a collective sigh of relief: a respite from screens

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(Note: The end of this current school year marks a historic moment in our country’s educational history. The abrupt move to remote learning was a shock to our individual and collective systems. It’s not clear what follows, but I thought it was important to capture one small corner of that gigantic sea change before we move on. I’ve invited Kimberly Folkening, the teacher on whose classroom my writing was based, to join me in this account. It’s important that we listen to teachers’ voices, as well as those of outside observers whenever possible, although in this case I was less an outsider and more a collaborator. We hope you’ll read all the way through this tandem bicycle ride, with Kimberly doing the heavy pedaling from the front seat. This is dedicated to the millions of teachers who have been out there pedaling alone, some over terrain worthy of the Boston Marathon. We encourage you to share our piece on whatever platforms you use. What happened after our schools were shuttered in late March has had an impact on so many of our lives.

Wrapping up is even harder than I thought. In many ways we are still moving full steam ahead with projects while mentally and emotionally the kids are shutting down. It is heartbreaking to see students’ affects flat, witness tears and hear about headaches. On one hand this needs to end, but when it does what happens? What keeps me going is that despite the challenges, I receive videos and pictures of students with huge smiles showing their work. I can do one more week. I hope they can!

                                                                           Kimberly Folkening, second grade teacher

School is over or about to be over for school districts across the country. You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the thousands of teachers who have been engaged in the Herculean task of translating their instruction, built on a foundation of strong relationships between students and teachers into a medium short on the softness of hugs, high fives and smiles that render all the necessary marching orders, directions, explanations and exhortations, somewhat palatable.  Teachers deserve their own 7PM rounds of applause and pot banging from their city’s apartment dwellers and homeowners.

I’ve been visiting Kimberly Folkening’s second grade room in a suburb about thirty minutes from downtown Chicago for the last five years. After many years in Chicago Public Schools, I had to adjust my conception of suburban schools because many of her students come from low-income and minority families. I’ve written about Kimberly and our long history together in an earlier posting. If you check back on that piece, you’ll see what a gifted and committed teacher she is. One of the moments I cherished in my own teaching years came during conferences when parents recognized that I really knew their kid. Kimberly is that kind of teacher; she takes up residence inside her students’ heads.

For precisely that reason, the remote learning shift was particularly painful and difficult for her. The two of us have been brainstorming together regularly about the kind of instruction her students need and deserve. Usually, that planning took place in her classroom while the students were off at one of what schools have come to call “specials” – gym, art, music. Sometimes, when important or troubling things were happening in our personal lives, the actual planning got squeezed into the last five minutes of our time together, which forced some really supercharged thinking. The work was successful because it was built on a relationship that extends back more than twenty years.

Now that our planning time was remote, we had to trust that foundation to make the work succeed. It wasn’t as much fun as sitting around those undersized second grade tables, but it was all we had. It was most definitely all I had since I was no longer able to even interact with the children online. I was not an employee of the school district and therefore did not have access to the codes that would have allowed me into Zoom or whatever platform they were using. Kimberly’s success in her current school has earned her a lot of latitude in designing the work she could offer her students. That was true when “regular” school was happening, and it was more so in the switch to online work because no one was clear about the best way to proceed in any case. Working in a well-resourced school district she was blessed with an abundance of technical and social support that was usually in short supply in the city schools.

During our remote conferencing we decided to construct a unit that provided much needed emotional support at the same time that it incorporated strong academic content. Just before school closed in mid-March, Kimberly and her students were studying the adaptations animals made to survive in their respective habitats. Now the children were confined to their own habitats – their homes. For some that meant security and protection, for others stress and confinement. Why not build a unit around the idea of home that could expand into the two months remaining in the school year? The opportunities for extensions into art, science, reading and writing were legion – if the technology could be harnessed for creative ends.

Although I could contribute some overarching ideas in our online meetings, it was up to Kimberly to do what teachers everywhere were doing, namely translating these big ideas into a deliverable platform that included whole group, small group and individual meeting times, read-alouds and mini-lessons on video, and advice/directions for parents. The weekly plans she shared with me were miniature works of art. They should be preserved as artifacts of The Time When Schools Were Closed whose impact will be analyzed and discussed for decades. You can read below her own words about the arduous process of producing these plans. The challenges and frustrations she faced were representative of what teachers everywhere were confronting in this brave new world of virtual children.

Several of Kimberly’s students barely participated for lack of support at home, some whose parents didn’t speak English, others whose parents were too busy or stressed to offer help. Some parents became willing partners in this new-style learning. Others, no less committed to their children, were beset by too many survival challenges to participate fully. Many of these second graders became proficient at moving in, out and among Zoom meetings, others needed adult guidance which parents weren’t always able to provide. Nonetheless, Kimberly was able to create a framework that enabled kids to do amazing work in a number of areas including poetry writing and home design. All the work attempted to address the essential question: What do living beings need/want in a home?

Here is a group poem the students produced, a remarkable conquest of the electronic obstacles they faced as a class. There is also a final collection of their individual poems I’ve had to forego including because of the permission challenges I would have had to overcome.

When I Think of Home

By The Second Grade Poets

When I think of home, I think of my baby nephew laughing and playing with me.

When I think of home, I think of my mom.

When I think of home, I think of shoes everywhere.

When I think of home, I think of it being really messy around the house.

When I think of home, I think of feeling home alone.

When I think of home, I think of the floor being lava.

When I think of home, I think of my piano keyboard.

When I think of home, I think of a fan to cool us down.

When I think of home, I think of my bed full of squishies.

When I think of home, I think of my loud dogs barking.

When I think of home, I think of peace and feeling calm.

When I think of home, I think of delicious food cooking in the kitchen.

When I think of home, I think of a snowglobe so I can imagine it is snowing outside.

When I think of home, I think of playing fun games.

When I think of home, I think of candy.

The home design project consisted of two parts. After outlining the elements of their dream home, they drew a birds-eye view plan. Then, using whatever material was available, they constructed a three-dimensional model of their home. Kimberly described one with an exterior elevator fashioned out of toilet paper tube. One home had large picture windows to provide a full view of the surrounding woods. This student sent a photo of his construction set in the bushes outside his house to create the illusion of the woods. For each stage of the project, Kimberly videoed herself tackling the task she had assigned her students so that there was a model to guide them. Would these projects and the poetry the students wrote gone deeper if they had been carried out in a live classroom? No question, but given the hurdles presented by the online format, I think it’s work for students and teacher to be proud of.

Kimberly was hardly alone in wrestling rich and creative learning opportunities out of the challenges of the situation. Lindsay Singer’s third grade class sent out invitations to join the virtual presentation this week of what they have learned about the census. Roxana Gonzalez’s eighth graders wrote heart-wrenching accounts of the obstacles they face trying to work at home which their teacher then read to the school board in an effort to influence their decisions about grading policy. Their stories and many others deserve to be told as well

Close to the finish line, I wrote to Kimberly, “It’s interesting that you use the term ‘sadly” to describe the end of planning for remote learning. I’m sure most teachers can’t wait to be done with it, a feeling I know you share as well, but hats off to you for turning this nightmare into a positive experience for your kids. And what a rare and interesting group they are.”

                                                            Kimberly’s Unique Angle on the Experience

As I write this, I realize that I have not opened my computer since I said goodbye to my last student on Monday, June 1.  It’s odd to have a negative emotional and physical reaction to a common task of waiting for my google drive to load.  Those feelings have nothing to do with the computer but are woven into the virtual learning experiences I was tasked with creating but was ill equipped to execute to the level my students deserved. There is guilt, loss, and pride all wrapped up with this piece of technology that became my connection to the classroom community so carefully and collectively crafted with my students over the course of the year..

Years ago, on my education professor father’s recommendation, I read Neil Postman’s The End of Education.  The chapter about the risk of following the gods of technology resonated with me.  Postman warned of using technology merely for the sake of using technology.  This was the mid 1990’s when computers were boxy, email was a radical form of communication, and my carphone was in a bag that plugged into my lighter in the car.  Since then I have always been wary of technology in the classroom.  It often felt like it was shiny and glossy but rarely connected to purposeful instructional planning.  Fast forward to our pandemic and technology was the educator’s lifeline to maintaining any sort of relationship with our students. 

When the shutdown occurred, our district administrative team, over the course of a few days, was able to roll out the first phase of a three-phase implementation of remote learning.  They rallied the faculty to engage in grade level teams to work within a framework that they developed for us.  A week before the shutdown, the effort that they put in would have been unimaginable, but it quickly became the norm for this incredible team of people.  The core of the district’s work is to try to overcome barriers of equity.  From the start, every child in the district was sent home with a Chromebook.  We were concerned about our families’ access to food. Teachers voluntarily created a fund to help families pay bills.  The tech department, including the LMS (Library Media Specialist) team, became the greatest resource to making sure that families and students had internet access, functioning devices, and the knowledge to use those devices.  

During this initial remote learning phase, the inequities that I knew many of my students faced became the source of my intense frustration along with how unprepared I was to teach in this new world.  My own daughter and my neighbors’ children, who attend school in the district in which I teach, experienced stress and frustration but had less chance of their zoom calls freezing or audio difficulties.  If they experienced those challenges, parents had access to multiple devices and had the facility with the technology to problem solve.  Many people set up homeschool stations and monitored their children’s learning, supplemented it when necessary and were readily available to advocate for their children with the schools.   Most of us were fortunate to still have jobs, food, housing, green space and the ability to socialize with distancing over our fences and hedges.  This was not always the case for my students. Many live in trailer park communities with tight multigenerational living quarters. The wifi signal was working beyond capacity and students were stuck in their homes since they did not have the safety of a backyard to play in without coming into contact with other children. Although my neighborhood was generous by filling the neighborhood school gym with food to distribute to families in need, there was nothing any of us could do in the moment to address the systemic inequities that inherently gave our children, once again, a leg up, even in the dark world of a pandemic.

My awareness of these inequities drove me to try to plan in a way that could in some small way bridge the divide.  In the first two weeks, along with our library media specialist, I met with students, first in small groups to problem solve tech issues,and then eventually switched to one on one meetings.  This was laborious and frustrating, but it was the only way I could demonstrate to my students and families that I was still their teacher and they were still my students.  Nothing was going to stop me from trying to stay connected to them.  This initial phase led to a new intimacy between students, families and me.  I shared my personal cell number, FaceTimed with students and families and texted when needed.  By the time I learned how to set up a private number for myself through Google, it was too late.  My personal contact information was already out there.  Not once did a family misuse my personal information.  

As time went on, this new intimacy extended to our whole class and small group meetings.  We met each other’s pets, invited younger siblings to join our activities, and laughed at the items collected from our homes during scavenger hunts.  Students found their favorite locations to set up their zoom calls, provided there was a strong enough signal.  They found ways to mediate their trapped energy by jumping over couches, playing home bowling games with the PE teacher, or leaning on the largest teddy bears I have ever seen.  Kids chomped on lunch and snacks during meetings and one student consistently showed up to our meetings eating a popsicle.  Behaviors that I never would have allowed in a classroom setting became endearing to me for the mere fact that I was able to see my precious students’ virtual faces. They were present.  

Over time, I learned how to look for social emotional signs that needed addressing.  I started to see patterns in behavior, conversation, and facial expressions.  These became indicators that I needed to have the social worker or EL teacher check in with a family or ask a student to stay after a meeting to talk with me one on one.  Unfortunately, in some instances, my learning curve took too long.  We were weeks into our remote learning before I realized that some of my strongest students were not engaging in the work.  They nodded their heads or said all of the right things to make me think that they were doing the work with us until I figured out that they were too embarrassed to tell me that they did not know how to find the elearning plan.  We met one on one to practice finding the plans independently.  

Each time I met with students, I learned more about what remote learning looked like through their eyes.  Despite the well-designed plans based on a rich essential question that met students where they were during this unique moment in time, there were too many steps to find the plans, too much text per page, and too much cognitive capacity used reading the directions before even engaging in the work.  It was all “too much” in a world that was already “too much” to comprehend. This led me to learn, with the intense support of a district administrator, to create videos for students and parents, along with audio recording links of the plans for the students.  Our EL coordinator translated numerous texts and audio recordings to ensure that all our families and students had access. However, it was imperative to redesign the plans with the second-grade learner as the primary user of the plans, not the parents or older siblings. I had to try to use the plans as another vehicle for maintaining my emotional connection to the students.  It was my hope that seeing my face and hearing my voice give directions or to read a story would bring them some comfort.  Oddly enough, the hours I spent recording each week, allowed me to feel like I was reaching out directly to my students even though our beautiful classroom world had been disbanded.  It brought me the same comfort I hoped that it brought my students.

The most amazing part of this experience is the power of relationships and the depth of loss when those relationships have to quickly operate under a completely new construct.  This is where I must shift to Marv.  Our relationship is built on 20 plus years of mentoring and friendship.  Once Marv wrote to me that we must have been siblings in a past life.  These past five years I have felt honored to have a consistent slot in Marv’s very full “retirement” schedule.  One of the first losses I felt was the interruption in the work we were doing together this year.  We were like little kids each time we (usually Marv) came up with a new plan for our writing workshop.  He had coached me back to relying on observations of students to inform planning rather than student outcomes.  Our students had published beautiful narratives, hosted a publishing party with families, designed an imaginary animal and written a multiparagraph piece about that animal.  When Covid-19 emerged in our reality, students were finishing research on an animal of their choice and were enthusiastically planning their published work.  

Looking back, Marv’s and my first call when remote learning hit was probably more like him functioning as a therapist than a mentor, although I think he usually operates in a dual capacity.  The comfort of his decades of experience and his natural ability to choose the beautiful humanity of children ahead of standards and outcomes probably was the reason my students and I were able to continue as well as we did.  He grounded me in the fact that we had to choose a learning path that honored what the children were experiencing.  I’m fortunate enough to work for an admin team that trusts me to teach the prioritized standards in a way that is congruent with my beliefs.   By the time we finished that first call, we had an essential question, a path to finish the work we started before the shutdown, a mini poetry unit based on home, and a home design project connected to a beautiful out of print book titled, The Dream House by Pirko Vainio.  The relationship Marv and I have built transcended the loss of normalcy in our usual working conditions.  I remember thinking that this was probably going to be the start of the most important work Marv and I do together.

Marv’s and my relationship, along with the support of the district team to make the technology work and framework to work within, and the support of parents who were contributing what they could to the process allowed many of my students and me to create something new together.  The children had no sense of control in their lives; this plan gave them space to dream and create.  The work was not a list of tasks that felt imposing, it gave them important work to do. At the end of the year they commented that they were proud of the poems they wrote. They loved their dream house designs and their published animal research books are incredibly important to them.  Even though the poetry publishing party was virtual and the pieces not as polished as they would have been, they were beautiful in their raw simplicity.  As the poems were read aloud, each child’s experience was honored through their words.

All this came at the cost of tears, sleepless nights and endless hours sitting in a chair making videos for my lessons, but only on the days when I could bring myself to comb my hair and do my makeup. I wrote Marv recently, “Although I sobbed the moment I clicked the red Leave Meeting from our class zoom call on the last day, I knew you and I did good work, woefully insufficient work and nowhere near what the kids deserved, but the best we could do. For that, I am proud and at peace with it.”

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Marv Hoffman

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