Silver Linings

Pixton Class Photos (Spring Semester)

To begin, my students and I started this school year completely virtual with rising cases in our county and, more specifically, the zip codes for our school. We all struggled with dual challenges between school/work versus our personal lives.

As we approach the end of the weirdest school year EVER, I find myself reflecting on how far my students and I have come.

I have taught 7th grade for the past 26 years so I know the trepidation that incoming middle schoolers experience. Perhaps starting school at home was a bit more comforting since they didn’t have to worry about (1) where their classrooms were, (2) how things were going to go in the locker rooms where they changed for PE, and (3) who they were going to eat lunch with.

But with that comforting thought also likely came concerns about (1) bandwidth/Internet connectivity, (2) how online learning was going to work, and (3) whether they would still fit in or not.

I think it’s safe to say that all of these comforts and concerns occurred for both my students and me at several points throughout this school year. In fact, I think we are still navigating some of those challenges even today: May 6, 2021.

What I’m most proud of this year is the persistence of my students. This year had not been easy for them. Many of them struggled with bandwidth, access to devices, completing assignments online without the immediate help of their teachers, but more importantly concerns about their family as some parents were laid off, others contracted COVID and recovered (while others did not), and monetary issues that affected housing and food.

How do I know this?

My students wrote about them in their Living History Journals.

What I love about middle schoolers is their lack of filter. Their Living History Journals are chock full of stories about learning how to skateboard, making their first cake, learning how to perfect their artistic skills. But these journals also contain heart-breaking stories of losing family members, unbearable loneliness, and in some cases outright despair.

These journal entries were the life-line between my students and me. I was able to gauge how they were doing as well as provide encouragement and feedback.

Make no mistake, reviewing these weekly journal entries has been quite taxing. I felt like I never caught a break in the grading/reviewing/planning/executing cycle.

However, I know that I am not alone in dealing with the declining health of a parent. The legal and medical decisions that have to be made have continued to overwhelm me. But when I start to wallow in self-pity, I remind myself that I am not alone in this. Many of my students have had to deal with issues of loss and death…and they don’t have the same support system or maturity of experience like me. So these Living History Journals have helped me to stand up a bit straighter because if my students can persevere, then I most certainly can.

This has been a tough 14 months. Nothing could have prepared us for this. But what I’ve learned is that through grace, love, and patience, we can all come out stronger as a result of this trying time.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I feel as if my students and I are finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We are going to make it after all. =)

Learning…Gained.

Bitmoji Image

Having been a classroom teacher for over two decades, I can attest to what middle schoolers come to me with in September versus what they leave with come June. My middle schoolers typically walk through my door with a varying range of reading and writing abilities, temperaments, interests, etc. By the end the school year, these students leave me for 8th grade hopefully with more knowledge and skills when it comes to understanding historical content. I try my best to teach them historical empathy skills so that they can better understand context and how that provides a lens from which they need to use so as to not pass judgment on the past.

Without a doubt the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into my plans to develop mini-historians within the controlled four walls of my classroom. However, when I hear people (e.g., politicians, journalists, fellow educators) use the term learning loss, the hair on my neck instantly stands up and my fists start to clench. I don’t need anyone to tell me that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted “normal” school procedures, policies, and practices. I know that.

And I suspect that many who are stating that this learning loss is devastating to our students are basing those statements on test scores. As in, the students are not progressing on standardized tests. But standardized tests were suspended last spring. At least they were in my state. So, how do we know that learning loss actually occurred?

And, what do standardized tests really measure? And, is that the sole measure of learning?

Educators use the term multiple measures in reference to looking at the whole child and their growth. But in my experience, test scores seem play a bigger role in determining whether a child is learning (or not)–the “other” measures do not seem to carry the same weight. To be clear, I am not saying that tests are bad or that tests do not measure growth. They do. And tests have their place. But I do think too much emphasis has been and continues to be placed on test scores.

So, what does learning loss really mean?

In my doctoral classes, my professors constantly reminded us of the importance of operationalizing the variable. If the variable isn’t properly defined, how could we possibly determine if change occurred?

When I hear the term learning loss, it reminds me of the work by Dr. Karl L. Alexander from Johns Hopkins University. His research (which spanned over two decades) examined summer slide or summer learning loss for children living in Baltimore. Findings from his studies illuminate the connection between socioeconomics and academic achievement–with academic achievement serving as the measure of learning. The variables for this longitudinal study were clearly operationalized.

I bring this up because my students this spring will be taking standardized tests in English, mathematics, and science. And, it’s a distinct possibility that their scores may be lower than their counterparts who took the same tests in spring of 2019.

But let’s be realistic here. Our students have been living in a pandemic for the past 11 months. They have been surviving along with the rest of us. The world as they knew it has changed. Schooling as they remembered has changed. Social interactions that they were used to has changed.

But what I’ve found from my students over these past 11 months is something pretty remarkable. Actually, it’s quite heart-warming when you think about it.

During this pandemic, when in-person instruction was abruptly shut-down, and students found themselves staring at a screen for hours on end…a silver lining appeared in their writing.

Yes, their writing.

As I teach a semester course, I have had three sets of students keep a Living History Journal since March 17, 2020. In those journal pages, students honestly wrote about their fears, their confusion, their sadness, their anger, and even their hopelessness. But in those same journals, my students shared that they were happy to be able to spend more time with their families, that they grew closer to their siblings (gasp!), that they were picking up new hobbies (e.g., baking, art, skateboarding, guitar), and, perhaps more surprisingly, that they were finding new ways to keep themselves occupied.

Resilience.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Family matters.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Love is important.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Connections keep us going.

That’s what my students learned over the past 11 months.

Here are excerpts from some the Living History Journals from March 2020 – present:

  • “I been listening to musicals like ‘Six’ and ‘Hamilton’ because it’s a fun way to learn history with fun music and jokes!”
  • “I remembered about how lifeless I felt about quarantine but now the feeling changed. I hope that means that I have learned to face things, it’ll be a sign that I matured. I don’t want to be so childish.”
  • “Another thing I did this week was that I began to look into volunteering programs. I still have to see what I want to volunteer in, but I’m looking forward to volunteering because I’ll be doing it with my sister…”
  • “We played for about 1 hour then got bored so decided to go cook ramen on FaceTime [sic]. I’m not going to lie, that was fun because we were talking like we were professional chefs. I think we’re as good as Gordon Ramsay! [sic]”
  • “This week instead of playing my tablet, I decided to work on a painting.”
  • “I find hanging out with family [is] one of the best things during social distancing, and it is really helping me cope during these tough times.”
  • “I got to spend more time with my siblings.”
  • “I don’t really want to go back because I like being comfy and around my family at home. I love school, but isn’t it just nice to be around family all day?!”
  • “I have started to learn how to love myself and take care of myself too.”
  • “I think I really matured throughout this. Quarantine has really taught me more about myself, and that I should live to be myself.”
  • “I have visited my grandma’s house on Friday. It was really stressful, but it’s good to get some family time. You never know when bad things will come, so it’s best to make good use of the time you have with others.”
  • “I am very fortunate to have all my family safe and with good health. I dislike the idea of the pandemic ruining my middle school experience, but we humans have no power to control whether or not the pandemic stays or not.”

These excerpts show me that while my students may not make the same expected strides academically when they take the standardized tests this spring…I believe that they have learned equally (if not more) important skills that will benefit them in the future:

Resilience

Family

Love

Connection

Grace

Compassion

I don’t count this as learning loss, but rather as learning gained.

Leading with Empathy

As an introvert, I naturally shy away from the limelight as I prefer to be a fly on the wall enjoying the scene unfolding before me. But my passion for technology and teacher education has pushed me out of my comfort zone to present in front of groups of people (both large and small). I mention this because I just finished putting together a presentation I am going to share with a group of educators next Saturday. And, I am both excited and exhausted.

I’m excited because I get to share my knowledge and experience as a classroom teacher in a formerly blended, now fully online learning environment. But I’m also exhausted at the thought of having to speak in front of people.

Story of my life.

The presentation is for teachers and educators who are enrolled in an educational leadership and technology course at a local university. These master’s students are learning about leadership and organizational change. And, I was asked to share my experience as an educational leader whose passion is technology integration.

I have been presenting to teachers since 1998. I began with sharing how I created lessons that were rigorous and engaging for my middle school students. Over the years, I have shifted from merely sharing my ideas, strategies, and lessons learned to an incorporation of how technology can be the catalyst for meaningful learning.

To be clear, I am not advocating the integration of technology for technology’s sake. I am a firm believer that we have to begin with the learning objective and then match that to the technology tool. For example, if you want your students to collaborate on a writing assignment, Google Docs is the perfect medium. If you want your students to practice speaking literacy skills, then perhaps Flipgrid with their video and audio features would work. If you want your students to create a display of their learning, then Padlet would suffice as a virtual bulletin board. But it begins with the learning objective first.

Technology is the means to an end. Not the end itself.

Students are more apt (than adults) to simply jump into a task that includes technology. I’m not entirely sure why, but from my experience they just are.

Adults come to the table with prior experience, varied levels of knowledge and skills, and preconceived notions of the value of technology for student learning (Ertmer et al., 2012; Frank et al., 2011; Shifflet & Weilbacher, 2015; Wachira & Keengwe, 2011).

So, if you want teachers to “buy-in” to the idea of how technology can support student learning outcomes, you need to meet teachers where they are. And, that means starting with empathy.

Websters Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

I mention this because when it comes to technology adoption, integration, implementation, or any other verb of your choosing, we need to first begin with empathizing with the user. And, that means starting with their concerns. What are their concerns when it comes to using technology?

Hall and Hord (2015) purport that there are six stages of concern:

Impact

  • Refocusing – I have some ideas about something that would work even better.
  • Collaboration – How is this related to what my colleagues are doing?
  • Consequence – How is my use of technology affecting students?

Task

  • Management – I seem to be spending all of my time getting the technology set-up.

Self

  • Personal – How will using technology affect me?
  • Informational – I would like to know more about technology. 

Unrelated

  • Unconcerned – I am more concerned about other things.

All of these concerns are valid and are potential barriers to technology integration. So when considering a new initiative that includes technology, professional developers, trainers, coaches, etc. need to begin by empathizing with the teacher.

How can you find out what teachers’ concerns are regarding technology?

You ask.

What I’ve learned over the years when working with both children and teachers is that everything is based on relationships. Building a good rapport with students helps when you want them to complete tasks that they may not necessarily find interesting or motivating. The same can be said for teachers. If you are asking teachers to change their thinking or instructional practice, then building a good rapport is key.

This is where being an introvert is difficult.

Normally, I am not one to start small talk. And, I am most certainly not one to just walk up to people and start a conservation. But this is something I’ve naturally done with students who walked through my doors. I know they typically hate history, so my goal is to build a connection with them so that they are at least open to the possibility that history can be very interesting. I’ve since then adopted the same practice when working with adults. I begin by getting to know them, who they are, what motivates them as a teacher, etc.

I’m hoping that these short conversations will help when it comes time for me to introduce something that is going to potentially change how they teach.

Hall and Hord (2015) also advocate for something they call the one-legged interview which is really just short conversations in passing whereby people end up sharing challenges and celebrations for whatever change initiative is on the docket. These quick conversations can occur in-between classes or in the workroom when making copies–well, maybe not at this time since most of us are still remote, but that’s not say that we can’t drop a quick email or text to a colleague to check in, right?

The relationships we build through these snippets of conversation are what help us to develop empathy for each other. Or in my case, it’s what helps me better understand the concerns of my colleagues when it comes to technology integration.

If I don’t first invest in building the relationship with my colleagues, what’s to motivate them to want to change?

I cannot empathize with their situation, I am going to talk over their heads, they won’t care what I have to say, and then everything will be for naught.

This is a lesson I’ve learned throughout my years of planning and facilitating professional development. Without empathy, very little change will happen, and I’m pretty confident that any change that did happen would not be sustainable.

Change can occur people see the value in it for themselves.

But we need to open the door and greet them with empathy.

References

Ertmer, P. A., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Sadik, O., Sendurur, E., & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59, 423–435. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.001

Frank, K. A., Zhao, Y., Penuel, W. R., Ellefson, N., & Porter, S. (2011). Focus, fiddle, and friends: Experiences that transform knowledge for the implementation of innovations. Sociology of Education, 84, 137–156. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040711401812

Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2015). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (4th ed.). Pearson.

Shifflet, R., & Weilbacher, G. (2015). Teacher beliefs and their influence on technology use: A case study. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15, 368–394. Retrieved from http://www.citejournal.org

Wachira, P., & Keengwe, J. (2011). Technology integration barriers: Urban school mathematics teachers perspectives. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20, 17–25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-010-9230-y