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Education under quarantine creates challenges and opportunities

Cheryl Graff, a teacher at an arts high school in Chicago, gave herself a "Song-a-Day Challenge" as one way she stays connected with her students and their families during this period of virtual education.
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While teachers had to scramble and get creative to keep their students engaged, there have been some unexpected positives.

Embracing our Interdependence

Special education teacher Cheryl Graff has done well during the disruption brought on by the COVID-19 shutdown, but she has an advantage over many of her peers. She has two master’s degrees: one in special education and a second in educational technology, which has just become a lot more valuable. In her third year of teaching, and her first at Chicago’s only public arts high school, she welcomed the switch to greater use of technology in not only working toward learning goals, but in finding new ways to engage her pupils.

Graff is also a trained singer – all of her students are artists. So, she had a hunch her classes would have a higher response rate if she could involve celebrities and professional artists in her teaching plan. She reached out on Twitter to anyone she thought might reply, and the positive response from artists, athletes, musicians, and YouTubers created a new way to engage her students and promote learning across the basic subjects she co-teaches.

While the switch to virtual teaching has seen many educators like Graff respond in inventive ways, the shutdown has also served to surface pre-existing challenges, particularly around the digital divide faced by many students, as well as the varying degrees of technical literacy amongst teachers. Educators will need to apply the lessons learned from the spring months to apply to any renewed coronavirus outbreak shutdowns, or to what now seem like the more mundane reasons, such as a snowstorm next winter. Beyond that, educators are getting a glimpse of disrupting the education status quo by increasing reliance on family engagement and giving students more responsibility for attaining their educational goals.

Creating independent learners

In Shawnee, Kansas, Shawnee Mission Northwest High School physics teacher Justin Stigge teaches five physics classes, three of which are AP (advanced placement) level. After taking a week to gather his thoughts and create a plan, Stigge introduced online learning to his students after spring break, to take them to the end of school in May. He admits the situation isn’t ideal: while he has made himself fully available and has found some online tools that allowed his students to do virtual experiments, it’s not the same as in-person classes.

“So much of physics is a hands-on thing; to be completely isolated from the kids and them not being able to do a hands-on thing, was – at least at first – really tough to wrap my head around,” Stigge said.

Like my students, families also need multiple ways of engagement. Sometimes it may be hard to interpret a written message.

— Cheryl Graff

He has seen an upside. Those students who did the work, even some of the time, developed stronger independent learning skills, an ability he knows will be useful if they attend college.

“I think they’re going to be tougher academically because they’ve learned to figure out some of the material on their own. And they’ve learned to reach out to their teachers,” Stigge said.

Taking advantage of an online community

Back in Chicago, Graff has a caseload of special education students in ninth grade and co-teaches with four general education teachers in math, biology, social studies, and English. Chicago Public Schools wrap up in mid-June. Under normal circumstances, the first half of the school day is devoted to academics; the second is for the students to focus on their art. She said the school trains visual artists, dancers, musicians, actors, writers, and vocalists.

As soon as the shutdown occurred, she knew her highest priority would be to find a way to keep those students engaged. That’s when she hatched a plan to tweet out a call for assistance. She tweeted: “Professional artists, I am a teacher at the only public arts high school in Chicago. Looking for writing prompts for my students to reflect, respond, and react during this difficult time. Students are writing poetry. Any takers?” She tagged any celebrity she thought might respond.

“The responses were incredible, and I’m still getting responses,” Graff said.

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She tweeted a similar message to athletes, musicians, and YouTubers and heard back from professionals like Lori Lieberman, who wrote the song “Killing Me Softly;” writer, producer, and director Krista Vernoff who’s known for her work on “Grey’s Anatomy;” and YouTube and Tik Tok personality Zach King. They, and others, sent videos, encouraging messages, or writing prompts for Graff’s students.

She said that because of this “students are motivated to come online. I’ve seen high attendance rates in my classes. The students are actively engaged in learning because they’re excited that somebody who is famous and is doing something that they want to do– whether it’s singing, whether it’s playing an instrument, whether it’s creating YouTube videos – it’s somebody besides me who’s sharing the advice with them about how to be successful.”

Learning to partner with parents

David Jaimes
David Jaimes at the start of a regular school day.

David Jaimes tried several approaches – none like Stigge’s or Graff’s – to online learning before he hit on a serviceable one. He’s in his seventh year as a teacher and his third year teaching third grade in the Tigard-Tualatin School District southwest of Portland, Oregon.

In mid-March, he began asynchronous learning – or “continuous learning,” in which students work at home at their own pace – by sending students and parents a lot of communication, and he thinks he overwhelmed everyone. After fielding many calls from confused parents unable to wade through his emails, he scaled back communication to Monday only, giving students a week’s worth of work all due on Friday.

“That also didn’t work out because the kids weren’t understanding which assignment they needed to do, or some of my students who always get things done right away were doing it all on Monday, then had nothing else to do for the rest of the week, so parents were like, ‘What else are you sending?’” Jaimes said.

After listening to what parents thought would help, Jaimes created “to-do” lists for the students. Now he pushes out assignments in the morning with a list, and this approach is working well to carry him to the end of the school year in June.

Everyone is so readily available… [and that] has been a blessing in disguise.

— David Jaimes

Jaimes, like Graff, is a general education teacher, laying the critical foundation for his students’ future learning by teaching basic math, reading, writing, science, and social studies. Continuous learning online has forced him into maintenance mode, where he’s no longer introducing new concepts, just reinforcing what he’s already taught.

“I’m definitely not teaching at the moment. I am basically providing the parents with assignments to keep their kids busy, essentially,” Jaimes said. More than ever, he sees the value of partnering with parents, particularly in early education.

Even strong parental help cannot fully take the place of the experience and techniques teachers bring to a regular classroom, though. Jaimes works at a language immersion school, and while he’s able to cover most of the basics through continual learning, he recognizes he isn’t able to cover the full curriculum. Jaimes’ school uses a “60/40” model to teach native Spanish speakers English, and native English speakers Spanish, meaning 60% of the school day is in Spanish and 40% is in English. He said he’s unable to continue with that online, largely because so many of his deputized co-teaching parents do not speak Spanish. Now his model is 90/10, with 90% English and only 10% Spanish.

Meeting students and parents where they are

Jaimes’ school is roughly split 50/50 between well-educated, affluent white families and Latinx families who’ve yet to fully accepted into mainstream society and so have additional challenges, technical and otherwise, in keeping their children engaged in school. The Tigard-Tualatin School District provides every student with a device, so all students have equal access to a laptop or tablet. Graff said her school only provides devices to students who have nothing to work on.

In Jaimes’ school of 550 students, he said about 15 families have seemingly disappeared. All three teachers say that when no one from a family communicates with their schools, they’re left wondering if those students have simply chosen not to participate, are having connectivity issues in spite of the schools’ offers of assistance, or if the virus has so adversely affected their families that they’re unable to focus on school.

[If I go to Latinx parents and say], ‘let me give you some consejos, then they will respond a lot better than if you just tell them, ‘Let me tell you how it’s done,’ or ‘let me tell you what to do.’

— David Jaimes

But Jaimes and Graff each say that even if they can’t control whether or not a family communicates, they can control the way they reach out to parents. For Graff that has meant integrating video messages into her emails – certainly something she’ll continue to use as the world edges back toward “normal.”

She said that before the pandemic, she was constantly emailing and realized sometimes her messages might be misinterpreted. “A lot of my families have responded so positively to the videos because they can see my facial expressions. I’d love to do weekly video messages along with an email,” Graff said. “Like my students, families also need multiple ways of engagement. Sometimes it may be hard to interpret a written message.”

Jaimes said, “With my Latinx parents, I’ve held webinars … asking them how they’re doing and making sure that they’re understanding the assignments and ways they can help out their students and help me,” Jaimes said.

Most importantly, he relies on the concept of consejos, which is similar to advice, but communicates something much deeper and harder to define. Jaimes, who is Latinx, said that Latinx people grow up receiving consejos from their parents or caregivers.

Jaimes said if he goes to parents and tells them “let me give you some consejos, then they will respond to you a lot better than if you just tell them, ‘Let me tell you how it’s done,’ or ‘let me tell you what to do.’”

That sort of communication falls under community partnership in Graff’s reckoning. She said that’s another takeaway that she’s thinking a lot about. Regardless of who the community partner is, a parent, a celebrity, a local chef, or any kind of professional, she said she understands now more than ever that students truly do benefit from exposure to adults who have a stake in their educations.

“I see the value and importance of connections outside of our school building,” Graff said.

“Right now, everybody is so readily available,” because many parents are at home, Jaimes said. “Establishing those partnerships with them, establishing those relationships, I feel like is one of those things I’m able to do right now that has been a blessing in disguise.”

Embracing Our Interdependence: In a country born out of the notion of individualism, our greatest strength can actually be our interdependence. We can remain strong individuals while also building stronger systems, and a stronger nation.