When your community becomes the #hashtag
#London #Madrid #Bataclan #Orlando #Charlottesville
#Charlottesville. On a sunny summer weekend the reality of a cruel world found us in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and weeks which were simply a time of preparation for the new school year became something else entirely.
And yet, two weeks later, our children have filled our learning spaces, they are walking, playing, talking, studying together in our 25 schools across 726 square miles. Some of those schools sit within blocks of the scenes that made our area a symbol of American dysfunction, while others are so distant, and often so isolated, that children may not even feel the connection.
We had laughed nervously the week before as we welcomed our new teachers to “an interesting time” here in Albemarle County. Yes, we’d been alert to the possibilities - we’d been told we needed to get out of our parking lot by 5 pm Friday so the State Police could build a command post… and yet...
As we talked to group of teachers after group of teachers on the Monday and Tuesday ‘after,’ the words came hard.
“This is a very difficult moment,” we’d say over and over, encouraging those who needed to talk to talk, respecting the silence of others. We knew this would be difficult for our community, a community that has occupied a complex place in national history from its early days as the home community to Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, to its role in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, to Massive Resistance in the 1950s and 1960s to #Charlottesville. Charlottesville has been a part of the best and the worst of America’s public and hidden histories.
It is not an innocent community, historically, and it is not a perfect picture of harmony today.
Today, Charlottesville and Albemarle County which surrounds it, are home to both liberal and relatively conservative communities, to highly educated families and families with minimal formal education. When children arrive in our schools they bring all the perspectives, values, and understandings of diverse geographic communities - rural, suburban, and urban. Children who live in poverty and those who have all the amenities of significant wealth. 91 languages spoken and children who come from all over the world - whose parents are attending UVA and whose parents have lived for years in International Refugee Camps. Our educators have had to learn new pedagogies, new technologies, and new ways of responding to contemporary learners as our community has diversified, our technology has connected our children and educators to the world, and our families have demanded more from us in our relationships with them.
Our children in Charlotteville City and Albemarle County come from communities where wealth disparity is a major issue, where opportunity gaps abound, where gentrification threatens families, and where a legacy of racism haunts.
But they come to schools where we have worked desperately hard to change from the content-driven schools of the 19th and 20th centuries into contemporary learning environments rooted in a belief in the whole child. Last year in Albemarle Schools we began a focus on “Access and Equity” across the system with a strong commitment to “Trauma Sensitive Education” as we worked to make our “All Means All” motto real. This built on a focus on “Culturally Responsive Classrooms” and Social and Emotional Learning in general, and led directly to this year’s commitment to providing focused team support in our urban ring schools for “Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.” We also already had a plan in place for our high schools to engage in a grant from the National Writing Project to our district to implement PBL around memorials and monuments.
After the August 12 event, City and county school leaders quickly communicated together as our school communities’ borders are quite invisible in the transition from urban city to urban ring county.
In Albemarle we quickly pulled resources together (see our site modeling the use of both Google Sites and OER) to assist our teachers, and we did go over policies and the laws carefully with administrators so that we were all on the right page regarding dress codes and behavior.
We are fortunate in facing the heartbreaking events over the weekend of August 12 that our educators have been able to draw upon what we have learned and what we have built. The Trauma-Sensitive work we began last year has been critical to allowing our opening days to be healthy and happy for everyone. And our “All Means All” philosophy expects that every child be treated with full respect by both adults and peers.
At one middle school the year has begun with children spending four and a half hours in each of the first four days working on issues around humanity and community, citizenship and responsibility. In high schools time previously committed to the distribution of one-to-one laptops, still was used for that purpose, but doubled as a safe time for students to simply talk with their teachers, and to each other. In our elementary schools our Responsive Classroom Model already builds in social/emotional conversation time into every morning and our educators capitalized on already established routines for safe and open conversations with children.
All of our schools believe in Choice and Comfort, in Instructional Tolerance, in continuous Connectivity (see Seven Pathways). All of our schools actively consider every message sent by teachers, leaders, signs, even furniture. And we are a Universal Design for Learning school system. All of our computers read to students to expand access to content, record or accept dictation to expand access to expression, translate and adapt content to student needs, and allow student control in order to expand opportunity.
Our established, integrated focus on using technology, SEL pedagogies, and concept/centered curricula creates an environment where our communities are free to explore resources that help them engage in expanding knowledge, engage in dialogue, and build plans for ongoing work.
The answer to the question - “how do we respond to a tragedy in our community?” - lies in the work we have done before tragedy strikes. This will be true for every school. If children are prized, if their needs lie at the center of every decision, if they have true voice, true agency, and true power over their own environment, you will have a learning community that is resilient and able to emotionally support itself.
As we have listened to our young people, five to eighteen, gather and talk together in the opening days of school about what they want their school communities to be like, they respond with words that represent the best of who we are as humans. One young man in a middle school classroom said it best, “If we really believe in and do the things that show respect for each other, no one gets left out.”
⬆️ in 1970s New York City this was the transformational message
This has been a very difficult time for us, but it has also showed us that our belief in moving education forward is making a real difference.
(Ira David Socol is the Executive Director of Technologies and Innovation and Pamela R. Moran is the Superintendent for the Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia. An adapted version of this appeared on edutopia)