For quite a few years now I’ve sent a letter to everyone the last week of school, trying to express a sincere “thank you” to each and every one of you. I want to do that again today, a little early, but everything else is off schedule so my letter can be too.
A couple of weeks ago when the Governor said we’d be doing distance learning through the end of the school year, a couple of my daughters, both classroom teachers, texted that while they expected this, they were crying a bit. They never got to say goodbye to their kids and that was really sad. I know they aren’t the only ones who felt and still feel that way. Those feelings do you great credit – I honor each of you, whether a teacher or support person, for your love and concern for your students.
Now, a little different from other end of year emails, I want to answer the question everyone keeps asking me – at least give the best answer I can. What will happen in the fall?
Here we go: On the one end of the spectrum, let’s say the Governor declares everything green and we throw open our doors and welcome everyone back. Even in that scenario, I suspect that 10-20% of parents will say, “our kids aren’t coming back yet.” On the other end of the spectrum would be a declaration continuing our current status. I suppose in the middle are models where only half the kids can be in the building at a time – although I think that gets really messy.
So, if we land somewhere on that spectrum, what would we do? We’ve spent quite a bit of time wrestling back and forth with these and I want to share our thinking.
First of all, keep in mind that when a school loses students, teachers leave to different schools. If the district as a whole has fewer students, teacher (and other employee) positions are eliminated. So, no one should say “It’d be great if 10% of the kids left, we’d have smaller classes.” No, class sizes would be the same, schools would have fewer teachers. And I really hope no one is saying this to themselves, but someone might be thinking “I’ve got more seniority than lots of other teachers, I don’t care if someone loses their job, just so long as it’s not me!” Please remember, we are in this FOR the kids, but we are in this WITH each other. So, if 10% or more of our kids are choosing to stay home rather than come to school, I think it would be best to serve those kids through the schools, but in a distance modality.
I need to go off on a quick tangent and tell a story. For almost 20 years I have been teaching a distance course for Utah State University. USU wanted to be on the leading edge of distance education so they got a bunch of us to teach from our desktop computers with (then) cutting edge technology. I would sign on every Thursday afternoon and teach just as though I was in a classroom – with 20-30 students. The students would sign on from wherever they were (one semester I had a student in Finland – he would get up at 2 in the morning – his time – to sign on to the class). About 10 years ago now, USU told me that it was all well and good that students could sign on while I was teaching, but they wanted me to redesign my class so students could take it asynchronously, those who wanted to sign on when I was on could, but they didn’t have to. They wanted me to organize my class into modules that were posted at the beginning of the semester and post all kinds of things way ahead of time. Frankly, I strongly considered just quitting. But I took it on, and the initial lift was heavy, it was a lot of work and I did not enjoy it. Now however, I truly find that I have become a much better teacher, I’m much better organized, kids (my students are graduate students but they are suddenly all younger than I am) do better on assessments – I can clearly see that they are mastering the material more solidly than they were before because I am more focused and deliberate in my instruction.
Ok, tangent over. As we’ve tugged on this problem from lots of angles, here is what makes sense. Let’s presume that we are all back in our regular work locations and teachers are teaching in their classrooms, but not all the students are physically present. The teacher’s lessons for the day are recorded in whole (in part, or not at all), and correlate with materials and instruction that are accessible synchronously or asynchronously for students who are not physically present. This model presents two obvious and great challenges: (1) the initial heavy lifting to plan and organize all the materials and (2) the headache of doing everything twice (once live and once distance).
Our curriculum department is humming away right now to address both concerns. They are currently preparing distance lesson plans with scope, sequence, assessments, suggested timeline and materials for every course and class for the first quarter of next year. While they use our district lesson design template and pacing guides, the lesson plans are not intended to be followed lockstep (even though they strictly follow the core, they are a tool and the commitment is fidelity to the core, not the tool). I would think of them more as an electronic three-ring binder that you can add things to, replace things in, adhere to as closely or as loosely as you are prepared. But they do all initial heavy lifting, and, if teachers choose to have their distance instruction parallel their classroom instruction, both challenges listed above are mitigated (not absolutely resolved, but hopefully significantly mitigated).
For secondary, these lessons (courses actually) would be on Canvas so you could just load them right over. For elementary, lessons would be usable with google classroom (elementary, we may look towards Canvas as the way to deliver distance learning for all Granite students in the future but trying to make that change for the fall would be outrageous). Now, I could see a team or grade level sitting down with their principal and deciding that each teacher would take on two (or however many) kids, or, that one teacher would volunteer to take on all 8 (I’m making that number up!) for a class or subject. You can work out those details best yourselves. I don’t see this ever becoming our main mode of doing business, or ever picking up a significant market share – but it’s something we need to do to get through this current situation.
If there is something that I think this last month and a half has made abundantly clear in everyone’s minds, distance education is not for everyone. In fact, it is the best modality for only a very few. Now, there are some students who are loving it (very few) and some teachers who think it’s great as well – I have had numerous emails from teachers loving the distance format and asking how to transfer to Granite Online to do it full time. While everyone is more aware of distance learning than we were before, I think we also see that it isn’t the medium- or long-term solution to anything. Kids learn best from present, caring adults presenting in meaningful, relevant, and engaging ways. That’s what we do best.
I’m confident I’ve just prompted a million questions. We will shortly send out materials to principals that will hopefully answer lots of these questions. Please expect to hear from those leaders soon.
In sum, I apologize for a long business email to end the year, but I think it would be terrible to send you home in a few weeks wondering what in the world will happen in August. Please know how much I appreciate every one of you and your incredible work and commitment to kids. Again, whether in the classroom doing the work that is the core of our profession, or in the kitchen, or in the halls with a mop, or driving a bus, or mowing the lawn, or any of a hundred other essential functions that keep us going, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thanks for all you do,