Opening

Hours of meetings and gallons of ink have disappeared in the planning of bringing students back on campus in September. Meanwhile, COVID-19, a more efficient operator, marched on, the curve sloping up until some school districts, like LA Unified and San Diego Unified, saw no choice but to hit “pause” on those in-person reopening plans.

This seems like the time to take a quiet moment to center ourselves, acknowledge that we all need each other if any of us are to succeed, and get to work on a remote learning experience that actually works.

We know that not all students have equal access to technology, and that many of the students who have the fewest digital resources are the same kids who have the fewest resources (time, money, and safe environments) when we’re educating them in school buildings made of brick and mortar. It’s not fair. It never has been. 

To provide an equitable experience for all students is a charge education needs to meet, education, the system, not just individual teachers. Tech departments, central offices, folks whose job in the system has them a step or two removed from working in classrooms with kids can make a monumental difference now by finding solutions to make access available to all. As a principal I know I’m part of that system, and I want to do my part. We need to ensure access for each of our students. Remote learning is a voyage through wide waters and every student should have a worthy craft to sail. 

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At the school level we know what needs to happen after that; we need to teach kids.

The challenge teachers and counselors and site administrators need to face is how to provide teaching and learning, connections and support, care and community to our kids, and we need to get working on that now.

We need a schedule. For teachers, for students, for families, we need to have structure that allows us to manage the time (so very, very, very much time) we have at home. Not everyone can meet during the same hours, life and sometimes bandwidth get in the way of that, but having some opportunity for synchronous learning is healthy, both academically and socially. I have two kids, and over the three months this spring when they were learning from home my ninth grader met with each of his teachers at least once a week, sometimes more often; my sixth grader saw a teacher from his 6th grade “team” in real time twice. Two times. It wasn’t a mystery which of the two felt more connected.

Almost all of the parents, teachers, and students who reached out to me from March through June commented on the importance of having some schedule to support some sense of familiarity, provide kids a reason to get up before noon, and give families something they could plan for in the week ahead. Some parents talked about filling out mini-dry erase boards with schedules, one student told me about a spreadsheet she used to keep track of logins for meetings, and while many of my teachers came to the realization that flipping lessons using video could be a smart move, most also spoke about the benefits of having a time every other day or so when they could meet with their kids.

We need a sense of proportion, an understanding of how much is too much, how much is not enough, and how much work is just right. If we were (collectively) Goldilocks this spring, not all of us had found our way out of Mama Bear’s bed when we ended school in the second week of June. We need to find the right fit sooner than that this fall. To do so we’ll need to work collaboratively, look to others with expertise, and agree that not only is remote learning different than learning in classrooms, but the workload is different too. I certainly do not have the answer as to how much work a remote learning situation should have in comparison to a classroom in the schoolhouse, but I do know that for our kids’ sake we need to find out the answer (which might be different in English and history and theater and math) and help our kids find success academically, even as they’re doing school from their kitchen tables.

And no, not every student has a kitchen table to call their own, certainly not at specific times of day when we say school is in session, so we need to acknowledge that too and find ways to support both the students, all of them, and the families as learning migrates from one big building to thousands of homes across our town. 

We need clear communication. As a principal I need to prepare for a remote Back to School Night. I need to provide ways for my school community to ask questions (my twice monthly coffees with the principal over Zoom worked well for this last spring) and give feedback (through surveys and such, where we can get even more information from our students and families). I need to help provide the context for the important work that is happening in classes.

And in those classes, well, we need to figure out how to present information, provide inspiration, ensure accountability, and be relevant.

Lots of folks have written more eloquently and with more information than me about remote learning. We need to learn from them, talk to our teachers, and come up with the plan that will work for our school.

This fall is not, and should not be, a repeat of the spring. In March and April we had to react to a crisis and rebuild our ship at sea. In September we’ve had weeks in dry-dock to make the needed repairs. 

Some of that shipbuilding should include clarity on how students and families can find assignments, an easy way for kids to manage meetings, ways to adequately assess learning, and opportunities to connect meaningfully with teachers and peers in class.

Classes look different, and that’s okay; a dance class, a science lab, orchestra, ceramics, calculus, each subject has nuances that mean there’s no way one size can fit all, and… we can still figure out ways that kids can find the class meetings, assignments, and content in a more uniform way. We can still help families organize time (and perhaps internet related resources like bandwidth and devices) in a way that there is room for all those classes, and maybe also room for a walk around the block.

I’m optimistic that we’ll all be back in our school building this year, I really am, but I’m even more certain that we’ll be learning remotely (whether full time or in some kind of hybrid model) sooner than that.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a virtual picnic for students. We chatted about summer, looked at photos of the construction at our new campus (opening with fanfare in the fall of 2021), and talked about this upcoming start of school. 

They want to be on campus, but they want it to be safe. They know that some of our artistic pursuits, some of the very reasons we exist as a school at all, like music, and theater, and dance, bring with them added challenges. “Remote poet” has a different ring to it than “remote trumpeter.” And…

The students, like the adults, are so ready to be back. Safely.

So we plan. We plan for 100% remote learning. We plan for the day we can all be back on campus together. And we plan for some kind of in between, where we might gather safely, even if not all at once.

I wish I knew for certain what the 2020-2021 school year would look like. I don’t, at least not right now, but I do believe that we can make something positive out of this fall. Imperfect, yes, but positive.

Because we have the ingredients: students, teachers, and caring. No obstacles, not stress, not physical separation, not uncertainty can overcome the power of teaching and learning. With planning, preparation, and the ability to meet mistakes with grace we can sail forward in the best boat we can fashion for these stormy seas. 

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