In our Transformational Leadership work with schools, we see a variety of challenges that schools are facing in virtual learning, teaching, and leading. Virtual and hybrid models are in flux and school leaders are struggling to stay on top of a myriad of potential issues. Through all of this, two things are at the heart of all of our conversations: teachers feel overwhelmed with the amount of work and time it takes to teach virtually, and they miss connecting with their students the way humans connect best,in person.
Here at the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership our heart aches when we hear teachers share their stories of challenge in this time. As one elementary teacher put it, “I feel like I’m a robot trying to teach through a digital screen to other squirmy, bored robots. What’s the point?” Teachers are working overtime to “deliver curriculum” mandated by states and districts. To add to the robot metaphor, in a variety of districts we talk to across the country, a specific schedule and content is also mandated or “pre-programed” from the top down. Teachers have to be on and off the screen at the exact times as everyone else in the district, leaving no room for the schools to be creative in their scheduling in order to best serve the families and the learning of their students.
These schools and districts are well-intentioned, of course. They don’t want students to “fall behind” even in the midst of an unprecedented game changer like this pandemic. The theory is that if they keep teachers accountable and pre-programmed, the teachers will experience less confusion or uncertainty and do a better job. The thing is, teachers and students aren’t robots. They are smart, dynamic humans who need extra support for deeper teaching and deeper learning during this time, not extra compliance and accountability measures.
In their book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, Jal Metha and Sarah Fine write that in normal non-pandemic teaching conditions, teachers report that district pacing guides are one of the top three factors that limit their ability to engage in deep learning (teacher evaluations and state tests are the others). “Conversely, students said that almost every memorable deep learning experience came when they had the “time and space to go deeper.” So, what if student connection and engagement in learning were the ultimate goals? How would that change things?
First, schools would slow down and go deeper. This isn’t a new concept, but it’s particularly salient right now. A teacher can spend hours putting together lessons that skim the surface of multiple writing standards, while students do their best to navigate the online interfaces of Google Docs, Google Classroom, or online platforms that help organize learning. Maybe the students learn the content; maybe they don’t. Teachers with whom we speak report a number of variables they are dealing with daily: technology challenges, technology distractions, parents over-helping, parents not helping enough, students not having the right materials, students easily plagiarizing work. Given these variables, it is really hard to figure out what students actually understand in any given lesson. Teachers then feel pressure to move forward in the curriculum anyway, because the prescribed curriculum demands it, forcing upon teachers an antiquated and industrial model of education that negates the human factor in learning. This isn’t deep teaching. It’s going through the motions and both students and teachers are suffering.
It’s time to slow down and prioritize depth, not breadth. Slowing down allows teachers to find creativity their teaching. Imagine what could happen if a teacher read to students or assigned students to read an age appropriate published biography. Now imagine them studying the elements of the story of that biography – the struggle, the personal journey, the character transformation, etc. A teacher could then extend the learning such that students are asked to write their own biography (some folks will recognize the bump up to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, level 4). Now imagine a teacher working with the art or music teacher to help her/him design a hands-on project where they make a diorama, or design a retablo, or paint a story gourd or they create a biographical song or rap. They can take a video or make audio recordings and share with their teacher and classmates explaining the elements of their story as a summative assessment. It’s easy to see where literacy elements of writing, storytelling, the hero’s journey, plot, etc. can all fit. This type of project makes the learning tangible, visible and relevant. The relevance creates greater engagement which deepens the learning.
The project example above is the brainchild of two teachers who are collaborating right now. This project is becoming a reality with 5th grade students at one of the TLI schools, Aspen Magnet Community School in Santa Fe, NM (a urban public school serving a diverse group of students, 100% of whom are on free and reduced lunch). It’s not just at Aspen where this is happening. There are a smattering of teachers in a variety of schools that are doing projects like this even as they feel the pressure to comply with district-mandated measures.
But why don’t most teachers do this type of project? The most common answer we hear is that “it takes time for planning and collaboration, time that we just don’t have.” And we can’t deny that this is true. If schools and teachers try to teach every standard and implement every preprogrammed curriculum with perfect fidelity, teachers will run out of time and energy before the deeper learning even starts. Students will continue to feel isolated by work-sheet style, surface level learning. Students will continue to feel like they’re just being talked at through a screen, which leads to boredom, exhaustion and disconnection from their learning. So what’s a school or teacher to do? Jal Metha and Shanna Peeples recommend that schools and teachers use the “Marie Kondo” the curriculum. They recommend “that we identify key topics that ‘spark joy,’ particularly topics that can enable teachers to hit upon multiple learning goals at once.”
Peeples suggests two questions for teachers to consider that gets to the heart of choosing deeper learning:
1. What do you want your students to love?
2. How can your students use what you’re teaching them to understand the world and respond to its problems?
This doesn’t mean that you throw out the state standards. As Linda Henke, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Center for Transformative Education says, these standards should inform the teaching and learning but not dictate it. It just means that you focus on the standards that are central to what students really need to learn. This leaves you time and energy to activate deeper learning using creative, inquiry-based and exploratory methods of teaching. This type of teaching sparks joy, engagement and positive connectedness. All things our students and teachers need in large doses right now.
Here are some things to think about and try in order to both simplify and deepen the learning in your virtual classroom and school:
Linda Henke offers the appropriate acronym, WIREDD, to help us think about how to structure a week of learning during pandemic times:
Write: Students and teachers can decide what to write about together or teachers can guide students with a relevant resource as in the project described above. Keeping a journal about their thoughts during the pandemic time is a valuable exercise to help students learn how to express their ideas on paper.
Investigate: What if math lessons were investigations? Henke offers the idea of showing the statue of David by Michaelangelo, who Frederick Boleman said “saw a David in a chunk of marble and then chipped away the surplus.” Then ask students to pick something in their house like a chair and ask them to think about how big a block of marble would have to be in order to carve that chair. You could include simple measurements of sides or extend it to include calculations of area, or volume, depending on the standards of your grade level.
Read: Students should have time to read together and/or offer time to read on their own. Sustained, silent reading has positive effects in reading proficiency and in creating habits of lifelong readers. A key to learning here is to have students dialogue about their reading with each other and with the teacher.
Empathize: Intentionally create moments in the day where students are asked to empathize with one another, with characters in a story, with their family members, etc. One good way to do this is by creating empathy maps with kids. Also, when students are given the space to ask questions of one another, they begin to understand the other’s perspective, something that is foundational for empathy building.
Discover: This is where the inquiry-based classroom comes in. Students can explore any number of things around their home. For example, they could draw a picture or write using descriptive language about a particular place outside their house or apartment. They could return to this place throughout the year and draw or write about the changes they see. They can create list of questions about what they see and then research the answers. Students can also conduct experiments in their homes using household objects and materials such as soap, sand, water or gravity, all with household objects. Here’s 50 experiments students can do with materials they have at home.
Draw: Yes. Draw. Research shows that drawing is actually a highly effective way to lock in the learning for students. Students can be asked to draw first drafts of papers or stories they want to write, or responses to a lesson. They could be asked to draw as a formative assessment during a unit. A great way to organize all this drawing is through the use of interactive notebooks.
Other ways for teachers to find support in adding creativity and exploration to their teaching:
● Sit down (virtually) with teachers in your school. Bring an assignment idea you have and ask the other teachers to help you tweak the assignment to deepen the learning. Sometimes fresh eyes are just what we need to find the missing pieces that turn an okay idea into a great idea that leads to deeper learning. Use the TLI Assignment Analysis rubric (adapted from edtrust.org) to help guide the conversation. A 45-minute collaborative conversation with a colleague can be the difference between agony and joy for a two-week unit.
● Reach out to other teachers (even at other schools) to see what they are doing to be creative in their classrooms. We’re all in this together and our professional learning communities can extend beyond our schools. Talking to another person who teaches the same or similar grade can be a refreshing human experience. Plus, we all borrow ideas from others. It’s how we spread goodness in the world
.● Reach out to an expert or two in the community and have the experts join you virtually to talk to your students about a certain subject. It works even better if you ask the students to prepare questions or presentations that the expert can comment on. The use of technology has actually broadened our community to include people from other parts of the state or the world!
● Deepen your Compelling Purpose. This set of activities, designed by Linda Henke, helps teachers explore their compelling purpose (vision or mission of their school) and move the school toward their collective aspirations.
We hear a lot that “these are challenging times.” However, maybe these times are ripe for innovation and transformation. We can choose to spend our energy holding on tightly to the way things were, or we can use this energy to look for opportunities to innovate, create, and try new ways to engage our students and deepen their learning. As districts, administrators and teachers figure this out in the virtual world, just imagine what they will be able to transform when they come back together in schools and classrooms.