Category Archives: Education

Asking Deeper Questions

Since the turn of the century, educators have been encouraged to integrate what were called 21st century skills, so-called “soft” skills such creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship that were needed to help students learn to thrive in the contemporary world. In a complex world, being able to ask the right questions, examine the underlying systems, and apply creative and critical thinking is the way to find solutions. 

Well, a pandemic that closed school buildings (NOT schools if you equate school with learning) certainly revealed complexity especially in terms of how interwoven those buildings were to so much more than just schooling.  And, in addressing the complexity, it seems to me that officials have chosen to ask only one question: “How do we get kids back into school buildings?” And asking only one question immediately limits the critical thinking that can lead to creative and equitable solutions. 

The other problem with asking only that question is that it conflates school buildings with schooling and assumes that the best and really only way for students to learn is face to face in one location with children of the same age. It’s the model we’ve known, it’s the model around which most of our research is done, and, perhaps most importantly, the model around which we have built lots of systems including extracurricular activities, child care and meal distribution.

The buildings play essential roles in the community beyond schooling. But, and here’s the place where I think we are missing the opportunity to ask deeper questions, the buildings are not essential for schooling, at least for everyone in the one-size-fits-all way we’ve always done it. This narrow focus limits the opportunities for innovative solutions, the kinds of solutions that could meet the needs of all families and children in ways that we haven’t thought of before. 

In her book Real Change, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells the story of a research study designed to see if people who practiced mindfulness were more compassionate to others. It was simple: a waiting room with three chairs, two actors glued to their phones, and a participant. The participant takes the last chair. The third actor enters, walking with crutches, obviously in pain. While it would be nice to think everyone would give up the chairs, they didn’t. But the mindfulness practitioners had a higher percentage of those who yielded their chair to a fellow human being in pain.  While Sharon recognized the need for these personal acts of kindness, she also calls for a wider view:

It can also be helpful to recognize the value of thinking in terms of systems change even as we might be focused on acts of personal goodness. We rely on analysis and conscious reflection to make that distinction. When I heard of DeSteno’s experiment, it made me think in terms of systems. I wondered, for example, if anyone questioned how the people running the lab were allocating resources if they were putting so few chairs in the waiting room? (p. 180)

Right now, we have the opportunity to look deeper and  think in terms of real system change in education. We have the chance to ask more than just one question. Here are the ones I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Who is benefitting from virtual learning? 
  2. Who might benefit from virtual learning if we had better resources including broadband in every home or easily accessible community-based child care? 
  3. How can we take some of the individual solutions that arose in the past year such as learning pods and integrate them in an equitable system? 

Most importantly, how can we make sure that the voices of those clamoring to return do not drown out the voices of those who are not eager to get back in the buildings–teachers, parents, and students alike–because they do not trust the current system to care enough about them to keep them and their families safe?

We must go beyond communicating empty-sounding reassurances about CDC guidelines and open ourselves and the system in order to collaborate with all stakeholders on creative solutions that could finally REALLY customize and personalize schooling for every kid in a way we never considered before the buildings closed. 

Begin Again

Solomon's Seal and Dragonflies
A favorite spot in my spring garden

This blog post is inspired by two people. Tim Stahmer has been blogging consistently since the early naughts. I’ve had blogs setup as long as he has, but I never got into the rhythm. But, like many of us, he found himself feeling unsettled in this era of the unknown and it impacted his writing, partly because he wasn’t sure what to say.

Jennifer Orr, meanwhile, has been giving us all a glimpse into the world of teachers right now. As always, her courage to share her deepest fears and griefs and joys inspires me.

I started the year with good intentions and enjoyed blogging in January, partly because I gave myself permission to write about whatever I wanted. I posted a few thoughts early on in the crisis but, like Tim, I ran out of energy and wondered what I had to share.

I admire Jen’s courage to speak her truth. Through her eyes, we also see the lives of her students and their families. And, she reminds us that the wires and switches are about connecting people and supporting community. We can fix the technology problems, but there is an emotional toll that will be harder to repair. We need more teachers to tell their stories all the time but never more so than now.

So, to Tim’s question, what can I say? I think I’m going back to my January philosophy and writing about what comes to mind. I am back to baking regularly with two different sourdough starters. My flower gardens are coming together and there are lots of lessons to learn while weeding. Meanwhile, my husband is putting in extra tomato, squash, zucchini and cucumber plants this year,  thinking that our local community, a food desert, will benefit from fresh produce this summer. I will be channeling my grandmothers as I pickle, can, ferment and freeze. I’m back to reading after struggling with concentration.

For now, I’ll end with a potentially helpful resource for those who are struggling with connectivity. The Commonwealth Coalition, of which VSTE is a proud member, has created a wifi hotspot map for the state:

I like that one near me is at Moores Swamp Church. But it is a picture of inequity as well. Rural folks expect to drive longer distances for services but, at this point in time, Internet is like electricity. It needs to come directly to the house.

Keeping the Gaps From Getting Bigger: Randomly Connected Thoughts

I don’t know about others, but I have been having trouble mustering much energy or enthusiasm to do anything that required concentration. I’ve kept up my daily journaling (hard to break a habit of a lifetime) but putting together something for outside consumption seemed too hard. But, I do have a few public things I would like say:

Stop shaming teachers and schools for anything, especially if you were not actively involved in public schools on a daily basis prior to the virus. I have seen several pundits shaking their heads over printed instructional packets. One actually used the word “shame” to describe teachers who used them. They may not be the ideal pedagogy, but they are the lowest common denominator in a world that largely gave digital equity lip service until last week. Now, suddenly, educators are supposed to be transforming their education online despite a lack of devices, access and preparation. Schools are busy figuring out how to feed kids. Give them a break.

Read that again: schools are busy figuring out how to feeds kids. Our schools play a much larger role in the community than just teaching and learning, and we consistently underfund them, especially for the most vulnerable children and families. Ditto for public libraries.

Now is when we will discover the true gaps in our broadband access maps and surveys. If you are a teacher connecting with your students online, be sure to do an equity check now and then. Who isn’t showing up either synchronously or asynchronously? Is it because of access? What can you do to open access by using low bandwidth tools that are phone-friendly?

Just as they are feeding kids, schools are working on closing the equity gap. Schools  without 1:1 are doing what they can to get devices to kids. They are sending home mifis and keeping wifi up and running in schools parking lots. I’ve seen lots of tech coaches offering support for both their own faculty and generally for others. The Virginia Society for Technology in Education is offering just-in-time coaching in partnership with UnisonEDU.

There is so much more to consider here. Forget digital equity. I suspect many children in my low income community are being left home alone or in the care of older siblings as parents cannot afford to stop working. The library and community center where they accessed analog, digital and adult support are closed.

I have been meeting with VSTE leaders over the past week, and I am so proud of how they are leading their schools and communities. They were given little or no time or resources to prepare, but they, along with so many other educators stepped up, as they always do, because they understand that they are the first line of defense for so many of our children.

Be safe out there, my friends.

Reconsidering How Work and Learning Happen

Avatar workingI work hard doing work I love. I am fortunate in that. And, I get to mostly do it from home which takes away a lot of the daily stresses (clean clothes, lunches, commutes). And yet, without the guardrails of regular work hours and employer expectations, it is easy to start to work all the time. Maybe not for hours on end but in bursts and starts that eventually take over the whole day. Work is always the focus.

Checking email is the worst culprit: quick glances throughout the day and following up with minor issues that didn’t need same day responses. (I get lots of “wow, thanks for getting back to me so quickly,” replies by way of example.)

And then, I had my hip replaced on December 11, 2019, and made a promise mostly to myself to just let it all go. Put up an out of office and go on leave. And, miracle of miracles, I did it. At first, it was because I really was in recovery, but after ten days, I was doing well both physically and mentally and would have been easily able to dive in. Yet, I didn’t even as I saw the number of messages ticking upwards in the app. Life could and would go on without me.

What did I do instead? First, I didn’t go offline completely. But, I did redirect my time. I tried to get engaged in Twitter more deeply than just retweeting and liking. I had a little success with some conversations. I also got more involved in LibraryThing and continue to make that community my priority for online interactions.

Offline, I read, played the piano, and crocheted, finishing up some of my Christmas gifts and then diving into my first piece of crocheted clothing: a sweater vest for my dad. It took a couple tries to get going but it is coming together nicely. I am a little worried that it is going to be too big but I guess that is better than too small.

So, as with many of you out there, this morning was something of a shock to the system. Honestly, the email was easily dealt with (mostly spam and promotions and updates), but after 90 minutes of reading and adding to the task list, I was tired, longing for the freedom of the past three weeks. And, I thought, there wasn’t any reason not to close out and take a break. So, that’s what I did. Took a break. Read a book. Wrote this blog post. Had lunch with my husband.

And, tried hard not to feel guilty that I hadn’t immediately put my shoulder to the proverbial grindstone the way most of my colleagues are doing at this very moment. From break to work without any kind of real transition. It’s tough for adults and probably tougher for the kids. Learning to put work in perspective, learning how to create a humane schedule, learning when you work best or when you need a break. All of those are lessons that, evidently have taken me 20 years and a new hip to learn. I wonder how we might help our children learn them along the way?

 

Second Day of School

I teach a technology course for school leaders seeking a master’s degree. Most will become school or division leaders such as principals or curriculum specialists. Normally, the course is fully face to face during the fall semester.

This year, I am implementing a blended, mostly online approach, with weekly synchronous meetings.  We will have three face to face meetings. Last week, we met on campus to get to know each other and make sure everyone was comfortable with the tools we were going to be using to do our work during the semester. More on those tools in another post.

Tonight was our first online meeting using Zoom as our interface. There are 7 students in the class, which seems like a good number for an online meeting, particularly because I wanted to use video and audio. It was good to see their faces, and I think it facilitated conversation. My face to face class is very interactive. My students have a variety of professional experiences related to educational technology that can inform their understanding and provide diverse perspectives to their classmates. We talk a lot about how our work connects with standards and research and practice.

And, we did that tonight. We spent time making sure everyone was comfortable with the Zoom room. We used the text chat and then video discussion to explore the topic of technology transformation. My one technology glitch was that they couldn’t hear the audio on a video. I’ll explore that more this week as I do want us to have some communal viewings.

At the end, I asked what they thought, as many of them hadn’t had an online course or even used Zoom. I got positive feedback and am excited about exploring the possibilities. There are some drawbacks that I will explore in another post.

For now, I am a happy teacher: I had an engaging few hours with some thoughtful, smart educators that allowed me to be closer to my base while they could go home and relax a bit before we connected.

I did do one thing to make sure we would be successful: I am renting office space in the small town next to my farm. The internet at my house is problematic: our potential cable provider has refused to provide us with broadband so we are stuck with DSL, and it is notoriously unreliable. I didn’t want to take any chances with losing connectivity during class. It was the right decision.

I had honestly forgotten what good internet was like…I’ve already messaged the landlord about creating a co-working space. I don’t need daily access but knowing I had a place to go for important meetings and large file uploads would be reassuring.