Sunday, February 28, 2021

Extending Grace to Yourself

The shift to remote and hybrid learning has not been easy, and I don't think anyone would claim that the journey was smooth sailing.  As I continue to work with districts and schools on an on-going basis, I try my best to help them overcome continuous challenges and frustrations. Through it all, educators have risen to the occasion and have innovated their practice at a more frequent pace than any time in history. At least, that is the way I see it, but as the pandemic wears on, educators are still trying to figure things out.  I am here to tell you that you are not alone. Virtually everyone, no matter the profession, has and continues to experience challenges during this unique time.  Just take a look below at what this lawyer went through.

I can't help but laugh every time I watch the video above and never even knew that there were avatar filters available in Zoom. However, there is a fundamental lesson here. We are still in a constant state of flux.  So much of what we are attempting to do is new, or other challenges materialize out of the blue.  Professional learning can most certainly help, but that has been placed on the back burner in many cases.  Thus, it often falls on educators themselves to figure things out.  Then there is the fact that students and colleagues are in desperate need of support so that natural reaction is to put individual needs on the back burner to help others.  While this is admirable and the right thing to do, it is imperative that educators extend some grace to themselves. 

It seems simple, but the reality is that extending grace to yourself isn't easy or something one aspires to do because it just doesn't feel right. Nancy Fulkerson explains why it is essential to do so.

When you feel like your day is unraveling or you've been hard on yourself for whatever reason, "giving yourself grace" is about giving yourself that kindness you often deserve. Sounds awesome. The type of thing you'd want your best friend to do for herself because you don't want to see her breakdown.

The fact of the matter is that what you have done and will continue to do matters. During tough times giving yourself some grace can make all the difference. Here are five ways to do this:

  1. Dedicate an hour doing something you are passionate about.
  2. Give yourself a pat on the back or even look in the mirror while stating that you did well today.
  3. Engage in something that is all about YOU.
  4. Close your eyes and take a deep breath when something doesn't go right.
  5. Begin and conclude your workday with self-affirmations.

Things will not always go as planned, and adversity will always be around the corner.  Continue to always show grace to others while remembering that you need it as well. It is more than ok to give yourself a pick-me-up when needed.  Please know that your dedication and commitment are truly appreciated. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Adapting Ideas to Drive Real Change

One of the joys and challenges of blogging regularly is trying to come up with original content that has substance. I can tell you firsthand that this is no easy feat as it seems like virtually everything has been written about in some form or another.  In many cases, content and ideas are remixed into something that is or seems, new. My angle has always been to use coaching experiences in classrooms and schools to illustrate how specific strategies are successfully integrated resulting in changes to practice.  Without these opportunities of working side by side with educators, I would have run out of things to write about years ago.  However, this doesn’t imply that it is still easy to come up with blog ideas. 

With the onset of the pandemic, new ideas began to percolate as remote and hybrid learning quickly became the norm.  These were foreign areas for most of us, especially in relation to PreK-12 education.  Thus, since March 2020, almost all of my posts have been dedicated to this topic because, quite frankly, there weren’t really any applicable content or practical strategies out there.  While I have focused on sound pedagogical techniques that have just as much value now as they did before COVID-19, I explored emerging aspects of personalization to provide a relevant angle that could help educators implement remote and hybrid learning with fidelity. In particular, one post addressed the challenge of managing face-to-face and remote learners at the same time.  As a result of my work with a school, I developed a template for educators to use or adapt as they see fit.  Below is what I created.

It has been fantastic to hear how the above image is being used in classrooms around the world.  The other day I received a message from Kate Tinguely on Twitter, which led to a conversation on how she adapted it for a recent lesson. Here is her take:

This year has been so full of change, adjustment, and anticipation of the unknown due to COVID-19. As a specialist, I have had to completely change the way I approach my lesson planning due to the frequency of times the classes come to me, the arrangement of my space & materials (for social distancing), being new to the school, and keeping in mind how I can foster connections with my students.  Your template and ideas were so helpful and inspired me to act on what I was hoping would be a change for the better. 

I was humbled, to say the least, by what Kate shared, so I asked for a visual as to how she tweaked the template.  You can see what she created below:

Here is how the lesson was structured in her words:

  • Beginning Connection: I always begin class with a question to help connect with my students, give them a chance to share, and learn all of their names. The question was to name one animal they know that hibernates in the winter (first grade). They can answer or say pass.
  • Then I read Bear Snores On (with the Novel Effects app)
  • Station one: Seesaw activity (Animals in the Winter)
  • Station two: Polar Bear Arctic Virtual Field Trip    
  • Wrap up: Think-Pair-Share one fun fact they learned about winter animals or polar bears.
  • The lesson the day before was all about algorithms and coding, so the stations had to do with those concepts involving Kodable and a Seesaw Activity.

It is great to see how educators like Kate are innovating their practice during these difficult times.  Information was used to construct new knowledge and then actively apply it to practice. Since this is what we want from our learners, it is critical that adults model this as well.  On a personal note, her message about why and how the template was used provided validation for why I blog consistently in an attempt to share valuable information.  The lesson learned here is that ideas are great, but it’s what we do with them aligned to effective strategies that truly matters.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Lengths Teachers Will Go For Kids

While the challenges schools have faced during the pandemic are often portrayed in the media, some notable changes to practice have occurred. Each day I am in awe as I see innovation in action shared on social media, especially in the areas of blended, remote, and hybrid pedagogy.  It goes without saying that there has also been a significant uptick in the purposeful use of technology. All successes, big and small, should be celebrated.  In my work with school leaders, one of my goals is to push them to unearth these exemplars while also supporting teachers to grow and improve.  

Recently I was facilitating some longitudinal coaching work with administrators from Paterson Public Schools in NJ. Leaders had been broken up into four different cohorts (elementary, middle, high school, and district supervisors).  During a previous session, I assigned each leader some meaningful homework, which consisted of bringing an artifact to share with the group that showed growth in the area. During each conversation, it was empowering to see and hear the progress educators made in their schools.  Therein lies what separates effective vs. ineffective professional learning.  The latter is defined by one-and-done and drive-by touchpoints, while the former is ongoing, job-embedded, laden with feedback, and substantiated with evidence.

While each group shared amazing artifacts, I was blown away by the supervisor cohort. In particular, those who oversee Pre-K teaching and learning shared as a team with concrete examples. Then Stephanie Wright, the Supervisor of Early Education, provided us all with a bird's eye view of what Sofia Kadrmas was doing with her pre-K class.  In a nutshell, she had replicated her real classroom in terms of how it looked and felt before the pandemic into a vibrant virtual environment. As I immersed myself in the experience, it was like I was in the classroom myself. I immediately begged Stephanie to get me permission from Sofia to view and share.  Below you can see her work of art. The interactive classroom can be accessed HERE

I was blown away and feel that this is the best example of a remote learning environment that I have seen in the field.  Once I got access to it, I immediately set up a call with Sofia to ask her some questions and commend her on her efforts.  My first question was in regard to how she learned to create this in Google Slides. She explained that she taught herself and always had a knack for technology.  The other, probably obvious, question was how she had the time to create such a masterpiece.  Her response was invigorating and the essence behind why teachers do what they do for kids.  Sofia explained that she is passionate and motivated to help her students in any way that she can.  Her goal was, and is, to create a fantastic experience for kids during this difficult time. She saw an opportunity during the pandemic and ran with it.

Below is Sofia's story in her own words:

When it was announced that our school district would begin the 2020-2021 school year fully remote, I knew it would be a challenge to engage my Pre-K students remotely while still adhering to developmentally appropriate practices and maintaining fidelity to our curriculum. One day I woke up with the idea that I could convert my physical classroom into a virtual format. As you will see in the Slides that have been shared with you, I've created a virtual classroom that accurately resembles Room #204 of Paterson Public School #28, complete with the same area rug, furniture, and interactive whiteboard. It also features a replica of the Tri-Fold Choice Time "Planning Board" I created last year. Clicking on it will redirect the viewer to an enlarged version of the board, including visual representations of the Interest Areas (or "centers"), which contain images of most of the same toys and materials that can be found in my classroom. The realistic aspect of my virtual classroom was intended to provide my students with a sense of familiarity with the physical classroom that they would hopefully someday enter in person.

My goal from the beginning was to create a virtual learning environment that would not only engage my students but also give them a reason to look forward to logging on for class each day. I do feel that I have accomplished this goal, as I have had several parents reach out to me in the last five months to express how much their child loves the resources I post daily. One of my students begs his mother to help him play the "games" that I post on my Daily Google Classroom Agenda almost immediately after the end of our live sessions. These are activities aligned with our curriculum that I have converted into Google Slides to draw my students into the lesson. I use them daily as my primary method of instruction so that both students and parents can efficiently utilize them outside of our live sessions as an extension of learning. I also heavily rely on the Google Translate Chrome extension to make these Slides equally accessible to my bilingual students' families and have posted many of my Google Classroom resources in three different languages. 

It is essential to remind ourselves that these are unprecedented times we are living in currently. It's during times like these, especially when we must open ourselves up to the possibility that continuing to teach in the way "we have always done" may not be what's in the best interests of our students.  Our profession is one that requires us to be lifelong learners. That includes the willingness to adapt to, as well as adopt new teaching practices as the world continues to transform around us. That is precisely what I set forth to accomplish this school year. I adapted. 

My final piece of advice to all teachers in my position is this: Don't resist the change. Face your fears. Ask for help when you need it. It's never too late to learn a new skill, and you will never truly know the extent to which that newly acquired skill could benefit your students until you try it. The last several months have proven to me, beyond any doubt, that my "new way" of teaching is highly effective. My students are learning and growing every day, but most importantly, their smiles and laughter show me that they are having FUN in the process! That's more than enough motivation for me to keep pushing forward. 

During the pandemic, so many teachers like Sofia have gone to great lengths for their kids.  They have persevered in the face of adversity while embracing innovative approaches. Their example is to be celebrated. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Tips for the Socially Distanced Classroom

Schools have either made or are about to make the transition to some sort of hybrid model. The transition is not an easy one. Just ask those who have already been through it. In the midst of adversity and limited training, educators have valiantly risen to the occasion like they always have.  With the proper safety measures in place, students have been welcomed back into classrooms.  For many, this was desperately needed as the distractions and challenges at home impacted their learning.  They wanted and needed their teachers. I would also wager that the adults felt the same about them.

Depending on the hybrid model selected, different challenges arise.  However, no matter the path taken, one consistent element is the need to social distance to keep everyone safe. I have noticed in several schools where I am coaching that a natural reaction has been an emphasis on the whole group. Desks are arranged in rows to take precautions, while the primary strategy is direct instruction. Under the current circumstances, I am not saying this is an ineffective means to facilitate a lesson. However, there is a need to ensure that learners are both engaged and empowered during whole group.  Getting all students involved, both face-to-face (F2F) and remote, is essential.

Below are some strategies that can be implemented right away when using direct instruction:

  • Facilitate checks for understanding or closure through the use of mini-whiteboards or technology. Students would need access to one or the other, but this is a great way to foster student voice as a high-agency strategy. Some excellent digital options are PearDeck, Nearpod, and Mentimeter.  You can even use self-graded Google or Canvas Forms.
  • Randomly call on kids (both F2F and virtual).
  • Integrate movement using tools like Go-Noodle. F2F students can stay by their desks while remote learners can dance away in the comfort of their own homes.  Keeping kids distanced doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to get them up and moving.
  • Utilize conversational strategies such as think-pair-share and turn & talk facilitated through videoconference breakout rooms.  Even in a hybrid model, getting kids to talk to one another through essential questions is critical.  The use of breakout rooms keeps kids socially distanced while also creating an equitable environment where remote kids get the same experience. After the activity, digital tools can be used where all kids can share their responses.

While there is a tendency to rely more heavily on one-size-fits-all methodologies, educators can still use effective pedagogies that were commonplace prior to the pandemic. Once whole group elements are finetuned, educators can begin to integrate more personalized options to empower learners while keeping them safe. While most will be done independently, the digital space provides the environment for cooperative experiences. Here are some ideas to consider.

  • Differentiate tasks to meet the needs of each learner while moving away from a blanket approach.
  • Facilitate collaboration through the use of digital tools.  There are so many options out there, but Padlet, Jamboard, and Google Docs are always good choices.
  • Develop pedagogically-sound blended learning through either choice boards or playlists. These can be used to differentiate but also free up the teacher to provide targeted instruction or one-on-one support. Both strategies allow learners to work in a self-paced format.
  • Leverage any adaptive learning tools that have been purchased. Look at some free options. HERE you can find a list.

Social distancing does place an added stress on teachers. The good news is that many effective practices that were used before the pandemic have just as much value, if not more, in the current environment.  Engaging learners and ensuring they are all actively involved during direct instruction will mitigate off-task behavior while setting the stage for increased motivation.  From here, the stage is set to implement some personalized strategies that support various learning modalities and needs.

Stay safe, everyone, and keep up the great work.  Your efforts are appreciated.