no cape required

Have you ever seen or heard this one? “I teach. What’s your superpower?” It’s on shirts, mugs, plaques and all sorts of other tchotchkes. I’ve heard it at conferences and keynotes too and it never fails to make me chuckle when I do because it seems like a humble brag even though it is true. To continue the candy coated clichés then, it comes as no surprise that each educator possesses super powers that they use everyday.

You know the ones I’m talking about. Pivoting (easy stomach) to emergency online learning with little to no notice, covering classes while losing prep after prep due to a lack of available occasional teachers due to illness or quarantine requirements, putting on a brave face for students and colleagues who are showing the signs of anxiety at the edge of a nervous breakdowns, and facing a barrage of unrealistic expectations from system leaders who are decades between the classroom and the boardroom. I guess the capes these superpowers come with are back ordered due to supply chain issues like our HEPA filtration units, school nurses, RAT tests, and consistent policy. 

Cape or no cape, I guess it’s not bragging when it’s backed up with actions because I know that it is happening in classrooms in Ontario and beyond on a daily basis. 3 weeks into the new year and the shift is coming to relax restrictions rather than enforce measures to protect the public. Each day another classroom is emptied while caretakers “sanitize” because another student departs with symptoms. Each day our front office team deals with 20% more calls and reports of COVID related absences of students. Each day we prepare to accommodate learners who have stayed home able to choose the hybrid option. Each day the struggle to see something positive in every situation becomes more difficult even for the most enlightened optimists among us. 

That is why, this post comes with its own irony, as I write this month, because it is taking all of my superpowers as an educator just to get through each day right now. I truly believe that it is not normal to wake up feeling restless or trudging home with little left in the emotional tank for family let alone friends or additional school work such as planning and assessment. It is taking every ounce of my superpowers to find the air and the serenity right now. Each exit from school at day’s end feels like emerging from underneath water to finally draw an overdue breath of air. 

The move to online and then back to the classroom this month with little to no regard to the wellbeing of students or educators is once again due to negligence and dereliction of responsibility by the current government. There’s nothing better than making sure families start the year wondering and witnessing ongoing acts of orchestrated distraction, unchecked number vomit news pressers, and photo ops provided confusion in the media for the public. These stage managed wretched events only amplified how an out of touch premier and his party of gaslighting grifters are able to go to inconvenience a province and its 2 000 000 students and make it sound like they are doing their jobs.

It is political performance art at its worst through a series of non-messages, announcements about announcements and off news cycle timing intended solely to keep everyone stuck to a web of distraction and uncertainty woven by political incompetence. It is also the kryptonite that weakens education and civil society at the expense of future generations who are only learning about their super powers in our classrooms. 

Thank you for reading and for sharing your superpowers. 

Please note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Reframing our mindsets around pandemic learning and reporting

Now that the busy-ness of progress report season is winding down, I’ve been reflecting on my reporting practices and the big picture of how reporting looks for us this year. I know I’m not the only educator in my school building who struggled to write progress reports this year, but I did find it interesting how these struggles looked different for many of my colleagues. My biggest strife? The reporting structures we follow reflect narratives of “learning loss” and “achievement gaps” when, in fact, my virtual students show up and try their best every single day. 

When I think about the big picture of how teaching and learning has looked since March 2020, especially as a 100% virtual teacher myself, I struggle to accept the fact that our reporting structures have not been adapted to consider the effects of trauma, isolation, and deterioration of mental health on students. Should we be writing traditional report cards at all? How can we provide meaningful feedback and assessment that considers the context of teaching and learning through a pandemic?

In spite of barriers maintained by the traditional report card, I try to make a concerted effort to always understand individual student experiences and contexts to adapt to pandemic learning. To push myself further, I remind myself to look at some of the dualities that exist in online student engagement to reframe my mindset:

  • Students are desperate for socialization as they learn by themselves from home—behaviour that is usually considered to be disruptive in the classroom is actually a courageous effort to build friendships.
  • Students are always willing to be their best selves in online school, while also feeling unable to bring themselves to complete work some days. 
  • Students choose to keep their cameras off, resulting in them feeling like they can be their truest selves—independent from their physical appearance.

When we only use learning skills and grades to evaluate student character and academic progress, we are sure to miss their best and bravest moments as learners. How might we include a reframed mindset around pandemic learning within current structures of reporting? There are countless conversations to be had about assessment and reporting from a critical perspective, and I’m looking forward to building on these reflections and connecting with educators who are asking similar questions. 

Moving forward I’m thinking a lot about how I can push my gradeless assessment practices even further and look at the ways that character education and learning skills can be an inequitable way of understanding student achievement. I can’t wait to share these thoughts here! 

Note: ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that in-person instruction and learning in publicly-funded schools provides the best experience for learning, quality delivery and is the most equitable model for all students. ETFO will continue to demand action from the government, school boards and public health units to ensure in-person learning can resume quickly and safely.

Before you click “End the call”

After 10 months of learning at the lag and speed of education during a pandemic, the end of this school year is at hand. Our students and fellow educators have been through so much. Considering the obstacles(emotional, physical, virtual), doubt, stress, isolation, frustration, and constantly shifting plans that elected and system leaders have laid before us, we made it. 

I guarantee that not a single soul wishes to do it over again either. It’s time to close the book on lockdown learning in a pandemic. We all get gold stars for our efforts along with some well earned time away from the screens to which we have stared and spoken too frequently. Although, the number of school days can be counted on one hand, I still need both hands and one of my feet to count the digital meetings ahead before logging out for a while. The thought of this got me very excited, perhaps my reward centre released some hormones in anticipation or something neuroscientific like that, but I think it is more likely a sigh of relief. An overdue exhale if you will. I wonder if CO2 levels will rise on the last day of school?

As joyous as this impending summer recovery and associated unstructured time will be for all of us, I wonder what that last day is going to be like for the hundreds of thousands of students we have been serving after we “end the call”? What are you going to do to celebrate? We have a lot to cheer about. I have been weighing that last Google meeting quite heavily this year, and it is understandable considering how many times we have all logged on and off this year.

For my class, I really want to spend time listening to the students, playing social games, and dancing out our time together. This is not unlike the last day at school in real life for me other than copious amounts of candy and snacks. Everything is on the table from Blookets to Buddy Board Games, and from Kahoots to Just Dance vids (see links below). I think that Karaoke (YouTube) might even be on this year’s schedule too. My class loves how well I can sing any song off key and not feel any shame. Anything to send the class off into their summer break with a smile. I want our last meeting to also make sure the students know how much they have been appreciated for their hard work and their commitment to making this year way better than bearable. 

So what’s your goto end of year guaranteed goodtime activity? Please feel free to share by adding your favorite to the comments below. However you choose to end your last online class of 2020-21 school, take an extra moment to reflect on what a year it has been for all of us. Celebrate the good that is in your students as you send them off for a safe and restful summer. I know that I am starting to miss my class already, but that we are all ready for a break to recharge our emotional and physical batteries. Before I click end the call maybe I’ll play one more song for us to dance out the year. 

Just Dance Choice Tracks
Turn Up the Love – Far East Movement

Dynamite – BTS

Old Town Road – Lil Nas X

Happy – Pharrell Williams

I’m Blue – Hit that electro beat

Animals – Martin Garrix

Note:

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students.

ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

Some days I don’t like teaching

The above title is not a lie, but it hasn’t always been like this. I have no intentions on adding on more unlikeable days either, even while there are forces beyond my control always at work. I am seeking to understand how and why it feels this way?

Prior to January 2020, it would have been easy to count the number of bad days I have had  over 11 years of teaching on one hand – that includes the Laurel Broten years as MOE. Okay, 2 hands #FireLecce. Sadly, a year and a third later, I am using the segments of my fingers too.* I am sure that this admission probably mirrors what many in our profession are feeling whether in class or in virtual school settings. For the sake of this post, I will stay in my lane and write for myself with the knowledge that this is common ground. 

Not that my students would ever notice, but there are numerous days when I find it hard to like what it takes to facilitate instruction of any sort. I am struggling to find any of the profound and prevalent joy that naturally occurs in the in-person classrooms in which I am privileged to teach. While emergency online education has occasional moments of brilliance, they seem more like faded flashes of light than beacons of lasting inspiration lighting the way forward. I perish the thought that this becomes acceptable in education beyond these “extreme and exceptional” circumstances. 

These moments pass through our cold screens as quickly as posts on a social media feed. Lately, it seems as if students have become conditioned to seeking out fleeting moments of happiness/joy while on-line – something akin to the addictive need for instant gratification. They need to know the answers now, and don’t want to wait for them. Are you noticing this happening in your lockdown learning spaces?

At a time when most answers are available to learners by simply opening another tab or pointing an app at a screen, it is hard for students to get excited about “the learning” when it comes without a healthy struggle or a need to problem solve. By being able to get what they need without any demand on their intellect other than Google skills, students are missing out on some deeply foundational learning right now. The issue comes when they are asked to apply some of this instant knowledge to something different that can’t be searched. 

At first, I wondered whether it was the type of questions I was asking. Were the answers googleable? Teachers can fall into that trap really easily, but it can also be avoided by asking students to evaluate and infer as part of their responses rather than to regurgitate the who, what, when, and where answers. I am a why and how guy when it comes to asking questions so most of the literal variables in questioning are out. I suggest reframing questions to help students respond to content in ways that ask for their opinions while using the lesson or text to reference and support their own ideas.

Then I wondered whether the pace of instruction was too rapid? Was I assigning too much? I teach a combined class and try to provide enough time built in for much shorter lessons with considerably more digital supports for students to reference when they are working independently. Providing time in-class, re-negotiating due dates, reminders, and check-ins are all part of the process.

Despite multiple hours of availability on and off line, students have still been struggling to complete work in a timely manner. With so much pressure to keep everyone engaged more content/lessons/assignments get shared over the course of a the instructional week, more check-ins for understanding happen, and the cycle of lockdown learnig online repeats itself. Adding more work was not the answer. Maybe variety is the answer?

So I mixed it up with TED talks, TED Ed lessons, discussions, visual Math, digital manipulatives, assessments with links to prompt and remind students, and some extra time be silly and do Just Dance. That moved the excitement and engagement needle in the right direction and then in the last little while, the cameras began staying off. 

Cue the dots

This is what teaching looks like during a pandemic yet this is the reality of virtual instruction right now. Despite the differentiation it is still hard to find joy or connection in these spaces. At least the sounds of voices and the occasional witty remark in the chat lighten things in the moment. I can only imagine how hard it must be on the students who have been thrust into this virtual maelstrom and expected to perform as if nothing has changed in their lives or the world around them. I am still working on making it better for all of us in the spaces we are forced to occupy right now. In the meantime I am want to make sure that our time is meaningful, fun, and mentally healthy in advance of a return to in-person instruction in the future. Maybe then I can stop counting the unlikeable days and resume counting the amazing ones again. 

Further reading
The Twitter Generation: https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1182

https://medium.com/launch-school/the-dangers-of-instant-gratification-learning-d8c230eed203

Insert name(s) here

I hope this message finds you well. 
It has been a long time since we’ve been able to really; (circle one)
a. Chat
b. Catch-up
c. Connect
d. Collaborate
e. Other____________________________
f. All of the above (I circled this one)

I really miss the times when we were able to learn together, and to encourage each other in person too. Come to think of it, I miss a lot of things about the past year and a third. Most of all, I miss all of the joys, highs, lows, and in-betweens of being in our school. I’m not quite sure how all of these emotions built up so fast. Oh wait, COVID.

Our feelings are like CO2 being forced into a bottle and then put into a paint shaker to see what happens. I know what happens. It is messy. Other times its as if the soda bottle has been left out on the counter with the lid off all night. That sparkle and effervesence is long gone by morning. That was never the case when we were in school. 

Lately, it seems like all we do is view each other through layers of fiber optic signals and glass screens. Sometimes, I am not sure whether any of us feels like we are truly seen anymore. After all we miss the crucial dimension of proximity each time we meet in our virtual lockdown learning spaces. Well, at least our masks are off at home, yet somehow there is something really different, almost missing between being in each other’s presence and the telepresence we are forced to be engaging in right now. 

I know that it’s a struggle for me. I have meetings to teach now. I hear your voices, but our virtual interface might as well be a tin cans tied together with string like when we were kids. To me, it is becoming increasingly impossible to read small faces at 72 dpi. That’s if I see anyone at all after privacy and comfort levels are factored in. Decoding your complexity of emotions from what looks more like an animated postage stamp(gif) at best, or a motionless icon at worst never came with a training manual.

So I am writing my own. It starts every day with breaking down the digital walls that prevent us from proximity. COVID 19 may have moved our learning online for now, but it can’t prevent us from continuing the class community we have worked so hard to create. We’re chatting. We’re catching up. We’re connecting. We’re caring and then we are learning, but it is messy and it is draining. Everyone is bringing their best versions of their best selves to virtual school right now, and that looks different from day to day. 

I know you’re connecting because the little green metres rise and fall when you speak or type. Sometimes everyone is trying to answer at once and other times it is an awkward hush. How I cherish our variations from routine interactions and uniformity of it all. It is exciting to see the chat stream full of comments. I love it when the little virtual hands are raised up to respond. Each one not a pixel higher than any other. I know that there are others who want to say something, but are still feeling unsure about it and themselves too. There are even some who cannot participate because of limited tech/WiFi and that’s okay.

Whatever the reason(s) we will grow stronger and get through our days with:
Insert name(s) here, How are you?
Insert name(s) here, Would you like to share something with the class? 
Insert name(s) here, I notice you have been struggling with your tech. How can I help? 
Insert name(s) here, I wanted to let you know that you offered a really thoughtful answer in our discussion today, and I appreciated your perspective.
Insert name(s) here, I noticed you shared a lot of great ideas in the meeting chat today. I am glad you lead our class in that space.
Insert name(s) here, You are valued. You matter. I see you.

I know there is much more that follows, but everyday has to begin with our humanity before anything else. It may seem tough to give up that time at the start of each day, but the investment in knowing students, especially while we are in lockdown, will pay lifelong dividends in hearts and minds of your learners and self. It will make this time better than bearable while we prepare to return to our schools again soon.  

 

 

 

Wrong again

Privilege, position, and power are placed in the hands of all educators. Being a teacher, regardless of instructional medium is more demanding than ever before. While our world in and out of the classroom looks like nothing we have ever seen before, some things haven’t changed – such as the importance of social justice in education. What we teach must always be inclusive of who we are teaching, the community, and the world around us in our instruction.

This is why anti-racist education is so important. We need to continue this work beyond the month of February because systemic racism and bias are hard at work all year long. That means there’s always something more to learn. There’s also a chance that we could get things wrong and that can get in the way sometimes.

As learners, humans can gain much from making mistakes. There’s even an expression for it: “To err is human.” I must be really human because I have learned so much from my mistakes already. From what I am seeing in the news and on social media, our humanity has never been more human based on the loads of mistakes we’re making. Depending on how you see it, this could be good or bad? Isn’t that the essence of what we do on a daily basis? Isn’t education where we model process and progress over perfection?

Confidence does not come without failure

I am confident that there is a line about being ‘lead-learners’ in the fine print of our infinite-paged-job description. That’s because teaching naturally comes with all of the ‘lessons’ ever imagined whether you are leading or learning. The trick becomes knowing how to find them, and then accepting that none of us will ever know everything. Perhaps this peace of mind is why I have grown more comfortable with discomfort of not knowing everything, and even with being wrong at times. I have also discovered that there are many like minded educators just like me – most of us in fact.

In On becoming an anti-racist educator I wrestled with my past along the path, but it also meant confronting the existence of racism in my personal life and my part in it. A younger iteration of myself might have struggled with this, but by examining my past and my responsibility as a bystander has helped move me forward. Throughout my life I have grown accustomed to getting things wrong, but always believed that I was standing on the right side when it came to issues of equity and anti-racism. What I realized, after reflection, mentorship, and deeper learning was how my belief in those lies was solely meant to ease my burden of responsibility for my complicity and privilege.

Black History Month is 10 months away

Cue the current teaching situation where our roles have now expanded to include daily counselling on issues of mental health, experts at PPE, and classroom sanitizers extraordinaire. We have also become distance learning specialists, multi-modal lesson trailblazers, fearless conversationalists about issues of race and racism, and critical thinkers on how to overcome and dismantle systemic racism and bias. All because we have assumed a lead learners mindset fuelled by getting things wrong and working on it along the way to success.

So it doesn’t have to be different in the classroom then. For me it has meant trying to include culturally relevant and responsive content into each day. I am choosing to avoid the prescribed resources from text book companies that have grown largely culturally irrelevant and unresponsive. Now is the time to amplify new voices in our classrooms and staff meetings too. Regardless of the platform being used to deliver learning, the opportunities and responsibilities remain in every lesson and moment we engage our learners about issues of racism and how to fight against them. The work must continue long past Black History Month to undo 400 years of injustice in for the future generations.

Whether it is in my lessons or by omission, my mistakes are at the core of learning how to get things right. In all of this I find my humanity too with more mistakes to come. To misquote a Disney song and without their lawyers hurting me, “no one fails like Will G”. Embracing my messtakes, excepting korrection, and leaning form them are kee ingredients to a butter me in the classruin. Won day aisle get it write.

 

 

Nothing changes but the day

Vernal Equinox

It’s Spring and the recent trip around the sun finds me with some thoughts about fresh starts, green grass, and bunny rabbits bouncing around meadows laying chocolate eggs. Well at least the chocolate part is plausible. Thank you Cadbury. Anything to get my mind off of the fact that more and more schools are closing due to cases of COVID 19. Looking for any rays of hope, my thoughts turned to vaccinations. Now that we have those life saving jabs ready to distribute, things have to get better. Right?

For better or worse? 

My daily exposure to people in my school is around 300 people. That is 20 times greater than the promised/recommended class size for safe in person learning, and 100 times greater than at home. Who am I kidding? It’s exponentially bigger than that as each student has their own web of contacts. Like all educators, I have taken the safety precautions seriously because lives are at stake. Mine and my family members’ at home and school. All I needed to do was remain diligent, follow the protocols, and maintain my distances.

I did find some comfort knowing vaccines were coming. Having ignorantly assured myself, in January, that our provincial government would priortize educators to receive their shots (I’ll wait for you to stop laughing at my naivete). If not so much for our protection, but so that schools could remain safely opened as promised when “no expenses would be spared” was the promise. Our students needed to be back at school so their safety had to be guaranteed. Ventilation, new PPE, increased safety protocols, nurses(heard that one before), and mental health matters.

Meanwhile, at schools a different reality is playing out. Exhaustion and exhasperation while the world around us becomes smaller and smaller through restricted movement, cohorting, fatigue, anxiety, grief, fighting to speak while constantly masked, and becoming an expert at keeping 2 metres apart outside, but only 1 metre apart inside. Don’t forget the learning. What could possibly go wrong or be wrong with such a sweet set up for a learner’s success?

Gorilla in a sport coat

As an educator, nothing says, “You are NOT important to me.” like not being included in the first rounds of vaccinations. This only seemed logical as the numbers of new infections, hospitalizations, and ICU cases were climbing again through the winter and new year break. I take no joy in knowing that they are on the rise again.

The 800 pound gorilla who promised everyone would be safe, especially front-line workers, must have been distracted by something shiny on a can of buck a beer. 3 months into 2021, and despite ETFO demands for action, nothing has been done that gives me or my colleagues confidence that our health and safety are important to the sport coat set in government. As a frontline worker, I can’t help but feel saddened by the obvious message our current provincial government is sending the public about how little it values our profession by not including educators earlier on for vaccinations. Sadly, this inaction and lack of any rational thought of the long term costs will leave all Ontarians crumpling under the weight of lost lives and lost opportunities.

Is it me or are things getting heavier?

The past 3 months on-line and in person have been exhausting. There has not been a single day where I arrive home and am not wiped out mentally and physically. My students are too. This is like being asked to fix a leak on a dam with Play Doh and being told to hold it in place while the water on the other side evapourates.

January passes by, and February too, yet still little concrete news of when educators would be vaccinated. March arrives, our break is postponed in order to save the province from its collective irresponsibilty due to out of country travel and attending large super-spreader events. Now I am thinking about how each school with a case of COVID has the power to become a pint sized super-spreader event.

At my school and hundreds of others, we have had numerous students going home each week due to precautions. As of March 30th a whole class at my school is in isolation as a precaution. This is playing out across the province while restrictions are easing? If this isn’t reason enough for us to be vaccinated sooner rather than later based on data, then perhaps an appealing to compassion would be better since reason is off the table? Who am I kidding? Compassion is not part of their vocabulary because it gets in the way of patronage and profits.

As the inevitability of another lockdown looms in April, I encourage you all to stay safe and continue standing up for our students and profession as you have each and everyday. Make sure to look after yourselves too. I pray that, when this is all over, the ones who were entrusted to look after the health and safety of our public and failed will not be able to hurt our schools anymore.

 

Tough emotional and right somehow

Tears.

I am pretty sure there were tears in the classroom. 
It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last.
They were real. They were mine.

You know when you are in the middle of your classroom, midway into a lesson, and a thought hits? It was surreal to say the least as it happened on our first day back after another 6+ weeks of lockdown learning due to COVID 19. I was so proud of my students. Suddenly, thoughts of how hard they have worked through all of the ups and downs, changes, models, and separations that have been pieced into this school year.

Is it raining in here?

My students knew something was up because they all became really quiet. They are usually quite vociferous. Not that day. Perhaps the collective breath we had all been holding onto since Dec 18th was simlutaneously exhaled; we were in each other’s presence again. As often is the case, we were in the middle of a conversation about life. This one was about acts of kindness, and I shared a video from Thai Life called Unsung Hero.

The video tells the story of a person who does little acts of kindness for others, and how those simple gestures impact their lives. The narrator reads through the spot saying how the giver will not get anything in return, be richer or become famous. The only reward will come from witnessing the happiness in sharing simple acts of kindness.

It was at some point in the video when I thought about all of the grace and kindness of the students in my class, at my school, and around the world who have had their educational lives disrupted beyond anything in recent memory that could not be attributable to war or natural disasters. Where was their recognition for coping through all of this? I thought about the trust with which so many of the students whom I teach were able to transition to temporary education on-line, show up everyday, engage, continue to learn, and then at the flip of a switch show up for in person classes only having missed a few beats. In that moment I felt such appreciation for all that they have gone through this year all without complaint or disengagement. What kept them coming back with such positivity when there was so much uncertainty? 

I thought about all of the students who couldn’t return to in person learning as well. I thought of everyone who struggled and continues struggling to turn their cameras and microphones on everyday for virtual school. Whether it has been the result of inequitable access to technology and reliable WiFi, or that they could not stand to stare into a glass plate for 6 to 8 hours a day any longer. I thought of the students and teachers who are slipping through the cracks because they cannot hold on to emailed messages of “Your mental health matters”, “Stay strong”, “We are here to help”, and “We appreciate you” as their only safety harnesses while dangling over the edge of depression, frustration, and anxiety in the virtual classroom. 

I saw how brave my students have been to return with such positive attitudes, knowing that they would be cohorting, masking, sanitizing, listening to lessons muffled by masks and shields, eating lunch with 15 to 20 others at the same time, and trusting that the adults in their lives have made all of the right decisions on their behalf. I knew that these moments were happening in thousands of classrooms at the same time. It was in that moment, I could not help but be proud, humbled, inspired, and worried for them all at the same time. There were tears in my classroom that day.

Epilogue

What caused my brief waterworks could be chocked up to a mix of joy and exhaustion. Joy that we were back in the classroom together. Exhaustion because despite misinformation to the contrary, not only is syncronous learning online physically exhausting, but it comes with the added unjoyment of being mentally exhausting too. Teaching to 20+/- essentially (e)motionless emojis exacts everything of the educators who had to pivot to online learning during this round of lockdowns. Long term syncronous instruction online, in its current iteration, is unsustainable when it comes to the mental health of students and educators.

There has already been an incredible cost to all of this and that bill will need to be paid in full at the expense of the future. I am frightened that it will come at the expense of the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities. I fear what the default model of pandemic learning will do to us all if left in place. I fear it will not only serve as another social divide by widening disparities of equity, opportunity, and privilege, but as a wedge into the longterm wellbeing of families, our youth, and those who teach them. 

 

Snow Day = No School Day

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students. ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

As an elementary special education teacher, I teach in a hybrid class of some students learning synchronously online and some learning in-class. It’s a juggle of competing agendas as teaching online and in-class are very different due to different ecologies of learning. Ecology is defined as “the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment; it seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.”

In-class ecology of learning

In-class learning happens in a physical environment of personal connections. In-class students learn by watching and listening to teachers while they also complete their work. Teachers can address specific students’ needs by reading body language and answering students’ questions.

Classroom learning is personal in nature.

In-class ecology is based on interactions between participants that occur face-to-face with the opportunity to directly deal with students based on need. Needs are determined by teachers being able to assess students’ needs by their knowledge of student learning profiles and emotions identified via body language. Classrooms also provide students with opportunities to interact with other students and move while learning.

Classroom learning is fostered by relationships and the interconnections between students, parents, and teachers.

Online ecology of learning

Online learning happens in a virtual environment of auditory connections. When students learning online, they learn mostly by listening through a screen via an online platform. Teachers explain concepts through images and speaking with little or no eye contact with students. As students often have their cameras off (i.e., their choice to protect their privacy at home), teachers cannot assess students’ level of engagement nor can they assess students’ understanding of lessons. Further, since students learn via camera, they miss the opportunity to engage in learning by manipulating objects such as with math manipulatives or creating experiments in science.

Online learning is void of the personal nature found in classroom learning.

Through a camera, teachers cannot develop the fulsome relationships key to the evaluation of students’ understanding and need for support. In addition, teachers are highly limited in the understanding of students’ learning profiles or emotional needs.

The assessment of work is also a challenge as teachers cannot directly witness products or collect observations in assessing success criteria. Conducting assessments via conversations is challenging as other students are literally in the same space as the student being assessed.

Online learning falls short in the building of relationships and interconnections between students, parents, and teachers. As the act of learning is fueled by personal interactions and relationships, without them learning is constrained. Online learning, especially for students with special education needs, is not an effective venue to learn. Further, online learning disproportionally impacts students who come from lower social economic backgrounds where the additional resources of time and money may not be available to support learning from home.

Online and In-Class Learning have different ecologies

Overall, it’s taken me many months to delineate what works synchronously online and in-class via the hybrid model. As learning about how to teach is based on experience, I’ve had some lessons that were not to be repeated and through this process I know what works with my current class of students.

In-class and online teaching “Flip-o-Rama”

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021 was the day my in-class students were to return to school. My online students would remain online but follow along in class via a camera (which was finally provided to me by my board of education after a year of teaching online learning.) But Mother Nature decided not to have us return to school via a big dump of snow – a snow day was announced via Twitter.

My lesson plans for this day were based on teaching in-class at school. We were to get our classroom organized, go over new Covid protocols, discuss plans for our science projects, and learn about anti-racism. I did not plan for another day of teaching online.

I was informed via Twitter by this message “On Feb. 16, 2021, all buses are cancelled & school buildings are closed to students due to inclement weather conditions. Learning will continue at home through remote, synchronous instruction, where possible.”

I understand the need for students to continue their learning and I have been working over 6 days a week to make this happen. I have been stepping up to “learning through remote synchronous instruction, where possible” by making it possible every day since September 2020. As a teacher, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worked hard to meet every additional expectation presented to me by my board of education. I have made “where possible”, possible.

Just Pivot In-class to Online

The challenge I face is that I cannot “just flip a switch” (i.e. or pivot) to go from planning for in-class learning to synchronous, online learning. It is not an easy, “flip of a switch”, transition. The reality is that I need to plan more for online learning by making sure students have the materials they need to participate in lessons.

My greatest concern is that, in the future, once the pandemic passes, Snow Days (i.e., inclement weather days) will automatically become online learning days. This will result in teachers having to flip from in class learning to online learning within hours of inclement weather announcements. Parents will have to arrange their day to accommodate their child’s online school by monitoring their work and supporting learning activities where possible. It’s a big ask for teachers and parents.

Setting a precedent for online learning during inclement weather days is a slippery slope.

I can see boards and ministries of education using inclement weather online learning to move more students’ learning, online.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deborah Weston, PhD

Per / Con / In / Re – form

Perform 
I am wrestling with my thoughts again. In other words, I am restless again. When this happens many questions appear soon thereafter. Is there anyone out there that feels restless too?

I can’t be the only one in questioning a lot of things right now because most days I feel like a busker at a street festival trying to juggle a bowling ball(technology), a chainsaw(lessons), and a fishtank(learners). Nothing to see here other than a fairly confident educator having a tough time with something that he’s done before – delivering lessons.

So why am I struggling to deliver my lessons? It seems like a good place to start. Right now, I am questioning everything about my professional practice, and it feels like running along a path and tripping over an imaginary object. My week long tumbles are not so much about the content I am teaching, but rather how it is being taught, how it is being received, and how it can be assessed. It is leaving me limping into the weekend? Tell me I am not alone right now.

Conform
And then it hits. How long until the realization that some of my students are not completely engaging with learning right now even though their eyes and emotionless emoticons tell me otherwise? After extended times staring at screens and thumbnail sized student/profile memes I can tell my students are becoming exhausted too despite the brave faces that I see popping up on occasion when called upon. Is this happening to anyone else teaching right now? Are your students tired too? I am. 

Why am I so tired right now? Shouldn’t getting an extra hour of sleep each night, drinking 2+ litres of water per day, reduced caffeine, reduced personal device time, reading more books, and getting more exercise than in years past be helping me out here? I have even added Tai Chi, Yoga, and Hip Hop Dance to our DPA to increase movement during class time. To top it all off, I take daily walks whether I feel like it or not. 

Inform
You see, I force myself to take a walk after each of my hyper-telepresent virtual teaching sessions. Once the goodbyes are done, it is pretty much all I can do to get out of my chair, climb the stairs, and get geared up to go out most days. Especially, when I have to pass by a very comfortable couch whose cushions scream, “Remember us?” It is very tempting, but something even better calls, my daily walks.

Regardless of the weather, these walks are my motivational carrots to keep taking the steps that get me through the many muddy moments along each day’s unpaved path. Knowing that no matter how the day goes, a walk awaits has been all it takes to see me through. Whether a lesson went well or died on the screen in front of me ceases to matter when I inhale that first breath of fresh outdoor air. The exhale feels pretty good too. 

You watch enough TV, and very soon the inside of your head has become a vast, arid plain, across which you cannot detect the passage of a thought. Harlan Ellison

So far this year, I have only missed one day of walking. In hindsight it was probably the day that I needed a it most. Instead, I ended up planted on that inviting couch with a bowl of Smartfood staring at our television. Tuned out. Achy. Sullen. Grumpy. Numb. These feelings got me thinking about screens. 

Reform
Sci-fi author Harlan Ellison referred to TV as the “glass teat”. He even wrote a couple of books about it. I see parallels to how education is being delivered right now. We need to wean our students off of their screens more and more in order to preserve their minds from numbing and tuning out. 

Somewhere along my way outside a struggle ensued about the work I am doing in front of my screen. Is it serving to numb our students over extended periods of time? Will these extended periods of online learning cause irreparable tears in our socio-academic fabric? I am not ready to believe that this is the beginning of the end for in person school and that we are heading for our isolation pods as told in E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops

We cannot continue feeding content from one glass plate after another and expecting students to grow up smart and healthy. A dear friend suggested that cutting the learning day back to 4 days might be a good idea. Allowing the 5th day for asynchronous activities such as self-directed inquiry and catching up on assignments during the day rather than in the evenings when fatigue sets in. Teachers could easily use that time for office hours, for one on one/small group support, and conferencing. Everyone wins. 

Yet to form
This is much more than having the tools to master a domain that has yet to be tamed? Virtual learning means we are virtually learning how to do this while we teach? I can tell you there are few system leaders or consultants that have as much experience as any teachers in this medium, and it has largely been gained through self-teaching and experimentation with their classes.

I worry that too much emphasis has been placed on performance and conformity without serious consideration to being fully informed of the true social, emotional, and physical costs of virtual learning. Teachers, students, and families are feeling the stress from this and without an alternative I fear that there will be problems far greater than being behind on assignments or failing a test.

There is a definite need to refine and reform how we are being asked to serve and support our students. I’d love to take a walk around the neighbourhood with those making decisions on our behalf, share some ideas, listen to one another, breath in some fresh air, and take the steps that would best support students and staff -from a safe distance of course. Maybe if we took away their screens everyone might be able to see eye to eye here about helping to change things for the better, our students. 

In the meantime, I think another walk is in order.