The Pandemic and Rural Schools

I had a chance to chat virtually with Michael Fawcett, who teaches 5th grade geography and mathematics in a rural Virginia school district. His district chose to go 100% virtual rather than risk the possibility of exposing students to Covid-19. Here is what he had to say about the first few weeks of school.

So, Michael, what are challenges for a rural district at this moment that suburban or urban districts may not have?

One of the biggest challenges we’ve been facing as a rural district during this time of virtual learning is simply ensuring that all students have internet and computer access. Affordable  rural internet is an issue that’s currently being discussed in the Virginia legislature.

This also brings up the issue of equitable grading practices. If a student does not have access to the same information as their classmates, how can they possibly be graded in the same manner?

How have rural school districts worked to overcome these challenges?

Many rural districts have issued WiFi hotspots to families that give them internet access. This works well, provided that cell service is available in their areas. The districts are also issuing Chromebooks for families to use during this time.

In many cases one family may have students studying at each level of the district – elementary, middle and high – and because of this, many districts are offering a staggered schedule so that families do not need to worry about more than one student needing to be online at a time.

Due to this staggered schedule, instruction time is shortened; however, in good teaching practices where students are actually in the classroom, direct instruction usually lasts at most 20 minutes before the students should be working on their own or in small groups. And so direct instruction actually remains about the same, with small group instruction and independent work occurring throughout the afternoon.

Districts are still working hard to find solutions for those students who still are unable to access the internet at home. Thumb drives with recorded lessons and printable assignments are provided to those students who at least have computer access, while printed copies and instructions are provided to those who have neither computer nor internet access. In these cases teachers often provide direct instruction over the phone. While this system is not perfect, it at least helps the student keep from falling too far behind until a better solution is found. 

How are you making connections with students?

In my district each student is assigned a homeroom in Google Classroom, and a homeroom morning meeting is held every morning; this gives students and teachers a chance to check in with each other, make sure everything’s going OK, and troubleshoot any problems that might be occurring. This homeroom is a vital time for building relationships between students and their teachers, which is so important towards building student investment in their lessons.

Teachers are also working to streamline their instruction to make it as easily accessible as possible. By using platforms such as Google Classroom, Screencastify, and Google Meet, teachers can provide direct instruction to their students and then provide recordings of their lessons with resources and assignments in a timeline style format via the Google Classroom stream. Should a student miss a day of online instruction, he or she still has a summary and all of the resources to help him or her with easy access.

By putting all of these practices into play it’s our hope that we can make the student experience as equitable and enjoyable as possible.

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How Are You Doing?

(This post originally appeared at my work place’s blog.)

How are you doing? Yes, really, how are you doing?

During the week of August 17, three ISA coaches conducted virtual professional development for one of our partner districts, Charles County Public Schools in Maryland. I sat in on several of these sessions, which covered topics from the effective use of online tools with special education students to online literacy engagement strategies to supporting the social and emotional well-being of online English learners. The Charles County educators that attended were attentive and engaged. “We want to make sure our school-level staff are well-prepared for their virtual work this school year,” said Kim Hairston, the district’s Director of Equity and Diversity.

There was a moment during one of virtual sessions that made me sit up. The ISA coach, a veteran of both face-to-face and virtual professional learning, asked the small group of teachers he was training that afternoon, “How are you doing?” In short, he was wondering about the social and emotional well-being of these teachers, before they dove into the content. I was surprised at their willingness to share what was happening in their lives and how they were feeling about school’s start.

It was a powerful moment that signaled three things for me:

  • First, it told those participants that their social and emotional well-being matters. Even though the training was not about that well-being, for those few minutes after the question, their well-being was at the forefront of discussion.
  • Second, participants talked early—interacting within the first few minutes of the afternoon—which laid the groundwork for further talk and interaction throughout the morning. This is something that we want to happen in any effective professional learning setting.
  • Lastly, there was trust built, as the ISA coach and the participants shared about themselves, their current state of mind, and their readiness for this new school year. That’s what normally happens when we walk around a room before a face-to-face professional development session; we smile and make small talk and start to gain trust. Online, it needs to be more intentional, more explicit. When it comes to working with educators, that issue of trust is paramount

Our work with educators this summer has been filled with the potential for risk and also, with that risk, potential to build trust. The pandemic has thrown all kinds of curveballs at schools and districts, and teachers and their leaders have a new playbook. This summer’s violence and unrest around racial inequality and the cry for substantive change have put the discussion of race and equity at the center of the workplace, the neighborhood, the family, and the schoolhouse: a discussion that is not always easy. For educators to face these tough topics, there needs to be trust. This gives all the more reason to create settings, virtual or face-to-face, that are full of trust, love, patience, and belief in order to enact true change. And if a simple “How are you doing?” can begin that process, then let’s make sure we ask.

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With school starting this week or next week for many school districts, I asked a few teachers for their thoughts on this most unusual beginning of school. Thanks for your help, Danielle, Maija, and Njeri!

OK, what are you doing to prepare yourself for the start of school, whether in person or virtual?

Danielle Lei, a third grade teacher at Oakland Unified (CA) School District: I am trying to plan ahead as much as possible and get organized differently than I do for in person learning. I think there’s a real opportunity to give kids lots of individual attention and learning, but it is going to take more time!

I also am trying to build that relationship with them as much as possible, such as visiting homes for sidewalk chats if possible, etc. I want them to see that I’m a real person, and I want to keep the same thing in mind. I have gotten to know students much deeper this way.

Maija Scarpaci, a high school Spanish teacher at Hamilton-Wenham (MA) Regional School District, northeast of Boston: My school is going back hybrid, while my children’s schools are going remote. Right now I am exploring a 12 week leave for myself or tutors/remote education facilitators who can come to my house while my husband and I are teaching in our school buildings. Additionally, I’m attending union meetings twice a week, as we wait for developments that may impact where or how we teach. Everything is still up in the air. 

Njeri Semaj, also a Spanish teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute in New York City: My school is remote for grades 7-12 until early October. My curriculum planning is the same as always because I use backward design which allows for my plans to be flexible and adaptable. There is a schedule in place, and I plan to use the first cycle or two to only work with my students to create our community norms and discuss their and the course expectations. Additionally, I will continue to challenge my school to demonstrate their stated values around anti-racist work. We are in NYC, and many of us commute by public transportation. Some of us are significantly impacted negatively by the pandemic because of our race combined with our geographical location in the city. If we are an inclusive school community that aims to keep everyone safe, then these factors must always be at the center, as the school makes plans that will require high risk community members to put ourselves at even more risk by leaving our homes.  

What are you doing to prepare your students?

Danielle: For my third graders, I have been trying to get them to be as independent as possible, optimizing use of platforms such as Clever and Seesaw. The more they can do on their own, the better. Families are too busy and overwhelmed to have to help with this. I also want them to get into the routine of getting up and ready for the day, have work to do, etc. They have a chance to learn some amazing technology skills too!

Maija: Right now, I am not doing anything. I have taken several webinars over the summer, but my department is pretty tech savvy and tech dependent, and we all found the transition to remote easy this spring. The fact that we still don’t know what school will look like when we start (how many days, minutes will we meet our classes?) makes planning pretty impossible. Every district in Massachusetts has been given 10 days at the start to work out the details, and so once our department can collaborate, we will be able to put it together very quickly. 

What is your greatest worry about the start of school and the upcoming school year? And since I’m an always glass-half-full guy, what do you think will be your greatest joy?

Danielle: My biggest worry is the kids who will give up because an activity is too hard or who won’t attempt to do the work. I also worry about the stress level of parents and how it will affect their kids. I can tell some parents are really at their wits’ end with trying to help multiple kids. I also worry about my ELL kids who don’t have a lot of opportunity to practice English.

I actually think interacting with parents will be one of my greatest joys. Having the chance to hear what they are going through and how they help their kids is definitely cool. I also hope my introverted kids come out of their shells a bit, at least virtually.

Maija: My greatest worry will be sacrificing my own children’s education as I educate others. This will weigh heavily on me every day. Another worry is simply the health of my students and colleagues.

Njeri: I’m only worried about health and well-being. My experience as a student, a teacher, and a person in general is so varied that I am confident that in the grand scheme of how and where learning happens, my students will be all right if their health and well-being is centered. One can learn anything anywhere if they are not anxious, threatened, scared or tired. If we plan to support meeting the health and well-being needs of everyone involved, set some goals together, and think outside the box, everyone will have learned something. Any time I hear an idea or suggestion that is based on making sure that the most vulnerable community member is OK at this time, I will be happy. My worry is that the deeply rooted culture of this country is a significant obstacle for the kind of collective empathetic care that is required for this to happen.

What do you think schools and districts have learned from the last several months? How will that translate into post-Covid teaching and learning?

Danielle: I think we have learned how important it is getting kids set up with the right technology. Having a set schedule is also really great for kids and having the whole school on the same platform has been helpful. Some of my students have been able to help their siblings. Also, we are better able to leverage support staff for our special populations.   

Maija: I think we have learned that we must hold our students accountable. I was surprised how many of my top students were allowed to slack off at home in the spring. Schools had their hands tied, due to state regulations, and it was very frustrating to watch our classes dwindle in size each week. This fall, all students need to be ready to work and we need to make sure they do. 

Njeri: I think most American school districts/schools have learned nothing. I have watched the majority push forward as if there’s no pandemic happening or as if it doesn’t matter that it is happening to some and not to others. Every plan to reopen as case numbers rose higher and higher this summer was an indication of this inability to consider the present and future while demonstrating a dangerous fixation on the past. There may be new schedules and a range of reopen plans for this 2020-2021 school year, but there are zero plans about systemic changes that need to happen for a world that now includes Covid. For example, to my knowledge, at no point have schools addressed student assessment or teacher evaluations in remote/hybrid scenarios in a meaningful and implementable way, and so I’m interested to see how accountability will be addressed in a formal or equitable way, in a system that was already rife with inequity.

Another indication that nothing’s been learned is the complete lack of funding in order to meet the needs of school community members in this pandemic. Whether the funding is for teacher PPE, student device access, community internet access, transportation that adheres to social distance guidelines, upgraded ventilation systems in historically underfunded rural/urban schools, or hazard pay for maintenance crews, additional funding has been absent.

On a bright note, I hope that people have learned that children are developmentally built for resilience and taking on the information that is modeled by the adults around them. That said, I know some people have learned that learning happens everywhere and at all times, which is a big realization for folks because it allows for a feeling of control that the pandemic has either erased or minimized. I hope that the new understanding that learning happens everywhere can impact our system of education – a way of thinking that has the system adapt to learners rather than learners having to adapt to the system.   

Think of a student that makes you smile. How come? How will that student make you smile when school starts?

Danielle: We have already started, and they make me smile every day already. They gave each other sweet shout outs last Friday and thanked each other for being good friends. Seeing their drawing skills and creativity has been so fun. When I helped one of my newcomer students with his computer, I left with pork buns and a pocketful of lychee fruit. That made me smile and full. 

Maija: So many kids make me smile for different reasons. Teaching and seeing their faces was what got me through the darkest days of quarantine. I can’t wait to see them again, whether it’s on Zoom or in a classroom! 

Njeri: Any time a student asks a question or makes a comment that connects whatever we’re talking about to something beyond our topic. Whenever that happens, I know that curiosity, critical thinking skills and imagination are alive and well.

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College, high school, and a fulfilled life

I’m a big fan of Denise Pope and the work that she and her colleagues are doing at Challenge Success. As they write on their website,

we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners. We partner with schools, families, and communities to embrace a broad definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning. After all, success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of a semester.

(Yeah, yeah, I know: Read that paragraph and think about Lori Loughlin, Rick Singer, and Operation Varsity Blues. The word “ethical” pops out at me.)

In fact, I was reading Denise Pope’s March 22 column in the Wall Street Journal (sorry – it’s now behind a pay wall) when my son and I were on a college trip, and I was most taken by information that Pope reported from the Gallup-Purdue Index, of six “college experiences that have an impact on how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they are thriving in life after college:”

  1. Take a course with a professor that makes learning exciting.
  2. Work with professors that care about students personally.
  3. Find a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals.
  4. Work on a project across several semesters.
  5. Participate in an internship that applies classroom learning.
  6. Be active in extracurricular activities.

As I read this list, I got to thinking about three things: The college search that we were conducting with our son; my own experiences in college; and what the above experiences might say about high school.

There will be a longer post about our college search process and its relation to these qualities, but I’ve been impressed with several of the schools we have visited and their focus on the liberal arts and the individualized attention that’s given to students. Yes, these colleges were about academics and learning, but they were also about relationships, and it seems obvious that places with that kind of focus would be more apt to fulfill the top three experiences listed above. They have intentionally built their programs so that students and faculty interact. (BTW, do you know Colleges That Change Lives?)

My own college tenure (which I’ve written about before) had several of the above qualities/experiences; I had professors who made learning exciting, and I spent the winter and spring of my junior year student-teaching at the local high school, applying what I was learning in my education classes. But as I think back on my college at that time, it was not really built with the student in mind; faculty did not ignore us, and I did close work with several professors, but faculty members were ultimately there to work on their research. As Professor Peter Bien provocatively said in his address to my incoming class of freshmen,

Typically, the high school teacher does not aspire to advance the subject he teaches, nor is he expected to. His professional pride comes from the level of competence to which he can bring his students, and (though he may not realize this) from the degree to which he convinces his students to accept certain modes of thought and behavior approved by the society at large. Those are not [a college faculty’s] purposes…Our professional pride may come secondarily from the level of competence to which we happen to bring you, but it comes primarily from our contribution, however small, to the advancement of our fields of study.

So how do the above six experiences translate to the typical high school experience? Well, I’d say that #2 and #3 seem like no-brainers – work with teachers that care about students personally and find a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals – but I’d argue that the large comprehensive high school, its class size of 30+, and its manic daily schedule make it operationally difficult for teachers to have close relationships with students that the research has shown to be helpful for learning. I admire teachers who ensure that they know their students well and work to develop relationships with them, even as they rush off to prep for another class or get ready for an evening of essay grading. I also admire schools that don’t take this relationship development for granted and develop systems – see this relationship mapping strategy – to ensure that every kid in the building has an adult that cares for him or her.

I also think that high school students get engaged in extracurricular stuff – see #6 above – because they like the faculty sponsor and/or were even asked by that sponsor to get involved – and extracurricular activities are another way for students and teachers to interact and get to know each other. I think back to the school newspaper that I oversaw for a couple of years when I was teaching and the young people who met in my classroom to write, edit, and argue over articles; I’m close to several of them even now, some 22 years later.

Those six experiences from the Gallup poll seem very much applicable to not just college but also high school. If research tells us that they help make “thriving” students after college, how can we ensure that they’re part of any student’s high school tenure too?

The first pic came from here. The second pic from here. Got the last photo here.

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Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: SEADing the Path Forward

(My recent blog post for the Institute for Student Achievement. You can see the original here.)

Soon, many young people will graduate high school and head off on a new adventure. Whether their journey leads to enrolling in college, going to work, joining the military, or diving into another postsecondary pathway, the transition into the real world can be a bumpy ride. Ideally, their high school education will serve as a launchpad for this next stage in their lives, giving them the skills and knowledge to navigate the bumps so that they are successful and can ultimately be a contributing member of this vibrant democracy.

Many young people attending schools supported by the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) entered high school behind in areas such as literacy and mathematics but were able to make up those gaps due to their own hard work and the intense and dedicated work of their teachers, leaders, and counselors. Certainly, the content mastered in classrooms will be of value, particularly for those that go off to college. And the academic skills that they learned in those classrooms, such as learning to analyze a passage from a text or to write critically, will aid a variety of postsecondary pathways. As this 2016 practice guide from the What Works Clearinghouse stated, “Indeed, writing is a life-long skill that plays a key role in postsecondary success across academic and vocational disciplines.”

But reading, writing, and arithmetic are just one part of preparation for life after high school. There is a great deal more that young people need from their high school years to prepare them, such as the social and emotional competencies that serve as the backbone for any maturing young person. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is equal in importance, if not more so, to the book learning that high school has always been about. It requires us to think about how we implement this work not only in after-school programs or through advisory, but intentionally and within academic core settings. Are students asked in their classrooms to collaborate with peers, for example? How are classroom activities set up so that communication is practiced? Young people not only need to learn algebra and read Toni Morrison but also need to collaborate with their peers, orally present findings from an experiment to the rest of the class, and build self-confidence when taking a final exam.

For the past two years, ISA has worked with several of our schools on this important integration of social and emotional learning with academics — SEAD or social, emotional, and academic development. In this work, we have found that teachers are initially nervous about taking time out from “coverage” of content, particularly if that content is tested on state assessments. However, once they find that SEAD strategies and practices help students access challenging content and have students take charge of their own learning, teachers take the time to coach students on using those strategies regularly and share these successes with their colleagues. In one ISA school, for example, a school that prides itself on requiring students to complete demanding, long-term “capstone” projects, it has successfully addressed student procrastination, last-minute drama, and low completion rates by teaching students goal-setting strategies. Students break down the long-term project into manageable chunks and monitor their success in meeting daily and weekly goals.

Teachers in this ISA school and others, with support from school leaders and ISA, have equipped their students with learning strategies, goal-setting techniques, and methods for monitoring their own learning. When teachers use these strategies regularly, their students persevere with rigorous work, learn from their mistakes, identify their own learning needs and ask for help, and track their own progress. These behaviors have also nurtured the students’ sense that they belong in an academic setting and that, through diligent effort, they can succeed at school, become better students, and be prepared to navigate the bumps on the road after high school.

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High school and being prepared for college

I was poorly prepared for college. I took the right classes in high school, got good grades, and was able to get into college. It was just implementing that college acceptance that tripped me up. In fact, I was such a screw up that my father drove up to campus after the first trimester ended – got a D and failed a class, of the three I was taking – and told me to get my act together or else.

I’ve been thinking about what tripped me up that first year of college. Some of it had to do with the knowledge I did not get in high school. I was terrible in my college French class, for example, since I didn’t know what a direct or indirect object was (as well as the fact that I slept through my 8:00 am French drill class more than I made it). I loved writing but was a clod at it, clumsy and opaque, and college math was a foreign language to me; I had become procedurally facile in high school, able to solve calculus problems through tricks and sleight of hand, but I was conceptually bereft, clueless to the underlying concepts of a math problem. That didn’t bode well in Math 13 at college.

I also didn’t have what was more important than the book knowledge needed to succeed in college: I did not know how to learn. In high school, I got by with a minimal understanding of that mindset – with a minimal understanding of the skills needed to study effectively, to manage my time, to read texts closely, to prepare for quizzes and tests and long-term projects. I know, I know: I was 18 at the time, with the pre-frontal cortex to show for it. But I don’t remember intentional instruction on these kinds of skills, and that lack showed ugly when I got to college. (And so did the free beer in fraternity basements. Here’s a math equation I now understand: Lack of study skills + free beer + poorly developed pre-fontal cortex = disaster. But certainly a giddy disaster.)

I asked a few recent college students to weigh in on this high school/college issue. Did high school prepare you for college? How so? What are the biggest differences in your academic life at college, as compared to high school? Henry Wileman, a freshman at the University of Maryland and graduate of our local high school, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC), had this to say:

Going to B-CC prepared me for college incredibly well. A lot of my high school teachers pushed us and demanded excellence, therefore making excellence a habit. That is what all professors at the University of Maryland expect from us.

I would say the biggest difference [between my academic work in college versus high school] is the responsibility we hold when it comes to academic work. The professors expect more from me than teachers at B-CC did and give students full control over their academic lives. All the professor does is post the assignment and then grade what he or she gets. No reminding of due dates and somewhat vague rubrics, with a fair amount of time to complete the assignment.

A high school classmate of Henry’s, Ella Grove, who’s a freshman at Chapman University, had this to say about high school and college:

I’d say the biggest difference [between high school and college] would be the amount of attention that teachers give to individual students. While I go to a fairly small school, it’s still a big adjustment to not have teachers knowing a lot about me and the specific way I learn. I would just say that high school teachers (especially at B-CC) have a much closer education-based connection to their students than the professors at my university. At Chapman it’s more an “either you do well or you don’t” attitude.

Brigit Cann, who also went to B-CC and is a sophomore at Oberlin, zeroed in on what tripped me up in college: writing.

I’d say the biggest difference between college and high school is the writing. Because I took many AP classes in high school, much of that coursework was based around the AP exam, which meant writing short essays in short periods of time. In college I’m required to write much longer papers. This was a shock to me at first, but I’ve learned how to write them. Overall, I feel that high school prepared me well for college with the exception of the writing.

College coursework is different; there’s more of it, but you’re given more time to complete it. Once I got the hang of time management, it became much easier. I’ve found that reaching out to professors and going to office hours really helps me get a sense of what they’re looking for when grading assignments. This has been helpful for me because college coursework is far less formulaic than high school.

Lastly, here’s what Caroline Karson, a graduate of B-CC and a freshman at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, had to say. She too credits learning to write in high school as critically important for college:

The biggest difference [between high school and college] is that in college I have a lot more time. In high school, I’d be in school from 7:00 to 2:00 and then swim practice from 4:00 to 6:00, to be home around 7:00. That left me with two-three hours to do homework, spend time with family, eat dinner, shower, etc. I felt rushed during my days in high school because I had such a tight schedule. As a result, I learned to complete homework during school lunch and to make use of the free time I had during school.

I also feel like I’m well prepared for what I’m being asked of in college. I was in a full International Baccalaureate (IB) program in high school, and in IB, we had many long-term projects, such as the extended essay and the internal assessments, and they prepared me to write essays and papers, from six to 22 pages long. For me there was no disconnect between high school and college work; IB trained me to learn time management and other skills that not only help for college but also for life.

There’s no true surprise with what the four of them had to say; they talked about more independence at the college level, as there should be; about time management and its importance; about the level of expectation at college, which for some was matched by rigorous high school programs; and about writing well. How do we ensure that all high school students are ready for college in these four areas?

I got the first picture here. The Chapman pic came from here. I got the last picture here.

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