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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teacher Reflections After a Month of Distance Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 29, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The question for this new series is:

Many schools have been teaching online for three or four weeks by now. What did you do at the start that you’re continuing to do because it’s working? What did you do at the start that you had to change and why? And what weren’t you doing at the beginning that you’re doing now and why?

Ashley McCall, Dr. Elvis Epps, Claudia Leon, and Lorie Barber “kick off” the series in Part One.

Today, Bill Ivey, Jessica Cabeen, Nick Fotopoulos, and David Sherrin share their reflections.

I’m adding this post to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Four weeks and counting

Bill Ivey is the middle school dean and teaches Humanities 7 and Upper School Rock Band at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, an independent feminist school for grades 7-12:

I can still remember as if it were moments ago the face of the very first student I saw in my very first virtual Humanities 7 class, peering inquiringly at the screen as she waited for everyone else to show up and how she lit up with delight as I joined the meeting, soon to be followed by her friends. Tinged as it was with wistfulness we weren’t physically together in the classroom, the joy at finally being together and able to see each other was almost palpable.

Over the next few weeks, we settled into the new “normal.” With the kind permission of the publisher, we continued with The Hate U Give as our read-aloud, punctuated by the occasional dry comment, insightful question, or rich discussion to which we had grown so familiar over our first two trimesters. We formed small groups for the civic-engagement projects we had been anticipating all year, with one new proposed topic, “coronavirus,” added into the long list of student-generated choices. Two students chose that, two others “reduce-reuse-recycle,” five “animal rescue,” and the remaining student was solidly enough committed to “LGBTQ+ support” that she chose to work on her own. I set up weekly check-ins with each small group, reserving two half-hour chunks of time for optional drop-ins. And the kids are still doing weekly free-choice reading and writing.

But as we begin our fourth week, even with the comforting familiarity of these routines both continuing and newly created, it’s starting to feel a little ... or a lot ... not enough. In the classroom, I can project my iPad onto the screen above my head so kids can follow along while I’m reading. I can glance at each of my students roughly once a minute and catch movements and subtle mood shifts instantly. When I’m screen sharing my Kindle app? Not so much. And even when we’re in gallery view and I can see their faces or icons, I have to look away from them toward the camera to give the impression I’m looking at them. True eye contact is impossible, and that underlying emotional connection that usually infuses my classroom feels tissue-paper thin.

And even there, at least I’m seeing them! My Rock Band students can’t rehearse virtually, and they don’t all have access to their instruments anyway. The seniors and I are hoping to virtually record “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (I sent a cowbell off to the home of one of our singers so she can still contribute that vital sound), but I’m learning that assembling a well-synchronized video of five kids is waaaaaaay harder than I had thought. This, too, feels overwhelming at times.

Nevermind ongoing equity work. Racial and economic injustices are front and center now, undeniable to all but the most willfully ignorant, and members of and advocates for the disabled and LGBTQ+ communities are trying to stay on the radar as well. All this with the backdrop of one of the most ineffective responses to the pandemic by any government in the world and the political and emotional maelstrom surrounding it all.

In normal circumstances, I have to work hard to stave off imposter syndrome. These circumstances are anything but normal and can fuel imposter syndrome to a frightening degree. But. I know I’m no good to anyone if I give in to the overwhelming. So somehow, I’m just going to have to find a way to move forward and perhaps even take the advice I’m sharing right and left with my friends and colleagues to show ourselves the same grace we’re showing our students.

We can’t do everything

David Sherrin is the father (and temporary educator) of three young children, a social studies teacher at Scarsdale High School, author of Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, and recipient of the 2014 Robert H Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice. He maintains the teaching website JADE Learning. You can contact him at: dsherrin@scarsdaleschools.org:

When I first wrote about distance learning after schools closed, I argued since we are in uncharted territory, this is the time for teachers to try something new. By default, we must use unfamiliar technologies and untested methodologies, and it is worthwhile to scope out new resources that we had never before thought to use.

Now I want to propose the opposite: Look for ways to continue doing what you already do best. In teaching, we can’t do it all. We have limits to our time, skills, expertise, and personality traits. Some of us are better at organization, others at teaching our students to write, others at engaging in inquiry, and others at helping them to believe in and love themselves. None of us is perfect, but all of us contribute something valuable to our students’ education.

In a distance-learning context, in which we can achieve far less overall, I need to identify what I do best and stick to that as a focus. What I know is that I’m a mediocre lecturer, but my strengths are in producing joyful experiences, authentic and creative lessons and projects, and producing units that allow for real student choice. I can also be silly and cheesy. So this is what I need to continue to strive for in distance learning. The silly and cheesy has been easy: for example, by using Google Question for a joke that I wrote: What did the barber say to the farmer (and to the pet-store owner)?

I first hit my stride with a resource that already represented my strengths as a teacher: the Joseph and Myra Brandman Virtual Holocaust Memorial Museum. I had created and used it the previous year and knew that it represented much of what I can offer: student choice, an interesting and personal learning context, and an opportunity for a creative historical art project. Once I realized the success of this format, I moved on to create a similarly structured India Colonialism and Resistance Role-Play, which I embedded within a larger Distance Learning Website. While I think Google Classroom is a crucial tool, it doesn’t provide for students the same visual sparks and narrative continuity as a website.

There is so much I am not doing, but I hope that other teachers are. If you’re the teacher who provides warmth and love and care, this is the best time ever to find ways to do so. If you’re the teacher who keeps kids organized, please put your effort in that because I know I can’t do it. If you’re the teacher who works on extracurricular activities like yearbook or choir, find ways to continue to bring those joys to our kids. And if you get kids to produce work because they respond to your tough love, then please keep it coming.

I can bring the silly, but I need my colleagues to bring the virtual hug and the hammer. We all must do our part, but only our part. Oh, and what the barber said? I like your “hare.”

Three things that have gone well and three that have not

Nick Fotopoulos is the lead EL teacher at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill. He has taught at Sandburg for the past eight years:

I first wrote a post here over a month and a half ago, and what a difference that time makes! As I sit and write today, all schools in Illinois are closed to in-person teaching for the remainder of the school year, all athletics canceled, shelter-in-place restrictions to seemingly be extended, and really no definitive time frame for a sense of normalcy. However, our jobs as professionals, educators, role models, and positive influencers continue to move forward. I have much to be thankful for even in a time of disarray and I hope you all do, as well. In my first article, I talked about the top 10 things that have worked for me while teaching entirely online. I will be the first to admit that our remote learning was in its infancy stages and I have learned a ton along the way. This article will focus on my top 3 things that have gone well and my top 3 things that have not!

Top 3 BEST Things Learned Thus Far

#3 - A Sense of Community and Pride

I am fortunate to work with a TON of very supportive people and engaged students. We have done a great job of holding on to that sense of community and school pride. For our EL students, this is so important. They are able to still feel part of something bigger, and that means the world to my students. Remember, a ton of these kids’ lives were changed when they moved here. They look at your classroom and school as a place of safety, normalcy, and pride. Do your best to keep that going!

#2- Less Is More

The more that we teach remotely, the more I believe this. If we can accomplish one or two things a week and continue to build reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills along the way, we are doing it right. We have kept it simple and allowed our students the chance to breathe. There is no need to overload them with work and stress in an already stressful time.

#1- Relationships Matter

The longer we are away, the more this reigns true. You have worked all year to create trusting and loving relationships—don’t let that go. Try a Zoom or a Google Hangout. Send a Remind text or an email. A simple “Hey!” goes a long way with our students. It is OK to let them know you care and love them. For your seniors, highlight them on Twitter, IG, video, etc. Let them know their journey was worth it because it was! Finally, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE! It is so important!

Top 3 Things That I Needed to Change Thus Far:

#3- Busy Work

I had a long conversation with some of my students regarding the work they were receiving. Lots of comments were they felt a lot of the stuff was busy work. I went back and did a personal audit of my assignments and fully agreed. I am trying to make the work we give more authentic and meaningful. I have come to the realization that it is OK for our students to stray from the curriculum if it gives them the opportunity to think and apply.

#2- Expectations and Flexibility

Don’t read this one the wrong way. We MUST hold our students to high expectations but we can adjust aspects of it. I had firm deadlines in the beginning, and that was the worst way to do it. We have to be understanding of what we are all going through. I found out that it is just fine to push that assignment that was due on Tuesday to Thursday if it helps the students learn something and be successful

#1- Connections With students Who Are Not Engaged

I am still struggling with this one. I am sure you have a few students who are not engaged and are not doing anything. I have worked with everyone including their mothers to try and bridge this gap. My only advice is to continue to do the best you can. Work with administration, counselors, teachers, translators, kids friends, their families, etc., to try and get them to engage. It’s not only important for their education but also their well-being.

Communication, Care, and Consistency

Jessica Cabeen is the principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn.:

When we started distance learning, we had an end in mind, May 4th. And like many other schools and many other states, that date has changed. At Ellis Middle School, one of the biggest challenges was finding ways to ensure we were communicating with all of our students and families. Austin, Minnesota, is not only home to SPAM (a museum dedicated to Spam) but to a community of many different languages and school experiences. Knowing that means you have to find innovative and creative ways to support learning and families remotely. Initially, we communicated with our school portal pushes that went to families in email and text, but we quickly realized that was not going to be the best place for all families.

Our monthly newsletter now became weekly and with a focus on finding activities and resources for parents to use to extend and enrich learning at home. We also started weekly videos on the district YouTube channel specific to different stakeholder groups. Students receive a quick video with a fun Instagram or SnapChat filter included and a message of we miss you, we care about you, and we are here to help.

Parent messages include words of gratitude, ideas for living and teaching a teen at home, and informing them that we want them to take care of themselves in this season.

Our final parent message is done via Zoom with our incredible success coach. Raquel translates a message of support in this season for our Spanish-speaking families. Topics for these videos include empowering their children to take ownership of their learning and words of affirmation and confirmation that they are doing a fantastic job they didn’t sign up for.

What we know now: Parents and students appreciate educators more than ever, and as educators, we now know the essential importance of communicating timely, clear, and creative messages to the families and students we serve.

Thanks to Nick, Jessica, Bill, and David for their contributions!

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