For high school teachers, there’s been a lot of questions around learning and assessment and what we should be doingduring this pandemic. How much work should we give? Should we give everyone A’s? What if kids don’t have computers? Should kids fail? What if kids are alone? Should they pass or pass with distinction? Should I use try Google Classroom? Should we count any of the work kids turn in? Should we mark it all as completed? Should we be pushing now, now more than ever, for a movement towards gradeless? And of course…should we Zoom?
Let’s explore pandemic high school teaching so far and my analysis of the journey. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I do assert myself as practical. Take it or leave it my friends. I’m living it.
The first thing we need to be mindful of is parent’s and student’s inboxes. We are used to chunking assignments into bits each day in order to make the work accessible. That’s great teaching! When we’re in front of kids. We’re not in front of kids. (Sorry, Zoom does not count). If we send one email to a parent or child every day or every two days, plus updates, plus any other extraneous information each week, consider the look of the inbox. If you are a parent, you already know what I’m talking about. A parent gets home from work to a lengthy list of emails to sift through and they haven’t even started dinner or hugged their kids. Or a student rolls out of bed, sleep still in their eyes, to the same. Whoa.
And remember that this work is with the expectation that they can do it on their own. A kid opens up one email, sees the heading, “Let’s start algebra!” or “Fun with Poetry!” (the last one is mine, I confess) and a host of other delights, and goes back to bed. I would. It’s just too overwhelming. There’s no teacher. Maybe no parent. Roll over and ignore. When we overwhelm in boxes, we overwhelm already overwhelmed, isolated and anxious learners and parents. I envision what it must be like getting so many emails much like watching Lucy try to wrap chocolates off a conveyor belt. Teachers, then, send reminders of work not handed in. The conveyor belt speeds up. More emails. Faster. Teachers send marks updates trying to “zero” the work out of them. It’s unsuccessful. For all.
The structure of numerous small assignments is our attempt to pseudo-replicate our classrooms with the hope that work will come in a routine fashion. What makes sense for us doesn’t make sense for students. Instead limit the emails to one per week. Here’s the lesson, the assignment, the suggested due date, and a reminder that you can Zoom with me at 10:00 am or 1:00 pm on Tuesday and Thursday to ask me questions. Boom. It’s a hard one, but it means reducing the work, planning ahead and not sending too many (if any) reminders that work needs to be done. Let that be the only time you email parents and students. Let the students meditate and breathe into the learning. If we keep emailing, we keep poking at kids to get the work done and piling more onto an already ugly pile. This is a hard one, even for me. On Friday, I was desperate to mark work as NOT HANDED IN in order to remind kids to get it done, but I took a breath. You see, I think it’s important that we not only give students the time to breathe into learning, but teachers the time to breathe into this new line of work and practice patience even though we’re irritated by the invisible slowness of it all.
The second thing we need to rethink is office hours. Holding vigilant office hours between 9am-3pm doesn’t support students who need support after 3:00pm. I’ve heard teachers say, Well, if they can’t get their butts out of bed at noon to contact me, then that’s their problem. Nothing says connection and I’m here for you like, Too bad, you missed office hours, sucks to be you, now you’re on your own and simply wash one’s hands of the situation…and the student. Punishing kids into submission doesn’t work. Period. And a pandemic is not the time to punish kids into showing responsibility.
We need to consider that some of these kids are at home on their own with no parent supervision, and after supper or weekends might be the only opportunity for a parent to weed through emails and supervise their child’s schoolwork. I’m not closing my virtual office door during crisis teaching. We can be vigilant about office hours at school or if we’re teaching Distance Ed, but we are not at school and this is NOT Distance Ed. This is teaching and learning in a crisis. Teenagers are going to bed at midnight and sleeping in until noon. They share computers with siblings and parents who are working from home. We can suggest positive lifestyle habits and glorious amounts of tech, but that isn’t up to us. We can also blame parents, as well, calling on them to take copious amounts of responsibility for their child’s learning, but now’s not the time. It’s more important to use students’ waking hours to connect with them, to send messages of support, and tell them that we understand it’s hard to wake up in isolation, but we’re here for them when they are awake, and will gently and compassionately encourage them into learning instead of discouraging them because they are…well…being human.
What we can do is adapt to students and their needs. I have 95% of my student’s cell numbers. During a recent virtual staff meeting, I received a few virtual glares about that. Texting students is just wrong, one of my colleagues commented in the chat column. I shrugged it off. When I requested cell numbers from parents, they willingly and enthusiastically gave them to me. I assured them that they would not be shared (except with my EA) and texts would remain professional and school related. Now, I have my students just seconds away from a response and the opportunity to connect away from the heaviness of emails that my comments could get buried underneath. It’s been an absolute lifesaver and lifeline to kids.
I have informed my students that texting me is like putting up their hand. It’s the fastest way to get a hold of me. If I’m busy with something else, like assessment or prep or house cleaning or walking my dog, they have to wait their turn just as they would have to wait their turn if I’m busy in class . I’m not and nor do I expect you to step away from family dinner or changing a diaper or family game night or any important obligation, to help a student figure out a school work dilemma, but I sure don’t mind doing so when I have time to call them back and help them work through it. Consider this: holding hard office hours during a pandemic is only going to give kids the message that if they miss the hours, they get a pass to avoid the work and the subsequent learning…much in the same way that zeroes are sometimes used to punish kids into learning deadlines. If a child reaches out, grab the hell on.
As the captain at the helm of the classroom ship, we steer the lessons and dispense duties and assignments to our students. All eyes are on the students when they’re in our rooms, but right now, for many of these kids, there are no eyes on them. They are alone and lonely. The last thing kids need right now is rigor. Teachers thrive on rigor. I think it gives us meaning in an already stressful and straight up weird time. When we heard how many hours of learning we could provide for kids per week, we jumped all over it because it gave us something structured to sink our teeth into. Check in and Check out forms so administrators know when we start and end our work day gives us a feel of commonality we so miss from walking through our school doors and exiting at the end of the day. Planning structured Zoom activities and lessons, assignments with due dates and set office hours…more structure. For kids in a pandemic…it’s too…much…rigor. I’ll say it again. What’s good for us as educators, is not necessarily good for students. It’s about us coming to them, not them coming to us.
In this new environment, we must be mindful of connection, though, before we can assess authentically. And it is through connection that we can discover interesting ways to gather assessment information from students.
The work must be meaningful, and every child needs the opportunity to grow. Set up your assignments but for gosh sakes stay connected to the kids and adapt it. It cannot simply be the attitude, They didn’t do it…excused! Rethink that. Consider, how can I tailor this to suit the child in their situation? Call them. Talk to them. Find out what they’re doing. Don’t ask them Are you ok? Duh, they’re going to say they’re fine. Ask them what their least favourite thing is right now. Ask them what their favourite thing is right now? Make your questions specific. The questions we ask play a big part in social-emotional connection.
So, here’s a story about that poetry assignment that’s trickling in as I write this. I have one student who has a learning disability and has admitted to shutting down when the going gets tough. I learned that information when he completed a self-assessment for his last assignment. As the poetry assignment neared its suggested due date, I called him to check on him. When I asked him how he was doing with poetic devices, his first response was, I suck at poetry. That, my friends, is the response bread from past trauma in which carrots and sticks were used to inflict academic pain on a kid. As a result, this child automatically feels like a failure just by looking at the frigen assignment title. The title!!!
So, what did I do? I told him that he didn’t suck at poetry and that I would walk him through it over the phone. I started this by asking him how he was feeling. He said he was lonely. (I took a breath…it’s hard to hear that.) “What would you compare being alone to?” I asked him. “Fill in the blank: I’m as lonely as a…” He responded with a “man without a family.” I was like, “Yes! You just used a simile. You used like or as to compare two things. I’m feeling lonely too,” I told him. “I’m as lonely as an abandoned kitten. Do you see how abandoned kitten and man without a family evoke sadness?” He responded somewhat more eagerly. I added, “But instead of just saying I feel lonely and sad, I’m going to compare it to someone or something so you get a better sense of how I feel.” I then, moved on to something a little more concrete and upbeat. “What are you eating for lunch?” I asked him. “Kraft Dinner,” he said. “What does the colour of KD remind you of?” I asked. He said, “It’s orange…orange like the sun.” Yup, that’s KD all right!
He had it. He got it. He just needed some guidance. Over the phone, I gave him blanks to fill in. By the end of the conversation, he had done most of the assignment only getting stuck on assonance and paradox (which are tricky anyways). See choice is one thing. I can tell kids to write lines of poetry using a single most important item to them in isolation (which I did as a matter of fact), but using the opportunity to have students show me what they know in their own way is another. We need to give kids the same opportunities to show their learning in a variety of ways just as we would in class. Observation is hard, but we can use conversations in addition to products.
Conversations. Conversations means connection. That. Is. The kicker. Take the time to talk to kids. It took me 30 minutes on the phone with my student and it was worth every flippin’ second. It was pretty amazing. Many kids will do well on their own. My daughter, for example, is fine in all this. She’s always been an independent thinker who isn’t afraid to reach out for help, so I don’t even need to push her. She’s the kid you don’t need to red flag. She has a stable home and mother who’s a teacher and knows how all this works, so you just need to applaud her perseverance. You red flag and reach out to the kids who get quiet. The kids who need connection. The kids you have to poke and prod in class to accept your help has not changed in a pandemic. Poke and prod!!
This brings me to assessment (you knew it was coming all you educators waiting for the assessment bite). We should absolutely, 10127%, be assessing student work turned in. The definition of assessment is the process by which we collect information of a learner’s learning progress over a period in order to improve learning and teaching (Bob Adamson and others). Assessment is feedback. We don’t need to measure anything. We don’t need to use check marks. We really don’t need to be using numbers. The best assessment involves using words to describe what a child has done successfully (and why!) and needs to improve on (and how!). When we use words to express assessment, we bridge the communication gap. Words show empathy. It allows us to say, I appreciate that you have… and I think what you have done here is important…, but also, I wonder if you could… and Next time, try to… In this crisis, now more than ever, we should be taking descriptive feedback out for a spin because we’ve been told to prioritize connection over restrictions.
If you don’t trust your assessment of student learning and worry that it will be tainted by cheating, then perhaps you should rethink how you are gathering your evidence. It is a myth that learning cannot be original, authentic, and interesting if it’s done outside the classroom. In fact now’s the time to come up with groovy projects and assignments that are original, authentic and interesting because when you give students voice and choice in their learning and engaging activities to boot, you won’t have to worry about whether a student copied off the internet or asked their big brother to give them the answers. And if they need support from home and a parent assists them, who cares? Collaboration is awesome!
In the boredom of isolation, get creative. Reinvent assignments. I argue that now isn’t the time to just go back and ask students to redo old learning because they have all this time on their hands to get better at it. Former learning that kids struggled with are going to bring up old feelings of angst at a time when their lives are already filled with struggle and angst. It will also feel like learning is moving forward not backwards. Instead of standing still, let’s let student move onward on the learning trajectory. Even if you are only comfortable throwing content at kids because you genuinely worry that you might give them too much work (good for your for thinking in this way) new material may actually add calmness to kids who are especially concerned about the impact of lost learning with have on next year’s classes. It isn’t a perfect solution to a scary time, but moving forward matters to kids.
My final words are ones several of my esteemed colleagues have repeated. Kids in isolation are struggling with all kinds of feelings. In isolation, without a parent and with all kinds of new responsibilities, burden after burden is poured over their heads. After days and days of new burdens (emails, grades, due dates, and disconnection…), they are up to their chin in it. We’ve got to throw high school kids a life preserver because some of them are drowning.