Back-to-School: Making Virtual Instruction Relevant in a Pandemic

New Leaders alum and assistant principal rethinks their curricula to zero in on student voice and identity. “One thing we have control over is how we engage students in learning.”
school hallway with lockers
8/15/20
This is some text inside of a div block.
&

Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago will not open its doors the day after Labor Day this year. Assistant Principal and New Leaders alum Matt Fasana is determined to engage students in remote learning from the start. Like many educators and leaders across the country, Fasana worries about the relevancy of virtual instruction. In a school community hit hard by COVID-19, Fasana’s students are often faced with tough choices: get a job to support their family or attend high school via computer or smartphone.

"In the spring, we felt like we had to do something and so we created a lot of assignments. But many of our students didn’t see the point.” Looking back over the past year, Fasana and his team identified a need for their all-virtual instruction to go deeper, not broader.

“We can’t necessarily control the impact of the pandemic,” he adds, “but one thing we have control over is how we engage   students in learning.” This summer, Fasana is leading his teachers to rethink   their curriculum and zero in on student voice and identity. He names three   critical shifts in instruction that are the focus for the year ahead:

1. A school-wide unit on identity
2. Mastery-based learning
3. Personalized feedback to students and teachers

A School-wide Unit on Identity. Come September, all Sullivan students will dive into a four-week unit on identity. With students whose families hail from over 50 different countries, the goal is to get students to identify and understand their own journey - be that in education, in their neighborhood, amid the pandemic or with experiences of racial injustice. Following an initial focus on connections and collaboration, students will choose a path to explore their identity.

Mastery-based learning. In alignment with Sullivan’s commitment to personalized learning, Fasana and his team are shifting toward a mastery-based learning approach which supports students in attaining proficiency before progressing to a new topic or skill. Virtual instruction allows for greater differentiation – which mastery-based learning requires – and it opens up the possibility of providing tailored instruction that students can access at their own pace.

Fasana anticipates that mastery-based learning will make it easier for teachers to focus in on anchor standards, and that instruction tailored to students’ strengths and learning needs will prove to be more relevant and meaningful too.

Personalized feedback to teachers and students. This school year, Fasana plans to take a more active role in supporting teachers in delivering and assessing virtual instruction. “My plan is to go to my teachers and be totally honest and upfront as a collaborator and learner in their space,” he explains. Using New Leaders’ Virtual Leadership Academy tools, he will support teachers on what they most want to learn – and streamline his questions to a few open-ended inquiries:

  • How are you collecting data about how your students are progressing?
  • How do these data allow you to provide consistent feedback to students?
  • What systems and structures help to establish personalized support for your students?


For students, Fasana predicts a shift to mastery-based learning will allow teachers to provide personalized feedback that articulate students’ specific strengths and areas of growth.

Fasana and his team are modeling the identity unit after last spring’s all-virtual passion project in which students used cross-curricular skills to solve a social issue personal to them. After weeks of struggling to hold students’ attention, teachers saw a noticeable increase in student engagement. For incoming ninth graders this fall, in particular, the initial four-week focus on student identity gives teachers ample opportunities to get to know them. “We’re not going to overly test our new students in the first weeks,” Fasana notes. “That’s a good way to stop engagement right away.”

Fasana hopes that students will feel heard from the start, and that teachers will come to expect students to use their voices, especially when they shift to more traditional units of study.


Mastery-based learning. In alignment with Sullivan’s commitment to personalized learning, Fasana and his team are shifting toward a mastery-based learning approach which supports students in attaining proficiency before progressing to a new topic or skill. Virtual instruction allows for greater differentiation – which mastery-based learning requires – and it opens up the possibility of providing tailored instruction that students can access at their own pace.

Fasana anticipates that mastery-based learning will make it easier for teachers to focus in on anchor standards, and that instruction tailored to students’ strengths and learning needs will prove to be more relevant and meaningful too.

Personalized feedback to teachers and students. This school year, Fasana plans to take a more active role in supporting teachers in delivering and assessing virtual instruction. “My plan is to go to my teachers and be totally honest and upfront as a collaborator and learner in their space,” he explains. Using New Leaders’ Virtual Leadership Academy tools, he will support teachers on what they most want to learn – and streamline his questions to a few open-ended inquiries:

  • How are you collecting data about how your students are progressing?
  • How do these data allow you to provide consistent feedback to students?
  • What systems and structures help to establish personalized support for your students?


For students, Fasana predicts a shift to mastery-based learning will allow teachers to provide personalized feedback that articulate students’ specific strengths and areas of growth.

With the school year fast approaching, Fasana is intent on alleviating anxiety while also creating the space for teachers and students to explore hard conversations. Together, all three shifts are aimed at the biggest return on investment: increased student engagement in an all-virtual school.

  • Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod

Matt Fasana

Matt Fasana

Matt Fasana is entering his fifth year as assistant principal at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. With an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and Psychology, Fasana never thought he'd be a school leader. He now holds a master’s degree in Teaching and Learning and is a New Leaders alum. He has been proudly serving Chicago's students for 18 years.

Matt Fasana

Matt Fasana

Matt Fasana

Matt Fasana

Get our blog in your inbox today.

Subscribe To New Leaders Blog