Re-Designing American Education: thoughts from a teacher for parents who are becoming teachers overnight
HOW TO TEACH FROM HOME IN A WORLD OF VIRTUAL LEARNING…
Food for thought as we re-design education in the midst of a pandemic not only for the virtual space but also thinking ahead: how can we re-shape education when we do return to schools?
A classic example directly correlated with our current situation – “smaller class sizes”, says the CDC. But we can’t have smaller classes without having more teachers (and more classrooms). And we can’t have more teachers if we can’t keep the teachers we have. Our education system has needed to change for a long time. Perhaps the silver lining in all of this is time. Time to think and time to re-imagine.
How do we keep our teachers? How can we create career teachers, supporting teacher retention? How do we create a system where our teachers ARE valued not only by their students but by their communities, by their country? Now that parents and grandparents have had to experience the challenges of teaching, can we as a community more readily see the value of teaching as a profession? Are we more able to understand the challenges and limitations, particularly when we feel unsupported as the educator? Can we multiply the experience of having to teach a couple of kids by 30 or 40 kids, and then again by five classes a day (secondary), or 30 kids and five subjects all day long (elementary)?
Are we all starting to understand the value in planning time to bolster teaching time? Can we reflect on the amount of work that goes into it? Why do our teachers barely earn a living while society relies on them to make their own livings? And how can we diversify our teacher base to give our kids teachers (and school leaders) that look like them, so they themselves might one day WANT to become teachers? My kids look at me like I am crazy when I suggest they consider teaching one day. They say, “no way.”
What they do want to be are Youtubers (or doctors, or video game designers). You may wonder why. But it’s not hard to explain. Our kids want to be valued, they want to be paid well, they want to own homes and have cars. They want all the things we want for them – when they look at teachers they see the reality of the job because they spend their days with us. When they look at Youtubers they see people being valued and making a comfortable living doing what they love. What if we could teach them that they can do what they love by teaching what they love? Youtubers are teachers. They are the teachers of the 21st century. Tik Tokers are teachers, just look at how many people are trying to duplicate what they see on these platforms – myself included. How can we use this to strengthen our schools and inspire our kids?
When you need to know how to do something, where do you look? I used to go to books or search the web for information. We don’t have the attention spans we once did. I believe Youtube and Tik Tok are owning the virtual space because not only do we learn about what we were searching but we get to see it in action with are very eyes. Perhaps it is a tutorial on dog grooming, a dance we want to learn, or presently how to use the learning management systems our schools are opening with and depending on this year. Have you noticed how much more often videos have become promoted in Google search? They appear right at the top. Whether you learn visually or by listening or by doing, videos seem to work. They feel personal in a disconnected world. They allow the user to do with the content what they’d like.
If our kids love Youtube and Tik Tok, can we as teachers find a way to bring that into our virtual classrooms? If you aren’t comfortable with video, or you want a way to provide more collaborative and interactive lessons, there are other tools. One of the best tools I found at the very end of last year, after being forced into virtual teaching without notice, was Nearpod.
We need to share what’s working. Perhaps that was my point all along in starting this essay… we as teachers and parents and students, as schools and districts and states, we as a nation need to collaborate.
The first time you learn to write your name it is messy, sometimes you forget some of the letters, it’s hard to hold the crayon but with practice, with trial and error, you eventually get it. We may fail at first and that is okay. Teachers work with this idea all year long. Have faith in the process of learning. It is a process. Making mistakes and failing are the parts of learning that make it feel so good when we finally get it right. Sometimes trying is good enough. We won’t learn anything if we don’t.
We are resilient. Our kids are especially resilient. Be gentle with yourself as parents and remember we are all in this together.
There is no greater advocate for your child’s education than the teachers that step up and show up year after year, despite how they are paid or valued or supported. We didn’t sign up to teach online. But we teach because we love learning. We will learn how to do this.
I can’t speak to every teacher, but I can speak for myself. So from one high school teacher to you as a parent, please know: when it is safe to return to schools I will work my butt off to make sure your kids get caught up if they fall behind because of remote learning – and I’m confident most of the teachers I know feel the same.
What really matters when it comes to virtual learning?
While I trust we can catch them up in math, you should also know, I see your child’s mental health as the most important part of my job at this time. I will do everything I can to build a community with them, to give them space to interact with their peers, to have a safe place to come when things feel hard.
My virtual classes last year felt like group therapy sessions. I sat with your kids as they told me their fears and asked me hard questions. “My mom works in a hospital is she going to die?… My dad lost his job… My grandmother died from the virus… My parents have to work so I am taking care of my four younger siblings.” As a woman who grew up most of my life with a single parent, I can picture and feel what these kids (and you as parents) are working with. I tried to be strong and found somedays that was impossible to maintain. But that’s okay. I’m human (good news!). It was an emotionally challenging experience. I expect this year will be even more so. This is hard work.
Be gentle with your teachers, this type of teaching is intense.
I know not every teacher will show up and give it 100% but look for the ones who are and be patient while others get comfortable with the technology. Right now we are all learners.
Create a routine, have a flexible yet predictable plan
I encourage you as parents to create “learning pods” to give your children the opportunity to interact with other kids – this is perhaps the most valuable part of in-school learning. They need time with friends and human connection outside of the home. Be thoughtful and strategic about it, but don’t let your fear prevent them completely from experiencing in-person relationships. Schools are closed because we can’t safely socially distance the sheer volume of kids we have, in the spaces we have without putting the entire community at risk. You have the opportunity to create a teeny-tiny-mini-schools. And I bet your teachers would be ready to give you activity ideas – jump to the bottom for a ton of mine.
If you are taking on the massive role of teaching your kid this year DO NOT try to plan out the whole year! Get the first couple weeks planned out the best you can. Kids learn at different paces and that’s okay! It’s also why planning out a year is impossible. Things will naturally begin to flow. Just meet them where they are and go from there. What you can plan is their schedule. Set-up a routine. Kids thrive when they know what the plan is and what is coming next.
Maybe you wake up, have breakfast, do school from then until lunch, then have an independent play, maybe on Tuesdays and Thursdays they see their pod from 2-4. Perhaps you teach your kids to cook (science, math) and help you with dinner. Perhaps you send them outside with a notebook to sketch out the trees. Trust yourself. You know more about teaching than you think you do. The best advice I can provide is setting the schedule, especially for the littles. Post it up large. Use stickers, create incentives over time or competitions, let them earn things. Consider the space in which they work. Perhaps science is outside and reading is on the couch.What will your school day / week look like?
Make a list of questions after you make your schedule. Give your teachers a chance to show you their plan and then if you still have questions, reach out to them. Talk to other parents too. Find out what works and report back to the teachers. Help us help you.
I know you are anxious about how to do this, how it is going to work. And I will admit, I am too.
I don’t have all the answers to any of these questions. Neither do you. Collectively though, there is hope. Collaboration is integral to education. As most of us begin this year remotely, parents and teachers working together, we have a real opportunity to learn what works for our kids. We have an opportunity to make real changes in education when we do return to school in person.
Project ideas + learning tools for virtual learning at home
A few years ago I created a binder of “Making” projects for grades K-12. The file is large so you will have click here to download it. Making is about using your hands to create, it is about design-thinking, it is about engaging the mind and body to engineer ideas. It can be anything from programming to sewing.
If you want to invest in a tool for elementary school students, I highly recommend Lego We-Do and would be happy to talk you through ways to use it that do not come in the box! If you have a middle schooler, Lego Mindstorm is an excellent choice. I realize these are expensive but if say, you had a learning pod going, you could combine forces and go in on a kit together. Groups of two work very well for these but you can improvise with groups of four too. These kits help teach kids the basics of programming, engineering, design, and fluency in technology.
Keep in mind the kids will need a computer for these tools AND the best ways to teach with them are not necessarily “following the instructions,” for example, with Lego-WeDo we simply gave the kids motors and computers and opened the software and asked them to make it move – good luck – ready, set, go! Once they figured that out we asked them to design something that moves on paper. Then they build it (and learn about gears and motors), then they figure out how to program it to make it move the way they’d hoped. This way of using the kits, as opposed to building the step-by-step designs included in the kit creates an excellent, high-quality learning experience. Then they can do the pre-built designs and they will understand how they could have improved their original design, learning how to properly place gears, etc. Being able to make connections is very important. They need the first experience to make the later powerful.
Have them build a catapult. Popsicle sticks and low-temp hot glue guns will teach many of the same ideas on a dime. Plus the first time they get burned, they learn about the importance of safety 😉 Challenge them: build a bridge using only paper and masking tape strong enough to hold this gallon of milk!
Don’t do things for them. Try to guide them with your words to do it themselves. That being said, do step in before they get too discouraged and want to quit. Sometimes we all need help threading a needle. Give your kids the chance to do things themselves.
Here are a others few off the top of my head:
- stomp rockets
- sewing puppets (k-2) or sewing pillows (middle school)
- egg drops
- altered books
- paper making
- DIY yoga mat cleaning spray
- paper circuits
These ideas and lots of pictures are all in this forever free, downloadable Making Binder PDF, or if you are a Pinterest lover like myself, many of them are pinned in my “Making with Miss. Jess” board for easy access. There are lots of other ideas on my “After School Making Project Ideas” board. Shout out to Lighthouse Charter where I learned the magic of teaching making in schools as a Maker Ed AmeriCorps VISTA.
I believe in you. And I believe we can make virtual learning work if we do it together. If you want to follow along on my virtual journey, I’ll be here, on Youtube, sharing my resources and trying to build a community.