Building Community in a Time of Quarantine

Welcome to our Círculos blog! For our inaugural blog post, I wanted to focus on something that is timely and relevant. We are now in week two of school closures, with all schools in our district scheduled to return on April 13th due to the novel coronavirus. Closing schools is one of many measures to flatten the curve and lessen the impact on our healthcare system. Meanwhile, our education system is learning how to cope with the impact of such unprecedented school closures, with Governor Gavin Newsom issuing an executive order waiving (with federal approval) all standardized testing this year and even the CollegeBoard deciding to change the length, form, and breadth of topics for the various AP exams they administer each spring. As school leaders and teachers are scrambling to post lessons on their favorite LMS, learn the ins and outs of Google Meet or Zoom, and find ways to continue the rigorous academic expectations and critical thinking of their students, our team at Círculos has learned a great deal from just the past seven days. The lesson learned is that building community is powerful.

In fact, building community is one of our twelve Círculos competencies that we hope to develop in our students by the time they graduate. Over the past six months of our school's first year as a single high school program, our teachers have worked tirelessly in instilling a sense of community within our micro-school. We've had multiple iterations of what advisory circles look like, protocols for how we conduct circles, and an unwavering belief that we must conduct circles at least once a day (but much more), whether it's in an English class, during P.E., or in a parking lot in downtown Santa Ana debriefing after a place-based learning excursion. To us, circles are vital for creating an environment where everyone can learn. Sure, in the beginning, when we say "circle up!," you would inevitably hear one or two groans from reluctant students and to be honest, getting up to stand in a circle doesn't sound enticing when you're comfortably seated in chair, but circling up is always worth it in the end. Circling up is saving us now as we embark upon a never-before-seen episode of virtual learning.

Circles are so important to our culture that our name is literally Círculos, and every member of our staff (including myself) has started and ended their interview to work as a member of the Círculos team with a circle. Every staff meeting, professional learning session, and conference call starts with a circle, thanks to our administrator Jessica Salcedo's purposeful integration of circles in every single thing we do. She and my colleague, Bryan Davis, are the OG true believers of circles thanks to our favorite mentor, Wes Kriesel, who made circle culture happen. Even our students' parents sat in circles for Back to School Night, with every parent's voice heard. These circles, no matter how simple they seem, have provided teachers and students with daily practice in valuing each others' stories, listening to differing viewpoints, and taking the time to acknowledge our voices in the space we're in. Circles also support student discourse and understanding of complex topics and academic texts. Because of circles, we are able to do competency-based learning, flex sessions, project x place-based learning, and everything else.

Circles are the foundation of who we are and our relentless belief in conducting circles each day has undoubtedly shaped our initial response when we learned late Friday afternoon (on March 13th) that students would be out of school for at least four weeks. We were determined to prioritize how to keep our students connected because we knew that was more important than textbooks, packets, or curriculum. We changed our entire afternoon schedule and had rotations, with our students meeting in large groups in our flex lab in order to connect everyone on Voxer. Jessica conducted Q&A sessions with small groups, and we made sure that all of our students had the opportunity to rotate through all their classes again in the afternoon to ensure they had a chance to set a connectivity plan with all their teachers. Soon after, by the following Monday, our Curator of Talent (what up Bryan!) and myself collaborated with teachers to create a virtual circles schedule, to ensure that small groups of 9-10 students' faces were seen and voices heard at least twice per week with their designated mentor. We didn't want to lose our connection to each other. We then each made a goal to contact every single student by taking on a specific number of students each to simply check-in on them and assess what their needs were, which we meticulously recorded on a shared and color-coded spreadsheet. While we worked intensely to use Google Meet and Zoom to maintain our community, our administrator, Jessica, was on a mission to ensure that every single student had WiFi and was able to make that happen through the 1million Project Foundation and our school district. She and our counselor delivered these devices to students' homes, where the glaring digital divide that exists within our communities raises yet another dilemma when it comes to equity in education, but I digress. Our first two days of school closures were focused on one priority - how to ensure that our community would still be connected. We knew that we had to maintain connectivity before we could even think about curriculum, assignments, or academic learning. Circles are at the soul of everything we do and we knew we had to be committed, even obsessed with maintaining that connectivity for our students.

Currently, students meet in virtual circles with their mentors at least twice a week, they listen to each other speak on Google Meet or Zoom, wait for everyone to have their turn, share how they are doing, check in on each other, and relate to each other as peers and colleagues, ready to engage in academic discussions, socially interact with each other, lift each other up, and support each others' learning. We have countless stories, screenshots, and the receipts, as our students would say, that document how they use platforms like Voxer, Zoom, Google Meet, among others, to support each other socially, emotionally, and academically.

In the end, getting up out of your chair and in that circle is always worth it. Interestingly, building community is far more important than ever before. Currently, in our present situation, it isn't a special drug, vaccine, or even a government directive that will flatten the curve or curtail the mathematical predictions of COVID-19. Instead, it's communities built on empathy, collectivism, and a consideration for others that will flatten the curve. We are figuring this out through communities that decide to work together to stay home, close their businesses, and refrain from social gatherings, communities of healthcare workers that are at the front lines, communities of business owners who are committing to producing masks or hand sanitizer in their factories, and communities of heroes, like our district's very own custodial team that is sanitizing every surface of our district's school buildings or our nutrition services personnel who prepare and pass out thousands of meals in our local neighborhoods.

Building community is powerful, so powerful that it can help solve a crisis. Building community is the best lesson we can teach our students during this time. So, teachers, parents, students, and school leaders, we encourage you to facilitate a circle, lean in, listen to the voices of those in your community, and start building.

#community #circlesunited #círculosstrong #círculos

Written by Deborah Park, Curator of Projects & Partnerships at Círculos

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