BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER MARYANN MOLISHUS
I have been an elementary gifted support teacher for five years. I’m not new, though, to supporting children who are gifted, both as a parent and as a general education teacher for over 20 years. Gifted support is not uniform across Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Gifted Education Guidelines require that children identified as gifted receive support, but a specific method of meeting the needs of the gifted is not defined.
Children who are gifted have strengths that are supported by gifted individualized education plans (GIEPs). Generally speaking, those who are gifted can creatively problem solve and have a unique perspective on the world. They experience intense emotions and an insatiable quest for answers to their many, many questions. They are fast thinkers and can see “the big picture.” They can devise solutions to problems they encounter, and they might assume the burden of fixing the problems even when the scope of the problem is beyond that which they can manage. They might be skilled artists, musicians, or athletes. Their abilities often exceed those of their typical peers. It is our job, as educators and parents, to provide guidance as they learn about themselves and about their world.
The last two years of learning through a global pandemic have been challenging for all of us, including our gifted children. We experienced teaching and learning in different ways and can now reflect on that time. The feedback I receive most often from my gifted students is that while they were learning from home they were glad, even grateful, that they could work at their own pace and not have to listen to lengthy explanations or wait for the rest of the class to finish a task before moving on to something else. They liked having choices and not having to stick to a rigid schedule. They did, however, seem to miss working with their classmates, and they did not always make the best choices of how to use their newly acquired free time or finish projects they started.
We are back to being in school full time, with most pandemic mitigation measures lifted. While we are getting back to normal, we should not ignore the feedback we received from our children about learning during the pandemic. Let’s not split back into pre-pandemic routines without considering what we learned during the last two years. Are we willing to use student feedback and make the changes needed in our schools to ensure we are meeting the needs of our gifted students?
We know the children can work at a faster pace when given the opportunity. How can we restructure school to allow children to work at their own pace? We know the children want time to work on their own projects but that they are not always able to follow through on tasks or complete projects they begin. How can we provide the proper guidance needed to allow children to make choices and be successful in completing tasks as well as provide an authentic audience for them to showcase their work? We know many children thrive in collaborative environments. How can we provide the space and opportunity for children to work with their peers? Are our gifted children receiving the resources, coaching, and space they need to be successful to the best of their abilities?
Today, I see that the learning environments and the experiences we provide for our gifted students do not always match the world in which they live, nor do we have the resources needed to design flexible learning spaces that meet the needs of our students. Let’s take this time to consider what an appropriate learning environment can and should look like for our gifted children, and, for that matter, for all our children.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER PAM GREGG
My current juniors walked into my classroom this year having not set foot in a classroom since March of their freshman year. Their last “normal” year was eighth grade. My freshmen walked into their new high school after having not been in a classroom since March of seventh grade. Their last “normal” year was sixth grade.
They are not OK. We cannot simply begin the school year as in years past. We need to address the fact that students spent 18 months dealing with… who knows what. The pandemic shone a light on the inequity of each student’s situation; some families were dealing with unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness, loss of family members, and loss of human contact.
Then, I attended a PTAC KEY Issues in Education Series event about teacher well-being run by Felix Yerace (see his PTAC May 21 blog post). We cannot take care of our students until we take care of ourselves. I was in a break-out room where we were discussing the fact that American teachers spend more hours in front of students than do teachers in any other country.
During the pandemic, when we were teaching virtually or in a hybrid model, we had an asynchronous learning day each week. Many districts did this to give teachers time to plan for online instruction or to conference during office hours with students to meet their individual academic needs. This year, the schedule is back to “normal” yet the challenges of teaching our students remain. Why was it important to give teachers TIME last year, but that useful time has been rescinded? I do understand the inconveniences that having students home one day a week would present. I get that. But, as in years past, there still aren’t enough hours in the day to plan for achieving the high level of academic rigor our students deserve, let alone trying to fill in the gaps from students not being in school.
Coincidentally, that day I attended the KEY Series, a colleague and I spent three and a half hours together planning ahead for our 9th and 11th grade classes. We have been planning together week by week since the beginning of Covid. This became the example of self-care that I shared in the break-out room because neither my colleague nor I had to think alone or undergo the process of lesson planning. Some of the pressure was taken off.
It was PSAT test day. Neither of us was allowed near the test. We did some of the best lesson planning since before Covid. We had TIME to add bells and whistles to lessons we had taught when we were hybrid last year. We found that time. It was not necessarily given to us. But, we accomplished so much for our students. Stale lessons became interactive. Students were able to discuss their own lives. Because we took care of ourselves, we could help take care of our students.
Moving forward, there needs to be a greater focus on teacher well-being. We will become more effective teachers, and the teacher burnout rate may finally be addressed. As hard as last year was, this year is even more challenging. We are not ok.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER CHRISTINE TAPU
“Miss, thank you for inviting me to present to this class. This is the first time that I ever felt I could be myself at school,” N.T. said to me.
I was stunned. N.T. was an 11th grade student whose home language was Swahili and Kinyarwanda. She was in my class in her freshman year and was an athlete with good grades, excellent proficiency in English and was well-liked by peers and adults. As an 11th grader, she appeared confident and well-adjusted to our diverse urban school. In short, it was hard to imagine that N.T. felt out of place. Her perception was her reality.
N.T. had just spoken in our presentation about her experience being relocated to a refugee camp. I showed pictures of the camps, and she described the photos. For me, the presentation was a requirement of the Fulbright short-term project I had just completed. Two months earlier, I was in Tanzania with a group of educators studying Tanzania’s post-colonial development. For N.T., the presentation meant so much more.
I was no stranger to international experiences. Before Fulbright in Tanzania, I was a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright year-long exchange teacher, and a host to international teachers in my school. These experiences expanded my global awareness, but Tanzania taught me impactful social and cross-cultural skills.
Tanzania forced me to critically examine my practices as a teacher from the lens of the students I teach. I also looked at my leadership from the lens of my international colleagues.
The reflections compelled me to reach out to one person in particular – a former colleague who grew up in East Africa, like so many of the students in my school.
“Pole sana,” I said on the phone. I repeated in English, “I am sorry.”
My former colleague said, “Asante sana. Now you see what it was like for me to be an African working in American schools.”
The jarring fact was that I knew my eyes had been merely opened to her perspective. I knew I had so much more to learn. This knowledge might have been enough to retain this teacher at my school.
In a school with a diverse population, we need NOT to treat others like WE want to be treated but to treat others like THEY want to be treated. For example, Tanzania taught me what it means to be a part of a culture that focuses on “we” and not just “I”.
My international education taught the value of being seen and the joy of seeing others for who they are. In all schools (even more in schools with diverse populations), teachers need to create opportunities for students to be valued for who they are. It’s nice to seek out holidays and food but the work does not stop there.
In short, I urge you to help students feel seen and heard in your schools and classrooms. Help amplify the voices of the groups that do not normally have one. This life-reaffirming position will allow students to not just survive but thrive.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER DEBBIE REYNOLDS
Let’s face it - we are all exhausted: a truly deep, long, bone-weary exhaustion. The kind that comes from being “on” all the time. The kind that comes from pivoting so much that even in the stillness, you feel the need to keep moving. As veteran teachers in the field, we have spent the last two years changing and growing, and many teachers are exhausted, burnt out and thinking about leaving the profession or taking early retirement.
But what if you took a different look at how you are feeling? What if you approached the past two years as Theodore Roosevelt famously looked at challenges? On April 23, 1910 at Sorbonne, Paris, Roosevelt gave his “Man in the Arena” speech:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; ... who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly." (Roosevelt, 1910)
We have all faced critics, and at times we failed. However, the most important part of the speech is that we showed up. We have been in that arena every day and tried again and again.
You might be asking yourself, “Why is she writing about the arena and all of the challenges we have been facing?” In the 2019 school year, I stepped away from the classroom for a year and headed to D.C. for the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship (AEF). The AEF Program provides K-12 educators the opportunity to work in a Federal agency or Congressional office, bringing their extensive knowledge and experience from the classroom to the national education arena (See, that arena word again!). At the end of the Fellowship, educators have access to a national network of education leaders, a better understanding of the challenges and possibilities in education, and a renewed passion for teaching.
Imagine being the expert in the room and having policymakers ask your opinion! Imagine having the time to delve deep into your own professional learning of interest! Everyday each one of us was invited to have a seat at the table and offer our expertise and perspective. I was placed as the first Fellow for the Department of Defense and was assigned to the Navy. For me, working in US Naval STEM, designing K-12 content, traveling to bases across the country to meet other STEM professionals, and operating with the team across the entire country was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. Talk about renewing your passion!
Our very first day of the fellowship, our managers showed us a picture of an arena and asked each one of us to say where we were right at that moment. Some of us were on the sidelines, a few of us were up in the stands and one of us was standing in the middle. At the end of our year, we looked back and reflected: we took the risk, we dared greatly and we were all standing together smack dab in the middle of the arena.
Applications for Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship (AEF) close in one month.
Your teacher voice is always needed in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee applications are ongoing.
Are you ready to join us?
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER SEAN HUDSON
"Less than 2 percent of the teaching force consists of African American males. Where are we supposed to find black principals if there are no black teachers in our schools?” Archie Moss Jr.
Over the past decade, the conversation has turned towards getting more black males into the classroom. A study from the Journal of Early Childhood Education confirms that black male teachers have a profound effect on the aspirations of black children, more specifically, black males. So with the research in hand, the will, and the know-how, why is the number of black male educators entering the teaching profession stagnant and in many cases declining from the previously, disproportionately low numbers? When I was an insurance broker, there was one significant point supervisors and managers used to recruit and retain talent; Leadership Opportunities. Speaking for myself, talented people will shy away from jobs or careers that do not offer upward mobility.
There is a massive amount of research done to show that black male teachers are beneficial to the education environment, and there is much speculation as to why black male teachers are still underrepresented in classrooms across America. The barriers to entry into the teaching profession are numerous. But from my own personal experience, there are few available pathways to leadership which are a deterrent for able black men to choose teaching as a viable career option. We want opportunities to lead and to have financial success. Young, educated, or career-changing, black men want to excel while giving back to their communities. Black men want to be leaders and have opportunities to do so. Teaching is a noble profession, but let’s be honest…a modest salary, punching a clock, underrepresentation, perception as disciplinarians, and adversarial relationships with policymakers is not a recipe for attracting the best talent.
Our students deserve the best instructional leaders in front of them. If that happens to be black male teachers, then we must set up pathways not just to attain but also to retain these educators. Supporting black educators through the leadership process is a great way to retain these highly sought-after educators. As such, race and ethnicity cannot be the sole factor in determining how teachers are recruited, hired, and promoted but we have to examine the dynamics as they are.
When I became a teacher, I knew I wanted to be a principal. Teaching was the way for me to get into education and to ultimately serve students in the capacity of a school leader. Unfortunately, there are only two routes to obtain this mid-level leadership position. One can either go the traditional route and obtain a bachelor’s degree in education, become a student-teacher, pass a battery of tests to get certified, get a job within a school district, teach for five years, then enroll in a Masters of Education in School Leadership program, do an internship, graduate, take another battery of tests, and finally, “qualify” to work as a school principal. There are many steps in that scenario where prospective leaders get lost because the supports are not in place.
There is absolutely no alternative route to earn principal or leadership certification in the State of Pennsylvania in which you do not have to earn a Master’s Degree. The educational component seems wonderful for the profession until you realize the pay for teachers and administrators has actually declined in recent years. PhillyPlus was an alternative route for principal candidates in the City of Philadelphia. But that program is no longer accepting applications. There are a few alternative programs across the state such as Relay Graduate School of Education, a graduate school that often partners with colleges to grant initial teacher certifications and principal certifications.
In my personal journey, I was a career changer with a bachelor’s degree, so I enrolled in TeachNOLA through The New Teacher Project (TNTP). I did a six-week pre-service teaching experience before I started teaching in a high needs school in New Orleans. After two successful years, I qualified to be certified. Unfortunately, for me, I failed one of the Praxis tests seven times and was flagged not to possess good moral character because of previous misdemeanor convictions from the late 1990s and early 2000s. This barrier to entry cost me thousands of dollars, headaches, and much stress.
As I continued to teach and get different experiences from charter and district schools, I continued with my goal of becoming a principal. I completed a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction which does not qualify me to become a principal. There is a specific degree that must be obtained and that must be approved by the department of education for a particular state. So currently, I’m enrolled in a Master’s Degree program to receive my school building leadership certification from Teachers College Columbia University. I will be completing my internship at BB Comegys, a K-8 public school, in Southwest Philadelphia.
The road is very long and arduous, but it is worthwhile. Oftentimes, black males are used as disciplinarians in the most difficult schools. I was expected to be. The idea that we need black male teachers to be disciplinarians, but we are not needed for formal leadership roles is the message sent. This message is overt and many prospective black male teachers will continue to take options outside of education. Black males cannot continue to be used as disciplinarians - especially in struggling schools - with little to no chance to break into leadership because the pathways to leadership for black males are simply not there. If so, the retention issues and attracting the best talent will continue on its current path.
Update: Sean A. Hudson will serve the students of Philadelphia as an Equity Professional Learning Specialist in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the School District of Philadelphia.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER REBECCA GIBBONEY AND PTAC BOARD MEMBER ALLISON MACKLEY
The pandemic certainly changed the way we talk about student achievement, mental health, and equity in our school communities.
Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), PA Intermediate Units (IU), and the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) released their third phase of support for meeting the needs of students and educators across the Commonwealth. While other phases like “The Cycle of Continuous LEA & School Improvement” and “A Roadmap for Equitable School Systems” were released earlier this year by PDE, this phase, “Accelerated Learning Through an Integrated System of Support”, focuses on a “systematic process and technical support for school communities to make key decisions to start next year” (Accelerated Learning, 2021). As part of their support outlined in the Accelerated Learning Toolkit, PDE suggests why each of these systems is important, the actions to take, and what tools to use, plus provides professional learning modules that help the educational communities be intentional and strategic in their plans for starting the 2021-2022 school year.
Even though this phase is targeted towards educational administrators, teacher leaders need to have an awareness of their impact on students in the classroom and the importance their role plays in accelerated learning. The four components of the Accelerated Learning framework are identified below with our suggestions for teachers.
Focus on High-Quality Academics
Foster Supportive Learning Environments
Establish Healthy System Conditions
Design a System of Scaffolded Supports
At the root of Accelerated Learning are honest reflection, intentional conversation, and meaningful action. Teachers are the conduit to launch a system into action. With teachers at the lead, students have the potential to thrive and administrators will see the success of the systems in action. In order to shape and sustain a successful system, it is essential to implement the plan with fidelity. Educational community commitment starts with educating all parties on educational terminology (i.e. equity, trauma, systems of support, whole child, etc.) and valuing the voice of all. You do not need an invitation to contribute your professional advice. Your voice could shape the system.
Accelerated Learning. (2021). Pennsylvania Department of Education. Retrieved June 12, 2021, from https://www.education.pa.gov/
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER FELIX YERACE
In May of 2019, I was ecstatic to find out I had been admitted to the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. I was excited to be able to use this opportunity to learn more to help improve the education of my students. What I didn’t know then was that less than a year later, I would come to rely upon my learning to help myself, both personally and professionally, get through the Covid-19 pandemic.
As parents, teachers, administrators, and students themselves could tell you, the 2020-2021 school year has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging and difficult for students due to health and safety concerns. Delayed starts to the school year, social distancing, cancelled events, mandatory masking, and quarantining are only some of the adjustments students have had to handle in addition to the normal stressors of school. These challenges have exacerbated student mental health and wellbeing concerns. The youth suicide rate has been rising in recent years, especially among young females, and the CDC released statistics in November 2020 show a 24% increase in children ages 5-11, and 31% increase of adolescents 12-17 years old requiring mental health-related hospitalizations since the onset of the pandemic.
If there has been one bright spot in the pandemic, it has been increased awareness of a need to act to address youth mental health. In schools, there are increasing calls for mandatory mental health curriculum, and hopefully, these enhanced efforts to address student wellbeing will prove long-lasting.
However, these actions have largely overlooked teacher wellbeing. Many teachers have experienced high levels of stress and anxiety this school year, although this is not new. Teaching requires a great deal of emotional labor, and teachers’ stress levels are often at the same level as those experienced by emergency room doctors and nurses.
This year, teachers have been expected to handle new sanitary protocols, teach in hybrid environments, and consider their own safety concerns, in addition to all of the other responsibilities their role usually requires. Because of the challenges of this school year, many teachers have seen a decrease in their wellbeing, and this decrease in wellbeing goes beyond what is typically attributed to “burnout.” One study found that 90% of teachers who were "burned out" were in fact suffering from depression. This is in part because the unique pressures of this school year have left many educators facing “demoralization,” which occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. Many of the routine joys of teaching, including student engagement and interaction, have disappeared.
The impact of this could cause a critical crisis in education. While typically less than one out of every ten teachers leaves the classroom annually, this year up to 25% of all teachers nationwide may leave the profession. Worse, while enrollment in teacher preparatory programs is already down, the pandemic this school year has caused even more drops in enrollment in teacher training programs as well as other programs like Teach for America.
Simply asking educators to engage in “self-care” as a solution to this problem is not enough; it needs to be the responsibility of school leadership, not teachers, to reduce stress and burnout amongst faculty. Gallup, which recently found that less than 40% of US workers are engaged in their work, suggests that employee burnout is caused by five major factors: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressures. For true wellbeing to take root, more workplaces and organizations need to provide better working conditions rather than placing the burden of self-care on employees, and this is a problem that goes beyond schools as workplaces.
However, that does not mean that individuals cannot take steps to improve their own wellbeing. This school year, I found myself relying on my education from Penn to help me at many points. I also found myself teaching an elective on positive psychology for my students which gave me an opportunity to apply some of what I was teaching them to myself as well.
Positive psychology offers us many cognitive tools from disputing unproductive thinking, changing our explanatory style, overcoming obstacles, satisficing, finding flow, engaging in prospective thinking, building willpower, cultivating positivity, and developing hope in our lives, as ways that we can help ourselves. There are also many specific actions we can take to improve our wellbeing and help move from languishing to flourishing. While not every strategy listed below will work for you, consider trying some of these as you navigate the remainder of the school year:
Shawn Achor has encouraged millions of people to make positive changes in their lives through his book The Happiness Advantage. In it, he encourages people to engage in a “21-day challenge” in order to develop practices into habits that can be beneficial to them. There are multiple small changes that we can all make in our daily routines to help ourselves, and I encourage you to try some of the ideas suggested above.
While educators are busier than ever, finding even 15 to 20 minutes a day to engage in an activity like a Savoring Walk or expressing gratitude can make an impact. Once you find something that works for you, commit to working on it for 21 consecutive days to make it into a habit. It might help if you involved your family, colleagues, or even your students. Both the Greater Good Science Center and Action for Happiness offer monthly calendars with daily actions you can perform to increase your happiness. People interested in learning more can also take the free Coursera concentration on Positive Psychology featuring many of the faculty from Penn’s Positive Psychology Center.
To conclude, in their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney write about different factors of resilience, including confronting fears, maintaining an optimistic but realistic outlook, seeking and accepting social support, finding ways to accept what cannot be changed, looking for meaning in the midst of adversity, and maintaining one’s physical health, among other strategies. Perhaps more importantly, they note that 90% of people will, at some point in their lives, be confronted with a serious traumatic event (serious illness or injury, unexpected loss, victim of serious crime, etc.) and that a majority of people will not just recover but actually grow stronger as a result of their experience.
Their work reminds me of the Viktor Frankl quote “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” While this year has undoubtedly been challenging, I also recognize this school year has helped me learn and grow as well and that I will be taking some new practices with me into the future. It has also reminded all of us of the importance of relationships, not just with our students, but with our colleagues, friends, and family members as well. Hopefully, it will also help lead to more attention on teacher wellbeing and the long-term work environment of educators.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER CHRISTIAN WRABLEY
I was 13 years old, in my 8th grade History classroom, when my teacher explained that planes had flown directly into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field 30 miles south of our school. After he told us four planes had crashed in one morning, my classmates and I began nervously peeking out the window at the clear blue sky, hoping not to see more planes falling.
I had so many questions.
“Who would do this? How did people take control of those planes? How could this be planned to all happen at the same time? How could people be so evil?”
My teacher spoke with calmness and clarity. He offered some possible explanations. He told us what he knew and wasn’t afraid to let us know that he didn’t have all the answers. He heard our questions though.
I am so thankful that the school administration didn’t tell our teachers, “Do not talk about the terrorist attacks in school today.” Because we needed to talk. I needed some background information and some connection. My young mind was filling in the blanks either way. I appreciated those gaps being informed by a professional teacher, skilled in facilitating meaningful and emotional discussion.
After the Capitol insurrection on January 6, I turned to my go-to Twitter teacher friends to see how they were responding. “How do they plan to talk about this with their students? What questions will they pose? Will they show pictures and videos?”
I was alarmed to see some teachers saying they had received directives from administration not to discuss the events with kids.
Please trust teachers to guide safe conversations with kids. We don’t want to wait until there is breaking news to figure out how to have difficult conversations with students.
For teachers who are unsure of how to discuss current events with kids, my advice is to start small but start now. And do it regularly. Our students need to discuss current events, and if they can’t do it in our classrooms - designated learning spaces with trained professional teachers - then I don’t know where they can safely have these conversations. I know I needed to have them when I was 13.
People seem to think that because we’ve been talking since we were about two years old, it’s something everyone can do. But that doesn’t consider that language is extremely delicate.
Thoughts in our heads aren’t always clearly articulated when we try to put words to them. Conversations can be uncomfortable and awkward. It takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you will get at it. We don’t need to do it perfectly; we just need to keep doing it.
I should also note that our classroom mantra is basically: “You’re allowed to be wrong inside here. You’re allowed to misspeak, say you don’t know right now, or disagree with me or others. Our goal is to get right before we leave here. This is our arena. This is where the messy work happens. That’s exactly what we’re here for.”
A few weeks before the election, I was inspired by The New York Times’ Civil Conversation Challenge which fosters safe conversations with kids about powerful topics that can be uncomfortable. Since then, we have had 24 different Civil Conversation Challenges in class. (See some of our topics below.)
Every Sunday morning, I post a Civil Conversation question online for students. In addition to responding to the question, students must also reply to one of their classmate’s comments. If they agree, they must explain why or with which parts. If they disagree, they are taught and coached to do it respectfully, with an explanation. They can also ask a question to a classmate to enrich and extend the conversation.
On Thursdays, we hold these discussions in the classroom. When expecting students to contribute to a heavy conversation in class, I’ve found it beneficial to post the question several days before the live conversation, if possible. This allows students to prepare thoughts, ideas, or stories they’re comfortable and confident to share.
The goal is for me to just listen quietly as they run the discussion. We often pass a Nerf brain around to designate who has the open line to speak. Each student gets a chance to hold the ball, but they do have an option to pass. I don’t require them to share their thoughts because sometimes topics may be too emotional to speak on or sometimes they may just not have the words or the confidence to speak on it.
But some students who wouldn’t normally interject tend to speak up when the ball is handed to them. This simple system shows students that everyone’s thoughts are valued. It prevents a few students from dominating the conversation.
In cases where spontaneous conversations arise, it’s important that we listen to understand rather than listening to respond. We have all had different life experiences that shape our lives and our values. What’s good for one student may be aggravating or damaging for another student.
I always thank students for keeping an open mind and engaging respectfully with their classmates about meaningful issues. I encourage students to keep thinking, keep reflecting, and keep learning even when our conversations end.
UPDATE: This week, I actually asked students to write about our Civil Conversation Challenge series in their journals. They expressed overwhelming support and enjoyment for these talks. They appreciate the value in being heard. They recognize the growth that comes from sharing thoughts and ideas. They rise to the occasion when they’re assumed to be mature rather than the opposite.
I have two students: a boy in strong favor of preserving the language of the 2nd Amendment and a girl who is adamant about improving common sense gun control legislation. They are best friends. This week, they told me that our Civil Conversations often continue after they leave the classroom. They asked if I’d support them in doing a podcast episode to make their debate public. Meaningful discussions extend authentic learning and often lead to meaningful action. Even from young people.
Here are some of their responses:
“It’s good to get our opinions out and be able to say what’s on our mind.”
“I enjoy our Civil Conversations because they give us a chance to share our opinions and understand where others are coming from.”
“I love our class discussions. They always challenge us and make us think and communicate with each other. I feel like when we talk about these things in class, it helps us figure things out together and learn together as a class.”
“I think it’s important to let kids express themselves. We have opinions and experiences and strong thoughts that deserve to be heard.”
“We have social media that generations before us never had. This allows us to share thoughts with the world with the click of a button. But it can be dangerous too if we don’t know what we’re talking about. Our conversations feel like a safe place to practice sharing our thoughts.”
I always include the following:
“PLEASE REMEMBER: Our Civil Conversation topics can be sensitive issues to people in our classes. Please be cognizant of this, and respect other people’s views, experiences, and emotions.
We should listen to others to understand different perspectives. We should be most respectful of others’ beliefs and preferences and experiences, and use our words to learn and have constructive conversations. I am grateful for this respectful space where you all can share your voices and learn from each other."
CIVIL CONVERSATION CHALLENGE QUESTIONS
What responsibility do you think schools have to address the use of slurs? What responsibility do YOU have to call out people who use them?
Does our school reflect the changing diversity of the United States? What are the benefits of classrooms that include people from many walks of life?
Does the U.S. need tougher gun control laws? What ideas do you have to improve this issue in our communities and our nation?
Do you think happiness is a matter of luck or a mindset you can learn? Do you think we, as a society, give too much attention to physical health rather than mental health?
Should there be more gender options on identification documents? Do you think the way we talk about and denote gender should be more inclusive of individuals who identify outside the binary?
What does Black History Month mean to you? How can white and non-Black people of color better honor Black culture and Black history?
Would you volunteer for a Covid-19 vaccine trial for teenagers? What do you see as the benefits of enrolling in such a trial? What are the possible downsides?
Is summer school a smart way to make up for learning lost this school year? How do you think other students - students at different grade levels or with different learning needs - have been affected by this challenging school year?
Should athletes speak out on social and political issues? Do they have a responsibility to use their platform and influence to raise awareness? Or should they stick to sports?
Should schools be able to discipline students for what they say outside school or on social media? Or would those actions violate students’ right to freedom of speech?
What do you think of the decision by tech companies to block President Trump? If you were the chief executive of a social media company, how would you respond to the actions of January 6?
What is the purpose of school? Is it to prepare for more school and get a good job? To prepare us for “the real world”?
Are all Americans treated equally? Our founding documents say, “All men are created equal.” Are we living up to that promise or claim?
What does it mean to be a good citizen? Does a good citizen follow the law all of the time? Are there exceptions? Are there unjust laws that still exist?
How should we remember the problematic actions of our nation’s founders? Should we take down the monuments of enslavers? Or should they remain? What role might your identity and life experiences play in how you feel about this issue?
My teachers taught me how to deal with tragedy. They showed me the world in a way that allowed me to begin to figure out where I fit in. They coached me in learning skills to navigate the troubled waters. And now I spend my days in a classroom full of 8th graders getting a chance to give that back. I hope to teach them kindness and empathy. I hope they learn lifelong skills and develop action plans for how to take on challenges.
Our students see the world through curious lenses, constantly craving new information and stimulation. Their brains are still developing and their minds are malleable.The world actually comes to them -- new information arrives by the second as their phones light up like traffic flares, demanding urgent attention.
Ready or not, the news is coming.
BLOG POST BY 2019-2020 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER MARILYN PRYLE
I teach tenth-grade English at a suburban high school. Like many teachers, I have been teaching in a hybrid, concurrent mode almost all year. This means that I have some physical students in front of me and the rest of the class on a Google Meet. I teach all of them at the same time.
Often, I find it difficult to explain to people why this is so challenging. The increased workload of extra preparation, grading, and record-keeping is only part of it. There’s something more, something in the day-to-day living of it that is emotionally wounding--but it’s hard to express exactly what that is. Here. I’ll try to give a close-up look in an attempt to explain.
Period 1: Students filter into the classroom and make their way to their six-foot distanced seats, greeting me. I greet them back, and click the link for the Meet. Immediately it starts to ding as students arrive at it. I let them in by repeatedly clicking “Admit.” I greet them as they appear on the screen. Alternately, I look up to greet the physical students who trickle in. The bell rings. I look at my screen.
Some students don’t have their cameras on; they are supposed to, but it has become a losing battle throughout the school, and like most teachers, I have decided it’s not worth my energy to begin each class by demanding, yelling, or shaming students into submission on this. Still, I make my usual request: “Turn your camera on if you can, thank you.” A few dark squares come to life with faces in them. Two others flicker to a wall or ceiling. The rest remain dark. Are they being disrespectful? Did they hear me? Is there something distracting going on at home that they don’t want to show? Are they there?
Ding! A comment: Mrs Pryle, I’m sorry my camera’s not working.
Ding! Ms Pryle, if I turn my camera on my wifi goes out.
“Ms. Pryle?” A student is standing in front of me, and I hadn’t realized it. I look up. “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Sure, go ahead,” I reply, and look down. That’s okay, thanks for letting me know, I type. “Okay everyone, let’s start with our Book Club reading,” I say loudly, almost shouting because the students are spread across the room and I am in my prescribed corner. The heater fan is cranking. “Did everyone get that? Let’s start reading. Good job.” The students in the room open their books. I glance at the screen.
“Ms. Pryle? Are you talking? You’re muted,” a square says.
Darn. When did I do that? I click the reddened mic icon to black. “Whoops, sorry about that, everyone. I was just saying to start reading, okay? Take out your book, and I’ll tell you when 10 minutes is up. Good job. Good to see you.” Are any of them struggling today? Jane looks a little tired; Chris has a hood pulled over his head. Are they okay? Are they reading? Do they think my class is a joke like this? Or boring? I feel like I’m not doing this right. Maybe I should start writing discipline referrals for the non-cameras. But what if they’re too anxious about it? Sometimes they film each other and then post things to social media--
“Ms. Pryle?” My head jerks up; another student, Audrey, has apparently been standing there. The rest are reading. “Can I grab a temporary book from the shelf? I forgot mine.”
“Sure, absolutely, go right over there,” I say, and follow her over. “What do you like? Do you like science? Do you like poetry?”
“I like science,” Audrey says.
“Great—here’s a perfect temporary book for a day or two,” I reply, and pull a copy of What If from the shelf. “Each chapter is its own short episode of sorts. The author asks these random hypothetical science questions, like ‘If I hit a baseball into space, would it go into orbit?’ and stuff like that. And then he answers it with real physics and—"
“Let me check that, Audrey. You can page through this,” I say, and hand her the book while I head back to my station. Someone has arrived late.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Pryle, I was trying to get in here with the link for Human Geo, and I didn’t realize it till just now—”
I remember to unmute. “No problem, Gavin,” I whisper, “we’re just reading for ten.” In the meantime, I really need to talk to Casey about her paper. I open up another tab, open my Google calendar, and copy an additional Meet link.
I unmute. “Casey, if you can hear me, come on over to the conference Meet for a minute so I can talk to you about your paper.” I mute, paste the new link in the chat, and go over to it in a new tab. I wait. Did Casey hear me? Was her camera on? Did she just walk away from her computer at home?
Ding! It’s Casey asking to get in to the new Meet. I let her in.
“Ms. Pryle?” Matt calls from his desk, raising his hand.
“If we’re done with our book—I just finished mine—can we start on our book review?”
“Sure, good question.” I look at the screen. Casey is looking at me from her square, waiting patiently. “Ok Casey, can you open your graded paper?”
“Um, where is it?” she asks, squinting at her screen. “Oh wait, I think it’s in my classroom folder. Hold on…”
I click on the other tab of the main class Meet while she scrolls. They are still there, apparently reading. I make sure I am muted on that tab and return to the tab with Casey on it. We review her paper, and I send her back to the main Meet.
I unmute. “Okay everyone, that’s ten. Finish up your paragraph and then go to your Daily Reading Chart. Make some notes on it for today.”
“My book just got really exciting!” Gina says from her desk. “It started off slow but--
“Ms. Pryle?” a voice calls from the computer. I look down, but Gina is still talking.
“—and then it got really good when the main character—”
“Hang on there, Gina. Hold that thought—” I say and look down. “John, can you hang on a sec? Gina was just telling me about her book.”
“Oh. sorry about that. Sorry. I didn’t hear her,” John says sheepishly. He feels bad; he would never normally interrupt a classmate. I feel bad for him.
“Totally fine, John, you didn’t know. Just one minute— Go ahead Gina.” Gina finishes her point, I ask a follow-up question that feels a bit forced, and then I look at the screen. John asks about the final due date for book clubs, and I answer him. A couple more hands go up on screen (Ding! Ding!). We talk. I look up. The in-person students are done and waiting patiently. It feels like I’m failing at this. You’re not failing, I tell myself. You’re doing it. It’s a difficult situation and you’re doing the best you can. Breathe. Managing the voice in my head has become a second job this year.
“Ok everyone, we’re going to work on some questions in small groups. Start with sharing your reading responses, and then work on the questions together. In-class people, get right to work. Online people, I need a minute to make your small groups. Hang on…” I scan the room. I have not only allowed but encouraged students to work with their friends this year, both to increase engagement and to create a space for social interaction during this time of isolation. Two groups begin talking in class, yelling over their masks and the space between desks and the heater. One student sits alone, his two friends from this class both online today.
“Simon, do you want to join Matt and Bryce in their group? Just turn your chair and all of you can work together,” I suggest. He shrugs. I’m failing at this.
“Do you want us to start on the questions while you make our groups?” a voice says from my computer over the din in the room. I look down.
“Um, yes, thanks Maya. Yeah, just get to work on your own and I’m making your groups right now,” I say. I look at the Meet. One girl laughs; another smiles. They are muted. Are they laughing at me? At something else? Do I have something on my face? I know from my own teenage sons that at any given moment, there are actually two classes going on online: the one on the Meet and the one on the continuous group chat. What are they saying? I can’t think about this now; I have to make groups. Focus.
I quickly drag names into groups on the Meet Breakout feature. Students chose their group mates in the beginning of the year, but in Google Meet I must recreate the groups at the beginning of every single class. This takes a few minutes, but in my heart I know it’s worth it. I have the groups memorized by now but I still have to consult my chart because my brain is just--
“Mrs. Pryle?” I look up. Aidan is yelling from across the room. “Should we write answers on the story itself, or a separate doc?”
I hold the cloth of my mask so it doesn’t go into my mouth. “The story itself. Add to your annotations,” I yell back. I look down. Chloe goes here, Marta goes there…. I drag the rest of the names. “Done!” I announce to the Meet, “Okay, when you get in your groups, talk to each other. Share your responses. Work on the questions. I’ll pop in,” I say, and click the button that sends them into groups. I look up and breathe. Everyone’s working.
“How’s it going in here?” I ask the physical space. “Any questions? How about someone tell me their reading response?”
Hannah raises her hand. “I wrote about a cultural value—how the Greek gods are part of almost every scene and that shows—”
“Ms. Pryle?” Someone on the Meet is still in the main group. “I just had to change devices and got kicked out of the small group. Can you put me back in?” Sure, I tell him, and click “Edit groups,” drag him over, and click “Save.”
I look up. “Go ahead, Hannah. What were you saying?” She finishes. I try to listen. I’m failing at this. No you’re not; everyone’s working. Hannah just had a great thought. You’re doing it. Don’t look discouraged in front of them. They are saddened too; be strong for them.
Ding! Someone arrives to class 20 minutes late. I say hi and put them in a small group (Edit—Drag—Save). I’ll find out why they’re tardy later.
I enter one of the small groups. All the cameras are off, and no one is talking. I’m failing at this. “How are we doing in here?” Silence.
Then, Jessica unmutes. “Hi Mrs. Pryle, we’re good. We just finished sharing our responses and Mary is just waiting for the questions to load so she can share them and we can work on them together.”
I thank her for unmuting and talk for a minute to each of them, listening to their responses. They’re doing ok. I’m not failing. I go into another small group.
“And then I told her she could just go—” Evan closes his mouth dramatically on camera and everything is silent, stopped. I obviously surprised them. Someone giggles.
“Did I interrupt something here? Do you want to finish your thought, Evan?” The rest laugh. I wasn’t trying to embarrass Evan, but he is clearly embarrassed. I’m failing.
“No, sorry, Ms. Pryle, I was just talking about something that happened yesterday,” Evan says guiltily.
“That’s ok, I know you don’t see each other a whole lot these days. I get it,” I say. I’m smiling, but he can’t see through my mask, so I squint the corners of my eyes a bit harder to reassure him. “How are we doing with the story?” I ask, and chat with the group for a couple minutes.
“Ms. Pryle, what does number six refer to?” Alex asks from across the room. I look up. There are only two minutes left in class.
“It’s referring to the part with Helen and Aphrodite,” I say, but I don’t want to go too much further. “Actually, we’re getting close to the end of the class so start to wrap up your last thought. I have to bring these other small groups back.” I click on “End Groups—>Yes, I’m sure—>Groups will end in 30 seconds—>Groups will end now—>Yes, I’m sure.” I wait for the main Meet to populate with faces and blank squares.
I did not get to talk to most students about their responses. I did not review the questions. I could not circulate. I don’t even know if most of them wrote responses or did the reading at all. I did not talk about the plot of the story, or symbols, or emerging themes, or modern-day connections, or, or, or. I’m failing at this.
Ding! That one is our actual class bell. The students in the room get up and start toward the door. The students in the Meet are waiting for me. I look at them as my arm waves on its own to the students filing out the door. “Ok, everyone on the Meet, good job. I hope you made some progress today. Email me if you have any questions, and just follow the work on the calendar. Okay? It’s so good to see you.” I think of them alone in their rooms, possibly alone in their homes for the entire day. I am saddened. “You’re doing it, you showed up, you’re doing a good job,” I say. “I’m proud of you, you’re doing it,” I add. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I try to sound happy and hopeful; I send them hope and strength energetically. Some wave; some of the blank squares unmute and say goodbye. They have been there, the whole time. I feel bad for doubting them. I should have more faith in them, and in myself, I should--
Ding! The next class streams in, and it all starts again. And again. And again. Six times every day. Sometimes seven, when I cover another teacher’s class: there are precious few outside subs this year. After school, I will spend another hour or two preparing (reading, creating, and converting material for online consumption), grading (every activity has to be turned in this year, and I don’t feel comfortable giving tests, so it’s mostly writing), and following up on attendance and missing students.
What’s so exhausting is not just the fact that my attention is pulled in several directions at once, that I can’t hold or finish a thought, or that I don’t know how much literature anyone is actually learning. What’s most exhausting—spiritually exhausting on an existential level—is the emotional component, the variety and intensity of emotions: the overwhelming doubt, sadness, uncertainty, insecurity. The constant feelings of failure. The utter grief that remains, even a year later—or more so, because it’s a year later—that this has happened at all, that we have all lost so much. And then the energy I have to muster to counter these thoughts, to encourage myself, to encourage the students, to encourage my colleagues, to remind myself to go easy, to have compassion for myself and everyone around me.
Mixed with all of this are moments of real connection with the students. Lighthearted moments, laughter even. Emails that thank me for caring, for trying so hard. At the end of the day the children need us, and this is what we wanted to do when we became teachers: to care for children, to better their lives by helping them grow. As difficult as it is to constantly feel like a failure, I’m old enough to know that ultimately I’m not; I’m just experiencing a profoundly difficult time. The students are too young to fully have that perspective. So I keep going: You showed up, You’re doing it, I tell myself each day. Keep going, I say. I’m proud of you.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER KAREN GENNARO
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. I lingered on this famous first line while walking amid the windy and vast uncertainty of last March. When Covid 19 began to spread last year, it forced an abrupt closure of our schools. Overnight, what was - was no longer. Since then, Hartley’s words have served as an affirmation of sorts - a reminder that we all travel through time as we move toward new destinations, and we carry things along.
Where are we going?
The early days of the closure were laden with an indescribable sense of urgency and a longing for clarity and stability. Ensuring the continued presence of a daily walk became my first step along an arduous journey, one that precipitated the need for persistent strenuous laborious action along with profound mental focus.
As a kindergarten teacher, I believe physical movement serves as fuel to ignite the brightness of inspiration and unite it with the starkness of analysis, and the revelations born of reflection. Walking induces actionable ideas to emerge and percolate freely through confirmed pedagogical beliefs. Conclusions are considered; solutions arise. Refined ideas are propelled forward, and, in so doing, confirm the next instructional steps and opportunities for collegial collaboration. Walking served to distance nervous thoughts from unwavering professional obligations- a way to gain mental momentum. The walk became a mainstay along the search for stability, replacing part of the lost structure of what was once the school day.
What must we leave behind?
Fear can truncate creativity and imagination. Fear replaces them with a recoiling sense of ‘nope’. A lack of hope and inconsistent opportunity contributes to a rising sense of fear and overwhelming dread. Phillip Schlechty’s work informed my decision to support and provide pathways for families and children to remain engaged with school in order to regulate, relate, and reason together until we reached a safe harbor. So began a deliberate search for ways to coax calm and to refresh collective purpose.
What must be maintained?
We need to preserve the active learning community that is school. We are critical go-betweens for young children and their families. We guide them from the known toward the new. We must support, strengthen and nurture our inclusive collective resolve to go forward together by ensuring there are links to school. If we do this, we can move away from the irons of indecision, uncertainty, and fear that threaten the integrity of our safe passage. Then, we can offer the critical continuity and stability young families need.
So, in those first days of the closure, I contacted my student’s families. Every morning I set up a series of short simple video lessons based on our school work to offer parents, children, and caregivers a link to kindergarten. This included key elements of our regular routine: calendar time, our songs, our Bear playing with math and working on problems, and a storytime. Notifications of these small videos arrived in family inboxes through an existing digital community posting app that all of the families regularly accessed.
Almost immediately responses returned. The children recorded themselves talking to our classroom Bear. They asked when the next posts would come along. Every morning I forwarded the next videos and learning experiences; every afternoon I responded to the children and families. In the evenings, check-in-and-chat phone calls with parents offered a place to stay connected to our kindergarten community.
Eventually, Google-Meet touch-points on different days and at different times allowed small groups of parents and of children to share thoughts, worries, and stories.
These were simple yet meaningful initial attempts to stay connected - this became our Go-Between school. In it, we found some comfort and stability. We found time to strengthen our resolve to forge ahead. Soon enough, though, we were to learn that we would stay at home for the remainder of the school year. And, the District took over. They established the platform. They linked us all to their plan.
What must we take along?
If the past really is a foreign country, as Hartley affirms, perhaps our navigation of this expansive Covid-void will bring about opportunities for educators to consider essential scholarly and pragmatic questions about the future of education. We need to carry critical questions along this journey. Here are just a few that I am taking with me: which substantive teaching and learning presences must survive and thrive? Which decisions about teaching and learning in kindergarten should be recalibrated? Without teacher efficacy, how will history and the essential and innovative teaching practices of a true kindergarten coalesce? How best can we serve? How can we link arms to forge equitable pathways forward?
What educators take along this journey away from the past will truly define the next iteration of public education. Along the way there is school. School endures. May Sarton, the Belgian-American poet said, “It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee