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Innovation Spotlight: Archdiocese of New Orleans

Tuesday, October 08, 2019 by Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C.

Higher-Powered Learning Blog - New OrleansSt. Cletus School in New Orleans

Minneapolis/St. Paul and New Orleans share some obvious similarities: both are cities on the Mississippi River, both are home to musical legends (Louis Armstrong from “the Big Easy” and Prince from the “Twin Cities”), and the food is… okay, yeah, the food is just way better in New Orleans. Never mind. 

One slightly lesser-known similarity is that both Archdioceses have burgeoning blended-learning initiatives in Catholic schools. In New Orleans, this initiative is being led by thought leader, Director of Instructional Technology for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and force-of-nature, Kasey Webb.

I met Kasey when she attended our first Blended Learning in Catholic Schools Symposium in 2018. Back then she was working for Seton Education Partners, but she has since taken on this position in her home archdiocese of New Orleans. She was kind enough to carve out some time last week to show Kourtney, Francesca, and me around several of the schools she is working with in New Orleans to implement blended learning.

As always, I find visiting schools to be one of the most generative practices possible in terms of encountering new ideas, sparking creative thinking, and helping us reflect more deeply on our own work with the Higher-Powered Learning Program in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In that sense, this quick trip delivered! Here are just four (of our many!) take-aways from our visit to Kasey’s schools in New Orleans:

Clear direction allows teachers to thrive.

For their first couple of years of implementing blended learning at her schools, Kasey started with a manageable number of variables. All of her schools began with just doing blended learning in K-5 English language arts classrooms.

Further, Kasey selected Lexia Core 5 as the software that all of the schools would use. This allowed for some shared professional development around the ins-and-outs of Lexia as well as teacher collaboration across all of her schools. She liked the rigorous and engaging nature of the Lexia content and the focus on phonics in building strong readers. 

The decisions that Kasey made for her teachers helped them to focus on their pedagogy, tighten transitions between stations (and WOW were they impressively efficient!), and dig into the software.

Realistic expectations help sustain innovation.

Kasey knew that innovation is tough. In fact, like all creative processes, there’s usually a peak of excitement followed by a valley of discouragement that can happen whenever someone engages in something so radically different in the classroom such as blended learning.

To this end, Kasey prepared her teachers by pointing them to a description of “The Creative Process” coined in a tweet in 2013 by Marcus Romer that since went viral. I’ll spare you the PG-13 quotation (but it’s linked above if you want to see the original), but in essence, it prepares those embarking on a creative process to expect that they are going to be excited, then a little confused, then disappointed, then internalize the disappointment and start to second guess themselves, followed by a sense of hope before concluding with a return to the initial excitement.

As she utilized this insight, Kasey helped her teachers set realistic expectations regarding some of the challenges they would face so they wouldn’t become discouraged when they hit the inevitable valley that is simply part of the creative process. Normalizing that sense of frustration has helped her teachers sustain energy for this new way of teaching in order to get to the eventual goal of feeling comfortable and masterful as a blended-learning teacher. 

Kasey Webb with Annette Accomando, principal of Our Lady of Prompt Succor School in Chalmette, LA.

Collaboration is essential for success.

Despite her strong background in both teaching and blended learning, Kasey knew she couldn’t do it alone. When she wanted to take on 10 schools in the archdiocese (I know! 10!) she looked to archdiocesan collaborator Paul Breaux of White Oak Consulting.

Along with the constant support of innovative superintendent Dr. RaeNell Houston, who had the foresight to hire Kasey in the first place, Paul has been an invaluable thought partner for Kasey in anticipating challenges, building a sense of collaboration among teachers and leaders, and two extremely tricky notions for blended-learning leaders: scaling and sustaining.

Paul’s experience working with Catholic parishes and schools was enormously helpful to Kasey and has made this initiative stronger. Collaborating with Paul has made Kasey a better leader and says a lot about her as a leader who creatively sought out an expert with diverse experiences to multiply their effectiveness.

If you’re wearing a black shirt, don’t eat a beignet in the car.

Beignets are a New Orleans classic. A beignet is a piece of fried dough that’s covered in powdered sugar and it’s absolutely delicious. But just a pro-tip to my fellow priests out there: don’t eat a beignet in the car. You’ll think you can contain the powdered sugar. You’re wrong. Here’s proof:

We had such a great trip to New Orleans and want to really thank Kasey for extending us the beautifully characteristic New Orleans hospitality. The only thing better than the food we had was the smiles on the kids' faces who are using technology meaningfully for personalization and growth in their great Catholic schools!

About the Author

Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C.

Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C.

Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C., serves as the Director of ACE's Blended Learning Initiatives, and on the faculty of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.

Wills was a member of the 8th cohort of ACE Teaching Fellows, and later served as an associate pastor at St. Joseph Parish in South Bend. He teaches the educational technology class in RLP; his research and scholarship in the area of blended learning in K-12 Catholic schools support ACE’s understanding of how technology and other levers for change can help Catholic school teachers and leaders have an even greater impact.