Interview with Jessica Sie

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Marc is joined by Jessica Sie, the director of literacy and history for Success Academy, a network of top performing public charter schools in New York. Jessica’s schools have been an early example of how thousands of children and educators across many buildings can quickly shift to effective distance learning. She shares the story of this transition and stresses the need to meet immediate needs while also planning for the future.


Marc Porter Magee: I’m so glad to be able to dig back into the world of schooling in this new reality of distance learning. And to help us understand what’s going on in schools today, we have Jessica Sie from Success Academy. She’s been there for almost a decade now. Starting as a classroom teacher, she’s now the director of literacy and history. She’s leading the work as they move into this world of distance learning, adapting instruction and learning to this new reality. When she started there, they had 11 schools. They now have 45. So it’s a really big effort to shift all of that work from an in-person world into an online world. Thanks for joining us, Jessica. We’re excited to dig in.

Jessica Sie: I’m so thrilled to be here, Marc. Thank you for having us. It’s been an incredible journey. In just a few weeks, we never could have predicted that this is where we would be in April of 2020. And we’ve learned so much along the way and made lots of mistakes that have led to further learning. So I’m really looking forward to talking with you and sharing some of the learnings we’ve had at Success.

I thought we could dig in by starting just to talk a little bit about the model and the choices you made about what you wanted to adapt and prioritize in that first month at Success.

Absolutely. It was a really short runway. As we all know, we went from teaching in our buildings or brick-and-mortar locations to being remote in just a few days. And at Success, we found out with just a few days lead time that we needed to start planning. So the week before—we moved into remote learning on March 16th—we started thinking through what that could look like.

Our guiding principles were really about simplicity and how to do what we know how to do well and to do it in the simplest way possible. Our parents are incredible partners. We have 18,000 kids, and we were really thinking about our parents. And knowing that they would have to stand this up at home, for many of them– or working themselves with different students and different grades. And so we thought about what’s the simplest plan that we can have. For us, that really focuses on reading.

And so across grades, kindergarten through 12th grade, we made sure that reading was central to what we do. We know that when you teach kids to read exceptionally well, they can teach themselves anything. So we made sure that that’s a cornerstone across kindergarten through 12th grade, that there is great reading happening every day.

We also continued with the units we had planned, that we could have taken an approach to create something new that we thought would be best for remote. But for us, the simplest thing was that the teachers had planned, and they had prepared, whether math or science or literacy or history. They knew the units they were about to start. And so we moved forward with those units.

So in our middle school classes, as an example, we started Romeo and Juliet for our 8th graders the very first day of remote learning. And they started this new text, and it was incredible. Our high schoolers started Midsummer Night’s Dream. We also continued forward with our history units and our science units. And that was really the way to be simplest, to be make sure our teachers were planning for things they’d already planned and moved forward. And we launched that. I think another core principle for us was that we already had so much digital equipment. So in grade 4 through 12, they’re already digital. We use Google Classroom. So we did rely on the same systems we’d already had for our kids.

What were the biggest challenges you had? Obviously, you and your team have created a very high-performing system. You’ve regularly been at the top 1% of student achievement results in New York State. I imagine a lot of that has to do with the in-person connections that teachers are creating with students. Help us understand how that adapted. What worked? What was maybe harder than you thought it would be?

Absolutely. Definitely one of the biggest challenges was really thinking through kindergarten through 3rd grade instruction, that for our youngest learners, so much of what we do is in-person and thinking about the read-alouds and the science and the reading instruction in small groups that—you could just picture walking into a first-grade classroom, right? You have a group of kids on the floor reading. You have some students on a mat, and they’re working together. And so taking that into a digital environment was definitely a challenge.

The way that we approached it was to give really clear guidance. We sent parents frequent communication with actually daily updates about the simple clear learning plans for their kids and kindergarten through 3rd grade. So for us, that meant: what are you reading each day, reading the books at home or using great online platforms like Tumblebooks and Epic; doing some writing about the book you’ve read. So really simple. Any notebook that you have at home; doing some science instructions.

So we kept the same focus of the units but moved to what are some videos or some simulations. And then for math, what are a few problems that are aligned with the unit? And then we just checked in with parents through phone calls. And we made sure to ask them when would be good. Is morning better for you? Is evening better for you? What is the moment in your day where we can be the biggest support to have a one-on-one five-to-seven-minute conference with your student. So kindergarten through 3rd grade was definitely one of the biggest challenges.

I think the second biggest challenge was helping kids feel that they’re part of a community, that’s critical to the work that we do. Our kids love coming to school. They come in the morning, and they’re excited to see their teachers. They’re excited to see their friends. And so not having that community was a really big shift.

One of the ways that we addressed that in 4th through 12th grade was by actually starting with a morning meeting each day. So we put on a 15-minute video conference to build community and get kids excited about learning. And we were thrilled when on the first day we had 97 to 99 percent attendance depending on the grade. I think that just really showed that kids missed their friends, and they miss learning.

One of my favorite memories from the first day of remote learning is that I joined a grade 8 classroom. And we know that grade 8 students are excited for school, but they’re 8th graders, and sometimes they’re not quite as excited. And the teacher just did such a great job of opening up. She invited all the kids, welcomed them, was passionate. And then she asked them to go find something green. And so all the kids stood up, went into their apartment, found something green on a bookshelf or in the kitchen. One little girl brought her little sibling back and put her maybe three-year-old sister on her lap. And it was just so much fun to see these 8th graders just be together, have that community as learners, and get excited. And that really set them up for all the content learning, but that community has to come first.

That’s great. And it feels like there is all these different ways we’re seeing, and teachers can see, are they making that connection? Is it working? Are kids responding? At the same time, I know that one of the topics of conversation in education has been state tests have been suspended. It’s not always clear if we’re getting the evidence we need of whether kids are learning. I’d be curious how you’re adapting to that, how you’re still preserving that feedback loop of figuring out is instruction actually resulting in knowledge acquisition for kids.

It’s a terrific question, Marc. And it’s just so critical that we know where kids are at, particularly in a remote learning environment. When you think about the classroom, as teachers, we can walk around, and I could see the work that’s happening for reading, and I can see kids’ answers across 30 children in just a moment.

In a remote learning context, we have tried to use tools to do that in a virtual environment. So for us, that looks like a lot of use with Google Docs, and our kids across history, math, literacy, science do their responses in Google Docs. And then teachers are actually able to simultaneously be coaching as kids work. And so as kids are writing, they’ll leave a comment, “What are you thinking here? What an interesting idea. Could you elaborate? Oh, how did you come to this analysis? What are the parts of the text that made you develop this idea?” And I’ve seen some really strong instruction with multiple teachers in the room.

One way that we have set it up is so that we have one teacher, often the strongest, maybe the funniest or the most clever teacher, and they have got 100 kids on a video conference. That then frees up the other teachers, who if we were in a brick-and-mortar building would have their own class of 30, to just focus on the feedback and making sure that they’re assessing kids’ work. And so each of the teacher goes in with a targeted group of kids, looks at their work. In math, we use a platform called Kami, and it’s a Google add-on that actually makes it so you can see the math thinking and the kids’ work on math while they’re working. And then teachers are giving that feedback live time.

Additionally, it’s freed up the teachers. Because of our schedule, they’ll give a quick bullet point on that. In 4th through 12th grade, kids are actually participating in one-hour blocks. So history teachers are teaching for one hour a day. That means when kids are learning math and science and literacy and doing independent reading, they have four hours to study kids’ work, to give grades, and to give really meaningful personal feedback.

That’s great. I think it’s easy to forget that kids really crave that feedback. They’re putting a tremendous amount of effort into work. They want to know how they did, and it’s a shame when that link gets broken.

Yeah. We’ve gotten some nice feedback from the kids on that; that they really have appreciated it and that it feels personal in a time when we all feel apart from other people. It’s really strange to not be able to see friends and talk with them. So it’s been really nice for the kids to feel that personalized connection with teachers.

Absolutely. I know that the end of spring is often when you’re thinking about how much progress you’ve made, what you need to be working on in the summer with professional development with teachers to get ready for the fall. Obviously, none of us know exactly what the fall is going to look like. I think spring is going to be complicated. Maybe we could just finish by you talking a little bit about how you plan on using that end of the year data collection, and what does the summer preparation look like at Success Academies.

I’d be happy to. We are certainly mid-process right now. Our biggest focus in the first month was focusing on the teaching and learning: what’s the instruction the kids are getting; what is our weekly learning plan; and making sure we communicated that to parents and then to kids in Google Classroom. We’re right now in the process of figuring out end-of-year assessments and what that would look like in a virtual environment.

Then in terms of reading specifically, we often talk with kids one on one, that they’ll read a book, have a conversation. So we’re thinking about what that will look like remotely—just as you and I are on this call right now, the teachers can call kids and then do a reading assessment with them to understand what they’re learning and where they are. We think that end-of-year assessment will be really critical to understand what kids have learned and where they need more support so that we’re prepared to give the best instruction in the fall. So that is an in-process project.

We are also really thinking about how to support teachers. During this time, our principals have done daily work with their teachers. They do a daily staff meeting. And then they still have planning meetings. So again, just as we’re on Zoom right now, our teachers are planning for their read-alouds in elementary school, for their history lessons in middle and high, and we’re really using that time to train teachers.

One of the things that’s special about Success is that we do a lot of training in the summer. And we’re thinking right now about what that would look like if we were to do it remotely. We don’t know what the fall will bring. As you said Marc, we might be in buildings, we might not be in buildings. So our first priority is how can we make sure that even if we do it remotely, teachers are really effectively trained, and they have great support for teaching virtually. And then whether the school year brings us to a brick-and-mortar location or a continued remote learning, that our teachers will be ready to support their kids and have the support they need to really shine in this role in remote learning.

That’s great. Well, I know you’ve made a real priority of open source, sharing what you’re learning with the charter community in New York and beyond and to district schools around the country. What’s the best way as you continue to take ground in this adaptation for people to stay plugged in to what you guys are learning?

Absolutely. I would encourage people to follow us on Success Academies and the Robertson Center, that we have a website for both, Robertson Center. We are in Instagram.

One of the things that’s brought me joy each day is that I can get to see our kids, and I miss them so much. As you said, we have 45 schools. And so most days I find myself at one of our elementary or middle or at our high schools talking with teachers, working with kids, and coaching them, and I’ve missed that. It’s been so nice to see on Instagram kids reading in their kooky reading nock, and we’ve done lots of just joyful ways to have kids share that learning.

So I would encourage people to give us the follow and check in with us. We’re learning every single day. As I said earlier, we’ve had lots of discoveries and mistakes along the way, and we want to be honest and share those. We are one education community, and I’ve learned so much from the others in this sphere as we’re navigating this together. So I appreciate you asking that and really look forward to continuing the conversation so we can all learn as one community.

Excellent. Well, we’ll provide those links to people who are viewing at home. And thanks so much for making time, Jessica, and we’re looking forward to seeing where you and the Success Academy community go next.

Thank you so much, Marc. Look forward to keeping in touch.

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