Strategies to Support Learning

I know I must sound like a broken record when I keep returning to social and emotional learning as a pandemic priority… but I found more support in an Education Week piece by Stephanie Jones, “4 Social-Emotional Practices to Help Students Flourish Now” [EdWeek]. The Gerald S. Lesser Professor in early-childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, she affirms the imperative that teachers and parents work to “help children feel stable, safe, and ready to learn.” Jones offers four specific strategies:

  • “Ask questions and listen actively.”

Jones describes the disappointments and traumas of the last two years and the intense pressure that children [and parents] feel about catching up academically. She urges adults to check in with children and have conversations about how they’re feeling.

  • “Let your students know what’s going to happen and establish clear and predictable expectations.”

I have always seen value in this approach, but it becomes even more important in times that feel unstable. Jones urges teachers to establish concrete and predictable procedures, and to give students more time when they need it. She encourages families to develop predictable rituals and routines at home, and to invite conversations with prompts like “What was the hardest and easiest for you today?” or “What are you grateful for today?” Students need to be seen and heard, especially when they are under stress, and adults need to provide those opportunities.

  • “Provide extra social and emotional time, not less.”

Helping students thrive in the current climate requires more support for emotional development and stability. Jones urges “respectful, open, and accepting learning environments.” She offers several strategies, including journaling, daily greetings, and open discussion about how students are feeling. Neuroscientists tell us that students’ readiness to learn is highly correlated with their emotional well-being. “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving. Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior” [Frontiers in Psychology]. Investing time and energy in the emotional well-being of students ultimately pays off in their learning.

  • “Enlist families to step back, connect, and listen at home.”

Jones asserts that the responsibility to support students and their learning should not depend only on teachers. “Parents and other guardians can play a uniquely valuable role in providing children with feelings of stability and comfort” [Op.Cit.]. She suggests that parents share their own feelings and sense of vulnerability, then listen actively and affirm what their children say.

I loved Jones’ closing statements: “…it is only when students feel safe, listened to, and supported by adults in their life that they can fully engage in academic work and everything else they do” [Op.Cit.]. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Teaching Now: Time for Change

My blog has been MIA for far too long while I dealt with some medical challenges, but I am back. Throughout this absence I’ve been pondering the future of education, convinced that teaching during the pandemic has created an opportunity for meaningful change yet concerned that we aren’t seeing that change come to fruition.  

In my optimistic naivete, I had envisioned a more student-centered approach with more time for collaboration and independent work. Zoom fatigue is real for both learners and teachers –surely we would see a shift like this.

Sadly, I don’t think we have seen that shift. Teachers are overwhelmed with hybrid learning, with the challenge of keeping students engaged in virtual platforms that don’t foster relationships, with student absenteeism and distraction… and the list goes on. Students and their families also seem overwhelmed by the challenges of hybrid and virtual learning.

Sal Kahn, founder of Khan Academy, confirms this: “These traditional lessons are also too long and not interactive enough to hold a student’s attention over a video conference. The traditional paper-based homework that’s being assigned does not provide students with enough feedback or teachers with enough information to understand what students are learning” [https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/opinion/coronavirus-school-digital.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200819&instance_id=21408&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&section_index=3&section_name=idea_of_the_day_how_to_improve_remote_learning&segment_id=36497&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2].

Torrey Trust offers a clear vision for a better of way of doing things. A University of Massachusetts – Amherst professor of Educational Technology, she shares graphics that demonstrate alternative approaches to serve educators and their learners. The one I chose to include above offers concrete options to improve teaching and learning. Each link provides specific approaches and activities. For example, her “Connected Learning” link suggests multiple team-based activities, including team challenges, virtual board designs, and community quilts. Each strategy provides another way for students to actively learn together if the teacher provides a framework related to content. The National Writing Project supports this kind of connected Learning: “Young people learn best when actively engaged, creating, and solving problems they care about, and supported by peers who appreciate and recognize their accomplishments” [https://lead.nwp.org/knowledgebase/what-is-connected-learning/]. Her link to Universal Design for Learning strategies offers ways optimize individual choice and autonomy, customize the display of information, and vary methods for response [https://goalbookapp.com/toolkit/v/strategies].

Classrooms that use strategies like these employ active learning. The Harvard Gazette reminds us, “Study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think” [https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/]. The authors describe classes in which they “start each topic by asking students to gather in small groups to solve some problems. While they work, we walk around the room to observe them and answer questions. Then we come together and give a short lecture targeted specifically at the misconceptions and struggles we saw during the problem-solving activity. So far we’ve transformed over a dozen classes to use this kind of active-learning approach. It’s extremely efficient — we can cover just as much material as we would using lectures” [Ibid.] Compared with a control group that experienced only lectures, the active learners scored far higher on tests on the material.

During my own teacher training, one of my supervisors told me I was too focused on content, that I should consider teaching college because of that focus. By the time I was teaching my Problem-Based Learning class in the late 1990s, my focus had shifted to process so dramatically that even my traditional curriculum classes grew more student-centered. Over time, my students clearly showed more engagement and satisfaction.

My naïve hope that this kind of shift would be forced by our emphasis on online and hybrid learning may have been foolish, but it’s not too late to move toward this kind of teaching. We need a better way. Our teachers would be more fulfilled, and our students deserve it.

Returning to Remote Learning

Parents, teachers, and administrators all reeled from the frustrations and challenges of the sudden shift to remote learning last Spring, so it’s no surprise that everyone needed a break. But it appears that remote learning cannot go away, and we have squandered a summer in which all those stakeholders might have prepared for the new reality.

School districts are struggling to determine what’s best for learners even as they acknowledge that 25% of teachers are high-risk and that support staff [nurses, secretaries, bus drivers] are essential to re-opening. Some have pushed back their opening date even for hybrid learning that combines in-person with remote; others have opted to go all remote from the beginning. Given the current stats for the pandemic, I suspect that most hybrid programs will find themselves having to close at some point in the Fall. Clearly, learning will be remote for a vast number.

How do we make it work better? How do we use this opportunity to improve teaching and learning? Surely it’s not enough to make do when this is our new normal.  Just a few options:

  1. Reconsider educational roles. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, outlined some roles schools might consider to focus attention in key areas: academics, technology, emotional support, and family outreach. Specialist leaders can help their colleagues succeed. For example, schools might consider having the teachers who were most successful with remote learning last Spring become School Remote Learning Leads with release time to support their colleagues. Academic Content Leads can be teachers with deep knowledge of standards, principals, and assistant principals. The principal, assistant principal, counselor, or social worker might become the Care Team Lead. This approach supports all faculty and staff in adjusting to the challenges of remote. If teacher contracts prove an obstacle, perhaps teacher’s associations will grant a temporary waiver.
  2. Do the work to establish classroom norms and build community that you’d normally do in person before you move to academic work.
  3. Recognize the inherent inequities in remote learning: internet access, access to devices, parental support, speed of internet, etc. Record Zoom sessions for later access for students who were unable to participate; seek ways to provide paper tools where internet is not available.
  4. Don’t depend on Zoom alone. Jennifer Casa-Todd writes, “We should be asking, is it more effective to have my students watch a video I created to learn a concept and then meet in real time to go over any issues or is it more effective to teach an interactive lesson in real time?” (https://jcasatodd.com/synchronous-vs-asynchronous learning/?fbclid=IwAR0sYP0Pf6FjuqJ0)
  5. Embrace technology, since we’re stuck with it, and seek out more digital tools like Screencastify and Padlet. Let students offer you ways they might want to share their learning.
  6. Rethink the purpose of learning. Never has it made more sense to move to a constructivist approach, to address real-world problems. Consider using problem-based learning for small groups.  Real world topics promote engagement and make the relevance of the work obvious.
  7. “Pandemic pods,” groups of families organizing remote home schooling groups, perhaps even with hired support, offer a model for those who choose remote learning in publice schools – why not partner up with one or more families to provide additional support and share efforts?
  8. Make online learning as interactive as possible. Use breakout rooms in Zoom for small group work. Use Zoom surveys to create “quizzes.” Create an open forum or discussion board so that students can support and mentor each other.
  9. Provide ongoing feedback, not only in Zoom sessions. Consider emailing embedded comments on student writing sent to the teacher.
  10. Recognize that social/emotional learning and mental health have taken a hit with schools moving to online instruction. Work on ways to build in community-building. Reach out individually to students who seem to be disengaged or struggling.

These ideas provide a mere beginning. Remote learning remains essential. It’s up to us to make it worthwhile.

What Do Young Teachers Really Want

When I decided to become a teacher at an early age, I didn’t consider many factors. I just knew that teachers had made a difference in my life, and I wanted a chance to do that. New, young teachers seem far more savvy than I was, and they have more career options as well. Microsoft Education, in partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit, surveyed over a thousand student teachers and early career teachers around the world. Their findings surprise me only in their universality.

“The younger generation of teachers are digital, global, social, mobile, and visual,” said Mark Sparvell, an education leader at Microsoft. “They prioritize social-emotional learning, … they prioritize global issues. This is a very values-oriented generation—they seek to work with purpose and passion, and without that, they’ll leave.” We need young teachers to stay and thrive. Our students can’t afford the revolving door any more.

This survey offers insights into what these young teachers really want and need. More than half the teachers surveyed “chose the profession because they enjoy working with children, and 46 percent said they want to make an impact on future generations.” But 45 percent are worried about low salaries and about stress and burnout. They are clear on their top priorities: improving physical learning spaces, increasing the size of the workforce, and having more technology in the classroom. Yet the respondents, who really want to use technology for higher order thinking skills, feel inadequately trained to do that and find a lack of sufficient technology tools and support. They also anticipate increasing classroom diversity but feel insufficiently prepared to teach in a multi-cultural and/or multi-language setting. What will we do to address these concerns?

These concerns matter. Students whose teachers have adequate training and tools will benefit. And teachers who feel they have adequate training and tools may stay in the profession. As a group, teachers are getting younger: “According to research done by University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, the most common age of a public-school teacher now ranges from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. In 2007-08, the most common age was 55. In 2015-16, about 60 percent of newly hired teachers in public schools were younger than age 29.” The National Teacher Principal Survey tells us that 44% of teachers leave the profession within five years, a rate higher than the national average for career changes. For schools and students to succeed, we must commit to address the concerns of these younger teachers or risk having a less experienced, less stable teaching force.

As a country, we need well-educated students who are prepared for the future. We need teachers to stay in the profession and to continue to grow. Money could address the concerns they have expressed for better physical spaces, increased hiring, and more availability of technology. Meeting professional development [PD] needs, however, gets trickier. During my career, PD too often consisted of one-hit wonders as we looked at a different issue every semester or new school year. Only my training in Problem-Based Learning was ongoing with mentors and a peer group. That training really transformed my teaching. We must provide relevant and ongoing PD for all teachers, especially those younger teachers with limited experience, to thrive.

Surprisingly, these survey respondents don’t see a need for professional development to address the concerns they’ve expressed, perhaps because they’ve experienced the kind of fragmented, often irrelevant or abstract PD that turns teachers off. We can and must do better. According to Roxanna Elden, a former teacher and a writer who provides resources for beginning teachers, “new teachers want advice, but they are often intimidated to admit that they are struggling or don’t know everything. Online communities can give them concrete, nonjudgmental advice.” Young teachers need release time to work with non-supervisory mentors in a low-risk situation, to observe, to be observed, and to discuss all those observations. That, too, takes commitment and money. Too often glib statements emerge about how much Americans care about education. For those statements to stand, we must back them up with resources. The alternative is far more expensive in the long run.

[http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2020/01/heres_what_gen_z_teachers_around_the_world_want.html]

Must We Squash Creativity?

We have a brand new grandson who lives far from us, so we’ve been burning up FaceTime with calls. We know his field of vision is very small still, yet his eyes open more each day, and he seems to be tracking people nearby. His curiosity thrills me.

A week ago the Sunday Chicago Tribune provided a great glimpse into the work of Lynda Barry, a MacArthur genius winner this past fall [https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-lynda-barry-1128-20191127-i5abij6azrh47cuezbghssk3lm-story.html]. An “indie comics creator turned cutting-edge educator,” Barry plans to use the cash award of $625,000 to study brain creativity in young children. Barry believes that “preschoolers hold many secrets to creativity, before education and social expectations have trained their natural artistry out of them.”  She wants to find out why children who integrate writing and drawing end up having to split them in school. I almost wish I could move back to Madison to join her efforts!

But her world view saddens me even as I admire her exploration. Why does school tend to squash creativity and put everything in its own box? Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” And our friend and fellow artist, Kevin Lahvic, writes, ““Ask a class of first graders if there are any artists in the room and they will all raise their hands. My hand’s still up.” Clearly Kevin survived the bunkering of subjects in school. Our three older grandchildren survived public schools with their creativity still thriving because their parents made sure they had opportunities to foster it.

I find myself reminiscing about teaching Creative Writing. One of my favorite experiences involved a senior who signed up for the semester-long course primarily to avoid the dreaded research paper required in most senior electives. A couple of weeks in, however, he asked for a conference.

“I don’t belong in this class, Mrs. Ljung,” he insisted. I can still see us sitting there a few rows up in my classroom built into the balcony. “I’m a math and science guy. I plan on being an engineer, and this class just isn’t for me.”

“You’re exactly who it’s for,” I assured him. “This is your chance to do something different, to connect with other talents. You really should stay.”

Stay he did, and when we were working on double voice pieces, dialogue which shows both inner voice [what the speaker is thinking] and outer voice [what the speaker says aloud], he wrote about that conversation, about my pushing him to stay. He captured the gist of outer voices, but it was his depiction of what we really were thinking – and the dichotomy between the two – that captivated the rest of us. That piece juried into “Page to Stage,” our annual performance of student writing, and I watched him as theater students performed his piece. He sat up straighter and straighter, clearly moved by the performance of his creative, non-math, non-science work!

Being creative becomes natural in a creative writing setting. What about other school subjects, though? Do we plan lessons that foster creativity, or have we become so focused on testing and standards, on teaching subjects in isolation from each other, that we lose the opportunity to foster that kind of creativity? I fear that the latter is more likely. I count on my new grandson’s parents to foster his.

Statewide Teachers’ Strikes

I’ve been following the spate of teacher strikes with interest. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina – there’s a reason many are calling this “America’s Education Spring.” Too many think that this is just about pay. Pay matters, and I believe that teachers are generally underpaid, a problem that has grown in the last ten years.

 

According to the Brookings Institution, “[t]eachers in the U.S. are paid about 30 percent less than other comparably educated workers in the economy, and this gap is larger than most other industrialized countries. Combining these salary reductions with increases in health insurance premiums and contributions to retirement benefits—both of which have fallen more on teachers’ shoulders over the last decade—means that most teachers have significantly less in take-home pay than they used to. Though teachers have for a long time worked second jobs at a higher rate than other full-time workers in the economy, it appears that the pinch is inducing even more to moonlight—potentially to the detriment of their students.[1] “Nationally, teachers today are paid on average $60,483 annually—17 percent lower than America’s typical college graduates, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Education Association.”[2]

 

 

The numbers are worrisome. “Nationally, average teacher salaries are down nearly 5 percent after inflation is considered, and some states are down even further.”[3] By 2015 school funding had not returned to a pre-recession levels in 29 states.[4]  No wonder many striking teachers, like those in Arizona, demand not only a raise, but also increased school funding. And most of the states enduring state-wide strikes have teachers’ salaries set by the state, creating a laser focus.

 

But I suspect that there is more at work here than even these compelling numbers. The pressure on teachers has increased dramatically since my first teaching job in 1970. Accountability laws, helicopter parents, a wide range of student abilities and levels of achievement, and – too often – a lack of respect and support discourage some of the best teachers I know. People who still think teachers work a short day and a short year clearly have never been a teacher or had a teacher in their

 

When I was still teaching [and, admittedly, when schools were better funded in general], research suggested that teachers sought respect, decision-making about curriculum and policy, leadership opportunities, and recognition and appreciation of effective work. Changing school culture won’t replace decent pay, but it will enhance the best of what’s happening in schools.

 

As a nation we often give lip service to the importance of a public education. We need to fund our schools adequately, ensuring reasonable and competitive teacher pay as well as funding for materials and professional development to help teachers continue to grow and serve their students. We also need changes in school culture and the attitude of parents and the public toward teachers. Only then will teachers be empowered to be their best selves in the classroom, a key to helping students become their best selves.

 

 

[1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/04/06/hidden-factors-contributing-to-teacher-strikes-in-oklahoma-kentucky-and-beyond/

[2] https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/04/26/why-teacher-pay-raises-can-prove-so.html

[3] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/04/13/which-states-might-experience-the-next-wave-of-teacher-strikes/

[4] Ibid.

Relationships Are a Two-Way Street

Recently, as I was standing in line to purchase a Christmas gift for my granddaughters, a vibrant blonde kept turning around to look at me. She seemed familiar, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when she blurted out, “Is your first name Ellen?”

I nodded. Eagerly she asked if I’d taught at Glenbard West. I nodded again. “Oh, Mrs. Ljung, you were my English teacher!” Her enthusiasm caught the attention of clerks and other shoppers as she told me her maiden name, resurrecting my memory of this delightful honors student. Her gusto pleased me, and I realized how central relationship-building had been to my teaching. When we try to estimate how many students I’ve taught over the years, the numbers blur. Some took three of my classes at West, while others I only knew for a semester. The figure hovers between 2500 and 3000, so sometimes the memories of an individual are slow to return. But the pleasure, the human connection – that’s what made teaching so special to me.

I tried to be real for my students as well. Photographs of my family filled my room, as did rocks from our kayaking journeys, artwork, and treasures from travel. Students knew when each grandchild was born. They knew my husband from pep rallies, Faculty Follies, and prom. When my grandson, now a high school senior, visited me as a toddler, my students showed him around, and he talked about the “school for big kids” for months afterward.

Coming to recognize the way the culture prevented my gay and lesbian colleagues from having that kind of relationship with their students began my activism for inclusiveness and safe space. In hindsight, I realize that had I been a lesbian, I, too, would not have been out, but I’ve come to understand that the culture deprived not only those colleagues but also any students who themselves were closeted in any way. That injustice fueled my activism.

Highly effective teachers tend to know their students well enough to figure out how to reach them more. I believe that teachers who let students know them as individuals, with lives outside the classroom, build those relationships better. Boundaries are important and many require more privacy than I do, but I believe human connections require a two-way street.

I hope that relationship-building made me a more effective teacher. I know it made teaching more fulfilling for me. In August of 2011, having avoided Facebook for years, I finally made a personal page because we kept hearing how necessary a FB page was for our glass art business. Over the years our business page has shown limited impact, but the personal page led to reconnecting with so many former students! One wrote, “Yay FINALLY!!!!” and another, “Hath hell frozen over, Ellen Ljung on Facebook!” Both were students I knew well, but many others showed up over the years, writing comments on my timeline, resurrecting memories, filling me with gratitude.