In January 2016, Mira and I were fortunate to present at the Visible Learning Conference in London. It was a very different conference experience than we’d had before but that’s a whole other conversation. Today, I want to talk a little about Kristin Anderson (@kristiande), a researcher I heard while at that conference. Kristen talked about trust and the research strongly indicating that trust is an essential component of teaching and learning.

There is a Twitter thread going around where a professor in Ukraine shares stories of her students navigating the Covid-19 closure in combination with the family and life stressors that college students (and all of us) experience. It is a powerful, viral thread, shared with me and by people I respect and admire with the intent to communicate the need for empathy and grace in this moment. A concept most people know I champion.

Yet, all I see is a breach of trust. A significant and unforgivable breach of trust. I have been an educator for 20 years and in that time have shared many amazing and many devastating experiences with, by, and in support of my students. But I won’t tell you about them.

Students communicate with us in confidence. It’s an honor and a privilege to hold their truths with them. Their stories are not mine to tell, they’ve been shared with me because we have built trust, they believe me to be safe, and, for that and for them, I will be.

Since we started this experiment of trying to communicate our work more publicly, I have so often referred back to what I learned from Kristin that day. She says: A lot of people see trust as a soft skill. But the reality is that we all need to be on a journey to becoming a little bit more trustworthy every single day, no matter how much we perceive ourselves to be trustworthy. Trust is a multi-dimensional disposition or value that requires deliberate practice and deliberate planning in order to ensure that it is thriving. (From her interview with Jim Knight found here).

When we post pictures of kids doing work in our classrooms, of stories (particularly personal or embarrassing ones) about our students in public forums, of things shared in confidence (regardless of whether we feel they are important), we betray the trust of our students and we undermine the relationships we are building as well as diminishing the agency of our students.

In this era of teaching for the ‘gram, let’s never lose sight of our role. That day in London, I wrote Kristin’s words on a sticky note. “You are trusted to the degree that people believe in your ability, your consistency, your integrity, and your commitment to deliver. Do people believe in you?”

Student Teaching Cut Short

I am guilty of the occasional jump for joy when an unexpected snow day occurs, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine the closing of schools around America for an indefinite period of time because of a global pandemic. This is a unique situation that I could not have thought up at the beginning of my student teaching, but on Friday, March 13, 2020 at approximately 9:45 am it became a reality. Two days earlier I found out that March Madness was cancelled in the midst of teaching a whole group math lesson about comparing numbers. I remember thinking in that moment “wow this is history, I will never forget this moment.” My cooperating teacher and I even giggled one of those “what is happening” laughs when she shared the news to me. But I think the moment that I found out that our school was actually closing was a moment that will shape me as an educator forever. It was like a wave of information that I had been expecting but was not prepared for. The rest of the day, I could feel myself teaching in a haze of uncertainty and panic. In our classroom we kept our cool because you sure know that 5-year-olds will pick up on your stress and then just tell you how it is.

All I can describe the day as was different. You never wish to have different days, especially in the field of early childhood education where structure and routine are so incredibly important, but Friday, March 13, 2020 was different. Our routine that day did become a bit construed by the madness of trying to prepare our kids with weeks’ worth of at home learning experiences. I could tell that some of our kids were beginning to pick up on this, but truthfully I think it was forgotten when they got to paint with watercolors after finishing their writing for the day (special occasion that was planned weeks before COVID-19 panic aka the one thing that seemed to work out on our very different day). I still found myself reflecting throughout the day and feeling incredibly guilty that some kids were picking up on this panic because school should always serve as a safe and secure environment. I became so cognizant of this throughout the day that I forced myself to take deep breaths when I became overwhelmed so that I could be the best for my kids that I could be in this chaotic scramble.

Eventually, the end of the day came. Again, this was a different feeling. We all love the end to a day filled with chaos, but I did not want this day to end. I did not want to say goodbye to my kids knowing the impact that no school would have on the development that they have worked so hard for. I know that these precautions are appropriate, and I am so grateful that they are being taken for the safety of everyone; however, there is something really tough about saying an indefinite goodbye to your kids in conditions of uncertainty that they cannot wrap their 5 year-old brains around. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to individually tell each of my kids “I love you,” as they headed out the door.

I have only felt my heart break a few times in my 22 years of life. March 13, 2020 was one of those times. So many people in the world do not understand that a school is more than just academics. It is safety, it is social-emotional development, it is a support-system, it is a meal when you need one, it is by no means just academic. I think that is why my heart broke that day and why my hear breaks for every unexpected day that we are not in school because there are so many things that kids depend on within school other than just the academics. A principal that I have worked for back at home the past two summers always describes her school as the land of sunshine and rainbows; however, on the Monday following school shutdowns she posted a picture of an empty building and said a gloomy cloud had cast over the land of sunshine and rainbows. This added a lot more to my heartbreak, but it also provided me with some hope and relief that others had the same love for public education and their kids.

I will reiterate that I am extremely grateful that health and safety precautions are being taken during this situation. I think that from this, I have learned how incredibly grateful I am for public education and the benefits and resources that it provides. I have always been grateful, but my gratefulness has skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks. I hope that I will get the opportunity to teach my kids again, but if not, I cannot wait to do everything that I can to support this time of learning at home. I am so blessed to have an amazing cooperating teacher who is ready to advocate for our kids during this time. I am so blessed to have multiple means of communication with families. I am so blessed to work in a profession that cares and will do anything for their kids during this time.

Most people are sad that the end of college is being taken from them, but I am sad that many of my kids’ first experiences with education and school is being taken from them. In a sense my kindergartners and I are in a similar situation. Both of us have crucial aspects of our lives being disrupted by something unexpected. I know that together we will find a way to accomplish what we set out for. For now, I am ready to advocate for my kids and their education.

Amplify the Inequities

One of the startling (she says, naively) things about this moment is just how comfortable we are with saying, “yes, not all kids are going to be able to access their learning but we have to teach the ones who can.” Kids with disabilities have largely been an afterthought in the pivot online as well. This is not about access to the internet or devices with which students’ can work. Those are tools. This is about the ways in which the inequities that are so embedded in our educational system are amplified in this crisis.

Access to the internet does not equal a learning opportunity. Sending families loads of links and asking students to Zoom for three hour class sessions is likely not conducive to student learning. Worksheet packets of review work or new content without instruction is unlikely to result in meaningful learning. What are we really doing?

States have been slow to issue guidance and support to teachers of kids with disabilities. The federal government has not offered a lot of reassurance. This is all new and all unsettling for so many reasons – unemployment rates are soaring, C19 is directly affecting more and more people every day, the isolation orders keep getting extended, and school years are either hanging in uncertainty or already cancelled. It’s a lot.

But, that does not stop us from reaching out. Do you have a child you serve who has disabilities, specific learning needs, educational challenges that you do not know how to serve in this context? Reach out to the family! Ask them how you can be of support. What would be helpful in this moment? Do they need resources, social stories, visual schedules, task analyses for new parts of the daily routine? Yes, all of our services cannot be delivered with the shelter in place orders but are we doing all we can do in this context? Are we supporting families in the ways they need? Are we staying in communication and offering our problem solving, our listening, our validation?

We choose, as a society, to keep people oppressed. An example of this is all the states who have found money to provide school age children with hot spots and Chromebooks in just a couple of weeks time. Those resources have been there. It took a crisis to get them into the hands of kids. If we believed every child is worthy of equal access, those devices would be issued at Back To School Night.

If we believed kids with disabilities have a right to access a free and appropriate public education alongside their peers, we would design distance learning with them in the forefront, rather than as an afterthought.

Amplify the inequities. Call them out. Let’s let this experience drive educational change. The kids who are readily accessing their distance learning opportunities would have been okay without it – let’s focus on the kids and families who cannot shift this fast. All kids are in the same situation right now, yes, but they are receiving wildly inequitable access. Who will feel the loss of instruction the most?

Humanize Pandemic Pedagogy

Week 3. We are beginning to feel the impact of both the sustained isolation and the spread of the virus. As more and more people are either becoming sick, caring for sick loved ones, or worrying about those who are sick but at a distance, how are we adjusting our pandemic pedagogy?

As schools were closing, the focus was on getting devices and hotspots out to homes and distributing meals and worksheet packets. That makes sense – we’re educators, we get to work solving problems. As we enter the third week, though, we have to start wrestling with the more nebulous questions of this moment. How do we meet the needs of kids who cannot access their learning online? How do we meet the needs of kids who benefit from multiple therapeutic interventions and supports, intensive behavioral supports, life skills curricula? Technically IEPs should be amended to acknowledge the change in placement and to revise the goals and service delivery plans. I haven’t heard of any districts doing that and I understand why. But what are families to do?

Humanizing Pandemic Pedagogy Looks Like

  • Asking kids and families how they are – first, and often.
  • Communicating regularly. Contact 3-5 families each day to check in individually, assess how the workload, the communication, the dynamics are working for them. Adjust accordingly.
  • Expressing flexibility. Let them know you understand they may be working from home, too, they may have several kids who have deadlines and devices limitations, they may be struggling with stress, job loss, illness. Be flexible.
  • Keeping it simple. Send one To Do list per week for kids/families with explicit directions, approximate time commitments, and troubleshooting support. Include the “why” of the task.
  • Building in differentiation with universal designs for learning. You wouldn’t do it all one way in the classroom, so let’s keep our accessible pedagogy going in our pandemic pedagogy.
  • Acknowledging there are very different limitations and barriers in pandemic pedagogy. Ask families what barriers they’re experiencing and brainstorm how to reduce those barriers.
  • Not grading work.
  • Prioritizing social emotional learning above all else. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around what’s happening right now so I know kids are also experiencing all the feels. Let’s plan for it. Plan for those days where it all feels too heavy and like you’re moving through molasses, plan for those days when we need to feel some sense of “normal” so maybe Prodigy is it, plan for those days when we’re feeling lonely and class wide or teacher/student calls/video conferencing can help. Let’s center the kids and prioritize the emotional experiences of this moment.

My hope is that we can take our pandemic pedagogy back into our classrooms next year. We can frame this as an opportunity to make the changes we have long struggled with bringing into reality. We can prioritize kids with disabilities and their families in this moment, we can truly build partnerships, we can see each other and dismantle the “both sides” approach to supporting kids with disabilities in public schools. It does not have to be adversarial, it does not have to be combative, it does not have to be rooted in distrust. This moment calls on us to work together, communicate with each other, and listen. How are you humanizing your pandemic pedagogy?

This is Really Not Going Well

The opportunity to collaborate with and learn with teachers in most states, in rural, suburban, and urban districts, in public, private, and charter schools has truly been eye opening in this pandemic. It’s astonishing how variable states, districts, schools, and individual teachers themselves have responded to this challenge. It feels chaotic, unreasonable, and, frankly, harmful to perpetuate already inequitable educational spaces in the face of a global pandemic.

Some teachers are teaching on Zoom for 3-6 hours a day, some are posting assignments and links to web videos, with Quizstar on Google Classroom and Canvas and Blackboard. Some districts and schools are pausing formal education for all while completing needs assessments of their school community in terms of internet access and devices. Some are requiring synchronous meetings, firm due dates for grades, new material. Some are all asynchronous, all review work, optional participation. Some schools are delivering packets weekly, some are doing online read alouds, some have added reading logs with the intent of encouraging reading at home.

Our educational system is deeply inequitable, always has been. It is designed to exclude kids with disabilities, Black and Brown kids, kids living in poverty, kids with two working parents, kids who need more support to learn, and on and on. Maybe I should say who it is designed for . . . White middle/upper class neurotypical people. And they will likely continue to do well in pandemic school.

I’ve said consistently in the three weeks we’ve been in this transition to focus on keeping it simple, ensuring social emotional connections and wellness first, and remembering that families are coping with job loss, illness, insecurity, increased stressors, child care demands, and more. Homes are not schools. This is not homeschooling. This is maybe some version of hack schooling coupled with a lot of unschooling but mostly it’s just survival. And kids are in the center of all of this mess. They’re powerless, they’re confused about what is expected of them, how long it will last, when they’ll see their friends again. The expectations of schools on kids and families vary so widely from those who have had zero communication (me) and those whose schools are expecting families to replicate the traditional school day with zoom, assignment due dates for grades, and required attendance. The inequity in all of this is staggering.⠀

We don’t have national educational leadership. We don’t have anyone providing teachers of kids with disabilities guidance and support on how to provide services and supports to kids who cannot access their learning online, or how to navigate distance learning for students with disabilities who need more or different supports. We have districts and states taking wildly different approaches with not enough communication. Even within districts and schools, families are navigating multiple messages, competing priorities, and unreasonable expectations.

This is really not going well at all.

As the numbers of confirmed cases and C19 deaths increase, now may be the right time for us to consider what’s reasonable and ethical in a pandemic. We could end the school year now. We can focus on care, meal delivery, social emotional support, movement and wellness, connection. We can assess learning when it’s safe to be together again and determine then what interventions, reteaching needs to happen. We can ask our reps to suspend standardized high-stakes testing for the next two academic years (then forever after that) to allow schools time to guide kids and teachers through this shared trauma.

We could use this as a chance to reset, reevaluate, reassess. Give teachers paid opportunities to engage in meaningful professional development like shared book readings, inclusive planning, and essential dialogue about the inequities in each of our spaces and how we’re going to come back from this with a focus on anti-racist, inclusive pedagogy. We could use this as an opportunity to design something better. We can partner with our families in this work. We can ask them directly how we can support them, what they need, what would be helpful and alleviate stress in this moment. We could design a system that values each of its members.

We’re all in this together.

Make Accessibility a Priority

As we’re all implementing technology to access our learners, it’s absolutely imperative that we prioritize accessibility. “But, Jen, none of my students have hearing impairments.” “But, Jen, I don’t have any students with visual impairments right now.” **Thinks to self: I can skip this content from Teaching Is Intellectual**

But wait!

Everybody benefits from captions and alt text. Everybody. As students are in various contexts, it’s imperative that they can access the content without having to have audio on. Captions benefit those who are learning in an environment where it’s not ideal or possible to use audio, captions improve comprehension by providing a visual check for understanding of the words spoken, and captions make your video text-searchable!

Many of the video tools you may be using, YouTube and Panapto, have transcription built in. If you’re using your phone to record for posting on social media, you need an app for that. On iPhone, you can use Clipomatic. You record your video directly in Clipomatic and upload it from there to your class’s social media site. Clipomatic costs $6 and has many language options. Android and Google users can use AutoCap which works in a similar way as Clipomatic. It’s $4/a month of you can use the free version with a watermark. Both allow you to edit the text before uploading.

Zoom allows for a meeting attendee to type captions during the meeting but does not have built in captioning. Microsoft Teams has live captions in meetings but only in English. We need to be mindful of these limitations in our synchronous group meetings – particularly with the expectation of students attending lectures in Zoom.

Most smartphones are equipped with a number of built in visual accessibility options. This is a great way to test the accessibility of our content. If the phone doesn’t detect alternative text for images to read through the screenreader, you’ll need to add it manually. All the social media platforms have the option to add alt text to your post. Again, alt text benefits ALL learners! It provides text descriptions for photo images so all can read/hear the description if the image fails to load. This provides another means of accessing the content if wifi is spotty or there are other tech barriers.

Accessibility must be a priority, not an afterthought – a built in part of our course delivery design. What other tools do you use to ensure your content is accessible for all learners?

Dear World

I am teacher without a classroom. 

It all happened so suddenly.  I took a nap one Thursday and woke up to find out our spring break had been extended by two weeks.  Fast forward a few days, and the governor closed school buildings for the rest of the school year. 

There are a lot of unknowns right now.  Everyone—kids, parents, and teachers—would feel more comfortable with a definitive plan.  But we are in uncharted territory.  Teachers everywhere have been given very little information.  We don’t wait for people to tell us what to do.  We find solutions for our kids because our kids are what matter most.

Today, I went to my classroom to pack up my kids’ supplies.  Every marker box, keychain, feeling bucket, piece of art work, stuffed animal, first day of kindergarten pictures, and random collections they had started in their cubbies.  It all went into plastic bags for pick up this weekend. 

My classroom is my happy place.  It’s where my kids and I laugh, create, learn, and explore.  Today as I was packing up the things that mean so much to my littles, I cried.  We all left for spring break not knowing we wouldn’t get to come back to our happy place together.

I’m working very hard to find ways to stay connected to my kids.  To find ways to make learning meaningful from home.  To find ways to teach without a classroom.  I’m confident I will find a way.

But tonight, I need to grieve.  I wasn’t done.  We weren’t done.  I lost a lot of time with my kids.  A lot of memories we were supposed to make.  A lot of moments that took us by surprise.  A lot of smiles that told me everything.  I lost a lot.  It hurts in ways most people can’t understand.

We are living in a crazy time.  As you wait for guidance from your children’s teachers, I ask that you give us a little time.  We are fighting to “make everything better” while our hearts are breaking. 


A teacher without a classroom

Humanizing The Pivot Online

Let’s do a little Dos and Don’ts for finishing the semester in a global pandemic.

Do: Ask your students how they are, what they need, what their challenges are, then listen and adapt accordingly.

Don’t: Set inflexible deadlines.

Do: Lighten the load. Yes, there is so much we WANT to get accomplished and it’s imperative that we let go of our wants to focus on our needs. What are program/professional requirements that are inflexible? Reduce the course to those things only.

Don’t: Add anything. Nothing, not a check in, an assignment, a test, a synchronous class session, nothing. Less is more right now.

Do: Revise your grading criteria. Account for the limitations of the circumstances.

Don’t: Allow the demands of the time (e.g. caring for ill family members, being ill themselves, limited access to technology/reliable internet) have a lasting effect on students in the way of GPA or having to retake a class.

Do: Communicate. Students are anxious too! They’re not feeling trusting of faculty to be understanding of their circumstances so let’s stay in communication about our expectations.

Don’t: Expect business as usual. It’s a global pandemic and we’re really just getting started. This is not business as usual.

Do: Finish as soon as you can. If you can finish the course early, do. This will allow students to complete the must-do experiences as soon as possible in the event that they are personally affected by Covid-19.

Don’t: Make this any harder than it is. Yes, our work is so important and our time with students is so important. And, in a global pandemic, health and safety are all that matter.

Now, go wash your hands.

Keep It Simple

It’s overwhelming, the resources, the links, the technology, the acronyms, the expectations, this is all very overwhelming. I am one small voice but hear my whisper into the tsunami, “keep it simple.”

This is not the moment to “redesign education” as the memes and tweets say. This is not the moment to learn MOOCs and LMSs and lecture capture software.

This is our moment to pause. To reflect. To consider what’s important and just focus on that. To keep it simple. Determine first what you need to do – what absolutely must be in done in a global pandemic in order for your students to pass (consider your course pass/fail even if your university does not and do not grade/set inflexible due dates).

Have that in your mind? The most important outcome(s)?

Now, what tools do you need to achieve that outcome? Let’s take an Occam’s razor approach to teaching in a pandemic and say the very most simple, obvious answer is the right answer.

  • Use email! Really – it can be that easy.
  • You likely already have an LMS – upload materials there and open some dropboxes for students to submit work.
  • Add lecture notes to the slides you were already planning to use and upload those/send them out.
  • Keep your tools/tech to three or fewer. For instance, I’m using Slack for nearly everything we will do for the remainder of the course and maintaining our use of email and Google Docs. That’s it – no other tools needed.

Be flexible and responsive and solutions oriented. It’s been said but it’s important to remember – students may have unreliable internet, be in other time zones, taking on additional familial responsibilities, ill themselves or caring for someone who is sick. This is not an extended weather event – this is a global pandemic. Let’s treat each other with care and grace and low expectations. And please please please just keep it simple.

The “Pivot” Online

Like everyone else in higher education, I’m preparing to shift my face to face course to a distance learning model. I’m not calling it an online course because it takes me months to prepare an online course. This will happen in a week and it will be imperfect.

This course is required for future early childhood teachers and it focuses on inclusion. There is a CAEP required assessment in it that is dependent on their field experiences (two full days each week in. K-3 classrooms). The additional assessment activities I include are our Learning Logs (already housed in Google Docs) and our book club (Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby). That’s it – we’ve already established that I am an ungrader and you can go here, here, and here to read more about that.

Teacher preparation is relatively unique because we have multiple accountability structures. We are required to collect data on student mastery of key concepts. This will be my focus for the remainder of this big adventure. So here is how I am approaching the pivot online, maybe it will be helpful for you as well.

  1. I created a Slack channel #surviving-lockdown and invited all 62 students across two sections to join.
  2. I am pushing back book club two weeks so everyone can get their books from dorms and sorority houses they can not yet access (we’re currently still on Spring Break so I have a little wiggle room). When we’re ready, I will create channels in Slack for the book clubs to meet (synchronously or asynchronously, the groups will decide).
  3. We have covered the first three sections of the key assessment already so I am creating mini-lessons with a short podcast and guided PPT to walk them through the how to of writing good goals and objectives.
  4. We will continue to work in our Learning Logs to document our learning and to communicate privately.
  5. I have a fictional case study ready to go for the set of students who have had complications in identifying a student in their placement. This allows them to still get the practice even if they are unable to get back to their classrooms any time soon (our public schools are closed until April 3, as of now).
  6. Those who have enough data already will push those forward. We will focus on giving each other peer and Jen feedback consistently from a distance.
  7. We will communicate. Regularly. Slack has already been amazing for this. We are in communication and we all feel better knowing we have the tools to connect.

We won’t be meeting synchronously. I will be reassuring them that we can figure absolutely anything out together. I’m grateful we had 8 weeks to build trust in each other and establish our relationships. I truly believe we can accomplish what we NEED to accomplish – is it all I would LIKE to accomplish? No. It’s modified. And that’s okay. I’ll be posting resources here, sending them tools, TED talks, documentaries, book titles, trying to give them as many resources as I can while I can.

But I am with them for the duration. Our learning doesn’t stop when the semester ends or the quarantine lifts. They know I have their back and they know where to find me. At least I know I’ve taught them that.

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