I made a promise to myself when this school year started. I told myself that I wouldn’t write for a few months. Although I felt like I had a lot to say, I wanted to focus on two things. First, as always, I wanted to focus on my actual teaching, no matter the environment that I found myself in. With Covid essentially running our lives, I knew that I, along with every other educator, would be teaching kids in different environments each day. Focusing on the craft is important all of the time, but this year, as we all know, is quite different. The craft of good teaching is more important than ever before.
Second, I promised that, instead of writing and trying to help, I would listen. I would listen to kids as they are the ones most directly impacted by all of this. I would listen to why they didn’t like Google Meets, what issues they had with the hybrid model, and why they absolutely loathe the idea of watching teacher-made videos and doing asynchronous work.
I would listen to parents as they worry about whether or not sending their kid to school is worth the risk. I would listen as they talk about shuffling day care options around, worry about their child’s future, and worry about whether or not their WIFI can hold up.
I would listen to my colleagues who are meeting challenges each moment of the day. I would listen to what is going well. I would listen to their roadblocks, their frustrations, their reactions to the constant changes that this year has brought, their emotions, and their want to do more.
I would listen to my admins as they are faced with an inordinate amount of daily decisions that require answers that will never leave everyone happy, content, or, even worse, one hundred percent safe.
I’m so glad that I did listen.
I’ve learned so much already. And, I know that I will definitely be learning so much more this year. We are teaching through history right now. One day, many years from now, we will look back in awe about how we educated a generation of kids under some of the most difficult circumstances we’ve ever faced in the education industry.
Yes, there are so many challenges hurled at students and teachers right now. Yes, there is so much uncertainty right now. It’s easy to fall into the trap that everything is bad, nothing is going right, and that we aren’t doing enough. I consider myself lucky to work for the North Rockland Central School District. Our District, led by our new Superintendent Dr. Kris Felicello (AKA “The Admin”), made the courageous call to open up our schools in September under a hybrid model. We were, to my knowledge, the only District in our area to open with in-person learning from day one.
While there were many challenges and changes along the way, and nothing was ever perfect, our students were able to make genuine connections with their teachers, no matter the environment. Families who chose to have their children learn remotely were given dedicated remote teachers from day one for grades K through 8. Our remote high school students were afforded opportunities to virtually meet with their teachers, access live help daily, and have a whole class virtual learning day meeting every seventh day. Students who entered the hybrid option were given in-person learning days, asynchronous learning days, and the aforementioned whole class virtual learning day meeting every seventh day. At the heart of it, we were making connections with kids and teaching them. Now, because of the rise of Covid-19 cases, we are now going into a “Holiday Pause”, switching to an all online learning model.
I have certainly been given the opportunity to teach in the classroom this year, more than most teachers have been given. But, this year has really been all about how we educate children through a screen and without the control a classroom gives us.
Many lament that fact. I have, at times, as well. But, after doing a whole lot of reflecting and listening, I know that we will be more than alright. Our kids will definitely be alright despite the narrative that they are falling behind. And, I am hopeful that our basic foundation of what it means to educate can forever be impacted.
There’s So Much Good To Replicate
One of the things that teachers have been consistently told this year is that it would be a mistake to try to replicate what is done in the classroom in a virtual world. I get the logic. The two worlds–virtual and in-person–are not the same. But, I truly believe that it’s such a good thing for the long term of our industry.
We can replicate all that makes up the idea of good in-person teaching in a virtual world. We can replicate all that is good about online learning when we return to our regular in-person learning. We should be looking to replicate the best of both worlds as well as refine our practices.
Every teacher will tell you that a connection with kids is the single most important thing we can do and that we must have that connection before true and meaningful learning can happen.
Why can’t that happen in a virtual world?
Why can’t we greet kids as the come on a Google Meet? Why can’t we have class conversations through a screen? Why can’t we get to know each individual kid? Why can’t we take the time to meet with them, talk with them one on one, connect through conversation, writing, and through the collective process of work? Why can’t we scrap the lesson plan and just talk to kids like we would in a classroom?
A screen is not an excuse to have a disconnect with our kids. It is not an excuse to not make the same efforts we do in person. It can happen. I’ve seen it happen with my own classes, but, more importantly, I’ve seen it by watching (and listening) to my amazing colleagues develop class rapport, relationships with each kid, and fostering a class environment all online with kids of all ages.
We can replicate the relationship work we do in the classroom. To be genuine with another person can cross all barriers.
We can replicate the good, innovative practices of our classrooms. Good lessons that inspiring true thinking, collective learning, and important learning can happen in the virtual world. We can teach kids our content, inspire them to create, to research, to demonstrate, to communicate, and to find their voice. We can develop an environment that develops resiliency and compassion.
And, this is where the digital classroom can forever impact the physical classroom. Because of our limited time on screen, we are focusing our teaching points to the power standards, making education more relevant and important for kids. We can finally start to think about how to improve what we teach kids. It’s a time where we can strip away the excess, the outdated traditions, and give kids that focused, relevant, and meaningful education. This is something that can and should be replicated when we return to a our “normal” classrooms.
Why can’t we refine our curriculum now?
We can replicate how we are now assessing our kids. Digital learning has forced many educators to finally rethink assessments. While one could argue that this rethinking should’ve been done years ago, online learning has forced the conversation. Traditional exams, which were often formatted as rote tasks or simple recall, are irrelevant in a digital world. Students have access to look up any and all answers. There’s no cure for this either. You could try to purchase online platforms, online “miracle” programs that assess kids and provide lock screens, but students have other ways to access information.
Instead, the digital age has forced teachers to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways. Student created podcasts, blog posts, videos, writing, projects, and so many other methods have replaced the recall tests.
Why can’t we replicate this during our in-person learning?
The environment may have changed (multiple times), but good education practices can and will make a difference. Teaching is teaching, no matter the environment. Each world can relate and the best of each can be replicated. And, while it sounds like a cliche, there’s no other way to put it: kids need us, now more than ever.
I realize much of what I wrote is philosophical and in this age philosophical is the last thing you’d need. So, I wanted to share how I am going about teaching narrative and a novel study. I’m no expert, but if it helps someone…awesome. I think now, more than ever, we need to share some of our work. To be honest, I didn’t know that I was eventually going to share this in a public way. This video is one that I made quickly for my department so the production value is non-existent. The amount of “umms” I give here is absolutely terrible.