By Dr. Ian Saltzman, Superintendent, Everett Public Schools
The first American school, Boston Latin School, was established in 1635 and is both the first public school and oldest existing school in the United States. What school looks like has changed gradually over the last nearly 400 years. Until 2020. The spring of 2020 saw rapid change and development of what “going to school” looks like. When Everett Public Schools had the first positive COVID-19 result at the end of February, there was immediate work to change how schools would be teaching and how students would be learning.
In the subsequent month, we developed processes and implemented plans to serve emergency meals, provide childcare to first responders and distribute additional Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots so students could start school from home. (All high school students and most middle school students already had Chromebooks thanks to the district’s 2016 Technology Levy.) We have distributed over 14,000 Chromebooks and 900 hotspots in addition to serving over 17,000 meals weekly because our first priority is the well-being of our students and then making sure they have the tools they need to stay engaged with learning.
Teachers had hours of professional development to learn new tools on how to engage students remotely, and structures were put in place for students to have suggested schedules and check-in times with their teachers. Grading and testing policies were adapted. Essentially all the structures needed to enable students to learn from home and have teachers educate from home were created and implemented within weeks.
With many schools temporarily closing their doors, teachers across the country have had to adapt at lightspeed and implement remote learning strategies, while keeping students’ needs and well-being front and center. Our students are having school at home, learning in ways they never really had to before. Even though there are suggested schedules for every grade band and expectations for teachers to connect and engage students, each student’s experience is very different. We need to be understanding, give grace, and support our students now more than ever.
It can be challenging keeping students engaged as they are experiencing this time in varying ways. Some students have parents working at home and balancing their work while trying to support student learning at the same time. Some students may have parents/guardians who are essential workers and still leave the house every day for work, so they need to manage their own school commitments. Some students have parents who do not have English as a first language, which gives them an extra barrier to overcome. We also know of students who are working extra hours right now in family businesses so their time to engage in school is very limited.
So what does engagement really look like? Every student situation is different, and every teacher has their own style. The closing of school buildings and the move to distance learning this spring has led to changes in the way teachers interact with their students – and that is no small thing. It has long been known the relationship with a teacher can be critically important to how well students learn. In many schools, students rely on their teachers not only for academics but also for a sense of stability, comfort, and more. When students and teachers need to depend on technology to communicate, does the dynamic change dramatically?
We are measuring student engagement, defined as participation in group lessons, assignment completion, or conferencing over the course of the prior week. (e.g., exchanging academic work, connecting with teachers, accessing content, logging on to lessons, independent work). Teachers spend hours following up with students whose engagement is dropping, or who have yet to really show engagement. It is compassionate work, empathetically reaching out to families to help identify and reduce their barriers to learning during this time.
Shannon DePew, a math and AVID teacher at Eisenhower Middle School, depends on student interactions to adjust her teaching. She states, “In the classroom, it is far easier to help students because I can read their faces and see their thinking on their papers. Digitally, kids don’t show all their thinking because with math and a computer, it can be difficult to do. In the classroom, I can see their ideas and I can take what understanding they do have and build on it. I also can see their smiles and the twinkle in their eyes when they understand!” Those things are missing in a digital environment.
Every grade level is missing their students and adjusting to the new way of learning. Carrie Franco teaches kindergarten at Whittier Elementary School. She is balancing her job like many others in the district – she is teaching kindergarten but also helping her second-grader keep engaged with her learning. The tools and technology help, but nothing can replace seeing them in person. “Schools love and miss their students. Everyone wants to be at school teaching, but we want our students, families, and our community healthy and safe,” shared Franco.
Technology enables connections that cannot be face-to-face. Learning new technologies has been a great benefit for many teachers. Mike Cane teaches English at Cascade High School and said the technology he and his colleagues are learning will have added benefits far into the future. “For me, the most challenging part of teaching right now is finding different ways to engage students and provide feedback, but this is an exciting challenge because I have learned how to use new technology tools, including Screencastify, Padlet, and Flipgrid.” DePew also mentions the new technology skills gained as she shared, “So much of what I am using right now will be used to enhance student learning in the future and I am excited about that.”
This is a challenging and uncertain time. But one silver lining might be that it also represents an opportunity for educators to learn – and to model learning for students.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once said, “There are uses to adversity, and they don’t reveal themselves until tested. … difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.” It is unexpected strengths our students and teachers are revealing in this time. Strengths others learn from and depend upon. They also are showing great openness to learning tools and skills that will carry with them way beyond our time of social distancing.
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