Navigating a New Course

On Friday we celebrated our first ever GVP Virtual Community Tea. There were a few very minor hiccups, but it was a wonderful way to kick off the month of May and a huge success overall. While this Authors’ Tea was different from the rest, it brought us together and brought joy to all in attendance—as they always do. We have been holding Authors’ Teas at GVP since our inception in 2009. They are special times where we welcome the wider community into our school and surround our students with support as they share their stories, songs, and learning with us.  Our students are the authors, and after they present their learning showcase, we share tea and all kinds of treats during the reception that follows. It is a beautiful opportunity for sharing conversation and building community.

Obviously, this Virtual Tea was different from the rest, as our students were not performing live for the event and we did not share tea at our reception. But, we did share tea virtually from our own homes; our staff shared videos; Ms. Elise sang songs; and Dr. Cassie answered community questions in real time. People posted hearts and likes, and we shared virtual love for each other, our school, and students. I am deeply grateful that we could come together to celebrate the day, our students, and our connections during this pandemic crisis through this Virtual Community Tea.

Last week, we completed our first ever Newcomer Teacher online interviews and demonstration lessons. We will be hiring a teacher that we have not met in person. For GVP, this seems especially daunting. Of course, I realize that all teachers and schools are unique and special. But, GVP is truly one of a kind, the only school in the nation specifically designed for refugee young women with interrupted schooling.  At GVP, our teachers are as unique as our model, and hiring for this Newcomer Teacher position is a particular kind of challenge. 

A Newcomer Teacher at GVP is required to teach emergent literacy and numeracy, co-teach in content classes, create a strong and safe community among a widely diverse group of students, and teach school norms and expectations to young women ages 11 to 18 who come from at least 10 different countries and are new to the US. Teachers wield a great deal of power, as they chart the course for any classroom and ultimately create the classroom community and culture. This is especially true at GVP, as teachers work with students from all over the world with uniquely diverse cultures, histories, languages, and experiences of schooling. GVP students are not only new to the US and to school; they are often meeting people from other places for the first time. Many of them had never traveled beyond their village or camp before coming to the US. Creating a safe, inclusive, and welcoming space is fundamental to building a learning community of practice where all belong. 

The Newcomer Teacher at GVP must be able to teach at multiple grade levels (Pre-Kindergarten to Second Grade), have expertise in the teaching of English, and enjoy working with teenage girls. She must also have some understanding of refugee experiences and education and trauma-informed and restorative practices. She must be willing to collaborate, create curriculum, work with and direct volunteers, and integrate the arts and opportunities for experiential learning. She must be many things, but most of all, she must be ready to love her students and to learn from and with them. Thankfully, we have access to the technology that allows us to conduct virtual demonstration lessons and online interview sessions. We are grateful for the courage the Newcomer Teacher candidates have shown and their willingness to participate online. Being interviewed is already unnerving, but having to do it all online brings the stress and stakes to a whole new level.  

In addition to our first Virtual Community Tea and Newcomer Teacher interviews, we are conducting our first-ever online family-school conferences this week. Typically, these are some of my favorite days at GVP. We bring students, families, interpreters, alumnae, staff, teachers, and mentors together to discuss students’ growth and learning and to share the special things that are happening in the semester with parents. The Spring Conferences are particularly focused on supporting Form 3 graduating students and their parents as they prepare for the transition into high school. At GVP, we count time with parents as very important and valuable. We plan over several months what we will share during Conferences, how we will get our families there, and how we can best communicate with our parents. We send out flyers and invitations, offer to provide transportation on our school buses, hire interpreters for all of our language groups, purchase food and drinks for the day, schedule volunteers and staff, recruit alumnae to help and support the event, and send multiple reminders and make phone calls to all of our families in the days before. We ask our teaching staff and educational support staff to be available on Saturdays so that we can see the greatest possible number of parents. GVP parents are typically working 10-15 hour days in local factories or warehouses, so Saturdays are often best. 

This year, we must conduct these conferences online. It is a challenge getting everyone logged into Zoom or Google Hangouts together. Like before, it takes multiple phone calls, reminders, and careful planning and interpretation to make these happen. And, we have found that when they happen—they are still well worth the energy and effort. 

I met with one parent on Friday and with 4 more today. It is wonderful to see the faces of parents and students after so many days apart. The outpouring of gratitude is humbling. The first mother we spoke with was in tears, as she explained how she never imagined finding so much kindness here in the US. She was grateful for all GVP was doing to stay connected and provide support for her and her daughter. The four that I met with today similarly took time to express how thankful they were for the care and support we have given their daughters and how much GVP has meant to them all. The students shared their sadness at missing friends, teachers, and school, but we also enjoyed seeing and hearing each other and knowing that we are still connected and will remain so.

GVP has jumped feet first into finding solutions for each of the challenges that has arisen during these unusual times. We have changed course and direction and creatively and collaboratively navigated uncharted waters. We have remained committed to innovation and when faced with obstacles have reimagined old ways and found new ways of doing what we need to do to best serve our families and students and continue on towards our mission and vision.

As I reflect on all that we have accomplished at GVP in these 6 short weeks, I am reminded of what is required of all learners in the 21st century. Today in education, we often talk about the four C’s: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking when we discuss 21st century education. At GVP, we have taken up these four C’s to reimagine our work together during this time. We have done so with what I would like to call the fifth and perhaps most important C, and that is Courage. Our students are strong and determined and don’t let things stand in their way. They are resilient, flexible, and often fearless. I think our GVP staff and wider community has shown that we, too, can be fearless. We have taken up courage in these times and in the face of our pains, insecurities, and fears, we have overcome the obstacles in our way. I don’t think that we can underestimate the power of courage alongside creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking for our schools and communities today and for our future together. 

“I believe that the most important single thing, beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.” ― Maya Angelou

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. Michelangelo