This guest post from an elementary school principal and parent of two children is one of several posts we are sharing with reflections from students and educators about their experiences during remote learning.
This past spring, my household has operated three different schools under one roof. This is because my two children, ages fifteen and seventeen, attend two different schools, and I am the head of a third school. Had you told me in early March that this would be our new normal, I would have laughed in your face and wondered how this would even be possible. But, here we are.
At my school, which currently serves students ages three through kindergarten, we knew we had to support parents in cultivating the joy of learning that was so evident in each of their children. And we also had to honor the fact that these were young children who could not (and should not) be plopped in front of a screen all day. Our curricular philosophy is based on the idea of student-led inquiry. So while our teachers may ask some directed questions to help students dig deeper, they listen thoughtfully to what students are asking and saying, and they use this information to guide instruction. We knew that we would need to provide instruction for students, but how best to honor this emphasis on inquiry and individuality?
As we were working through our plans, my own children’s schools were doing the same, and they came up with vastly different approaches. My son’s school, an independent K-12 school, opted for a fair amount of synchronous learning. Classes still meet regularly, though they have been shortened from their typical 80-minute length. They still meet as an advisory, they’ve had a few class meetings with their entire grade, and they even hold upper school meetings, with upwards of 250 attendees. Additionally, teachers have made themselves available for office hours when they are not in class.
In contrast, my daughter’s school, a large public high school, has little to no synchronous learning. The principal of her school defended this decision, arguing that some of their population did not have adequate access to attend school remotely or may have other obligations, such as taking care of younger siblings. I was somewhat skeptical of this decision at first. I worried that in order to be as equitable as possible, the school had lowered the bar in terms of expectations for their students. I feared that by not having to show up for class, students (my daughter among them) would drift away from engagement and connection with her peers and teachers.
For my school, we began with a mostly asynchronous approach that we hoped would provoke curiosity, engagement, joy, and deep learning. Recognizing that it was unrealistic to expect young children to sit in “class” in front of the computer, we created websites for each classroom that could be used as places to exchange information. Each day, teachers would post new provocations and resources, and each day, parents would document their children’s learning. They’d send photos, videos, and quotes to the teachers, who would post these on the website so students could still see each other.
As I’ve observed my own kids, I have found that what works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for the other. My son was disappointed at the short length of his classes, feeling that you couldn’t get anything done in only 30 minutes, craving time to dig into big ideas with his teachers and classmates. On the other hand, my daughter felt that she was learning much more than usual, despite having little to no synchronous class time. Instead, through videos and email communications that her teachers have provided, she felt like she could learn at her own pace and didn’t have the distractions that she might in a more formal class setting. She also felt she could get to the heart of any questions much more efficiently through the office hours times with teachers.
For my school, teachers quickly discovered that while they were providing wonderful content through their websites, they also needed to see and speak with their students regularly. These connections allowed them to get a better handle on how each of their students was doing, and it also reminded our young charges that their teachers were still there for them despite not being able to see them each day. Teachers added more meeting times for the whole class, smaller groups, and individual students. While not everyone can attend, it has been a key component for several kids to be able to see and talk to each other, however briefly. For other families, the asynchronous piece works better as it allows for more flexibility while they juggle their own work and caring for other kids.
Through this all, one thing has become abundantly clear: our kids feel like they are learning when they feel connected. In my twenty-plus years as an educator, I’ve always felt that social-emotional learning trumped academic learning. Teachers first need to create a safe space for students through connecting and giving real-time to the development of social-emotional skills. The need for a sense of belonging is strong in all humans in normal times, and the current situation puts us at a greater than normal risk of isolation. But the amazing thing about this need for belonging is that people are finding new and creative ways to come together in spirit, if not in person. We have witnessed amazing displays of creativity and generosity from all corners of the world, not only in education but in all areas of our lives. Understanding how strong this need for belonging is, good educators have ensured that they are finding multiple modes of connection with their students.
Even in normal times, good schools should constantly iterate, trying out new ways to teach and engage students. But in a world where traditions are highly valued and change is often feared, this can be hard. Now, our world has been turned upside down. This is difficult in many ways, but one glimmer of hope is that it has allowed schools the freedom to try different approaches and to shift gears when things aren’t working. Change is still feared, but families know that education right now has to look different. And it is looking more likely each day that it will continue to look different for the foreseeable future. Schools that can be nimble and change course easily will weather this storm much better than those that insist upon the status quo. Schools also need to remember that different kids learn differently and adjust their programming and modes of connecting accordingly. Finally, schools need to stay focused on connections with their students. This need not be in the form of more Zoom classes (though that may work for some, like my son). It may mean personal check-ins, open office hour times, or class dance parties (virtual, of course).
Not surprisingly, my idea of what good schools need to do right now is pretty much identical to what it would be were we not in the middle of a pandemic. Being willing to try, fail, and try again? Check. Meet kids where they are as individuals? Check. Value connection and social-emotional learning as a base for all other learning? Check. I have only to look back over the goals I have set over the years to see these themes emerge consistently. For the last few years, we have been talking about educating our kids for a future that looks vastly different from the present. As it turns out, that future has arrived sooner than expected. The schools that will survive are the ones that can change and shift to meet the needs of their students while remaining focused on developing and maintaining strong human connections.
All three of the schools happening under my roof have continued to shift as they solicit feedback and gain a better understanding of what is working and what is not. When I get a teary email from a parent thanking me for a music video our faculty created; when I see my daughter spend hours on an art assignment that would have normally been done during one class period; when my son ditches his senior ditch day to check in with his math teacher, I know some things are going right.
Heather Bushnell Mock is the founding head of school of Compositive Primary, an early childhood and elementary school in Aurora, Colorado. In her 25+ years in education, she has grown to embrace the social and emotional development of the student as the most effective means towards success in academics and life.