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Cheryl Graff

Special Education Teacher
Uncommon Voices 2020

Cheryl Graff
I think every student has to learn how to become tech savvy and how to use a computer really, really well.

The Kauffman Foundation spoke with Chicago special education teacher Cheryl Graff early in the pandemic and heard about how her use of technology in the classroom was a major boon when schools everywhere moved online. Graff shares what’s the same and what’s different in her teaching at the end of 2020. 

QHow have you continued to develop your digital learning strategies to engage your students? 

I’ve been continuing to use ed tech in the classroom. I’m hoping very soon to start a Flipgrid pen pal partnership with a classroom in Hong Kong where my students can be virtual pen pals with a classroom from another country. Also, I have a virtual service-learning club called Chi Arts, and we’ve been making monthly greeting cards for students and staff and families and putting them in the school newsletter and sharing them out to our community. We’re working on creating cards for an organization that brings cards to children who are hospitalized or elderly people who are in nursing homes during this time and don’t have anybody to connect with.  

QHow has digital teaching become easier or harder since spring? 

For me, it’s become easier. I think, for me, the challenge has been making sure that this is accommodating all of my students’ learning needs. I was trying out a new tool for the kids today in math, and I made it a co-learning experience. That was such a great experience for the kids to not be embarrassed and not be shy that they don’t know certain things about technology, so we were learning together. As a special education teacher, I think, okay, if there are internet access issues, what can I do to reduce the amount of tabs that the students have open, or reduce the amount of workload that the students have. I’ve even taken initiative to use the technology beyond the content and communicate with my families and students by creating weekly videos using tech tools like Wakelet where I share updates for my classroom, so everybody knows this is what’s going on.  

QHow do you handle lack of access to technology or engagement? 

I’ve worked with the families to develop a plan when internet access has been an issue, and most of my families have some sort of tablet or smart phone where they can take pictures of the work and send it back to me, or send it to our school through the mail. It has been hard.  

My videos and newsletters and different outlets that I’ve used have really helped to communicate more with parents.

What I’ve learned as a teacher is really putting myself in the family’s or the child’s shoes and asking: “Okay, what are the resources that they have? What are the resources that maybe they need more support with?”

And figuring out how I can structure my class so that all children have access to the material and are able to engage with the material.  

QWhat “new normals” – good or bad – do you see or anticipate to come out of this year? 

In my teaching, especially online, one of the biggest changes that I’ve made before I teach any content, is just checking in with the students to see how they’re feeling. I acknowledge maybe we’re feeling stressed out, or maybe we’re feeling really happy or silly, and that is definitely going to stay in my teaching.  

Utilizing the tech tools beyond teaching a student math or reading has really helped. Teaching students how to open tabs, teaching students how to write emails … I think these are life skills that are not going to go away, and I think schools, not just my school, schools all over the country, have not devoted enough time to teaching these life skills to students. I’ve made it a priority in my lessons to do that, and I think it’s so important to continue that whether we’re in person or remote.  

I think every student has to learn how to become tech savvy and how to use a computer really, really well. I think in-person we rely so much on paper, and the pandemic showed us that technology is not going away and we definitely need to learn how to use it. We have to be creative with the technology not just put a computer in front of a student but be able to take that technology and utilize it on a deeper level – that’s what I’ve really done this year. 

Explore other 2020 Uncommon Voice Q&As