Why Closing Schools Exacerbates Inequity

Many have already picked up on how COVID-19 is exacerbating already existing inequities, from a few different angles:

  • Those who have adequate tech devices and bandwidth vs. those who don’t
  • Those who have pre-existing conditions and health issues vs. those who don’t

Both of these factors loom large in the schools and communities I serve in the Bronx. Many of our students and their families don’t have iPads, laptops, or a desktop computer, nor adequate internet access and bandwidth.

The NYCDOE is tackling this inequity as best it can, sending out internet-enabled devices as they come in to families the most in need. The total number identified needing devices was initially 300,000. That’s a lot to get out there, but it’s happening. That’s amazing.

At first, Spectrum and Optimum were refusing to provide service to those with unpaid bills. Thanks to reporting on this by Chalkbeat and getting publicly shamed, they’ve reversed course.

In terms of health issues, residents of the Bronx are reported to be twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as residents in other parts of the city.

If you have a background of inequality, whether it’s social determinants, access to health care, or anything else, and you throw a virus on top of that, what you’re going to get is exactly what we have, which is people who start out poorer and sicker and are going to get sicker,” said Dr. Neil Calman, president of the Institute for Family Health, which leads the Bronx Health REACH coalition.

And to add to that, poorer people tend to live in greater density. There’s more people sharing apartments, in more crowded buildings, in more crowded neighborhoods, with less means to get any distance from anything. It’s hard to escape a pandemic in such situations, most especially when you still need to get out on public transit to earn your paycheck because you are one of those “essential” workers who are on the front lines of ensuring wealthier people never have to leave their homes.

And we can see this playing out in real-time. Here’s the most recent map of COVID-19 cases in the Bronx.

https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page

See all that deep purple in the middle-west side of the Bronx? That’s where the highest rates of cases are occurring. Those are the communities I serve. We don’t yet know how these correlate to death rates and to socioeconomic status and to race.

But we know enough to know it’s not good. And it’s going to get much worse.

When Home Offers Little Comfort

But I also think we’re overlooking something fundamental about how COVID-19 will further exacerbate social and other inequalities. Closing schools doesn’t just exacerbate inequity because some kids have more access to technology and internet. It further exacerbates inequity because staying at home may mean overcrowded and stressed conditions with poor acoustics, poor air quality, and few trees and other greenery nearby.

In the area of the Bronx my schools are in, we also have the highest rate of students in temporary housing in the city. So what does staying at “home” mean for them? When even in the best of times such instability can be stressful, imagine what that might be like in the midst of a pandemic, as people are losing their jobs, as people are losing their mothers and fathers and grandparents and relatives, as real fear sets in, as the weather warms up and tempers flare, as the streets are filled with the sound of gunning engines and ambulances?

Being at home may mean idyllic boredom for some. For others, it may mean something much more dire. Toxic stress in high poverty blocks was already a killer. Now, we’ve got this pandemic on top of all that.

The optimistic side of me wants to believe that this remote learning thing can be an opportunity to get kids engaged who weren’t engaged by typical school. But the pessimistic side of me is afraid to think more deeply on what this may mean the longer we draw out keeping schools closed.

There’s no winning, either way. Either way, the same communities will lose, big time. That’s the hard thing to look at straight.

We’re talking mitigation, instead of acceleration. We’re talking desperation, instead of inspiration.

I’m hoping this is wrong. I’m hoping we can make this right. Working in education means, fundamentally, that you believe teaching and learning will make the world a better place. I believe it. Let’s reach our kids who are the hardest to reach, who need us the most to reach them, with whatever Zoom Chromebook iPad remote learning application livestream we can.

Forming Google Forms

I hope your week in remote learning is going alright. I don’t know about you, but I hit a kind of spiritual doldrums today — a feeling of slow suffocation. But on the flip side, my son is taking really well to potty training! So there’s that.

There’s also playing around with Google Forms to cheer one’s soul up. That’s what I did this afternoon, and I made another mock lesson, continuing off the flow I had from the last one. This time I tried chopping up smaller videos and embedding questions around them. I also included a Do Now with images.

This is a reading lesson for 8th grade from a Horror unit, focused on “The Tell-tale Heart.” It would follow from a first day of reading the entire text together as a class and discussing the gist.

I apologize for the poor quality of my videos and how absolutely boring I am in them, but I figured this is all in the spirit of learning so these are all first takes.

A note also on the approach I’m taking with this mock lesson: I’m attempting to set up a lesson that is fully asynchronous, while still maintaining the main components of explicit instruction.

I included a Do Now with this one, and realized that it may be better to leave something like that off — since it’s part of one Form, students wouldn’t get immediate feedback on their responses, and instead have to complete the entire Form and lesson. So I don’t think I’d continue with that aspect. It would be nice for Forms to have a feature to grade each section as you complete them. . .

To build off of the last Forms lesson I did, I tried breaking up the videos into smaller chunks to make it slightly more interactive with questions embedded between.

Here’s the Form. Let me know what I can better refine (other than my voice–I know I’m speaking in a monotone)!

Instruction in a Google Classroom

A new week of remote instruction begins in NYC. Last week felt like a scramble to figure out what the heck is going on, while now it feels like we’re beginning to figure out a few nuts and bolts.

I’ve been sandboxing a few things in my own Google Classroom to try and help figure this stuff out, too.

Google Classroom is a simple but well-developed platform for assigning tasks and facilitating on-line interaction, streamlined with other GSuite apps like Drive, Docs, and Slides. But one issue is that merely assigning tasks—even when you organize them well as Topics—can make instruction feel piecemeal.

For example, if I want students to first watch a video or view Slides for a lesson, I’d assign that as a task. Then I might create another assignment with a Google Doc for them to write about what they learned. Or I’d create a question as the assignment, and ask students to respond to it.

What I want, instead, is one or at most two assignments that can approximate and encapsulate the primary components of a lesson—explicit instruction, collaborative and guided practice with scaffolding and feedback, and independent application.

So there seem to be three main ways this could happen within Google Classroom and GSuite, without reliance on 3rd party apps: 1) Google Forms; 2) Google Docs; and 3) Google Slides. Or some almagamation of the three, depending.

By the way, whatever I share here is not meant to be an exemplar—I am putting imperfect material out there in the hope it will help others and help me to refine my thinking. And I apologize in advance for this post being messy.

I’m trying to heed my own advice, which is to keep it simple. I picked around with all three of the above, and any one of them can be made to work for you. For Google Slides, you can add links, videos, and even embed questions via third party apps like Pear Deck. However, I’m resisting reliance on any additional apps at this point in the interest of keeping things streamlined and simple. So that factor, in my mind, makes Slides the less optimum measure.

Google Docs can add an element of synchronicity, in that all students could potentially be on the same doc at the same time, commenting or editing. I made a mock up of this to play with it. It seems to me like training students to comment on specific parts of a document, rather than all inputting on separate lines, might make it more manageable.

While I like the potentially synchronous element of it and that it’s pretty flexible as a template for adding nearly any kind of content, I think it’s too messy and has a lot of potential for confusion on a students’ part. It appears to me that in GClassroom you can either allow kids to only view a document, or to edit it, but not to just be able to comment on it. Allowing everyone to edit it is a recipe for confusion until kids are trained on how you want them to interact with the document.

That seems like a lot of unnecessary confusion and work to me.

Of course, you can also set any Doc so that it automatically makes copies individually for each student. This can work well for independent practice, but doesn’t seem ideal for tying together explicit instruction and practice.

So where I’ve landed is on using Google Forms as a vehicle for a lesson, and so far, it’s proving to be more effective than I had thought at first glance.

With Forms, you can embed either a video or an image into it, and then add questions right beneath it. What’s great there is that those questions can then be graded within forms and drop straight into your Google Classroom gradebook. That’s a pretty nice integration feature there that’s worth capitalizing on. Teachers don’t have time to waste sifting through endless Docs or PDFs grading work. And if you use the multiple choice or short answer grading function in Forms, it’s even automatically graded, thus freeing up even more effort and time.

I made two mock-ups, the first below is just an example of the basic feature of embedding media, in this case a notice and wonder activity:

In this second mock-up, I replicated the Docs lesson I had earlier, but this time within the format of Forms:

I like this the best so far because it feels clean and I love the fact that I can embed checks for understanding and some practice right alongside a mini-lesson, and that some of that can be auto-graded. The main limitation I hit is that I felt like independent practice directions needed to be put into it’s own assignment:

But if I were consistent in using this format for every lesson, I don’t think it’s a major problem.

The other hurdle with Forms is that you can’t, so far, embed Slides into it. That means you would have to record, or use, a video to provide explicit instruction. And the video you do record also has to be uploaded to YouTube in order to be embedded into Forms. I don’t get why they’ve made it like this, as it seems like an unnecessary restriction — but it’s not too hard to upload and you can keep it private in any case.

I’ll make a short video showing how to use Forms and put together a lesson and backlink it here, I just don’t have time at the moment. I wanted to put this out there first in case it helps anyone.

Let me know what I’m missing and can work to refine on any of this. The thing I’m going to tackle in my next mock-up is making my mini-lesson videos much, much shorter and bite-sized — and even splitting instruction into multiple short videos interspersed with checks for understanding.

Excelsior!

Preparing for Remote Launch

Wow.

What a week.

It’s been a rollercoaster, in every way you can name, and we’re all in this together.

I’ve been in schools with administrators and teachers as they planned and prepared for launch next Monday. It started with fear and panic — but by the end of the week, there was a sense of resolve and readiness, despite a wide array of unanswered questions and unknowns and anxiety still facing us.

We’ve all now experienced the awkwardness of videoconferences, the urgent need to ‘mute’ our microphones, and the tinny feedback of too many microphones in near proximity.

It’s been great to see educators pulling together and battling this out, both here in NYC and across the globe on Twitter.

In my last post, I shared a few general principles for getting started with remote learning:

  • Maintain Continuity
  • Start With Physical Environment and Resources
  • Start Small. Keep It Focused
  • Balance Synchronous with Asynchronous Learning
  • Remote Learning Doesn’t Require a Screen (At All Times)

As I watched schools preparing and struggled to prepare myself, I had some other things come up that I’ll share in the hope they are useful. Again, these are general principles and ideas — there’s a lot of specific and concrete tools and resources being shared. Twitter has been great for this.

What does a Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education mean?

I’ll admit the first time I read the CR-SE principles adopted by NY state and city, they felt just a bit vague and remote from daily instruction.

Two days ago, while on the train on the way in to a school, I was pondering what CR-SE meant for remote instruction, and at first, I couldn’t see the way in.

I thought of a middle school I was going to, and how they were plugging along setting up Google Classroom to link to CommonLit passages and assigning them to students, which is essentially what they had been doing as “test prep” the last week or two.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was the last thing that kids needed right now. Not to say anything bad against CommonLit, it’s an amazing resource that I’ve been recommending to everyone I know, and we’ll get there. But CR-SE means responding to and sustaining students based on who and where they are. CR-SE instruction — in this pivotal moment — means supporting students in processing what is happening to them and to their world. This is unprecedented. We are all freaking out. We are all overwhelmed.

Students are stuck at home — and “home” can mean something very different for the many students in my district that live in temporary housing. They may be frightened. They may have no idea what’s happening. They need us to help them process and cope with this.

Furthermore, they need our help in becoming informed on a situation in which we don’t know all the answers and our understanding is constantly developing.

This is our opportunity to get kids reading, writing, discussing, and involved in their world. This is what is relevant. This is what is responsive.

In that sense, then, this may be an incredible opportunity to engage kids who were disengaged by school.

We can’t fumble this by throwing random texts and tasks at them. For crying out loud, the state test is cancelled, folks. Stop that nonsense and engage your kids.

What will be each student’s experience?

The other thing that came up for me is that I see some folks steaming ahead into a full blown school day experience on Day 1. I think we need to hit the pause button and pull together around what exactly we may be demanding of each student.

If a student has never interacted much with an online platform, most especially in a situation where they may be completely on their own, they need to be eased into it. And there will be students who you will need to call on the phone and locate and talk them through or their caretaker through how to access the platform and problemsolve the tech issues or wifi issues they encounter.

We can’t start sending assignments from 10 different Google Classrooms. Think about the 1st day of school. You probably had a big meeting in the auditorium, introducing the principal and staff to students. Think in the same way for your kick-off to remote learning.

Think of it also in the way your team may plan homework assignments. If you each ask a student to do an hour of homework, or you all assign a major project at the same time, you’ll know what I mean. A school and each department or grade-team needs to be aware of what each student will be experiencing.

“This is a time for simplicity and being careful not to throw in too many bells and whistles.”

Take heed.

Remote Learning / Social Distancing

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev on Pexels.com

These are the buzzwords of the new paradigm we have been rapidly catapulted into in the last week: remote learning and social distancing. It’s enough to leave one feeling cold.

For a behemoth school system like the NYCDOE to shift its 1.1 million kids and their teachers and administrators into remote learning is quite a sight to behold. A few of our teachers never even checked their email. So while there may be many that already consistently used apps like ClassDojo or gradebooks like Skedula, there are also many that are still struggling with how to log in to multiple online accounts and navigate a SMARTboard.

But welcome to the 21st century, right? I guess it’s about time everyone learns more “advanced literacies.” Well, we’ve been thrown headlong into it.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time compiling lists of the many freely accessible online content already out there–there’s so much it’s overwhelming. Instead, I’m going to reflect on and share a few big picture things in the hope it may be useful. We are all struggling with how to manage teaching and learning in this new paradigm. Please share how you are making meaning of this and what planning and resources you are using!

Maintain Continuity

Moving into remote learning doesn’t have to mean you’re suddenly jumping from one curriculum onto random online sites, of which there are too many to count. Nor does it mean you have to abandon the pedagogical approach your school uses.

Consider how what you have been already been doing can be streamlined and maintained using online capability. For example, if you follow a workshop model approach, you could present a video of yourself doing a mini-lesson, then follow the gradual release model using a guided practice prompt or task, followed by independent practice.

Start With the Physical Environment and Resources

This point was clarified for me as I spoke this morning with a kindergarten teacher who was preparing baggies and folders of materials for each of her students to pick up. She wasn’t wasting her time poking around online just yet. She’ll get there — but her priority was getting the materials in parent and caretaker hands.

This is where we all should be starting. Think first about what kids need with them. Books. Crayons. Paper. Curricular packets. Letter or number manipulatives. Books. Books. Books. Get this into their hands any way you can.

Then think about how we can support families in setting up the environment kids will need to do the work each day. I spoke with a tech savvy teacher at an elementary school this morning who is using Instagram to get parents competitive about sharing the spaces they’ve created for their kids to work in.

Don’t be shy about going there with families. They need the support in understanding what kind of activity and work space kids will need to do the school tasks they need to do, given the physical space that they have on hand. Help them figure out how they can manage the space and time they have available.

Start Small. Keep It Focused

In a recent webinar, Success Academy presented how they are approaching remote learning. In typical SA fashion, they are intensive and accountable at every step of the way, while also laser focused on key principles (UPDATE: Check out Robert Pondiscio’s summary of the webinar). One of main things that stood out to me was their advice to only start with 1 or 2 online platforms, and to keep it simple, while putting the main stress on reading.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of content that is out there online. I think the advice to pick only a few is wise. It will swiftly get overwhelming for students if each of their teachers sends them to a different platform for every assignment. In NYC, we’re mostly sticking with Google Classroom, as it provides a clear and accessible venue for bringing educators and students together.

Educators new to this need to bear in mind what the student experience will be like, and what they can realistically demand given that they have little control over a students’ time, attention, and physical environment. In this new realm, engagement is everything.

The other part that is especially critical here is supporting students and their caretakers in establishing a consistent routine for reading, writing, and study. We’re now in the business of building daily habits, not just in keeping kids in a chair and delivering content.

And of all the daily habits, what is more important to college and career and life outcomes than reading?

Balance Synchronous with Asynchronous Learning

The power of an online platform is that it allows students and educators to access it at any time. The pitfall of online learning is that it requires great self-discipline and motivation.

In order to harness the power of remote learning, while acknowledging the importance of maintaining a sense of engagement and community, it’s important to offer scheduled times when teachers and students will be in the same “virtual” space at the same time, whether face-to-face in a video conference, on a phone conference, or in some kind of text-based communication space.

But there should also be opportunities for students to read, learn, and practice at their own pace, providing an opportunity for going back to models and concepts and refreshing as needed. There’s an idea called “knowledge organizers” that’s been making the edu blogosphere rounds for a while now, especially in the UK, that’s worth exploring in relation to this idea. Couple that knowledge with distributed practice, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for learning.

In terms of teaching and learning, finding some balance between interactive video (where a teacher would provide explicit instruction) and students respond and interact in the moment, and content where students can learn and practice at their own pace, will need to be found.

Do we yet know what this ratio between synchronous and asynchronous learning should look like? I don’t think we do. I suspect that due to the difficulty in pulling in kids who aren’t accustomed to this kind of work requires only a very purposeful and very strategic initial synchronous learning opportunities, which occur at the same time every day, until they get used to what it demands of them.

Remote Learning Doesn’t Require a Screen (At All Times)

It’s easy to fall into the pitfall of remote learning = sitting with a screen.

Instead, think of how you can give students activities and routines for reading, writing, and study without sitting at a screen.

Maybe this will look different across the week, like you begin on Monday with explicit instruction and a video conference, and then practice moves into more offline application, which students bring back for feedback online via a photo or on a videoconference at the end of the week.

These are just a few initial thoughts as I’m making my own meaning out of this crazed move into remote learning. Please share what you are figuring out as we move through this together.

In unity.