Reimagining the Classroom: BLTN Teachers Offer Support and Strategy

May 21st, 2020 | By | Category: Featured, Spring 2020
by Tom McKenna, Director of BLTN Communications

I’ve facilitated hundreds of teacher conversations over distance in my career. This spring’s convenings of the 2019-20 Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN) fellows to discuss the realities of reinventing and reimagining their work in the face of the global COVID-19 epidemic have been gatherings I will never forget. BLTN teachers from South Carolina to California, and many places in between, have been voluntarily gathering this spring to share notes on their experiences, and to support one another in the radical challenge of reinventing school from a distance.

View BLTN teachers’ accounts’ of reinventing their practices during the pandemic on Flipgrid, a tool many are using to connect their students: https://flipgrid.com/be0ea488 .

Fellows’ concerns have ranged from student, family, and teacher wellness, to ways to reach those without connection to school, to ways to build more personal interaction and to sustain and build relationships over distance. These conversations have been a remarkably generous and productive sharing of strategies, struggles, and resources. 

Attending to Student, Family, and Teacher Wellness

One teacher spoke about the high numbers of youth suicide threats and concerns her district had been receiving. Colleagues have shared concerns for youth mental health and anxiety, and have suggested outreach via phone calls, using simple Google surveys or emotional check-ins with questions tapping basic human and family needs (general health, sleep, breathing, food, etc.) before getting to curricular issues. On a related note, one teacher shared how she is using these forms for a workload check in, to gauge how long assignments are taking, and to identify students who could use some personal attention and/or assignment modification. Many agreed that student feedback suggested that workloads and time demands were heavy. BLTN teachers then processed together how to keep from overwhelming students and families, how to avoid busy work, give students choice in assignment and platform formats, keep interactions personal and meaningful, and communicate as faculties across disciplines.

Teachers in urban and rural settings, from New Mexico’s pueblos to Columbus, Ohio underscored their call to meet basic needs, finding and feeding students through personal phone calls and deliveries. Michael Martinez of Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS), spoke of traveling long distances to deliver packets of material to remote pueblos, packets with “a mixture of our core content and core values that are modeled after our tribal values.” See a recent article on  the SFIS approach here. And Kayla Hostetler, of Aiken, South Carolina, created the “Ms. H. Book Mobile” in the back of her van. “Many of my students don’t have access to books they want to read,” she explained. “The kids email me what they want to read from my class library and I drop books off at their doorsteps — after Lysol spraying each book.”

Even as they participate in supportive networks like BLTN, teachers are finding themselves bombarded with new demands and online resources. BLTN Fellow, Lauren Jewett recently published the article,” How I Navigate the Coronavirus as an Educator with Anxiety” at Understood.org. High among those demands is keeping learning accessible for all. Teachers have shared some specific strategies for accommodating students’ learning styles, special needs, and language development needs. Jacob Wunsch of Denver spoke of how for a given class session teachers worked in teams, with one person recording a read-aloud of the day’s text, one person creating language supports for the assignment, and one person creating a version of the text with background information, summary statements, and other supports. (See Lauren Jewett’s “How I’m Leading Remote IEP Meetings” for a focused discussion of facilitating comfort, teamwork, and productivity in remotely held IEP meetings.) Emma Pampanin of Boston explained how she encourages her English Language Learner students to converse via Flipgrid with students in Michell Fountain’s classroom in Vermont in order to keep practicing their language skills. 

From one meeting to the next, teachers shared not only how they were surviving and striving to meet student needs, and how they were coping with “Zoom fatigue,” but they gave sparkling accounts of the sources of joy they were finding despite quarantined life. Brent Peters of Louisville, KY talked about teaching his high school students alongside his kindergarten son, and marveling at the invention and care of his son’s teacher. Teachers shared books they were reading, journaling practices, gardening and walking rituals, even the coming of a new baby. When I asked the BLTN teachers what they wanted to discuss together, one captured the spirit of the gathings by saying, “I just want to check in and see your encouraging faces.” 

Some Tools for Connection and Reinvention

A network of primarily English and Language Arts teachers like BLTN may seem like an unlikely source for technological expertise, but perhaps because BLTN teachers commit (in the best of times) to giving their students learning experiences across distances, they have been uniquely positioned to re-tool, and to support one another via remote connections. Here’s just a quick sample of some of the resources and innovations teachers have shared.

  • Office Hours: YouCanBookMe allowing students to sign up for time slots and giving notifications. WhatsApp to send voice memos checking in with students and letting them know the teacher is online and personal interactions.
  • Screencasting for Online Instructions: Screencastify 
  • Personal, Synchronous Conversations: Zoom, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and GoogleMeet (One participant favored GoogleMeet for screen captioning tools.)
  • Asynchronous Written Discussions: GoogleClassroom, Padlet (allows for moderation of discussion)
  • Hard Copy Work: Journaling to include daily nature observations, noting seasonal change, rituals, etc. 
  • Feedback, Rubrics, and Assessment: Much conversation about the value of giving a wide range of choice in demonstrating learning. Also: Embedding rubrics into GoogleDocs, using GradeTransferer for entering grades, and using Kaizena for recording spoken feedback on GoogleDocs.
  • Managing Video Content: Using EdPuzzle for embedding questions and responses in YouTube videos, and FlipGrid for sharing student (and teacher) response to work via video clip. 
  • Interactive Content: One teacher invited all to collaborate in the April Dear Poet Project from Poets.org, and another talked about the value of the daily prompts for her student writers in the New York Times  Learning Network. Others discussed online resources and shifts from the College Board for Advanced Placement students. 

A Window for Systemic Change?

In our dialogue about the lasting effects of the pandemic’s disruption of educational norms, one BLTN participant wrote, “My biggest fear is that this online experience will permanently shift the educational landscape and bureaucrats will finagle a way to make education more institutionalized for the sake of the dollar.” Another cautioned about the dangers we face in “falling back to systemic defaults in times of crisis” —defaults that have marginalized children and families experiencing poverty and disability. But she also noted the corresponding opportunity to practice “universal design” in online settings, allowing many modes of access for children with differing learning styles and needs, with greater choice and input into assignments. 

What should the BLTN know about your experience (as a student, and educator, or a parent) during the pandemic? We welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

5 Comments to “Reimagining the Classroom: BLTN Teachers Offer Support and Strategy”

  1. Hillary Howard says:

    Looking forward to trying out some of these ideas in the fall!

  2. Collin LaJoie says:

    Much love and support to BLTN! <3 While remote teaching, I stumbled upon this EXCELLENT tool for discussion that can even be used during live discussions: https://parlayideas.com/. Fees were waived during shutdown, and tech support was super helpful and responsive. I absolutely, emphatically agree that basic human needs come FIRST because no meaningful learning can happen if the bottom of that pyramid (see Bloom's taxonomy), in the minimum, is not addressed. That said, I agree with the fear about the privatization of education to online platforms, but what's more, the heart and soul of what we do is at stake. States are trying to "open up" at any cost, including risking the health and lives of students, teachers, and staff at school, and it has more or less been outright stated that schools are necessary because they provide food and safety to children and allow their parents to work, thus bolstering the economy. This is a fundamental understanding about what I do. Yes, I help take care of kids, but I am NOT a babysitter, and education is not just about building factory workers. I am equipping human beings with tools to navigate an increasingly complex and dangerous world as well as helping them to appreciate the beauty in this world through art. Does any decision-maker actually understand this? Our kids are NOT MEANS to and end, but are an END in and of themselves. They have value beyond work force, beyond statistics. They have value because they are human, and education should embolden their humanity, not cheapen it.

  3. Kurt Ostrow says:

    I really share the concern that this will be a moment of disaster capitalism. We know that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, privatizers demolished the New Orleans public schools, fully replacing them with charter schools. I’m worried that so-called education reformers and companies like Pearson will exploit the pandemic, pushing an agenda to break unions and cut teachers, replacing them with digital devices and platforms. I imagine educator unions—in alliance with students and families—may have to be ready to beat back this attack and to try to use this moment to dream of how education should really be. In Massachusetts, for example, because we suspended MCAS (the high-stakes standardized test that’s a graduation requirement) for the pandemic, my union is calling for its permanent end. As the BLM rebellion roils on, we’re particularly drawing attention to the racist origins of these tests in the eugenics movement and their ongoing racist impacts.

  4. Anna Russell Thornton says:

    In the spring, I had very little control over my classroom–understandably so. My district prioritized students having equitable access to the online learning experience, so we distributed asynchronous work with lesson videos created by district leaders, and we were limited to using only Microsoft Teams for lessons, grading, and communicating with students. If we return virtually in the fall, I hope that we are able to find a way to give teachers more autonomy over their classrooms while still ensuring access for all students! Would love to try some of these out!

  5. E Pampanin says:

    I recently attended a peaceful protest and heard one of the speakers reference an article by novelist Arundhati Roy that introduced the term “pandemic as portal.” In other words, can the silver linings of this pandemic reveal to us what a more just, environmentally friendly, and communal world looks like? The idea gave me hope because while i of course acknowledge the trauma and pain this moment is causing, it has also forced conversations and ideas long overdue. In a recent webinar educator and activist Bettina Love made the point that the powers that be have “shown their hands” when it comes to education. We now know that it IS possible to get all kids fed, it IS possible to get technology in the hands of every student, and it IS possible for racist standardized tests to be disregarded, potentially for YEARS at a time. As an educator, this experience has revealed the deep inequities in education in a very raw way, but also has given me hope that an important conversation is starting on the role education plays in society. Pandemic as portal.

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