April 1, 2020

5 Things I’ve Learned So Far in the Dash to Distance Learning

By Kara Cisco

Imagine you were about to start an online high school. Think of all the questions that you would have to answer, all the details and elements that would require your consideration, and planning. That is the mindset of moving entirely to a distance learning program. The necessary requirements would easily provide an experienced team of distance-learning experts daunting work to keep them busy over the course of a year, maybe two. We had four days. As frustrating as it was is to be launched with little warning into digital learning—especially at 120 miles per hour in the context of a national emergency—I am grateful for the push.

Launching a system-wide distance learning program requires a lot more than the usual rigorous and engaging content. Processes need to be developed, questions need to be answered, and it all needed to be expeditiously strategized and worked through, including learning management systems, content delivery expectations, pedagogical strategies, and deciding who will train teachers to implement them, as well as provide ongoing training. There’s also the work beyond the curriculum, engaging students who are not active on digital platforms or have inconsistent access. And then, there are bigger questions: What if students’ basic needs are not being met? What does college and career readiness look like? What does teacher observation look like? Parent engagement? How will we ensure that students who qualify for special education services receive support in a digital setting?

My to-do list is longer than it’s ever been, but I thought I would sit down long enough to catch my breath and write out a few of the things that I’ve learned, so far:

I am going to emerge from this experience a much better teacher.

Right before the closure, my students had an essay due. In the process of grading and providing feedback, a student messaged me on Remind with a question that demanded much more than a written-out answer. So, I loaded up her essay through the Google Drive app on my iPhone, turned on the screen recorder, scrolled down to the paragraph in question, suggested a few ideas for revision, and shared the video I just made with her over Google. Next, I watched her implement my suggestions in her own stylistic way moments later. The whole process took five minutes.

I thought: why haven’t I done this before? Already, there are so many tools I was only vaguely familiar with a week ago that I am certain I will use to enhance differentiation and engagement when I’m back in my classroom (shout out to Pear Deck!).

Making mistakes isn’t suggested anymore; it’s required.

I am not generally a person who is afraid of making mistakes in the classroom. As the technology integration specialist of my last building, I was constantly spouting off annoying-but-true little anecdotes like, “If you aren’t making mistakes, are you even trying?” and “Students can’t have a growth mindset if their teacher’s mindset is fixed!”

In the last week, I have posted Schoology announcements to the wrong classes, sent Remind messages to the wrong people, held a Zoom meeting with a group of captive but helpful students while my five-year-old screamed for 15 minutes, and sent the same student the same not-working video three different times. Of course, mistakes are going to happen, and I’m sure the mistakes will continue to happen throughout this entire distance learning experience. It’s a good reminder to my students (and to myself) that mistakes are important, they are a part of having a growth mindset, and they are a natural byproduct of trying. My tolerance for discomfort may be larger than many, but this is one time that I am grateful for my own advice.

Schools do too much.

Not “do too much,” in the way that my students tell me I do too much when I assign them an essay. Like, actually, substantially, schools do way too much. It’s criminal, how much schools are responsible for, and I hope we all understand this now, as we watch the nation’s schools develop a plan for how to teach, feed, support, and account for the mental health needs of the students in their care. It would be overwhelming for one organization to handle even one of these things, and yet we expect schools to do it all.

Teachers in schools across the country are thinking about their students and their educational needs: we want to ensure that our students do not fall behind, are engaged and challenged every day by rigorous academic content, and continue to love learning (or at least like it well enough) through this pandemic. High school teachers are thinking of our seniors who might miss out on so many milestones we all associate with senior year. But teachers in schools across the country are also thinking about their students’ safety, about whether they have enough to eat, about their mental and physical health in this time of isolation and uncertainty. I have yet to hear from about 14 of my 140 students, and it’s keeping me up at night.

What is going to happen, after all of this is over, when students who have had consistent access to technology, exclusively available to them, return to school with classmates whose learning was interrupted by obstacles unfathomable to us?

This national crisis has led so many of us to rightfully ask: Why is it that teachers are tasked with both sets of concerns? Who else in society is prepared to share the responsibility of ensuring that all children are healthy, safe, fed, and accounted for? Because this is just too much for one organization. Educators will always be there to lift the heavy weight of that litany of responsibilities—because of course, we will—but it’s not the most efficient or the most effective way of addressing the problems which our children face today. The last two weeks have made that crystal clear.

The digital divide deepens our opportunity gap, already the largest in the nation, and with the closure, this divide will only grow.  

When the school closures started to become more common on a national scale, my network of teacher friends across the nation began to compare notes. It was surprising to observe the vast divides that exist between districts already running blended classrooms with 1:1 device programs juxtaposed with districts that knew from the outset that packets of printed materials were probably the best they would be able to do. And, of course, the closures across Minnesota replicate that same dialectic.

What is going to happen, after all of this is over, when students who have had consistent access to technology, exclusively available to them, return to school with classmates whose learning was interrupted by obstacles unfathomable to us? This is something that should be on the mind of every political and educational leader; of every teacher and policymaker: Minnesota cannot remain an economic leader if we allow these academic, social, and digital chasms to cement and deepen next year and beyond.

Let’s hear it for the teachers.

The teachers in my building have stepped up in every way—developing systems and procedures for training each other, supporting each other, and supporting students through this hugely disruptive transition to distance learning. Teachers are leading the way, and all of this has revealed that there is so much talent in our building, and everyone has so much to offer and so much to give. I hope for the sake of all of our schools that we can capture this feeling and replicate it when things go back to normal again, because we are so much better together, and we have so much to learn from each other.

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