During the pandemic, many Memphians took up baking, knitting, puzzling … Coi Morrison used the extra time to write her own curriculum. Inspired by last summer’s movement against racial injustice, Coi, a former public school teacher and instructional coach, spent her nights developing The Black Inquiry Project — an inquiry-based curriculum for students in grades 3-12 that aims to amplify Black voices and the Black experience. “This was one of the many pandemic babies,” says Coi, who juggled writing the curriculum with a busy life as a corporate trainer and mom of four.
Since its launch in July 2020, The Black Inquiry Project has been adopted by schools in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. Locally, Coi has partnered with the Brooks Museum of Art to conduct training sessions for its docents. Next up, this lifelong learner has taken on an even bigger project: starting her own school. With the help of a GoFundMe campaign, angel investors, and a grant from Vela Education Fund, Coi will soon open the doors to The Lab School of Memphis, an Acton Academy microschool affiliate and a mixed-age, learner-driven environment grounded in Montessori principles and the belief that every child is a genius with the potential to change the world. Hear more from our newest FACE of Memphis, Coi Morrison, about her journey from teacher and mom to trailblazing educator and entrepreneur.
You relocated to Memphis in 2014 from Chicago. What do you love about living here?
Memphis is such a vibrant city. Even in the seven short years I’ve been here, I’ve seen it grow so much. The energy of change and innovation is all around, and I find that so exciting. I am by nature a project person. I love to build things. I love to see something come to life, and I feel like that’s literally what I’ve seen happen in Memphis. I’m fortunate to be connected to some great people and organizations in the Memphis community who have given me a front-row seat to see what is growing out of such a special city.
How has your experience as an educator shaped your current path?
Most of my career has been in public schools, primarily turnaround schools that have been taken over with a focus on growth and achievement. While doing that, I became a parent myself and was faced with some tough choices about the education of my own children. I had a clear picture of what was happening in public schools. So after a few years of looking at different private schools and what was being offered there, I hadn’t really found what I was looking for. What I’m building now looks very different from where I’ve spent my years in education. But I think that’s what makes it special because I’m very clear from both an educator and parent perspective about what works and what doesn’t, and I’m able to bring the best of all of those worlds together.
Tell us a little more about The Black Inquiry Project. What is it about, and what inspired you to launch it?
It was launched last summer on the heels of what I like to call our modern-day Civil Rights Movement. It’s really a work in service to educators of all races, backgrounds, and experiences who want to create classrooms that challenge the dominant narrative and provide a space to amplify voices that have historically been marginalized in textbooks. It’s about centering the voices and experiences of the Black and brown community inside the classroom and giving educators a resource to do that. The murder of George Floyd impacted me in a way that I hadn’t been before, both as a mother and an educator. While participating in a panel put together by a friend of mine, I was asked: What should educators be doing as they are preparing for the school year? My answer was that they should be gathering resources, articles, and information about what was happening and preparing to present this to students in a way that challenges them to ask questions and question the information they are given. That was a eureka moment for me. I realized that maybe I should be giving educators this resource myself.
Were you surprised by how quickly it took off?
That has been amazing because you put all these hours into something you feel called to do, and who knows if it will resonate? Immediately I received feedback from teachers who thought it was an incredible resource. I heard from a New York City teacher who wants to do something similar for her Latino students. Social studies, civics, and language arts teachers have adopted it as their primary curriculum and are using it as a tool for teaching literacy, writing, and critical thinking. It’s written with teachers in mind so it has all the background information on the documents, along with questions for students. It also has ways for teachers to scaffold the material up or down to make it accessible for students at all levels.
What experience do you hope to offer through The Lab School that students can’t get elsewhere?
We spend a lot of time these days talking about diversity and inclusivity. To me these ideas start with honoring and affirming the identity of children first and what makes them unique and special. When we regularly affirm, honor, and hold space for who children are, what their gifts are, and where their strengths and interests lie, we’re sending a message to them that who they are and their uniqueness is 100 percent okay. That, in turn, models what they will do for others. I hope that our school does that. I hope our learners feel affirmed and confident, because it’s difficult to appreciate, respect, and hold space for others if you have not had that done for you or learned to do that for yourself.
“Fun first” is the motto for your inaugural year. Why is play-based learning such an integral part of The Lab School, and how will you incorporate this into the classroom?
One of the things that has been slowly taken away from the learning environment is giving children space to play. They learn so much about themselves, each other, and the world around them through play. Our learners will spend a lot of time doing what they believe is just play, but what we know is problem-solving, critical thinking, learning to communicate, and developing math, science, and reasoning skills. Each week, we will have a theme for outdoor and indoor recreational play aimed at cultivating specific skills, whether that’s sportsmanship, cooperation, or dexterity. When children are having fun, they are innately pushing themselves. So giving them that freedom is the best way for them to learn.
When will the school open, and where will it be located?
Our launch date is August 16. We’re starting our inaugural year with ages 3 through 6, and next year we’ll add 7 through 11. We will be sharing a space with First Baptist Church — Broad at 2835 Broad Avenue in Midtown. Parents can apply for enrollment through our website, but I also encourage them to give me a call at (901) 582-6522 or email to set up a time to chat. I love talking to families about our program and getting to know them.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or have to give?
My dad once said to me: Don’t miss it. By that, he meant the beauty of the journey. We get so caught up in where we’re going, what we want to build, and what we want to see happen that we often miss the gifts, the lessons, the joy, and the beauty in the getting there. That advice — don’t miss it — is something I often say to myself these days. And that’s advice I would pass on, too. As you’re busy getting there, don’t miss the gifts in the getting there.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
I spend a lot of time in the car driving children around, so I cannot live without my podcasts. I’m obsessed with them! I’ve also got to have my coffee. Also the time I spend in prayer and meditation, I can’t live without those moments. I give myself at least 10 minutes of that every day. It centers me and reminds me of what I’m doing and why.
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