted my first pilot study of a book club with refugee students from GVP in the summer of 2011. We met in the Clarkston Community Center, read books and ate together, talked, and shared stories of our lives and experiences. The pilot proved to be so powerful that later in the summer of 2014, I similarly completed my dissertation research in a summer book club with refugee young women from our community. 

What I learned from my research was that the book club served as a dialogic space for practices, performances, and positionings. The book club was a space where refugee young women could build relationships; give voice to and make sense of their stories; and take risks, imagine new futures and explore possibilities for their lives. The book club provided a mostly private, less structured and more flexible space for us to try on different roles—as teacher, learner, leader, storyteller, counselor, and more. I learned that book clubs have a long history of providing a safe space for women to learn, question, and connect. Elizabeth Long (2003) describes book clubs as “deliberative spaces [for women] to voice their concerns, to narrate the particularities of their lives, to expand their cultural repertoires in dialogue with narratives in books or from other women’s lives, to name what delights or troubles them, to explore the dissociations between what matters to them and the social strictures or ideological frameworks that fail in important ways to address them (p. 219).”

Similarly Kate Flint concludes, “Reading continues to be both a means of escape and a way of taking risks with both the intellect and the imagination” and “is a means of inward, social, and political exploration”(p. 533). A number of researchers argue that the best book clubs encourage disagreement and debate and do not require consensus. As Long contends, “the core of a satisfying reading group discussion is the display of diverse literary and personal responses. Multivocality is what challenges individual members’ preheld notions and allows them the possibility of new epiphanies about literature and life” (p. 147).

Clearly, Long recognizes the possibilities in book clubs for members to move beyond reflection and discussion and into action, and that is what I found among the research participants in my study. They used the time and space afforded in the book club to take up new roles and practices and to position themselves in very particular ways, especially as women who know things and can teach others. Throughout our time in the book club, I found that I learned more from them than I ever had from any students in a classroom before. They were ready and eager to take up a teacher role outside of school and in that particular book club space. 

It is my hope that the GVP DEI book club may provide a similar space for participants to move beyond transformative thinking and into collective action. Long suggests, “Reading, especially when combined with communal reflection and discussion, provides the occasion for this activity, resources for reflection, and, in some cases, motivation for taking individual or collective action beyond the world of books.” (Long, 2003, p. 24) The possibilities for transformation, imagination, empowerment, and agency are so important, especially now. In this unprecedented time in our nation’s history, it seems that shifts in thinking and action are required, and in my opinion book clubs for teachers, students, and our community of support may be an important starting place for these shifts. Just two days ago, I came across a Facebook post from an academic friend for an Anti-Racist Teacher Book Club. The post listed out more than 40 books that could be shared among colleagues over the summer to combat racism, white privilege, and the culture of white supremacy that continues in our country. 

This morning, our local news headlines state, “Protests will be staged in Atlanta today over the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor - black people all killed by law enforcement or white individuals.” There has been a growing weariness and rising wariness  among our brothers and sisters of color in this country. They are tired of seeing stories of racism, violence, and inequity day after day without justice. They are tired of the privilege afforded their white brothers and sisters and the blatant abuse of this privilege. The most recent and incomprehensible stories of violence across the country against Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia; George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky are only the latest in a long history of crimes against people of color in our nation.

We talked about this briefly in our morning Team Huddle today and discussed the importance of speaking up and stepping out to be part of the solution. We talked about our gratitude for a space to talk about these things and about how we can be even more explicit in our teaching, training, and talk together inside and outside the DEI book club. We cannot afford to be silent at this time, and we cannot stand in solidarity with our students and families if we are unwilling to be part of the struggle for equity and justice for all.

I am not sure yet what the new DEI book club will bring or even what next year will bring, but I stand hopeful, especially as we remain committed to this struggle at GVP. Obviously, the current situation in our country is a convergence of so many tragic and terrible things, all of which shed a bright light onto the disparities and inequities that exist and persist. For newcomer young women of color—like those at GVP—recognizing and standing against racism have to be part of a whole education, as that will be part of their lived experiences and futures as new citizens in this country. A focus on literacy will remain at the center of what we do; however, we have an obligation to include racial literacy as a part of this work. Racial literacy as conceptualized by sociologist France Twine refers to a set of practices designed by parents and educators to teach children how to recognize, respond to, and counter forms of everyday racism. It is my hope that as lifelong learners we will all be committed to learning and practicing racial literacy and engaging socially around texts that may challenge and change us. 

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” – Joyce Carol Oates

References:
Flint, K. (2006). Women and Reading. Signs, 31, 2, 511-536.
Long, E. (2003). Book clubs: Women and the uses of reading in everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.