We don’t know what comes next.

I make a lot of jokes at my own expense. One of my chestnuts is that I have 6 undergraduate credits in walking backwards… I drag this one out when someone notes how deftly I walk backwards down a hallway, leading a group of kids from the gym, or I catch myself after slipping on the playground ice, or I balance on slippery rocks to free a grounded boat. All those years of movement training pay dividends in unexpected ways.

As a child, what I liked about ballet was that it had rules. There was a right and a wrong and progress towards the perfected ideal was clearly defined. You worked hard and you got better. I liked the control, the planning, the purpose, the vocabulary, the known. Like many kids growing up in alcoholic families, my reaction to all the things I couldn’t control was to control as many things as I could. Ballet was all about control and I loved it – I still do.

But then my dance world grew and I was introduced to forms that valued release, fall, suspension, and spiral. I was asked to find my own definitions of progress by teachers who challenged me to decide for myself what meaning movement was making in my life. That was hard work and I didn’t always like it – I really, really wanted there to be a right and wrong. I didn’t want the grey; I was nostalgic for the certainty of ballet.

Just as I was getting comfortable in the modern dance greyscape, I found improvisation, or maybe more accurately, it found me. Whereas in modern dance classes, there were at least some structures for me to hang my control needs on, now I was completely at sea – making it up as I went along, trusting that I could.

I had the good fortune of having improvisation teachers who took my angst in stride – I wasn’t the first recovering ballerina they’d met. They were patient with me and probably kinder than I deserved. Dana Reitz, Lionel Popkin, Sara Rudner… I’m not kidding about the backwards walking – we did everything backwards until we sort of forgot how to do it forwards; that was probably the point.

Bit by bit I got over myself and learned to love improvisation. I learned to trust that I could come up with solutions to problems, in the moment, on my feet, sometimes just on one foot. Sometimes those solutions would be brilliant but most of the time they would be just enough to get us to the next moment, where I could make a new choice and another and another. Sometimes I fell down so then I got up; the dance continued and I learned some humility. I learned to make better in-the-moment choices, I got better at taking in the circumstances and choosing a good path. I also learned to live with the uncertainty of reality – man plans and G-d laughs isn’t an old adage for nothing.

If planned teaching is like gardening, with rows of orderly plants, staked and supported, planters and edging clearly defined, then improvisational teaching is like sidewalk flowers, bursting up unexpectedly in fertile but forgotten corners, largely unnoticed but still beautiful. It’s so much easier to measure the former, that most researchers ignore the latter. We pretend that we can plan everything and we participate in the collective illusion that one is better than the other because one is more predictable, knowable and nameable. Research tells us that improvising uses distinctly different areas of the brain than scripted performance does (Limb & Braun, 2008, Harris & de Jong, 2015, Alexander et al., 2020).

I’ve written in several places that if I could change one thing about teacher preparation in North America, it would be to focus less on planning and more on improvisation. Pre-service teachers graduate knowing how to plan, in almost inconceivable detail, lessons that are very likely to go sideways, if not backwards, in the process of delivery. They get no training in how to cope with the inevitable unpredictability of teaching life. They’re taught to teach as though things usually go as planned when, in reality, they rarely do. This system of planning-based teacher preparation leads to teachers who have a hard time managing the inevitable changes in practice that occur over a long career and sometimes leave the profession in their first five years, disenchanted by the messy reality of a teaching life.

Teaching, like ballet, attracts planners, organizers, and controllers. Most elementary teachers like to plan; they like colour-coded filing systems and day planners that map out instructional units and field trips months in advance. Not knowing how things will unfold every day is stressful and so the idea of going back to school this fall, without knowing what that will look like in any detail, is making many teachers extremely anxious.

I feel that stress too; I want to have good answers for people when they ask me what September will look like. But I don’t and you don’t and we won’t… even when we have a plan from the government, we still won’t. No one has done this before. We are in uncharted waters and we feel adrift.

movement improvisation in a teacher workshop

But are we actually drifting or are we just moving towards a shoreline that we can’t see yet? Five months ago, teachers moved an entire system of K-12 education online, something that had never been done before. It wasn’t perfect, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, but we did it. We have to trust that we’ll be able to do the same thing with whatever circumstances we’re facing in the fall. We have to trust that we’ll be able to take the next step, and the next one, and the next one, be they sideways or backwards and that we’ll be able use the tools we already have and the ones we’ll pick up along the way to make the moves that will see us and the kids to the next moment. It may not always be brilliant but we have to trust that it will be enough – goodness knows we won’t be doing it alone.

How do you get better at improvising? How do you learn to live with uncertainty without feeling panicked? How do you develop that kind of generous trust in yourself and in others? Well, ideally we’d all get into a studio or a field and play for a few hours and it would look something like this. You might start by watching uncomfortably on the sidelines but eventually you’d find a way to participate. Ideally, you’d have lots of time to practice.

In the absence of a contact-jam or a theatre improv class which sadly will have to wait for a post-COVID era, I’d suggest picking up a pencil and sketching something (anything), dancing in your kitchen (making the moves up as you go), writing a journal, collecting interesting things on a walk, sorting them and making a temporary installation, or sculpting a piece of clay into something unrecognizable. As a culture, we’ve subscribed to the idea that the only people who get to do this stuff are the people who are already good at it. That’s nonsense.

Practice not knowing. Practice playing. Practice making, or drawing or dancing even if, especially if, you’re bad at it. It will get those improvisational muscles working, even if they’ve been flaccid since Kindergarten. Have faith that we’ve got this, whatever it is.

Belden, A., Zeng, T., Przysinda, E., Anteraper, S. A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Loui, P. (2020). Improvising at rest: Differentiating jazz and classical music training with resting state functional connectivity. NeuroImage207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116384

Harris, R. & de Jong B.M., (2015). Differential parietal and temporal contributions to music perception in improvising and score-dependent musicians, an fMRI study. Brain Research, 253–264.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE3(2), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

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.

 

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It’s okay to play

We’re about to embark on week 6 of distance learning in Ontario, week 4 of that learning being led by classroom teachers. The novelty has worn off and our reserves of cheerful optimism are running low. Teachers, elementary teachers in particular, are known for their cheeriness but even the sun-shiniest among us are showing the wear and tear of this uniquely stressful time. If you’re feeling out of sorts you’re in good company.

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Kids are feeling weary too. It’s a long haul and it’s going to get longer. My own children are tech-savy and have all their basic needs met: they wake up and go to bed on a regular schedule, they’re getting outside every day, they’re eating well and they have parents who can help them academically (although I confess that dividing fractions required me to do some review).  If my kids are struggling to remain motivated with their online classes, which they are, then it’s likely that everyone is. The teachers I’m in touch with reported that this week felt like heavy lifting with kids. They weren’t engaged, they weren’t handing in work and they weren’t present for synchronous sessions. What had been working before, suddenly wasn’t.

In my last post, I shared this image which describes the Community of Inquiry as conceptualized by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). The model proposes that the educational experience in distance learning is composed of three equally important types of presence: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.

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Over the past several weeks we have seen a lot of influential educational thinkers frantically distancing themselves from the terms “distance learning” and “online learning” as we struggle to both name what we’re doing and to describe its challenges. Emergency remote learning seems to be a term most people can agree on. While I agree that what’s happening is somewhat different from a planned distance learning experience that students have chosen to engage in, I think that we ignore the lessons of distance education research at our peril. Imagining that what we’re doing is entirely different from what distance educators have been doing for decades just isn’t accurate. We’re doing it under intense pressure and with students who haven’t chosen to learn this way but the nuts and bolts of how it works is very similar.

One of the distance education practices that I think we would be wise to pay attention to is valuing social presence. Garrison (2009) describes social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.” I don’t know if that’s something most teachers thought about when they were rushing to put their online classrooms together a few weeks ago.

How are we allowing students to sustain and develop their relationships with us and with each other in our online context? How are we having fun? How are we being silly? How are we playing? We do this effortlessly in our classrooms by telling stories, joking with students, providing feedback, and relating personal connections to the material. We don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time. Online we have to be more deliberate about it.

Even if you’re teaching grade 12 Physics, allowing time and space for the development of social presence matters. Why? It matters for its own sake – we all want to feel like we’re part of a community, especially now – and it also matters because it contributes to cognitive presence; students learn better when they’re socially engaged.  As an adult taking distance education courses, you may have never experienced this being done well but the research supports that social presence and cognitive presence go hand-in-hand. So don’t be afraid to ease off the content gas pedal for a while and focus on having fun with your students. Have a look at tools like FlipGrid, which allows students to post short video clips. Have a pet beauty contest, even if the contestants are pet rocks. Re-name the elements in the periodic table based on characters on their favourite TV shows, or politicians, or celebrities. Ask students to complete an activity outdoors – tableaux anyone? Have a silly walk contest. Give yourself permission to have fun. It’s not just okay to play, it may actually be essential to sustaining students’ cognitive presence over the long haul. We can be here for a good time and a long time.

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!