Why SEL is More Important Than Ever: Meeting SEL Needs Virtually

By: Rachelle Dene Poth

At the end of the last school year, there was a lot of concern about student well-being and the support that students will need in the upcoming school year. Months later, here we are at the start of a new school year, facing many of the same challenges. Educators and families are trying to find focus as we begin what will likely be a historic year in education. How can we best provide for these needs when we don’t necessarily know what transitions we may need to make throughout the year and with some schools still undecided about how the year will start?

Finding areas to focus on that we know will be beneficial to students regardless of where learning is happening is important. One such area that I think is critical at this time is to build in opportunities for students to develop their social-emotional learning (SEL) skills and to provide ongoing support for our students. Research done by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) showed that by providing opportunities that address the five competencies of SEL, increases student academic performance. The five SEL competencies are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. In the physical classroom space, we have many options for helping students to build these skills. However, as we reflect on the prior school year, we must take into consideration the impact of not having the opportunity to interact with our students and for students to build relationships with their peers in the same classroom space. We know the importance of making this a priority at the start of this year.

Now that we have had time to process our experiences and seek new ideas and tools, we can begin by focusing first on developing foundational relationships that will foster the development of a community for learning. In considering the five competencies of SEL, I believe that self-management and self-awareness are two areas where we need to start, especially in light of challenges that we may face as the year progresses.

Self-awareness relates to our abilities to recognize our emotions and thoughts and to be able to assess our strengths. Self-management refers to our ability to regulate our emotions and thoughts, to manage stress, to motivate ourselves, and to set academic and personal goals. When in our classrooms, we can observe students and work closely with them to create the right learning experiences for them to develop these skills and to build peer relationships. However, looking at the likelihood of hybrid or fully distance learning, we must be intentional about finding other resources and options for helping our students to build these essential skills. With self-management, helping students to learn to manage their time, to deal with the stress that may result during these transitions now and in the future is important.  We want students to engage in self-directed learning and be able to understand their needs and manage emotions and stress as competency in SEL can positively impact the future success of students.

Where do we begin? Tools and strategies to promote the development of SEL skills

Embedding activities into the curriculum that will address these skills is critical. All educators can build in activities to help students to build SEL skills as it is not specific to any grade level or content area. When it comes to student agency, social-emotional learning helps students to work through challenges, develop their own workflow, and be able to understand their skills and the steps they need to take to grow. It helps them to develop their independence in learning and advocacy skills. As we think about the look of school for this year, many students will be working independently during asynchronous formats where they will have opportunities to develop their skills in these areas.

In a remote or virtual environment, we can leverage some of the different tools and resources that are available to help students develop SEL skills. We can also use these options for creating a sense of belonging which is important for students.

Here are four ideas for creating space to build SEL skills.

  1. Check-ins. It is important to understand our students and their needs. We can use check-ins and rely on tools like SurveyMonkey, Google or Microsoft forms, or other digital tools that enable us to get immediate feedback from students. Setting up virtual hours for students to check-in with us and be available to have conversations beyond our class time and space is also of great benefit for students and teachers for working together. As we work through potential transitions throughout the year, having a consistent way to check-in will make a difference for our students, especially when we can also provide a space for them to also check in with each other.
  2. Collaborations. Using spaces like Whiteboard fi where teachers and students interact using a whiteboard space, can help students to feel more connected to the content and their classmates. With options like Padlet, students can get to know their classmates, engage in discussions, and share resources they find by adding posts with different media options to the Padlet. It can also be a good space for students to collaborate on a project and build many of the essential SEL skills. The habits that form and the various methods that students use to engage in these collaborations using these tools will then transfer into the physical learning space.
  3. Reflections. Using a tool like Flipgrid gives students a chance to reflect, provide feedback to classmates, or connect on a global scale with students from around the world, all of which will help them to develop many of the core competencies of SEL. With recent updates to Flipgrid, there are many options available for promoting discussions and connecting students with peers from around the world. It also offers a space for teachers to hear directly from students and be able to provide direct, authentic feedback to each student while building vital relationships throughout the year.
  4. Interactive lessons. Whether in our physical classroom space or learning at a distance, there are a lot of possibilities for more interactive lessons that provide multiple ways for students to practice the content and also to interact with their peers. Some of the possible options include using things like HyperDocs or creating a scavenger hunt that can be done with tools like Padlet, Wakelet, Flipgrid, or using breakout rooms in Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Another option is to use tools like Nearpod or Pear Deck where teachers can add in a variety of activities and content that can be used for a live lesson or done at a student pace.

Beyond these ideas, there are additional websites and resources available specifically for fostering the development of SEL in a remote learning environment. CASEL recently added their SEL Roadmap for school reopening. Centervention provides resources for students in K through 8, that helps them learn to collaborate, problem-solve, think critically, and develop empathy. Through the use of scenarios provided within the game being played, or working together as a team. Everfi offers SEL curriculum with options for students to engage in self-paced learning. Everfi partners with sponsors so they can offer the K-12 interactive SEL lessons for free to school districts.

By starting the year with some of these ideas for creating spaces for students to interact, we can provide those essential supports that students will need. Through options like these, we will help to create and foster a sense of community and belonging, which then leads students to develop the social-emotional skills they need.

For more, see:

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Project-Based Learning Revolution: Principal’s New Book is a Call to Action

2020 will be remembered for many significant cultural, political, economic, and global challenges. All of these are overwhelming, but also represent opportunities for collective calls to action. In that spirit, one high school principal is reaching out to his colleagues to join the Project-Based Learning Revolution.

In his book A PBL Revolution: Join the Movement to Transform Education One School at a Time Through Project-Based Learning, Dr. Daniel Ching is challenging both teachers and leaders to transform their classrooms and schools to truly meet the needs of today’s ever-changing learners. Beyond pedagogy, Ching focuses on establishing the culture necessary to make this deeper learning transformation. Ching said this culture of learning is centered on inquiry, creativity, collaboration, and rigor through project-based learning.

“This book highlights the fact that true project-based learning starts at our core and requires us to transform our thinking and instruction from the ground up,” said Ching. “The book is a guide to implement PBL into the fabric of our schools rather than by fitting projects into a unit or occasionally using PBL when we have time in the pacing guide.”

The Why

The inspiration, according to Ching, is from his personal experience as a teacher and now principal at Minarets High School / Minarets Charter High School. His PBL journey represents over 10 years now of implementing a program based on research, risk-taking, trial, error, and real-time adult learning.

“It was inspired by the wonderful experience we have had in making real connections with students through hands-on, meaningful projects,” said Ching.

Ching was also inspired by researching some of the highest performing PBL schools in the nation. There, he interacted with school leaders who impacted his thinking. He soon realized that many educators talk about PBL, but very few put together the school-wide program to make it a reality.

“That is what this book is all about,” said Ching. “And hopefully, it is just the beginning of the process to make that change.”

The Call to Action

PBL has become too much of a catchphrase, according to Ching. He said it’s still competing in a world of canned curriculum and instruction where even our recent adoption of new standards haven’t moved deeper learning forward. Chings wants to challenge his peers to see through the smokescreen and operate from a perspective that PBL is an incredibly powerful instructional approach.

“Authentic and transformational project-based learning cannot be pre-packaged. Rather, it’s really more of a mindset that we have to design our classes to give students an entirely different learning experience,” said Ching. “Let’s do this together and push back against the watering down of curriculum and instruction.”

The Takeaways

Like other thought leaders, Ching sees urgency. He sees that the pandemic, and the necessary adjustment to it by schools across the nation, is already forcing some of that change. However, Ching demands that more schools share their stories and inspire the teachers and principals to embrace the change.

“We need district leaders to embrace the collaborative effort with their principals and teachers to pursue the change. Most people just want to see examples of how it has been successful in other schools,” said Ching. “This is part of my quest – to spread the word that this can be done in a research-based, comprehensive, effective, and replicable way.”

Another challenge is the rate of change. Ching says many naturally want change to happen quickly, or even more importantly, smoothly. However, he says this type of change is going to take a culture shift, as well as willingness to let go of things we have had control over for too long. That is why Ching thinks this revolution won’t be an immediate systemic change, but rather teacher, school, and district at a time.

“The beauty in that challenge is that it takes a staff to come together, build a structure that works for their community, and own the learning,” said Ching. “This is our chance to do that.”

Like other change agents, Ching continually brings everything back to the ground level – the students. He said each passing year, many educators can see more and more students disengaged. And this is not because they don’t want to learn, according to Ching, but because they are not being challenged.

“We are realizing that textbooks and licenses that over-promise are just not effective,” said Ching. “It is truly sad to see technology used to make the modern ‘worksheet.’ We all know, including the students, that we can do better – much better.”

He said the true reflection of a PBL school will be evidenced in the language the students use every day. Students engaged in meaningful project-based work will talk about the research they’re doing, problems they are addressing, decisions they are making and the feedback they are receiving.

“PBL has to be built into the fabric of the school.  It’s infectious, organic, and real,” said Ching. “You will see it in rallies, games, and at lunch. It permeates every aspect of the school.”

The Culmination

Ultimately, Ching sees this book as an effort to be the DIY manual for teachers and leaders – sort of a hard knocks version of PBL books. This is a complex, but beautiful and continuous process, according to Ching. He says the book is a reflective journey that also tries to add the research and credibility, as well as the how-to.

“There are so many walls in education that prevent us from getting to where we want to go and need to go with our students,” said Ching. “I hope this book can provide the tools to begin that journey and inspire others to do the same.”

For his continued journey, Ching said he would really like to continue to network and collaborate with other like-minded schools.

“I am always looking to help others implement PBL and I am definitely always wanting to use their experience as an opportunity to learn myself,” said Ching.

For more, see:

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The Future Of Learning Is Smart Measurement Rather Than Dumb Assessments

Assessment has always been an important part of learning but lately, we’ve grown to rely on quizzes and tests that are artificial, expensive, single-purpose, uninformative, and inequitable.  Our peculiar American affliction is our fixation with reliability (consistent and cheap) over validity (authentic and meaningful).

In the same way the business world has shifted to a focus on customer experience informed by big data, the future of education is learner experience informed by measurement. And by measurement, it’s not just to planned assessments but embedded checks, adaptive adjustments, gathered observations, reflections, and system diagnostics.

The 13 building blocks outlined below build on David Conley’s outline of next-generation assessment. They describe how measurement systems will incorporate lots of small measures embedded in and associated with learning experiences rather than big inauthentic end of year tests. The first half describes the role of measurement in a learning journey. The second half describes robust measurement systems.

Smart Measurement Rather than Dumb Assessment

1. Learner growth: Measurement is primarily focused on informing learner growth. Program administration and system accountability come second. As David Conley said, “Students are actors, not objects.

2. Continuum: Measurement views growth on a novice-expert continuum. It’s not fixated on artificial age cohort proficiency targets measured by year-end standardized tests.

3. Embedded: Most measurement is embedded in or a reflection on learning experiences. Feedback is often immediate, always informative. It’s sometimes quantitative, sometimes qualitative.

4. Application: Measurement is focused on the application of knowledge and skills. It’s not about regurgitating facts and formulas. Sometimes the stakes are high when a mastery judgment is involved (for a certification or move to the next level) but measurement remains authentic and fair.

5. Ownership: Measurement promotes student ownership of learning and helps them identify interests and develop self-knowledge. It is as much about building success skills as academic progress with feedback that helps learners identify the next steps.

6. Actionable: Measurement produces actionable information. It doesn’t just put learners in categories. It helps them understand their own learning and promotes goal setting and persistence.

7. Insight: Measurement provides insight into the application of knowledge in context. Because expertise is context and domain-dependent, measurement is not an isolated one-shot affair. Important skills are applied to different problems in different settings to demonstrate transferability. Measurement informs teachers of what was learned and about the nature of the task and context.

Measurement Systems Rather than Assessment Events

8. Adaptive: Measurement is incorporated into adaptive systems that identify the next best steps–both in level and type of challenge. Adaptive systems particularly good for intensive skill-building that enable equitable contributions to extended challenges.

9. Profiles: Measurement is used to create comprehensive learner records in ways that aid individual development and goal attainment, that identify the most productive environments and experiences for growth.

In a paper on the future of assessment, Australian nonprofit High Resolves described profiles as  “Very large, dynamic, database of all archived cognitive, affective and behavioral indicators from multiple activity‑based assessments”. Comprehensive records inform not only individual next steps but (with full privacy) provides valuable insights into the performance of subgroups and the efficacy of learning experiences.

10. Proactive: Measurement spots evidence of desired competencies in powerful immersive experiences–both inside and outside of school. It doesn’t rely exclusively on elaborate and inauthentic deconstructed post hoc assessment tasks (those big end of year multiple-choice tests). Teachers, advisors, and algorithms can all be part of proactively spotting competencies.

You can plan for opportunities to provoke creative problem solving–but you can also spot it when and where it emerges given conditions that value curiosity and self-direction.

11. Cumulative Validity: Measurement takes advantage of cumulative validity. Combining hundreds of data points (e.g., multitrait feedback on 30 writing samples from several classes over two years–each with 2-3 revisions) can provide a much more accurate picture of writing competence than an end of year standardized test. Automated feedback systems can augment human judgment in assessing skills progressions.

Good schools know how every learner is doing on every important competency every day–they take advantage of the cumulative benefit of high-quality formative assessment and don’t need a day (or week) long test at the end of the year.

12. Equity: Good measurement systems address equity issues. They identify learners that need more time and support; they power early warning systems. Equitable measurement systems avoid tasks and tests that incorporate bias.

13. Credentials: Measurement systems help communicate milestones in capability development in the form of credentials and portfolios of artifacts that enable learners to tell their stories.

There are a handful of built-from-scratch school systems and postsecondary programs that do many of these things well. It’s harder for an existing system of schools to adopt these principles but a few dozen are on the path. CompetencyWorks notes progress in most states.

Conley sees an accelerating change in college admissions–an opening for multiple measures. And research suggests that a wider range of measures generally helps identify a more diverse candidate pool.

States can advance smart measurement with pilot programs that support schools moving in this direction. Future state accountability systems could authorize networks of schools that can present comprehensive datasets that consistently and accurately describe learner growth.

The future of learning is smart measurement–it’s a collection of authentic observations over time, it’s often adaptive and embedded, it’s proactive and results in useful profiles that help learners tell their story.

For more, see:

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An Opportunity to Disrupt Education for the Better: Lessons From Starting a School in a Pandemic

By: Tom Woelper

There’s no doubt that American education is in a state of disruption, with most established schools laser-focused on the immediate and pressing challenges around reopening and educating their students in the short-term. These disruptive forces also present opportunities.

As the Founding Head of School at the New England Innovation Academy—a new school that was set in motion long before COVID—my experience of adapting education to the pandemic has been quite different. NEIA, which opens its doors to students in Fall 2021, is in the midst of a planning year for our curriculum, staffing needs, and the renovation of our campus. As a startup school, we were already thinking outside the box in terms of diverging from traditional schools. We are fortunate to avoid the pressures that so many schools face opening this fall, and this has allowed us to rethink how we can provide an education that meets students’ needs in a changing world. This was the initial premise of NEIA’s founders, and it holds even more true today.

Disruption is painful, there’s no doubt about that—and the disruption we face as educators today is no doubt unwelcome. However, COVID offers an opportunity to thoroughly reconsider our educational model. As we’ve begun thinking about what kind of education we’ll deliver post-pandemic, four key areas of change stand out to us. These not only lay the framework for a new school, but provide opportunities for changes to our existing model of education in the U.S.

Make Blended Learning Integral to the Curriculum

Admirably, when faced with the challenge of moving to distance learning in mere weeks, schools built the proverbial plane while flying it and continue to make strides in distance learning, knowing that they may need to pivot at any moment if another shutdown occurs.

Distance learning during COVID-19 made one thing almost universally clear: the current paradigm of education does not translate well into a digital platform or result in meaningful, relevant, or enduring learning at a level we need it to, for the sake of our students.

It’s a reality that has turned many students, parents, and educators off to distance learning. But in reality, blended learning can be a productive and meaningful way of educating students; it’s a strategy that we had planned prior to the pandemic, and the prospect of turning to distance learning at any moment has solidified that decision.

In a global, interconnected society, blended learning models benefit students beyond catastrophic crises. They provide flexibility to meet students’ needs: allowing students to travel and study internationally while still participating in class, or elite athletes to train and compete while away from school for extended periods. Most schools do not allow for—or angst about—this. But the pandemic demands an effective, successful distance learning option—and with that in place, schools like NEIA can enthusiastically support students having learning experiences both on and away from campus.

Blended learning also allows schools to meet students where they thrive—and that is just what is happening for many students for whom distance learning is a good fit. By robustly developing and offering in-person, blended, and online learning programs, we put more tools into our teachers’ instructional tool belt while providing maximum flexibility.

Emphasize Empathy

The current public health and economic crisis, along with the racial and social justice issues at the forefront of national conversation, strengthens the case for empathy as a core element to what we teach our students. The pandemic has not changed this about NEIA, but it has fortified our resolve regarding its importance. When developing the idea for NEIA, our founders—who are both entrepreneurs and educators—want to educate students who are empathetic, flexible, and innovative.

As a result, NEIA is built on human-centered design (HCD), a structured innovation process that is as simple as it is profound. HCD will not be a stand-alone class, but a guiding principle as we design our curriculum, student programs, policies, and practices. HCD will be our culture, our reflexive response to how we—students, faculty, staff, and administrators—solve problems. HCD begins with the user’s needs and takes an empathetic approach to problem-solving and design work. We believe that thoughtful design is making future leaders and, by extension, a better world.

It’s become clear to many people—parents, educators, business leaders—that we are launching students into a rapidly changing world. The challenges of COVID may indicate that it’s time to rethink the learning experience. How does one tackle the health and social implications of a novel coronavirus? By being empowered to approach and solve problems creatively, and by being prepared to thrive in an evolving real world.

Listen to Students’ Needs

Because we are using the HCD process to design NEIA, students’ needs are our starting point. The disruption for students due to the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that society and established norms often do not put the needs of students at the forefront.

In my experience, students seldom are interviewed in the design of curricula or programs; educators tend to consult experts. We know of no other school founded using the HCD process. As a result, we believe that we can create a school that perpetually innovates, stays relevant, and prepares students for this ever-changing world.

Understanding the needs of students allows schools to adapt with them. There is no doubt that our students will emerge from this pandemic without changes to their needs and points of view. Listening to them now will be more critical than ever as we design an educational experience that allows them to thrive in the years ahead.

Have Difficult Conversations about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The protests for racial and social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have resulted in reckonings for many schools as they look at their histories, policies, and practices. Too often, aspirational language falls short, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are secondary add-ons.

Research shows that the most innovative teams are the most diverse. Innovation requires diverse thinking, experiences, backgrounds, races, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, etc. As we hire our staff for a school focused on innovation, this fact has been front and center.

But we’ve also had to recognize that being diverse is not enough. Community does not just happen. Conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice are difficult ones to have. Sadly, they too often get politicized—and mirroring society, schools often shy away from them. These conversations would be more central at our schools given ongoing social unrest, if not for the focus on reopening planning.

As schools reopen, there’s no doubt that there will be competing priorities: too little time, new technologies to learn, a lot of missed material on which students must catch up. But it’s also important to invest time into the difficult conversations necessary to build a safe, supportive, and loving community. Only then will we redress systemic racism. Only then will we have the high functioning, collaborative teams essential for innovation.

The disruption caused by COVID provides us with an opportunity to build a new school that responds to the current crisis and creates a new paradigm. We think that this disruption will move parents and students, who reflexively gravitate towards the old paradigm, to consider new options. Founding a new school in an unprecedented crisis may not be such a crazy idea after all.

For more, see:

Tom Woelper is the Founding Head of New England Innovation Academy, an independent day and boarding school preparing the next generation of innovators. NEIA will open its newly renovated campus in Marlborough, Massachusetts to its first classes of 6th- and 9th-grade students in September 2021. Follow Tom on Twitter at @twoelper

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

We know that educators and leaders have spent the last couple of months scrambling to meet the immediate needs of learners in their community. Thank you to each and every one of you for everything you’ve done to make the best out of this challenging situation. Now that the end of the school year is here, we’re shifting our Getting Through series from stories and advice to support remote learning or long term closures, to getting ready for the complex work of reopening schools this fall.
Interested in contributing to this campaign?

Email your stories and ideas to [email protected] or tweet using #GettingThrough to participate!

4 Actionable Queries Empowering EdLeaders to be Change-Ready

By: Karine Veldhoen

As educational leaders we are facing incredible tumult and uncertainty as we prepare for the fall amidst a pandemic. Like never before we face the challenge of delivering education in nimble and new ways. Even as I am writing this article, our province has not yet released guidelines for the fall, yet I feel prepared to take a deep breath and lead our school into this next season—we are change-ready!

How can we transform this pandemic into a positive provocation? How can we hold both the risk analysis for the safety of children and community, while also tending to innovating on the design of learning experiences? How can we hold the students’ social-emotional needs in creative and meaningful ways amidst the disruption?

Learn Forward™ defines change-readiness as a strong desire to reconceptualize learning by bravely asking powerful questions, embracing a communal growth mindset, and inviting parents, students, and teachers to collaborate in unfolding the extraordinary potential that lives within every child. It is focusing on what matters most.

Here are four actionable queries to support the development of your change-ready school.

How is your school ‘rooted’?

Interestingly enough, change-readiness begins by being rooted in a vibrant school culture and steadied in a set of aspirational values shaping your community.

Each year our model Learn Forward™ school, Willowstone Academy, in British Columbia, Canada, designs an annual theme to help keep us rooted. This theme captures our developmental journey as a community and inspires us along the way. This year, our theme is “Reimagining,” and we are excited about how it is already in play during our summer months of preparation.

Our theme becomes part of our fall kick-off, our school-wide communications, our departments, and our work with students. As a school leader, I enjoy going back to the theme in team communications and using our design work to enhance our creative messaging. Your theme will help ‘root’ your school community in what matters most.

How will you strategically promote equity?

Our society is groaning under the weight of injustice. We’ve paid lip service to inclusion, diversity, equity, and access for too long. While we can’t transform systemic racism in a school year or address gaps in diversity in 10 months, we must act proactively today.

In my mind, promoting equity is bringing our creative energies to iterate with relentless optimism on how to engage students, all students, in authentic learning, regardless of where ‘school’ is happening. We can’t settle. We must go after the students in the cracks like a shepherd after a lost sheep. The parable fits. This takes a team willing to iterate, be responsive, change, and adapt, even once the plans are in place. Teachers are brilliant at this work. How can we empower them?

In one of the three meetings we had as a school faculty this spring, we spent considerable time assessing students who were getting ‘lost’ and brainstorming new ways of pursuing each of them in an eLearning environment. We can’t settle for less than championing each student’s extraordinary potential. That’s designing for equity.

This year, we will strategically raise voices of diversity in our community. We will begin by listening to students, pursuing those in the margins, elevating the voices of students of colour, and ensuring our community is true to its values on equity.

How will you care for your team?

From the vantage point of a school leader, it is clear that professional educators often live under the haunting weightiness of the work. We face children struggling with learning, changing family structures, disabilities, trauma, poverty, and a sea of challenges found in every classroom, including a system that often beats down on them like a mallet on a drum’s skin.

And now, COVID.

It will be important to consider how we will intentionally and creatively invest in our team of teachers for the next school year.

An idea: Six years ago, we implemented an all-new process of inviting teachers to engage intentionally in a backwards-design, self-care planning process. The process begins with the humble questions, “What does thriving look like?” And, “What do you want to feel like in June?”

Each year teachers complete the “Self-Care for Teachers” proposal due in the first six weeks of school. The spirit of the proposal is to encourage reflection and to define intentions around thriving. More recently, we added the additional step of reflection at the end of the year.

How will you invest in your own personal and professional growth?

My colleague, Kelly Camak, reminds me that all professional learning is personal.

Rest, exercise, and intentional research and collaborations are at the top of my list currently. Investing in myself, my health and wellness, and my professional network is what is getting me through this season.

I am a part of the Better Leaders, Better Schools (BLBS) mastermind community for educational leaders. I benefit from connecting with this group of innovators each week. They particularly anchor me amidst a sea of uncertainty as we coach each other towards solutions and develop our leadership acumen. It is like going to coffee after work each week with some of the best educational leaders from around the world. Who wouldn’t benefit?

Continuing to lean into professional learning communities like Getting Smart, the BLBS Mastermind, or your local school leadership cohort is an investment worth making, even during this hectic pace of crisis management.

While it is easy to get caught up in the urgency of addressing our international pandemic, leadership continues to be pulling out of the fray and focusing on addressing what matters most.

How are you answering these queries?

For the sake of the children,

Karine Veldhoen

For more, see:

Karine Veldhoen is the founder of Learn Forward and a creative force in education. She’s also the Chief Learning Officer at Willowstone Academy, the CEO/Founder of Niteo Africa, and a former Education Consultant for Fresh Grade. Follow her on Twitter at @Mrs_KV.

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

We know that educators and leaders have spent the last couple of months scrambling to meet the immediate needs of learners in their community. Thank you to each and every one of you for everything you’ve done to make the best out of this challenging situation. Now that the end of the school year is here, we’re shifting our Getting Through series from stories and advice to support remote learning or long term closures, to getting ready for the complex work of reopening schools this fall.
Interested in contributing to this campaign?

Email your stories and ideas to [email protected] or tweet using #GettingThrough to participate!

Learning Coach Academy: Supporting the Role of Parents or Guardians in Remote Learning

By: Heather Hiebsch and Cheryl Fenlason

This spring, millions of parents and guardians were forced into a role that most never expected and few were prepared for – acting as “teacher” to students learning from home. For many, it was a high-stress and low reward experience.

It looks like many students will again – at least in part – be learning remotely in the coming school year. So how can we better prepare parents or guardians to support students?

A simple answer: let’s get them on our team and develop “Learning Coaches” who can help kids adapt – even thrive – in this new educational landscape.

What is a Learning Coach?

A Learning Coach (LC) is an adult who actively supports a student’s learning away from school – it can be a parent, guardian, grandparent, aunt or uncle, coach, neighbor, etc. For younger kids, it is usually the person with whom the child spends most of their day outside of school.

Is the LC the Teacher?

No – these are distinctly different roles.

The easiest way to think about it is that the teacher plans and delivers lessons, while the LC helps ensure lessons are completed and questions are communicated. An LC’s role is to check in with kids about deadlines, communication with teachers, time management, and organization — essentially they act as a guide and accountability partner to help kids stay focused and on track.

While these roles are different, it is most powerful when everyone is on the same team. Think of the holistic expertise now “in the room” when teachers and LCs join forces – you have content and pedagogy experts for deep learning and someone with expertise on the child’s life outside of school for deep relevancy.

How involved will the LC need to be?

Be realistic when setting expectations for the LC’s involvement.

For older students, it might not require much time. For some, it may be fine for the LC to do a daily (or even weekly) check-in on schedule, grades, and to model communications with teachers and peers.

For younger students, there will be a heavier lift. Obviously, we cannot expect a 5-year-old to attentively attend a Zoom meeting from 8:00 am – 3:00 pm! Instead, the teacher can send a weekly plan to the LC with lessons and activities to be completed. Great online teachers will make these as independent as possible, even for primary littles!

The LC will then report outcomes back to the teacher, so the teacher can evaluate, plan the next lessons, or provide intervention if necessary.

How can schools set LCs up for success?

First, make sure you are communicating clearly, efficiently, and at regular intervals.

Do not overload LCs with multiple emails, videos, websites, links, and materials. Have a single go-to webpage and make sure your LCs know when they are going to hear from you. Post the learning plan and activities for the week, and share office hours stating when you are available for questions or challenges. This allows the LCs to plan the student’s learning schedules at their convenience.

Next, treat LCs as your professional partners.

Remember, their success is your success… which is ultimately the success of the student.  As partners in education, why wouldn’t we provide LCs with opportunities for input and Professional Development?

So…how do you facilitate Professional Development (PD) for LCs?

LCs are uniquely qualified to be a partner in a child’s learning – filling their toolbox contributes to the success of the student and the LC, and builds their confidence as a learning partner.

So, what next?

Develop a “Learning Coach Academy (LCA)” – or a PD program designed for LCs. Some tips:

  • Establish the why: Make sure to have clear goals and outcomes. Examples include: developing strong relationships between teachers and LCs, developing practical ways to support learning at home, and/or providing pedagogical knowledge that will strengthen support of learning.
  • Consider LCs’ needs: Both in scheduling workshops or learning opportunities and understanding their support needs. Survey your teachers and LCs – LCs will know what they need and teachers know what will make them stronger partners.
  • Get frequent feedback: Solicit feedback throughout the year. Make a plan and then get ready to adjust it based on what LCs say they need.
  • Schedule opportunities for LCs to support each other: This is the LCs’ professional network. LCs can often provide empathetic support and practical suggestions to each other because they are experiencing many of the same challenges.

Summary and Lessons Learned

  1. Don’t assume it is a one-way street.

While teachers are the experts in their content area, LCs are the experts on their child. Success comes from establishing a two way street of learning.

  1. Don’t separate community-building from training.

The best LCA sessions are a mixture of coffee talk, sharing what’s working and what’s not, and a formal professional training topic. By combining social and professional learning, attendance and engagement will be higher.

  1. DO treat your LCAs as a one-year PD Plan. Include:
  1. Pedagogy – student engagement, use of rubrics, data-driven instruction
  2. Academic Content – use of adopted curriculum, content area standards, objectives for writing samples
  3. Social-Emotional Learning Content – resources for an organization, time management, stress management, and building positive relationships
  4. PLCs – professional learning is more powerful as a collective – have LCs formally mentor others, set goals, share successes and challenges.

Bottom line: The larger the support network our kids have, the more successful they will be in school—and this holds particularly true now. Though we are collectively facing a lot of challenges, there are also opportunities to make things better for our schools and our kids in the long-term.

For more, see:

TeachUNITED is a global 501c3 non-profit supporting schools and teachers adapting to personalized learning through a grant-funded coaching program. Heather Hiebsch (@heather_hiebsch) is the Co-Founder and Executive Director and former K-12 Principal. For more information, contact [email protected]. Also contributing, Cheryl Fenalson is the Principal of the Poudre School District Global Academy in Fort Collins, CO.

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Engaging Families During Distance Learning

By: Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

Decades of research and practical experience have shown that family engagement in student learning is an important component for positive outcomes. With so many school districts around the country beginning the fall with distance learning, the role of families has become even more critical. Parents and caregivers are now serving as the conduits connecting students to school and learning, the facilitators ensuring that learning experiences are productive, and the managers of the school routine. At the same time, the pandemic has disrupted many of the traditional opportunities teachers have to connect and engage with families such as back-to-school nights or open house events.

As schools plan for a virtual reopening, educators must consider and plan for how to connect, engage, and support as they partner with families within this unique context. In doing this, it is essential that both schools and classrooms immediately build strong relationships, establish two-way communication channels, and ensure that their family engagement strategies are ongoing and equitable for all families.

Introduce students and families to the classroom and school. Feeling part of a classroom and school community is important for students and families. Being able to visualize the physical space of the school and the classroom, even while learning from home, establishes a common point of connection and conveys a sense of structure. Some districts around the country are encouraging school leaders and teachers to conduct virtual learning from classrooms within the school building, so familiarizing students with this setup helps to organize their learning routines. Educators can consider hosting live video conferences or sharing pre-recorded videos to orient students and families with the physical spaces.

Share photos and video messages to introduce school leaders and support staff. The experience for families facilitating virtual learning can be isolating. Without the beginning of the year introductions, families might not realize that there is a broader team working behind the scenes to support learning and growth for each student. Take care to introduce school leaders and building-wide specialists and share relevant contact information. It is important for families to proactively get to know the team of support available for their child’s learning. Similarly, consider including photos to identify individuals with introductory messaging and on the school’s website. This is a great way to personalize messaging and help parents feel a greater sense of community.

Take time to educate families on how they can best support learning. Teachers have built their professional knowledge base over years of training and classroom experiences. Most parents and caregivers do not have this background knowledge. Beyond communicating the logistics of virtual learning, it is important to invest time in educating parents and caregivers on developmentally appropriate strategies and expectations for learning. Guide parents on the importance of taking breaks from learning and communicate that it is both necessary and productive for children to take learning breaks throughout the day. You might share how to recognize some cues that a child needs a break and give strategies on how to structure a quick break. Throughout the year, as you introduce new content, parents and caregivers may also require more detailed academic information given this structure of learning in order to support their children. You might include how-to guides for math and reading work at home in your parent outreach.

Value input from parents to inform teaching and learning. Given parents’ increased role in student learning, it is very important to create a two-way communication channel so that they can reach out with questions or share information and concerns. In the classroom, teachers rely on many informal observations and assessments to gauge student learning and progress. With learning happening virtually, teachers must partner with parents and caregivers to better understand student needs.

Find ways to cultivate relationships. Relationships and shared experiences among students, families, and staff are at the heart of a vibrant school community. Find ways to connect new families to the school community. Use virtual school-wide morning announcements, theme days, and scheduled bedtime stories to add points of connection with staff and community members. You might also partner veteran parents with new families to serve as a resource for questions and guidance or connect families from the same classroom by hosting a virtual event.

Create opportunities for parent contribution and volunteering. Each school community is filled with individuals who have a variety of skills and interests along with a desire to contribute to the classroom and school community. Educators can still utilize these contributions of time and talent. You might invite parents to join a virtual lesson and play a musical instrument for the class, share information about their job, or even lead an art project. This is a great way to extend the resources available to students and strengthen the classroom and school community.

Investing in Family Engagement. Both educators and families are actively preparing for a back-to-school season like no other. Educators are figuring out how to migrate the dynamic process of teaching and learning to the digital realm. Families are redesigning their home spaces and schedules to accommodate virtual learning. Practices and routines that in prior years were taken for granted are now having to be reimagined and designed to fit this new structure. And all of this work is happening within a broader context of health concerns and financial impacts.

As educators and families prepare for this school year, we cannot forget to invest time and energy into building and fortifying the relationships between home and school. For within this context, those relationships and communication channels will be the foundation that makes the rest of the work possible and productive. With the recognition of the importance of these family-school partnerships, educators may even develop best practices and strategies that will serve students and families well beyond the return to in-person schooling. And with the recognition that family engagement is an essential rather than ancillary component of schooling, we might finally realize the potential of true partnerships between families and schools described in decades of research.

For more, see:

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Reimagining Learning for Students with Disabilities: A COVID Crisis Silver Lining

By: Karla Phillips-Krivickas

My daughter is returning to school next week after five months at home, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m glad Arizona, where we live, has given parents a choice in how to educate their children as we emerge from the COVID crisis, and I support parents who are exploring online and homeschool options to keep their children safe and on track with learning until they are comfortable going back on campus. But the truth is that the choices facing parents of students with disabilities transcend school choice. We know that our children need the intellectual, therapeutic programs and skilled teachers that only can be delivered in person and at school, but we have no idea how that will work.

As I ironed out the details for my daughter’s transition to middle school with her special education teacher, I was overcome with appreciation for the time, attention, and detail the school has invested in preparing to support my daughter. She has Down Syndrome and has been fortunate to attend a school that prioritizes inclusion and has set high expectations for her. Even so, this will be a school year unlike any other.

Parents of children with disabilities are particularly challenged by school re-openings. They need their schools, but many will find their children returning to understaffed, underequipped and underfunded programs, a problem only exacerbated by COVID. But their challenges don’t end there. Much of the state’s special education model is outdated and in desperate need of a revamp. Additional resources alone won’t solve the problem. As our country contemplates this new school year, it should also open the door for schools to reimagine education for students with disabilities. 


In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman have allocated initial CARES Act funds to support school reopening plans, compensatory education for students with disabilities, and student safety.  Encouragingly, they also have dedicated monies to support innovation. Likely, many of your state’s leaders have made similar decisions. As the state’s guidance continues to evolve and as boards and departments begin to review school re-opening plans, both our states and our schools should consider the following ways to address the needs of special education students:

  1. Make special education a focal point in state and school reopening plans. Educators have long acknowledged that the strategies that work for special education students are best practices for all children. Now is the time to act on this knowledge to benefit all students.
  2. Seek feedback from and provide support to families of students with disabilities. Our students need the experienced and dedicated professionals a school provides along with therapeutic support to boost learning and achievement. However, the reality is that remote learning for students with disabilities is, in fact, parent-facilitated learning. They need to be engaged and supported along every step.  
  3. Prioritize inclusion. Schools must guard against increased isolation or segregation of students with disabilities in reopening plans. Inclusion in a digital environment certainly presents challenges, yet it is more important now than ever.
  4. Address learning loss. The state’s digital learning plans require details on this year’s benchmark assessments and instructional methods, but schools also need to develop plans to accelerate learning and prevent achievement gaps from widening.
  5. Balance local control with state support. Local decision-making has never been more important, but the state plays a crucial role in monitoring and evaluating school plan implementation. This monitoring should, clearly, not be for the purpose of compliance or enforcement but to identify trends and areas needing increased support and technical assistance.


It has become glaringly obvious that students with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the shutdown of our nation’s schools due to the COVID pandemic. Beyond the dilemma of ensuring device access and connectivity, schools are struggling to convert their special education programs and related services to an online environment.

This unprecedented challenge could present an unprecedented opportunity for Arizona to reboot its approach to special education. Rather than replicating existing models online and contemplating modifications and accommodations later, this is the time to flip the paradigm. Now is the time to empower school leaders to reinvent the design and delivery of special education services and supports, knowing that it will benefit all students.

Each state has the ability to distribute new sources of federal funding and provide guidance and flexibility to schools as they consider the best way to put students at the center of learning. As deliberations regarding additional federal funding continue, states can respectfully request that Congress preserves the flexibility for governors to prioritize their state’s needs and allocate funds to build a new comprehensive plan and unique, game-changing initiatives for students with disabilities.

As we rethink our approach to this upcoming school year, let’s start with our students with disabilities. Let’s make sure they are at the center of every school’s re-opening and let’s use those plans as the foundation for a new statewide approach to special education.

With additional federal relief funds, we could create something big, bold, and transformational that will outlast this pandemic and change the trajectory for generations of students.

And that is exactly what our kids deserve. 

For more, see:

Karla Phillips-Krivickas is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy for KnowledgeWorks. She has over 20 years of national and state education policy experience in legislative, executive and non-profit leadership roles. As a mother of a child with a disability, Karla is channeling her experience and opportunities to passionately advocate for students with disabilities.

This article was originally published on Chamber Business News

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How Schools Can Help Cultivate Learner Identity and Agency

By: Anna Perry, Kim Carter, Chris Liang-Vergara, Eric Tucker, Sean Talamas, and Elliot Luscombe

COVID-19 is creating unprecedented challenges and demanding more of students, who must play an even greater role in managing their own education as they navigate in-person, hybrid, and virtual learning in varying measures throughout the year. To succeed, students will need to authentically know who they are, what they value, and where they want to go. They’ll need to leverage resources to navigate obstacles and create positive change in their education and life, investigate their interests, reaffirm their identities, drive their own learning, and grow self-motivation and resiliency.

In short, students will need opportunities to develop and cultivate a strong sense of identity and agency.

As educators, we must strive to support our students in this process. In collaboration with World Class Education (WorldClassEdu), Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB) asked leading educators and thinkers how schools and teachers can support students in this process: How can we help students develop their identity and agency to shift the locus of control and successfully navigate complex life and learning transitions?

Here, we provide an overview of responses from experts in sociology, psychology, special education, educational equity, social justice, and student-centered education. You can access the entirety of the contributions in our Back to School Learner Identity and Agency Guidebook.

Dr. Anindya Kundu: Fostering Social and Cultural Capital

Dr. Anindya Kundu, a sociologist of education, defines agency as “a person’s capacity to leverage resources to navigate obstacles and create positive change in their life” (Kundu, The Power of Student Agency, 2020). Dr. Kundu emphasizes two resources students need in order to foster a healthy sense of agency: social and cultural capital.

  • To help students foster social capital—which includes mentors, networks, and help-seeking behavior—educators can proactively encourage students to ask for help. For students from underprivileged backgrounds, who may fear they’ll get in trouble approaching adults and others in positions of authority, it’s important to make sure these sources of social capital are safe.
  • To help students cultivate access to cultural capital—the mentors and teachers who understand and affirm a student’s background and identity—educators can start by recognizing and paying attention to forms of giftedness that aren’t always appreciated in traditional education settings. Dr. Kundu shares the example of a student named J. Stud, whose teacher noticed his talent for writing rap lyrics. She arranged for J. Stud to record one of his songs in a real studio, where he ended up securing an internship.

Q.E.D. Foundation: The Importance of Emotion in Learner-Centered Education

At Q.E.D. Foundation, Executive Director Kim Carter and her colleagues are focused on a learner-centered approach to education, which recognizes that learning is responsive to the individual learner’s needs and strengths. Without the freedom to investigate their own interests in school, students might struggle to remain fully engaged and motivated. Standard curricula can prevent students from deep learning that fosters the development of their sense of identity, agency, and self-motivation skills that will be useful throughout their lives.

Q.E.D. has developed a set of tools to remain connected to their students remotely and sow the seeds of agency and self-advocacy. For example, to create space for emotion and help students remain emotionally connected to school, Q.E.D. has created an “end-of-day portal” as a standard part of its English curriculum. At the end of every day, students are expected to journal. They can write about whatever they like, and Q.E.D. hopes they use the portal as a means to advocate for themselves: to complain, negotiate, challenge, and celebrate. Q.E.D. has set a target of getting 80 percent of students to submit journals, which the writing faculty can access to acknowledge and comment on specific points made by their students. In this way, the faculty and students are forging bonds of mutual trust and understanding.

National Center for Learning Disabilities: Cultivating Self-Advocacy by Students with Disabilities

At the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), Director of Innovation Ace Parsi asks: “How can a student who comes from a position without privilege learn to advocate for themselves to a person who has privilege?”

NCLD concludes that self-advocacy consists of four components:

  1. Knowledge of yourself and your needs
  2. Knowledge of your rights
  3. Communication of your needs and rights to those in power
  4. Advocating for the rights of your group

The struggles of marginalized students are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, racialized violence, and the economic downturn. In a traditional classroom setting, these students might get by by “faking it,” which Parsi said is a sign the educational system must change. Instead, the system should provide avenues for these students to understand and communicate their needs. Parsi and his colleagues recommend schools apply a set of guidelines called Universal Design for Learning (UDL) from CAST. These ensure flexibility in how students access material, engage with it, and show what they’ve learned.

The Center for Black Educator Development: Ensure Equity in Recruiting, Training, Hiring Diverse Educators

To cultivate stronger student identity, students must be able to see their lived experience reflected in their educators, says Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development (CBED), whose mission is to ensure equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators who reflect the cultural background and share the socio-political interests of the students they serve.

El-Mekki and his colleagues are creating a workforce of diverse Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) educators through a four-part program that focuses on the pathways to teaching, professional learning, culturally informed pedagogy and policy changes. As part of its educator training, CBED targets 5 professional learning outcomes:

  1. Achievement: What are the skills and competencies I need to meet that are aligned to my work and role?
  2. Cultural Competence: What is my history and my current experience? What is the history and current experience of those around me?
  3. Critical Consciousness: What is structural inequality and oppression? How have I and others contributed to it?
  4. Servant Leadership: How do I act as an individual and as part of a collective to enact social justice for those who have experienced structural inequality and oppression?
  5. Healing Practices: How do I bring restoration to those who have been oppressed, even when I have contributed to the oppression? How do I pursue and receive my own healing?

These core competencies are beneficial to Black students and all students because they help educators acknowledge and lift up student identity.

Equity x Innovation (eXi): Student-Led Solutions

Within the same lens of racial identity and agency, Dr. Temple Lovelace, an associate professor of special education at Duquesne University, has devoted herself to providing opportunities for youth to organize and redesign inequitable programs, policies, practices, and spaces in their schools and communities. She and her team developed a teacher-powered, youth-led model called Education Uncontained, which follows three key steps: First, there’s a learning exchange, in which students and teachers engage together around issues of equity, relationships, school structures, and activism. The next step is dedicated to exploration and design, where students take the lead in designing and prototyping a project identified and defined by students. The final step is implementation: when students pilot, roll-out, and then promote the project.

In this model, teacher-powered, student-led, real-world projects can help students feel represented and foster agency. This process can create novel solutions in this time of uncertainty and the new challenges of COVID-19.

Character Lab: Building Learner Identity and Agency Through Character

Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania researcher and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, co-founded the nonprofit Character Lab to help educators understand the conditions that support social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being for young people. Character Lab believes that character—the strengths of heart, will, and mind that we use to help ourselves and others—is a critical component of student agency.

Character Lab has developed a series of Playbooks that teachers can use to help students strengthen their character. Each Playbook, authored by leading scientists, contains definitions of different traits, with tips on how to begin conversations with students, and additional resources and supports to help implement changes. The Playbooks contain lessons on everything from how to cultivate purpose—how to make a meaningful contribution to the world—to how to cultivate curiosity and build self-control.

The Montessori Method: Cultivating Agency in Young Students

Often, discussions about building agency focus on older students, but educators like Anna Perry, executive director of Seton Montessori Institute and Schools, have discovered the importance of cultivating the inherent agency of even the youngest of learners. In Montessori classrooms, children become self-regulated through concentration on stimulating self-chosen tasks, or “works,” that they can pursue.

Montessori educators have developed a set of three approaches to foster agency in young students. Through mixed-age groups, teachers look at each student as an individual, and peers are empowered to become one another’s guides. Through individualized education, teachers focus on what individuals students (rather than the cohort or the label) need to learn and grow. Through the concept of “independence, situated within interdependence,” students learn responsibility for themselves while maintaining respect for others.

A Strong Foundation for a Challenging School Year

This may be the most challenging year school communities have ever experienced. As educators, we need to equip students with a strong foundation to face the many uncertainties and changes they’ll need to overcome. A strong sense of identity and greater agency will help all students, especially those who tend to be most marginalized by education systems.

As educators, we should be asking ourselves how we can ensure that students can access the resources and tools they need. How can we help them achieve a strong sense of self and cultivate in them the strength and agency to advocate for themselves and ask for what they need?

As the Q.E.D. Foundation’s Carter says, “The best antidote to hopelessness is being able to take some action.” We hope the Back to School Learner Identity and Agency Guidebook serves as a foundation to take actionable steps that help improve learning experiences for all students and deliver a more equitable educational experience during this unprecedented time.

For more, see:

Anna Perry is Executive Director of Seton Montessori Institute, a professional school and research organization that prepares new educators and provides continuing education to Montessori professionals in the United States and throughout the world.

Kim Carter is Executive Director of Q.E.D. Foundation, an organization of adults and youth working together to create and sustain student-centered learning communities. Find Kim on Twitter at @KimQED.

Chris Liang-Vergara is Founder & Partner of World Class Edu, an organization dedicated to spreading the joy of learning to every person in the world through collaboration, innovation, and equity. Follow Chris on Twitter at @LiangVergara.

Sean Talamas is Executive Director of Character Lab, a nonprofit organization that connects researchers with educators to create greater knowledge about the conditions that lead to social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being for young people throughout the country.

Elliot Luscombe is Director of Strategic Partnerships at Character Lab.

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5 Research-Based Recommendations for Remote Learning: Lessons from LUSD

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic forced the largest school closure in modern American history. Between March and June, nearly every district in the country shut down, forcing over 55 million students into remote learning. Since little research existed to guide schools as they shifted to this new instruction, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) launched a study that tracked a nationally representative sample of 477 K-12 districts.

The researchers found that while approximately 85% of districts offered some form of remote instruction, two-thirds of those districts set low expectations, only half tracked their students’ engagement, and a mere 42% required educators to provide regular feedback. Further, rural and high poverty districts reported less synchronous interaction, lower expectations, and minimal requirements to connect with students. These numbers can seem discouraging, but consider what remote instruction might look like in a rural, high-poverty district that set personalized expectations for each student, monitored their growth and engagement, and not only encouraged ongoing feedback but also stressed the need for educators to maintain a safe and supportive learning community.

Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD)—located in a rural, central California district—serves a low socioeconomic, largely Hispanic/Latino community and did just that. Given its focus on equity, lifelong learning, and personalized support, LUSD possessed the ideal conditions for successful remote learning. Therefore, to better understand their learners’ experience this spring, the district partnered with The Learning Accelerator (TLA) to conduct a mixed-methods study of educator perceptions and observations.

An online survey collected data from 144 LUSD educators (response rate of 70%). Multiple-choice questions asked educators to report the frequency of observed learner actions, and open-response prompts allowed them to describe the learners’ experiences. The analysis revealed five trends to inform future considerations for the coming school year.

1. Focus on Building Community.

Over 87% of the educators noted that their learners frequently felt safe, cared for, and supported in their learning environments. Prior to the COVID closure, district leaders had communicated that maintaining a sense of community would remain a priority. From reading “social stories” to holding virtual dance parties to creating space for learners to socialize with their peers, educators designed experiences to build a sense of connectedness.

With the transition to a new school year when students will have new classmates and new educators, these opportunities will be critically important. In addition to the normal challenges associated with transitions, there will most likely be masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing as well as missing high-fives, fist-bumps, and hugs. Educators and leaders will need to carefully consider how they create a sense of community that makes students feel safe, comfortable, and connected in school and in a remote context.

2. Address Challenges of Goal Setting and Progress Monitoring.

When explicitly asked whether learners had made progress or persevered towards their goals, ALL of the high school educators indicated that their learners had always, often, or sometimes been able to do so, yet with younger students, fewer than 16% reported that this occurred. However, as one middle school educator wrote, “Any day that [the students] turn on their computer is progress towards their meaningful short and long term goals.”

Similarly, educators indicated that a relatively low percentage of learners continued to monitor their progress during remote instruction. As a high school educator explained, in a remote learning context, learners required even more “prods, pokes, and pushes.” Therefore, leaders should encourage educators to scaffold these skills with direct instruction, routines to help students self-monitor, data to support student reflection, strategies for goal setting—especially with young learners—and even working directly with parents or family members to ensure that students have sufficient support when learning remotely.

3. Manage the Tension Between Choice and Clarity.

Student choice drives LUSD’s personalized learning model; and yet, when asked how often learners chose their activities or tasks during remote instruction, educators noted varying frequencies depending on the age of their students. At the high school, over 40% of educators indicated that their students always or often chose their tasks and activities, but 24.1% of PK-2 educators reported that this rarely or never occurred.

Interestingly, over 50% of the LUSD faculty described how they gave their learners choice when responding to the open-response prompt. Several discussed the use of “choice boards,” and even more remarked that much of the choice lay in when or whether students might complete a task. Particularly at the elementary level, educators wrote that their learners needed more structure as too much choice became overwhelming. In the fall, teachers and leaders will need to explicitly acknowledge and address this balance between student agency and managing ambiguity.

4. Consider the Balance of Technology.

On the one hand, LUSD educators reported that their learners leveraged technology to explain their thinking, share their problem solving, and maintain social connections. Digital tools also created opportunities for student choice as well as differentiation. On the other hand, multiple educators mentioned the need to ensure greater familiarity with core tools and apps for themselves and their learners.

Additionally, over 50% of the open-response comments pertaining to questions about academic rigor included direct mention of specific technologies absent and larger discussion about how the learners might have used those tools. Considered through the lens of the Teaching for Understanding with Technology framework, this could intimate that educators need additional support when it comes to designing instruction with digital tools. With increased remote, blended, and hybrid learning, this tension will need to be continuously monitored and addressed with professional learning as well as ongoing support.

It is important to note that LUSD completed a Community Wi-Fi Project in 2015 to provide free, filtered Internet access to all learners. They also had enough school-issued devices to fully support online learning. However, this is not always the case. A recent report from Common Sense Media found that 37% of rural students lack adequate technology access to fully engage in remote learning. Leaders and educators will need to monitor whether students have access to both sufficient internet and an adequate device so that they can adapt instruction and resourcing to meet their students’ needs.

5. Sustain Momentum and Support.

Finally, as districts prepare for the next round of remote learning, sustaining momentum may become more of a challenge. In LUSD, many educators noted that their learners’ effort and energy waned towards the end of the school year. Further, educators felt stressed after weeks of going above and beyond to build home-school connections.

Despite herculean efforts, only 1.69% of LUSD educators had daily contact with ALL of their learners. In reality, they connected with anywhere from 20-50% each day. More concerning, almost half of the educators indicated that they had not been able to connect at all with 1-20% of their learners. This creates concern not only about reaching those missing learners but also sustaining momentum with educators who continually try to maintain contact.

Leaders must consider ways to provide clear expectations for contact as well as strategies and social emotional support for both their educators and their students before the next shift to remote learning. The research also speaks to the need for broader support for students, their families, and educators in the coming school year.

The national data paints a bleak picture of remote learning, especially in low-income and rural communities: low expectations, little engagement, and minimal regular feedback. However, in LUSD, over 60% of the educators reported that their learners received feedback at least 3-4 times per week and more than 87% noted that their learners felt cared for on a regular basis. As LUSD prepares for the next school year, they can expand on these successes to make future improvements. The nation’s districts may also leverage these findings to establish more holistic supports for students in the fall.

For more, see:

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We know that educators and leaders have spent the last couple of months scrambling to meet the immediate needs of learners in their community. Thank you to each and every one of you for everything you’ve done to make the best out of this challenging situation. Now that the end of the school year is here, we’re shifting our Getting Through series from stories and advice to support remote learning or long term closures, to getting ready for the complex work of reopening schools this fall.
Interested in contributing to this campaign?

Email your stories and ideas to [email protected] or tweet using #GettingThrough to participate!