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Revolutionary Patience: Moving to a Digital Classroom

Revolutionary Patience: Moving to a Digital Classroom

Geoffrey Schmidt

Geoffrey Schmidt

Lead Consultant, The Paper City Project

Geoffrey has been a teacher and leader in urban schools for 15 years. He is the Engagement Director for Opportunity Academy, Holyoke Public Schools, where he will lead a team designing an innovative new high school model for the city.

At a time when many educators are being asked to take on the enormous challenge of transitioning to digital classrooms in light of COVID-19, teacher and engagement director Geoffrey Schmidt offers some hope and advice for those navigating through troubled waters.

In 2007 I was teaching ELA to teenage boys in a Juvenile Detention Center in New York City. In May of that year, I met a student, whom I will call Bradley. 

Bradley had been in the system for three years and had recently been moved to the facility where I taught. He was one US History Regents Exam away from earning his high school diploma. He would be the only such student to earn his diploma while incarcerated, but doing so was a necessity. Three months later, he would turn eighteen, and would be moved to Rikers Island. 

Once there, his only pathway to a high school diploma equivalency would be to enroll in an Adult Basic Education program, prepping him for a G.E.D.  He had come this far, and with only one test to cross the finish line, we were at an impasse. No one on our staff had prepared any students for the New York State U.S. History Regents Exam before. 

It was not conscionable to lead him into a wilderness I had not navigated myself.

Less than two weeks before the testing date, I took on the assignment. I buckled down on an unseasonably hot weekend to plan backwards for an unfamiliar target, in a timeline that seemed impossible, with very little to act as my guiding beacon besides hope. But hope, to paraphrase the writer Anne Lamott, is a revolutionary patience.

With what seems like increasing frequency, teachers are asked to be hopeful but patient, to take risks without knowing for certain what the results will be; to make something from nothing; and to show up against daunting odds. Asking teachers to be trauma-informed in their practice, for example, has become de rigueur, even as society, policy-makers, and leadership think very little of how to do this best.

Early in my teaching career–at the same school where I took on the challenge of preparing Bradley for his US History Regents Exam–I received some of the best advice about change leadership.  As a leader, you never ask those you lead to try something uncomfortable which you cannot or will not do, yourself. 

Indeed, the first step I took to prepare Bradley for that exam was to sit down in a simulated testing environment, and take a previous year’s exam, myself.  From there, I constructed and practiced the necessary learning activities, read the necessary texts, and exercised the skills I would ask him to master (such as document-based questions and open response writing). It was not conscionable to lead him into a wilderness I had not navigated myself.

 

Moving to Distance Learning at Lightning Speed: Our Response to COVID-19

Like many districts over the past week, my school district appropriately determined last Thursday night that we would need to shut down building operations in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.  We would have to move at lightning speed into asynchronous distance learning.

We would have to be hopeful but patient in what we would expect for them and ourselves in these strange times.

Our school was very fortunate to be ahead of the curve; in many ways we were better situated for this moment than many schools across the country. By design our school serves students with diverse and significant gaps in their learning backgrounds, so to accommodate this, we have a block of time scheduled into every students’ day where they work in asynchronous blended learning activities.

They move through diverse curricula at their own pace, suited to their own levels, needs, and paths to graduation. With the switch to distance learning we wouldn’t have to teach them new systems so much as we would need to change the way we work those systems. And we would need to alter — not lower — our expectations such that we could be fearlessly, understandingly there for our students.

We would have to be hopeful but patient in what we would expect for them and ourselves in these strange times. We kept this in mind not only for our communication with them — in one brief staff meeting we set up a system to assure every student gets one touch-point every day from a staff member — but also in our curriculum. 

So after determining staff and student communication systems, we had to get down to brass tax. Our existing curriculum on our Learning Management Systems wasn’t going to be enough. 

I was going to have to ask the teachers on staff to create engaging, relevant, and important learning activities using an asynchronous approach, possibly for the remainder of the school year. This was a must, given the variant schedules many of our students will now have caring for younger siblings and older adults in their home.

And like every other school staff, we were going to have to do it fast.  To lead the team to do this, and heeding that best advice I’d been given, I had to first do it myself.

Three Lessons Learned From Building My Own Digital Course

The Books to Help Us Survive course I developed on Kiddom over a window of 72 hours, this past weekend, is very imperfect. It kicks off with a YouTube welcome and instructions video that I made on a Sunday morning, wearing a ball cap, a toddler screaming in the background, and I believe with some crumbs still in my beard.

Student View of the “Books to Help Us Survive” Course.

If you are a teacher who would like access to this course for your own class, you can learn more here.

We have been slow to get kids enrolled. While our outreach has been strong, we have prioritized our most extensive efforts to identify students who need technology and internet access at home. But the concept behind it, and the process of making it has taught me three pivotal lessons.

These are lessons, not only about leadership, but also about designing asynchronous learning in these new roles in which we educators have found ourselves. All of us are wayward pilgrims of distance learning in the time of a pandemic.

Lesson One: As always, what matters most in teaching is that what you are teaching has to matter. 

I intentionally designed this course to give students choice, to interact with texts that feel meaningful to them right now and to do so at their own pace. I give students plenty of options and time for reflection, writing, reading, and to take a break when they need to.

Providing meaningful work with which to grapple, and providing it in a way that allows for students to pick it up and set it aside as needed, is critical in all asynchronous learning.  But it is especially so in times like these.

Between leading team meetings on Zoom (and teaching people how to mute themselves and their dogs), calls with district leaders, checking in on staff, creating my own curriculum, and trying to be a responsible quarantining co-parent to my three year old, I have come to fully understand how busy everyone’s lives are right now.

Interspersed with all these other tasks, I have also been dropping off packets of work for students who cannot access our online courses, yet.  The kids sound so eager to get this work, and who can blame them. They want to keep the normalcy of learning, they want to feel connected to school.

But as I weave through the streets of Holyoke (aka Paper City) on my daily “Paper Delivery,” I can feel my educator soul being sucked out of me a little. Because I have seen the work that is being delivered and it’s…not good.

Teachers are certainly not to blame; in two hours of time our district required teachers to put together packets of any work they had on standby so we could at least give the kids something, and so we did our best with what we had.

This brings me to the second thing developing this course has taught me:

Lesson Two: Designing asynchronous coursework need not take an excessive amount of time, at first.

In fact, by fragmenting off and modifying activities and assessments from other curriculum one already has, and by being sure the supplemental assignments added require the student to do the cognitive lift, teachers can expect to get a respectable course running within a few days. 

Start with what you have or what you can find in open resources, modify the content to give students choice, and build a syllabus from there.

Once you’ve designed backwards, don’t get too far ahead of yourself.

Build out the first “week” of lessons, and be prepared to spend the majority of your time the first week or so checking in, giving meaningful feedback, and building out new lessons only at the pace students need them.

Teacher Timeline View of the “Books to Help Us Survive” Course.

If you are a teacher who would like access to this course for your own class, you can learn more here.

The third lesson from this process was a familiar one, and it never got old. 

Lesson Three: Don’t ask people (your students) to do something a little bit uncomfortable (like learning at a distance and at their own pace) if you’re not willing to do it yourself.

This won’t be simple or familiar. You definitely will not get it right on the first try.

But just like you’ll be asking your students to try something new, to fail happy, and to revise their work to make it better, so too can you as the teacher. 

Model by moving at your own pace, being patient with yourself and with them, and by asking for help from other educators who are also out there learning at their own pace.

In October 2007, I got word that Bradley earned his high school diploma. That was an incredible high reflecting on the ways that our collective productive struggle with the unfamiliar not only paid off, but was a life-altering change of pace for both of us.  None of us wants to be in the situation we are in right now.

But posting that first welcoming video in Books to Help Us Survive was about as cathartic and hopeful a moment as I have experienced as an educator since that call in Autumn 2007.  Like our learners, we are going to get through this, each in our own way, at our own pace and meeting our own needs, together.

Kiddom seamlessly connects the most critical aspects of teaching and learning on one platform.

For the first time, educators can share and manage digital curriculum, differentiate instruction, and assess student work in a centralized hub. Learners can take assessments online, see student performance data with the click of a button, and teachers have the insight and tools they need to create individual learning paths.

 

Are you thinking about bringing digital curriculum to your school or district?

Connect with us in a 15-minute meeting to learn more about available pre-packaged curriculum by Open Up Resources, and how the Kiddom education platform can support your learning community.

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Curriculum is Culture

Curriculum is Culture

Geoffrey Schmidt

Geoffrey Schmidt

Lead Consultant, The Paper City Project

Geoffrey has been a teacher and leader in urban schools for 15 years. He is the Engagement Director for Opportunity Academy, Holyoke Public Schools, where he will lead a team designing an innovative new high school model for the city.

A Shift to the Dark Side

Over the course of the past few years I have witnessed a remarkable shift in educators’ priorities.  It’s a shift away from instruction to the seemingly different realm of school culture (or as it had been lovingly called, in my role as Director of School Culture in a previous network: “The Dark Side.”) 

Some of this attitude, sadly, is a knee-jerk reaction to the realities of the times. We live in a world where, increasingly, schools’ disciplinary policies, safety procedures and drills, and trauma-informed practices are under a microscope.  This has somehow come to be referred to as the “hidden” curriculum.

They look at their school, see teachers who are professionally trained, teaching a curriculum that is rigorous, and yet somehow see student outcomes data that does not compute.  A frequent reflexive response is to look for advice on how to change the culture. 

During this time, educators have been inundated with every opinion imaginable regarding alternative discipline, restorative justice, and “classroom management toolkits” with approaches like trauma-informed teaching.  Recently, I hear about these hot-button issues far more often than I hear about teachers and leaders auditing curriculum to see if what they are teaching in their classrooms is culturally relevant or prepares students for post-secondary success in an ever-changing 21st century world. 

I will cast aside for a moment my opinion on whether the latter ought to be sacrificed in order to make room for the former (my entire premise, you will see, is that one cannot be done without the other.)

Why the call for a cultural change?

I do still understand the frustration of teachers and administrators.  They look at their school, see teachers who are professionally trained, teaching a curriculum that is rigorous, and yet somehow see student outcomes data that does not compute.  A frequent reflexive response is to look for advice on how to change the culture. I empathize with that, too. Because I know how the thinking goes:

Clearly the problem must be that we don’t have a culture of learning and achievement right now.  We aren’t doing enough to manage our classrooms to be fully engaging learning spaces. Perhaps we are actively decreasing student learning time with policies that push too many of our students out of classrooms, or out of school.  Thus, our students (and many teachers) don’t feel safe enough to learn (and teach). 

This is an inevitable result of a social, political and policy landscape that is best left for a different and lengthier post.   That landscape paints a bleak future in which schools must adapt to an increasingly turbulent and violent society, where structures of inequity mushroom, rather than shrivel.

Effecting change in the fabric of society, it seems, would simply be too much.  It leaves our schools, as history so often demonstrates, with a very heavy burden: teach the kids to clean up the messes of their parents.

This line of thinking supposes that if we cannot fix the cultural structures which beget inequity, violence, and rifts of cultural understanding, we can always ask the schools to do so. And we ask this despite schools’ lack of funding, teacher turnover, and shifting targets of assessment and “success” all existing within an educational context of that which we say cannot be fixed. This begs the point: is all of this focus on (fill in the next school culture initiative) working towards a real solution to such a baffling problem?

Curriculum and the Cave Allegory

Historically, when we have been troubled as educators to find a solution for our students to gain access into, and be best prepared for a changing world, we have looked to the realm of curriculum to do so.  This has been true since Plato’s allegory of the cave.

If society would have our students see only the shadows of what is real out there, it is up to us as educators to determine what they need to know and what tools will most assure freedom from the “bondage” of blissful ignorance that is youth, that they may ascend from the cave to see what is “true.”

Then, they may bring it back down, in order to educate the future generations. And so we march on.  Curriculum, to synthesize the best of definitions I have come across, is simply “all that which we adults say is important for the students to know.” That’s it. Isn’t this incredibly similar to how we define culture?

Curriculum is Culture

Curriculum, being that which a school’s educators have deemed important for students to know is not just a sequence of assessed standards for each class, and the activities to complete in order to master these standards.  It is everything.

Many years ago I was a first year teacher in Brooklyn.  I thought that “curriculum” meant something much less complex and layered than I see it now.  I thought curriculum meant that teachers, working independently (or maybe with other members of their department) determined what their students needed to know by the end of the school year. 

Years later, I know it is infinitely more nuanced. Curriculum, being that which a school’s educators have deemed important for students to know is not just a sequence of assessed standards for each class, and the activities to complete in order to master these standards.  It is everything.

Literally everything that teachers and school leaders do in a school emanates from that which we say is important for students to know.  All of it — from how we deal with conflict, to how we structure our learning environments, to whether or not our curriculum is culturally relevant to the content  we are assessing on a midterm — combines to create the school’s curriculum.

In this way, curriculum is culture, in that it is a reflection of what we value for our students to know–and to be able to do–not only to survive this “real world” for which we prepare them, but to change it.

Some might siphon off everything listed above, with the sole exception of the midterm, as “hidden curriculum.”

I would submit that among increasingly savvy youth, with an arguably decreasing need for ‘the core curriculum’ as the key to post-secondary readiness, these other elements are not so hidden at all.  Indeed it is most apparent to students if a school does not value diversity of its staff, nor place adults in power who reflect the demographics of the community within which they teach.

Do as I say, not as I do…

It is apparent to students when a school is teaching them that their voices are inconsequential. Likewise it is crystal clear to students how effectively the adults in their community transform (or actively choose not to transform) conflict.  How we value each other, how we expect them to value one another, is taught in the classroom, and beyond.

If curriculum and culture are more closely aligned than most account for — and this author argues, they are entirely inseparable — what can schools do to foster a stronger culture through deeper analysis of what is taught by the curriculum of their schools?

A student learns a whole lot of the wrong stuff, for example, every time one of the adults in their school says to them anything along the lines of, “It may not seem fair, but it’s policy,” or “I didn’t fail you, you failed yourself,” or “That may be what Mr. X does in his classroom, but you won’t get away with that here.”  The values of the lesson taught in such interactions are layered with gravity.

And then when students re-enact some of these very same values (perhaps in much more adolescent  ways) we punish them, or may have them sit in a circle and listen to one another–something we rarely do ourselves.  Or, we ask our teachers to be more tolerant, and do more to understand the iceberg of trauma which lies beneath the surface of a student’s undesirable behavior. 

We define the problem as one of a broken culture, for which we are trying out yet another solution. And we run the leg of the chair through whatever we have, even if it is a meat grinder, simply because we didn’t buy the lathe.  

If curriculum and culture are more closely aligned than most account for–and this author argues, they are entirely inseparable — what can schools do to foster a stronger culture through deeper analysis of what is taught by the curriculum of their schools?

How to Foster a Stronger Culture Through Curriculum

  • Consider the Positive Youth Development (PYD) Model.  This framework is the most effective approaches to this blended curriculum-culture approach I have encountered. PYD holds consistency at the center of four other elements of successful school design: engaging curriculum, opportunities for student agency, caring and trusting relationships, and clear expectations for all members of the community.  Examine in staff circles where you are hitting the mark on these elements with consistency, and which of these needs to be addressed or fortified. In schools that are not meeting their targets despite having strong, engaging curriculum, and caring and trusting relationships, you often find students feel a sense that their education is foisted upon them, rather than a byproduct of their interest and needs; and adults who do not believe the expectations are clear or consistent for all, especially for all of the adults.
  • Do a few things well, not everything okay.  This sounds obvious, but even so, many schools are initiative minefields, where teachers and staff are constantly asked to change course.  The parallel process of this confusion is that student targets and learning experiences are also dangerously inconsistent. The most effective learning environments I have worked in or visited all identify (with input from all stakeholders!) a small number of  instructional strategies, and culture touchstone practices. They set goals to measure the efficacy of these practices. And then they make sure that all their work serves these goals. They do not get distracted by shifting targets, or trendy new initiatives. If you are going to be a school that perfects the Socratic Method as an instructional tool, and employs conflict circles to develop healthy relationships, don’t spread yourself thin midway through the year, trying to focus on project-based learning.
  • Take Culture/Curriculum walks as a team.  Leadership teams: ask yourselves regularly, When we walk around the school, what is explicit and implicit about what we say is important for students to be able to know and to do?  Is this true to our mission and vision? If not, what do we need to do to change it?  Take culture/curriculum walks together, where you can normalize on what you see.
  • Share what works in your school with other educators from other schools.  After all, we are the best resources for one another.  You can start by sharing your ideas and best practices that your schools employ to ensure that curriculum is culture, in the comments below.

 

At a typical Kiddom school, hands are in the air, there’s a buzz in the room, and teachers and students are energized. Kiddom was designed to help improve teacher retention and increase student performance and graduation rates.

For the first time, the most important parts of teaching and learning are connected and simplified in Kiddom. Curriculum lives in one place and is easily measured and refined, instruction is personalized to meet the needs of each student, and data serves as a powerful system of support for every member of the learning community to keep students on track.

What People Are Saying

“Kiddom is great for assessing data and then assigning appropriate work based on individual student performance. I love that it's very easy to attach standards and rubric to every assignment.”

Jackie Curts, Middle School Teacher

“Using Kiddom has made me stop and ask, ‘Am I just letting this student repeat what they already know, or am I really challenging them?’”

Ann Leghorn, High School Literacy Specialist

“I can see where my class and any student is at any moment in their educational journey. This way, I can take action to assist them to work towards mastery.”

Mr. Albrecht, High School Teacher

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