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Teaching Opinion

Lessons Learned From ‘Quaranteaching’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 11, 2020 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What key lessons that you learned in the spring are you planning to bring to the new school year and what will they look like on a day-to-day basis?

This new series continues a 25-post “blitz” that began on Aug. 1 supporting teachers as we enter a pandemic-fueled school year.

You can see all the posts from this month, as well as the 60 from the spring, at All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Today’s contributions come from Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Dr. Isabel Morales, and Kiera Beddes.

“Empathetic feedback”

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University. They have co-authored several influential books on instruction, equity, and social-emotional learning, among other topics, including Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms (ASCD, 2019). They are also the co-authors, with John Hattie, of The Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12:

One of the surprise lessons learned while we were quaranteaching focused on empathetic feedback. It was not a term either of us had heard, but teacher and author Jim Burke used the phrase during a Facebook Live session, and we were intrigued. We did some reading, mostly from the business world, and developed some new insights about feedback.

Empathetic feedback is part of a larger feedback model called GREAT. As teachers, some aspects of the GREAT feedback model were familiar to use; others not so much. Think about the following aspects of the model:

  • Growth-oriented: The goal of the feedback is not simply to correct an incorrect response but rather to ensure that the person receiving the feedback learns and grows from the experience. In other words, the feedback should change us. Ask yourself, as a result of providing this feedback, will the student be able to do something differently?

  • Real: It’s almost embarrassing to have to say this, but we need to be honest with students. We did not say brutal and hurtful honesty , but students know when the feedback is not real. False praise does damage. Students know when their efforts are not sufficient and become cynical when the feedback they receive suggests that all is well.

  • Empathetic: Michelle Trujillo defined feedback as an authentic quest for understanding. We’ll explore this a bit further, but we have to ask ourselves if our feedback is based on our authentic quest to understand the student and his or her needs.

  • Asked-for: When feedback is requested, it increases the likelihood that it will be used. In our work on self-regulation, we have turned our attention to teaching students to seek feedback. When students can say, “Can you give me feedback on my organization?” or “I need feedback about this step in the process,” they are much more likely to accept that feedback and change as a result.

  • Timely: There is an expiration date for feedback. Providing feedback two weeks later is less likely to ensure learning. We recognize the demands on teacher time and yet know that some teachers plan the tasks they assign so that the can ensure timely feedback.

We are enamored with this model, as we found parts of it familiar while also expanding our view. We also appreciated it because it seemed that empathy was of increased importance during COVID-19. So, we explored the business literature to understand more about the ways that empathy could be integrated into the feedback we provide students. Some of the recommendations included:

  • Tell them one thing that they did well. Yes, good point, but do we always take the time to do this?

  • Use “micro-feedback.” For example, here is one thing that you can start doing. Or something you could stop doing or even something you could continue doing.

  • Include “we” statements. Rather that saying, you need to work on your spelling (or whatever), say we can work on the spelling patterns that seem to be tripping you up.

  • Thank the person. As strange yet obvious as this sounds, we should thank the student for considering the feedback we have provided. We have implemented this during distance learning, and students were at first surprised, not having been thanked for listening or taking the time. And they responded well by acting on the feedback. And wasn’t that the intention?

  • Obtain feedback on the feedback. Simply asking if the feedback was useful or if they had questions or if the way the feedback was delivered felt good and returns some of the responsibility to students. And seeking feedback models the actions we would like from students and provides us an opportunity to change as well.

The pandemic teaching of 2020 has been stressful and not always effective. But there are lessons learned during this time that will serve us well as we continue to engage students in learning. As part of the learning process, let’s make the feedback GREAT! (for those of you old enough, cue Tony the Tiger saying it).

“An opportunity to chart a new path”

Dr. Isabel Morales is a social studies teacher with the Los Angeles Unified school district. She has worked in education for 16 years, as a teacher, administrator, adjunct professor, and Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching Fellow. Her favorite job is being in the classroom with students. You can find her on Twitter: @isabeljmorales:

As a child, I loved to play school with my younger sister. I had no classroom or physical resources, but I did have my pupil and my passion. I took my role seriously, requiring my sister to keep an organized binder with tabs divided by subject matter. It was through our form of play that she learned to read.

As we get ready to start the school year, I feel like I’m playing school again. Let’s be clear: In referring to it as play, I’m not trivializing my role as educator. Powerful learning comes from play, a claim supported by a wide body of research from the game-based learning community.

When I say that I’m playing school, I mean that I’m voluntarily engaging in an exciting process requiring me to think creatively as I explore the challenge of creating community and designing transformative learning experiences in a virtual environment.

The current challenges have led to some of my most creative work. For example, I’ve ditched my black-and-white syllabus, creating a colorful and interactive one with video and links to resources.

Instead of the physical binder I made my little sister carry, I’ve created a digital binder for my students to organize their learning. This binder is responsive to our current moment, with readings and reflection tasks designed to help students understand race and their role in either upholding or dismantling oppressive structures.

I’ve brainstormed and compiled a list of ideas for community-building in online environments. I’m excited to get to know students through the creation of digital collages showing their personalities. I’m also playing with the idea of developing class roles, like Class DJ and Class Motivator. In these roles, students would co-create the online environment through music, motivational quotes, class energizers, and check-in questions.

To the teachers feeling overwhelmed and anxious by the demands of the school year: Beathe and remember that the digital tools are not teaching our kids—we are. The same principles of love, care, high expectations, support, and community still apply. Our task is NOT to become experts on the extensive menu of digital tools out there. Rather, we can start by thinking about our learning goals and objectives and then exploring ways of digitizing the learning materials. I’m keeping it simple this year, using the three tools my students already know: Google Docs, Google Slides, and Schoology.

Although distance learning existed prior to the pandemic, most education leaders have not taught or led in these circumstances and are learning as they go. I’m taking this as an opportunity to chart a new path and explore what’s possible while the rules are still unwritten.

“Competence over compliance”

Kiera Beddes has been a high school ELA teacher in Utah for eight years. She is currently a member of the Utah Teacher Fellows and is passionate about social science, literature, and technology in education:

There is nothing like a worldwide pandemic to help alter one’s approach to teaching. Perhaps one silver lining is the fact that teachers who haven’t felt the need to change were forced to adapt their teaching to meet these new circumstances. I saw faculty members from across the career spectrum who were reaching out with questions and likewise supporting one another as we all made the shift to online learning. This isn’t to say there weren’t some bumps along the way or that we suddenly have all the answers; however, I have learned some things that I would like to share. Here are some key lessons that I will take with me into the new school year.

Key Lesson #1: The focus needs to be on meaningful and minimal. Online teaching cannot mirror face-to-face teaching. Trying to replicate it exactly leads to headache and heartache for all parties. Our reality of teaching with COVID-19 restrictions means we need to home in on the most essential aspects of learning and do so in the most efficient manner possible. My lessons during quarantine were nowhere near as in-depth or detailed as what I would have covered in the course of one period together in person, but for every lesson, I made sure to focus on the key skills of English/ language arts. I made sure sstudents read, wrote, discussed, and listened. The content didn’t matter so much, but those essential skills did, so that is what I focused on. Regardless of what comes with the new school year, whether in person or online, I will focus on making my content meaningful and minimal. What do I want my students to know? What are the key standards? What is the most effective way for students to show what they know?

Key Lesson #2: Making the shift to teaching online meant focusing more on competence over compliance. It isn’t important to me how long a student takes to learn the material. Online learning means students can learn at their own pace and as their situations allow. One important thing to keep in mind: We don’t know what kind of access our students have to screens, internet, or even electricity. So when the focus is on competence, it is up to the student to show what they know. If they can do it, demonstrate their proficiency, then it shouldn’t matter that they haven’t done every single assignment. So, in my classroom, for every unit and lesson, I will incorporate more student self-reflection, so they are assessing their own learning and growth in addition to my feedback on their proficiency.

Key Lesson #3: Asynchronous learning takes precedence over synchronous learning. This concept carries over from online learning and is connected to lesson #2 above. Because we don’t know what is happening behind the screen, it seems silly to require students to attend required lectures or online class sessions. What is far more realistic and kind to the learner is creating opportunities for asynchronous learning. This does make collaboration (like what you could see in the classroom) more difficult but not impossible! Time is the flexible factor here, not learning. So one thing I will keep in mind is how can I make this learning opportunity flexible? Can I give multiple ways of learning the material? Are there multiple ways to demonstrate their learning? Do students have the opportunity to exercise their voice and choice?

These are just a couple of lessons that I learned when making the jump to online learning that I want to incorporate into my pedagogy as I gear up for the new year. We aren’t sure yet what this new year will hold, but I know if I focus on what is essential, being flexible in content and time frame, and prioritizing competence over compliance, I know I will create the best learning environment for me and my students.

Thanks to Doug, Nancy, Dr. Morales, and Kiera for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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