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'Making Personal Connections' Will Be Key This School Year

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What key lessons that you learned in the spring are you planning to bring to the new school year and what will they look like on a day-to-day basis?


This new series continues a 25-post "blitz" that began on Aug. 1 supporting teachers as we enter a pandemic-fueled school year.

You can see all the posts from this month, as well as the 60 from the spring, at All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Part One's contributions came from Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Dr. Isabel Morales, and Kiera Beddes.

Today, Amy Klein, Silvina Jover, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, and Douglas Reeves share their lessons.

"Find a way to be personal"

In classrooms regular, special needs, intervention, and now as school librarian at St. Croix Falls Elementary School in rural Wisconsin, Amy Klein has taught every grade. A national-board-certified master teacher in early childhood and middle-level literacy, she holds degrees in English, special education, and reading and has been pushing books on students, her husband, and her own four children for the past 22 years:

As a librarian, my parting takeaway for all my students was a stack of 10 books. The sudden turn of events last March—shut down, distance learning, shelter-at-home—was an unthinkable question mark. Even though I knew students would burn through them sooner than later, books in hands is what I do. Real words on a page, something they can hold in their hands.

My elementary school is not a 1:1 device school. We sent home paper packets every two weeks with work to cover all areas. While many got busy with online lessons, video story times, drawing demos, virtual visits, I decided to go old school. In a printed lesson sent home with our specialist packet, I taught kids how to write and address a letter. We (art, music, counselor, principal, librarian) included our addresses, encouraged kids to write, and then proceeded to send every kid in the school a handwritten letter. I wrote over 120 myself. Parents were deeply appreciative. The 50-plus handwritten letters I received back from my kindergarten through 4th grade students are treasures, tangible proof that a connection was made. Kids assured me they were reading and they missed me. too.

The key lesson I will carry with me to the new school year is this: Find a way to be personal. We can't hug. We can't be near each other. We can't even see each other's smiles. 

I can't teach anyone anything unless they know I care for them. Teachers, in their endlessly creative ways, will reflect on the experience of last spring and no doubt develop ways to educate whether school is face to face, blended, or remote. Daily extraordinary ways to prime learning with a personal connection may be the true essential standard that makes the difference between engaging or not at all.

Making personal connections with students is nothing new. Hattie's effect-size research and simple gut intuition underline the necessity of building relationships to student engagement and thus, learning. But there's a lot that is new about what may be the learning environment this fall: social distancing, face masks, internet lags, wider-spread absence disable the usual means we give and get feedback. This calls for a doubled-down focus on choosing, fostering, and building teaching routines that ensure personal connections. Here are a few ways: 

  •   Check in regularly. Call those who are disengaged and absent.
  •   Spend 1:1 time in virtual classroom settings conferencing about reading and writing
  •   Create routines that are adaptable from face-to-face classroom to virtual.
  •   Set up blogs for a digital forum and connection between students.
  •   Write notes. Give kids something to hold on to and keep.

When everything looks like uncertainty, sharing and connecting personally is our primary objective.    

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Parent engagement

Silvina Jover is a bilingual social studies teacher in Las Vegas. Originally from Uruguay, she has been an educator and advocate for immigrant students and their families in the U.S. for the past seven years. Her background in fields outside education brings a unique perspective into her pedagogy, which is focused on the development of critical-thinking skills and rooted in an understanding of the cultural wealth of each of her students:

Imagine being a 15-year-old high school student and having your Mom or Dad crash your U.S. history Google MEET class... for all your classmates to learn that you didn't go to bed until 4 a.m., and that's the reason your hair looks so funky (no, it wasn't the bad lighting or the poor quality of the camera!).

I teach bilingual social studies courses at my high school, and my students and their families are primarily Spanish-speaking Latinx immigrants. Maybe it was because I tend to create good relationships with my families, or it might have been simply that the parent was walking by and got curious about our meetings, but the fact is that last semester, parents saw a direct line to their children's teachers. Teachers in the Clark County school district (Las Vegas and beyond) went "back" to school this week, and, for the next 20 days, we will be trained on everything and anything digital since our Semester 1 will be entirely in the distance learning modality. Creating digital spaces is one of my main priorities this semester, and as I read the email from my son's high school answering the question, "What are the expectations for parents during an active online class?," I get the feeling that it's a shared goal as the principal asks parents not to ask questions during live lessons, etc.

Group parent-teacher conferences are part of our Latinx culture, something I have yet to see happening on a frequent basis in American schools. Back in Uruguay (and most South American countries), parents would be required to appear at school once a month for a General Parent-Teacher Conference. Parents would be grouped together by period; teachers would provide a general update of their courses, and then parents would have some time to approach teachers individually. It is time-consuming and it entails a lot of effort in organizing, as well as disposition of after-school hours, but it is one of the most effective ways of interacting with parents. Technology is on our side for this endeavour, so why not create that space! A General Google MEETs for Parents on a bi-weekly and a per-period basis. That will be happening this fall 2020 in my virtual classrooms, and I hope it will in yours, too. If there is a language barrier, just remember that Google has an Interpreter Mode that can assist you with that challenge or, in the case of secondary school families, you could ask the help of your already bilingual students for some extra credit. 

The content of these virtual meetings for/with parents doesn't need to only be limited to classroom content or the one-on-one about their child. It could be used as an opportunity to train our parents on the different digital tools that the school will be using and even to train the parents on the intricacies of the American school system, which many of them don't understand because they were never showed around. And, in many instances, this is one of the predominant reasons that might explain their lack of communication or engagement with the schools.

Yesterday, a friend asked me how are we going to guarantee that the students will be on time in front of their computers to attend class. And the answer was simple and humble: We NEED parents to be part of the team. And to be able for this to happen, educators need to create and nurture a relationship with them as much as they do with their own students.

weneed.png

 

"Consistency coupled with flexibility"

Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona is an ethnic-studies activist and organizer from East Los Angeles who has been a high school teacher for 20 years. She is proud of her work as a facilitator of re-membering the self through auto-ethnography and counter-narrative:

What I have learned is that students appreciate consistency coupled with flexibility.  Once we went virtual learning, I grappled with this fine line of facilitating learning and critical analysis with not wanting to push them over the edge with overwhelming projects. Our students come from diverse home situations, and what works for one family might be completely unthinkable for another.

So I created a daily journal experience as part of my YouTube channel called Community Couch Time. What I have learned is that students love having consistent connection to their teacher and their scholar peers, but they also like that they can check in when they are ready and able to.  Whether or not we go back or remain virtual in the fall, I'm going to continue to record these daily morning journals.  The relationship building I have been able to foster through this has been priceless.

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Forget "averages"

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at [email protected]:

Two key lessons from the spring of 2020: First, heroism is not a strategy. While it is true that many teachers and administrators did extraordinary work over very long hours, burnout is not a sustainable plan for education. Another important lesson of the spring of 2020 was that schools really can use the latest and best evidence to evaluate student achievement and not use the average of throughout the semester. The old excuse that "the computer makes us use the average" is finally buried, and, long after COVID-19 is behind us, we can leave the use of the average in the dustbin of discredited pedagogical practices.

heroism.png

Thanks to Silvina, Amy, Guadalupe, and Doug for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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