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.

Mulling Over Internet Accessibility

I work in an urban district at the cross-roads of five different cities in Orange County, California. My school is a Title I school meaning that we receive federal funds based on the large percentage of our student population who come from low socioeconomic households. I mention this because many of my students struggled during the COVID-19 school closures with accessibility to devices and reliable Internet. My school attempted to address the device issue by passing out Chromebooks to students. But Internet accessibility was a whole other ballgame. Although Spectrum offered service at a discount, I suspect that many families opted to use their money to pay for rent and food. My district put hotspots in school buses and parked those in strategic places throughout our area, but complaints from the community shut that down rather quickly (don’t get me started on THAT issue).

But I’m writing this post because although I have reliable Internet access at home in South Orange County, California, while we are living at our other home in Northern Michigan, Internet access is limited to hotspots from our cell phones. We live in a rural area…a good distance from the nearest town.

I suppose that we could get wifi here, but that entails having a company come out to the farm to dig a trench and then run I don’t know how many bajillion feet of wire to the nearest box. Because that’s not an expense we are willing to take up at this time, my access to the Internet is solely dependent on the strength and speed of data from my cell phone’s hotspot.

Which brings me to my point about accessibility…

I am teaching online this summer — not because of COVID-19 but because I’m teaching a course in the online doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University. This means that Internet access is an absolute necessity as I need to check emails, read discussion board posts, and download assignments for grading. So far, things seem to be going well. We changed data plans to accommodate my husband’s and my work obligations. But where we used to take for granted our ability to access the Internet through high-speed wifi…here, we are at the mercy of our data plan. 

First world problems, right?

However, this experience (full disclosure: it’s only been one week so far) has made me more cognizant of what many of my own students likely struggled with when school moved entirely online in the spring. I mean, I knew what they were going through because they wrote about it in their Living History Journals. But that makes really stop and think. How many of their parents stressed over choosing Internet access over food or rent? How many worried about how far their child would fall behind without reliable Internet access to their classes? How many were frustrated at the thought that they had one more expense on their plate?

I don’t have any of those problems whether I live in Michigan or California. I am truly blessed in that regard. But I now know from experience that it’s a bit stressful to think about Internet accessibility and what will happen if we go over our data plan. We were told that our Internet speed would be throttled if we went over the GBs allowed on our new plan. So how will that affect my ability to teach or my husband’s ability to virtually lead his team? Luckily, we can afford to up our data plan again which is why I’m not meaning to complain at all. What I’m now fully realizing though is that it’s mentally stressful to think about not having reliable access or having to put more money into cellular data plans. So how much more (infinitely more) must my students and parents have gone through during the 12 weeks when in-person instruction was cancelled…? 

With the number of COVID-19 cases rising in California, it’s plausible that we may either start in-person instruction and move quickly online or just start online in the fall. But now I’m thinking, what can we do as educators…as a school…as a district…to better support the needs of our families so that our students don’t fall behind? What can we do to ensure our parents that we are in this together.

I don’t have any answers (yet). 

Just mulling over things as usual.

Staying Connected via Padlet

Working with middle schoolers in and of itself is a complex process. You have 30 little bodies each with their own unique personalities and dispositions and only 45 minutes a day to get through whatever it is that you have planned. Add technology to the mix and now you’re looking at complex to the nth level.

I think by now most educators have realized that just because these kids are growing up in an era where technology use seems ubiquitous does not necessarily mean that these kids understand and are ready to use technology for learning (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2017). In fact, I think the cancellation of in-person instruction for K16 education highlighted the fact that the digital divide and the digital use divide is still a very real problem (Auxie & Anderson, 2020).

In my conversations with fellow educators, it seems as if teachers approached distance learning in two ways: continue with current pacing (albeit at a reduced level) or created new curriculum that aligned better with what students would be able to do at home on their own.

At my school, I was given the opportunity to choose if I wanted to continue with the current pacing or create an independent project. I chose the latter, and I’m so glad I did.

World history in my district is a semester course (don’t get me started on how to teach 1500 years of history in 20 weeks). So I used this time as an opportunity to try out a new curriculum knowing the level of digital access my students have at home, their technology knowledge based on what I taught them in class, and what I thought would interest them yet also provide a bit of respite from the ton of stressors that they were dealing with.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I have made a concerted effort to create assignments that would help students acquire and practice mastering socio-emotional skills. Every week there was an assignment that had students reflecting on the ethics of decisions by historical figures or making a personal connection to the content. But then I also snuck in assignments that would hopefully help to create an online learning presence – something that is foundational for online learning to be successful. I had to be careful in which apps or websites I chose to use because modeling was not an option during remote learning. I needed apps/websites that were easy to figure out, and then I used them over and over again. Padlet was one that my students used on a regular basis. Each week, students summed up their learning in a creative way (e.g., sketchnotes, open mind, meme) and posted their project on a class Padlet wall for all 150 of their peers to view and enjoy.

Padlet was our go-to app because it didn’t require a log-in, could be used on a mobile device or desktop, and was easy to figure out on their own. Before in-person classes were cancelled, we had used Padlet once. But once we were solely relying on interacting via online platforms, I decided that Padlet was going to be the tool that kept us connected.

The last assignment I gave to my students was to create a Summer Quarantunes Playlist. I wanted them to post a song that either motivated them or reminded them of better times ahead. By having students post their songs to a class Padlet wall, we created a playlist of various genres of music from my highly diverse group of middle schoolers.

For the past 12 weeks my students have been sharing their highs and lows of living with the coronavirus crisis and recent protests in their Living History Journals. But this playlist offered additional insight to how they were feeling…and I just love that. =)

Enjoy!

Made with Padlet

References

Auxie, B., & Anderson, M. (2020). As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face a digital ‘homework gap’. PEW Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/16/as-schools-close-due-to-the-coronavirus-some-u-s-students-face-a-digital-homework-gap

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2017). Reimagining the role of technology in education: 2017 national education technology plan update. https://tech.ed.gov/files/2017/01/NETP17.pdf