Sunday, August 9, 2020

Students Still Come First: My Remote Learning Mindset

Last summer I was prepping for my first year back to teaching after seven years in district level roles. I was so excited and had no idea what the year would bring. I think a few people predicted a global pandemic hitting but I wasn't one of them. 
I was thinking about my classroom and getting it set up to welcome my 7th and 8th grade students. I drove down to Chicago to pick up two tall bookshelves that my friend gave me because she was moving. I painted the bookshelves already in my class room with a fresh coat of paint so they coordinated. I painted cans for plants to sit by our window. Otherwise I didn't spend too much time on decorating my classroom because I wanted the kids to co-create our space with me. 

I couldn't wait for the kids to come 
because that's when a classroom comes to life.  
This year my school district decided to start the year remotely. I was relieved to hear this was our decision. As much as I'd love to be in my classroom with kids in front of me, I'd prefer that none of us risk our lives. Now I'm thinking about what remote learning will look like.

In the spring, I only met once a week with my classes. I posted videos and work, I sent emails and messages, made phone calls, shared feedback, kept communicating with them when we weren't meeting virtually as a whole group. My focus was on taking care of them emotionally and inviting them to stay engaged in the work. 

This time around, I'll be able to meet with students virtually more often and teach synchronously in a way I couldn't in the spring. Except this time around, I'll be getting to know my students, developing relationships with them, and growing our class culture all through a virtual platform. Whoa! 

I've been thinking about last year and all the excitement and intention I put into creating a welcoming space that still left room for the kids to contribute to our learning environment. Now the question is: How can I translate that to a virtual learning environment? 

Maybe you've seen people creating Bitmoji classrooms or designing websites with resources. I for sure think they are cute and a way for teachers to personalize a digital space for students but I, personally, am not going to spend time on something like this. I'll set up my Google Classroom and I might make my syllabus a little more interactive by adding videos and images, something that helps the students and parents get to know me more, but I know my focus has to be on how we're going to get to know each other the first few weeks.

Sure, the space matters, it definitely factors in, and we'll talk about where they are set up so that they can be successful, but ultimately, the people in a space bring it to life. I need to zone in on how how I can get to know students, develop relationships, grow as a learning community, and at the same time dive into readers' and writers' workshop and explore social studies topics. That's what matters most. Again, people make a space come to life - real or virtual. 

I'll share my thought process and ideas in case they might be helpful but for now I've got 5 things I'm keeping in mind as I'm thinking about how to start the school year remotely:

1. People first. Relationships are key. I'll need to think through the tech side of things but I have to start with how to get to know my students and introduce myself to them and then think about what tech tools can help me do this after I have a plan. I'm going to think through everything I did last year and decide what to keep, what to revise, and what to add. We did a lot of teambuilding games last year and I'm not sure how those will translate to a virtual environment but it's worth thinking through what was the rationale and whether I can replicate it virtually. 

2. Being an anti-racist and anti-bias educator is (still) a priority. Last year I was determined to plan with the Teacher Tolerance Social Justice Standards alongside the Common Core State Standards and the C3 Standards. When I last taught in 2012, I did not have this resource to refer to and guide me but I'm thankful for it now. I learned a lot last year from discussions with today's middle schoolers and am eager to continue to make ABAR work a priority in and out of school. The pandemic is definitely making things more challenging but there is no excuse for not prioritizing being ABAR.

3. Engagement is important. As always, I want my students to feel welcomed into a space where they can participate fully. That means I'm going to take time to talk about what it means to show up ready to learn in a virtual space. I'll share what I do to be able to participate fully and ask students to think through what might help them be able to participate fully. One thing that helps me is being able to see my students so I'm going to share that it would help me as a teacher if they can turn on their cameras but ultimately, I want them to show up and participate any way that they can. Some engagement is better than nothing. Me showing up authentically and honestly and honoring them in our virtual space, me putting them first (see above!), me talking about current events and how they relate to us and history (see above!), me having conversations so we can still co-create our space even though it's virtual, hopefully will lead to engagement. I'm not worried about if they turn on their camera, look directly at the screen, or are still in their pajamas. I'm focused on them being able to access the learning and contribute to our learning environment - whatever that looks like. 

4. Re-entry is tricky without remote learning, let alone now. Keep it simple. I usually fall into the category of an idealist because I have high expectations and I work towards them. I see how awesome something can be and then plan for it to happen. This year though, I'm reminding myself to be a bit more pragmatic. I have high hopes for how I'll be able to navigate this year's elearning and that I'll be able to figure out how to develop relationships with students from afar but I'm reminding myself that the transition from summer to school, which I refer to as re-entry, is still a huge shift - for me and for the kids. This year re-entry is going to be a totally different experience. Different isn't bad but I'm going to be realistic and remind myself to take my time, to think about how to get creative and make things fun, to keep things short and manageable, to make sure to explain things well. Keep it simple is going to be something I repeat to myself. Smarter not harder...because it's a global pandemic and we don't need anything to be harder than it needs to be.

5. Breathe. This is still a very new experience for me and my students and administrators and parents and for many others. It's not going to be easy, there will be things to learn, there will be things that don't go as I hope, there will be last minute changes, there will be tech issues, there will be things I don't anticipate...but I wholeheartedly believe that if I take a deep breath and always go back to putting students and people first, we'll get through it. We just have to take it easy on ourselves and on our students. We're all in this together and we just have to keep breathing.

This is where I am right now. School starts on August 27th and teachers go back on the 21st. That's not a lot of time but I'm confident I'll figure it out just like i'm confident teachers around the world will figure it out. Obviously, people who are starting in person or in a hybrid model might have very different needs to keep in mind. Please know that my heart is with you no matter what your beginning of the year looks like and I'm happy to help if I can. Just let me know. 

I'd love to hear what things you are keeping at the core of all your planning for the beginning of the year or if any of mine resonate with you. Please share!

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