Are They Ready?

I have been fortunate to teach a class at a local university for preservice teachers for the last few semesters. The course is designed to help secondary educators learn strategies to include students with special needs in regular education classes. As a leader who spent many years as a special educator and as the proud parent of two children with special needs, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a semester with these amazing students helping them to understand areas of disability and how a disability can impact learning and self-esteem. We learned how to read Individualized Education Plans and the importance of using Universal Design for Learning in writing lesson plans for all learners. I also discovered pretty early in my first semester that the course needed to have a much broader focus.  

I tried to model how to build relationship-driven, learner-focused classrooms with every session and online discussion. We opened and closed our face-to-face meetings with a community-building circle. We moved from easy, getting to know you questions to much more challenging ones about ourselves and our purpose. We learned a lot about one another quickly and used it to push real conversations about how to create classrooms that are authentic communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We also talked about our obligation to close opportunity gaps, the need to recognize implicit bias and confront it, our commitment to understanding historical marginalization so that we can know more and do better, and how to hold all learners to the highest standards with the right scaffolds to empower them to drive their own learning.

We spent time each semester discussing the increase in mental health needs across our country and how to find ways to support learners who struggle with anxiety and depression in our schools. We also discussed how essential self-care is for all educators. This was especially important for the students as it was the first time for many of them that they had thought about having an intentional plan to take care of themselves. Teachers have challenging jobs that include many expectations and ask a lot of us as professionals and people. Having the right support network of people who build us up, making sure to celebrate the incredible successes our learners can have to hold on to in tough moments, and learning strategies to take time for ourselves physically and mentally needed to be a part of our class.  

The most important topic we discussed is why empathy and not sympathy should be the driving force in our interactions with others. Empathy is the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences, which you cannot do unless you listen to learners and ensure everyone in the community has a voice that is heard. I am not sure who said it, but I love the quote, “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is being invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table.” One of our assignments was to do empathy interviews with students and report the results to our class. They asked their students to tell them a time they felt successful in school, tell about a time when school was hard and what the student did to resolve it, and what was one thing they wanted their teachers to know about them. One of my students came to class after we had done the interviews very upset. He shared his frustration that he had not done the empathy interviews with students earlier in the semester. In his final reflection, he wrote, “I was reading through my student responses. I felt that I had built great relationships with my students. I knew them. But their responses to those interviews helped me understand my students on a completely different level. That was when I realized how important that emotional side is. I also started the evolution of my relationship building with students with IEP during this time too.”  

Using our empathetic lens, we talked about engaging families and always assuming positive intent when working with parents who are frustrated and advocate for their child. We learned how challenging it can be to be the parent of a child who is a divergent thinker, who has experienced trauma, who is in foster care, or who is not challenged enough academically at school. We worked on communication strategies, alternative ideas to empower families, and ways to be sure they are genuinely included in the decisions regarding the development of a student’s Individualized Education Program. We want our families to know they also have a voice that will be heard at the table and belong to our community as well. 

For our final exam, the students were able to choose any topic that meant something during the semester and create a product that represented what they had learned. What they created was impressive. They made wood carvings, video tutorials, Jenga games, erasure poems, lego reenactments of scenes from school, a poetry book, a t-shirt line, cupcakes with all different centers, pottery displays, a series of movie memes, and many more. As much as I enjoyed the products, it was their reflections that meant the most to me. They were thoughtful, and each shared a shift of practice they made towards creating communities of learners who are inspired to create through projects and whose voice is heard and respected because they feel a real sense of belonging. In his final reflection, another student shared, “ It (the class) will, I hope, have made me a more empathetic, patient and considerate teacher; someone who has more of an understanding that it isn’t “my” classroom, it belongs just as much to my students and they need to have a say in it to feel that they belong there; and someone who strives to take these lessons and continue to add to them, and learn as much as I can from those around me.”  

It is imperative now, more than ever, to be empathetic, to celebrate the voices of our students who are ready to share theirs and to help others find that sense of belonging that gives them the confidence to find their voice. When I think about the university students I have encountered in the last several semesters, I believe they are ready to create empowering communities that ensure every learner will have a voice that is heard at the table, and I could not be more proud of them. 

Beauty in the Chaos

“Hunting, gathering, growing, fishing, processing, and cooking are all time consuming, labor intensive, and, at times, enormously frustrating.  It would be a hell of a lot easier to just toss something in the microwave, sit on the couch, and flip on the TV.  Add young children into the mix and I assure you there will be times when parental forehead veins bulge and blood pressure soars.  What always amazes me, though, are the small unexpected moments of grace and beauty that arise from the chaos.”  I just finished a great book called Closer to the Ground by Dylan Tomine.  He is a freelance author who decided to try and simplify his life and live off the land wherever possible while still participating in many of the functions of the modern world, like access to technology and attending public school.  The author and his family end up building a large community of friends and neighbors to share ideas, expertise, resources, and experiences together.

I started reading it as a distraction from daily life as I love to read and don’t get to read as many books that are just for fun as I used to.  It ended up having a lot of parallels to how I am feeling as a parent during this time and made me think about the parents we serve throughout our school district.  With activities and events canceled, many of us have taken time to slow down, eat at the dinner table, and spend more time with family.  We are each doing activities with our children that we may not normally do like gardening, cooking, home repair projects, games, family hikes, and crafts.  The beauty and grace that arrives from the chaos of trying new things together and spending time with each other have been incredible to experience with my own family and to get to watch on social media as my friends and our families do the same.  

Each week, during our leadership meetings, I ask our leaders to share bright spots, examples of things that are going well for our schools. Many of our school leaders have been excited to share a significant increase in family engagement.  We have been working on ways to increase family engagement for the last several years and have seen some growth, but still have a lot of room to grow.  We want our families to feel a true partnership with school, which takes a lot of communication from both sides on how we can work together to provide the right support to help every learner be ready to live life on their own terms when they graduate. Suddenly, we are hearing from families more frequently and getting a lot more two way communication. Families are sharing resources and ideas with one another and with us in all new ways.

There is an obvious answer to why we are seeing an increase in family engagement- that our families need us differently right now.  They need us to share what we do each day with far more specifics than usual, but even more importantly, they need to know why we do what we do.  We typically report a lot of the logistics about what happens in school.  We tell parents when events are occurring, when things are due, when their child misses an assignment, and then report a grade or an assessment of progress.  Now, we are having more regular contact with families that is focused on our why.  We are making our thinking about why we do one kind of writing before another, why specific steps of a process need to be completed before moving on to the next one, why we teach numeracy before we go into operations, why we use a particular platform and why we do it for a certain number of minutes each week much more visible to our families as they are trying to do school with their children at home. 

We have become far more open about who we are as people as well. Families are seeing our teachers in their homes during online meetings and learning a lot about each other that we do not usually share.  Our teachers’ own children are wandering into online class meetings at times.  Teachers are having lunch meetings with their students, and siblings and varied other relatives are joining in.  Both the teachers’ and the learners’ pets are a regular part of the instructional day in many cases.  Our staff are sharing so much more about their lives and families are doing the same, which is helping to connect our families to our staff and create a new sense of community.  

Families are also giving us a lot of feedback on what is working well and what they need from us.  We have families contacting teachers, principals, and our district office to tell us when they are overwhelmed and when they need help.  We are very proud that we have created an environment where families and students feel okay reaching out and ask for help knowing that we will do our best to support them.  We have also had many families reaching out to us since the day school buildings closed to thank our staff for everything they have done.  We have received a lot of positive feedback on the quick response of teachers and the lengths our staff are going to provide whatever assistance they can to learners and families.  We usually receive some positive feedback throughout the year, but the volume of it during this time has been amazing and is so appreciated.  We know how hard our staff is working and are grateful that not only do families notice, but they are taking the time to reach out and share the positives.  

We recently shifted to a project-based approach to learning, which has been an enormous help in re-engaging some of our learners who were disconnected, provided some relief to those who are overwhelmed, and has given all our learners a chance to practice deep levels of problem-solving, collaboration, and communication through a topic of their interest.  We have had some parents concerned about the shift and worried that their students might get behind academically.  Principals, teachers, and our district team have responded to their questions and concerns with emails and phone calls wherein we make the intent of the shift more transparent and explain the thinking behind the plan.  We are taking the time to give our families a greater understanding of our why and giving them a better opportunity to share in the process of learning.  

We have also heard some negative feedback, which is never easy to hear, but has allowed us to shift what we are doing again to make sure we are responding to all needs.  Some families needed us to continue providing extension activities and daily lessons as they are offering some consistency and opportunity for learners to extend their content knowledge.  However, we also needed to stop making so many assignments required to adjust for those who were overwhelmed.  The feedback whether it is positive, negative, or asking for help has all been appreciated as it helps us to know how to meet the needs of everyone, which are even more varied now than ever and harder for us to gauge without seeing our learners face to face every day. 

This is all so new and different, and we are all a little scared.  We are scared that this time will create academic gaps, scared that the lack of social interaction is creating mental health issues, scared that our children may get physically ill, scared about the impact of all of this on the economy, and scared of the unknowns as we start to plan for school looking different in the fall.  People react to being scared in all kinds of ways, but we can take that as an opportunity to understand one another better and embrace the value of our new partnerships with families around the learning process that we can carry forward as we continue to work together. It is a huge positive that has come out of all of this that we need to figure out how to continue to build on in our new normal, and it is another way that our new normal can be better by sharing the “unexpected moments of grace and beauty that arise from the chaos.”  Our newfound partnerships and shared understanding with many of our families are certainly a beautiful moment within this chaos.