When I was in college, I started writing a holiday newsletter to include with my Christmas cards. My mother had always written a newsletter, so it seemed a natural way to reflect on the year. It also provided friends and family with an update on my life in a pre-social media world. It is a tradition I have continued through the years.
Trying to wrap my mind around 2020 to craft my newsletter was no small feat. I thought about skipping it altogether. Who wants to read a depressing newsletter about a year fraught with challenges? Yet, it seemed wrong to pretend the year didn’t happen or that I learned nothing from it.
As I began to write, I realized that 2020 for me was a year of extremes. As I wrote, the words of Charles Dickens kept resurfacing in my mind. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
In some respects, this blog has become my excuse to reflect each week on my professional work. As such, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned this year supporting teachers and schools as they adapt to a variety of teaching and learning landscapes, completing my doctoral research on teacher engagement in blended learning environments, designing a getting started and an advancing with blended and online learning course for teachers, working on a new book project with the talented Katie Novak, and hosting my podcast, The Balance.
#1 Relationships need to be our #1 priority.
Life, at its core, is about relationships. The most challenging aspect of 2020 has been the toll it has taken on our relationships with others. The physical distance necessitated by the pandemic has made it more challenging to build and maintain relationships with important people in our lives.
My research made it clear that two of the most significant factors impacting teacher engagement was the depth of our relationships with students and our relationships with our colleagues. Teachers have found it challenging to connect with their students when a screen mediates those interactions. They are also missing the camaraderie and friends they would see each day going to work.
Despite the challenges of relationship-building in the era of COVID and social distancing, nurturing these relationships is possible and worthwhile. Starting each class with a two-word check-in like Brené Brown uses with her team, incorporating fun activities, like online icebreakers and scavenger hunts, and making time to conference with individual students can all help to build community and relationships with students, even if that work happens online.
When it comes to connecting with your colleagues, I’ve seen teams of teachers commit to a book study as a way to connect and learn. Others meet virtually every week for a Friday happy hour or Sunday coffee date to talk about how they are navigating this challenging moment, personally and professionally.
#2 Providing a one-size-fits-all experience doesn’t work in any learning landscape.
Every person is different. We all have unique interests, learning preferences, histories and life experiences, family dynamics, strengths, and weaknesses. This is not new. What is new is that the pandemic has shone a light on the ineffectiveness of a one-size-fits-all approach to educating a diverse group of students.
As an advocate of blended learning, my focus is on helping teachers design and facilitate learning experiences that are differentiated for specific groups of students and personalized for individual learners. These goals are hard, if not impossible, to achieve with traditional, teacher-led, whole group lessons. Instead, I would love educators to embrace blended learning, not because they have to, but because it honors the diversity in our classes. Blended learning not only strives to meet students where they are at in terms of their individual learning journeys, it also prioritizes their agency, shifting control from teacher to learner.
As I work with Katie Novak on my newest book project, I think the synergy between her expertise on Universal Design for Learning and my work on blended learning provide an exciting new way to think about thriving in flexible learning landscapes.
#3 Students are capable of self-directed learning.
“Students won’t do asynchronous work.” I hear this a lot. The insinuation is that students must be monitored in a classroom or in a video conference session to do the work and learn. I disagree. As Zaretta Hammond said on an episode of VrainWaves, “The student is the center of learning. ‘Only the learner learns’ is my motto…the brain is a learning machine. It does not need to go to school to learn. It learns.”
Students are capable, curious learners. Their teachers need to believe in them and treat them as such. So, if students are not doing the asynchronous work, we need to ask them why. Is something happening at home that is making it hard for them to focus on school? Are they struggling with the work and need more support? Do they feel the work assigned is interesting, engaging, and relevant? If not, what would they enjoy learning? What would make learning feel more relevant to their lives?
This brings me to my fourth lesson.
#4 Ask students for feedback. It is the best way to learn and grow.
Feedback typically flows from teacher to student, but feedback should be a two-way street. Teachers can learn so much from their students if they ask the right questions. Students are the customers in education. They are navigating the experiences, assignments, routines, and workflows that we are assigning and using. Ending each week with a quick form or recorded video check-in can provide invaluable insight into their experience.
- What is working well? What are you enjoying?
- What are you struggling with? What is challenging or difficult?
- What has been your favorite activity, assignment, or routine? What has been your least favorite?
- What recommendations would you make to improve our class?
The best way to model life-long learning for our students is by valuing their feedback and using what we learn from them to improve our practice.
#5 Learning must have a social component.
The hardest part of being a parent during the pandemic is seeing my own children become disillusioned with school because the social component feels absent. My son, in particular, has struggled to stay engaged. He is normally a strong student, but he was depressed, missing assignments, and dreading his virtual classes. When I asked him why he he “hated online school,” he said, “The teachers turn off the chat and never use breakout rooms. I never get to talk to my friends.” For him, the real appeal of school pre-pandemic had been the social component of learning. When classes shifted online, he lost that.
I know my son is not alone. Social interactions are a critical part of learning. Students need opportunities to engage with one another for learning to be rich and dynamic. They should be engaging in conversations and collaborating in shared virtual spaces to construct and confirm meaning together as a learning community. Without that social element, learning feels static and learners feel isolated.
#6 Work is a rubber ball.
In my conversation with Linwood Paul for an episode of The Balance, he said, “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air…work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Your job is to keep them all in the air. You’ll soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of those, they’ll be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered.” This quote resonated with me on a deep level. I am guilty of prioritizing work over other aspects of my life. It helps to remind myself that it is a rubber ball capable of bouncing, unharmed, if I drop it occasionally.
Every teacher I know has worked harder in the last 10 months than ever before. They are spending evenings and weekends preparing to meet the demands of teaching in a pandemic. As all-consuming as work may feel right now, we must nurture the other parts of ourselves if we are going to have the energy to do this important work.
#7 Student agency is the best way to increase engagement and motivation.
When I ask teachers to share the biggest challenges they face right now, they often identify a lack of student engagement as the number one hurdle. I understand the frustration. Student engagement and teacher engagement are reciprocal. When students disengage, it is harder for us to do this challenging work. That said, it’s worth remembering that a lot of students spend all day in classrooms or online in video conferencing sessions without getting to make a single decision. That lack of agency can have a devastating impact on student motivation.
We must architect learning experiences that offer students choice and voice. As we design our lessons, are we asking ourselves, what decision will students get to make? Perhaps, they decide what lens they look through or what aspect of a larger topic they investigate. Maybe we give them choices about how they complete an assignment…the tools they use, whether they work online or off, what steps they will take to get from point A to point B.
The more agency and autonomy students enjoy, the more likely they are to be motivated. From a UDL perspective, student agency also creates opportunities for diverse groups of learners to decide how they want to learn, engage with information, or demonstrate their learning.
#8 Projects can turn the world into our curriculum.
In an episode of The Balance, I had the chance to chat with Dr. Jennifer Pieratt, an expert on project-based learning (PBL). She said, “The world is our curriculum. It’s easy for teachers to shy away from the mess right now, but the world is so ripe for kids to be finding solutions for the problems that are going on.”
PBL can be adapted for any context and may offer educators a unique opportunity to engage students in dynamic, real-world learning experiences that help them to make sense of problems, issues, and events that matter to them. Whether it is exploring racial inequality, food insecurity, access and equity, or health and wellness during a pandemic, there is no shortage of issues and topics to explore that are relevant to our students’ lives.
By weaving content and skill development into a PBL structure that invites students to choose the lens they look through or the project they pursue, we may be able to re-engage students who feel that the work they are doing is disconnected from “real life.”
Like most people, I’m not going to shed any tears tonight when the clock strikes midnight ushering in a new year. I plan to pop a bottle of champagne for me and my husband and a bottle of sparkling apple cider for my kids, toast with gratitude the blessings in our lives, acknowledge what’s been lost, and wish for a brighter new year!