“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Attitude of Gratitude

Many years ago I remember watching a gratitude themed Oprah episode.  There was a gratitude journal that the guest had developed and was relaying all of the benefits of writing down things that you were grateful for each day.  The power of suggestion (I’m a sucker for an impulse buy for self-improvement) lead me to the nearest Chapters to purchase one of those journals that weekend.  I certainly didn’t fill that journal. I think I lost interest in a couple of months because it felt as though I was writing the same thing over and over again.  I realize now that gratitude, like mindfulness and meditation, is a “practice.”

Gratitude practice is most effective when life is rough.  It sounds counterintuitive.  It is much easier to be grateful when things are going well right?  Easy to “count your blessings” when you are sitting on a beach in a resort in the Dominican Republic.  I personally feel the power of the gratitude practice when life isn’t going according to plan.  Though, I want to be clear here, there is a fine line between true gratitude practice and “looking on the bright side” or “finding the silver lining.”  That bright-side-silver-lining thinking can border on toxic positivity which isn’t helpful.

Gratitude practice means different things to different people.  For me, it is connected to daily journaling.  Each night since the fall I have been writing about my day in terms of gratitude before going to bed. Some nights I might write for 5 minutes.  Some nights I write for a half hour.  It might read something like, “I’m grateful that we got outside for a walk, that my son felt good about his essay after all of the struggles and tears, that we were able to eat a healthy meal, for Hello Fresh being delivered to my door and for the opportunity to reach out and connect to some new teachers through professional learning today.”  I try to reflect on the events of my day in terms of gratitude.  I could write in my journal that the technology in my professional learning session that day was glitchy, we got off to a rocky start trying to get everyone into the WebEx room, and there were links that didn’t work even though I had tested them twice. Instead, I choose to be grateful for the connection and discussion that I had with the teachers that day.  It isn’t that I ignore that bad things happen or think about how things can be improved, but ruminating on the bad things that happened during the day right before going to bed isn’t going to ensure much of a restful sleep.

In some of the professional learning opportunities that I have recently hosted with new teachers we have discussed the struggles of the current climate in the classroom.  It is important to have a safe place for teachers to voice those concerns and have someone listen with compassion and empathy and ask curious questions.  I will often say that there are many things that I can’t help them with, but that I am there to “embrace the suck” with them.   At the conclusion of those discussions my final question is always, “What is a recent personal or professional success that you’ve experienced that you would like to share with the group?”  This ends the discussion on a note of gratitude. It is SO easy to get caught up in venting and complaining about the situation in education right now. Teaching it is NOT an easy job on any given day but the difficulties have grown exponentially with the pressures that COVID has added.  So when we can take a moment to remember why we continue to go to work each day, why we got into the job in the first place and what our recent wins have been, I think it brings a feeling of hope.

Sometimes I practice gratitude in a less formal way that is more like mindfulness.  Recently while walking on a treed trail on a bright, sunny, winter day with my best friend, I stopped mid sentence and just looked around at the beauty.  I said to my friend, “I just had to take a minute to take this in.  We are so fortunate to be able to walk here.”  It only took a moment.  I don’t do that all of the time, we’d never get anywhere on our walks! However, remembering to do it every so often helps me to deal with stress and the bad things when they do happen.  If in the moment of a stressful situation I can take a moment to breathe and practice gratitude it sometimes keeps the emotions from escalating.  When conversing with someone who is frustrated and perhaps complaining or lashing out I try to remember that this person is doing the best they can at that moment and that each opportunity to interact with someone who is suffering is a chance to learn and I try to be grateful for that.  Author Andrea Owen in her book, “How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t” would call it an AFOG-another flipping opportunity for growth.  When I remember to think about gratitude in a not so great moment, I might do it raised shoulders and through gritted teeth, but I keep trying.  It is, after all a practice.

“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.” -Brene Brown

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. 

 

 

Brutalist worksheets

Have you ever seen something that made you wonder whether it’s sole purpose was to make you feel small or insignificant? I don’t mean this in feelgood sort of humbling way like you might ponder a mountain’s majesty or an ocean’s depth. I mean, the way you feel uneasy when looking at a decades old worksheet from a resource 20 to 25 years past its pedogogical prime – where thought and creativity were never part of its iterations. I’m talking about copy after copy of soul sucking work pages given to students only to be regurgitated upon with rote facts and little, if any, critical thought. Let’s call them Brutalist worksheets because, like the architecture, they make the learner to feel small, and powerless, and the learning devoid of inspiration.

Over the years, I have found a number of Brutalist offerings left behind in the photo-copiers, and they make me shudder a bit to think that they were destined for students’ desks and to inevitable irrelevance shortly thereafter. I’d like to say this is a long distant memory, but it is still happening in 2020.

20 years into 21st Century learning and brutalist worksheets are still being shared. But first a bit about Brutalism.

Minds On

In the creative world of architecture there are several styles that have pervaded through history. We have remnants of the Victorian, Mid-Century Modern, Art Deco, and Modernist eras that occupy much of the past century and its edifices. There is another that cannot be overlooked because of it’s austere, raw, and imposing nature, Brutalism.

Brutalism, but this is a blog for teachers? Why are we having an architecture lesson? Why not? After all, design is design and the way that we construct, craft, curate, and create content for our students matters. It is inconceivable to think it can be done without consideration of the learners we are teaching or without differentiation.

Imagine a stark and unwelcoming piece of paper that seems as if it’s sole intention is to crush your spirit. Next, think of a page full of Math calculation questions that you have been handed, and are now expected to complete before the 2 or 3 minute timer goes off. Think of a different, but equally oppressive Math sheet with instructions, but no guiding example or room to show your thinking? Think of a double-sided sheet of French -er, ir, and -re verbs to conjugate. Brutal and absolutely intended as rote busy work to keep students from being their best.

I was visting a school a few years back and came across a teacher with a stack of photocopies at least 1500 pages or more in total. I asked if this was for a whole school letter to which they replied that it was for their classroom followed by, “You have to keep ’em busy somehow.” I walked away very sad at that moment and have tried to hang on to that interaction as a reminder of what not to do.

Brutalism in our profession has no business in any of our classroom resources. In fact, we need to seriously consider the function and purpose of everything we are printing for students. It starts by cleaning out the cabinets and binders that contain outdated worksheets. I know it means having to start fresh for some, but imagine the potential for deeper learning rather than a time filler destined for the recycle bin? Perhaps doing this over the course of the year will make it less daunting. With so many digital tools at our fingertips now, creating and updating content is easier than those Xerox days of yore.

Our shift to digital learning has allowed many of us to curate constructive content with links that are informative and interactive. There are also environmental and financial benefits from avoiding copy after copy too. With a suite of apps and productivity tools. Teachers can create these spaces from a trove of templates and fellow educators who are willing to share. No need for TPT here.*

Start with the incredible digital resources being shared from your school board and from a cohort of amazing educators via Twitter. I know that PeelDSB, TDSB, DurhamDSB, and YRDSB have provided many excellent resources to their staff, and am sure there are more boards out there doing the same for theirs. If you want to start your own, you can always check out Ditch that Textbook, MathigonShukes and Giff, TV Ontario, and TED Ed for ideas. If you have a favourite, please share in the comments below.

All that I ask is that you resist the urge to hit the copy button without considering the content you intend to share with students. Will it make them feel insignificant and under-inspired? Then you might have a brutalist worksheet in your hands and it might be time to go back to the drawing board to design something inviting and engaging to students as modern learners.

* I always think of toilet paper when I see TPT. Sorry, not sorry.

Compassion Fatigue and Teacher Burnout

It is no secret to educators that teaching is an occupation of high stress.  A Johns Hopkins University study ranked teaching as the 4th most stressful job of all occupations.  Educators know that the job is stressful, but sometimes it helps to put a name to something in order to help us cope.  Sometimes, it is enough to know that others are going through what we are going through in order to come to terms with our own feelings. Recently during a webinar workshop from “Right to Play,” the facilitators referred to what some educators are experiencing right now as “compassion fatigue.”  I had heard of this phenomenon relating to emergency response occupations, but I had never really thought about it in terms of education.  What we may consider “stress” in the teaching profession may be explained in better detail by examining compassion fatigue.

According to Joanna Krop, author of  “Caring without Tiring: Dealing with Compassion Fatigue Burnout in Teaching,” compassion fatigue “is a form of burnout characterized by extreme mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion, and it’s an occupational hazard in the caring professions.”

Teacher burnout is not something new.  Recently, however, there have been a number of articles written on the topic of teacher burnout.  A few days ago, the CBC released and article with the results of a survey completed by 2,000 teachers about the pressures in education. One third of the respondents are thinking about retiring or seeking a new career.  One third.  Some educators cite that the pressure and stress is coming from trying to maintain the best educational experiences possible for students while also trying to adhere to pandemic rules and guidelines.  Teachers hold themselves to a high level of integrity and service in their work, in addition to wanting to help their students and their families.  Then add a global pandemic on top of the regular burnout reasons.  As if that wasn’t enough, there are so few teachers available for daily occasional work that teachers feel more guilty than ever when they need to take time for their health.  For many educators, teaching isn’t the only thing that is leading to that compassion fatigue as many teachers have the added pressures of taking care of children and/or aging parents. The most challenging aspect of burnout is that what seems to be the biggest factor in burnout is dedication to the job.  The more dedicated the teacher, the more apt they are to experience burnout. Teachers are burning out because they care.  Hardly seems fair.

The question becomes then, how do we counteract compassion fatigue and burnout? From what I’ve researched, it is all of the things that we know are good for our mental health:

  • figure out what you can control and what you can’t and focus on what you can control
  • temper your expectations of yourself and your work (remember that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the circumstances are different)
  • small steps towards getting outside, eating betting, exercising and doing creative things
  • surround yourself with supportive people and trusted colleagues
  • be aware of toxic positivity or the rabbit hole of complaining about things
  • show your true self to your students, be authentic so that your students have permission to be authentic too
  • quiet time for yourself and for being mindful

All of that sounds wonderful.  All of it sounds like common sense.  However, it isn’t as easy to put into practice as all of the research makes it sound.  This can appear of just another long list of things to do added to an already long list of things to do. Sometimes burnout can get to a point where you feel immobilized or you may even be at the point that just getting through the next breath is all that you can plan.  As someone who generally plans the menu of meals for our family a week in advance so that we can do our groceries, I know the chaos I feel with uncertainty.  Right now my plan is to try to be patient and gentle with myself.  Everything is going a hundred miles an hour and I keep thinking that I have to keep up or somehow I’ll miss the bus.  However, I also know that if I get to the point of exhaustion, I become less self aware and I’ll end up getting run over by the bus and won’t be good to anyone.

It feels like an impossible task to willingly accept less of myself than I normally expect.  I feel like I will let others down.  However, if I don’t temper the expectations that I have of myself and my work I’m going to have tire tracks on my back and that won’t be good for anyone.

Toxic Positivity in a Brave New World

I am a huge science fiction fan and was excited to start the new TV series “Brave New World”.  I read the book for my “The Science in Science Fiction Literature” course (I know, cool course right?) in University and I was looking forward to the TV series. In the futuristic “Brave New World”, society has developed mood altering drugs that everyone is required to take to maintain their “levels” so that they can have calm, happy dispositions all of the time.  The result is that the characters don’t really have to “feel” anything deeply.  If there is discomfort or grief they can take a “soma” from their Pez dispenser-type tool and go on with life in peace and harmony.  The struggle for the characters is that once they discover the power of feeling true human emotion they want to experience it, thus going against the social norm.

The “Brave New World” narrative parallels the dangers of toxic positivity.  Psychologygroup.com defines toxic positivity as: “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”  Think of it like too much of a good thing can be bad for you.  Phrases like, “It could be worse,” or “Focus on the positive,” “Don’t worry, be happy,” may seem innocuous, but in fact reject, repress or deny negative emotions. The message is that it is not OK to feel anything except positive and happy.

So what does this have to do with education?  First of all, teachers excel at wearing stress and being busy as a badge of honour.  I’m guilty of doing it. I’ve heard myself say that I worked all weekend preparing for the upcoming week. We have established this as a norm in educational culture.  Human beings work best when they give themselves time to rejuvenate.  Teacher burn out is a real thing. I honestly think if I walked into a staff room and announced, “I totally relaxed all weekend and just read my novel.” I would face sneers and hear “Must be nice,” muttered around me. Not because teachers are bad people, but because as a culture we don’t value taking care of ourselves as much as we value productivity. Being positive about being overworked and stressed out is toxic positivity, and it is rampant in education.

The problem isn’t with genuinely upbeat and effusive people. Those people are rare.  Treasure them. The problem lies in people denying, repressing, minimizing or invalidating negative emotions.  Keeping calm and carrying on can be counterproductive and harmful to mental health.  While there are well intentioned people providing “just do it” kind of strategies and messages about being positive; those intentions may end up making people feel bad about feeling bad, adding guilt and shame to the mix of emotions.

So, what can we do?  We can try to shift the narrative to value and validate the real emotions that people are feeling.  We can try to give ourselves permission to say, “You know what, I’m not ok right now. I’m grieving the way in which I used to work and live.  I’m hoping that it will soon change.” It is OK to be sad and yet still feel positive about the future.  You can feel both things.

When someone shares their sadness, anger, grief or frustration with you, try to sincerely validate those emotions.  True empathy is saying, “I’m here to embrace the suck with you,” not minimizing the emotions of others.  You can be curious and ask questions, “That must be frustrating, tell me more about that, I’m here to listen.”  Then, do that.  Just listen.

I try to give myself grace and forgiveness.  I have not learned to knit, bake bread or trained to run a marathon during the pandemic. Some days, just putting two feet on the carpet beside my bed is a big win.  I have to remind myself daily that is OK not to be the “Quarantine Queen.” It is OK not to be productive beyond my wildest imagination during a global pandemic. I try to avoid offering platitudes about positivity. I try to validate the feelings of the people around me. I will try to give up “soma” in my Brave New Covid-19 World, throw out the fake positivity, and feel all of the range of emotions – good, bad and ugly.

 

 

Teachers Are Still Rocking It-

In March we were “Emergency Learning”.  Now we are either teaching “virtually” or “socially distanced” in classrooms.  We never thought we’d be teaching from behind a screen, learning all kinds of new technology tools, wearing masks and shields in front of students or removing all of the manipulatives from classrooms. We don’t know how long this will last.  We don’t know if COVID will worsen.  Educators aren’t used to not knowing things.  Most teachers I know like schedules, routines, knowledge and thrive on consistency.

However, in the midst of the new rules, changes and all of the things that we “can’t” do-teachers are still rocking it.  Throughout the summer I worked with a team of teachers providing virtual professional learning for KPRETFO.  Hundreds of teachers used their summer holidays to learn about technology tools before they even knew whether they were going to be teaching virtually or not. They logged in at 10 am some days in order to learn and some teachers even came to all twenty sessions that were provided. Educators were dedicated to their professional learning all summer long.

At the end of August, I had the privilege of working with another fabulous team of educators who dedicated their time to providing a three day virtual conference for over 500 Ontario Educators with ECOO.  These educators gave up their time to organize all kinds of schedules, sponsorship, presenters, keynotes and much more.  In addition, over a hundred educators created and presented webinars for their colleagues.  It truly FELT like a face-to-face educational technology conference took place in my living room!
There was a feeling of sharing, helping and collegiality.  It was exhausting but my bucket was over flowing.

As our school year is now well under way teachers are reaching out to me for assistance at all times of the day and night through email because they are dedicated to their students and want to do their best.  They are attending our evening “PD in your PJs” webinar sessions through our local union office to learn new tech tools at 7 pm on the week nights. The educators that I work with continually astound me with their dedication to professional learning.

I recently binge watched a Netflix series called “Away”.  It is a futuristic fictional narrative about the first manned mission to Mars.  The astronauts were in uncharted territory.  They encountered problems along the way for which they had not trained.  They endured mental and physical fatigue beyond anything they had ever felt before.  They were innovative and creative in order to solve problems and reach their goal.  While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels between this movie and the present state of education. We’ve heard that as we design these new learning structures and environments it is like we are building an airplane while flying. If I am going to stay true to the analogy here it is really more of a rocket ship! Educators are facing situations that they hadn’t even thought about in Faculty of Education Programs.  They are encountering issues of teaching without many of the tools they normally use such as manipulatives, group work or technology. They are suffering mentally and physically. They are being innovative  problem solvers around tools, equipment and technology.  They are building the rocket ship while they are flying it and it is full of students.

Are educators stressed?  For sure.  Are their nerves frayed?  You bet.  Are they innovative, creative, dedicated and passionate about learning and teaching? Absolutely, without a doubt.  Every educator is a front line worker,  doing their best, making a difference, being brave beyond imagination and truly an inspiration.

 

 

“Techie People”

As someone who is passionate and truly geeky about the power of technology in education, I often hear from my fellow teachers, “I’m not really a techie person.”  Now, I get where they are coming from because technology can be intimidating.  Many times I’ve said, “I’m not really a math person.”  I can “do” math and I can “learn” math but it doesn’t get me fired up quite like tech does.  However, over the last few months educators who weren’t really “techie people” didn’t have much of a choice other than to use tech in order to do their job.  I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for some educators.  For some educators, it must have been terrifying.  For me, it would have been like my Principal saying that I was now the new math consultant for the intermediate grades.  It would have caused me serious panic and anxiety. I probably would have considered resigning but I would have dug in and done the best I could with the tools available to me and I would have reached out to fellow colleagues and leaned on their expertise. THAT is what teachers all over the province of Ontario were doing after the March Break, teaching and learning by the seat of their pants.

As an innovations consultant what I witnessed during the weeks of distance learning was fellow educators doing what they do best; rolling up their sleeves, getting in there and figuring the tech stuff out.  As I (along with some fantastic  and enthusiastic educators in my board) provided webinar workshops on technological tools for teachers, I saw teachers who were self proclaimed Luddites attending and showing appreciation for what we were doing.  The resiliency of educators during this time has been absolutely amazing. The necessity of teaching through technology broke through an invisible barrier that has existed for those teachers who thought that you had to be a “techie person” in order to use tech in education.  Teachers were no longer afraid to try a new technological tool, to make mistakes and ask questions. Teachers are discovering the power educational technology and they’ve been bit by the tech bug.  Educators will always continue to seek out new and innovative ways to deliver curriculum to students and learn as they go-no matter how steep the learning curve.  Some teachers who would have quickly proclaimed, “I’m not a techie person” before March Break are now excited about the possibilities of using technology even in their face-to-face classrooms.  The Educational Technology Geek Community is over-the-moon excited about increasing it’s membership!  We are a friendly bunch, inclusive, sharing and passionate and we’re happy to help.

Bitmoji Education

Love it or hate it, the app of Bitmoji has worked it’s way into education and particularly into distance learning.  From “digital” stickers for feedback to entire Google Slide Classrooms with doors to other rooms, Bitmoji is everywhere.  Bitmojis are dancing, pointing and fainting all over educational platforms.  Confession time?  I’m on the love it team and I’ll tell you why.

Bitmoji allows for a personal and creative touch to things that we share with others.  When I create short Google Slide presentations for students they are surprised to see my Bitmoji in the corners of my presentation.  Some think it is truly “geeky” but many students appreciate the effort at making the presentation a little more fun. Not having to put my real profile photo on something and being able to add a Bitmoji instead provides a small layer of privacy.  I began to make virtual, interactive classrooms on Google Slides and soon realized design and creating something so personal was a throw back to the many hours I spent playing with Barbies as a kid.  It was like planning to remodel my kitchen but without any cost what so ever.  It doesn’t feel like work.  It feels like play.  115,000 members on the “Bitmoji Craze for Educators” Facebook page all agree that it is a type of escapism and the membership grows daily.

Colleague Deanna Palmer and I created a webinar workshop for our fellow teachers about how to use Bitmoji to add some Pop to distance learning.  In the webinar we included a step-by-step slide show for educators to take away.  Find it here: Using Bitmoji to Make Virtual Learning Pop

Like with any popular craze or fad there are those who don’t or won’t buy in.  Some teachers are reluctant because they are conscious of their digital footprint-especially since in order to create the animated virtual reality Bitmojis you need to have a Snap Chat Account.  Some teachers don’t think that their students will want to see their teacher’s cartoon face all over everything in their classroom.  I can appreciate that it isn’t for everyone.  I am well aware that making learning “fun” or “cute” doesn’t make it deep or engaging.  However, if a picture can be worth a thousand words and Bitmoji can express precisely what we are feeling.  Using a Bitmoji might resonate with a colleague or student and just might make them smile. If that is what my little Bitmoji avatar does, then it was worth it.

 

Looking on the bright-side during this dark time.

During this time at home, we are all probably having positive and negative learning moments. From seeing students thrive for the first time to having zero assignments turned in, the highs and lows have been a rollercoaster over the past few months. However, during this time for my sanity, I need to focus on the positive ones. I would love to share a few from my experience teaching grade eight online.

  1. Removing student anxiety: Many of my students have had a hard time in the classroom this year due to certain factors that make them extremely anxious. Attendance issues have made it hard for some of them to learn this year and that has always been something I have struggled with, how to reach the students who do not attend. Even the students who do attend have anxiety issues related to noise in the room, other students bothering them or starting the day in a terrible mood. My class is super respectful so I always had a hard time understanding what the exact factors were, but I came to realize it was just a feeling they carried with them and could not be easily fixed. With online learning, these students have submitted work daily and have been involved on our online teams meetings. They have been thriving in this environment and for the first time, I am learning so much about how intelligent they are and how much they have to share. The online platform has given them a voice and a chance to accomplish things.
  2. Reaching all learners: Now that the school day exists at all times, I can answer all questions at once without there being a physical line up or a limit on the amount of students I can help. When someone online needs help, I can help them right away as the odds that another student needs help at that exact moment is slim. Although my students are working at all hours of the day, I had informed them that I would be available (virtually) from 9-3 everyday. They keep their questions for the most part within these hours and I love that I can respond to them right away. Also, I am able to help students via platforms that work for them and I am so thankful that my students have downloaded all of the new apps that have been made available to us.
  3. Continued differentiation in a new and unique way: With the help of google classroom, I can assign specific work to every student at the click of a button. I can modify every assignment and make special ones for my students that go directly to their google drive. When creating an assignment or learning material, I can tailor the assignment to how they want to learn, what they want to learn and give it directly to them. I was already doing this in the classroom but I am happy I can continue to do it online. I was nervous about assigning work online and how I could make it specific to students so with google classroom I was happy to see it was an easy process. Then, once my students finish an assignment, I can assign them more work at their own pace. Right now I have students completing work at 25 different rates and I need to be able to keep track of what they have/have not done. Google classroom allows me to look at what they have handed in and then direct them to the next assignment.
  4. Small groups style learning: My favourite thing about teaching online is creating small groups live meetings. We have been using the apps “Teams” by Microsoft and it was has been an amazing way to teach in small and medium sized groups. Every Tuesday, I have a live math/literacy class with my students. I invite all of them but usually I only get half the class. From there, I create smaller groups to teach them the topics that they still need help with or to move them ahead in the unit. I also have a meeting on Wednesdays with my ESL students where we read a book and answer questions together. We also work on math topics and play simple word games. On Thursdays, all of the other grade eights meet together to play games and reminisce about the year. This Thursday, they will be sharing their favourite writing piece from the year and will be sharing to their classmates their strengths as a writer. Small groups is something I had done in the classroom but online now more than ever I have implemented small groups in a way that really reaches all learners. I really hope to bring that into the classroom at a new level more successful than ever before. That is my favourite success from the online learning environment.

Although there are days when I feel like I may be posting to no one, I know that there must be students who are benefiting from it. The online meetings have been such a blessing during this time as hearing their voices always remind me of how special this profession is and how lucky we are to have technology to help us through this time. I am desperately looking forward to the day where we can teach in the classroom again but for now, I am happy to have these successes to think on and to reflect about how they will make me a better educator. I hope everyone else has some moments that they can look at and reflect positively on.