Permanently Blended Learning

The COVID-19 crisis has affected everyone in education differently.  Classroom teachers, specialist teachers, administrators, librarians, custodians and office staff – we’ve all had to figure out what our jobs look like now.  When the Ontario Ministry of Education postponed the remaining Professional Development (PD) days for the year, one of our teachers quipped: “Isn’t every day a PD Day now?” It certainly feels that way.

We all began this journey at a different point in our learning. Some teachers were already using digital tools to support the work they were doing in their classrooms and some teachers didn’t know how to log into their G-Suite accounts.  Some students were familiar with handing in work online and other students had never used digital tools to support their learning. Some subjects lend themselves more easily to online learning: more tools exist, the content is easier to share online and students can work independently without sacrificing their understanding. Other subjects are very difficult to translate into the online environment – my heart goes out to the physical education, dance, drama and music teachers out there – it’s possible but it’s a tik-tokking challenge.

As we begin to thaw out both literally and figuratively this spring with restrictions on movement and assembly easing slowly, I want to consider the impact that COVID-19 might have on our practice as educators in the mid to long term.

When we go back to the physical building of school, which we inevitably will, it will be with all of this learning about distanced education in our back pockets. It also seems that we may be going back for periods of time, as this pandemic ebbs and flows or with only some students while others stay at home in shifts. While we don’t know what that will look like in its particulars, we can infer that it won’t look the same as it has for most of our careers. Our practice shouldn’t look the same either.

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Online banana bread baking class in progress. 

Here’s my modest proposal: from now on, every classroom will need to be a blended learning classroom, combining face-to-face and online elements. There will no longer be classes that don’t use online communication systems be they with parents or with students. It will become second nature to post content online, for assignments to be submitted online, for groups to meet online. Student portfolios will move online as students are now experienced at documenting their own work.

Blended learning will allow us the flexibility of moving seamlessly between face-to-face and online learning should we have to isolate again. We have given email addresses to 6-year-olds and the sky has not fallen; we can keep using these tools as part of our instructional toolkit – we don’t have to stop just because we’re back in the building.

Reverting back to our historical instructional practices would also be an abdication of our responsibility to prepare students for their futures. All of Ontario’s postsecondary institutions use an LMS (Learning Management System like D2L or Moodle) extensively, at any given moment, 16% of university students and 22% of community college students are enrolled in an online course. Most post secondary students graduate with at least one online course on their transcript. Getting students familiar with these tools is essential.

Beyond that, however, these systems make it possible to reach more students. While it’s true that distance learning doesn’t work for every student, what we’ve learned is that it works very well for some students.  Some students really like learning at their own pace and in their own time. Some students prefer learning independently. Some students prefer interacting digitally to interacting face-to-face. And that’s okay.

Part of differentiating instruction is providing options for students that may not be the options you’d select for yourself. This experience has given students a set of skills and capacities they didn’t have before mid-March. It’s opened up a world of possibilities. We need to change the way we teach because they’ve changed the way they learn.

 

Dive in: 5 things to think about when you’re planning for early learning online.

There aren’t many superlatives left to describe the times we’re living in: unprecedented is pretty much worn out by now.  But thread-bare though our adjectives may be they are nevertheless apt.  Most people alive today have never experienced anything like this pandemic and even those who can remember living through quarantines have never experienced something on this scale. My 95 year old grandmother was born 7 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and there aren’t many people alive who are older than her.

Next week, we in Ontario’s public education sector will begin on a trajectory that has never before been attempted – the roll out of distance learning from Kindergarten to grade 12 across an entire system of public education. Truly, the mind boggles. I challenge you to go into a research database (all Ontario College of Teachers members have access to one here: www.oct.ca) and use the search terms “early childhood education or kindergarten or first grade or elementary school” and “distance education or distance learning or online education or online learning.”  You’re going to come up with virtually nothing.

The research that has been done on early childhood/early primary education and distance learning has been done in teacher preparation, not with young children.  From a research point of view, this isn’t surprising given the challenges in recruiting subjects and getting ethics approval to work with young children.  There are lots of reasons that this research hasn’t been done, not the least of which is that we’ve never had a reason to do it.  As a parent, I wanted my young children learning while interacting with their peers and it’s a well-supported truism that social engagment is critically important to learning, particularly in the early years. Necessity, however, is the mother of innovation.

So, what are some things we might want to consider as we reach out to families online and think about how to continue the learning we were doing face-to-face only a few weeks ago? Obviously, what’s below is only conjecture… there aren’t any actual experts out there, this is all too new. But, as an educator who spent years in Kindergarten and Primary classes both as a teacher and as a consultant and as a student working on her Doctorate in Distance Education, here are some suggestions that might be helpful.

  1. It’s still a community.

If your online learning experiences so far have been less-than-great, as I hear quite often, you may not realize that there this is a domain with theoretical pillars – there’s actually quite a lot of research into what works in Distance Education (DE), albeit mostly with older students. One of these big ideas in DE is the Community of Inquiry (COI) (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). This framework “represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence.”

What that means for Kindergarten and Primary teachers is that all those things we already do: creating community, nurturing relationships, and supporting families still matter to learning in an online classroom. Your presence in the online space, responding to questions, making comments, asking questions, and sharing content matters. It’s not just a matter of creating content and leaving it there. Your ongoing presence and interaction remain important to the learning. 

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Student presence also matters and it’s important that there’s room for student voice and choice. Students should feel that they have input into the class and how it evolves online, in the same way that you teach responsively in the face-to-face context. I know I’ve taken courses online that feel rote and whose content clearly isn’t responsive to the people taking the class. It’s a miserable experience.

Don’t feel that you have to spend the next few days putting everything imaginable online. Try a few things and see how it goes. Think of it as dancing with a partner: wait to see what moves they make before you make your next move.

2. You are pioneers, be kind to yourselves… and ask for help.

Have I mentioned yet that this is brand new? For some of you the technology itself is brand new. For almost everyone, designing an online classroom is brand new.

It’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to try things that don’t work and there will be moments of frustration. That’s okay. We’re all learning this together.

When you get stuck, take a break or ask for help. There are lots of great videos out there explaining how all of the technolgical tools (D2L, Google Classroom, SeeSaw, etc…) work. There are also some good resources. You can ask your colleagues, you can ask your kids, you can ask me! Try to frame it as a unique learning opportunity for you too and be kind to yourself, no one is expecting perfection.

3. Boil it down

Think about the most important learning for your grade level. Think about where your students were in their learning trajectories when you last saw them. What are the key pieces for them to be successful as they continue through their education? Focus on those. It’s maple syrup season, which is fitting. Be inspired by that process and concentrate on the essence of your curriculum.

4. Think outside the screen.

The classroom will be online, yes, but the learning doesn’t have to be.

Think of your online posts to your classroom as provocations and invite students to use them as a springboard for their own ideas and explorations. You might ask them to write and record a video interviewing their parents or their siblings, they might collect objects in their homes to sort using a variety of attributes, they might create a movement pattern that they record so that their classmates can learn it.  They might collect rocks to use as counters. It’s going to be a less linear learning process than you might be used to and you’ll have to accept that individual products might be quite different but, if you can wrap your head around planning for differentiation, you might find that students are learning in new and unexpected ways.

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5. Relationships before everything.

You are the experts on your students, not me or anyone else. You know their families, what their living situations are, how many siblings they have, what language(s) they speak and whether they have grandparents at home. All of these factors, and more, are going to influence the ways that they interact with an online classroom. All the relationships you’ve built with parents and families in the past 7 months are going to matter a lot over the course of this process.

My own children have been studying online with their Hebrew School teacher since they were very young. They’ve never met her; it’s unlikely that they’ll ever meet her – she lives on the other side of the world. They nevertheless have a great relationship with her.  You have an advantage she doesn’t; you already know your students. Distance learning is a great opportunity to get to know them in a new way. You can maintain and even grow your relationships with your students and their families during this time – what a unique experience to have lived together! What stories you’ll all have to tell! You are going where no one has gone before… be brave.

I’d love to hear how it’s going… please leave a comment below to share your experiences. We may be physically distanced but let’s stay connected!

 

On the verge

It was a week that started with people sharing memes about the convergence of the full moon, the time change and Friday the 13th – brace yourselves teachers, we’re in for a wild ride! How quaint that all seems now. On Wednesday morning we woke up to the news that our city had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Suddenly, the full moon didn’t seem to matter any more.

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Image by Duncan Miller from Pixabay

We got through Wednesday and Thursday, remaining calm, comforting anxious kids, parents and staff; we were the calm squad. We handed out disinfecting wipes, cajoled kids into washing their hands (yes, again) and tried to stay positive. We mostly succeeded. Thursday afternoon brought the news that all schools would close for an additional two weeks after March Break. Is it possible to be both surprised and not surprised at the same time? If it is, I was. I felt both shock that such drastic action was being taken and relief that we were doing something concrete. I’m a dedicated hand-washer at the best of times; the impulse to do something more was becoming overwhelming, and now, we were.

But that thing we’re doing is, well, oddly, nothing. So far, less than two days into this social distancing experiment, I’m already wondering how to fill the time. I have assignments to complete and that’s probably what I should be writing right now but I’m finding it hard to think about anything other than my experience this past week.

Some things that surprised me:

  • The calm – There are moments when I’m extraordinarily proud to live in this country and this week was one of them. I thought it was very possible that the volume of early-morning sick calls would rise incrementally after the news of the first positive local case broke. After all, everyone was anxious and there are still a lot of unknowns in this rapidly evolving situation. I was wrong. Teachers and support staff came to work, they gave kids the consistency and normalcy they needed and they supported each other with humour and grace. It was Canadian dutifulness at its best.
  • The kindness: Staff baked treats, parents brought in chocolates, people were extra-gentle with each other. When a child had a cough or a runny nose teachers sent them to the office to get checked but with a noticeable undertone of deliberate calm so as not to upset either the child or their classmates. Crises don’t always bring out the best in people; this one did.
  • The work: On Friday morning, as we all digested the news that it would be at least three weeks before we were allowed to come back to school, teachers set to work organizing learning activities for their students. My daughter’s teacher and her grade partners put together a fantastic set of resources for students to work through and they did it all in record time. While my daughter may well wish they were less efficient, she will have lots to keep her busy over the next few weeks. I’m very grateful. They didn’t have to go the extra mile on a day that was already full, but they did.

So, I’m here, on the verge of something and also of nothing. With so much to do and yet nothing to do. With a pantry full of food and an empty calendar. It’s a privileged position but not a comfortable one – unease is the daily constant.

Often when I feel a bit unmoored, I re-read books that have been touchstones for me. Recently, I’ve re-read the last three books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series (Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside) and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night.  The shadow of both world wars stalk those novels and it anchors me to remember the enormity of the challenges we’ve faced together as we rise to face this current one. My grandfather was fighting Nazis at 17 years old, surely we can survive a little isolation? My children are less than impressed by my historical musings: “Mom, that’s not fun!” Fair enough.

Two quotes have popped out at me:

There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.  ~ Hugh MacLennan

The body grows slowly and steadily but the soul grows by leaps and bounds. It may come to its full stature in an hour. ~ L.M. Montgomery

These are chestnuts, old ones, and whether they’ve aged well or not is a matter of opinion. But my experience so far in this crisis is that they’re true, both of them. I’ve seen souls growing by leaps and bounds this week and I’ve witnessed the complexity of our choices under pressure. What the next few weeks will bring, aside from more inevitable complaints about my lack of fun, I don’t know. I’m hoping it continues to bring out the better angels of our nature and that we manage to pull together, under duress, to protect each other.

Teaching has a tall poppy problem and it needs to change.

There are lots of problems in education, big systemic problems, governance problems, structural problems that seem unsolvable sometimes because they’re so deeply rooted in the way things have always be done.  And then there are problems that are so darn easy to fix, it’s a wonder they haven’t already been solved.

One of those easy problems is the tall poppy problem (or syndrome).  If you’re not familiar with that expression, it’s one of those fabulously apt British turns of phrase (also popular in Australia).  Wikipedia defines it as describing “aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down and/or criticized simply because they have been classified as superior to their peers.”  While I’m not keen on the term “superior” in their definition, I’m sadly all too familiar with the problem itself; virtually every teacher I know who has moved into a leadership role, whether in their school or in their system has experienced it.  When a poppy gets too tall, we cut it down to size.

poppies in a field

“Wow, the superintendent is coming to your class again?!?”

“You’re sure out of the school a lot.”

“Why does she get to go to so many conferences?!?”

“Giving another workshop, are we… what’s that, the fourth one this year?”

Comments like these, tossed around casually in the staff room or peppering the conversation in the hallway, are the tip of the tall poppy sword.  They give new teachers the message that it’s not good to stand out, that it’s better for your social survival to blend in, to be average, to find the middle and stay there.  These comments stigmatize striving, they punish achievement, and they disparage risk taking.  It’s already scary to take risks, to try new things in your teaching, to put your hand up when opportunity comes knocking; when we normalize comments like this and the social exclusion that often comes with them, we make it even scarier.

I am grateful to my dance training for many things but top of the list is that it has made me basically immune to these types of remarks. I get angry about it, sure, but it doesn’t ever stop me.  Not everyone, however, spent their adolescence having their every flaw and foible pointed out to them.  It toughens you up and it helps you to understand that other people’s opinions are valuable only insofar as you deem them relevant.  Feedback is great when it helps you to get better; in that context it’s an investment in your practice whether it’s as a dancer or as a teacher. When its goal is to bring you down, however, it’s not worth paying attention to.

While a thick skin is great, and I highly recommend developing one, it’s no substitute for a culture of lifting people up, of celebrating when colleagues are recognized and of supporting each other to take risks, stick our necks out and become ever better. The tall poppies among us should inspire us all to grow, to reach, and to make our classrooms and schools better places for kids and families. We need to start challenging comments that disparage the tall poppies; like all forms of bullying, this type of power play thrives in dark corners. Naming the behaviour when we see it would go a long way towards changing the culture.

Cutting people down makes us all worse off and, at a time when we’re encouraging our students to take risks and to find innovative solutions to our many problems, we need to make sure that our schools are places where teachers too feel safe and supported as risk-takers and innovators.  We need to grow to meet them; I hear the sun is warmer up there.

It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.