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Creating Change in Real Time

How HGSE students connected their studies to practice to build supports for their communities all over the world.

Historically, students have come to Appian Way from all corners of the world to figure out how to create change in their context and return home months or even years later, energized with new knowledge, best practices, and innovative ideas. Yet this year’s shift to remote learning has created a new possibility: change can happen in real time.

This was especially evident in Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson’s newly designed module, Education in Uncertainty. Students in her class continued to work in their communities — from Boston to Costa Rica to Ghana — even as they pursued their Ed School studies remotely. Having anticipated students would be spread all over the globe, Dryden-Peterson and her teaching team — Alysha Banerji, Ranya Brooks, Zuhra Faizi, Orelia Jonathan, Hania Mariën, and Eva Martinez Orbegozo — designed the course content to be adaptable to the students’ different contexts. Because of these unique circumstances, students were able to respond to emerging needs with knowledge or interventions developed in her course.

“I have long imagined what it would be like to teach a truly globally situated class, one that would allow each member of the class community to learn not in abstraction but with deep specificity about contextually rooted causes and daily experiences of inequities,” says Dryden-Peterson.

“The course was designed not only to understand what uncertainty might look like for different communities, but also to seek opportunities in uncertain times to question and challenge the status quo and rebuild more just and sustainable societies.”

Before this year, attending a master’s program at HGSE would have meant relocating, uprooting lives, or giving up jobs so for many students, the remote setting created a unique opportunity. “When I received an email from Harvard saying I could apply as an online student, it was just what I needed,” says master’s student Fatma Odaymat. “As much as we are now struggling with a global pandemic, I’m grateful for this chance.”

Silver Arcos, too, saw the remote format as a chance to explore the intellectual possibilities of graduate school without leaving his role as an assistant principal at the school he has worked at for nine years. Rebecca Bernard applied when she learned that she could Zoom in to class with her family from Costa Rica. Others, like Jamie Horner, had planned to come to campus but were grateful to have the opportunity to continue supporting their communities with practices informed by their courses at HGSE for students at a critical time.

Students this year are aware of and struggling, themselves, with the obstacles faced by educators across the world. But for many, HGSE courses like Dryden-Peterson’s have provided a space to think about overcoming those barriers.

“The [Education in Uncertainty] course was designed not only to understand what uncertainty might look like for different communities, but also to seek opportunities in uncertain times to question and challenge the status quo and rebuild more just and sustainable societies,” says Faizi, a Ph.D. student and member of the Education in Uncertainty teaching team.

Here are a few of the curricula, interventions, and initiatives developed by the master’s students in Dryden-Peterson’s course that are currently being used to support young people as they find ways to learn, to belong, and create their futures.

Silver Arcos
Silver Arcos
Technology Innovation and Education
Assistant principal, New York

As a founding teacher and current assistant principal at a middle school in New York City, Silver Arcos saw this year as an opportunity to grow as an educator. His school community had been deeply impacted not only by the pandemic, but also by ongoing family separations at the border. This year provided him with a unique opportunity because he could get his master’s while continuing to support instruction at his school. What he’s learned in his classes at the Ed School has been exactly what his school community has needed.

“Everything I’m doing is directly applied — leveraging technology, managing uncertainty — and is trauma-informed,” he says.

In Education in Uncertainty, he noticed that in situations marked by upheaval and rapid responses, the voices of families and students are rarely involved in the decision-making process. To change the way he responded as a school leader, Arcos developed a plan for a focus group and survey to send out to students, families, teachers, and staff.

“I wanted to make sure, moving forward, that they were all part of the process of designing the support, not just on the receiving end,” he says.

Feedback from Dryden-Peterson and the teaching team also helped involve his staff members in the design of the survey. He’s noticed this has helped with overall school engagement and plans to continue to develop and refine his intervention with both his own learning and voices from his school.

“I think there’s a common misconception that when you go to grad school, you leave the building and just operate in this theoretical space,” says Arcos. “But this year, I know everything I’m doing has a direct impact on my school community.”

Fatma Odaymat
Fatma Odaymat
International Education Policy
Director of Al-Rayan International School, Accra, Ghana

As a school director in Ghana, Fatma Odaymat has always centered health and wellbeing in student learning. When schools in Ghana closed due to the pandemic, Odaymat and her team continued to ground practice in community wellbeing, offering motivational videos, weekly check-ins, online counseling, and even art therapy sessions.

“We were responding to all the needs that we were able to identify and tried to be a few steps ahead by sharing important information material and putting in place specific interventions,” Odaymat says. But, Odaymat soon realized, maintaining these reactive offerings was taking a toll on the school’s staff.

Education and Uncertainty provided her with an opportunity to review her school’s programming and consider how to best support student wellbeing in times marked by instability and change. “The virus has laid bare vulnerabilities and inequities in our program so we — students, parents, and staff — spent time looking at the different assets in our students’ and families’ ecosystems that can be used to support wellbeing in uncertainty,” she says.

What she and her team found was that the program objectives and initiatives needed to shift, rather than responding in real time to individual student and community needs. Updated objectives now emphasize establishing strong relationships within the school community, helping students develop strategies and skills to support themselves in uncertainty, and matching resources and interventions sourced from local, national, and international organizations.

As schools in Ghana have recently reopened, Odaymat has been working to implement these new program objectives and is refining them to fit the needs of the community. “I believe this is just the beginning,” she says, “But I feel much more ready to face the coming year.”

Julie O'Neil
Julie O’Neil
Language & Literacy
Sixth-grade English language arts teacher, Boston

When Boston Public Schools went remote last March, Julie O’Neil felt ready to dive into remote learning because she was able to build off of and leverage her existing relationships with her class of sixth-graders. This fall, she wasn’t sure how she’d be able to approach the remote setting without those strong relationships.

“I was looking for courses at HGSE I could take on building relationships and on helping kids who don’t know me or don’t yet trust me to navigate a very difficult time,” O’Neil says, noting that in addition to having a new teacher, her students were also adjusting to middle school.

For her final project in Education and Uncertainty, O’Neil developed a curriculum for her classroom around Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, a novel centered on building trust between a group of six friends. To support the literacy work and also foster connections between her students, O’Neil created a series of breakout rooms in Zoom where students responded to a discussion question. Sometimes the questions were serious (“What’s one thing you’re worried about?”) and other times, they were silly (“Is a hotdog a sandwich?”). Slowly but surely, O’Neil noticed her students becoming more responsive and engaged with one another.

“I knew these connections weren’t going to happen overnight,” she says, “but slowly, more and more students are coming back from their breakout rooms and saying that was fun. They’ve definitely been chatting and sharing more.”

YiLin Lee
YiLin Lee
International Education Policy

YiLin Lee already had experience creating and adapting online interventions, like speech therapy, for the online early childhood space. But the pandemic struck a deeper chord as the uptick in anti-Asian rhetoric caused people and friends who look like her to experience increased discrimination, harassment, and violence.

“There was just a lot of fear,” Lee says. “Suddenly, there’s just so much helplessness you feel. That was something that, because I’m interested in early childhood, was a story I wanted to tell.”

For Lee, one of the most influential aspects of the Education in Uncertainty module was its emphasis on the power of stories to help young people work through fear and helplessness and better understand their identity at a time where tensions along racial lines are high. Inspired, she wrote a story about a young Chinese American child dealing with her racial and cultural identity during the pandemic. As she crafted the narrative, she wanted to make sure she left room for parents and caregivers to be able to talk to children about the book’s themes and conflicts.

“It’s a story that doesn’t have a right way to finish and wrap up the topic — I wanted parents, caregivers, or schools to continue the conversation from there,” says Lee.

To support communities who are facing similar struggles during the pandemic, Lee plans on making the book an open-access resource. She is also partnering with a nonprofit organization in New York City that supports children in high poverty settings and letting them use the story to support children in different contexts. “This is a story I just want to be able to send people,” Lee says. “It’s important to me that it’s a resource that’s accessible.”

Catherine Pitcher
Catherine Pitcher
International Education Policy
Coordinator for English programming at Palestine Sports for Life, Los Angeles

As the coordinator for English programing with the nonprofit Palestine Sports for Life, Catherine Pitcher hoped to organize summer programing for students in schools across the West Bank and Gaza. While understanding that they’d be operating under some degree of political uncertainty, she and the staff found they had to pivot their program rapidly as the pandemic added a new layer of complexity.

For her final project in Dryden-Peterson’s course, Pitcher developed a curriculum guide for instruction and supported its implementation with professional development sessions for staff and teachers.

“In class, we talked about how in uncertain contexts, predictability, adaptability, and relationship building are incredibly important and I wanted to weave these principles throughout my planning — not just for students but for the staff and myself as well,” Pitcher says.

During the training, teachers shared a range of serious life experiences — from getting COVID to immigrating to transitioning back to classroom teaching — and Pitcher credits her experience in Education in Uncertainty with helping her respond to their varied needs.

“I tried my best to honor these experiences and view the relationships that I have been building with my amazing teachers as one of the goals of the program,” she says.

Rebecca Barnard
Rebecca Bernard
Specialized Studies
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Early educator Rebecca Bernard has had a long-standing interest in empowering and supporting communities to create alternative systems to educate children after the traditional structures have failed. Living in Costa Rica, she’s watched as the local school system has rolled out remote learning with untrained teachers and limited resources. In the middle of this crisis, which has exacerbated existing inequity, she’s noticed young people are further disconnecting from each other and from their culture.

Working with classmate Jamie Horner, a special education teacher from Portland, Oregon, Bernard developed an arts-based framework that draws on a local network of educators and artists to help reestablish that sense of connection and pride.

“Part of the issue we’re trying to address is how you support young people in building a sense of identity and culture during times of crisis,” Bernard says.

The framework is designed be used in multiple contexts and tailored to what is available. Bernard has been working with two groups in Costa Rica to develop a pilot instructional module focusing on portraiture and the self, which will run this semester. She also involved a local photographer who focuses on capturing the beauty of the people and places in the region. Horner plans to use the framework in her classroom this spring to help her students build their sense of self, manage uncertainty, and to lift up their cultures.

“Art is an amazing tool that helps young people get to root of things that they want to express,” Bernard says. “It generates a level of liberation and helps them reimagine themselves in the world.”


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