Virtual Appreciation Note: Sherri Spelic

I have not done a good job of keeping up with writing these appreciations the way I would have liked. Sigh. So many things I have not kept up with the way I would have liked.

I don’t know how I first found Sherri (edifiedlistener) online. She teaches elementary students P.E. and she lives in Austria so she doesn’t fit in any neat box for why I would know her. But I am so glad I do. First of all, she has completely challenged my thinking about P.E. teachers. Which clearly needed challenging!

Her writing is absolutely gorgeous. One gets the impression that Sherri writes about anything she feels passionately about. Which I greatly respect. This includes her students and teaching, of course. It can also include nature (which I love more theoretically than in reality so reading about it is perfect for me). It also includes equity and systemic racism. Hearing the perspective of a woman of color who grew up in the U.S., has family in the U.S., but lives in western Europe, is fascinating. And I think really important. It is easy for me to get caught up in hearing the same voices or perspectives and thinking I’m hearing everything. Sherri helps me widen what I hear, both with her own writing and with the voices she retweets.

When posts from different people pop up in my RSS reader, I have noticed I respond in different ways. Some are immediate clicks because I know it’ll be fun or light or because it’ll quite possibly be something that only needs a glance. Other posts sit there for a while because I know they need my full attention. I know some people’s writing can’t be read while I’m multitasking in any way. Sherri’s definitely fits in that category. I want to be able to savor her writing. Not surprisingly then, her book of essays is absolutely wonderful. The title alone had sold me, Care at the Core: Conversational Essays on Identity, Education, and Power.

Sherri is, from all I can tell, authentically herself through her writing, on twitter, and in person. I’m not sure that can be said for most of us. It is hard, I think, to be authentically ourselves all the time. It is something about Sherri that I both respect and attempt to learn from.

Kids Make Life Better

This morning I was in a major funk. Situational depression is probably an apt description of where I was twelve hours ago. Hence the blog post I wrote this morning.

Since that time I did go back to bed, read some Agatha Christie, and napped a little. I felt a need to regularly check my Google Classroom and my school email. As a result, I learned I could meet with students during office hours. (For background, the plan – this week – had been to meet with my whole class from 9-9:30 and then do one-on-one meetings with kids between 12-1 each afternoon. The morning time had been canceled but the afternoon was still an option)

I emailed six sets of parents to contradict the email I had sent to 22 sets of parents at 6:00 am. As a result I got to meet with four of the six kiddos I was scheduled to chat with today. I am so grateful for that.

One kiddo could barely sit still as we talked and told me all about how he’s been learning to play Magic the Gathering with his folks. His two younger brothers and dog ran around in and out of camera. It was awesome.

The next kid told me he’s been working on his multiplication facts and reading great books. He’s also been been watching a LEGO YouTube show and trying out new techniques. Apparently he’s built a beach with radioactive sharks. I had so many questions.

My next darling has celebrated a birthday during this time. He told me all about the various Minecraft decorations and cake. He also had multiple videos games to fill me in on.

The last one I talked to today was a kiddo who has had trouble getting the technology to work so we talked on the phone instead. She asked me a number of questions about the technology and I was hesitant to spend a lot of our (hers and mine) time and energy figuring out tech that may not last. So I told her I wasn’t sure what would be happening in the next week and I was worried the district would give up on synchronous meetings, given the problems we’ve faced. She paused, took a deep breath, and said, “You can’t give up!”

Forty-five minutes with four third graders and my day improved drastically. I’m feeling far more hopeful about where we’re going next (of course, twelve hours ago I had given up, so the bar wasn’t very high). The email tonight suggests we’ve got more meetings and training tomorrow and then try out the new plan on Thursday. Fingers crossed.

from Petra de Boevere’s flickr

I Give Up

from Wes Peck’s flickr

Not for good. But for the moment.

All my joy yesterday disappeared when we got the news at 9:30 last night that we would not have synchronous learning times today and it is not clear when we will again.

I have lots of things to think about, things I’m learning through this process about our educational system, about myself, about my priorities, about my children and my husband, about other people. I’ll think about it all at some point.

For today, I’m giving up. I’ll check our Google Classroom to be there for my students. I’ll check my school email to be there for families or colleagues (and to be sure I’m aware of where things are going next, when we actually know).

Otherwise, I don’t think social media will be a healthy place for me today. There will be a lot of disappointment, which I totally get. There will also be a lot of anger and I can’t face that right now.

So, I’m curling up in bed with movies I’ve watched dozens of times, books i can disappear in, and comfort food. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Ranting: A Tad Differently Than Most, I Think

My district has been in the news quite a bit in the past week and not for positive reasons. I haven’t read the entirety of all of these articles so maybe my rant will be off but here’s what it’s looked like for almost a week.

From April 15th: Tech glitches, harassment mar Fairfax County schools’ online learning rollout

From April 17th: a letter to the editor: Fairfax County schools and Blackboard are flunking on distance learning

From April 18th: Failed tech, missed warnings: How Fairfax schools’ online learning debut went sideways

From today, April 20th: Online learning sputters again in Fairfax, as proof mounts that district was warned of issues

We were set to start distance learning (online learning – whatever) last Tuesday, April 14th. It didn’t go well. Classes ended up being canceled for the rest of the week and drastic changes were made to how students access online meeting spaces for class. As well as changes to how to access materials and how much time would be synchronous vs asynchronous options that didn’t require Blackboard.

Today we got back online together. There were plenty of challenges and glitches. Some of them, I believe, came from all of us trying to navigate a new system and not all fully understanding it. Some of them came from the tech not holding up to the demand.

People are really ticked off. I get that. I especially get it for parents who are trying to support their kids’ learning while also working and dealing with myriad other unknown stresses. Teachers are frustrated with all of the time and energy they have put into planning and setting things up only to have things fail again. And we’re all feeling all kinds of emotions simply because we are currently dealing with a pandemic. That definitely adds to it all, for everyone.

So I really do get the frustration.

I just don’t get why anyone thinks any school system should have been prepared for this situation. No one, no organization, no government, no business, not a soul was ready for this situation. It is, as so many keep saying, unprecedented. There are countless possibilities of unprecedented situations for which we are all unprepared. We can not be prepared for everything. That is absurd. We do not have the time, the money, the mental space, or the energy to prepare for all of the possible awful things that could happen.

Should this be going better? More smoothly? I would have liked it to. Very much. We have, however, nearly 190,000 students in more than 200 schools in our district. Those students’ lives and needs range greatly. In the midst of a pandemic our district started serving food to kids and families the first day we were closed. They quickly expanded the sites over the following week. Our district has provided devices, in the midst of a pandemic and stay at home order, to many families. In the academic area, packets have been mailed to K-8 students for weeks now to keep their learning moving forward (this is a far from perfect option but it is definitely helpful for some families) and activities and links were up online almost immediately.

I really can’t wrap my head around why folks think we should have been able to move, in a month, from serving kids almost solely at school to serving them almost solely at home. It doesn’t change that it sucks to be where we are and to keep having things not work smoothly. I know. And I can feel frustrated with that.

What I don’t feel is the need to start throwing blame around. So many who are having blame thrown at them have been working far harder than I have for weeks while living in a pandemic. I’m willing to assume they’re doing their best. Their best just isn’t meeting the massive need we’re currently facing. We’ll have to keep trying. Maybe with a little grace too.

Joy is Winning (at least right now)

I didn’t sleep well last night. It felt like the first day of school. AGAIN.

My team has worked so hard together to create a learning experience we can offer students, with both synchronous and asynchronous pieces. I have worked so hard to make sure everything is totally together and ready and to communicate with families. But we were starting a new way of accessing everything today and it was stressful.

At 8:45 I got logged in to our classroom space, ready for kids to arrive for a starting time of 9:00. From about 8:50-9:15 I juggled interacting with the kids who were in that space (between about 13 and 17 kids throughout our time) and texting and emailing with parents who were having difficulty getting in. Several issues we managed to problem solve so we got almost everyone in during our time. We were able to do a greeting together – which the kids did shockingly independently as they’ve only had two other opportunities to be in this space and learn the tools. And thank goodness because it allowed me to help parents more easily. Several kids shared and were able to answer questions from their classmates. We explored the space a bit more and I walked them through some of the new plans that changed since last Tuesday. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. So good. We saw each other. We heard each other. We laughed together.

One girl wanted to share and she brought her newborn baby sister to the camera. Multiple kids have showed off their dogs. Our learning space is also their homes and, for many of them at least, that seems to have some level of excitement. We can share aspects of ourselves that we weren’t able to do in our school building. They can also turn to a parent for support if they need some help. That’s reassuring for many.

In the afternoon I had scheduled ten minute one-on-one meetings with six of my students. I met with all six. That’s a serious win. One was a boy who was having trouble this morning and never managed to get in. His parents emailed and then we spoke on the phone. Then they texted me photos of the computer screen. Finally we used facetime so I could see the computer and we could try to figure out what was going on. And we did! So I was able to meet with him and he (and his brother) is all set for tomorrow and future meetings.

This is so far from ideal. Not only for educational and academic reasons, but for so many more critical reasons. The levels of stress and anxiety many kids are feeling are no joke. The lack of routine is tough for many. Parents are trying to work, often in the same space with their children, while helping the kids navigate this. Many kids are inside all day, every day. Emotionally, physically, intellectually, socially; this is just really, really hard.

Our thirty minutes together this morning was an absolute joy. The one-on-one conversations I had with kids this afternoon were a gift. At least one kid talked more during that ten minutes than I’ve heard him talk in full days in our classroom.

What we’ve got right now isn’t enough. It isn’t going to meet their needs. (Of course, if we think what we had two months ago was enough and meeting the needs of all kids we are deluding ourselves.) It is, however, something. If kids aren’t able to tackle the academic pieces we are putting out there for them, that is fine. If they want to join us for morning meeting, meet with me to touch base and talk about anything they want (the one kid who talked so much today talked mostly about Fortnite) and ignore all the rest, I’m fine with that. If they want to watch the videos of me reading books but nothing more, that’s fine too. Some kids will want to do it all and that’s fine too.

Being together is worth something. It clearly matters to many kids. It definitely matters to me. I’m glad we had the time we had today. I’m looking forward to the rest of this week. I will still ache a little with how much I miss seeing my kids come in every morning, ready to share something from the past evening with me or ready to hug their friend or ready to get back to some piece of writing they were creating. I will still ache a little with how much I miss their looks of shock when they realize a twist in a book we’re reading or the pride on their faces when they solve something new. I will still ache a little at all we’ve lost. But I will be grateful for the chance to be together.

Ummm…Words are Too Hard Right Now

Time has lost meaning. I have no idea what time of day it is, what day of week it is, what day of the month, what month for that matter, or even what year. I check the date on my watch, on my phone, on our family’s google calendar, really anywhere I can find a calendar. I feel hungry and have to look at a clock to see if it is even remotely reasonable for me to eat another meal already. It’s almost always already and not that I have somehow missed a meal.

The difference between a weekday and weekend is long gone. Remembering when the trash or recycling should go out and actually remembering to bring the containers back in requires a surprising amount of daily effort. My children have had no reason to be up but I’ve insisted on waking them at 9:00 am out of the fear that someday they’ll need to be getting up at 6:00 am again and if they sleep as late as they desire everyday, we’ll never manage that. However, the days when I have actually knocked on their doors at 9:00 have been few. 9:15, 9:30, 10:00, or even later have been more the norm. I just can’t hold on to the time.

My family is keeping me entertained, on the positive side. We laugh far more than anything else. So far, at least. I know that can go wrong at any moment. My teammates at school have definitely kept me going as well. Not only have they been amazing at thoughtfully collaborating on how best to serve our students and their families but they have pivoted time and time again as we’ve had to adapt to changes being thrown at us. Every time any one of us suggests a meeting, everyone is there right away. Ready to work together.

They’re also making me laugh and that is wonderful. We have side chat conversations during meetings about how our online staff meetings are now one teammate’s favorite tv show. Others have suggested it’s a reality show and we’re all trying to be the one voted off. Another suggested that it isn’t that kind of island, no one is allowed off, it’s more like Gilligan’s Island. Seems about right. I just want coconuts to drink out of now.

from Northridge Alumni Bear Facts’s flickr

My head is swimming. (I did not intend a pun on the island theme but I’ll take it.) It seems like my brain can’t hold on to one thought as other thoughts jockey for position and they all shove each other around. My brain is like a bunch of elementary kids heading out of the building for a fire drill. Getting any focus to accomplish anything meaningful is a challenge.

And I keep reminding myself that if I’m feeling this, as an adult with plenty of life experience and ability to deal with my emotions, what it must mean for so many kids. Just one more of those thoughts shoving for space in my head.

Trying to Get it Right

There are never completely right answers in education. Nothing that works for all children at all times. I totally get that and I can accept it. But boy is it making things even harder right now.

Basic timeline for my district’s move to distance learning (as we’re calling it):

March 12, 2020: Kids at schools. A last minute decision has been made for Monday, March 16 to be a teacher workday for teachers to get professional development on distance learning.

March 13, 2020: Schools closed for the day.

By Monday, March 16, 2020, schools closed until after spring break, four weeks away. Clearly folks at high levels were concerned about when we might actually be able to return and began turning wheels. Central office people began creating packets of work for grades K-8 to be mailed to students and placing things on our district’s Blackboard for students. Those same folks as well as school-based technology folks and instructional coaches began receiving training for online instruction.

Week of March 30th: School based folks (teachers, instructional assistants, counselors, etc) began receiving training for the tools to use for online instruction and professional development around how to facilitate such learning in various content areas. Time was also allotted to meet as teams for planning.

Week of April 6: Spring break, technically not working but many folks were in meetings to plan together and problem solve.

This week: Monday was a teacher workday and online instruction began on Tuesday, that would be yesterday.

We had a month from the time we first were out of school until we began online instruction. There were things put into place immediately for students and families that wanted them (packets and lessons in Blackboard). But we were given time to plan thoughtfully. We didn’t jump in immediately and wear ourselves down trying to begin teaching while figuring out what that looks like. We’re still figuring things out, of course, but the time was a gift.

In addition, we are not trying to do online, synchronous instruction for an entire school day, every day. My 3rd graders have one hour of synchronous instruction in the mornings, Monday through Thursday (that is recorded for those who can’t be there then but want to see it later). On those same days there is another hour, in the afternoon, for me to meet with students one-on-one or meet with families. We are providing activities for students to use at other times and the district is still mailing packets each week through the rest of the year. Fridays are reserved for teams to meet and plan together.

At the high school and middle school levels (as I have my own kids at both of those levels), students attend synchronous classes two days per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays for high school and Wednesdays and Fridays for middle school). They meet with four of their classes on each of those days for 45 minutes each. Teachers are available for individual help on the other days. And Mondays are for teachers’ meetings and planning.

The timing for each school level was designed to aid families in sharing devices and bandwith, trying to minimize how many kids might need to be online at any time. It also ensures there are opportunities for students to meet with counselors or other school adults who support them.

We are not assigning grades for fourth quarter. Students can work to raise their grades, but grades can not go down. Nothing we are doing is required for students.

I’m sure there are many things I’m not considering or even aware of but I’m feeling pretty good about how my district has gone about this. I know we aren’t supporting all kids in all the ways they need. I do believe we are trying to do so and trying hard.

from clindstedt’s flickr

Then today, Wednesday, April 15th happened. Apparently there were lots of security issues yesterday with our online platform. Emergency meetings happened last night and again this morning. We delayed classes (online instruction went on a two hour delay – my 13 year old looked at me liked my head was on backwards when I said that this morning) and eventually had to make the decision to cancel. The technology wasn’t holding up to the demand.

I’m not sure what that will mean for tomorrow or next week. I’ve been in two meetings already today and I’ve got two more meetings scheduled. So far. I’m feeling a bit stressed about it but I am grateful to be in a place in which I trust and respect my school administration and those above them. I’m sure there will be mistakes made and more bumps and snags, but it feels better than I would have guessed.

We Can’t Serve All Kids

In my head I’ve been thinking of kids as being in one of two groups at this moment (which is wildly oversimplified, I know):

  1. Kids who need the structure and normalcy in whatever ways we can offer them.
  2. Kids whose lives are completely thrown off right now and are unable to participate in any kind of educational experience.

Again, I realize this doesn’t even come close to including everyone. I promise I get that. Those two groups, though, help me think through what I want to be doing as a teacher right now.

This tweet was shared by several people I follow today.

For those children, of all ages, who fall into group #2, for whatever reasons and there are so many, it is too much to ask them to do school right now. Especially to do it without the full support of their teachers and peers. We may be here virtually but it is no where near the same thing as being there, sitting beside a child, listening to them, watching them, responding to them. In this time when many children are facing uncertainties, fears, anxieties, and quite possibly illnesses and losses, school may not be possible. That is totally reasonable. We shouldn’t ask children to do more than they can right now. Nor should we be placing any burdens on families in this moment. If kids are sleeping more, watching more tv, playing more video games, building with blocks, drawing, whatever it takes to care for themselves mentally and physically, we should celebrate it.

This includes families. If a family, especially with elementary aged children, is overwhelmed right now, school may not be possible. Moving into a completely new way of doing school requires support from adults for younger children. If those adults are working overtime, have lost their job, are working in ways that place them at risk of this virus, or so many other possible stresses, they may not be in a position to help their child(ren) navigate this new way of doing school.

On the other hand, for those children, of all ages, who fall into group #1, we need to be here to offer them whatever we can. For some children, continuing to engage with their teachers and peers, continuing to learn together, continuing to explore history and science and music and art together, will help them get through this time. The structures and routines they’ve known all year can’t continue in the exact same way, but we can offer them as much of the support from relationships and familiar activities as possible.

Another tweet, from edifiedlistener, gets at this too.

Picturing my 22 third graders I feel confident I have kiddos in both groups. Some have a parent who stays at home and is available to help them. Others have one parent and that parent is working from home and is not available to make sure they’re logging on to class and able to navigate things online. The families of my kiddos are dedicated to their children and support them in myriad ways. This moment is not normal. We need to be able to take a step back and do all we can to offer students what they need. And keep in mind that what they need may change at any moment. And multiple times.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Julia Torres

A couple of years ago my children and I had the pleasure of dinner with Julia Torres. I mention this because when her name comes up one of my children will inevitably say, “The queen!” and the other will say, “We stan.” The love for Julia in my household is strong is what I’m saying.

If you aren’t familiar with her, Julia is a librarian at the high school level, having been a language arts teacher prior to that. Her day job is a huge one and she somehow seems to manage to get the right books in the hands of the right kids again and again. A big piece of that, I think, comes from the fact that Julia listens to kids and sees them as full human beings. Her respect for the kids in her care results in respect and, often I suspect, adoration.

In addition to a day job that is seriously demanding, Julia does an immense amount to move our profession forward. She is a co-founder of Disrupt Texts and the work being done there is life-changing, for both kids and teachers. Julia is a Heinemann Fellow and writes frequently.

That, I think, is what makes me view Julia with such awe. She doesn’t rest or sit back and watch. She steps up, again and again and again. She does not hesitate from saying what needs to be said. She does not hold back out of fear. This means that following her – on twitter, reading her blog, attending her sessions at conferences – is always worth it. Because of Julia I have expanded my personal reading as well as my classroom library and read alouds and I am far more aware and thoughtful about choices I make in books I choose, language I use, and lessons I teach. For that I am immensely grateful.

Virtual Appreciation Note: Matt Kay

Somewhere along the line, in the more than a decade of attending EduCon, I realized that if Matt Kay was doing a session, I wanted to be there.(One of the best and worst things about EduCon is that there are several folks I feel that way about…) Matt is an English teacher at SLA and I would love to take his class. I enjoyed my English classes in high school and liked my teachers, but if I could have had the teachers at SLA I’d have made the trade.

Since I first learned that whatever Matt had to say was something I wanted to hear, he has written a book, Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. It’s clearly designed for teachers of high school students, maybe middle school students. I teach 3rd graders. It doesn’t matter. The book is brilliant. When my parents were here visiting not long ago I loaned the book to my dad. He is not and never has been a teacher. He was a computer programmer. He loved the book. Loved it so much he bought a copy so my mother (a nurse) could read it as well. It’s a book that should be read by anyone and everyone.

Take a look at his twitter bio, it’s awesome. He’s a teacher and a writer, but also the executive director of the Slam League in Philadelphia and he coaches basketball and football. That’s a range of interests and, more astoundingly to me, skills that is impressive. When Matt shares videos of his students in the Slam League it is inspiring.

As I think about writing these notes it occurs to me that the people who come to my mind are all folks who put students first. The things Matt does are done with students in mind. When he writes, the book or his columns, the writing is for educators but it is all about how to do better by our students. The respect and care for kids should be a given, but we know it isn’t always, and very few do it as well as Matt. He is also always looking for ways to do it better and credits those who help him in that way. He called out Zac Chase when he shared a strategy he’d learned from Zac to support his students.

I read Matt’s writing and attend his sessions and follow him on twitter because I know he’ll show me new and better ways to do and be, as a teacher and as a person.