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.
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.
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.
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