Where do we go from here?

Better Normal

Last week I was on a Zoom call with one of the grade-level teams at my school. We were talking about celebrations and struggles that have come during emergency remote learning. For a long time, we have been aware that our system of education is full of inequities for our learners. During this team meeting though, one of the teachers shared an insight that really blew me away. She was talking about how her classroom Zoom calls have shown to her inequity in a whole new way. Some of her students “never have a quiet background” when they are on a call with their class. Some of her students seem to be managing their learning entirely independently while others have consistent support from their parents. Because of the current context of her emergency remote teaching, we have had the opportunity to come into the homes of our families, even if only in a virtual way. It helps us understand that some of our students may never have a quiet background or the support they need even in normal times. These inequities have caused this teacher to reflect on all that she does in the classroom moving forward. She’s already starting to make changes.

Now, before I start talking about the potential for change that comes from what is happening, I want to first share that I am completely aware of the struggles that those who are “in the trenches” are going through. I’m not the one providing emergency remote learning for a group of students. I am not the one who feels personally responsible for the students in my class meeting the standards that they need for their current grade level. I see the struggles that our teachers are going through because of the conversations I have had with teachers in my school and watching the work that my wife, who teaches first grade, is putting in. I’m trying to meet each person where they are and offer them the support they need by asking them how they’re doing and what they need.

Every chance that I get to talk with my staff, I make sure that I check in on them. I know that we (admin, teachers, families, students) have all been thrown into a difficult situation for which most of us were unprepared. I know that there are teachers dealing with illness in their family. I know that some of our teachers are trying to take care of their own children while teaching their class. I know that there are teachers feeling completely stressed about what is happening in our world. I am constantly asking teachers what our leadership team can do to help them with whatever is happening. At the same time, I encourage our teachers to check in with their students and families every chance they get. There are two questions that I hope are used to drive these conversations: How are you doing? and Do you need anything? For many of our teachers and families, that’s exactly what they need. I know that our families are also may be going through struggles. Some families have members who are ill, others may have lost their jobs, or had hours cut back. Some may simply be going stir crazy because we can’t get out and be with our family and friends as we might normally do. Whatever we can do to support them will only help build bridges between our school and our families.

But I also know that sometimes through moments of struggle, we can find great opportunities. Recently I was on a webinar led by George Couros, Katie Novak, and AJ Juliani. One of them (I honestly can’t recall which one) shared a quote from Donna Volpitta, the founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership:

Resilience is… about “bouncing forward.” Resilience doesn’t mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.

Copy of Lobster
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

When we think about the learning cycle, an important piece of that cycle is taking time for reflection. It’s something that we often don’t do well, for ourselves, or for our students. How many times have you walked away from a conference feeling like you’ve had so much shoveled into your brain that you don’t even know where to start with putting your learning into action? How often do you try to cram as much as possible into your teaching, not providing students time to reflect, only to find that you have to go back over that learning the next day or next week? Reflection is where growth comes from!

Last Monday I met with the PLC Lead Team from my school. There were several important things for us to talk about in the current situation, but one of the things that I shared with this leadership team was something I wanted them to take back to their PLC. I wanted to make sure that all our people spent some time reflecting on these three questions:

  • What have you learned during emergency remote learning that you want to keep doing when you get back to school?
  • What have you realized that you should stop doing when you get back to normal?
  • What things do you wish you would have done prior to this time of emergency remote learning?

Ultimately, I think it’s important for us to try to find some of the good that has come from our current situation, and then ask ourselves how we make sure that continues to happen when we return. What does school, and more importantly, learning, look like when we return? Where do we go from here? I don’t know that I have all the answers, but we’ve been given the chance to try some new things out, and I hope we look at this as if it were an experiment. We can try things, see if they work, iterate, and test again. Then we identify our successes and try to replicate in other areas.

A few of the things that I’ve gathered in conversations with teachers involve the motivation of students. Several people have noticed that doing things the same way we’d do it at school simply won’t work. There is a reason that TED Talks are only about 15-20 minutes. It has a lot to do with the amount of time a person – even the adults at a TED Conference – can focus on topics. If adults need things broken down into 15-20 minute chunks, we can’t expect our students to sustain for 30-45 minutes of lecture via video. Some of the things that I think learners need right now are choice, ownership, and empowerment:

  • Choice in what it is that they are expected to learn, or choice in how they show what the know.
  • Ownership in the selection of an issue that matters to them.
  • Empowerment to seek out their own geeky interests in the topics you have already been learning about, or that relate to your content or standards.

Another issue that’s come up with this new way of learning comes in the form of feedback to students. Right now we have many students participating in asynchronous learning, submitting work when it’s finished, and then waiting for feedback from one person. I’ve watched my wife spend hours a day responding to student work on Seesaw – she’s teaching first graders. I imagine that this feedback issue gets harder the more complex the content. I’ve always loved the quote “What are you doing for the kids that they could be doing for themselves?” Through the utilization of Flipgrid or discussion board formats in your learning management system, you could make the kids part of that feedback loop. If you use the concept of a Single Point Rubric (more on that in this post from Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult Of Pedagogy), kids can easily give one another feedback on areas for improvement of examples of ways that kids have exceeded the standard. I also feel that self-assessment with a single point rubric can be so valuable because it causes students to reflect on their work and learning. More often than not, they are harder on themselves that even you might be!

While these are shifts that may make emergency remote learning easier, they are shifts that could also support learners when we are able to return to school, whenever that may be.

What are your thoughts? Have you reflected on the three questions above? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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