Tuesday, April 21, 2020

AV #209 - Being together in the classroom – part 2

Distance learning: Not remotely or virtually the same as the classroom

“Successful strategies that come from the transition to remote learning won’t be a stop-gap to get us through the current crisis; they will fundamentally shift how school functions in the future.” XQ[1] (April 6, 2020)

Last week, part 1: The fun of being together, the laughter possible when a classroom becomes a safe space, a community, a setting where we can smile at our foibles—and enjoy a sense of belonging. Hard to achieve in distance learning, one reason I can’t believe this crisis will “shift how school functions…”

In part 2 I had planned to write about “the other side” of the same coin—how that sense of belonging can be equally important in darker moments too. But I realize you already know this from your own experience, when the classroom provided consolation and support. I hope so anyway. So I will merely list a few such moments from my 18 years as a teacher: after the sudden death of a classmate's parent or a faculty member; after the principal’s year-long fight with cancer came to an end; after one of their classmates attempted suicide. After national events that impacted us all (President Reagan being shot, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and—most vividly for me, and for my 7th and 8th graders here in Parker, that morning of 9/11, and in the weeks that followed). Being together – as students and as teachers – can help us through tough times. Francis Bacon said that friendship “redoubleth joys and cutteth our griefs in halves.” It rings true for the classroom as well.

So a simpler purpose now. Sharing the words from those who articulate so effectively why the “school life” we are experiencing this spring is not the dawn of a new age, who doubt that “the silver-lining” of this pandemic is the revelation that technology can save us time, money, and, most implausibly, create an education that is truly “personalized.” The voices quoted here: the former U.S. Secretary of Education; the superintendent in Roaring Fork—an exceptional educator I have been lucky to know for over 25 years; a teacher—working in a Jefferson County charter school—a former student of mine!; and others, too. All show us why we must not take the wrong lesson from this pandemic. Remote learning is not the fix. Technology is not the fix. Separating ourselves is not the fix.

Being together, you will say, is not a fix either. I agree—but it is where students begin to join a community. Being together is fundamental to creating a learning community where teachers know their students well. Where students feel they belong to a caring community and build relationships that matter. Where we have the therapy of humor and good fun—and of being lifted up when times are hard.

Finally, consider what we are hearing so often these days, from surveys and reports from the field.[2] A heightened need for social-emotional support of students. Ditto for mental health services. A huge concern about the impact of isolation on students – a new kind of trauma? A consensus that the most severe impact of this current situation will fall on our most vulnerable students, many of whom are now proving among the hardest to reach. The very students who need a stronger connection, not distant ties, to teachers and counselors in the school community…  A personal connection, not a virtual one.

Remote learning merely exacerbates the problems that hinder student success. How foolish to believe that it should be touted as “the education of the future.” And how good it will be to be back in class.  


Bold mine throughout these two pages.
From “Schooling in the Era of Covid-19: A Virtual Discussion with National and Local Education Leaders,” April 15, 2020                                                                                                                                                                 

Dr. John King, Former U.S. Secretary of Education, President and CEO of Education Trust

   “The one thing I would implore folks to think about is just the centrality of relationships and connectedness to school.
   “I was a kid ... I lost both my parents when I was a kid. Home was really hard. The one place that I had structure and support and positive relationships and a sense of safety was school. It would have been incredibly hard for me as a kid to be away from school for months…   We have to ensure that we don’t lose kids in this period, and the way to do that is to emphasize connection and relationship as the primary focus of our energy.    

*Reports: 1) “Online Summary Report,” by the Office of Blended and Online Learning, Colorado Department of Education, Dec. 2019.[3]  2) AV #148, 149, 185, 205.
Rob Stein, Superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools

“The research on online learning* is not very extensive but what is available says that it is not very good - and so that’s the bad news. There’s going to be a lot of lost learning. I don’t think the media or policymakers are paying enough attention to the actual efficacy of online learning…”


From Parker Earnest, a former 7th/8th grade student of mine, now an elementary teacher (grades 4-6) in Jefferson County. His email response (April 16, 2020) to last week’s newsletter, AV #208.

“I am hopeful that Khan and remote learning will not be the norm of the future. Teachers will always be needed because every child is different in how they learn. Nothing replaces the ability to be together so a teacher can look in the eye, read the body language and assess when the time is right to step on the gas, coast or brake in presenting the lesson.”


From Adam Goldstein, “Teacher shares virtual expertise,” Your Hub, The Denver Post, April 16, 2020.     

   On Robin Schuhmacher, a second-grade teacher at Altitude Elementary, a Cherry Creek school.
   “I always tell new teachers that innovation starts from the heart. My son’s favorite thing every day is to have a Zoom with his classroom and wave to his friends. To see him do that, I remember that it isn’t always about the tech. It starts with the heart and human connection.”
   Missing that daily human connection with students and colleagues has been difficult for Schumacher. Nothing can fully replace seeing students in person; no amount of Zoom meetings can be a true stand-in for connecting and commiserating with colleagues.
   “We’re in this profession because we love working with people. We don’t have that right now,” she said.

Adam Goldstein is a digital communications specialist for the Cherry Creek School District.


From Robert Pondiscio, “No, this is not the new normal,” Flypaper, Thomas B. Fordham Institute – April 15, 2020.

    “Start with the obvious: To throw all or even most of our efforts into remote learning is ‘shoe bomber’ planning, responding to the last attack instead of anticipating the next one. … It is a fantasy to believe that we can stem the effects of months without real school by ginning up instructional capacity on the fly in unfamiliar forms in the midst of a public health crisis. By all means, distribute devices and attack the digital divide. Signal to apprehensive students and parents that education must go on, keep kids attached, and strive for normalcy. Schools that have found ways to continue high-value instruction deserve attention and praise. But let’s not gull ourselves into thinking this is some sort of durable solution. It’s an emergency response, nothing more.”

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He also teaches civics at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/no-not-new-normal


From David Deming, “Online Learning Should Return to a Supporting Role,” The New York Times, April 9, 2020.

    “Winner-take-all economics and cost-cutting may make many in-person lectures obsolete, but the best education continues to be intensive, expensive and done in person.
    “The personal services provided by educators include tutoring, individualized feedback and mentoring, and numerous studies, as well as countless individual experiences, show that such services are essential for learning.
    “It is wonderful that technology has enabled millions of students to keep learning even when direct contact is impossible. But once this crisis ends, we will be better off if technology frees up precious class time so that educators and students can engage deeply with each other and build personal connections that will last a lifetime.”

David Deming is the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/business/online-learning-virus.html?referringSource=articleShare


Tsavo Cole, a freshman at Arvada West High School, told Nelson Garcia of Channel 9 News: 

“…immediate feedback is one of the most important things missing. ‘The difference here is you're not able to talk to your friends or talk to the teacher.’"
 “How has remote learning been working so far?” (April 7, 2020)


From Mark Kiszla, “With football also iffy, pray baseball can return,” The Denver Post, April 26, 2020

    I recently asked Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster what he missed most about baseball.
    “I miss the competition. All of us people that are in professional sports, we’re wired to compete,” Foster replied. “We thrive on competition, not unlike any other person. It’s part of who we are. Our everyday existence is about a win and a loss and risking it all, on being all-in and engaged. It’s interacting with people and loving and laughing and crying. When you’re a part of a team, you miss the team.”

[1] “Early Remote Learning Lessons and the Future of Education,” April 6, 2020.  
[2] Survey: Emotional support, internet access among state students’ top needs,” The Denver Post, April 21, 2020.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

AV #208 - Being together in the classroom - part 1 (laughing)

Distance learning: Not remotely or virtually the same as the classroom

I stopped teaching after five years – in 1981—thinking there might be something else I could do. I asked a veteran teacher at that time—who seemed happy in his job—why he kept at it. He answered: “In what other job can you have two good laughs a day?”

Wise words. And perhaps one reason I ended up teaching or coaching another 20 years.

This is why those* who sound (too) pleased, in our Covid-19 isolation, that we have (finally) turned to remote teaching—as if only now have we discovered what they believe to be “the future of education”—don’t understand why teachers teach. Why we love being with our students, in the classroom. And why teaching can often be—lest we forget—so much fun. (*Addendum first quotes from such voices. After that, quotes from teachers and students less sure about this Brave New Online World.)

I fear we might take the wrong lessons from this crisis. I hope we see the irony in the argument that distance learning is how we can truly personalize education. Isn’t being personal, even silly, half the fun of being together in the classroom (remember the old days, back in early March)? Isn’t this how we connect?  

I walk into a Freshmen class on April Fool’s Day and see the students have turned all their desks backwards and sit, looking oh so polite and proper, facing the back of the room. (Almost) no one cracks a smile, from what I can see on the faces of those who are now in “the last row.” I try to stifle my laugh, take my papers to the back wall (which has no blackboard), and turn to the class and start to teach as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Not many seconds later, we all start laughing.

I cut myself shaving before school and put a band-aid on my chin and walk in to the first period class of seniors and tell them – I address the boys – “I think you should understand the facts of life.” There is a moment of panic; DON’T YOU DARE, they are pleading, LET ME OUT OF HERE! Then I tell them the relevant fact of life: if you cut yourself shaving, it often takes a long time to stop bleeding. Class is greatly relieved.

Two of the sophomores on my girls’ soccer team come in to my classroom, uninvited, on Valentine’s Day, approach either side of my desk at the front of the room, give me a card, plant a kiss on my cheeks, and scoot out of the room. “You’re blushing, Mr. H!” the class yells.

In middle school, the boys in the back row keep tilting their chairs back, I keep scolding them—and warning them (you’re going to hurt yourselves!), and they keep doing it—until they tumble back. CRASH! All OK, but the laughter that follows is another moment we share. Remember the time when…? Or when Mr. H was reading from that famous speech, and just at the wrong moment, G. farted? Or when the history and science teacher (both exceptional hams), came in and acted out a chase scene from the short story (Jack London’s “The King of Mazy May”) we were reading? They were so funny!...

And of course sometimes the laughter comes – only in looking back.

The headmaster walks by my classroom, pauses briefly, looks in – a glass wall faces the corridor – and he sees what is on my face. Frustration. Exasperation. OK, yes, anger! I am there with my six 9th graders. All are at least two years behind in their reading skills. We are together two-periods-a-day. One period is plenty with these restless boys; two can send me over the edge. The headmaster knows these six boys well, which may account for the fact that he smiles at me (hang in there, Peter, it’s going to be alright!) and walks on. I am forever grateful he supported me. And forever grateful to those boys, too (we survived together!)—even that time when I was so mad I kicked the fourth leg out from under that table … which sailed across the room. That got their attention. When I see a couple of those boys 10 or 20 years later at their class reunion, we laugh about their mischief—and my temper.

Comedy is part of what makes it a community. And on the flip side, tragedy too–at least sadness and loss. That will be my focus next week, a second look at how meaningful the classroom can be, for students and, even when we stumble, for teachers too. A place for smiles, but also for comfort and support—all of which we surely miss this spring. A sense of connection which is impossible to replicate with remote learning, I believe. It is called remote for a reason, is it not?


From a series of articles under the heading, “How Will the Pandemic Change our World?” Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2020

1.    “We should also accelerate the trend toward remote learning, which is being tested today as never before. Online, there is no requirement of proximity, which allows students to get instruction from the best teachers, no matter what school district they reside in…
“… If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure.”
    “A Real Digital Infrastructure at Last,” Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google.

2.       The former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, wrote on ways that “we can use today’s crisis as a learning opportunity,” and noted that many of the problems we face are due to “outdated 20th-century rules stymied by 21st-century innovation.” One example includes education. “….as millions of American families re discovering, online instruction is a viable means for students to learn.”
            “Local Leaders Showing the Way Forward,” Jeb Bush.

3.   “The shutdowns have created a range of dire short-term problems… In the long term, they may bring about profound changes in how we school our children.  … historically, it has been a struggle to personalize learning for each student… online tools have started to be leveraged in classrooms to address this need… The school closure situation … may be the catalyst for making personalized learning more common …”
     “Online Education That Fits Each Child,” Sal Kahn, founder and CEO of Khan Academy.

“School districts and the legislature should work now to plow fewer dollars into old school-focused buildings and invest more in students by working with the private sector to rapidly develop a reliable, high-speed infrastructure.”
  “Opportunity for a stronger education system in Colorado,” George Brauchler, The Denver Post, March 22, 2020.

On the other hand, the perspective of teachers and students

Tang Sisi, a teenage school girl preparing for an examination for entrance to senior secondary schools, finds online classes hard to follow. ‘Sometimes I come across things I don’t know in homework and there’s nobody to ask,’ she worries in a quiet voice.  Some teachers move through lessons too fast, she adds…
“A veteran middle school teacher fears that virus-imposed distance learning will hit certain students hard. She worries about those without parents at home to police them, and those—mostly boys, she says sadly – going ‘through a rebellious stage’ who don’t see the point of study.”
      “The virus also kills dreams,” Chaguan, The Economist, March 21, 2020
Andre Albrecht, teacher of the deaf: “I’m missing the camaraderie we have in our classroom,’ she said. “It’s been interesting. It’s been fun. But it’s also been heartbreaking, because I can’t just go through the screen and help them and show them.”
      “Homework – Maintaining Education Amid Coronavirus,” Elizabeth Hernandez, The Denver Post, March 29, 2020.
Titilayo Aluko, a junior at Landmark High School in New York City. “I actually need my teachers who know me and understand me, to help me, and I don’t have that.’ She said, “I just keep thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I might not pass.’ I’m just really scared for the future.”
“As school moves online many educators stay logged out,” Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times, April 6, 2020.

Stephanie Rossi, who teaches AP U.S. History and AP Psychology at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County, is retiring this spring after 40 years. This piece—perhaps not incidentally by a former student of Rossi’s now reporting for CBS4 (eager perhaps to offer her own word of thanks)—looked at how she was ending her career teaching through Zoom.

  “After four decades in the classroom, teaching from her kitchen counter is a big change. She said remote teaching is something she never expected would mark the end of her career. ‘There’s a bit of mourning for me that I’m not ending it in my classroom.’
   “She’s the kind of teacher students could rely on for just about anything.
   “'The hardest thing is that I can’t say goodbye to my kids,’ she said, tearing up. ‘And I’m a hugger. And I can’t say goodbye.’”
“‘Hardest Thing Is I Can’t Say Goodbye’: Retiring Wheat Ridge Teacher Sad About Remote Learning After 40 Years In Classroom,” Makenzie O’Keefe, CBS4, April 8, 2020.

And from a psychologist – “You have to see … the whites of the eyes”

Robin Dunbar, anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University: “‘You have to see the eyeballs—the whites of the eyes—and be able to physically hold on to them,’ he says, in order to maintain a friendship and feel a social bond.”
       “Only connect - Covid 19 and mental health,” The Economist, April 4, 2020