A Reflection: Many Best Practices Transcend School Walls

Across the globe, the last several weeks have dealt us all a set of conditions that have challenged us emotionally, intellectually, socially, psychologically, physically, and temporally: Boundaries between our personal and professional spaces have collapsed. We have lost the rituals and events that help us mark and celebrate the passage of time. Interactions within homes have intensified with the constant proximity to immediate family. The locus of schooling has shifted to the home. We have been separated from our extended support systems. And all while many families have faced financial strains from the pandemic and its impacts.

As we reflect on this time, we realize that while so much of our world has changed, many best practices in education transcend the migration of the physical classroom to the virtual environment. We have developed an even greater respect for both educators and families. We have been impressed by some new modalities for communication and learning. And relationships continue to be at the core of effective teaching and learning.

Family engagement is powerful. For years, research and experts have agreed that strong family engagement is beneficial for all students. But, oftentimes, barriers of time, place, and family circumstance have prevented educators and families from forging a productive, open, and balanced partnership. Now that families and educators are virtually in each other’s homes on a weekly or daily basis, there is a growing comfort with more direct and ongoing communication. Additionally, the increased role of families in managing and overseeing a student’s education has created a sense of mutual respect between families and teachers. Many parents and caregivers have a newfound understanding and appreciation for all that educators do for students. And through this forced shift, teachers have relied on parents as a fundamental piece of the learning equation, realizing the value of this teaching and learning support team.

Tools and content should be flexible and accessible. With new learning systems and structures in place, students and families have greater flexibility and access to materials, instructional content, and ways to connect with teachers. This flexibility of time and order of work completion empower students with some choice in their learning. Expanded access to instructional videos and content increase the capability for additional practice on challenging material, and the ability to deepen learning on topics of interest. Though these platforms and options for learning and communicating have existed for some time, this push to distance learning has shifted them from being optional to essential. The anytime, anywhere access to materials also fortifies family engagement channels as parents are able to participate more fully and directly in the learning.

Relationships are fundamental. In any classroom, it is the connections between teachers and students that facilitate productive learning. Solid relationships are a prerequisite for the development of a strong classroom community, social-emotional health and growth, and a teacher’s ability to personalize learning. As we have watched our own children interact with teachers and classmates, it is evident that the quality and strength of the relationships between teachers and their students are vital to academic learning. And modalities that strengthen those relationships, such as video conferencing or family engagement communication apps–where students are able to connect in a meaningful way with their teachers–are core to this virtual learning.

Looking Forward

During the past several weeks, we have been in awe of our educators and fellow parents as this context has forced us all to stretch our skills and capacity like never before. Parents are sharing new work-at-home environments with a cohort of high-energy, creative, and nearly always hungry “co-workers.” Teachers are partnering with parents as managers of school schedules and requirements while also trying to keep kids excited about learning and introducing them to brand-new modalities, tools, and behaviors for doing so (e.g., appropriately using the videoconference mute button). And in what seems like a constant replay of Groundhog Day, teachers and parents alike are trying to make each day feel special and unique.

As we look into the future beyond this unique season of learning, we are hopeful we will emerge from our social distances with wisdom and insights that forever improve teaching and learning. We hope that the channels connecting families and teachers remain open and that we sustain a collective, mutual respect between parents and teachers. We hope that learning tools and resources can be made available to families in ways that work to meet their unique sets of needs. And we hope that strong relationships remain at the core of teaching and learning.

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Data-driven SEL: How It Can Help Meet Your Students’ Needs

By: Matt Smith and Travita Godfrey

Imagine this scenario: you’re a school counselor and you’ve noticed a change in one of your students. It’s subtle. Perhaps the student is shy and has shared with a teacher that he or she wants to make more friends. You can anecdotally observe the student’s interactions with others but have no specific way to back up what you see.

This is where the problem often arises. Although schools may offer support for students, such as group counseling or other interventions, unless they are able to accurately identify the student’s specific areas of strength and need, it is difficult to successfully support them. This is where data can help. As the teacher, counselor, or principal, it’s important you and your staff have the training to identify what is going on with the student and the right tools to provide the most appropriate interventions.

The Importance of Data

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states that adopting an evidence-based SEL program is one of the key strategies for providing consistent SEL opportunities for all students. The use of data—specifically SEL data—is something that we at Humble Independent School District have embraced. We know, for example, if we can pinpoint that a student needs help with optimistic thinking skills then we can adopt strategies to address that specific need, which in the end can help that student tremendously.

Since 2014 we’ve used the DESSA Comprehensive SEL System from Aperture Education. This has been incredibly beneficial in terms of helping to identify students’ specific strengths and needs and also in determining whether our strategies are working. This data can be eye-opening. For example, our assessment data showed us a large percentage of students were struggling with relationship skills. This prompted our school counselors and teachers to refocus their lessons around activities to support this skill.

Using data to pinpoint students’ strengths and needs has been transformative. It has helped our staff provide targeted instruction and strategies for individuals, as well as at the school level, the grade level, and the classroom level. It continues to drive our services to students, and helps us better know who to serve and how.

For example, by using the DESSA-mini, a one-minute universal SEL screener, schoolwide, we are able to determine a campus’s overall SEL learning in order to look for celebrations and also recognize hurdles. By recognizing strengths not only of individuals, but also of classrooms and grade levels, we keep a pulse on the overall climate and culture of a campus.

SEL data also helps us to identify classrooms with particular needs for greater SEL instruction. For instance, when looking at two fourth grade classrooms that are side by side, we may not notice many differences on the surface. Maybe one classroom seems more noisy with engaging activities, or the other seems more quiet and structured, but it’s often hard to really identify the climate of the classroom. By measuring the SEL development of the entire classroom using the data from the DESSA, we’ve been able to identify classrooms that need instruction on self-management, optimistic thinking, or other key skills. This provides an opportunity for the teacher to use the DESSA bank of strategies, or for the school counselor to offer additional guidance lessons to students.

Teachers and schools are now starting to use that SEL data that is collected in order to group classrooms for the upcoming year. It’s important to have a well-rounded classroom of students so that students can build on their various strengths while also drawing on the strengths of others. The DESSA System and the data that it provides helps us to do that and we hope to continue even more deeply in the future!

The Humble Approach

When it comes to addressing students’ SEL skills, data is an important part of the puzzle, but a school still needs the other pieces to complete the picture. Our “Great 8” SEL initiative encompasses everything from staffing to curriculum adoption to training. We focus on the eight SEL competencies outlined by Aperture Education: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, goal directed behavior, personal responsibility, decision making, and optimistic thinking.

Being a large suburb just outside of Houston, it is not uncommon for our students to attend multiple schools throughout their educational journey. With this in mind, we believed we needed a consistent SEL curriculum that mirrored our academic learning. Just as our math curriculum has a scope and sequence, so does our SEL curriculum. Counselors and teachers focus on teaching one skill across all grade levels each quarter so that over the course of two years, students have been exposed to all eight skills. Strategies build on themselves because we know that while decisions are different for a 4th grader and a 9th grader, developing decision making skills is a constant need no matter the age.

We also offer professional development workshops that are rooted in the Great 8, and we have behavior specialists to lead, support, and implement our program. In the elementary grades, we have “Class Connections” and “Community Time” during which teachers have conversations related to our Great 8 Skills. Our middle schools and high schools select an eighth and 12th grade boy and girl that exemplify the Great 8 skills. The students, who are selected by their peers, are honored at a luncheon and awarded certificates, and the 8th graders become part of our Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council for their entire four years of high school.

We also use Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), and the “Why Try” program to foster a safe environment in which all students can learn, and the PBIS system creates a seamless model for SEL instruction and measurement to occur.

This district-wide approach helps to ensure students get the support they need. We’ve had incredible success with this. In our elementary school pilot, the number of discipline referrals dropped from 161 to 80 after we introduced the SEL model. We attribute this to our use of data and our robust SEL programs to support students’ needs.

Going back to the original scenario of helping the shy student who wants to make more friends, here’s how we would handle it.

  1. Assess the student’s SEL competencies. The DESSA helps us to identify the student’s specific strengths and needs and target specific intervention strategies.
  2. Do one-on-one or small-group work with the student on the skills he or she needs help with. If several students have been assessed and the data shows multiple students need support with the same skill, we would consider adding classroom lessons around that skill.
  3. Provide suggestions for the student’s parents about strategies they can try at home.
  4. Re-assess the student to determine if the strategies are working.

The Importance of Having the Right Strategies

The DESSA System provides hundreds of strategies created by teachers, for teachers, that schools can use to teach specific SEL skills, and we’ve also created some of our own. We recently earned an award for a video we created discussing our use of the DESSA SEL strategies.

Going back to the student we’ve been discussing. Say he or she is in second or third grade and our assessment identified optimistic thinking as a skill in need of support. Here is a specific example of a strategy we use with our second and third grade students to address this skill. First we have students read the book “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain” and watch a video on the topic. Then we have a discussion about what they can do if things don’t go how they planned, and what they should do next time this happens. Our strategies usually include a video, a book or music, and our students are still reminding one another of the power of yet. When a student says ‘I can’t do this math,’ it is not uncommon to hear another student chime in saying, ‘you can’t do this math YET!’

In another example, a lot of our elementary school students need support with self-management skills. We teach them a five-point scale to help them recognize their triggers and what they can do to calm themselves and get themselves regulated. We might also do small group sessions with the students to help them practice those self-management skills.

The bottom line is that the best way, in our experience, to help a student who may be struggling is by obtaining data to get to the root of the problem and then deploying targeted strategies to address that student’s specific needs. Taking these steps will shed light on concerns that otherwise might stay undetected. They can help build protective factors that will ultimately set the student up for a lifetime of success.

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Matt Smith is the Coordinator of Elementary Counseling and Behavioral Services and Homeless Liaison at Humble ISD.

Travita Godfrey is the Coordinator of Secondary Counseling and Behavior Services at Humble ISD.

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7 Options for Exploring Creative Arts for Remote Learning

It has been an interesting two months in this new look of education that we are experiencing. Whether as educators, as parents, or both, there have been a lot of challenges faced in the work that we do and in our strive to find balance and ways to keep the learning going and meaningful activities to engage in.

As a language teacher, I try to find unique learning opportunities for my students that help them to connect more with the culture of the language that they are learning. As a teacher of the arts, I want to bring in as many other resources as I can help to connect students with real-world experiences, spark curiosity for learning, perhaps help them to find something that they are passionate about and want to explore on their own.

Over the past two months, there have been many questions about how to engage students in activities in special content areas or provide activities for enrichment such as for the arts, music, or sports, to name a few. What can we do to supplement our instruction that connects students with real-world examples and helps them to navigate through this unprecedented time in our world?

Finding opportunities

There are so many possibilities out there, with educators and other professionals sharing resources and giving their time to create learning opportunities for students and teachers. I’ve seen questions posted on social media and in educator communities looking for ideas to keep students active, engaged, others looking to learn about art, music, photography, dance, or exercise. How can we bring the world of learning into our homes during this remote learning time?

Having these choices at a time like this is good for breaking away from our work and learning. It can force us to disconnect and discover a new hobby, pique an interest, unveil a passion that we might have, or a talent that we didn’t know existed. Businesses like these, music and dance instructors, photographers, interior designers, art galleries, are helping everyone to get through what we are experiencing during the pandemic. My students are telling me that they are taking music and dance lessons, practicing for school musicals, even doing yoga and fitness, through the use of Zoom and other live streaming tools.

What are the online art, music, and creative endeavors available to us during the pandemic? Here are some interesting opportunities that I found that are definitely worth exploring with our students and our families:

  1. Academy Art. For those interested in learning more about art, sketching, and different software programs available for art creation, The Academy of Art University is offering a series of free online events. During these online events, there will be sessions with guest experts who are speaking about art and design, provided through Zoom meetings. They will also provide virtual workshops on how to use various software programs for art.
  2. ArtsQuest ArtSmart. The ArtsQuest provides activities for learning about mosaics, and since it started in March, it has featured more than 300 events including music, comedy, and more. It started by offering online learning projects for the Bethlehem Area School District in PA, focused on comedy, dance, literary and visual arts. Themes include. Comedy Monday, Stay creative Tuesday, Keep moving Wednesday, Creative writing Thursday.
  3. Center for Arts-Inspired Learning (CAL) has designed the ArtWorks 15-day Challenge, for students K-12 through an online, at-home arts program. To help support families and schools, through the #ArtWorksChallenge kids have options that promote creativity and are also a fun way to explore different topics while at home. There are resources for teachers and families during remote learning, and you just need to download an ArtWorks Challenge Activity Packet. There are challenges for music, math, STEM, family, community, art, emotions, leadership, and gratitude.
  4. Cosmourse. A combo of “Cosmos” and “Course,” is a London based company that has been offering daily live-streamed classes for children ages 3-14 interested in art. The classes are provided through Zoom and a list of materials are provided for each age group of children with guidelines. Children learn about art styles, techniques, and even different art movements.
  5. Draw With Drew. Adobe and Time Magazine will be offering a weekly art lesson at 10 am. PT. Drew Willis, a book illustrator and the creative director of “Time for Kids” and his ten-year-old daughter Rosie will be presenting the “Draw with Drew (and Rosie!)” For each episode, they will have a new drawing assignment and when the episode is finished, participants can vote on what the next assignment will be.
  6. Nassau Museum. Art activities for all ages and many which are for outdoors, a great way to be more active in learning and make time to disconnect and for creative expression and self-care.
  7. Online art classes. Many videos and links are available to learn different art styles and to even enjoy the original episodes of Bob Ross, for anyone who has missed them. A few weeks back, there was a #BobRossChallenge happening on Twitter, with people using different digital tools to create their own Bob Ross style painting. I chose to use Buncee to recreate something in the style of Bob Ross.

Finding ways to engage students and also to explore new activities that can help to not only get through the challenging time but can spark new interests and curiosities is important. Beyond creating works of art, these opportunities benefit our well-being and are great opportunities to focus on self-care.

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Book Review: Otherful by Mike Kleba & Ryan O’Hara

Is our current collective situation a chance to leave behind any practice, style, or belief that doesn’t support teaching and learning — that doesn’t resonate with authenticity? It would seem so to Mike Kleba and Ryan O’Hara in Otherful: How to Change the World through Other People, their first book and offering to the education leadership bookshelf. Principals and superintendents have been working doggedly in the past weeks equipping their teachers to make sure a student’s basic needs are met before while not forsaking instruction and learning from afar. And while teachers collaborate with parents and try to protect instructional time, administrators are doing what they can to look ahead and adjust their approach with confidence and empathy.

The authors are practitioners themselves, writing from a place of generosity and kindness, in a voice that is friendly but truthful. Their honest and vulnerable sharing of their own mistakes along the way is extremely refreshing for a professional development title like Otherful.

Organized into three topical sections, the chapters of Otherful are essays that are thematically-aligned to each other but also self-contained, well-written, and satisfying. Administrators will find them to be sufficient reflections for their own development but easily expanded for leading their staff through a culture-building exercise. In a section entitled “Natural Accountability,” the authors share a memorable acronym to remind us that “everyone is on FIRE,” that we are all governed and thus driven by Fears, Inspiration, Responsibilities, and Experiences. In fact, confronting fear in our field is a consistent aim of the authors: “The ugly truth is that many people who work in schools live in fear, covering up mistakes or doing everything they can to avoid risk. Our job is to look perfect.” Though the stakes of our profession are intrinsically set high, Otherful reminds us to make sure we as school staff are exemplifying the authenticity and grace for each other that we already know we extend to our kids.

Each essay opens with relevant quotes, a sharp summary of the principle, suggestions for implementing it, and a courteous disclaimer for those moments that are a bit divergent from the typical prescriptive writing in this space.

There’s an interesting tone from Kleba and O’Hara. As former teachers, they make the “inside baseball” of education as a profession known to the reader. It’s a disarming way to approach some of the issues professional educators often endure and reframe it with positive realism.

Though Kleba and O’Hara’s book could sit comfortably on a business bookcase under leadership development, it’s acute in its focus. The authors are coaching education leaders with Otherful. They’re prioritizing empathy and social-emotional learning not just for students, but as what is required professionally in our school administrators. The collection of short essays is derived from the authors’ own experiences working in schools with a conviction that what’s missing in our leadership development for rising administrators is the value of influence over control.

The book ends with a wonderful finale of 22 quick fixes for creating an otherful-centric culture in your school across grade levels, roles, and topics. There’s even a limerick (most likely written on a dare between these two). These smaller principles are helpful and humane with such gems as “leading with love,” and calling out the arcane nature of the faculty meeting and teacher conventions — something all teachers can relate to.

However, one stood out in stark irony for this very moment in time: “Unnecessary urgency is one of the most dangerous drivers in leadership.” When the pandemic broke it was an impressive feat to watch the education system operationally turn on a dime. Given the risks, such a response by leadership was warranted. But I’m banking that there’s a new urgency worthy of the same response — that this new mutuality we’re all now experiencing, full of solidarity and empathetic vulnerability, will prove to be the “otherful” way of serving our teachers and their students. And for that, there is no time to wait.

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The Difference Between Grades and Feedback Has Never Been More Clear

The lessons to be learned from our experiment with distance learning are starting to crystalize.

I’ll explore some of those insights from a national level in later posts but intend to focus my attention here on the most important lesson I’ve learned teaching online since March 23 with my troop of sixth-graders. This work brings an unexpected conclusion to a series of blogs, which chronicles my return to the classroom after 15 years in the executive suites of the Buck Institute for Education and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

As the headline indicates, the difference between grades and feedback has never been more clear. This spring, grades have zero value. In our district we have been ordered via MOU to do no harm. The grade our students earned at the end of the second trimester (February 28) is the grade they will receive for the final trimester. Unless they improve. It is an elevator that can move in only one direction.

We are not alone in this policy. As a recent piece asked, To Grade or Not to Grade? During Coronavirus, That Is The Question. So if grades don’t matter, what does? The answer I offer is simple: Feedback.

Google Classroom provides us with a mechanism to give timely, relevant, personalized, and actionable feedback. I have been professionally involved in education for 28 years and have taught K-12 for 11. Never before have I had the motive and the means to provide students with meaningful feedback on a daily basis.

As some of you may know, each classroom you create in Google Classroom has a dedicated chat stream that everyone in the class can use to post, read, and respond to announcements. This feature is much derided by many users because it provides an unending, well, stream of updates. I turn off notifications so that my students aren’t flooded with assignment updates, fixes, and reposts from me. I delete old announcements and posts on a weekly basis. My stream is shallow but it runs clean.

I spent the first three weeks of our online learning journey training my students to rely instead on the private message exchange that Google allows via the assignment feature of Classroom. That feature allows me to have one-on-one extended conversations about every assignment my students turn in or need assistance with.

The immediacy and relevance of that tool has changed the way I assess. I used to post all assignments on Sunday night and expected them to be completed by the following Friday. I would spend my Saturday mornings grading papers and then posting grades on PowerSchool. The time-consuming nature of providing written comments on every single assignment a student completes is too much for me, or probably any other teacher. There was little to no formative feedback.

Not so any more. I still post assignments on Sunday night and expect them completed by Friday at midnight. But now, freed from the daily grind of face-to-face teaching and the need to put pen to paper, I grade assignments as they are turned in. I provide personalized feedback on every assignment for every student.

I unwittingly turned my assessment and feedback process into a slim mimicry of the feedback loop of graduate school. Feedback becomes a personal exchange between the learner and the teacher. Both are richer for the experience.

Before I share a few examples of what these assessment conversations look like, it’s important to understand the demographics of my class. Not a single parent has graduated from college. About 80 percent of my students are current or re-classified as English Language Learners. Socio-economically, we are a working-class poor school with an extraordinarily high percentage (27%) of students with special needs. Nearly 70 percent of the students in our school have one or more Fs.

As much as I want to live up to my reputation as one of the grand old men of Project Based Learning, I have to focus most of my teaching energy on building basic literacy and study skills and developing the 4Cs of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity.

Each week my students use a list of 20 words to write sentences, identify antonyms and synonyms, spell, and use in online games. The words, pulled from lists intended to prepare them for state exams (CAASPP), are also used in weekly writing assignments. The weekly reading assignments, both fiction and non-fiction, tend to reinforce the list.

Even the simple act of writing vocabulary sentences has opened up a window on their lives and allowed me to share insights into mine. Here are a few of the comments I have shared with students:

Feedback On Student Poetry in A Project Called ‘Quarantine Journal’

  • “I like reading these poems even if they make me sad. I realize what rich lives my students have—thanks for sharing. My favorite line is your reference to Florida. That made me realize that my family won’t be going to Hawaii for the first time in a very long time. Oh, well…”
  • “Beautiful work. There are a couple of lines that I really like. I feel the same about the way people look at me when I go on a walk, but I realize that’s the way I look at them and often cross the street to avoid them. I miss the feeling of sand between my toes, too. Every year we take a family vacation to Hawaii, but not this year. Well done.”
  • “This is one of the best researched essays I have ever received from a sixth grader. Well done… You back your strong opinions with facts, statistics, and quotes—most adults could take a lesson from this. … The only thing you need to work on is the use of text language (u, instead of you). In seventh grade and beyond teachers simply won’t accept text language. … I am proud of you—great way to finish the year.”
  • “You do realize that we now have a record in which you admit that school was fun and that it is easier to do school work in class? You are doomed… Well done!”
  • “I like the positive attitude you take. Most of the journals from the other students have been dark and depressing. When you do your poem for next week make sure to include an illustration/picture—that is one of the requirements.”
  • “Your images are creepy—glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. … Be careful on your syllable counts—it’s supposed to be 5-7-5, and your counts are way off. … Take care.”

Feedback On Student Letters to President Trump

  • “Well written and thoughtful. I agree with your point about prices—a lot of the stuff we want is hard to get or expensive. The only thing to fix is the spelling of COVID, not COVED. Well done.”
  • “You picked a topic that I care a lot about because I have two sons in college and it costs a lot of money. Now let’s focus on the little things of writing. Make sure to begin each sentence with a capital letter—that lets the reader know it’s a new thought. The same for ending sentences with periods—it lets the reader know what comes next is a new idea. Well done.”

And what is the usual response from students to these personalized messages? Simple ‘thank yous.” I have never before in my teaching career received a message of thanks for a graded assignment.

There are not many silver linings to this crisis. This is among the few. I encourage teachers, including myself, to not forget the importance of feedback. The personal relationships we develop and maintain online may be the lifeline students need to stay engaged in school, no matter what comes next.

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David will be chronicling his return to the classroom in a monthly series of blogs. Follow along.

Getting Clearer: Musings of an Urban Educator

By: Dese Zuberi

The injustice and oppression have always been woven throughout our systems, but are laid bare in painful ways during this Covid-19 crisis. The reasons for taking a liberatory approach in how we think about school are only heightened during the current challenges we face. This series from New Tech Network coaches will explore what that might mean for how we show up for one another. 

Let me begin with an acknowledgment that all isn’t right with our world and especially in schooling. Therefore, it’s our institutional responsibility to prepare learners for active engagement in authentic problem solving, so that we enable each other to identify/analyze our current, collective struggle and work within a locus of control to create solutions. 

Each week I meet new people, whether at the airport, networking events, or local business establishments. After some small talk, the inevitable question about my occupation will usually surface. When I inform people that I’m a school coach, the first response is usually, something like, “That’s great, which sport?” When further conversation reveals that I’m an educational coach partnering with schools to help transform learning and teaching, the general response is, “ I’m glad someone is doing that because our schools need a lot of help.” followed by a personal story about the challenges of their K-12 experience, a declaration about how schools are more dysfunctional and dangerous or how teachers don’t get the support that they deserve. I often leave the conversation wondering, “ If so many people have negative perceptions about today’s school experience, where’s the massive, societal uproar for serious reform?” This question is especially important if many of us agree that schools are a microcosm of the inequities of our country. As an educational coach, I’m that change agent thinking through this to ensure more students experience better school outcomes. I am working to deepen my understanding of the role that many factors, including race and poverty, have on school achievement.

For the last seven years, I’ve been an educational coach. Throughout this time frame, a multitude of books, articles, and blogs have been written, studied, and researched focusing on strategies around instructional & leadership coaching. The common belief is that these coaching philosophies serve as an essential piece towards a system’s improvement efforts. 

Based on my coaching interactions, I’d argue that being an educational coach is more about “The Art of Understanding School Inequity”. More specifically, understanding each school’s complex position in society and how that position affects any endeavor towards educating humans.

Some of this research has introduced the idea of utilizing various coachings lenses to gather data before developing action plans. The lens of systemic oppression seems most applicable to my coaching efforts with schools. When I view my work through the lens of systemic oppression, I’m better able to understand the conditions that schools find themselves navigating through. Once I acknowledge this challenge, I’m better able to assist others towards the improvement process.

According to the National Equity Project, an organization located in Oakland, California that works to improve educational outcomes for students and families who have been historically underserved by schools and districts, systemic oppression manifests on the individual, the interpersonal, the institutional, and the structural levels. I recognize that the interplay between all these levels are more likely to create inequitable school conditions than not. Since we can’t work on all of the system parts at once, one institutional level( Community & Family Engagement) is for some schools, a mostly under-developed resource. Although I firmly believe that racism is a key driver to the problems in our educational system, I’ve come to a deeper understanding that school improvement is dependent on the ways learners develop the human relationships within the system. So, culture and relationship building/healing has become a key work component!  

The starting point of this work requires a high level of inquiry about how students, teachers, and leaders view themselves in our educational system. I’m discovering that building meaningful relationships, aimed at supporting others both emotionally and professionally, requires my own recognition about my specific role in this system. For example; many under-performing schools, in relation to state standards, live in panic mode and daily learning is driven by test scores and accountability pressures. This leaves me wondering; what about our system makes us believe test scores are the only valid accountability measure and what difference has standardized testing had on school outcomes for those further removed from equal resources. Consequently, I have to acknowledge and determine whether educators view me as another accountability measurement tool. 

Even though I know our school improvement work is bigger than their number on the school report card, I can’t discount the current reality that the larger system isn’t going to suddenly render test scores meaningless. So, I find myself really working to deepen my understanding about how race and poverty affects school achievement. As a result, I encourage schools to work relentlessly at establishing an empowering school culture because enriching the personal connections in their environment creates the deeper learning/connections necessary to raise achievement levels.

If we want to create stronger schools, we have to be honest about the role districts, businesses, educators, families, and community members have in perpetuating the same policies and structures that have created past failures. Since the school is an extension of its community; its members must value and engage at the highest level. Moreover, schools can’t inspire others to get involved without a clear vision of what institutional collaboration is necessary to get there. Only then will true partnerships form to narrow these relational opportunity gaps and unapologetically work to include the voices of students, parents, and community members. 

When my coaching helps communities sharpen their lens of systemic oppression; the ability to listen, care, and protect each other as equals are the direct result. My professional wager is that this will actually be the catalyst to test scores and school improvement. 

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Safeguarding Back to School: Preparation for a Healthy Return to School in Downtown Brooklyn

Image Credit: SITU

The transition back to school this year will be unlike any in history. Guidance and rules are still being refined and released, and school communities understandably feel anxious and tentative about reopening safely. We are deeply aware of our obligation as educators to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of everyone in our school community—from our students, staff, and teachers to all of their families.

As leaders of an urban public school, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB), we understand that schools operating in dense built environments with limited points of entry and classroom space will face unique challenges with new requirements for operations and facilities. LAB has begun to design a Back to School Facility Tool Kit with ideas for addressing health, safety, and the requirement for social distancing. Importantly, our tool kit embeds equity at the core; we want to create a plan that meets the needs of our diverse student population and staff, particularly students with disabilities.

No school has the time or resources to tackle all of these challenges alone, and at LAB, we are excited about the opportunity to collaborate. Part of our contribution as a laboratory school is to create an adaptable tool kit that can be used by other schools. To that end, we are sharing our reopening plan with organizations including the Educating All Learners Alliance in the hopes of reaching special education, technology, and educational organizations that can tailor these resources for their own use. We are creating this tool kit to support planning for the Brooklyn LAB school building at 77 Sands.

First and foremost, our reopening plan will align with the recommendations of the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT), which include:

  1. Maintaining physical distancing.
  2. Putting the infrastructure and resources in place to test, trace, and isolate new cases.
  3. Deploying the public health tools that prevent the spread of the virus and aligning those tools with education strategies that meet students’ needs.
  4. ​Involving workers, unions, parents, and communities in all planning.
  5. Investing in recovery.

Beyond these requirements, we have set additional goals for our tool kit. It must be:

  • Applicable to all students, especially students with disabilities.
  • Practical and feasible to implement
  • Flexible and easy to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
  • Modifiable for use by other schools in other contexts.

Over the past two weeks, LAB has collaborated with several design firms, school community members, and a range of experts to develop a series of design ideas that will be considered for inclusion in our tool kit. During the next stage in this process, we will continue to refine the design ideas and begin to build mock-ups to test what works and what requires further refinement.

We are now sharing version 1 (V1) of our tool kit in order to start a conversation and share a range of perspectives about how facilities interventions can support the safe reopening of school buildings. We are sharing these design ideas now, before they are finalized, so that we can benefit from critical feedback from students, families, and staff.


Version one (V1) of our toolkit seeks to address complexities and offer a specific working example of how to honor public health guidance in logistical planning. To prevent viral transmission, we must coordinate facilities planning, educational approaches, and public health approaches into a single, unified plan. That plan will evolve as the available facts and data change.

V1 focuses on ideas to address two major needs:

  1. Mapping a safeguarded journey from home to the school. The first set of ideas responds to the needs of families, students, staff members, and community stakeholders about maintaining health and safety from the time individuals leave their front doors through the arrival and entry process at school. This first step in the mapping process took into consideration the very real entry and egress challenges LAB and many other schools face.
  2. Upgrading the classrooms. The second set of ideas focuses on practical and feasible remapping of classrooms, breakout rooms, and common spaces to comply with social distancing requirements.

Please remember that this version is still a draft. LAB Chief Operating Officer Aaron Daly describes V1 as a starting point for our community to begin discussions and further iteration. “It explores the plausibility of particular approaches to reopening,” he explains. This working example also aims to address group questions about feasibility, workability, and effectiveness of specific approaches.

For V1, we are looking to engage teachers, families, and students before we begin the next step to further refine our tool kit. We are inviting you to engage in one of five ways, depending on what makes the most sense for you:

  • Provide your feedback via a survey, so that our planning process can benefit from your insights, concerns, and recommendations.
  • Register for a focus group conversation.
  • Attend a webinar, which will include the AFT, design team members, and Brooklyn LAB teachers and educators.
  • Share the V1 tool kit with leaders in your school community, to consider the relevance of questions and solutions developed in relation to the Brooklyn LAB facility to your own context.
  • Email to offer input or propose ways we might work together to move this agenda forward in communities around the country.


We developed our V1 tool kit through a collaborative design “charette” that allowed us to listen to and incorporate insights from a range of stakeholders, including families, public health experts, students, teachers, parents, guardians, and peer schools.

To conduct this charrette, LAB partnered with leaders in urban design, including Urban Projects Collaborative (UPC), a firm dedicate to capital projects that improve quality of life and the build environment, and five design firms: Gensler, PBDW, PSF Projects, SITU, and WXY. The charrette process included the following steps:

  1. LAB teachers, special educators, case managers, deans, operations leaders, and administrators met with UPC in initial sessions to identify challenges reflecting student, staff, and family concerns related to their experiences with school closure and their concerns about safety protocols in future reopening.
  2. Five design firms agreed to bring their best thinking to the table to brainstorm ideas and preliminary designs to address the back-to-school challenge.
  3. The five firms held additional work sessions with LAB staff to home in on components of the challenges that they were best equipped to address, taking into consideration emerging state and public health guidance.
  4. The design firms developed concepts based on identified needs and anticipating what are likely to be appropriate practices to address social-distancing and other health-related requirements.

This process allowed us to hear from individual members of our community whose lived experiences are important to consider in our solutions. For instance, LAB special educator Anisa Phillip raised questions about what social distancing would look like for students with profound autism and intellectual disabilities. “How can we safely provide physical assistance to students who require support while walking?” she asked. “How do we keep masks on students at all times?”

Asking these specific questions about the needs of individual students and staff ground the re-entry planning process in the realities of our school community. “This version emphasizes the process of working through the challenge of re-entry,” says LAB Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Gomez. “The annotated examples and contextual framing establish a starting point, from which students, families, and staff are invited to engage and provide feedback.”


The next step in this process is to review and further develop these ideas. We are now gathering input from LAB students and families, and we are working with relevant authorities to ensure that every design idea we implement addresses occupancy and air-quality requirements, as well as hygiene protocols. In parallel, we are assessing these ideas for feasibility based on budget and schedule constraints. In recognition that guidance on opening schools may change if there’s a resurgence of the virus, we are also working to test how to smoothly transition from plans for in-school learning to remote learning.

We will continue to monitor and adjust our tool kit over the next 18 to 24 months. As we do, we’ll prioritize the most vulnerable students and put equity at the core of the design work. There may be waves of stopping and starting, progress and backsliding, and developments that change assumptions.

“Throughout this process, we must integrate the concerns of the most vulnerable students into every aspect of preparation, while regularly seeking to understand family concerns, needs, and experiences,” emphasizes Cecile Kidd, LAB’s bursar. “We must focus on preparation, and thus build the muscles we need to adapt, refine, and determine priorities appropriately.”

We are encouraged by our community involvement thus far; we know that as we work together, we will get closer to creating a safe reopening that works for all.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email [email protected] with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

Shining the Competency Education Light on Education in the Time of COVID-19

Has Covid19 lifted the window of opportunity for a massive transformation of the education system? During several presentations on rethinking schools and the future of education, many of the speakers and chatting participants have claimed that the closure of schools in response to the pandemic has created the conditions for radical transformation.

But transform to what?

Certainly, Covid19 has made it crystal clear that our schools need to be remote-ready—through this pandemic as well as for future unanticipated economic, technological, and climate-related disruptions to come.  But it is a mistake to only focus on the technology and online instruction alone. Remote learning is primarily about where students are learning. Technology is simply the delivery system whether it is used in the classroom or at home. It’s the process of motivating, instructing, and assessing students that shapes learning.

In pre-pandemic days there was a growing consensus for personalized, deeper, mastery-based approaches. However, we must be careful about jumping to the assumption that personalized, mastery learning will be meaningful for students, teachers, and school leaders as they struggle with how to move forward in the time of Covid19. It depends on what challenges are most pressing and how they are defined. If a window of opportunity is truly opening, it will be because the modern education model helps schools respond to the conditions created by Covid19 and our nation’s responses to it.

How can personalized, mastery-based (or competency and proficiency-based) approaches help teachers and schools? Using a few of the concerns mentioned by educators as they confront the future, I’ve highlighted a few ways the modern approaches, drawing on the research on learning, might provide guidance as educators wrap up the school year and prepare for an uncertain fall semester.

I can’t control how students use their time with remote learning.

Teachers have a huge task trying to get thirty students to stay focused on learning. Control and compliance have been the go-to strategy for a century. However, it is actually a total fallacy that anyone can make someone else learn. You can get students to go through the motions of learning but what is happening in their brains (both cognitively and emotionally) is where the action is. And we can’t control that. Never could, never will.

The modern educational approaches, rooted in what we know about learning based on research, seeks to motivate students to put forth their best effort. Thinking and learning is hard. It requires us to manage our thoughts and feelings. It requires us to keep going, to persevere, even when success seems impossible. It requires us to deeply believe that we can learn and that we can be successful.

That’s where personalizing learning and using a mastery-based approach comes in. (There are lots of different definitions of personalizing. I’m referring to the ones that are student-centered and emphasize empowering students to own their education.) It starts with two assumptions. First, we need to empower learners to own and manage their learning. Second, we need to create the conditions and culture that will motivate students to put their full effort towards learning.

Empowering students to be the best learners they can be required intentionally and explicitly teaching them how to learn. They need to understand what the research says about learning. They need to develop a growth mindset and learn strategies for self-regulation of their emotions and their thoughts. They need to learn how to reflect on their learning processes so that they can adjust them if they aren’t working. Our best elementary school teachers do this. We need every teacher to be able to know how to do this as students change as they grow up. Their strategies to be great learners are going to change as well. (See Building Blocks for Learning for an overview of many of the skills and mindsets that are needed for learning.)

Motivating students requires cultivating a sense of purpose, providing autonomy, and organizing around mastery. The sense of purpose can vary across students and change over time. Sometimes just trying something for a beloved or passionate teacher can be enough. Connections to the real world, interest-driven, fun, and a drive towards a future goal can nurture a sense of purpose. Taking pride in learning, taking on a challenge, and getting the rush of endorphins when success is reached, might be enough to get a student to focus on a task. Success begets success.

Autonomy, some control of how and when learning takes place, is created through choice. What book do you want to read? Where do you want to read? How will you demonstrate that you met the learning target? The degree and type of autonomy need to be managed through gradual release. Too much autonomy and a student will flounder. With remote learning, the home life and availability of adults to guide students will make a difference for how much autonomy they want and can manage effectively. Our perceptions shape our experience of control as well. Am I staying at home because I have to because of government orders or because I want to do my best to help my community deal with the pandemic? The mindset of students will influence their sense of control.

The opportunity for mastery, the opportunity to successfully gain new knowledge and skills, is in itself motivating. That’s why so many schools are organizing around mastery learning (or competency or proficiency-based). Transparent learning targets and what it means to be proficient, grading systems that support students understanding where they are in the learning process, the opportunity for more instruction, and revision until students are successful are just a few of the key structures that create a culture of mastery.

Everyone is going to be at a totally different place when we re-open.

That is true, every student will start the next school year in a different place. As they have every year. What’s different is that they may have received different exposure to the curriculum and spent different amounts of time on task. The pandemic is forcing us to look at a truth that has always existed. Our traditional system mistakenly equates the delivery of curriculum with learning.

Students are always at different places in their learning. Teachers know this to be true even though the system of education ignores it. Some teachers face the challenge of 4, 5, or more levels of skills in their classrooms. Our system of education actually produces this situation by passing students on with gaps in their learning. Why do we pass students on with gaps? The system does this because it is built on an assumption that not everyone can learn. Part of the design of our schools is to rank and sort students using grades. Let’s be clear, it’s not just low achieving students with gaps. Straight A students may also have gaps that cause them to stumble later on.

Whereas the traditional education system ignores the variability in student skills and delivers the same curriculum to students based on their age, a mastery system takes into account where we want students to be and where they are in their learning. Instruction and assessment seek to fill gaps and reach grade-level goals. This means some students will need more instruction, more time. Decisions about how to support students are individualized and take into account the discipline, the skill of the teachers involved, where other students are in their learning, and where students are in building the skills and mindsets as a learner.

What are we going to do with so many students that are behind?

This concept of students of being behind is going to get us in trouble. Yes, there is a long-term goal to get every student college and career ready. But learning has never taken place in a straight line. Students are just where they are. The question is how do we help them move forward towards the long-term goal in ways that build their capacity as learners and motivate them to put in their best effort. Giving more curricula on faster timelines is likely to backfire. Again, coverage of the curriculum doesn’t equal learning.

Then, what can schools do?

Introduce performance levels and grade levels in instruction and assessment. One of the first things to do is understand where students are in their performance and start thinking about instruction that takes that into consideration. This doesn’t mean tracking. Heterogeneous and collaborative learning strategies are important instructional strategies and are vital in creating supportive communities of learners. Transparency of learning targets and performance levels contribute to the culture of mastery. Students know where they are, what they need to focus on, and what proficiency looks like. It’s important to celebrate each little step forward. Grade level is still important. The age of students can help us think about students developmentally. It also helps us keep the eye on helping them to reach the goals of college and career-ready.

Relationships matter. Knowing students and where they are in their development and learning is a critical aspect of personalized, mastery systems. Students need to feel safe and part of that is feeling that teachers care about them. Our education system is organized around curriculum, not relationships. Students move on to the next grade, the next curriculum and the next teacher.

Looping can help. Teachers stay with students for two years (although exceptions should be made when there are bad matches). They know the students better. They know the families better. Multi-age classrooms can also help teachers focus on where students are in their learning rather than delivering one curriculum. Why not have students keep working with their same teachers in the fall semester?

The most developed personalized and mastery-based schools I’ve visited have organized co-teaching models with 60-90 students with two or three teachers. Why? Because relationships and collaborations matter for teachers as well as students. Flexible space, flexible seating, and resources to respond to several different performance levels all close at hand are all part of creating learning environments that respond to where students are. Covid19 is also going to demand flexibility in seating as well.

Time is a resource. Be creative. Austria is looking at an on-and-off schedule. Students coming to school for four days on and then 10 days off, trying to time itself with the life of the virus. Maybe some students need to spend more time with teachers in the classroom while others thrive in the online environment. Summer, using outside spaces for learning, might be a strategy for helping students that started last semester out on lower performance levels and didn’t receive any instruction during the months of sheltering in place.

The most important thing is to shift our mindsets. Students are not behind. They are just where they are. Meet them there.

I don’t know how to grade my students.

Covid19 has destroyed the illusion that traditional A-F grading systems had value, just as it is blowing up the illusions that teachers can force students to learn, that learning should be based on age and that students learn in a straight line at the same speed. A-F grading systems—with points for behavior, emphasizing summative assessment, with little opportunity for revision, and rolling up into the GPA ranking system—tell us more about student performance levels and demonstrating the desired behaviors (attendance, participation, and homework) than they do about learning. For those at the top of the bell curve, grades can be motivating. But for all the rest, they are nearly useless to help them in their learning and for some downright harmful.

It’s time for all schools to become standards-referenced. Grading should be aligned with specific targets. The learning target and what proficiency looks like are transparent to students. Students receive the opportunity for more instruction and revision. For those that are ready to commit to a mastery system, take the next step towards standards-based grading. This requires helping students to repair gaps and if by the end of the semester they haven’t reached proficiency on the targets, then plans are made to help them continue their learning through summer breaks and into the next year.

The most important thing in creating a meaningful grading system is to make sure it is aligned with helping students to learn based on the research on learning. In fact, every decision we make about our schools and the policies that shape them need to be checked to make sure we are maximizing learning, including empowering and motivating students, not inhibiting it.

For more, see:

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Growing to New Horizons: The Environmental Charter School Reflects on Change

By: Deana Callipare

The Environmental Charter School (ECS) deployed its initial distance learning plan (DLP) on March 18, and as feedback from parents, staff, and students rushed in, online learning continued to evolve.

ECS, along with schools across the country, has transitioned to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. While all schools have struggled with the change, this unprecedented situation has caused a unique challenge for ECS due to the school’s connectivity and multi-disciplinary, out-the-door learning approach.

“The goal of the ECS distance learning plan is to define an educational experience for students that is consistent, effective, relevant and aligned with the ECS vision and mission of supporting the whole child experience,” Dr. Amanda Cribbs, ECS chief academic officer (CAO) said. “We created a phased approach to our plan that was intended to provide a consistent road map for educators and families and allow us to take small steps and evolve over time.”

The ECS DLP included four phases to help ease students and families into their new “normal,” and with the support of dedicated staff and faculty, the DLP not only promotes learning and engagement, but it also allows ECS families to stay connected to teachers, principals, and the schools.

“Throughout the DLP, ECS commits to building in opportunities for interaction, connection, and collaboration between students. Learning occurs either synchronously, asynchronously, or by using both methods to achieve those ends,” Vicky Hsieh, curriculum & PD associate director of Technology said. “We understand there are benefits and challenges to both styles of digital interactions between students and teachers and feel that a mixture of the two allows for increased access for students.”

ECS’s Continuity of Education Plan 

  • Phase One: Communication and Connection (March 18-27)
    • Staff and families were onboarded to the DLP platform website.
    • Students were asked to complete review and enrichment activities either virtually or with materials at home and reflect on the process with their teachers with the intended purpose of continued connection between the school and its families.
  • Phase Two: Connection and Building Learning Routines (March 30 – April 3)
    • While students continued to review content, the school provided recommendations on time and requirements for learning activities for families.
    • ECS  provided schedules and family support while internally prioritizing content for families for the next phase of DLPs.
    • The expected outcome was to maintain the connections with students and families and to prepare for the next phase of student work.
  • Phase Three: Teaching New Content & Explicit Connection (April 13 – May 1)
    • Weekly lesson structures were established, and teachers began teaching new content through required activities and plan lessons using instructional best practices.
    • More intentional office hours between teachers and students (morning meetings/social connection or based on academic need) were established as well as clear systems for feedback from students and families. The expected outcome is to provide experiences for students to continue their academic growth.
  • Phase Four:  Feedback, Assessment, Grading & DLP Evaluation Based on Readiness (April 20-End of Year)
    • Provide intentional feedback on explicit instruction and assessment
    • Evaluate and improve ECS distance learning plan based on family feedback and culturally responsive practices to continue academic growth of students.


While each phase contributed to the greater online learning plan, each one came with a new struggle that needed to be worked out. At times, families felt overwhelmed, and communications were heavy from teachers, principals, and district leaders. DLPs were originally long, and working from home while helping their children learn was not an easy feat.

Throughout this process, ECS has reminded families that they shouldn’t be “doing school at home,” but instead, the school asked parents to create a daily or weekly academic routine to provide engagement and learning opportunities. With the feedback of the ECS school community, the district has continued to revise each phase of the DLP to best fit parent and student needs.

Furthermore, the educational needs and DLPs were not the only focal point for the district. ECS families who relied on free and reduced lunch and student services that the school provided were facing unprecedented challenges that no one saw coming. Students missed social interactions like seeing their friends and teachers, playing on the playground, and going on nature walks. Parents were anxious about getting the rest of their children’s belongings and the thought of what next school year might look like continues to be a worry for many. Staff needed to clean out their classrooms, and some weeks were harder than others causing frustrations, burnout, and anxieties. The financial stability of our families and staff were also a concern. Some parents and staff spouses lost their jobs causing financial hardships.

All of these situations began to add up, and they took a toll on several. Through the help of several resources including the school’s parent community organization, families started to help each other. Donations were collected to provide families and staff in need with gift cards and books, food resource information was dispersed, and families with financial or student service needs were reached out to directly by appropriate school personnel. Virtual meetings, Facebook live events, and social media challenges were created to help students to continue to socialize with their peers and interact with teachers, and several check-in surveys were disseminated to families to gauge their thoughts and needs.

As a Pennsylvania school, ECS was mandated by the Governor on March 13 to close its doors. Since then, ECS has prepared families and staff for online learning for the remainder of the academic year, and the process allowed for school leaders to reflect on the situation and build for the future. In a communication at the end of April, Jon McCann, ECS CEO, took a moment to ruminate over the last few weeks as the school prepared to enter its seventh week of online learning.

“The constant change that has put a moratorium in our daily routines has caused many of us to feel uncomfortable with this “new normal,” but I am reminded that being comfortable with uncertainty may be the “new normal” for the time being,” McCann said. “As we continue to navigate through this ever changing situation, my hope is that we continue to change, expand, and grow to new horizons.”

ECS’s top priority is always the safety and well being of its students, families, and staff, and while ECS is not in the same location, everyone is working together to be stronger even when students and staff are apart.

For more information about ECS and its Distance Learning Plan (DLP), please view the Continuity of Education Plan or visit ecspgh.org/covid19-information.

For more, see:

Deana Callipare is currently the communication coordinator at the Environmental Charter School. She focuses on the school’s strategic public relations and integrated marketing communication efforts. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email [email protected] with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

Remote Learning: Lessons Learned and Reflections to Inform the Future

It has been an interesting couple of months in the world and in education. While I realize the amount of time that we have been out of our classrooms, sometimes it takes a moment for it to really sink in. The other day I went back to an earlier email to follow up with someone, and I was completely shocked when I realized that six weeks had passed. I took a few minutes to think about all that has happened since that initial email had been sent. Schools closed. States are under stay-at home orders and countries are on lockdown. My daily routine of going to work, interacting with my students, and planning for each day, plus joining in professional development events throughout the weeks had stopped. As a teacher, what could often be an unpredictable, but yet a very comfortable, part of life suddenly stopped.

Across the country and around the world we saw life as we know it change. Life is still changing. Unlike anything that we have ever experienced before and I hope that we don’t have to experience again. Educators and families everywhere are still experiencing the struggle and looking for ways to balance all of the responsibilities in their personal and professional lives. Asking questions such as: How can we do the work that we are so passionate about from our homes and away from our students? What if we have to continue like this for extended periods of time? What if this becomes the new normal? What have we learned and where do we go from here? These are questions I ask myself each day.

What Have I Learned?

When I think about it, it’s like the pandemic was the noisiest and biggest wake-up call on so many levels, one that we didn’t want, at least not in this way. It has pushed us to think critically not just about our daily lives, but also about what we are doing in our classrooms and in our schools. When processing thoughts and feelings about this pandemic, something that is so negative and has disrupted our lives so greatly, I think it’s important that we find a way to leverage our experiences to our advantage. What is something positive that we can take from it and how can it guide us as we move forward?

Looking back at the first few weeks of remote teaching, I was trying to do what I would normally do during the forty-two minute class periods in our classroom space. I still wanted to use our class materials and do the same activities and make it all fit somehow, in the online space. I spent more hours planning for all five of my courses than I had been in the past few years. I was becoming frustrated and feeling overwhelmed because I could not decide on a plan that would enable me to keep doing the same thing.

In the first two weeks, I quickly found out that I was overthinking my plans. Many students did not have their books at home, some students did not have devices or access, and it took a few weeks to be able to reach some students. There are several that I’ve not been able to connect with more than a few times. The biggest lesson that I have learned is that in times like this, we need to make sure that we focus on relationships and knowing our students and their families first. We need this connection so we can provide the support they need in the event that we experienced something like this again, although I certainly hope that we do not. But if we do, having those relationships and connections in place will make a huge difference.

How Much Tech is Enough?

Moving to remote learning means technology and for many educators, that was something entirely new. I truly believe that your level of expertise or comfort with digital tools or teaching online, made little difference during this time, especially at the onset of school closures. While I have used a lot of different digital tools in my classroom and have participated in and led sessions during webinars, conferences, and other events, I have never tried to teach a high school language course online. Moving instruction online is difficult and I have not talked to anyone yet that found it to be an easy transition.

After those first two weeks, rather than trying to make the materials that I had fit into this new learning space, I tried to think about what I could offer to make it more meaningful and accessible for students. Class meetings could not be mandatory but of course I hoped that many would attend and encouraged them to do so. I relied more on technology to open opportunities for students to explore, but more importantly, to have a way to connect with them. What I found is that many students joined in each class because it was a period of time they could count on, where they could feel like something was normal about the day when it came to school and learning. I am thankful to have technology available that enables us to connect with students and be available when they and their families need us.

Once I made that shift, I felt less frustrated and looked forward to teaching classes and being able to check in on students. For students, hearing each other’s voices and having a space to interact is making a difference. Of course there has been a lot of conversation out there about the security of using Zoom and the other platforms, with students sharing the links and classes being interrupted, but taking time to set up everything to avoid that made a difference.

Checking the Status

About midway through, I started to seek more feedback. Everyone wants to keep learning going and provide all that we can for students, but I think many quickly found out that we couldn’t. Not for lack of trying and not because we don’t want to put in the time. But because all of those things that we can’t control or that we don’t know are part of our students’ lives and experiences. Things like access to devices, added responsibilities, or even the jobs that they are still doing. We also don’t necessarily know about the amount of support available with parents who may be in the home doing their own work or are essential workers and leaving home each day. So I think it was a good point for everyone to focus on doing enough to keep learning going, but doing more to make sure that our students and their families are okay. We can catch up on learning activities, but we can’t catch up on missed opportunities to provide for the welfare and well-being of our students, ourselves, and our own families. Checking in is vital during this time.

Reflecting and Motivating

Encouraging students to do work when perhaps they are not receiving traditional grades or are on a pass-fail scale is another area that challenged me. I used a Google Form to ask students how they were doing, what could I help with, and how was class going for them. Was I giving too much or not enough? How were they handling all of their coursework?

What I learned is that we need to be mindful that not all of our students are working in a space where they have their own device or it’s quiet. Many students have added responsibilities that they are balancing now with a full online class schedule. It has been tough to break away from knowing where I want them to be with the content and instead find that balance and give them enough to engage them in meaningful and purposeful learning, that does not overwhelm.

It has led me to really think about what I am doing in my classroom and with each passing week, I found myself moving away from the books and other materials that I have used before and instead relying on resources accessible online. I thought this would be a smoother transition and easier for students to work with. But there were still a lot of questions—how to do something or where to find a certain resource, how to submit assignments, when were assignments due. So I decided to take some leaps and pull in some different strategies that I had used in other classes and some that I had not yet used but had thought about trying for a long time. I asked myself: What matters the most? That they all complete the worksheets and they all can speak Spanish? Or that they feel supported as they learn, comfortable making mistakes, and can create their own learning path? How can I use this moving forward?

Planning for our Future

It is time to think about how many changes we’ve made in the short period of time we’ve been teaching online, and consider what we would be able to do if we had to quickly transition back into our physical classrooms tomorrow. With a large part of the academic year lost, and with everything that we are reading now, there is the likelihood that school won’t look the way that it did when we were last in our classrooms. We may need to continue remote teaching and we may need to do so again without much notice. We need to have something in place. We are capable of having something better than we did this time because now we have experience.

With many schools around the world facilitating remote learning for the remainder of this academic year and possibly longer, we must find ways to provide more than just the content for our students. We need to consider how we can use this time as an opportunity for students to explore and create more, in ways that meet their specific interests and needs. We also should think about the transition we will need to make when classes resume in our schools. What types of opportunities can we design that will help students to be flexible in learning, to develop a growth mindset, and become problem solvers, while also providing ways for collaboration and communication to occur?

Especially now, with social interactions limited, it is critical that we provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful learning and leading experiences that promote the development of social-emotional learning skills and empower them to communicate and collaborate regardless of the learning “space.” With technology likely used at an even greater level for learning and working in the future, we need to embed ways for students to develop the skills which are critical to personal and future professional growth.

Although this is a very challenging time in the world, it is an opportunity to do more for our students and in an individualized way. We can have our students engage in unique ways to go beyond just the content and the curriculum they might be learning if still in their physical classroom setting. By focusing our efforts on bringing in concepts such as project-based learning (PBL), place-based learning, STEAM curriculum, entrepreneurial ventures, and genius hour, our students will have more independence and the opportunity to drive their learning, now more than ever before. With these options, we provide opportunities not only for our students to explore new ideas, but also to create and build essential skills, regardless of when or where learning takes place. We have the opportunity to innovate and reimagine learning. But we must continue to reflect and share our experience with others, because we are truly better together.

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