Announcer:

This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson:

What did you learn from teaching remotely this spring? And what will you bring back in the fall to whatever school looks like then? I'm Kevin Carlson and this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Patty McGee:

We as educators are very good at trying to be perfect. But this is a new landscape of a classroom that we just haven't navigated before, the majority of educators, and to be patient with ourselves.

Kevin Carlson:

That is Patty McGee. Those of you familiar with this podcast already know Patty. She is a New Jersey-based educator and author, a Milken Educator Award winner, and a regular presenter at ILA, NCTE, ASCD, Learning Forward, and other national conferences. This spring, Patty taught daily lessons for nine weeks on the Benchmark Distance Learning - Literacy Block Facebook group. And recently I talked with her about that experience and how it changed her teaching. We started off talking about what we wanted the Literacy Block to be.

Patty McGee:

We wanted to have something for students, for caregivers, and for educators that they could rely on day after day at certain times where there would be just some way to connect around reading, writing, words and also support continued literacy learning. And there were a couple of things about that that felt really good. One was to create a space where teaching was happening every day. We knew that we wanted it to be at a time that was suitable for everyone around the country. And we also knew that we wanted to keep it simple enough that when you were joining, you didn't have to come with any other readiness. You were just going to learn something one day about reading, one day about writing, and alternate that. And that's what the space became, evolved, definitely. I think I was very robotic at the beginning, and now I'm much more used to talking to nobody or myself. But I think that its become something I'm really proud of, that we have had this space and so many have come together around it during this time.

Kevin Carlson:

What are some things that have surprised you about it?

Patty McGee:

Well, one of the biggest surprises has been the outpouring from the students that have been part of this over these weeks. We have some kids that have been with us straight from the beginning and the different things that they've sent along from their writing pieces to their videos to notes from parents and notes from teachers about how much this has meaning to them and how much they've grown to love it and count on it. And so that was delightful for me. That's what I was hoping would happen. But also, you just never know when you put something like that together, just what it would turn out to be. So it was surprising in a really good way.

Kevin Carlson:

What were some of the challenges?

Patty McGee:

Okay, well, the first big challenge for me was navigating the tech. The tech itself was not reliable. And, you know, I'm an educator now for 25 years and I have been part of, like, the technology evolution in the classroom. When I started teaching, there wasn't even email yet. And now because I had that experience of 'you can never rely on tech ever', you always had to have a backup. So when it didn't go right, we just went with the flow and shifted course and started again and just didn't let that stop us because there were a lot of hiccups with it. And we just worked through them, got creative with it. So that was one of the biggest challenges. Honestly, the other challenge was talking to a screen where I only saw me and trying to keep it warm and engaging as if there was somebody responding on the other end. And so that took a little while to get used to. And I think it found its groove by the end. It found kind of a rhythm by the end and I definitely learned a lot from it.

Kevin Carlson:

So let's talk more about those two things separately. So first, with the technology, as you were learning the technology and figuring out how to get more comfortable with that, did that affect your expectations of yourself as a teacher? How did you adjust your thinking about what this was going to be based on what you felt comfortable doing?

Patty McGee:

Yes, and one of the things that I wanted to do when it came to tech was actually keep it kind of low tech. I mean, even though the lessons were reliant upon having the Facebook connection, right, everything else I wanted to keep concrete, like, I had either a whiteboard or a chalkboard. I had my notebook. I had Post-Its where I wrote strategies. So, I tried to keep the tech to a minimum, so I didn't have too many tech hurdles to jump over. It was really one type of tech to navigate, and it was unexpected, I mean, even through, like, week six and seven. But to keep tech to just like one platform was very helpful.

Kevin Carlson:

For teachers in the classroom, is that typically an option for them or... Do you know?

Patty McGee:

I hope it is. One of the things that I feel some concern about for teachers and I saw a parody on this the other day, a video of a parrot pretending to be a teacher who was showing all the passwords to get into the multiple tech platforms that kids need to use. And my hope is that they're out there as support, but not requirements, that when the teacher and the students at distance learning have some trial and error, and try and get whatever they can up and going, that the tech part is not standing in their way because there's so many different options to be using. So it's my hope that those options are possibilities and that the teacher can be the one to choose which one is the best for their own setting.

And I'm also concerned about the places that don't have the technology available to them. I think that's a matter of equity right now, and I think that there are people who are moving mountains to make it happen. And therefore, you know, if and when these things do get into the hands of kids, we want to be able to make sure it's easy enough for everyone to use, and I think that is limiting how much we use.

Kevin Carlson:

After the break, Patty talks about getting used to teaching in an empty room and still connecting with students.

Announcer:

Looking for more information about distance learning? Benchmark Education has created resources to support teachers, students, and their families. All developed specifically with remote teaching and learning in mind. Learn more at benchmarkeducation.com

Kevin Carlson:

You also mentioned getting used to talking to a computer screen with nobody else in the room. Talk a little bit about how do you do that? What advice can you offer other teachers? How you communicate very clearly in your lessons, but you also communicate with real warmth to students. So talk about those two things. How do you do that? What would you suggest to other teachers try?

Patty McGee:

Well, I would first suggest that teachers just do it without putting a lot of expectation on themselves. We as educators are very good at trying to be perfect right off the bat. And sometimes being perfect stops us from just being good or decent at something or just giving it a whirl. I know that my daughter's teacher, my daughter's in high school, and one of my daughter's teachers was not comfortable with tech, told the kids, recorded her lessons, and there were some hiccups. But in the end, they got it all worked out. So I would recommend just not being too hard on yourself and simply just getting started with one thing and trying to make that work and whether that is talking to just, you know, on a video where you're recording yourself and then playing it back or asking others, like, how did that go? What else could I do? What else could I include? And just thinking of it as, like, an evolution. This is a new landscape of a classroom that we just haven't navigated before, the majority of educators, and to be patient with ourselves and allow the chance to, 'Yes, we're talking to ourselves sometimes', but we can also imagine that we can get more and more comfortable with that as time goes on. So I think that's the biggest part.

And then there's also something where, I guess, just taking a deep breath and slowing down. My father is an incredible and has been an incredible public speaker and he used to coach me all the time on different ways of talking to a crowd. And he would always say to me, 'Patty, just slow down.' And I think that when I first started with the video, I was kind of, like, so, you know, concerned about what it was going to sound like and and was the tech going to work that I think I robotically moved through it, which is fine. It's, you know, it's a way to start. But what happened eventually was that I would just take a deep breath and I would slow down. And I think that was also some feedback that I got from you and Wendy and other collaborators on the Lit Block was, you know, just hold the book for a second. Just pause with the strategy for a moment. Just bring it into the camera for a second. So just, like, taking a deep breath and slowing down, when I knew I wasn't seeing the people that I was talking to was really helpful. And one more thing that was really helpful, too, was once I started to get some of the responses from students in my hands, whether it was through the comments or through videos or through writing samples or anything like that, I would draw upon that in the live lesson. So it just made it feel like there was an audience there because I had something authentic to refer to. So that really helped me make it feel like, at least to me, almost like synthetically, connecting with kids that maybe watching live or later, but just naming out students and their work and their words helped me feel much more connected.

Kevin Carlson:

So your experience was different than, you know, your teacher colleagues who have 30 kids in the room who they are teaching, you know, and they know who those kids are. And, you know, maybe they can see them on the screen even. Would you do anything different if you were in that situation?

Patty McGee:

Yeah. So I would imagine what I would do. But of course, I would try it and work out the kinks. But what I would imagine I would do is in some way connecting, if possible, once a day or a couple times a week. I'm thinking really of self-contained classrooms right now where we would just connect and not necessarily talk about anything, you know, teaching academic. We would just connect with one another and talk. And that kind of virtual space is a substitute for the type of, say, morning meeting we would have had in the classroom. And then I'd try and be really creative about the different things that I would be doing. Like maybe some small group set up where we would have ten to fifteen minutes with just a small part of the class. The record feature in so many of these platforms is really helpful because we can always share for those who weren't able to be a part of it. But I would definitely keep whatever connection I'd have brief because, you know, as we look at how long our grown up or kids attention span is in terms of listening and even talking with one another on technology, or face to face, we know how long that is. But then, like, over technology, with all the other things that are going on around us at the same time, I really found that brevity is very helpful for making these connections more meaningful.

The other thing that I would recommend for teachers is that when we're thinking about what we want to teach, I think we want to set just bottom line goals for what we're looking for from students and expect that each student is going to do it in their own way, which means that sometimes they won't. And to expect that and sometimes they will go over the top. So a bottom line goal to me is like we're going to write. And when we write, here's one thing you can try, but we're all going to write. And the act of writing and then getting feedback on that writing once the teacher's able to look at it, whatever that might be, that's our bottom line. We don't need to really get much more specific than that in terms of our expectations, because we're so far away physically from students, so we want to have a broad enough goal that we can support students with reaching that goal. But something also supportive, like a strategy, a quick step by step of what students might try in order to reach that goal. So just really keeping it streamlined and simple and goal-centered. I found that's very helpful too.

Kevin Carlson:

Keeping your lessons streamlined, simple, and goal-centered has another benefit as well. Patty talks about that after the break.

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Kevin Carlson:

And would that help teachers with their assessment as well?

Patty McGee:

Yes, I definitely think it will help teachers with assessment, especially when they're thinking about the overall goal. And if the overall goal is to read or read a book with characters in it, then they can see where students are in terms of that particular goal, reading characters in it. And so that kind of formative assessment, which, yes, is trickier to happen when we are separate from each other but, it can still happen as long as the goal is one that's flexible enough and supportive enough. But, you know, you bring up the topic of assessment, and I just want to say that I don't think it's realistic at this time for us to be able to use our traditional assessments with students. We have been experiencing and living through a time that we weren't even able to imagine. And the first thing that went at the state level were state assessments once schools closed down. And so I think we need to be really careful about how we use assessment with students at this time. It can feel really punitive, and that's just one more layer on top of a big, big shift in how we've been living. And I think we need to prioritize what we're going to say is important in assessment and be really thoughtful about that.

Kevin Carlson:

You have talked about teachers taking care of themselves a bit and kind of slowing down and being mindful of how they're teaching. Talk about some other ways that teachers can help take care of themselves.

Patty McGee:

Absolutely. I have certainly been talking about that. And perhaps it's also because it's something that I've been trying to work on a lot is, you know, self-care right now is something that isn't an option for people if we're going to be able to give what we need to give to others. And so, self-care looks different for different people. So I think we all need to identify what that is. Personally, I know this is going to sound totally nerdy, but, like, personally learning more about education is self-care for me because I'm just so curious always about the next thing that I want to learn. But for some, it's just stepping away from all of this for a while and making sure that they are doing those things that fill them up, whatever that might be. Whether that is stepping away once we've finished with this year, stepping away and making sure that there's time for a walk every day or there's time to connect with people you love every day, or there is a time where you're going to journal every day, but building in the space for self-care. And teachers on the whole are almost sacrificial in how they give to others, and there will only be so much to give, especially when they've navigated a time that none of us were ready for. So I just want to say it's not really a one size fits all. It's just me imploring educators to almost, if it helps, forget what your profession is in the first place and follow a passion and fill up on that to be ready to come back for what we still can't imagine.

Kevin Carlson:

How do you say goodbye to your students this year? We'll find out what Patty thinks after the break.

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Kevin Carlson:

So the end of the school year is always a tricky time. It's always an emotional time and the end of the school year, this year, was not like any other time before or the end of any other school year. Can you talk a little bit about saying goodbye to your students? What advice would you give to teachers about how do you say goodbye to your students this year?

Patty McGee:

So, this actually, I guess the only thing I can relate to this and many of the educators that will be listening to this weren't even born yet, I think. They were so young. Yeah, they're probably born yet, but they were so young. Perhaps they don't have a recollection of this. But I was a classroom teacher on 9/11, and a classroom teacher right across the river from where the attacks happened and it was a year of incredible fear, unknowing. But our classroom space was the place where we came and we just locked arms with one another and supported one another and just continued day by day to navigate the unknown. And what I did that year, which felt different than other years, I always ended with some type of letter to the students and parents at the end, but that year was a different type of letter. That was a letter of profound gratitude for not only everything that everyone there did to make it through a time that was so confusing, but also the fact that I felt buoyed up by everyone showing up every day, right. We had our challenges. There were a lot of hard parts.

So the reason I'm bringing that up, Kevin, is because, like, that type of heartfelt message, yes, the academics are important, but the fact that we made it, and there are many people who are dealing with just absolute tragedy right now. And we're still here. And so I imagine a way, whether through a video message or through old school letter writing or through a letter sent over email or whatever it might be, but some type of heartfelt, authentic message from us as educators just reminding us that we made it.

Kevin Carlson:

Thank you, Patty, for sharing your insights on distance learning. And thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. If you are interested in the Benchmark Distance Learning Literacy Block Facebook group, it is a public group and we would love to have you. Just search “Benchmark Distance Learning - Literacy Block” on Facebook and you will find it.

Coming up on the Teachers Talk Shop podcast, Dyslexia. Dr. Jan Hasbrouck will join us for two episodes to talk about her new book, "Conquering Dyslexia: A Guide to Early Detection and Intervention for Teachers and Families".

Dr. Jan Hasbrouck:

We chose the word "conquering" dyslexia because with that notion of early identification and powerful intervention alongside all the social emotional support for these children, we can in most cases really prevent the manifestations of dyslexia.

Kevin Carlson:

That's next time on Teachers Talk Shop. I'm Kevin Carlson. Thanks for listening.