Reflections on a Summer of Network Learning

Network Collaboration and Learning

Over the course of our Summer of Network Learning, virtual RISE Network gatherings convened more than 100 educators. RISE educators from all 10 partner schools engaged in conversations about summer melt campaigns, virtual and in-person summer bridge programming, equitable grading practices, and multiple “reimagine” sessions reflecting on the 2019-20 school year. Together, educators shared their experiences and reflections, and collaborated around how we can move forward as partners. Although each conversation brought with it its own unique takeaways, next steps, and insights, we wanted to share some of the overarching themes that stood out to us. 

An earnest desire to collaborate with others

We were amazed (but not the least bit surprised!) at the level of engagement from our volunteer participants. Summer is typically a vital time for educators to unwind from the school year, and this summer in particular presented more demands on people’s time, energy, and focus, both professionally and personally. As we saw familiar and new faces log into each Zoom meeting room, we were immediately rejuvenated, inspired, and reminded that there continues to be an earnest desire among members of the RISE Network to collaborate with other educators pursuing shared goals and doing similar work. 

RISE facilitated two sessions titled Moving Beyond 2019-20: Reflecting on Distance Learning that included more than 50 unique educators. During both sessions, educators came together across RISE high schools to reflect on the 2019-20 school year, including COVID-19 school closures. We focused on how these unprecedented experiences can and should improve education for years to come. We outlined RISE schools’ tremendous efforts to support their students through the beginning stages of this pandemic, then we broke into cross-school collaborative groups to discuss aspects of schooling that previously felt fixed and challenges that seemed intractable that we are now called to view in new ways. Together we reimagined grading policies and practices, the role of the educator, and how to promote equity and access to address pervasive gaps in our education system. Each call challenged all of us to be reflective, vulnerable, creative, and thoughtful. Creating dedicated space for these conversations served as a vital step in ensuring that we can build an even stronger education system for the future.

“We all had a lot of the same responses: flexibility, more time to contact families, changing priorities (curriculum, etc.) which felt good to know we weren’t alone in this crazy process. It was very helpful to discuss some of these and realize we are all in this together.”  – Hartford Educator

“I appreciated hearing what others schools are doing, or that they still are thinking about, how to address SEL.” – Westhill Educator

A willingness to critically examine and challenge fundamental practices 

Building on the themes of conversations with network partners throughout school closures this spring, we also took time to explore how —  in this new context — we simply have to do things differently. In the “Grading For Equity” book club, we had nearly 80 educators from all 10 RISE partner schools come together to do just that. Participating educators read Joe Feldman’s book, Grading for Equity, which argues that if we are to create classrooms and schools that are equitable, and that promote student learning, agency, and the development of interdisciplinary skills, we must approach grading in a fundamentally different way. 

During three gatherings, educators grappled with what it would look like to alter grading policies and practices. We were inspired by how willing educators were to look in the mirror at their own practice, and how eager they were to engage with other educators across the network to learn more about what has been most effective in becoming more equitable graders. We are excited to see these conversations come to life in classrooms this year and to continue learning with and from our network partners through collaboration around these efforts.

“This was very helpful and eye opening, but I know the change and work will take years. I’m hoping to start with a small change and increase my knowledge and understanding throughout the year to make better changes and bring colleagues on board as well.” – Hartford Educator

“I felt it was very eye opening to speak with other teachers in different districts. I think it was valuable to talk about the reasoning behind grades and what each of us feels is the purpose of grading.” – Naugatuck Educator

“It was nice to hear the research supporting some of these equitable practices that I have tried. Having research will allow me to help others in the school follow more practices.” – East Hartford Educator

“A great breath of fresh air in an otherwise tough summer. Helped to remind me of what my role as a leader should really be focused on.” – Westhill Educator

An investment in relationships and cross-school partnerships

In our conversations with educators, relationships emerged as a broadly shared focus for the start of the upcoming school year. This focus on relationships was exemplified by our summer melt and summer bridge collaborative calls, which brought together educators in similar roles who are building support systems for students transitioning to and beyond high school. In their summer melt efforts, educators provided more personalized support for students transitioning into their postsecondary plans. And, in their creative approaches to in-person, hybrid and virtual Grade 9 Summer Bridge programs, educators made sure to prioritize building relationships during these challenging times. 

“We are going to look for equitable situations everywhere and build relationships with our students first, not as the year progresses.” – Middletown Educator

“The conversation was fruitful, seemed authentic and beneficial to all. Everyone shared things that we individually felt were important to creating and maintaining a successful return. It was the consensus that relationship building, although it will be different in the virtual world, remains the most vital component to establishing a positive school culture.” – Hartford Educator

The importance of courageous leadership

The ongoing pandemic, a national reckoning around racial injustice, and the consequences of societal inequalities all form the backdrop for a school year that can’t and won’t be normal. During our biweekly principal collaboratives, high school administrators continued to display incredible leadership through complicated and ever-changing circumstances. RISE school leaders approached each challenge as a unique opportunity to build better systems that better meets the needs of students and families. Their leadership and collective willingness to lean on and learn from each other showed how we can and must emerge as a stronger network of schools that is better positioned to achieve our long-term student outcome goals. Together, we will remain resilient and continue to rise when faced with adversity. 

In all of our calls we sought to bring equity to the forefront of our discussions. This summer, we saw educators stand in solidarity with their communities during Black Lives Matter protests, and educators demonstrated how we all play a pivotal role in confronting racial injustices within our country through their actions ranging from attending and supporting student-led protests, to confronting biased language in the workplace. Through this work, we all became better practitioners this summer and we are thankful for our RISE community for engaging with us. 

Coming out of our Summer of Network learning, we are optimistic about how the RISE Network will evolve and strengthen during these challenging times. We still have hard work ahead of us, but we are determined to partner with everyone in our network to do right by the 14,000+ students we collectively serve — in thoughtful and creative ways that meet the challenges of this moment. We have much to learn, but also much to build upon, and we are eager to get to work with all of you in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.