Lifting KIPP School Spirit…Digitally.

Emily Russell, KIPP King Collegiate Activity Director

The high school experience will forever be pivotal to a young person’s development. As adults, we have the power, privilege, and duty to craft an environment where young people feel safe to question and explore because they know their community is supportive.

Much of this depends on the little moments and everyday interactions. The high five in the hallway. The class chant. The listening ear. The reassuring eye contact. The immediate feedback. The smile. The laughter.

As Activities Director of KIPP King Collegiate in San Lorenzo, I know that it’s so much more. It’s morning announcements setting the day. The cultural hallway educating students on identity celebrations. Classroom deliveries of shoutouts and prizes. Balloons and streamers. Cringy student playlists. Revolving and neverending set up/take down of something or other. All with the hope of creating a special moment.

Royal Court nominees show their spirit during Homecoming Week!

But how do you do that when in quarantine?

I teach Leadership, Yearbook, and Theatre to all four grades. They were just getting comfortable with expression and finding confidence in their performances, presentations, and sharing stories publicly. And then our district announced immediate school closures.

Although teachers and students alike were not necessarily surprised by the announcement, there was no way we could have been fully prepared for what this would mean for our school community.

KIPP King is beyond blessed, however, as we had already established a school-wide technology system, with each student issued a Chromebook and Google account. Our administration immediately gathered survey information for families struggling with internet access and provided free internet hotspots. Within three days of campus closure, all students and staff had moved digital.

Emily Russell’s virtual lesson for Yearbook class using Josten’s digital platform.

Our administration provides weekly staff meetings with joy and crucial announcements, and makes phone calls to parents and students of concern for check ins and sends follow up emails. The mental and emotional health of all stakeholders is prioritized. This mission of partnering with teachers stems from Ben Thompson, King’s principal, who advocates for work/life balance, allowing teachers to provide their very best for students, even and especially in times such as these.

I was impressed with my peers and their ability to transfer content and support students in the process so quickly. Not to say the transition was perfect, but it was a clear reminder of King’s core priorities: to create strong systems that help students achieve great results, while also acknowledging and appreciating the humanity within each of us.

The mission stays the same. We’re creating moments for our community to share.

And yet I found myself at a loss. How do I assess ensemble theatre performances digitally? How does Yearbook cover what’s happening? And how do we create moments for our community during what are the most crucial and celebratory months of the school year?

My kids are amazing.

I talked to my executive team and said, “The mission stays the same. We’re creating moments for our community to share.” Everyone was on board. In the last class period before our imminent school closure, students brainstormed ways to continue connecting, raise awareness around social justice issues, celebrate culture and identity, and shine light on others

After a week of being “closed,” Leadership class was up and running again. But digitally.

I may supervise the KIPP King Leadership Instagram page, but it is completely student run. They set out a plan to execute a process of creating and publishing content. Then they made it happen. We’ve digitized Spirit Week, Poetry Week, and have plans for Teacher Appreciation, College Week, Asian Pacific Islander Month, and more. We even have committees interviewing applicants for next year’s class and plan for when we’re back on campus.

Tik Tok dance lesson and Poetry Week activity on Instagram Live.

This experience has students learning time-management, collaboration, and digital engagement, all in ways that appeal to them. With everything from daily posts to live videos, Leadership is maintaining its original mission: to create moments for our community.

As a teacher, this has been an ongoing learning process, as well. I discovered some of my most engaged students have been more quiet on the digital front. My most theatrical acting students are now struggling to find their voice in new units. It’s crucial that teachers think about the impact of suddenly switching to digital learning. Sometimes we assume that today’s young people are so tech-savvy that they can handle anything online. But learning digitally is not the same as Snapchat or TikTok. We must make sure lessons are not geared towards only one type of student or learning style, but instead provide options and choices in multiple modalities.

We also can’t forget the challenges our students are facing at home. Some are taking care of younger siblings, grandparents, or have other responsibilities. These are just, if not more, important than the content I teach. Then there is the emotional weight some of them are feeling, as well, with the current state of our world, which changes from moment to moment. And the scary unknowns of tomorrow.

I think, more than ever, it is crucial for teachers and school leaders to make sure we maintain our community, and that our families still feel connected.

KIPP King is our community. We are all a part of a family. We have spent so much time together and built such close bonds in the day-to-day work of teaching and learning. To have that suddenly ripped away is jarring. To feel like you don’t have that support system anymore is very unnerving. I think, more than ever, it is crucial for teachers and school leaders to make sure we maintain our community, and that our families still feel connected. They have to know without a shadow of a doubt that we are all in this together.

That is the heart of leadership, and all the classes I teach. To create spirit, yes. But to create moments that our community can share together and will talk about for years to come.

And that responsibility doesn’t stop just because we’re not on campus.  

School life is a roller coaster right now, with all the scary yet exhilarating twists and turns. But no one’s getting off. No one’s ditching out. We’re doing this together. And we’ll get through it no matter what that looks like.

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