First Things First

Today I met with my department colleagues for the first time since June. We had so much to discuss from materials distribution to our learning management set-up. Revisions to our learning scales and how we assess students were also topics on the table. All of those are necessary conversations to have because we want to deliver a consistent message for the students who will be joining us in 20 days: special education, English language, and gifted learners. 

Now that we have some of our foundational routines set, I am now moving my attention to how I can support the emotional and social needs of my new students. I teach at a Title I school: Grades 7 and 8. As this is my 26th year in the classroom, I know very well the trepidation that 7th graders experience. It usually takes them one full quarter (that’s 10 weeks!) to get their bearings. They go from having one or two teachers to six teachers. They switch classes several times a day. Now add the various challenges and unknowns of technology to the mix for distance learning and you have a perfect storm a brewin’.

On the first day of school, after I do the introduction to world history, I usually have my students engage in the scavenger hunt where they get to meet their peers. Did I mention that we have students from no less than FIVE elementary schools who feed into our school? Talk about starting over! But the scavenger hunt was a great way for them to stand up, walk around, catch up with friends, and meet new friends. By the time the bell rang on Day 1, I would ask my kiddoes . . . “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” And the majority of them would shyly nod their heads almost with a look of relief as they walked out my door to another class with a different teacher and a different set of students.

Since we are starting virtual this year, the first day of school routines have to change. And since I intentionally focused on social-emotional learning (SEL) last year, it is natural for me to continue with that since there’s so much more I need to do for my students in this current educational climate.

Aside of SEL though, I also think that it’s important to consider how to integrate culturally responsive teaching into my instructional practices. When you think about it, these students have not had a “normal” school experience since mid-March. Life for them has most likely been a series of unknown challenges, ups and downs, and all-around uncertainty. For the record, middle schoolers crave parameters and routines–even if they normally try to buck the grain.

Needless to say, students this year are starting with a completely different mindset and outlook. 

I’m sure they are exhausted. They want to be with their friends. They want some kind of normalcy (I mean, don’t we all?). But I’m not talking about making things “normal” for them in the virtual learning environment. I’m thinking that I need to tackle issues that are closer to the heart.

I recently came across an article in KQED by Amielle Major titled How to Develop Culturally Responsive Teaching for Distance Learning. She aptly writes that we need to be “thinking about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning.”

Think about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning.

Kids these days cannot control their environment. They cannot control what is posted on social media. They cannot influence what is presented in the news. And these things can wreck havoc on the mind and heart if one doesn’t make a concerted effort to step away from the fray here and there.

So, while my incoming students cannot control their environment, social media, or the news, they can control their learning experience if I design and offer opportunities for student agency. As we are (without a doubt) going to have to reduce the amount of content that we would normally cover, I am also thinking about how I can design my world history lessons to allow for even more voice and choice. Content is important—I know that. But so are skills. And that’s mainly what I focused on last spring. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t subscribe to the naysayers who claim that students didn’t learn during the last 13 weeks of school. My students learned self-regulatory skills; they learned how to analyze multiple causes and effects; they learned how to visually display their learning; and they learned how to be there for each other. 

My point—and I remain steadfast to this goal—is to focus on the development of the whole child. I will focus on more than just their content knowledge of world history from 500-1500 C.E. I’m going to pay particular attention to how I can better support the culturally and academically diverse group of students who are going to log in on August 24 to my world history class.

Major’s (2020) article suggests that teachers who are interested in integrating and incorporating culturally responsive teaching into their instructional practices do the following:

  • Deepen the background knowledge of students (reduce the gap by front-loading)
  • Cultivate cognitive routines to help students make connections across their learning
  • Build word wealth so that students can articulate their thoughts, feelings, and learning

Since we are forced to change how we are approach teaching and learning in the fall, I think it’s a great time to also examine our teaching practices to see how we can better support and empower our diverse group of learners. 

There are many things that need to be done at the start of any new school year. However, I think one of the more important considerations is to meet our students where they are and then work to equip them with the skills and knowledge to become empowered learners. 

And that’s how we can help close the equity gap.

Reference

Major, A. (2020). How to develop culturally responsive teaching for distance learning. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55941/how-to-develop-culturally-responsive-teaching-for-distance-learning

Uncharted Territory

Bitmoji Image

For many of us, the upcoming year is going to be something like we’ve never seen before. Whether starting fully in-person, cohort/hybrid model, or remote, teachers are having to figure out how to best support our students during this pandemic. We learned a lot of lessons when in-person schooling quickly transitioned to online in March. Many of us struggled with how to continue the learning process for our kids. Do we continue with our pacing and content? Should we try independent projects? How much should we assign our students? When should we schedule our Zoom or Google Meet sessions? How many sessions should we schedule? The questions were endless. And no one had any answers, as many of us were dealing with more than just want happens in our classrooms.

When the 2019-2020 school year ended, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who breathed a HUGE sigh of relief. This summer, I tried my best to put some serious space between my professional and personal self. However, even though I had every intention to not focus on the upcoming 2020-2021 school year and what that would look like…I focused on it. How could I not? 

Several weeks ago, the governor of California provided guidelines for schools and districts. He clearly stated certain metrics that must be met in order for in-person (with social distancing measures) to resume. With those metrics, it meant that my district had little choice but to inform students and other stakeholders that the school year would begin online. 

There are a bi-jillion reasons out there about why we should return to in-person, hybrid, or remote. Everyone has a valid point. And there are no easy answers. But what I’m a bit concerned about are the various plans that educational organizations, districts, and schools are putting out there for distance/remote learning. The idea that in-person schooling can be replicated online is not possible. It’s just not. The effective instructional strategies that my district has been training us on for the past several years cannot be effectively replicated online. Holding daily Zoom or Google Meets with students thinking that direct instruction via video will have the same effect as in-person instruction is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

What I would love to see is a complete rehaul of the way education looks in public schools. Why try to replicate what occurs in-person when there are so many other ways to engage in the learning process via technology? Why bring 30 students together in a Zoom or Google Meets session so that a teacher can talk at them for 30 or 45 minutes? And why are we making students stay online while they do their work? I’ve heard that some district plans suggest putting students in individual break-out rooms (in Zoom) while they work on a task. 

Seriously?

And then while perusing my Twitter feed, my friend shared an interesting document:

While the arguments put forth here are certainly legitimate and the comments in the thread make good points . . . my point is . . . we are in uncharted territory. 

There’s pros and cons to that, I know.

However, we now have an incredible opportunity to change how learning occurs with our students. One of the benefits of online learning is that one is no longer bound by the constraints of a traditional school day (Christensen et al., 2013; Liu et al., 2014; Watson et al., 2014). Technology gives students and teachers more opportunities to make learning meaningful and authentic (Jonassen et al., 2008)—well, at least it should

We shouldn’t plop students in front of a live video multiple times a day so that they can see their teachers talk at them. Why not use flipped lessons to provide direct instruction and then give students the opportunity to choose the process or product to demonstrate their learning? For some students, this aligns perfectly with their drive for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. This also allows for flexibility and choice for the student. For students who would like a bit more support and structure, why not simply offer open office hours (via your video conferencing tool of choice)? Or what about this? Why not schedule short webinars for students who would like live instruction? Afterwards, students can ask questions and then go off to figure out how they want to demonstrate their learning.

Children are not much different than adults when it comes to learning (Bransford et al., 2000). They know what they like. They know what motivates them. They want agency and voice in what they do. They want to engage in meaningful tasks. 

So…why not take this opportunity to use technology as a tool for differentiation? To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to get together via Zoom. It’s been nice to connect with friends this way. But those meet-ups occur once or twice a month for maybe an hour. However, the proposed structure that is being handed down by many districts are putting students and teachers in front of a camera for anywhere between an hour and a half to upwards of four hours a day (the total time depends on district policies). Think about it this way…would you like to sit in front of a camera for several hours a day while someone talks at you? What about working in an individual break-out room with your camera on for several hours? 

Don’t get me started on the bandwidth or data issues that this poses for many of the families who are already struggling financially. 

My point is, since we are in uncharted territory…why not break the chains of the traditional school model? Why not consider ways that technology can be leveraged to offer students more opportunities to master important skills (e.g., reading, writing, listening, speaking, digital) in a different format? The research-based best practices for online learning can and do work. We just have to be willing to not just think but work outside-of-the-box.

References

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and schoolhttps://doi.org/10.17226/9853

Christensen, C., Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2013). Is k-12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids. Clayton Christensen Institute. https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Is-K-12-blended-learning-disruptive.pdf

Jonassen, D., Howland, J., Marra, R. M., & Crismond, D. (2008). Meaningful learning with technology (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.

Liu, M., Scordino, R., Geurtz, R., Navarrete, C., Ko, Y., & Lim M. (2014). A look at research on mobile learning in k-12 education from 2007 to the present. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 46, 325-372. https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2014.925681

Watson, J., Pape, L., Murin, A., Gemin, B., & Vashaw, L. (2014). Keeping pace with k-12 digital learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Evergreen Education Group. https://www.evergreenedgroup.com/keeping-pace-reports

Assume Positive Intent

Please and Thanks

My goal this summer was to write more blog posts to not only put my thoughts “to paper” but also to put it out there in the universe so as to hold me accountable for my words. Normally summers are a time for me to relax, enjoy the little things in life, and eventually find my bearings so that I can be a better teacher for my students in the fall. But this summer (like the past four months) have been anything but normal. I have tried to stay away from social media and the news because I typically come away either more frustrated or more confused than before. However, after scrolling through a little bit of both (a terrible habit I need to break as that shouldn’t be the way to start my morning), I came to the realization that it’s time for me to put my thoughts “to paper” and to put it out there in the universe as to hold me accountable for my words. After all, I cannot expect others to do things if I am not willing to do it myself first. To be clear, I cannot make anyone do anything. But I can model for them what I’d like to receive in turn.

This message has been relayed in many ways…

  • “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NKJV)
  • “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” (Confucius, The Analects)
  • Golden Rule Treat others as you want to be treated
  • “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” (Gandhi…) oh wait, apparently, his actual words are a bit different . . . “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him” (Gandhi, 1913)

My point is…no matter the culture or religious or non-religious affiliation, the Golden Rule is present in some way, shape, or form. I say this because I want to be clear, my goal is to assume positive intent when taking in what people are saying, writing, and doing. That’s not to say that I am going to approach things in a naive manner. But I am going to assume that people are coming from a positive place. . . until their actions show otherwise. 

But I also say this because I would like people to also assume positive intent in what I’m writing (if they decide to keep reading, that is).

Okay here goes.

I have watched and read numerous news articles, video clips, tweets, and blog posts berating teachers for not wanting to go back to in-person instruction in the fall. So many people have been chiming in on this from all walks of life. Yes, I believe everyone has a right to their opinion (I am a firm believer in the First Amendment), but I don’t understand the vitriol that is being targeted at teachers who raise legitimate concerns about going back to in-person instruction in the fall. 

People who say that schools closed in March, and who believe that no learning occurred when the physical aspect of schools closed, apparently do not realize that the majority of teachers worked harder than ever before trying to transition what they were previously doing in-person to an online format. In my district, we had ONE DAY to transition, but more tragically, we didn’t get to set our students up for the change. 

Now those who know me, my background, and skillset know that I thrive in an online environment. Both of my graduate programs were online (and I learned so much in both so the naysayers about the rigor and value of online learning perhaps did not have the same experience – or any experience with online learning). But I digress.

Moving from in-person to online learning was albeit a bit easier for me since I have the knowledge and skills to run not only a blended but fully online course. Those who tout that online learning is not learning or is not as valuable as face-to-face learning likely (a) have not experienced an online course that was thoughtfully created and masterly facilitated by a teacher trained in how to deliver an online course and (b) have little knowledge of the pedagogy behind effective online course design and delivery. To be clear, what occurred in March when schools transitioned from in-person instruction to an online format cannot and SHOULD NOT be called online learning. Distance learning? Sure. Remote learning? Why not. Crisis learning? Sounds closer to the reality. But true online learning? No.

Luckily I have experience teaching in the face-to-face, hybrid, and online formats. But I realize that means little to those K12 teachers who are looking at the possibility of teaching hybrid or fully online courses in the fall.

I mention all this because teachers cannot be expected to know HOW to teach online if they do not have the skills or knowledge. And teachers shouldn’t be blamed for that. K12 teachers made a choice to teach in-person or online—and based on that choice, they chose the trainings and workshops to help them master their craft. 

The sudden transition from in-person to online instruction meant that the formerly face-to-face K12 teacher was immediately thrust into the online teaching and learning realm. One that they were not adequately trained for…and likely was not something they were interested in doing in the first place. BUT that doesn’t mean teachers weren’t/aren’t willing to learn to do what’s best for their students.

But they need the training to do so (I’ll save that for a blog post for another time).

Many of the most frustrating things I’m reading in the news and in social media rest on blaming teachers for the inadequate learning for their students when in-person classes suddenly switched to online in March. What are people basing this “inadequate” learning on? As far as I can tell, standardized tests were cancelled (not a bad thing – and most certainly a post for another time). District benchmarks were cancelled (also not a bad thing). Many governors and their respective superintendents for departments of education put out directives to hold students harmless when it came to assigning grades. So based on that, how are people determining that “inadequate” learning occurred? What kind of metrics were used? How can one come to a conclusion without any type of data or measurement?

In looking at my own students—who kept a Living History Journal for the 13 weeks that in-person instruction was cancelled—I see that many of them learned quite a bit. They learned how to be self-regulated learners (e.g., make a schedule, get enough sleep, review their To Do List, eat a healthy meal); they learned new hobbies (e.g., how to bake a cake, sew, master a new video game); they learned how to develop better relationships with their siblings and parents; they learned that they needed to build a support system to help them navigate how to “do” remote learning; they learned that voices (in particular, their voices) mattered when it comes to social justice issues…those were just some of the things they learned.

So, I’m not buying the idea that “inadequate” learning occurred as a result of cancelling in-person instruction.

How do I know this? I read it in their journals. 

Oh, and my students also learned how to get their ideas across in the written format (journal writing), articulate their thoughts verbally (via Flipgrid videos), and demonstrate their learning using visuals (sketchnotes posted to Padlet). In short, my students had plenty of opportunities to practice reading, writing, listening, speaking, and digital literacy skills.

Not sure how that’s “inadequate” learning…? Hmmmm.

But back to my original point, please assume positive intent when teachers (and I’m including myself in this group) are concerned about going back to in-person instruction in the fall. In California the number of positive COVID-19 cases are rising. The science (SCIENCE!!!) says that wearing masks AND maintaining a distance of 6 feet BOTH are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus. Anyone who has been a classroom teacher knows that students can follow rules. But do they choose to follow the rules? All of the time? Do people calling for schools to offer in-person instruction in the fall honestly believe that students are going to wear masks for six hours AND maintain a distance of 6 feet? 

Yes, I’ve read the reports that transmission of the virus is low among children. But who do you think these children go home to? And just because the transmission of the virus is low among children, it’s adults who are teaching the class. It’s adults who are supervising them on the playgrounds and the lunch room. It’s adults who are on supervision duty when students enter and leave the campus. So while the transmission of the virus may be low among children, they are in contact with a variety of adults throughout the school day. And these adults (including me) go home to our families…some of whom have underlying health issues. 

So you see, resuming in-person instruction in the fall without a cure for the virus or data that indicates that mitigation is having an effect in my area is a legitimate concern. Oh sure, my 25 years in the classroom has given me quite a bit of immunity to the myriad of germs that students bring into my classroom day-in and day-out, but that doesn’t apply to COVID-19. And it doesn’t make me feel comfortable to be in a closed environment (did I mention that the windows in my classroom DO NOT open?) where I could conceivably catch the virus and then take it home to my husband who has a weakened immune system due to previously having cancer. It is not selfish to want to keep my husband safe. It is not selfish to not want to catch a virus where the symptoms have varying degrees of effects on people. It is not selfish to want to be extremely cautious in light of the many and often contradicting messages from (supposedly) reputable sources. 

Believe me when I say that I want to be back in the classroom. I LOVE being with my students. It was HEART-BREAKING to not be able to provide comfort to them during that highly confusing and scary time in the spring. It was SO HARD to end the school year with a written announcement instead of playing games and giving them hugs as they left for summer. I HATED not being able to see their faces to get a better idea of how they were really doing. And it was HARD to create assignments that would work online for students who were not used to doing everything online. 

Nothing about what is happening right now or for the past four months has been ideal. Heck, this whole thing sucks.

But I tell you one thing, I am not behind any proposal that puts humans in harms way. Starting school in-person in the fall is not putting humans first. The fact that people are dying and that some are experiencing lingering effects (the long-term impact being unknown) should be enough to indicate that resuming in-person instruction in the fall is a bad idea for students, teachers, administrators, support staff—children, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, parents, and grandparents.

Please do not assume that I’m writing any of this because I don’t want to work in the fall. I fully intend (as do most of the K12 teachers) to be working harder than ever to provide as many meaningful learning experiences we can for our students—our children—our kids. Just because teachers aren’t in the classroom in-person doesn’t mean that we aren’t teaching. We are. We have been. And anyone who says otherwise is speaking out of ignorance. AND I suspect that the majority of us (teachers) on summer break have not stopped thinking about our in-coming students and what the fall will look like—regardless if it’s in-person, hybrid, or online. 

What I’m trying to relay in this extremely long post (sorry!) is please assume positive intent when teachers share their concerns about the virus and their hesitation to return to in-person instruction in the fall. I am one of those teachers. I want to be back in the classroom with my students. But I also want to protect my loved ones.