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Keep your feet planted: How our school is staying grounded during uncertain times

Written By: Brent Kaneft
4 min read

The last week has been a whirlwind of brainstorming, collaborating, and communicating, all in the effort to figure out how to move brick and mortar teachers into an eLearning environment smoothly and to create policies and procedures—that possibly didn’t exist ten days ago—to help support this effort. Some of our teachers have jumped into this world with two feet, excited to try all of the new tech tools they hadn’t had the time to use before, and some of our teachers feel like a duck out of water and eLearning is causing them tons of stress and anxiety at a moment in our world’s history where the excess of either is hardly necessary. When there is a great disruption in our lives and our communities, it is important to have principles that ground us.

I have learned recently, there is no amount of policy you can write that will cover all the scenarios a teacher will face. Leadership teams can’t possibly create a perfect schedule or all-encompassing parameters. That doesn’t mean leadership shouldn’t provide guidance for their community, but eLearning is not meant to be overly structured. The medium is the message, and the message is flexibility.

At Park Tudor School (Indianapolis), we have grounded our faculty by training them in Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)-informed strategies that improve learning. We have provided ample and consistent professional development for them; now we must trust them to apply those strategies to the eLearning environment. Here are a few MBE principles that should guide our teachers’ eLearning approach.

  • There is no greater time to tailor your curriculum to be relevant to the moment. When content is made relevant to student’s lives, their ability to remember the content significantly increases. Relevance also increases engagement. Most of our students have never been impacted like this before. Using the context of this pandemic can not only support your learning goals, but it can also help students process what’s happening in their lives.
  • Limit passive learning (e.g. a Loom/video lecture) to 15-20 minutes and be sure to include some activity at the end of these assignments that asks students to retrieve, reflect, synthesize, produce, or argue.
  • We may be in this eLearning environment for a while, and there is a danger of trying something new every day. Novelty wears off, but in order to maintain or increase student engagement, we need novelty. So don’t introduce every single tech tool you’ve learned about during the first few weeks. Early adopters are prone to this mistake. Play the long game. Intentionally introduce a new tech tool when the time is right.
  • Use tech tools that take advantage of the ‘testing effect’ (e.g. Quizlet). Now, more than ever, we have to help our students study over time (spacing).
  • Learning can still be social and doesn’t have to be synchronous. ‘Live’ meetings (e.g. on Zoom) are not the only way to connect with your students. There are other options to build a social learning environment—Flipgrid, classroom discussions ((a)synchronous), Loom—where you and your students can express your personality and receive peer feedback.
  • All of us are trying to manage stress: the stress of the pandemic, of joblessness, of living in tight quarters, of uncertainty. We must honor this context and maintain flexibility, whether that’s giving a student the benefit of the doubt when s/he doesn’t submit an assignment on time or whether we decide that using low-stakes or no-stakes formative assessments is the best way forward to help students learn without overwhelming them. Student wellness is the priority right now, and our approach to eLearning instruction must help students manage that stress. Too much stress, as we all know, disrupts the learning process.

I have learned recently, there is no amount of policy you can write that will cover all the scenarios a teacher will face.

We are all seeking answers right now, but the worst thing we can do is seek absolutes. We must base our plans on informed learning principles and trust our teachers to do the right thing and provide support and leadership when they need it. As I scan the eLearning plans of other schools, it is obvious to me that none of us knows exactly what to do. And that’s OK. We must have a “Beginner’s Mind” and be willing to be uncomfortable, try new things, and fail.

We may feel pressure from parents to create eLearning conditions that replicate the classroom experience. Not only is this impossible, but trying to replicate the traditional classroom experience online causes more stress for all parties—students, teachers, and parents. But mostly, this “business as usual” approach to eLearning is bad for students and antithetical to what we know about how learning works.

What we need to get comfortable with quickly is that we are dealing with unprecedented conditions and where our students finish this year will be different than we anticipated. We cannot control this situation by courageously keeping the same pace and the same expectations we had before we left our classrooms. There is nothing courageous about charging ahead and doing things the way we have always done them; it is an attempt to control an uncontrollable situation and derives from our own stress and anxiety, not from our desire to provide the best learning experience for our students. What we must do is stick to our informed learning principles and make sure that our relationships with students and their wellbeing is our top priority. That’s how we stay grounded in uncertain times.

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