A MESSAGE FROM AN EDU-MOM: LEAD WITH GRACE AS WE HEAD BACK TO SCHOOL

Six years ago I entered an 8th grade classroom in my town’s middle school as a co-teacher. I spent my sabbatical learning how to teach middle school students and understanding how they use technology to write arguments. The school had recently implemented one-to-one Chromebooks, which I was able to integrate into my instruction.

Today my children will enter their 8th grade year at the same school. I will take their first day of school pictures, which I have done every year of their school lives. They will eat breakfast to give them a good start to the day. And then they will walk upstairs to their desks, where they will livestream into their classrooms all day. Tomorrow, they will enter the building, where they will sit six feet apart from their peers, interacting with their teachers who must stand apart from them and in front of a camera so that the students who are live streaming can see them.

This is not the 8th grade I imagined for my own children when I was researching technology integration six years ago.

Educational research has helped us to understand the ways that people learn. Active learning — such as participating in conversations, doing hands-on work, and asking and exploring student-developed questions — helps students process and retain information and develop skills better than passive learning (listening to a teacher talk and taking notes). Additionally, in today’s society, businesses value skills like creative thinking and collaboration that are best developed by posing problems to small groups of learners and allowing them to explore, fail/succeed, and reflect on both process and product.

Because of this understanding, I design my lessons to engage students actively in inquiry. For example, my introductory lesson six years ago in that eighth grade class asked students to solve a murder.

The “Slip or Trip” caper, developed by George Hillocks and his students, posed a “who done it?” problem. In order to introduce concepts of claim, evidence and warrant to the eighth grade writers, I engaged them in conversations that asked them to use details from a picture and a short narrative about the picture to make a claim about the crime. Small groups huddled over the pictures, using their Chromebooks to document their evidence and claims.

The entire class was engaged, chatter and argument filling the room. I circulated among groups, pushing their thinking. For example, when a group said that the wife clearly did it because she was mad at her husband, I asked, whether “a woman who is mad at her husband is likely to kill him?” I know my raised eyebrows and facial expression helped them to reflect on their leap in logic, and they laughed at the statement, turning back to evaluate different evidence.

The series of lessons that served as an introduction to argument ended with a four corners debate, where students got out of their chairs and moved into corners of the room to discuss (and argue) their perspectives on various topics. Like the ones before it, this lesson called for active engagement, conversation, and movement in the room.

It is hard for me to image this kind of work in my children’s classrooms this week.

I’ve thought through how I would do even one of these lessons with half of the students physically in the room but not allowed to congregate together, huddled over a picture looking for details together or moving into corners to converse before sharing with the whole group. I can sort of imagine it with all of the students virtual, using Zoom breakout rooms and a few other tricks of technology.

My kids’ school uses Google Meets, which doesn’t yet have breakout rooms, so the tech tricks would be a bit more tricky, but perhaps it is doable. Students could be put into several meeting rooms, bringing the virtual students into the classroom with the face-to-face students. Those in the classrooms would need to use headphones and speak softly (two things that often don’t go together).

However, it would be difficult for me to “pop into” those meetings to overhear bad logic and provide feedback to the group. So much of teaching is about feedback in the moment, and it’s hard to conceptualize how I would be able to give feedback on conversations that were happening through microphones and earbuds in virtual spaces I couldn’t easily and immediately enter.

These lessons could not be easily translated into the current context. This means I would have to completely rethink and redesign, not just retool, my excellent teaching that took me years to develop. ALL of my lessons would need to be developed from scratch and without fully understanding this new context and how students will learn best. And honestly, I’m already exhausted thinking through just this one mini-unit.

Teachers who are being asked to do concurrent teaching (it is technically not a hybrid/blended model unless lessons are designed virtually/asynchronously for those who are not present f2f) are facing an enormous challenge. No one has been trained for this scenario, and it’s hard to imagine how to maintain what we know to be effective given the constraints in front of us.

For a variety of reasons, many schools have chosen this path forward. My hope is that parents understand these challenges ahead. Instruction will be very different. Full engagement will be incredibly hard. Students will need to be more self-motivated than ever before in order to stay focused and learn.

We need to treat our teachers and school administrators with grace and humility as they navigate ahead. It won’t be smooth. Our kids will likely hate it at times. We will hate it at times. But we need to remember that educators are working harder than ever — for our kids. Lead with support for them, understanding and compassion for their work, and commitment to knowing that this year will just be different, and probably not what you hoped for your child’s education. But trust me, it’s not what the educators hoped for either.

Written by Dr. Kristen Turner, Director of the Drew Writing Project, Drew University, Department of Education and originally posted at Twin Life: Having It All (https://twinlifehavingitall.blogspot.com/2020/08/a-message-from-edu-mom-lead-with-grace.html), August 23, 2020.

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