COVID Clarity: Finding New Focus in a Turbulent Year

March 2021 marks the one year anniversary of the last time I saw my colleagues in person.

It has been a year of urgency, adaptiveness, and problem-solving. Yet experiencing how the global pandemic and the national racial reckoning has impacted education has forced our team to double down on where our work can have the greatest impact.

Over the past four years we have refined our pedagogical framework, concentrating on high value instructional strategies and expanding focus on sociocultural awareness, community building, cognitive development, and critical consciousness. This year, all of our school change efforts are centered around this approach. In the spirit of sharing that is normally part of our annual April conference, I am excited to summarize our insights and invite you to continue the conversation with us next month during our free Spring Learning Series.

Highlander Institute is a non-profit education support organization based in Providence, RI. We drive change with purposeful instructional strategies, a tailored change management process, continuous improvement cycles, and world-class coaching that empowers administrators, educators, and students to innovate. We facilitate community-designed plans that unite stakeholders in trying new techniques, reviewing data, and building more effective learning systems. We have documented significant shifts in teacher practice - and clear correlations between those shifts and improved student outcomes - through our support of hundreds of teachers over the past five years. 

However, during 2020 it became increasingly clear that our change model was not addressing root causes of gaps in student learning outcomes across demographic groups. Our education system breeds compliance, resulting in dependent thinking and an atmosphere of low expectations - particularly for Black and Hispanic/Latinx students, students who live in poverty, and multilingual learners. Without an awareness of how systems of inequity and learner identity connect to teacher expectations, the implementation of personalized practices does not sufficiently empower all students. 

Our updated approach, crafted by my colleague Malika Ali, aligns aspirational instructional shifts within a process that restores and elevates the natural confidence and competence of students who have been marginalized by systemic inequity. The resulting Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) framework is grounded in the research of Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gay, Zaretta Hammond, Django Paris, and Sami Alim. Through a series of discussions and strategies, teachers and school leaders examine the ways in which systemic inequity translates into classrooms, build inclusive cultures of thinking, and establish ongoing feedback loops. The ultimate goal is to nurture critical consciousness in students. Linked to improved student achievement through a growing research base, critical consciousness leverages a social justice lens to learning, empowering students to transform their own lives, their communities, and society.

In a year when teachers and school leaders have been overwhelmed and overworked like never before, coaching and professional development centered on the CRSP framework has generated our highest satisfaction rates. Hundreds of teachers have opted into CRSP sessions. Participants have found that the framework’s practices are extremely relevant and effective - and that the process infuses hope and renewed motivation in both students and teachers. 

While we will not have the opportunity to share CRSP insights at our annual conference, we have designed the free Spring Learning Series, open to educators nationwide. We cordially invite all interested teachers and leaders to join us as we introduce the CRSP framework as one approach to imagining and creating more equitable, relevant, and effective schools. As we begin to see some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are excited to share the processes that are inspiring hope for what the future can bring.

Session 1: Centering on Instructional Equity - for teachers and instructional leaders

April 1, 4:00 - 5:30pm ET facilitated by Malika Ali & Heidi Vazquez

Join us for an overview of our Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy framework for instructional equity. Consider practices and strategies across the four framework domains of Awareness, Community Building, Cognitive Development, and Critical Consciousness.

Session 2: Leading Inclusive Change - for building leaders and district administrators

April 8, 4:00 - 5:30pm ET facilitated by Shawn Rubin & Vera DeJesus

Through the equity lens offered by our CRSP instructional framework, explore key leadership moves and a change management process to support targeted improvements infused with the flexibility and resiliency required to reach sustainable scale.

Session 3: Designing for Enduring Improvement - for all audiences

April 15, 4:00 - 5:30pm ET facilitated by Christina Corser, Mike Miele, Heidi Vazquez, & Nando Prudhomme

Elevate and explore the small and large changes underway in schools this year that are accelerating equity and access for families. Discuss the data, stories, experiences, and lessons learned that will help educators and leaders plan intentionally and strategically for September 2021.

Cathy Sanford leads research and development efforts at Highlander Institute in Providence, RI and is the co-author of Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change (Harvard Education Press, 2018). Find Cathy on Twitter at @csanford42.


White Supremacy, Misogyny, and Hate: We must name it if we are ever to eradicate it.

As a human being, my heart breaks for the lives lost in this week’s Atlanta shootings, for the families who are grieving, and for the loved ones who have yet to hear the worst news one could imagine.

As an Asian-American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) woman, I am terrified. Violent attacks and racist rhetoric against AAPI people have been on the rise. And I know too well that this violence does not come out of nowhere. Hateful thoughts preclude hateful speech. Hate speech can escalate into hate crimes. 

Hate Crime: At the federal level, a crime motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Hate crimes have a broader effect than most other kinds of crime. Hate crime victims include not only the crime’s immediate target, but also others like them. Hate crimes affect families, communities, and at times, the entire nation (

Many of us move through the majority of our days without incidents that threaten our basic safety and well-being. But some of us went to work on Tuesday and never got to return home. Why did this happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? And what does this have to do with education?

We must understand the events and actions that brought us here if we are to prevent history from repeating itself. We can do this by learning about the historical, political, and socio-cultural context of anti-Asian violence and discrimination. And it is absolutely critical that we recognize this week’s tragedy in Atlanta as one symptom of a much larger, older, complex problem - white supremacy and misogyny.

Let us value human life and the dignity of others over our own personal beliefs and ideologies. Let us all acknowledge that we have each perpetuated racism and white supremacy in some way - consciously, unknowingly, or likely both. Let’s educate ourselves and our children, so that we may create a different future.

See adult-facing resources immediately below and student-facing resources toward the bottom of this page.

Historical & Political Context of Anti-Asian Violence

  • My Lai Massacre (1968): U.S. soldiers murdered 300 unarmed civilians in Vietnam, including women, children, and the elderly -- despite no report of opposing fire. At least one girl was raped and then killed.
  • Paige Act (1875): “Legislated amid the spread of anti-Chinese fervor from the west coast to the rest of the United States, this law was an early effort to restrict Asian immigration without categorically restricting Asian immigration on the basis of race and instead restricted select categories of persons whose labor was perceived as immoral or coerced.”
  • NY Congressman Presents “The Chinese Question” (1877) 
    • “He comes here as a laborer. He personifies the character in its absolutely menial aspect-what the operation of fifty centuries of paganism, poverty, and oppression have made him,-a mere animal machine, performing the duties in his accepted sphere, punctually and patiently, but utterly incapable of any improvement.”
    • “If he seems to conform to our ways it is only to get a better foothold for money-making. He professes friendship, of which sentiment he has not the remotest conception. He is cruel and unrelenting, only waiting the opportunity in which he may safely strike the object of his spite, cupidity or superstition”
    • “Capable of such deeds, can the injection of such a race into our body politic be viewed by any thinking American without anxiety and alarm?”
  • Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
    • “Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory…”
    • “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled...the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be…suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.”
    • “That the words "Chinese laborers", wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.”

Recent Hate Crimes & White Supremacist Terror Attacks

  • June 2015: 9 Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church were shot to death by a white supremacist
  • August 2016: Muslim Imam Maulana Akonjee and associate Thara Uddin were shot and killed in New York City
  • October 2018: 11 Jewish congregants were killed and 6 were injured in a shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue
  • August 2019: A gunman targeting “Mexicans” opened fire in El Paso, Texas, leaving 23 people dead and several more injured

A Call to Action for Teachers & Students

As we educate ourselves, we also need to talk to our kids. In the classroom, we can start with honest reflection and inquiry (inspired by No Red Ink’s student writing prompts and article). 

Questions to Consider:

  • Are some lives more disposable than others? 
    • Does your race or immigration status make you more of a target for violence?
    • Does your identity affect your access to support, protection, and justice?
    • Does your profession determine how unconditional your right to exist really is?
      • What if your job choices are limited? Should it matter whether or not you chose a profession that is stigmatized by society? 
  • Why are the perpetrators of these specific crimes -- mass shootings whose victims are largely of a shared racial or ethnic identity -- often white, cisgender males?
  • Why is it that white men who have committed mass murder are apprehended “without incident,” while there are Black people who have committed no crime and yet do not survive interactions with police?
  • Why do some people continue to insist that this incident “was not racially motivated"?
    • How could they possibly know? Who has the right to say? 
    • What does the data tell us?
  • What kinds of racial violence are our students currently experiencing?
  • What trauma do our students already carry?
  • How can we cultivate a school community of safety, empathy, and care? 
  • How can we educate and empower children so they may protect each other?

Click here for Classroom Resources to Address Anti-Asian Discrimination 

Classroom Resources Curated by Malika Ali, Director of Pedagogy at Highlander Institute

Full Post by Vera Elianna DeJesus, Partner at Highlander Institute