BLTN Classroom Spotlights: Virtual Visits to Teachers’ Communities, Schools, and Classrooms

Jun 3rd, 2022 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Spring / Summer 2022

“Educators spend most of their time distanced from their colleagues. Instead of forcing them to compete with each other, we should help them find new ways to work together.” By Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin

Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin, “Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers are too Isolated,” The Atlantic, April 17, 2012

Even before the pandemic, teacher isolation has been part of the structural landscape of American education. The pandemic, combined with increasingly teacher-proofed curricular reform movements, has created a perfect storm of isolation. One of the longstanding commitments of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network is to provide a supportive community to work against this isolation. 

Last summer, during one of our weekly meetings, I mentioned the idea of fellows occasionally inviting the rest of us into their classrooms–not to showcase “best practices” but to simply give us a glimpse of their teaching contexts, and to invite us to think with them about a few challenges they’re facing. Several members of our cohort responded positively, and so we created a sharing series we coined “Classroom Spotlights.” 

In August, Genithia Hogges shared the travails of creating a new classroom space from scratch. Genithia, who teaches elementary music at The Arlington School in Lawrence, Massachusetts shared this “photo voice journal” documenting four days of classroom setup or an “extreme music classroom makeover” as she put it. Commenters could relate to the inevitable scrounge for basics–adequate furniture, for example–in basements and storage areas, and we were all impressed that Genithia’s classroom contains a literacy nook with a comfortable reading area and stimulating texts.

New texts in Genithia Hogges’ music classroom at Arlington Elementary in Lawrence, MA.

September brought us from Massachusetts to Kentucky and the classrooms of Hannah Lipman and Hillary Howard-Fredrick. Hannah, at Newburg Middle School in Louisville, shared a photo of her student-created expectations and asked us to weigh in on how we create expectations and agreements with students. She also posted a video tour of her classroom and tapped our thoughts on a range of topics, from COVID-19 mitigation to technology integration. Follow-up discussion included the nuances of bell ringers, exit slips, group work, and “tech fatigue”. 

Hillary’s questions to her peers (warming us up for her classroom tour at East Jessamine High School in Nicholasville) bear repeating: “How are you, really? How has this school year been treating you? How is it similar to/different from last year? What are some classroom routines that you couldn’t live without? What are some organization hacks you’ve found that make the clerical side of teaching easier?” Responses affirmed the value of choice in opening activities from independent reading to journaling and drawing. 

In October, Leslie Schallock brought us through local neighborhoods to involve us in a virtual field trip for her incarcerated students at a secure juvenile justice facility in Virginia. The trip was part of her “Ekphrastic Tuesdays” series with her students, prompting them to write about outdoor art selected by the University of Virginia’s Fralin Art Museum. Leslie’s spotlight prompted discussion about others’ experiences with art integration.

We stayed South for November for visits to South Carolina with Kayla Hostetler and back up to Virginia with Colin Baumgartner. Kayla’s Aiken High School students gave insight into their experiences in the pandemic, and offered their opinion on the dynamics underlying what Kayla reported as a lot of incomplete work. Mendi gave an extraordinary survey of students’ social and emotional challenges and Jabrasia spoke directly to difficulty retaining information. Colleagues responded thoughtfully on that challenging balance of listening and empathizing and still providing a rigorous and challenging learning environment. 

In Henrico County, Virginia, Colin teed off his spotlight with evocative questions for us, followed by a video classroom tour with some fresh perspectives from his students. 

  • How do you maintain optimism in an environment that is increasingly negative?… How do we sympathize with exhausted colleagues without allowing the doom and gloom to cloud the day?
  • The kids are going through so much. I’ve had countless kids out due to health issues, deaths in the family, mental health crises, &c. I am finding that it is difficult to take in all the pain my kids are going through—let alone support them through it. How are others coping with the emotional strain of these various roles?
  • I am seeing how the top-down approach toward curriculum is driving more and more young people away from the profession. … How are others navigating a dynamic where there is less and less autonomy in the classroom? Have you been able to adapt well-intentioned—but perhaps somewhat misguided—initiatives so they work for the kids in your room?

In December, Samantha Harlow (Townshend, Vermont) queried the group about “resources to help students work with unfamiliar (either foreign language or vernacular) words in a culturally sensitive way”. We took a break in January, but by February, Cole Moran followed his BLTN presentation with a classroom discussion protocol he used with students learning to take a critical stance on a re-design proposal for their school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and for a unit on Parable of the Sower. Later in the month, Erin Tabor showed us her working portfolio system, including a student reflection on feedback process, as she invited us to share how we facilitate student reflection on learning progress. Additionally, she provided a set of links for “labor based grading contracts.”

February also brought mid-year reports from fellows, including this share from Collin LaJoie (M.A. ’21) of Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, KS.

As a result of our [Racial Equity Committee] data-gathering, we presented our administration with the next steps to address racism and inequity at our school. …[W]e were able to plan our first annual Black Lives Matter Week at School, which corresponded with the first week of Black History Month. Each day had a different theme and our equity group split the responsibilities for each day. In addition to creating a landing page as a resource for teachers, we tasked our event-planning students to staff a table in the social hall to engage students. 

I co-planned Monday’s events around the theme of “Restorative Justice, Loving Kindness, and Empathy.” As part of the Human and Public Service Academy, my students focus on law enforcement and legal professions, and our elective teacher is passionate about restorative practices. So, our students created a tri-fold presentation about the school-to-prison pipeline and how restorative practices help to address this issue that they then presented to other students in the lunchroom. This is was also an opportunity for them to promote our forthcoming peer mediation, aka “youth court,” program. My colleague and I also created a series of affirmations and printed them out on colored paper for the staff to distribute to their students to spread around the school with such statements as, “you are loved,” “you inspire me,” and “you have something important to say,” among others. Finally, I created two large posters that posed the question, “What do you love about you?” I put these posters in the social hall and invited students to contribute with their own statements of self-love.

Collin LaJoie, 2021-2022 Endowed Audacity Fellow

March brought a detailed set of slides from Sara Taggart, who gave us specific examples across her classes of how she emphasizes “personal culture knowledge building, reflection, and social emotional learning” with her Columbus, Ohio students. This culture-building work was central to her mission to re-engage students after pandemic education, embrace the “learning in community spaces” BLTN focus, and also formed a foundation for her exchange this year with Monica Rowley and her students.

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Finally, in April, we closed out our year of virtual classroom visits with a podcast on podcasting provided by Anna Loome of Millinocket, Maine. Anna’s “Call of the Loome” episode, “Podcasting for Teachers,” drew on her experience with middle school podcasters to provide a realistic primer on the art, from purpose setting, to genre analysis, to scaffolding, to student examples.

While we may not have solved the problem of teacher isolation during this extraordinarily difficult year, I think we invented a new way to work and share together. We all look forward to carrying this spirit of invention and collaboration into the summer and school year that follows. 

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