“Who’s on First?” Meets 2020

A personal narrative about surviving the world of eLearning from a teacher-parent perspective. My guest blogger, Jeremy Bloyd, is the Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana. His elementary school counterpart, Joni Bratcher, teaches 5th grade at Battle Ground Elementary School. Read what Jeremy and Joni experienced when he volunteered to be the parent reader–and what he took away from the experience that applies to all of us teaching virtual classes.

Our school corporation, comprised of 19 buildings, covers a large and diverse area of the county I live in, and there is undoubtedly demographic uniqueness to each building that creates its own sense of community.  Having taught in 5 of these different buildings over the course of my 21 years of teaching, it has been interesting to experience the individuality of these communities and the relationships with colleagues and families that have been created.  Currently, a colleague, as well as a friend, is my son’s 5th-grade teacher this year and she and her grade-level colleagues meet with the students through various Google Meets to cover all subject matter and their curricula over the course of the week.  I had the opportunity to volunteer for one of those sessions today.

Soon after I finished this morning’s Google Meet for 5th grade literature, my son’s teacher texted:

“Omg!! Welcome back to the elementary world.” 

As anyone knows, the best-laid plans can just as easily go awry as those that are completed “off the cuff,” and that is certainly what happened today.  The link to this morning’s Meet was not working for me.  After a few emails, some texting, and a live conference call with my son – who had me on speaker so the teacher could hear me through her Google Meet – success was achieved!  We were now 5 minutes off the schedule, but as any elementary teacher knows, the show must and will go on.  

My volunteer task today was to read aloud as the narrator in the novel selected for literature.  This meant the students were not only working on reading and comprehending the text and storyline but also scanning ahead enough to know which character was speaking, and when.  Students had been pre-selected to read the dialogue of specific characters, and less than a page into it, our character, David, was MIA!  Step back into that scene with me:

The teacher asks, “Where is Xavier?”  This is the student who was assigned as David.  She laughs with some exasperation and nervousness – because what else do you do?  We soon realize that Xavier has gone offline for one reason or another, but is soon back again… without a book!  “What page are we on?” he asks.  I giggle to myself.  Soon the dog walks by and Xavier is now petting the dog because you know, why not?  Once again, the teacher reminds the student to get his book and that we are reading chapter 10.  In an effort to move on, she tries to assign another student to read as the character David and several hands (in the tiny “Hollywood Square” screens on my monitor) are raised.  A student is selected and told to begin, and we wait.  Several seconds pass and the teacher shares for the student to continue where I left off.  But that was the issue.  Where did “he” leave off?  Another set-back is taken in stride by this veteran teacher.

We soon begin to delve deeper into the chapter and I am surprised at how well the students know when it is “their” speaking part.  Just then, a hiccup.  A new speaking part, and a different student who is also having some issues with her dog as she lies on the floor trying to … wait, what are we doing?  Oh yes, trying to read!  Is that why we are here today?  At the request of this young girl, the role has now been reassigned by the teacher to another student, but at this point, I’m trying to not bust out laughing.  We continue.

Having not read anything other than chapter 10, I’m still attempting to make sense of what is occurring, but the students are transitioning smoothly.  Even amid a parent working from home in the background, likely on a conference call, we work through the text and to the completion of the chapter.  The students will take a break from the virtual session and complete some literacy activities and then reconvene a little later this morning.  It’s clear the teachers in the group may need more of a break than the students!  I am thanked by the class and we end the Meet.

Moments later I get that text from the teacher I mentioned earlier.  The rest of her message said, “Aren’t you happy you are at the high school level (insert laughing emoji)?”  I chuckled and quickly responded with, “Seniors aren’t much better!  I sat for a good 1.5 minutes in silence this morning waiting for a student to answer my question.  I was like… ‘I’m here all day folks!’, until I received an answer.”  Her response was another laughing emoji.  

And now it occurs to me.  I’m not sure today’s lesson was really about literature.  As educators, our world has been turned upside down.  In our struggle to turn our curriculum into meaningful content that is disseminated virtually to our students via Google Classroom, Canvas, or some other learning management platform, the reality is that all of these same distractions occurred during face-to-face instruction.  But we, the teachers, had more physical control of the situation–like shutting the door to silence some of the chaos or “slyly” moving about the classroom to help those who need to refocus their attention.  While we could more easily see those students who may be struggling to understand based on visual cues, we now wait for tangible evidence that our students did grasp the concept of today’s lesson, albeit virtual cues rather than physical ones. 

Face it, teachers, the distractions that occur virtually are just like the distractions that occur in a school building.  There’s no doubt we have a student who doesn’t have their literature book out when we are seconds away from being ready to read.  And just because “Jessica” isn’t playing with her dog physically, doesn’t mean she isn’t rolling around on the floor with her pup in her memories.  Just because our glare doesn’t regain the attention of a wandering mind in the virtual setting doesn’t mean our lessons and time are not worthwhile.  They’re just different.  We will persevere just like my son’s teacher did today.  Just like we (the teachers) did last week during face-to-face instruction.  And, just like we will do next week in a virtual classroom the day before a holiday weekend!

As I take my teacher hat off and put on my parent hat, I can tell you that my son hates remote eLearning.  Is it because his homebound teachers are not able to be as nurturing and sympathetic?  The irony!  I know a lot of it has to do with the social interactions he misses too – and rightly so.  Regardless of which hat I wear – the parent, the former elementary teacher, or the current high school teacher of seniors in a work-based learning program – I was reminded today that the show always goes on.  It’s what we are called to do.  It was a reminder to laugh it off or to grin and bear it.  Teachers have grit, we persevere, and I believe that students interacting with us virtually versus in-person likely affects our students far less than we think it does.  Why?  Human nature.  We resist change, especially in education, and likely because there are so many things that constantly change and are completely out of our control (Yes, that’s for you, legislators).

For me, I’m actually seeing a more personal side to some of my students.  With seniors, you don’t get much more than what you ask for and seldom do we ask our high school students what is going on in their personal lives.  It’s not because we don’t care; rather, we lack time.  In addition to preparing lessons, posting objectives, setting up for classes or labs, we are now disinfecting seats between classes, monitoring the halls, attempting to find time to run copies, or trying to spare just a moment to use the restroom.  Currently, in my virtual classrooms, I can witness more, even if only for a moment as students switch from live video feed to their profile picture.  

Again, today was much more than a literacy lesson for me.  The take-away for me is that today, right here and now, might be the perfect opportunity to examine what I can do as a teacher, a father, a husband, a family member, and a friend.  Teaching amidst a pandemic has brought some of us closer together merely by happenstance.  But what if we look at it as an opportunity?  What if we view it as a challenge?  What if we apply it to the concept of “the ripple effect”?  In a world divided by politics, hate, misunderstanding, beliefs, culture, creed, just take the less and be ok, but make more of it.  

I’d like to think my ramblings and that “one more example” I share before the bell rings will actually cause a life-changing epiphany.  It shouldn’t have taken two degrees to figure out it does not!  So instead, perhaps we could engage more, which in return will allow for greater interaction of our audience.  Teachers, we are the stone cast into the waters.  How will the ripples we create affect those around us, and more specifically, our students?

Gatlin helps his dad and reads along with his class.

Thanksgiving: For My Former Students

 

Posting this piece at Thanksgiving has become a tradition for me.  The holiday gives me an opportunity to say thank you to my former students. You’ve enriched my life beyond measure, and I am grateful for the time we spent together and for the contribution you are making to our community and to the world. Was it worth it? All that time and energy and love? The answer is yes. Every single day, every single year. 

This year, this strange year of Covid-19, has brought  remote learning, quarantines, stay-at-home interludes, and hybrid set-ups, but teachers everywhere haven’t let the challenges stop them from connecting with their students. Like me, they are grateful for both the students they see on their screens and the ones who still can come to school in-person. You bring us joy, shape our perspective, and make our lives meaningful. 

So here’s the annual Thanksgiving post–with a few new additions as I have heard from more of you this past year. 

You have sold me carpet and cleaned it, accepted my dry cleaning, butchered the meat for my table, helped me find clothes in the right size,  checked out my groceries at the supermarket, and brewed coffee for me at Starbucks. I’ve regularly walked with one of you in the March for Babies–and last fall with more of you at the #RedforEd rally in Indianapolis. I’ve removed my shirt in the doctor’s office and again at school, so you could give me a flu shot. I’ve run into you in bookstores, grocery stores, elevators, and train stations, been in attendance with you at concerts and plays, and even been hailed on the street in a distant Western town. I’ve seen you on my nature walks and had lunch with two of you at Arni’s.

One of you approached me years ago at the Indy airport and described your work repairing the wind turbines in a county adjacent to ours. I’ve met two of you just this year in the same airport–students from my early years in TSC. One of you owns a grocery store that is helping to revive a part of our community; another of you is the piano man who has entertained the whole community for years and sustained our collective spirit with weekly Zoom concerts last spring.

Some of you have been wounded in war, and others of you are still serving. I’ve worried about you in Vietnam, in Iraq (I and II), in Afghanistan, and in other trouble spots around the globe. A few years ago, one of you died serving this country. Our whole community mourned, and that year, in your name, students at our high school collected items for Care Packages for soldiers stationed around the world.

Some of you have worked for my husband or me. One of you is a contractor who remodeled my husband’s lab; another was his lab technician. Two of you have taken care of our yard during the summer when we have been on vacation; another has walked our dogs.  You’ve waited on us in restaurants; you’ve hauled boxes for us when we remodeled.

I’ve worked with one of you on a research project and together we’ve served on the board of a community organization. Many of you are my Facebook friends; some of you read this blog. Some of you follow me on Twitter. Some of you have read the book I wrote this year and have written to tell me you liked it. Some of you look at my nature photographs and tell me they bring you peace.

You’ve substituted for me in the classroom, and a great many of you are teachers yourselves. One of you is an author and instructional coach; another several of you, school principals. Some of you are nurses; some doctors, one is soon to be a physician’s assistant. Several of you sell real estate, three at least are lawyers, and many of you are college professors, even Department Chairs at your universities. Some of you sell produce at the Farmer’s Market; others farm on a larger scale. I can count among you writers, restaurant owners, veterinarians, and musicians.  A television personality and a museum director. A singer and songwriter, a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and another for the Marlins. A videographer in Hollywood. A welding instructor. A dancer. Several of you are pharmacists. One at least is a politician, two of you worked as field managers for candidates in our last election. One of you is a personal secretary to someone in Germany.  Beauticians and therapists and specialists of all kinds. An artist and a computer design expert. The CEO of a community foundation. A journalist and a newspaper editor. One of you was a nun, but left your order; one is a priest who has stayed. Managers, retailers, and business owners. Police officers and firefighters, automobile salespeople and automobile mechanics. Electricians and plumbers and heating and cooling experts. You work in personnel and transportation, retail and manufacturing. You are receptionists and cashiers. Peace Corps volunteers and public relations specialists. Computer programmers, technicians, and web page designers. Executives and line workers. Bus drivers. Cafeteria workers. Lab assistants and veterinary assistants. So many of you I can no longer keep you all straight.

Some of you came to this country as refugees and immigrants, only to meet new obstacles here. You worked hard and long to weave yourselves into the fabric of this nation, making me and your families proud of all you have accomplished. Many of you have had different struggles–you’ve faced challenges no one should have to. But you had determination and the will to succeed.

You still work hard, all of you, every single day, to make this world spin round.

Teachers often wonder what becomes of their students, the youth upon whom they have lavished so much time, attention, and love. I am surprised when I list you out like this, and I see immediately what I didn’t wholly envision would happen when you were before me in my classroom year after year after year.

When I knew you, you were children. But you have grown up, evolved, moved past Crazy Hat Day, experimental make-up, video games, and babysitting. Past blue hair and nose rings, past balloons on lockers and crepe paper streamers suspended across hallways. You have come of age, turned your promise into purpose.

You haven’t all won prizes, achieved fame, or made a fortune, but you all make me proud. I had a hand in helping you learn the skills you need to keep our universe spinning. Now you help me. You ease my life, keep me safe, and bring me joy. I’ll take that.

And give thanks.

Proud to be a Teacher

A few teachers have told me stories this week about parents who’ve voiced some criticism about the way learning has gone during this time of COVID-19.  It’s part of what tells me we are nearing the end—even if I didn’t already feel it on my own. The end-of-the school year always brings stress and strain from worried parents and disgruntled kids. A single case of dissatisfaction is amplified this year because our circumstances have been so unexpectedly different than ever before and all of us have worked so hard.

The reality is, the general public has suddenly begun to appreciate teachers in a way they never have before. Posts on Facebook, letters to individual teachers, thank you’s from kids. They’re the rule and they tell me the public is seeing—in a way they didn’t before—just how important teachers are, how difficult the job is, and how much dedication we bring to our work. They’ve seen the stuff we’re made of because they’ve brought us right into their homes in this very trying time.

So instead of focusing on how tired we are or on the once-in-a-while criticisms from the public or on the stresses we’ve experienced in this eLearning experiment, let’s stop for a minute and think about the positive side of what we have accomplished.

Let’s celebrate this:

1. In a way, most of us have been 1st-year teachers again. Oh, some of us were already flipping our classrooms and some of us were more tech-savvy than others going into this period of confinement, but most of us were panicked, distraught, distressed, or at least uneasy in the beginning. We had had so little experience with remote learning. Some of us had never participated in a Google Meet (or a Zoom meeting or a Webex or whatever), and now we schedule such gatherings with aplomb. Some of us had never used Flipgrid, Padlet, or Screencastify before—but we quickly learned. Wherever our comfort level with technology was then, look where it is now!

That means that our repertoire of instructional tools has expanded incredibly and when we get back to the face-to-face classroom we all yearn for, our new skills won’t leave us. Instead, our options will have expanded exponentially.

2. We’ve learned a lot about our students from informal conversations on screen. Some teachers even say they feel more connected now than they ever did. Because we care about our students’ well-being, we’ve begun our online lessons with wellness check-ins, casual conversation, direct inquiries, and kids have responded by really talking to us about what’s on their minds, how they’re doing, and by sharing their hobbies, their pets, even their siblings. (We’ve all got funny stories about little brothers and sisters popping up on the screen—as our own children sometimes do—about barking dogs, alarm clocks going off, water spilling, etc.) We’ve gotten to know our students in some cases better than when our conversations were confined (largely) to academics and school activities.  It’s hard not to become better acquainted when you’re a visitor in a student’s private space. Talking with kids online has been the modern-day equivalent of a home visit.

Instruction itself has become more individualized. Some teachers have found that kids who in class didn’t participate are now the ones they get the most interaction from. Some kids are getting more individualized attention now than they did in class because they’re the ones that show up to class meetings. And some kids respond more openly to teachers now because we ask how they are first. They think, rightly, “She cares about me.”

We do. We always have, but suddenly, they feel it.

3. We’ve been forced to focus on what’s really important in our content. When you don’t meet every day and don’t have the luxury of time to ramble or reiterate, you’re forced to reassess and find the simplest, easiest way to communicate what’s really important. Streamlining has become a habit now and it is one that will inform our instruction going forward.

4. And we’ve been forced to seek and find new resources to convey old ideas. At the beginning of this eLearning experience, we were deluged with resources. Every book publisher, non-profit organization, magazine, and museum in the country showered us with resources galore—and that may have added to some of the anxiety we initially felt. We didn’t have time to peruse the offerings, let alone view and evaluate the links. Though we were grateful for the help, there was underlying dread that the Best Resource Ever was right out there, and we didn’t have the time to look. But as time went along, we did. And some of us have discovered some wonderful sites and specific lessons that we’ll be utilizing from now on.

5. Teachers are problem solvers. And this spring, the problems have been huge—and here we are, problem-solvers par excellence. Story after story from teachers, parents, even the kids themselves inform this truth: When teachers are presented with a problem, they work hard to find a solution.

  • Special Ed teachers have made videos for the parents of their students, coaching them in how to help their children
  • Teachers of every subject and grade have reached out over and over again to connect with kids. When Canvas didn’t work, we tried individual emails—that was better. Then texts, phone calls, even delivering packets in person
  • When interactive learning proved to be awkward in a Google Meet, we’ve tried Flipgrid videos, Padlet posts, small group Meets and Canvas Discussions to complement whole class instruction
  • We’ve held Office Hours, but worked with students individually at all hours and on all days
  • We’ve created all-school videos to boost spirits and offer support
  • We’ve found ways to celebrate graduating seniors: yard signs, caravans, Twitter profiles, Facebook postings, special cards and letters, Instagram tributes
  • For incoming freshmen, 5th graders going on to middle school, whole schoolrooms of kids: caravans, videos from future teachers, letters from school counselors
  • Tech directors and Connected Learning Teams have fielded questions day and night and produced tutorial after tutorial to expand our digital toolkits

Creative problem-solving, flexible and innovative ideas for teaching and learning. You’ve adapted and come out on top.

You’ve been available. The kids have needed you and you were there.

You’ve modeled resiliency and offered optimism. Your positive mindset has done more than can be measured to keep students from checking out, slipping away. You’ve kept them engaged and on track.

When I was in the classroom, I always felt like Boxer, the workhorse in Animal Farm, at the end of the year: exhausted, but plodding on, one foot in front of the other, thinking “if I just worked a little harder…”

I know you always feel that way, too. I know because in the past we’ve commiserated in the hallways about papers to grade, exams to create and score, loose ends to tie up, recognitions to be given, rooms to dismantle, goodbyes to be said and the sheer number of extra hours all that means.

This year, it’s all that and more.

Thank you, Teachers. Thank you for being there, for not giving up, for sharing and caring and being what you have always been.

I have never been prouder to be one of you.

 

#Teacher Appreciation Week

#Red4Ed

The Students: What Keeps Them Going?

This post is written by my colleague Laura Whitcombe. Laura has been a member of the English Department at McCutcheon High School since 1994. Her specialty is speech, and in addition to sponsoring the award-winning Speech Team, she teaches the required sophomore speech class, the Ivy Tech Dual Credit course for juniors and seniors, and the Vincennes Early College Advanced Speech for sophomores. Her students’ answers to a question she asked them this week should give us hope, reassurance, and confidence that they’re going to come out all right at the other end of this remote learning experience. 

What is going on inside their heads? The minds of teenagers remain a mystery, but even more so when we cannot be with them in person daily. 

I read the posts written by education journalists and those who want to hand out advice. Just give feedback. Drop grades completely. The kids are traumatized. They are not the same kids as before we sheltered in place. But I don’t know… We aren’t in the Upside Down world of Stranger Things. We are just at home on our laptops.

On Mondays, my speech classes have virtual class meetings. None of us has ever done this before, so it is an evolution. At first, there were faces. Now there are avatars. I have asked a few what they are. But some I just leave alone. There are die-hard kids who always attend. There are hit-and-miss kids who sometimes show up. And there are kids whom I said goodbye to in my classroom and who never showed up online.

Most of my students are with me. More than half. Is that good? My academic classes have about 90% participation in meetings and assignments. My regular mixed-ability classes have between 60 and 70% participation. Some come for the meetings but don’t do the work. Some do the work but randomly attend the virtual sessions. I think that means that they feel good about the resources I shared. My videos, slideshows, document templates, examples, and calendars are providing students with what they need to do the projects. 

But I don’t know for sure. 

I have been wondering what inspired my students to keep working, so Monday I started the class by asking a question. 

“What is keeping you going?  What is motivating you to keep going to school?” 

It was nice to call on each student individually by name. It was just like an attendance question in the classroom. It was nice to give attention to each student. In my classroom this is my habit and consistency is comforting.

I was surprised by the normality of their answers. Grades. Grades still matter. From academic seniors to special education sophomores, most agreed.

  • They still want to try to do what they can do.
  • They want to do their best.
  • They are still thinking of the future. 
  • Some mentioned college.
  • They see a need to learn and have these skills for college.
  • They still need to earn their scholarships.
  • They have goals and are worried about the same consequences as before the shelter-in-place.
  • They said that they have self-discipline, and this is what they do: they get organized, build a schedule, and get things done.
  • Some said that they finally developed or had to develop this discipline. 
  • They were proud that they have been able to make this remote learning work even if they did not like it.

I admire these students who stay motivated. I admire that they are still with us. Thinking back on my own teenage years, I feel like I would have flaked out and dropped out. My mom was a nurse and I would have been unsupervised and left to my own devices. Maybe. Maybe if my peers were like the students in my classes and kept focused, then I would not have wanted to be left out or left behind.

Other students added these comments:

  • “What else am I going to do?”
  • “This is easy on my own schedule.”
  • “I am more relaxed because I can go at my own pace.”
  • “There is lots of time for me to do my hobbies.” They listed painting, embroidery, hoops in the barn, raising animals, working out, and of course, video games and sleep.
  • They showed me new turkeys, chickens, cats, dogs, and a couple of little brothers. They said that having the comforts of home was comfortable and comforting. 
  • Those with parents also working from home described an easy routine where everyone in the house goes to their own spots in the house to work online, then come together in the evening. 

I am impressed by their natural ability to adapt. They have been in school for 10-11-12 years. They know what to do. Teachers have led them through their coursework before and are leading them from afar now. They are not suddenly alien-beings because they are not in seats in our rooms. We, students and teachers, have the same values we did before. We value sticking with challenges and overcoming obstacles. We always have and students are with us.

Of course, I worry about the students who disappeared, but right now I am here for those who want to learn. I will be there for the others when they come back when we are together again, however that happens.

I am so happy for my students. They seem fine. Fine. That is good. And being good might be good enough. For now.

Laura is a graduate of IU-Bloomington and received her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University.  She and I led an educational exchange program between McCutcheon students and students in Pskov, Russia, in 2004. 

#Red4Ed

Third Quarter Doldrums

Around the Equator, there’s a 10-degree band where sailors take warning: the winds don’t blow and ships can’t sail, sometimes for weeks. Time passes slowly, cabin fever sets in, and at the same time, weather patterns can shift unpredictably.

The region called the Doldrums sounds remarkably like the third quarter, the hardest part of the year. Teachers often feel like they’re slogging their way to Spring Break.

  • There’s so much curriculum left to cover
  • We’re worried about kids who aren’t working hard enough
  • We worry about kids who have other challenges or scary life situations
  • We’re so tired, we need some sun, and stress reigns
  • There doesn’t seem to be light at the end of the tunnel

This year is so different. But in conversations I have had and meetings I have attended this past week, the mood felt like the 3rd Quarter Doldrums.

  • Concerns about curriculum. We’ve got a grip now on the technology, but we’re still juggling content: How much is too much? How deep should we go?  When is the advice to simplify, too simple?
  • Kids are behind. Will they be ready for the next level up? How do we determine “effort?” How can we document participation? How in the world can we figure out grades and be fair?
  • We still haven’t connected with some of our kids. Do they have connectivity? Are they still in town? Are they alone? Are they safe?
  • The pace is different, but it’s exhausting, still. Prepping online lessons takes twice as long as we’re used to. Many of us have small children and we’re suddenly teachers for them, too.
  • When we will reach the end? Have we done it right? What have we learned? What if this is a new reality?

The doldrums. A lot of us are there. Not everybody, but enough of us that I’ve noticed.

In my district, this was Week 5 (I’m counting Faux Spring Break and Spring Break as at least one week because most of us started working on eLearning then).  So we have three weeks to go. Hey! That means we’re in the 3rd quarter! That makes sense, then, why we’re in the psychological doldrums.

So how are we going to get through to the end? Not to be a Pollyanna about this, but here are some ideas for making it through to the end.

  1. Just as our students thrive on talking to us and to each other, we need community, too. I didn’t realize it as acutely as I do now until I saw a colleague on a walk at Celery Bog one afternoon. I nearly burst into tears. The best I could do was outstretched arms from a six-foot distance. So if you haven’t already, set up a Google Meet with your best buddy colleagues. I know that meeting with individual teachers, the Principals’ Meets, and the Literacy Team at my high school has helped me tremendously to feel connected
  2. It’s not too late to set goals for the few weeks ahead.
    • Books to read
    • Films to watch
    • Projects to complete
    • An exercise regime to follow
    • More closets and drawers to clean
  3. Try out a new technology. Your students—and you—know you’ve mastered what you’re doing already. Now try one new thing. No one will be impatient. They’ll be supportive and the kids will enjoy the variety.
  4. Go outside every day. Even if it’s raining. Just stand under a tree and breathe.
  5. And look for the humor in all this:
  • So many memes now about dogs exhausted from walking
  • Sanitation workers not being able to pick up all the discards from people cleaning up their homes and cleaning out their garages
  • The funny things your kids say
  • Your strange outfits for Google Meets (i.e., the pajamas on the bottom)
  • The fact that everyone in America needs a haircut

Three weeks to go! You’ve got this!  The wind will blow and you’ll be out of the doldrums before you know it!

#Red4Ed

Halfway There!

We’re halfway from the day we left for Faux Spring Break to the last school day of the year: May 15. The first thing I want to do in this post is to express my admiration for all the teachers I know.  This post is a shout-out to you in the form of a quick tour of some of the things I’ve seen during the past two weeks as I’ve visited your living rooms and kitchen tables or communicated by email, Facebook, phone, and Google Meet. And I know this isn’t the half of it. 

You’ve become technologically creative, utilizing aspects of Canvas many of us have never considered before—Discussions, for example.  Many of you have put up choice boards on Padlet, used Flipgrid for student presentations, even created Google Slideshows that capture your instruction all the way to the end—all the links are embedded; everything is in one place.

Kristin Lin, a Band teacher at MHS, for example, assigned YouTube videos to her students to teach them the language of orchestral conducting. I “sat in” on the lesson and learned that being a symphony director is a whole lot harder than it looks! Try this and see if you can do it! 

Kyle Harris, the 7th grade World History teacher at BGM, created a Padlet for his students to post art from Hudson School of Landscape Painting of the 19th Century. How beautiful is this spread?  Other teachers are using Padlet as a vehicle for organizing the students’ lessons throughout the week. Here’s MHS biology teacher Abi Bymaster’s Biology Padlet.

A teacher in the FACS national Facebook group created a choice board using  a different vehicle: Goggle Docs. MHS teachers Laura Cole and Laila Wilson added to it. Check out this impressive and comprehensive Google Doc choice board that blends practical ideas with creative opportunities. My personal favorite: Clean the Refrigerator!  

Most teachers are using Google Meet frequently and effectively, but sometimes an asynchronous meeting is better. As an alternative to Google Meet, Julie Riley uses Flipgrid with her 7th Grade English classes at WRM. Here’s a link to Honors English 7. If you have never used Flipgrid, this is a good chance to see it in action.

Some of you have created timely lessons out of this health crisis and period of confinement, engaging your students completely:

  • Dawn Grinnage, an English teacher at WMS, had her students, who are reading Anne Frank’s diary, keep journals of their own confinement. Read Sue Scott’s article about this thought-provoking project. 
  • Tasha Ploss’s Health Sciences classes at MHS are learning about pandemics and relating to an earlier read—Hot Zone
  • Jake McIntyre and Scott Royer, who teach social studies at MHS, are directing students to “current events” activities centered around Covid-19 because the subject is and will be a big part of American History. “They’ll be telling their grandchildren about this!”

There have been inspired ways of reaching out and keeping our kids connected

  • Suzi Ryan, A special ed teacher at MHS,  created a Google Meet for the kids that hang out in her room during her prep. She called it a “Virtual Coffee Break.”
  • Sarah Gustin’s entertaining Tik-Toks will be the stuff of legend when this is all over. Who knew principals knew about Tik-Tok?
  • This past weekend, the WMS team produced a YouTube video: Remote Learning, Too, that entertains and certainly lets students know their teachers are in this together with them
  • Encouraging emails from our principals have kept us motivated and made us feel appreciated.
  • Extra-curricular groups are still Meeting: Speech Team gatherings, World Food Prize, Academic Academic Super Bowl for starters.
  • At ETM, Band and Choir recruited current 5th graders using the school’s Facebook page. Here’s Andrea Bube’s YouTube for Choir. 
  • Camden Ritchie, music teacher at SMS, has been staging Ultimate Gimkit Smashdown competitions—open to the whole of SMS.
  • Sarah Gessel’s Mavericks Changing Minds (MCM) group is putting together a motivational video on 4 topics: creativity, self-care, learning, and connection. Interested in creating a 3-5 second video for the project? Contact Sarah at MHS.
  • And Mav TV is still broadcasting—if you haven’t seen last week’s episode, here it is. Watch all the way to the end and hear the inspirational message from Noah.

I’ve gleaned some tips from you that may help other teachers: 

  • If kids aren’t responding to Canvas, email them separately. Some (believe it or not) still don’t “get” Canvas; others will delete emails that come from Canvas—but not one that comes directly from you.
  • Instead of answering their questions over and over again, Jeremy Bloyd, ICE teacher at MHS, prepared a FAQ sheet to send out when the questions for the umpteenth time. It’s been working!
  • If no one shows up for your “Office Hours,” it could be that they don’t want to bother you. After all, they’re new to this themselves and may think Office Hours are sort of like doctor’s appointments. Email the students you need to see directly. Chances are, they’ll show up by direct invitation. 
  • Short on whiteboard space? Use your shower wall! Just be sure your markers will clean off afterward! (Thanks, MHS chemistry teacher Tasha Ploss!)
  • Kids having trouble with their computers: Remind them that they can make an appointment at their school with one of the unsung heroes of all this e-Learning: the tech team! A friend of mine’s daughter made an appointment with MHS’s Christina Bennett the other day. The whole transaction took place through the front desk. The students waited in the lobby for 10 minutes while Christina swapped out the battery (and carefully wiped everything down, before and after the repair).

And if our students didn’t really know it before, they know it now: We are human!  We have bad hair days. Our children “Google bomb” our Meets, wave at the screen, show off their birthday presents, and ask Mom to come see the new kittens—RIGHT NOW!  Our pets nudge the screen, scratch at the door, bark at the onscreen conversation, even knock over great-grandma’s lamp. 

I kind of like it, this informality. It gives us all something to laugh about, something not to take too seriously in this time when everything is so very serious. 

So great work, TSC Teachers!  From what I hear from administrators and families, I’m not the only one who is wowed by the efficiency with which you have learned how to navigate these waters, the grace with which you have adapted to the circumstances, and the ingenuity with which you have problem-solved. 

Have a great week! 

#Red4Ed

Teaching in the Time of Covid

Suddenly, we were dismissed a week early for what I have been calling “Faux Spring Break.” Two weeks to get ready for the last push: the 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year. But faster than a finger snap, we learned we weren’t coming back at all. And now, many of us are stuck.

We’ve gotten past the inundation of resources. We have figured out what technology we are comfortable with and what apps or platforms we’re going to try. We’ve connected with our students (most of them) and we’ve tried all this out.

And, probably, we’ve learned a bit along the way about what works and what doesn’t.

And we’re exhausted. For sure we’ve discovered that it’s hard to teach, parent, and home school all at the same time and, simultaneously, distance ourselves from our friends.

Could it be that we’re asking too much of ourselves and too much of our students? Educators are serious people. We feel responsible for our students’ well-being and for their learning. How they are doing worries us. Our lessons worry us. Our content is important and before next year our students will need to have learned it. But teaching from the living room gets harder and harder to do.

Here are some ideas about how to downsize the load without lowering your standards, about forgiving yourself for the guilt you are feeling because you can’t be Superperson every single minute, about prioritizing your own children (if you have them).

I offer three simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum,  too few days, and too little face-to-face–and then two more steps that are designed to ease the guilt.

1. Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2. Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of those two columns.

● Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote? Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.” Capote isn’t an imperative.

But research skills? Those are imperative for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them. So don’t cut out the research project. Look instead for ways to streamline it.

But if content is king, the trick will be to cut it down to size. That is, communicate the big concepts, the essential vocabulary, the absolute must-reads. Put your time and effort into these imperatives.

● Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level. These are imperatives. What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework together on screen so you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other? You can create breakout groups in Canvas Conversations and in Google Meet.
Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much yourself?

● Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

Easy ones to rethink are extra readings and extra assignments. Do you have to require that? Eliminating enrichment material can save a lot of time and eliminate a lot of stress.

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content? For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying. What about conducting a Socratic Seminar online? Or a Harkness discussion? Or even have the kids work collaboratively using Google Docs? Something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

An independent research activity can be a huge time suck. What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team? They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well. By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. (Which they need about now anyway.)

● How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory. I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest. Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods. As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period. The students worked collaboratively, and in the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history. In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting. As I said, a twofer.

By the way, this is a perfect opportunity to create a Padlet for those presentations.

3. Create a game plan and then stick to it. Whether you go through my suggested process or arrive at your decisions about what to teach in a different way—say, you’ve found a ready-made online program or you’ve already figured all this out—the worst thing you can do for your peace of mind is second guess yourself. You’ve got this! You know your stuff, you know your kids, you know what they can do and have to do. Don’t be distracted from your plan by comparing yourself to other teachers or feeling inadequate when you read online about some miracle worker somewhere. You’re a miracle worker, too. Look what all you’ve achieved already: Just. Like. That.

4. Don’t feel guilty about what you’re leaving out. Yes, inevitably there will be gaps. But every kid in America is going to have some gaps this year. Your students won’t be the only ones. And guess what: Next year, Amazing Teachers, just like you, will find those holes and fill them in. Because that’s what we do. We are teachers. We fill holes and then pave the road to success. Every single day, for every single kid.

5. Finally, don’t forget your own kids. When this is all over, they are going to remember how they felt during this time. If you’re so stressed you can’t help them and can’t enjoy them, they won’t return to school in the fall remembering the good things about this period of confinement. And there are good things: Families are spending time together: they’re enjoying books, movies, games, puzzles, and even yard work together. You’re getting a look at your own child’s learning process and they’re seeing you in the role you play every weekday most of the time. They’re watching you cope. You’re modeling.

Good times. Shared experiences. Families growing closer. Positive values. Good things can and are coming out of this.

You’ve got this, Amazing Teachers!
#Red4Ed

Forward to Finals

Just two weeks ago we were in the throes of final exams, stressed about whether we’d get all that grading done before dismissal for Winter Break, whether PowerSchool would be operating and we could get our grades in on time, whether the stress that got to our students would abate or build as they waited for the verdict on each of their classes. So I hate to bring that all back.

Nevertheless, I can’t write this post without summoning the Ghost of pre-Christmas Past. During finals week, I talked to many teachers in my building about their final exams. How they planned them, what accommodations and adjustments they made, and the creative ways they devised to assess their students’ knowledge.

In the Media Center, where my office is located, students were making round table presentations about their research into a dietary staple or a food of economic importance in a selected third-world country. “The Hunger Project” in this AP Biology class caught my attention because each student had created an Infographic to capture the essence of their investigation. Google provides templates for infographics; the students supplied the creativity.

It made me wonder what other creative delivery methods teachers were utilizing to assess their students’ learning. It didn’t take long to hear about other alternatives to standard essays, multiple choice, matching, and short answer questions. An AP History teacher uses podcasting as a tool. Instead of a traditional research paper, students create entertaining scripts in which they investigate the truth–or the fiction–behind popular historical topics. Who knew that Napoleon changed his wife’s name to a moniker he preferred? Josephine Bonaparte’s real name was Rose. But wait! There’s more! Listen to this Podcast.  And this one.

A culinary arts teacher could have elicited pretty boring paragraph answers to questions about safety and sanitation. Instead, the students put their creative minds and a sense of humor to work creating Tik Tok videos. Fun to make, fun to watch!

Dual credit speech students delivered Commencement Speeches in the auditorium; students in other speech classes made award presentations and delivered acceptance speeches. Theater Arts students wrote and performed original scripts. In a Special Education speech class, students drew topics from a hat and delivered impromptu speeches. Although I didn’t see any this semester, in other years, I’ve watched as students delivered their knowledge in the form of TEDx talks. Of course, performance is a natural when the subject is oral communication–or art or music or PE–but there are others: a portfolio of creative writing, a photography exhibit, a display of ceramic or wood art objects, or a musical rendition.

This is not to say that essays, multiple choice, and matching aren’t important or don’t have their place. Many of the teachers who devised the alternate forms of assessment I’ve just described also had written tests. But the range of formats throughout the building gave students a break from the tedium of pencil and paper and the opportunity to creatively demonstrate what they’ve learned, to work together, to learn new skills (e.g., infographics and podcasting), to show their humor and to laugh a lot (the Tik Tok videos). Refreshing.

And so was the PE exam I was invited to watch unfold. The class was Weights. When I showed up at the beginning of the exam period, I went to the wrong room. Wouldn’t you, too, think showing up to the weights room would be logical? But no. The kids were all in the gym itself–and dressed for gym class. I was puzzled, decided it must be a performance exam–but why not in the weights room? Turns out, the performance part of their exam is incorporated into the two 9 weeks grades. The students were in the gym for an old-fashioned paper and pencil test.

Unlike the 9th grade biology teacher, whose students sit cheek by jowl in an overcrowded classroom, who creates multiple versions of her exams so that no two students have all the same questions, the Weights teacher has the luxury of space. Spread out on the gym floor, armed only with a pencil–no sleeves to tuck a crib sheet in, no phones to sneak a peek at–these students, clad in their gym uniforms, sprawled on the floor and watched a video the teacher had made of former students executing the 26 lifts they had learned over the course of the semester. The present students filled in the blanks with the names of the lifts and completed a vocabulary test as well. And then what?

Something wonderful: They got to play dodge ball. They loved it! And they needed it. After a week of tests, whether paper and pencil, electronic or even performance: release!

Which is what we all felt, too, when the final bell rang.

So why am I posting this now? Why not just before that final bell? To be honest, no one would have had the time to read it before the bell rang–or the inclination to do so afterward, during Winter Break. But now that we are back in school and beginning a new semester, it’s a good time to take a look ahead to possibilities for May. Maybe this post will spark an idea that will change it up for you and your students. Even if it doesn’t, welcome to second semester!

 

 

 

Museum of Civilization

It’s nearing the end of the semester. Teachers are writing final exams; students are presenting culminating projects. I’m visiting classrooms to see some of the exemplary work my colleagues and their students have been doing.

Earlier this week, my colleague Sarah Gessel and her students mounted an exhibition in the Media Center called the “Museum of Civilization.” It was a curation assignment, inspired by Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that has become a staple of the English curriculum following an all-community read that our English teachers had a hand in designing.

A character in that novel establishes a “museum of civilization,” an exhibit at the deserted airport, of the world as it used to be. Mrs. Gessel wanted her students to understand how objects become symbols of individuals as well as of the collective. She wanted her students to understand that their individual dreams and ambitions, their likes and loves, their pastimes and pleasures, their actions and accomplishments encapsulate them as individuals and, collectively, characterize their generation. She wanted them to think critically about the objects in their lives that capture the essence of each of them. Here was Mrs. Gessel’s assignment:

Background: In Station Eleven, we learn that Clark is the keeper of the Museum of Civilization at the airport. There, he preserves items of the past that represent mankind before the flu. 

Question: What three things would you personally put in a Museum of Civilization a hundred years from now that would represent you as a whole? You may not use a phone.

Assignment:

  1. Choose three items that represent you as a person.
  2. Create a display “From the collection of ___________ (you)”. Your collection should contain a brief description of who you are (written in 3rd person!), including birth year.
  3. For your display, you must have the actual item.  If that is not possible, a picture will have to do.
  4. For each item, you will create an informational label (like you see in a museum under an artifact). It should contain:
    1. The time period it is from
    2. Its use or symbolism
    3. Why the object was important to him or her
    4. What it tells the future about the person  
  5. Here is a very basic, rough idea of what I am looking for…except yours should be real…not on a document.

Here are some of the items students brought to school:

Some of their artifacts were poignant–a necklace made with a dear friend, now deceased; a stack of recipes from a grandmother; an old movie camera that launched what might well become a career:

Yes, there were earbuds and screens, but not many. In fact, what I noticed in addition to the wide variety of artifacts was the overwhelming lack of electronics. Admittedly, Ms. Gessel forbade phones, but earbuds and other electronic paraphernalia did not dominate the displays. Instead, there were the indicators of family, friendship and faith. Of interest in the arts, organized sports, and individual artistic pursuits. In children, in 4-H, in books, in cooking. Ms. Gessel’s students, like most teenagers if critics would just look beneath the surface, are not the zombie-like, plugged-in and tuned-out youth so often caricatured. These are kids I want to know better, unique and interesting individuals who are going to be in charge of a world I want to live in.

And here’s what happened afterward, after the spectators left, after the voting by gallery-goers was over, after the grades were assigned: The students looked at each other’s displays and something spontaneous occurred. Here’s what Ms. Gessel wrote to me:

My heart is full as I am sitting here thinking of the time we just spent last hour enjoying each other’s company as a class. All of their “stuff” is great, but what made so many of those items in there come to life were the kids. Watching them ask each other to play their instrument or sing or dance or compliment each other’s artwork or just comment on how nice it was just to chill with each other and listen…WOW. No museum can hold that amount of wonder or life. This is why I teach and am still teaching!

If you would like to know more about curation as an instructional tool, click here to read this article by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy.

A Christmas Memory

An exquisite teaching moment, one that still takes my breath away. Take the time this month to explore holiday classics and recall your own memorable classroom moments. Sweet, sweet gifts that last longer than the moment.

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird were one and the same person.

That was, of course, when such knowledge was still a revelation. Today, because of the Internet mostly, kids already know. This upset me at first. A perfectly wonderful epiphany: smashed. But I got over it. (The real Buddy as the model for Dill isn’t the only literary surprise the Internet has ruined. These days the kids know before they read the Odyssey or their first Shakespearean play that Homer wasn’t one person and Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare.)

But back when Buddy/Dill was still a surprise, we’d read the story together—parts of it, at least, aloud.  Knowing where the story goes, I’d have trouble when the kites begin their ascent to the sky, when Queenie buries her bone, when Buddy’s best friend, Sook, says, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”  It was worse than that, actually.  I’d get choked up at the very beginning—when Sook first says: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story is so rich:

  • In figurative language: “a pillow as wet as a widow’s handkerchief,” “the blaze of her heart,” and the stove “like a lighted pumpkin.”
  • In catalogues, or lists: the uses of the dilapidated baby carriage, the ways Sook and Buddy make money, the recipients of the fruitcakes, the contents of the trunk in the attic, the Christmas presents from the others, and most especially, the things Sook “has never done and the things she has done, does do.”
  • In sensory imagery: the ingredients in the fruitcakes, Haha Jones’ scar, the ornaments for the tree, Miss Sook dropping the kettle on the kitchen floor to awaken the sleeping relatives, Miss Sook herself in her gray sweater and Lincoln-like face.
  • The trip to cut the Christmas tree is a Christmas message all by itself, capped by Miss Sook’s response to the lazy mill-owner’s wife who tries to buy the tree, who tells the soulmates that they can always get another one. No, replies Miss Sook, “There’s never two of anything.”

It was easy after that to direct my students to their own best memories, to remembrances of grandparents, of favorite gifts, of pets who’d long since left them, to ritual and tradition, to ornaments they hang on the tree with delight year after year after year, to  Christmas confections, to sights and sounds and tastes that, unbeknownst to them, had been laid down already—at 13, 14—in layers of sweetness that will forever define Christmas in their hearts. They loved writing their own memoirs—evoking images, searching for similes, reaching for symbols like the kites that would carry their stories into light air. One year, a girl named Sarah wrote and wrote and wrote. Her lists were exquisite; her images, poignant beyond what was imaginable for her age. “She’s a writer,” her friends all said.  “You should have seen her in middle school.” Indeed.

But my favorite part of the lesson came after we had talked about style, after we had talked about Sook, after we had understood the message. I would ask the students to think about the boy, about Buddy. Until now, the focus had been on Sook—her superstitions, her quirkiness, her simplicity; on Haha Jones’ sudden philanthropy; on the relatives’ insensitivity; on the humor in Queenie’s sampling the leftover whiskey.

I asked my students to think about Buddy. “Is there anyone you’ve met this semester that Buddy reminds you of?” I’d ask them. A few literal ones would scan the list of kids they’d met that semester, their first in the high school. A few caught on to the fact that I was talking  about literary characters, who, to me and to them, too, were as real as any flesh and bone teenagers in the building.

The room is quiet. The students scan their memories, open their notebooks, reflect, try to remember the characters we’ve met.

I wait.

A hand at last. A voice, so quiet. Becca ventures an answer: “Dill?”

The room stays quiet. They take it in. Then, an almost audible, collective gasp.

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.