Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In tribute to my friend, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano (@langwitches)

There is no better way to understand your own biases than to travel. Traveling gives you insight into perspectives you might have never considered. It opens your mind to new opportunities for humanity and connection. It gives you experiences that are indelible and lifelong.

Bruce Chatwin, author of The Songlines, wrote that “Travel doesn't merely broaden the mind. It makes the mind.” The Songlines resonated with me and helped me understand my identity in the world and why it mattered that I belonged to a community of people, a community that was made up of the entire planet on which we all live. Experiences matter. Perspectives matter. And I must invite those experiences and perspectives into understanding my own purpose.

I first met Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, @langwiches to many of you, at the annual Curriculum Mapping conference in Saratoga Springs, NY many years ago. We were quick friends and documentarians, sharing our experiences with documenting learning and pushing teachers to connect, collaborate, and create. Silvia called herself a Third Culture Kid...born in Germany, raised in Argentina, and settling in America. She was really an All Culture Kid--a child of the world...the whole world.

I’ve traveled internationally with her several times as well as around the United States and Canada on many occasions. She’s a great travel partner--open to all perspectives and actively seeking opportunities to experience the world’s point of view on our work. How does the world inform what we do? That essential question has driven my own work for years. Silvia got it. She knew that enlightenment came from experiences. She knew that to fully realize the awesomeness of humanity, we had to experience what it meant to be human in a multitude of circumstances. 

Being a global citizen didn’t mean just knowing about the world. That was a strong prerequisite but not the thing itself. Being a global citizen meant being an experiencer of what the world has to offer. It meant learning WITH the world rather than just about it. And Silvia was adamant that this was a focal point for education. Math and Language weren’t the most important subjects, Geography was. Understanding Geography was a pathway to understanding all other subjects better. 

We can’t be better people if we only interact with small slices of populations. Experiences that are similar to our own don’t challenge our thinking, they reinforce our biases. To open our minds and hearts we have to open our passports. 

There is an old African proverb that has been bouncing around in my brain for the last few days… “when a person dies, a library is lost.” I’m paraphrasing, but I’m thinking about this in relation to Silvia and realizing that her library will never close. She documented everything she did for the benefit of teachers and learners. She shared in so many ways that her library will forever be open. Her contribution to the collective efficacy of all of us remains available online--a fitting legacy for someone I consider to be a true global media specialist.

I’m going to miss my friend as she travels on to places I can’t yet go. I’m going to miss her pragmatic ideas on what the must-do’s are in education in relation to globalizing learning and learners. I’m going to miss the challenge of blending experiences with priorities in educational endeavors. She was a really good thought partner.

In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin introduced me to The Dreamtime, the Aboriginal stories of how everything came to be. He wrote of his experiences to understand and explore The Dreamtime and how reluctant the Aboriginal people were to talk to him about it. He was documenting his journey, for sure, but he was also sending a message: Just because we want the knowledge doesn’t mean we deserve it. In a larger sense, I think he was telling me, as the reader, that it’s not enough to just be interested. You have to be immersed. Immersion and the willingness to journey beyond your comfort builds trust and camaraderie and forges relationships built on shared understanding. Silvia was my globally connected mentor for this and I’m so sorry that the world has lost her.

I intend to lift her lamp. 

I want her light to continue to shine. 

I hope others will do the same.

Into the West, by Annie Lennox:

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Going Forward: Snow Days or Online Days?

Last weekend, I shared the following tweet:

While I knew I was in a provocative space with this statement, I also wanted to know what others thought about it. I received a slew of responses from folks that ran the gamut of sentimentality and social/emotional awareness to quality of work to accessing essential tools and planning to pull this off. 

My stance, going into this conversation, was about our extension of my last blog post. Now that we have the capability to have online days, are snow days a thing of the past?

It’s not the first time I’ve been down this rabbit hole. Back in 2011, I tweeted the following:

Back then, I called it cool and innovative, but that was Pre-Pandemic, before the reality of the logistics to really make it happen. I was also inspired by a student, Zachary Maxwell, who, in 2014, wrote and directed a film called Anatomy of a Snow Day. This film deals with all of the logistical elements that must be in place in order for New York City to issue a rare snow day for students. Among those issues are transportation, type of precipitation, accumulation of precipitation, wind chill, public transit access, etc. At the time, access to Zoom and Google Meet weren’t even thought of. 

In short, if we can pull it off, why don’t we?

Here are some of the considerations from those who responded:

  • Quickly changing an in-person lesson to an online lesson is complicated.

  • Who is going to be their learning liaison / helper / parent in this situation?

  • Do all students have the equity of access to devices and the internet? (And where does the funding come from to pull that off?)

  • If we have allotted snow days, shouldn’t those be depleted before moving into an online option?

  • If the day is just a bunch of busywork to accommodate the situation, is it worth it?

  • What about students with special needs? How will an online day support their individual needs and interventions?

  • Will teachers have the time they need to plan for a day’s worth of meaningful instruction?

In my original tweet, I hashtagged the phrase #ChangeMyMind. It was an invitation to others that I was open to differing opinions and was welcoming the perspectives of others. 

Going forward, how can we leverage our capabilities and reconcile them with nostalgia?

  • Could there be a balance? A partial day? A real snow day on one occurrence with an online option for the next occurrence?

  • Districts prioritizing the equity of devices and internet access for every student.

  • In terms of social / emotional learning and wellness, do we have an obligation to uphold tradition in this case? Perhaps we could do this with some parameters for helping families and communities shovel out or catch up on a hobby or launch a learning investigation of something that is of personal interest or cook something together - or even just to unplug and enjoy the day. There’s learning in all those things too--just not content-driven or traditionally assessed at school.

In Jefferson County Schools, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson wrote THIS LETTER to parents and students where she wrote that the snow day was “an opportunity to make some memories with your family,” and that “We will return to the serious and urgent business of growing up on Thursday, but for tomorrow...go build a snowman.”

Perhaps this is one of those situations where “just because we can” doesn’t mean “we should.”

In one response to my tweet, a teacher simply wrote, “Kids need snow days.” Perhaps everybody does.

I’d like to amend my original #ChangeMyMind hashtag with #UpdatedPerspective. I still think this is a conversation worth having and that perhaps, as the years roll along, that there may be an equitable space for finding learning opportunities for bad weather days, perhaps only after scheduled snow days have been used up. Or maybe we just stick with tradition: cuddle up with a book, some hot chocolate, a Netflix binge, unlimited sledding, snowman building, and memories to last a lifetime...

And in the interest of ending this on a positive note, please enjoy the following parody from Mary Morris, a third-grade teacher in Tennessee who shared her feelings about Snow Days in this parody of Adele’s Hello:

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Kids Will Be Alright (And We Can Never Go Back To The Way Things Were)

It’s not the filling of a pail anymore. It’s not even the lighting of a fire.

It’s all about creating the conditions in which fire can occur in whatever the learning scenario may be.

Of late, there have been a lot of eduTwitterers, advocates, reporters, and educational sharers of all types that are woefully lamenting what kids have lost, what they are missing, or what they are needing during the pandemic. They are missing months of instruction. They will end up being a year behind in their learning. They will be lost in the next grade level. They are missing socialization and human interaction. They are spending too much time on screens.

But what about what they’ve gained?

The Pandemic has been awful--worse than awful, but it has bestowed some gifts that wouldn’t have necessarily happened without it (or might not have happened so quickly!):

  • Social and Emotional Learning: One of the high notes of pandemic outcomes has been the laser focus on social and emotional well-being for students and even their teachers. While SEL was already gaining some traction in classrooms, the pandemic spurred action around building relationships with students, investing in those relationships, checking in on how everyone is doing (many times on a daily basis!), and providing school and community supports in very specific ways.  

  • Equity and Cultural Responsivity: The moment schools closed and learning from home began, we were thrust into a zone where the learning location and situation was being broadcast to everyone. Some had devices, some had phones (some had no devices!), some had dedicated spaces, some shared space with siblings. Some brought ideas to the learning table because they were in their home environments that were different than what they would offer in a social setting at school. Some parents became learning partners. All of what happened contributed to the collective understanding of what students were offering of themselves, their cultures, their family mores, and how the learning must respect where students come from so that the learning is relevant for all.

  • Major Upgrade to Differentiated Practices: Teachers often tell me about their differentiated practices in schools, though many times, what they describe is either more work or less work, or opportunities for deleting an assignment or portion of an assessment. The scaffolds really aren’t there. In remote learning scenarios, teachers had to quickly figure out how to layer instruction that builds knowledge and skills in particular and effective ways. This meant learning to leverage online meeting technologies to schedule time with small groups and individuals, rediscover the magic of the mini-lesson, and learn the ebb and flow of the individual tides of independent and guided instruction and different finish lines for performance.

  • Priorities in Instruction: Of the many questions I was asked when working with teachers, one of the most prevalent ones was: What matters most in instruction? My answer was almost always, “I don’t know. It depends on the lenses through which you are looking at what is a priority.” I had great conversations with teachers about what critical learning meant. What are the students learning that will be the basis for their future learning? What are the students learning that will serve them in multiple content areas? What are students learning that are lifelong skills? What is the difference between what I teach and what students learn? What do I need to add to my program? What will not work in an online environment? What do I have time to accomplish? These have always been good questions to ask about our curriculum and instruction and they will continue to be drivers of quality curriculum going forward!

  • Toolboxes for Learning: One of the many things we learned early on was that there was no one size fits all resource. While many companies purported to have exactly what you need, all fell short in one way or another. This was actually a good thing. It forced us to think about the suite of tools that matter to learning or are the most beneficial for students. This toolbox was contributed to by teachers and students and became dependent upon what needed to be done and which tool is the best for engaging and assessing student understanding. This was a much different scenario than trying out what was shiny and new out in the edtool ether and seeing if it worked. We had to make quick decisions about efficacy and then give students some choice of tools that matter. This scenario is not going away...

  • Self-Direction and Self-Navigation Skills: Whether remote, blended, or in person, students were thrust into opportunities for being more responsible for their own actions, contributions, time-management, and decision making. Students have a level of autonomy that they haven’t had before because they are operating in multiple types of learning spaces. Teachers are managing these spaces and are relying on students to do their part--to be contributing eduCitizens in this new learning landscape. I’ll admit, there were days when I was sure that everything was on the verge of falling apart, and then the students would pull through and show everyone what their readiness levels really were. And now that we know that they are capable, even at a young age, how can we leverage this level of independence and decision-making skills in future learning endeavors? (On a related note, I’ve noticed that people, in general, who are working together to get through this pandemic, are way better at self-direction than they were previously and this is great that it’s being modeled for our children. I’m talking directly to those people that put their carts away at the grocery store or don’t hoard toilet paper--thank you.)

  • Project and Problem Based Learning: The pandemic and remote/blended instruction became a great opportunity to move away from the encapsulated day to day lesson plans entrenched in classrooms and focus on more project/problem-based learning opportunities that involved research, collaborations, mini-lessons, and new assessments. Some of this was done in relation to the load of the teacher and how they were managing multiple students in different learning scenarios and some of this was done in order to maximize thinking and engagement for all students. I’m hoping the practice sticks around. 

  • EduEcosystem Constructs: Learning in a pandemic shined a brilliant light on the way we’ve always done it. And perhaps the way we should consider doing things from now on. We learned that location doesn’t matter nearly so much as the quality of the learning and the relationships you have with those you’re learning with. When we think about all the creative ways we dealt with synchronous and asynchronous time, we worried less about seat time and more about quality instruction. The conversations that we would normally have had about grades transformed into conversations about impact and how well students learned what we intended for them to learn and the feedback we offer for improving their work. We learned that there is perhaps a new recipe to consider when thinking about learning that sticks: it starts with people and relationships, then what’s worth engaging together during synchronous times, then creating or co-creating new ways for students to demonstrate what they are learning, all while giving them more opportunities to self-navigate and more autonomy in their work. 

Ongoing, what do we do? What do we stop doing? Continue doing? Start doing?

In my humble opinion, we can’t go back to normal, whatever that might mean. All that we have learned about learning and teaching must be part of the lenses through which we look at future curriculum design opportunities. Whether the learning happens in school live, in a blended format, or even in continued remote opportunities, we want to persist with all that we’ve leveled up to in the last 9 months. This includes thinking about synchronous, asynchronous (perhaps flipped?), and even semi-synchronous events where we move in and out of online/offline and in-person/remote scenarios with the dexterity and grace of a swan.

Is there a conversation to be had about what students might have lost or missed? Certainly. But that shouldn’t be a focal point. Our focal point should be on what students (and teachers) have gained during this time and how we can build on those gains to do extraordinary things in the future. This is a significant moment in time for many reasons. Personally, I want to focus on the positives and moving onward and upward. I can be considerate of what support students may need as we come out of this pandemic but with the wings they’ve grown during this time, I want to see them fly.

Photo: Michael Fisher