Earlier this week, I attended a webinar where the speaker focused on the importance of the mental wellness of teachers. This topic was part of a larger topic related to teacher burnout. She mentioned the importance of schools and districts allocating resources to support the mental well being of teachers especially those who who are teaching face to face currently. Her point really resonated with me and I have spent time thinking about this much today. I am compelled to write this post to being attention to the mental well being of teachers and all educators who are working to deliver quality instruction to our students during this pandemic.
Earlier this year, the system where I taught opted to bring half of our students back on Monday/Tuesday with the other half being brought back on Thursday/Friday. On Wednesdays, all staff work from home. Days when students are not physically at school, students are expected to be engaged in remote learning. Last spring, there was much focus on supporting the social emotional wellness of students. I experienced and lived this first hand. Our students needed this and they still need it. For students, it was challenging. They are growing up in an uncertain world. Navigating this ever changing landscape is challenging especially for students who may have not yet matured enough to develop the necessary coping skills and resilience to adapt and thrive in our world. Our schools and district with support from the federal and state government has invested in resources and personnel to support students. We need to continue to do this and ensure that we do our absolute best to make sure that all students are supported, encouraged, and included.
As previously stated, supporting students is a nonnegotiable. However, we must also extend our focus on mental wellness to include teachers and all educators who support those same students. We must acknowledge the trauma caused by the pandemic on our educators. As last semester drew to a close, our teachers were concerned and troubled by the high number of students who either failed courses or did not experience high levels of success. Our teachers absorbed much of that stress. Teachers want their students to be successful. When students are not successful, this creates a dilemma for teachers who want their students to be successful. This in turn perpetuates a cycle of additional stress and challenge. We cannot ignore that educators are subject to enormous levels for stress; in fact, we must acknowledge and seek to actively support them in positive and productive ways.
We must actively share strategies and opportunities that help educators focus on their mental wellness. One such strategy involves the use of mindfulness practices. Often providing educators with the opportunity to learn deep breathing techniques where they focus on their self can be extremely useful and liberating. Additionally engaging in regular physical activity such as walking, running, or swimming can great ways to deter stress. Another sometimes overlooked practice is simply listening to educators. Many educators fell ignored and neglected. Coupled with this, often educators are focused on helping others and don’t focus on their own self care and wellness. We need to change the narrative of educators sacrificing their own wellness for their students and profession.
We must also ensure that our schools and districts make teacher wellness a priority in much the same way that they do for student social emotional wellness. We cannot neglect them. For the district where I teach, our community spread is covid is classified as critical. Our local health department ran out of their allotted covid vaccines earlier today. Just a few hours ago, I received an emailed where we told to discontinue any PLCs immediately and no two adults can be in the same room at the same time. Our governor and health secretary share daily reports imploring citizens to stay in their homes and limit their trips outside of their home. With all these indicators, it is easy to understand why educators are stressed. The mental wellness of educators should be a focus of all schools and districts. Many educators feel that they are, in some ways, sacrificial lambs with limited voice and influence. For our school and government leaders, we must step up and ensure that we are fully supporting the mental well being of our teachers. If they do not feel safe or are not at their best, they cannot give their best to support our students. Let us remember the importance of teachers during this pandemic.
May our actions and commitments ensure that our educators see that their mental wellness is valued and a focus as our leaders make future decisions.
As 2020 draws to a close, we can all agree that we won’t quickly forget many of the defining actions and events of this year ranging from a pandemic to the continued grappling of equity for all individuals in the United States to a very polarized America. 2020 will definitely be a year that we will revisit and continue to learn many lessons based on this year’s events. As an educator, I saw the wide scale closing of schools. I saw the quick and abrupt transition of teachers teaching face to face to digital and remote teaching. Over the period of several months, educators grew their technology repertoire and focused on meeting the social and emotional needs of our students. One area in education that has not received nearly enough attention is that of leadership. Over my twenty-one years in education, I have worked with some amazing principals and other school leaders who have been extraordinary. During the pandemic though, I have the seen firsthand the transformative power of effective leadership from three of my either current or past principals. I think that too often we overlook what I dub the “admin effect” where effective leadership transforms the learning conditions of students and the working conditions of educators. We cannot overlook the impact of the admin effect and how empowering and transformative that it can be.
Vision and execution is a major factor that I experienced under the leadership of Meredith Williams, principal at North Rowan High School. She took over a historically struggling school and has worked to implement a school that leaves the factory model of education behind and is evolving into a school that prepares students for living and thriving in the 21st century. Mrs. Williams had an initial vision of transforming the school into a health science school. However, that vision hit some roadblocks. As a result of this obstacle, a fantastic opportunity resulted in creating a school that was based on Design Thinking and Challenge Based Learning. I experienced first hand this vision in action. Many of the students at North Rowan High School had endured being victimized by curriculums that did not incorporate their talents, aptitudes, experiences, and interests. Further, many realized that the curriculums that were imposed on them would not serve them well. As a result, these students developed amazing resiliency skills to make it through school until they were able to really succeed in life. Mrs. Williams realized this and recruited passionate and capable educators who worked tirelessly to create and implement a school that prepares students for an ever changing future. The implementation of the vision resulted in a curriculum that emphasized critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creative thinking, problem solving, and student agency. Students found this curriculum to be engaging and exciting. Having connected with the students that I taught during the initial year of implementation, I have heard first hand from these students that this curriculum transformed their lives. They routinely use the skills, knowledge, and experiences to navigate life and solve problems. Many students who had previously been disconnected and disenfranchised from school found school interesting, empowering, and worth attending. They were able to incorporate their past experiences into learning and saw value and purpose. Students no longer were forced to endure a curriculum that was static and stale; instead they were doing, experiencing, and growing. This was achievable due to the combined efforts of educators who united under a common vision that was well developed and executed. Mrs. Williams’s efforts and investment will continue to serve these students for years to come.
Another extraordinary educator, Dr. Amanda Macon, had one of the most interesting leadership styles that I have experienced. During this past school year, she served as the principal of China Grove Middle School. She brought a wicked sense of humor mixed in with an intuitive sense of understanding others. She seemed to innately know and understand others. She was able to pick up on their situations and provide any needed support. She has a strong sense of empathy in working with both students and educators. However, she was mindful to use this empathy in a way that would result in the growth and progress of others. She developed relationships that were authentic and genuine. However, she always kept an eye on supporting the growth of the individual. She stressed the importance of a growth mindset. I saw her on several occasions counsel students on improving their behavior and academic performance while letting them know that she valued them. She humanized her relationships with others. She provided the necessary paths to help others grow but also held them accountable for doing so. She was able to provide accountable while still helping the individual feel valued. Her ability to humanize relationships made a huge difference during the pandemic. She routinely focused on individuals and made sure that they were okay. She also provided the necessary leadership in an uncertain world that reassured us that we could do this. She modeled the actions that she wanted teachers to emulate with students. Her leadership was also very humble as she always deflected personal accolades back to those who she sought to empower. She used her leadership to lift others up and as a result, we all grew and transformed.
A final leader from who I learned much is my current principal, Ben Crawford. I have worked with Mr. Crawford for nearly four years. He served as the principal at China Grove Middle for three years when I was a technology facilitator. He is currently principal at Jesse Carson High School where I serve as an instructional design coach. As a middle school principal, I thought that Mr. Crawford did a great job. But as a high school principal, he has done a phenomenal job. Bringing back a school of over 1200 students and over 100 staff members during a pandemic is a gargantuan challenge for any principal. But doing this along with creating entirely virtual virtual classes for some while others are on a “A/B” schedule and balancing out staff needs would be enough to overwhelm anyone. However, Mr. Crawford’s superpower of developing and executing an effective safety plan met and exceeded this challenge. He spent time thinking, designing, and developing a plan that met the needs and concerns of both staff and students upon returning to schools. He spent time considering all the potential challenges and questions associated with returning to school during a pandemic. He was able to assure staff of safety while providing them with support for handling different situations. He even modeled the type of behavior and practices that teachers needed to utilize in their classroom with cleaning desks, using hand sanitizer, and responding to mask questions. He was open to receiving concerns from staff members who were worried. He listened to them and helped them work through their concerns in a way that empowered them to problem solve. His plan was a model for many other schools in our systems. He spent great efforts to ensure that the plan created the safest environment for all. He was open to modifying the plan as needed. Most of all, he was there to support each person and ensure that they felt as comfortable as possible with returning back to school. His well designed plan has helped to minimize the potential problems that could have resulted at Carson and we are forever indebted to him for his attention and detail to planning for safe and orderly return to school.
Each of these leaders have created learning and working environments that promote student success. Each of these leaders have built genuine relationships that humanize learning. Most importantly these leaders have shared their power, built others up, and empowered others to do what is best for students. We often don’t give our leaders the credit that they deserve. In many ways, being an administrator is a “thankless” job. But we need to recognize the outstanding leaders that each of us work with and let them know how much we appreciate them. It is not an easy job but it is one that makes a difference.
As we move through this holiday season, we engage in many traditions such as decorating the Christmas tree, lighting candles, singing, and celebrating. At the center of these activities are the ideas of light and hope that serve as focal points for many cultures and traditions. Historically during this time, many Western cultures have just finished gathering up the remaining harvest and our days are growing shorter with nights growing longer in duration. For us, this has been an eventful year with many unanticipated twists and turns. While we continue to navigate an ever changing landscape, it is these focal points of light and hope that will continue to move us forward.
If you are like me, your life has been up and down much like a New Jersey roller coaster. The first few weeks of quarantine was so unfathomable that I could only process it as an extended set of snow days. However as the closure of face to face school continued, my thoughts transitioned to worries about students and staff at school. Did they have everything that they needed to be successful? Was I adequately serving and supporting them in teaching and learning? Was I doing enough to help everyone? These were all concerns that I dealt with frequently. In thinking back about this experience, I now realized that my concerns were rooted in my desire to make sure that my family was good. Yes, for us, our students and colleagues are part of our school family. As part of that family, we may have many different views and experiences. But at the core of it, we are motivated to care and protect the family unit. We don’t all see things the same way, have different motivations, and may argue passionately for what we believe to be the best for our students. Yet. we strive to ensure that the family is safe, protected, and progressing.
We all have had challenging moments this year both in and out of school. We, as educators, continue to grapple with supporting our students and ensuring that they are learning. We have also had to change the way that we deliver instruction including learning new tools and organizing our content in new ways all while trying to make sense of our world. While these challenges have been great, the one thing that has gotten me through those dark and challenging moments is the sense of hope.
Hope is like a light that helps us find our way through the darkness. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that so many cultures have a celebration of light embroidered with hope during this time of year. Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, was celebrated in mid November this year. It is often described as the celebration of light over darkness, triumph of good over evil, and new beginnings. Hanukkah starts later this week and is often called the festival of lights. Hanukkah celebrates the rebuilding of the Second Temple after the Jews reclaimed Jerusalem from the occupying Greeks. As traditional services were restarted, there was a need for pure oil in order to light the Menorah. But only a small amount of oil could be found and it should only have lasted for one day. Miraculously, the oil kept the light shining for eight days. During this time, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ who came into the world to light the way. Jesus is often described as light personified.
Within each of these traditions, we see the importance of light especially during the darkest time. Much like a lot of the past months, we must continue to see the light of hope moving forward. For many of our students, we represent the only normalcy that they have experienced in the last nine months. While our experiences with our students may not always show this, know that we have made a difference by showing up and supporting our students. While parts of this year has been extremely dark, and our light may have been challenged at times, we still have our light going forward and much hope. Let us continue to think about the ways that we will continue to light the world for ourselves, our students, and our community. May the new year usher in much joy for each of us.
Educating in a pandemic has become increasingly challenging for educators. Learning in a pandemic is challenging for our students and their families. As we continue to traverse this ever changing landscape of education, we must leverage the resources that we have available and use them in the most productive way. This can include devices, applications, paper, pencils, and almost anything that you can imagine. This combination of both digital and analog resources are often remixed to help students when they are challenged to learn.
My eight year old son is amazing for many reasons. One of those reasons involves his use of resources that we have at home such as stray notebook paper, a ragtag collection of pens and markers, and many pieces of toys. He is often inspired to create new things based on an active imagination that is unbridled by shame gremlins. He is an innovator and creator. He uses the constraints of the materials that he has to create and make something new. He does not let obstacles stop him. In fact, sometimes, I don’t even think that he realizes that obstacles would often be dead ends for many individuals. He somehow finds a way to go around them and create something new and different. In addition to being a proud father, I am mesmerized by his determination to stick to his intention and allow his idea to evolve. Constraints only improve his creative capabilities.
As I think about educating in a pandemic world, many of our teachers have embraced their creativity or what is more appropriately called creative thinking. I have seen teachers, based on necessity, develop and enhance their digital teaching skills tremendously. Educators who in the past had shown minimal interest in using Flipgrid and Canvas have transitioned into being the “go to” people in their school on these tools. Many of them are providing leadership and direction to other teachers in areas that used to matter very little to them. For many of our educators, their desire and commitment to support students and their learning have made a tremendous difference in how they have become active and creative problem solvers. The impetus on supporting students have pushed many educators to grow tremendously in expanding digital pedagogy. Further, our educators are supporting each other through various social media by sharing their resources and expertise to support others. It is amazing to think about how much our educators have grown in such a short period of time.
While teaching and learning in a pandemic has and will continue to present challenges, I hope educators will reflect on how much this disruption has challenged them to grow and evolve. Additionally, I hope that we will use the lessons that we have learned to implement in our work with students. Our students, much like my son, actually strives to be creative and innovative. He wants to be a maker and creator, He likes to show how he sees the world and how we imagines the world could be. We should work to support our students in doing the same. Our students bring a variety of experiences and ideas with them. We must create learning experiences where students incorporate these and remix them with new ideas to show a deeper and most impactful learning. As we move forward, I encourage all educators to think about how we can maximize the impact of this disruption to empower our students to grow into become creators and innovators. If you are looking for resources to support in the journey, I highly recommending snagging a copy of “intention: critical creativity in the classroom” (yes, I am using the official name of the book and disregarding standard excepted rules for book titles), by Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder. They provide a great explanation on critical creativity with insights as well as ways and paths to implement various activities in your classroom. Another amazing resource is “Educated by Design” by Michael Cohen. Cohen’s book is a game changer and will change how you approach design and creativity with your students. Finally, I would encourage completed both parts of Adobe’s Creative Educator Program (adobe.ly/ACE). This program is free and provides a lot of resources to help guide your thinking around creative thinking.
Over the past six months, I have become increasingly more focused on how we alleviate barriers to learning for our students. With the move to emergency remote and hybrid learning, I have grown more aware of this need. I have seen students struggle with connectivity issues at home. I have spoken with parents, grandparents, and guardians who were beyond frustrated with technology and devices as they sought to support their students in digital learning. This, coupled with the focus on ensuring equity among all students, has forced me to pause and really think about how we can ensure that technology supports learning with all students.
I have spent the past six months working with an extraordinary ESL teacher, Mariel Gomez de la Torre-Cerfontaine (@MGomezdelaTorre) on developing and delivering a powerful professional learning presentation titled "The Power of WE: How Technology Helps ELs." Mariel brings a career worth of experience in supporting students whose primary language is not English. She grew up in Peru and lived in the Netherlands before coming to the United States. She is very focused on literacy and helping students improve their abilities to read, write, speak, and listen. I have learned how to better support EL students and so much more from Mariel.
Another benefit from working with Mariel is that I have come to realize that what is good for helping one type of students can also support other students. For instance, the website, Rewordify, will take a passage and help break down complex words into more student friendly and easier to understand terms. Here is a short video demonstrating how to use this site (which is free for use by the way). While Mariel focused on using it to help break down text for her students learning to speak English, I have used it in the past to help students struggling to comprehend Shakespeare. Based on my experiences, I can see how this site would also support struggling readers and special education students as well. This site is very straight forward for students to use as it involves only a copy/paste function.
As I continue to think about the many barriers to learning that exist, I increasingly saw Microsoft's Immersive Reader stand out. As an Apple person, I often did not pay as much attention to Microsoft products due to my internal bias for Apple. By not paying attention to the developments that Microsoft has invested in education support, I missed out on some amazing developments and arrived late to the party. Microsoft has now caught my attention with carefully designed tools that will support all learners especially with their Immersive Reader. I started using Immersive Reader after its integration with Wakelet. When Wakelet added Immersive Reader to their ecosystem, the game changed. While Wakelet has always been an an amazing tool for curation and innovation, the addition of Immersive Reader to their ecosystem moved Wakelet even further into "awesomeness." Through the use of Wakelet and Immersive Reader, students are able to take websites and transform them into environments were many of the barriers to learning are eliminated. These practices include the following:
In working with Mariel and others, the transition feature is powerful. The translations are much "tighter" than other translation tools. I am impressed with Immersive Reader's ability to eliminate many barriers to learning. Immersive Reader integrates with other tools such as Flipgrid and Microsoft Office. I have recently started using it with Microsoft Lens, a scanning app where you can take a picture of a text and export it to Immersive Reader. The potential of Immersive Reader to help all students should cause all teachers to pause and integrate its use into their classroom. My excitement continues to grow as technology evolves to better support all students and reduce their barriers to learning. We as teachers must ensure that we support all students and remove barriers to learning. What works for one group of learners often works well for other groups of students as well. I encourage you to spend time investigating various tools that eliminate barriers to learning. Don't forget to check out Rewordify and Immersive Reader.
Imagine going to a country that you have never been to before. One where they speak a different language where you recognize just a few words. Then imagine that the locals expect you to be proficient in just a few days of arriving. This is what the experience has been like for many educators as they have adapted to teaching in a digital/virtual environment.
When schools closed in March due to Covid, many teachers were immediately thrown into remote learning where the natives expected to them to instantly adapt to this new environment and solve problems. My analogy demonstrates the many challenges that educators faced last spring and continue to face this fall. Too often, students, parents, and the community have expectations that educators can be accomplished in digital teaching and pedagogy. However, simply adapting your face to face learning experiences to digital instruction is not as straight forward as many seem to think.
We must continue to give our educators grace as they work to become proficient digital teachers. I equate this shift as my experience as a English speaker when I hear German. I recognize a few words and feel like I should know a lot but sadly, I don’t. German has some similarities but the truth is that I am not very functional in German. This is exactly what our teachers are experiencing.
Good teaching is good teaching. We all know it when we see and we definitely know when the teaching is not as good. But adapting to a digital environment requires educators to navigate through many barriers. Some of these barriers involve ensuring that all students have access to high speed internet at home. Some of the other barriers involve making sure that students know their log in credentials and that parents understand how to use digital tools if their students do not. Often these barriers are beyond what teachers have the ability to influence, yet, they try.
These barriers are challenging. But perhaps, more challenging than overcoming barriers, is developing a plan to support all learners using sound pedagogy and technology. Merging them together is often a challenge. Further, the teacher must adjust and provide multiple ways to support learners who may learn in different ways. In some ways, it requires looking into a “crystal ball” and hoping that you receive the messages needed to support all the ways that students can learn.
Another important factor to consider is that in face to face instruction, teachers have trained for a minimum of four years with lots of support from college professors and experienced practitioners. Most teachers also receive at least three years of support when they start teaching from their school and experienced professionals. All of these help to create a path in which a teacher has the opportunity to grow into success with support from others. Sadly, most educators have had minimal experience with practicing to become a digital educator. Most school systems lack dedicated professional learning opportunity and digital teaching specialists to help teachers. Further, most educators have received minimal, if any, experience in being digital educators during their undergraduate preparation. In fact, I am not familiar with any teacher prep programs that provide an introduction or extended experience with digital teaching.
Yet, given these challenges, teachers still manage to make it work. While it can be a bumpy road, it is the desire to ensure that all students can become independent and resilient learners that motivate teachers to move forward. Teaching digitally is not easy. It takes time and requires much deliberate and intentional preparation. It also requires ensuring that the necessary support and preparation is in place. It seems that many of the systems and processes that are in place still have much room to grow to fully support our educators though. As we move forward, let us remember that the grace, understanding, and empathy that we want our teachers to show our students are the same qualities that we must show to our teachers as they work to navigate this foreign world of digital learning.
Earlier tonight, I watch my local Board of Education meet mostly in an empty board room and approve a plan that would return students back to school in a few weeks. While I had my own strong opinions about the return of students and educators to school this fall, I listened with open ears and really sought to understand. Our superintendent and district staff has worked hard with input from school administrators to create three plans for the return of students. Last week, our Governor shared that systems may only choose one of two plans eliminating the plan would return all students fully to the classroom for now.
As I listened to tonight’s board meeting, three things were very obvious to me. One is that our district administrators have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to create the best plan possible. Also, they have worked really hard to provide forums for educators to share concerns. One of the more uplifting things that I will remember about this time is that I have seen a lot of empathy shared from administrators at both our central office and at the school level. I know that this is not easy for many individuals but I am so pleased to see that our system worked hard to model what they wanted educators to have with students, take the time to listen, be present, and humanize relationships.
Another thing that I observed during the board meeting is that I felt all board members really wanted to do what was best for students. I don’t think anyone can question that. The way that we resume school is not an easy answer. Everyone wants students back in the building in a face to face environment. However, there are safety concerns and we must acknowledge that. Many educators are uncertain about what the next few weeks will hold and several are anxious about their own safety and well being as well as their students' well being. I was also happy to see that the board strongly considered the working schedule of teachers who were teaching both face to face and virtually. I was concerned that the hybrid plan that was approved would translate into double work for teachers. While this may still be true, several board members realized this and shared that they did not want this to be double work. I hope and pray that that will be closely monitored as we move forward with the plan that was approved.
Fast forward toward the end of the meeting and the board approves a plan to have our students attend 2 days a week in face to face with 3 days at home with virtual/digital learning. Cohorts will rotate and Wednesday will be a workday for teachers. Families may also opt to do entire virtual instruction as well. While many may be unhappy with the plan and will be challenging for many educators, I realized that we are now seeing a new challenge for our parents, stakeholders, and greater community.
As we move forward, we will have to rely on parents in a way that we have never before. I realize that parents have much not their plate. As the father of an 8 year old son, I know the challenges associated with getting my son to do his work in a timely fashion. I also realize that my son is fortunate in that he has two educator parents who will support him, see that the has the resources needed, and push hard to learn. Unfortunately, not all parents have this ability. We are privileged enough that we can take time out in the evening to help him or find friends who can assist him. We don’t have to work multiple jobs and make the difficult choice about helping my child learn or making sure that rent or the mortgage gets paid. We must acknowledge this and find ways to fill some of the gaps that many of our students face. It is time for those parents who can to be deeply involved in the education of their own students. It is also time that other stakeholders including elected officials work to actively support rigorous learning that transforms all students into independent learners. It is time that many community organizations such as churches work to fulfill this missions to help all. We have got to have everyone on board supporting all students, especially those who may not have advocates. I would encourage each person to ask what the organizations, businesses, and community agencies can do to help ensure that all students are successful.
While many will be unhappy with the board’s decision, it is time that we unite to find the resources, support, and materials needed to ensure that no students fall into the gaps that will exist. We also have to ensure that our students are prepared to be active participants in their learning. Learning is something that they need to be willing to take the responsibility for and not lay it all on the teachers. Students must be active partners in their learning along with educators and the community. When we went to emergency remote learning, I heard many parents say that this did not work for their student. Part of this may be due to the sudden and involuntary change in instructional delivery. But I also wonder how many students were prepared to be online students. This is a mindset shift and requires responsibility on the student that is not required in the face to face classroom.
As we move forward, we must help our students understand what is needed in order to be successful as an online student. It can be a completely different set of behaviors and expectations than being in the classroom. It also requires students to be active in the learning process, to ask questions if they don’t understand, seek help when needed, and use feedback appropriately. We have to also work to provide the professional development needed for teachers to learn best practices and what works in virtual instruction. We must provide time for teachers and students to learn how to learn digitally.
Each of these are extraordinary challenges that no one individual can surmount. But collectively, we can and will rise to meet these challenges. We must work together to support our students and ensure that both the students and educators can safely learn whether in the face to face classroom or virtually. We must continue to show empathy to all and work to find real solutions to the problems that exist. This challenge is too important not to overcome. Let’s remember that as we move forward.
Having worked in public education for over 20 years, I can say that the 2019-2020 is unlike any other. With the closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the implementation of remote learning, I experienced a system of education that I could have never anticipated. Added to this was the social change that occurred when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policy. This tragic event, coupled with many similar events of people of color dying in police custody, has forever changed the way that I will view the work that I do with all students going forward.
I am currently reading Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.” This book, along with others, was inspired as I sought to make sense of the reasons behind the many protests occurring in my town and across the nations, I actively sought out a way to productively and intentionally respond in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of all humans, not just ones who look like me or have similar cultural experiences. As I processed the many thoughts and words of protestors in the media and my own social networks, I realized that I needed to spend deliberate time reflecting on my experiences and consider the privileges that I have that many students that I work with do NOT have. I have a 8 year old son who means the world to me. I thought about what his life will be like as he grows up and I begin to wonder if I am doing en.s been a season of reflection, contemplation, and intentionality.
This “lens” is how we view the world. It is shaped by the experiences that we have growing up as well as many unspoken practices and rules that can be observed and learned. He is growing in a world quite different from where I grew up. I grew up in rural Appalachian in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. My family was not very wealthy but I had a lots of love and support from others. The world that I grew up in involved eating “soup bean and fried taters” (pinto peans and fried potatoes for those outside of my lens) at lead five nights a week. This was out of necessity because this meal was cheap and easily obtained. Both my parents worked hourly jobs. We had clothes, but they were not designer brands. We did not mind this as we realized that designer brands were simply a status symbol anyway. What we did have was lots of great experiences back in our “holler,” where we played late in the evenings in the woods, creeks, and the mine dumps. Yes, you heard that right, the mine dumps, an area where rocks and other minerals had been mined with remnants of dirt left behind. Mind you, these remnants were not toxic as best we know. We lived in an area abundant with minerals and rocks known throughout the state and nation for these resources. Most of my relatives and neighbors had worked in mining at some point.
As I reflect on my childhood, I now realize that I grew up in a very collectivist culture where we all had to work together for survival. The church served as the focal point for the community and we often would assist others in our community. I recall going on a weekend to a widow’s home to help several men with re-roofing her home before the roof was being to “cave.” I also recall that when someone died, the grave was dug by locals and there was no charge to the family for the digging of the grave. We had only one high school in our county and we all knew each other by graduation. When I would make new friends, my parents would ask me who the parents of my new friends were. Often I discovered that many of these parents were individuals that my parents were friends with in school. My parents were leery of letting us go to anyone’s home that they did not know their parents. We were raised on and taught the value of working toward a common goal and to make sure that we had everyone with us. One of the lessons that I still carry with me to this day involves the process that we would go through when dropping off our friends at their home or cars after an evening out. We were specifically instructed to never leave a friend until we saw that they got into their home and turned on a light or that we made sure that their car started and was moving before we left. It is these and so many more lessons that has helped shape the lens in which I view the world.
When I went to college, I left home and went over four hours aways. Even though four hours away is not far, I found a world drastically different from the one where I grew up. This part of my state was heavily industrialized and more diverse. It was faster paced and seemed more impersonal in many ways. My college experience provided me with many unique experiences and more importantly more exposure to new ideas and lens. I went to the beach for the first time as age 19. I remember running around a cow as part of a World Religions experience where I visited a Hindu temple. I interned in a school in London where most of the students were Bengali immigrants. I taught a summer camp for inner city kids from Cincinnati. I purposely sought experiences that would challenge me to grow and help me to expand my cultural lens. I took lots of Anthropology courses and spent time volunteering with AIDS education programs, recruiting campus speakers who would introduce new ideas, and working to better understand the experiences of an increasingly more diverse student population. Part of my teacher education program allowed me to focus on diversity (what we would now call Culturally Responsive Teaching) and how I can best support all students.
When I landed my first teaching job, I taught at an inner city high school with roughly an equal number of White and African-American population. Over time, the LationX student population grew and the percentage of White students declined. I loved the challenges of this school though but my first year was tough. I struggled in many ways connecting with some of my students. But it is not the students who you may think. I struggled connecting with students who looked much like me. While we looked similar, my experiences were so different from there’s. For the students who looked like me, they had large homes, played multiple sports in many cases, and took nice vacations over the United States and Europe. Many of these students had experiences that I could not related to since I never had them. The students that I seemed to most connect with were students who on the surface did not look like me. However, we had similar socio-economic experiences such as worrying about how certain bills may get paid, or how we can support our neighbor down the street who may be going through a difficult time since he/she was laid off their job at the mill. As a i reflect on this unusual experience, I think that much of what allowed me to connect with students who looked quite different from me was a shared experience where we knew what it was like to struggle to survive. We understood the challenges associated not being able to pay all our bills that month. We knew the value of making sure to support our neighbors in need since we never know when we may be that neighbor needed help.
As I prepare for the next few weeks before our new school starts, I am reminding of the importance of understanding our lens and how it impacts how we see the world. Hammond actually refers to that lens as an aperture which is what allow more or less light in a photo. It can also be used as a metaphor to describe how we may or may not allow more experiences in to help shape our own individual picture of the world. As I continue to read Hammond’s book, I am reminded of the importance of making sure that we are supporting all learners in our classroom and ensuring that we challenge all students to learn at high schools by creating a system in which ALL students transform into independent learners. Too often, more most dependent learners are not provided opportunities to be challenged and learned at high levels. My next few blog posts will involve I am reflecting on my experiences and expanding my lens by allowing more light through my aperture to ensure that ALL students will have challenging learning experiences to become independent learners. This is my journey toward addressing the lack of equity experienced by many students.
The last few months have been quite challenging for educators and learners. With school buildings closed, we have had to create remote learning opportunities to help our students. Some students have thrived during this time while others have not yet checked in. Most students fall somewhere between these extremes. Regardless, I think we can all agree that this time has challenged us to consider how we deliver instruction and help our learners progress.
As a scientist and educator, I fully understand the role that disruptions can cause. Our geological record is covered with the signs of major disruptions that signal how climate and life has changed over time. I believe that we are essentially at this point with education. Many of the professional learning sessions I have attended in the past several weeks have alluded to the importance of using this time to reconsider and reimagine how we are helping students to learn. We must place emphasis on learning here, not grades or other measures. In fact, as I reflect, I think that it is time that we reinvent our education system to really focus on learning and not metrics that reduce learning. We must also also use this opportunity to shift mindsets and philosophies from preparing students for an industrial world to one that prepares our learners to live and thrive in an information age.
One of the more interesting connections that I made during this time is a partner that my home school system, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, is partnering with is Transcend (@TranscendBuilds). Transcend is an organization dedicated to supporting communities in creating and spreading extraordinary, equitable learning environments. I love that the focus on disrupting inequity in education.
As a technology facilitator, I have seen our system reduce in equity by providing students with a device that the majority take home. As our chief technology officer recently shared over 99.4% have devices at home during our building closures. For those who do not, I am guessing this is due to either a device repair (even though efforts have been made to provide students with devices) or a personal choice not to take the device home. When our system first transitioned to its 1-to-1 initiative, I was teaching science at Salisbury High School. I remember that we distributed devices in late August which is typically very hot and oppressive in North Carolina with our humidity relentless. I recall leaving school and walking our main door to see several students who lived over two miles away that walked back to school. They were trying to figure our their Z-Scaler passwords for accessing internet outside of the school. They said that they walked over from one of our larger public housing centers in our city. After helping them, I recall thinking that this may be the first time that many of these students have ever had a laptop in their home. This definitely changed the game as the 1-to-1 initiative put all gave all students a device and access regardless of their personal circumstances. This initiative has continued to make a huge difference in the learning opportunities for all students. It has reduced a major source of inequity in our community.
This is not to say that we have reduced all inequity in our system though. We still struggle with making sure that all our students have access to internet while at home. We also have other inequities based on the support that students may have at home, their ability to use different software programs, and even with teacher preparedness. As a technology facilitator, I have supported teachers in remote learning. I have been so amazed at how much many of our teachers have progressed in become more effective in digital learning. Many of our teachers have grown exponentially in their professional learning. Our own school system has offered extensive array of professional learning opportunities including webinars. Our educators have also engaged in many other opportunities. As a result, our educators have customized and chosen their own individual professional learning opportunities. As a result, they are learning and acquiring new skills that matter to them. This has customized their own learning and resulted in educators who are more satisfied with their professional learning.
As we continue to work through this pandemic, we must use these lessons learned to customize our education for our students just as educators have customized their professional learning. As we look toward the fall, it is my hope that we will continue to use this disruption to create an education system that is much more equitable to all students. I hope that we use the lessons learned during this disruption to create a better education system where we are focused on learning, not measures that negate true learning such as test scores, with educators who are well supported with extraordinary professional learning. We must work toward creating an accountability system that is tied to our community expectations, not one that serves bureaucratic establishments that rewards and diminishes students based on personal circumstance or zip code. Now is the time to make a definitive break in our education record and create a new and better system just as we see in different strata in our geological records.
Earlier this morning, we had a staff meeting via Zoom. It has been challenging for many of our teachers to be separated from their students. They genuinely love their students and want to support them. I have seen how agonizing it has for many of them not to be able to give high fives or that needed pep talk to students in the hallways. It has been hard for them. As a technology facilitator, I don't always work directly with students as much of my work is concentrated on supporting the educators in our building. So I thought that I was doing okay and focusing my time on supporting our teachers and staff. However, this changed yesterday afternoon as I attended one of our 6th grade zoom meetings. As I saw the pictures of our 6th graders popped, my heart just melted as I realized how much I missed seeing them in the hallways and classrooms. I was really thrilled to see them and know they were okay.
I also had the opportunity to attend a weekly meeting with Jaclyn Stevens (@jaclynbstevens) of the Friday Institute for instructional coaches, media coordinators, and technology facilitators. The Friday Institute has been doing an amazing job providing support and professional learning for all educators during this remote learning time. In yesterday's session, Jaclyn shared some great ideas and resources to engage staff and help us focus on meeting their social emotional needs. Based on the ideas and inspirations that I received from her session and my realization of how much I missed our 6th graders, I wanted to work with our instructional coach, Amanda Pembroke (@pembrokeamanda), to create something to help our staff share what they were feeling and experiencing. As I was walking the dogs, it hit it- remix an activity that I had done with the North Carolina Digital Leaders Network a few years on emoji writing with some of the ideas from Jaclyn's session.
From this, was born the activity "5 Pictures and 15 Words." In activity, our staff would be divided up into breakout room in zoom of 3-5 people and complete a slidedeck where they tell about their quarantine experience using 5 images and up to 15 words. I prechoose the images using Pixabay (www.pixabay.com). Pixabay is a great resource to find pictures that can be used without copyright consideration since they already provide the permission for use with no restrictions (but it is always good to provide attribution for them as a good model for students). Each group received the same five pictures and they could use them in any way they chose. The beauty of this activity as Mrs. Pembroke pointed out is that it allows for critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Each group was assigned a slide in the slide deck and asked to complete it within a certain amount of time. Our principal floated between rooms helping facilitate conversations. A more complete list of rules is available in our slidedeck posted below.
We reconvened and we had our groups share their creations and it was AWESOME! It was amazing to hear what each group was experiencing and their interpretations of the pictures. I loved seeing how the same starting points diverged into a variety of emotions, experiences, and creations. It also allowed our staff the opportunity to share in small groups their experiences and stories. We expanded our empathy for others as a result. We also continue to build connections between our staff and expand our relationships. As I listened to each group share, I was blown away with their final products. Below are some of the creations that they shared and I was truly touched by this. Perhaps remote learning has taught us some important lessons about human connections that we could not have learned otherwise. Let remember those when we do reconvene face to face and be sure to continue to touch the hearts of others.
Our instructional coach shared how this could be a great activity to modify to use with students in the classroom as a exit ticket, warm up, or a formative assessment. If you would like to have a clean copy of the slidedeck to use, you can make a copy of it into your Google Drive by visiting this link. Be sure to drop us a line or tag us in a tweet (@scibri and @pembrokeamanda) if using this activity and let us know how it is going and how you may be remixing it.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.