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School leaders offer in-depth insight into what they learned--about teachers, students, and their own learning practices--during the COVID-19 pandemic like online learning and student learning.

3 superintendents share their COVID “a-ha!” moments

School leaders offer in-depth insight into what they learned--about teachers, students, and their own learning practices--during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed physical classrooms, schools had mere days to get up and running online. And not only did they have to meet students’ academic needs, they had to meet their social and emotional needs, too.

With a light at the end of the tunnel and plans to open in-person this fall, three superintendents are sharing lightbulb moments, what technology they’re using this fall, and what practices they would leave behind if able.

Hosted by Carl hooker, panelists are Seth Feldman, EDD, JD, superintendent of Bay Area Technology School; Scott M. Borba, superintendent of Le Grand Union Elementary School District; and Janice Pavelonis, incoming superintendent of Carbondale Elementary School District 95.

Carl Hooker: Reflecting on the past school year, what were some a-ha moments that made you realize what did–or didn’t–work really well?

Janice Pavelonis: One of the things that went really well for us was, we spent, right before school started here in Illinois, we had some leeway with the State Department to start a little later and provide more training. So, we provided about two weeks of technology training–it was how to use the products we use anyway, in remote ways, how to record yourself, video, and then edit, and just about everything we could think that our teachers might need for remote teaching and learning. So, that went really well. Our teachers regionally kept talking about how well prepared they felt like they were. And that carried us long-term through the school year.

Seth Feldman: We went back three weeks early … and we readjusted our calendar to go five weeks on, one week off, where we then took all of the data, and whatever teachers and parents and students told us, we [had] a week to fix whatever went wrong. And then, during that week, we had parent conferences. And what was interesting for us, and it’s a big a-ha moment because we’re keeping that, is, we have 400 students, roughly, when we have parent teacher conferences, it’s crickets. But because we had every five weeks to plan for it, we personally invited parents to conferences, and it could be done when and where they wanted… And we went from having roughly 10-ish percent participation in parent conferences to, throughout this year, we’re roughly 50 percent. And giving a break every five weeks to reconnect with parents was a huge shift in our school paradigm.

Scott Borba: One of the things that we really embraced out here was really staying connected to our scholars, something that we’ve prided ourselves on, being a small rural school district, we know our kids. We’re personally connected to them. And the pandemic really presented a difficult challenge of staying connected with our kids. And so, as schools closed in March, that early spring, that was the main topic of conversation going into the end of that school year was, “How do we stay connected with our scholars?” And so, it was all about that personal one on one contact, calling kids, visiting kids, following up with parents, and making sure that we were staying connected for their most social emotional well-being, for that relationship ease that we value so much. And we carry that into this school year, was that connectivity. Making sure that we had personal connections with all of our scholars. And anytime somebody fell off the radar, we followed up from the office to make sure that we were reaching out, “Hey, is everything okay? What can we do to get you connected? Is it a Wi-Fi issue? Is that the time issue?” Whatever it might be, whatever the barrier was. So, really, it was connectivity, relationships, keeping that going, that’s going to maintain. That was here before, and it’s going to stay after.

Carl Hooker: What are some things you’re doing to support your teachers after this year?

Seth Feldman: I think one of the things that we’ve learned is that school needs to be done differently. So, what we’re doing to support our teachers, and we did three things right this summer to support our teachers. One, we canceled professional development where we’re the guy with a briefcase and 50 miles away comes in as an expert on a topic that we’ve decided that they were going to be an expert in. And we said, “Hey, what do you want? Seriously, what do you want? What is it that you all want to do?” And I was surprised, about 50 percent of our staff picked their own topic for PD, and they’re going to go become better at that area of what’s interesting to [them]. Because what we know is that, we have to differentiate for our students, but yet we don’t differentiate for our adults.

The second thing that I think is interesting for us is that we’re offering paid prep in groups. So, during the middle of all this pandemic, we decided to implement a brand-new school-wide, six through 12, English language curriculum that’s also online. And we’re rolling that out in August. .. And teachers, not just English teachers, but the science teacher, the math teacher, they’re all going to attend the English language learner and the English language development PD together as a group.

And the third thing that we’ve done is, when we went online, in March of 2020, we went down on a Friday, we went up on a Monday. If you didn’t show up, you got a phone call. But what we learned was, we went to really super small classes for this past year. I mean, small classes of five kids, eight kids. There was no class in the middle school that was larger than 20 students. And we decided that this year, to help teachers, we’re going to actually keep that model.

Scott Borba: Professional development being differentiated has been a goal that we’ve had here for a while, as we bring teachers back this coming fall. We’re going to offer a conference style PD format. So, we’re going to have presenters with breakout sessions for the teachers to have voice and choice in which sessions they want to attend, all relevant to our goals and our mission of the school. Some teachers that are more proficient in some areas than others; they might not want to sit through a training that doesn’t pertain to them. So, they’re going to have the option to stretch themselves in an area that might pertain to them.

One of the things that was interesting about the pandemic was, prior to the pandemic, we were looking at Dr. Puentedura’s technology integration model at SAMR, “How can I get my teachers to go up this ladder?” Then, the pandemic hits [and] just right up the ladder they went. And so, whether they wanted to or not. And so, [we’re] really looking at, “Okay, how can I support them now?” As opposed to, how can I push them up the ladder, it turned into a–they’re modifying and redefining their instruction for student achievement. And now, what can we do to engage them in more learning so that they can then in turn engage students?

Janice Pavelonis: One of the most important things that we’ve done is simplify the initiatives. We focused on building systems. One of those systems is definitely the most important thing we’ve done, which is create a culture of data use. And so, everything has been focused on, how do we use the data that we have access to? And how do we do that well? And how do we train people all the way up to be able to do it? Just like Scott mentioned, I definitely agree, our teachers have just gone right up that ladder with technology skills. And I often say, we fast-forwarded 10 years of what we can possibly train people and giving them technology tools and experience, and children too.

One of the biggest things that we’re doing to carry that on is to, we’re buying more technology, having a classroom setup, that again, it was something on our plan five years down the road, we’re doing it now because we want to keep those skills up. But for our teachers, mostly going into this year, and I think Seth alluded to this too, we’re looking at a bit of a rest from new PD, new initiatives, because in a turnaround environment, we obviously had plans and work that would have come this year.

So, with the pandemic, what we’re looking to do is reinvest in the systems we’ve built prior to the pandemic, and make sure that the training we offer are just reinvesting in those things. So, it’s not brand-new to our teachers that have been here. But it reminds our folks, “This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re about.” And these are the things that have led us to early improvement in all student groups in our district.

Carl Hooker: What was one tech tool that helped during distance learning that you plan to keep using this fall, in terms of something you feel like your teachers really use and utilize well?

Janice Pavelonis: I can’t really narrow it down to one. I’ll tell you about three.

We have pre-K through eighth grade students in our district, about 1,500 kids. And so, in our primary grades, one tool called Seesaw was something that allowed our teachers to be able to interact with students individually in group settings, the video portfolios that it allows our kids and parents to view. It really engaged kids and families in a way that was brand new for our district.

Screencastify. We saw teachers collaborating. They would tag team different areas, like our second and third grade teachers. We have eight teachers in the grade, and they would say, “Hey, I’ll take on Haggerty lessons.” And so, they were teaching phonemic awareness lessons on video, recording them, then setting them up for parents and families to watch at their leisure, and rewatch, right?

And then, last, I think our older students, a product is called Kami, a lot of people know about. It was something that quickly helped us be able to integrate documents into workable things that students could upload in Google.

Scott Borba: ST Math has been phenomenal because it’s a conceptual math program that students think they’re playing a game, but they’re actually learning math. I’ve been a proponent of MIND Institute at ST Math for a number of years. Incredible science coming out of that group and really benefit students.

Acellus was our overall online platform that we initially brought on before the pandemic to introduce coding to all third through eighth grade students. But then quickly, [it] turned into, “Wow, this is a great program for language arts, support for history, for science, for math, for all kinds of things that was a self-driven online support supplemental program for our students’ engagement. And so, teachers were able to look at those reports and then engage the students where they were during the small groups.

Seth Feldman: I think if we bifurcate it between student engagement and curriculum, there are some tools in each of them. [For] student engagement, we used Flippity. It’s free. It’s an engagement program for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. And it’s really quick and easy to do. We use something called Swivl, which was an interesting model for us because our students were at home. And I would say roughly 70 percent of our teachers insisted on teaching from their classroom. So, this Swivl technology was like everyone was right there, which was fascinating for us.

From a curriculum standpoint, we took to heart what was going on in our classrooms, and I really liked this five weeks on, one week off, five weeks on, one week off. And then, the first five weeks on, we’re like, “Something is horribly wrong,” because our students are showing up in class and not handing anything in. And I started logging and looking, “Well, where are they online?” So, I started looking at our Edmentum and our iReady. But then, due to what’s going on in [a student’s] house, there’s babysitting, there’s cooking them dinner, there’s whatever is going on, and they sit down at 10:00, and they go, “I don’t know how to do math. Well, I’m just not going to do it.” So, we bought something that turned out to be unbelievably powerful. It’s called Yup. And Yup is a 24 hour a day, seven days a week on-demand math tutoring. And what we noticed with the app was it was dominated by girls. So, the boys would take over the math classes. And I went into several math classes and just started taking notes, “The boys talk so much, and the girls sit there.” And then, we went to Yup, and we’re like, “Oh, wait a second. It’s the girls that are using Yup.” And so, I started asking some of them, “Why don’t you talk in math class?” “Well, I had a whole potpourri of answers, but the answers usually can be summed up in ‘boys.'” So, we plan on keeping Yup 24 hours, seven days a week on-demand math tutoring as a staple of what we do.

Our Edmentum program allowed us to expand dramatically our AP offerings, which was something we couldn’t do in a school district our size. So, the kids did their AP classes by themselves. But then, we hired tutors, five hours a week of tutoring package, for them to meet up with their tutors as a study group. And that really worked well for them.

We use a program called Lexplore. And I think Lexplore changed the face of our literacy instruction. And that was done, even though we were online, I think it’s something that we need to dig in a little bit deeper on at some point.

Carl Hooker: We talked about things we want to take going forward. What’s something we should leave behind? Is there something, a tool or a strategy, or a thought, or belief, or something that we should try to leave behind in education?

Seth Feldman: The state standardized tests are useless. They are essentially eulogy data. And so, at the end of the year, you get together, you spend, in our case, four weeks out of 40. So, 10 percent of our school year is spent on state testing. And then, we get the data back when the kids are home in the summer. And it’s like a eulogy on what happened during the school year. And so, this year, we went to what we called live or forward-looking data. So, we would test our kids with i-Ready three times a year and Lexplore once a month, and see where they were, and make adjustments on the fly to their learning, and make adjustments even to their class schedule, and make adjustments to what we thought kids could be pushed.

I also think the other thing that I would like to leave behind if we could, is what I call compliance-based homework grading. We went a whole year with no homework and nobody died. Can you believe it? And so, I think that most homework is done by compliance. You did it, you get a check mark. You didn’t do it, you got a frowny face and an F. And I think the thing that needs to be left behind is homework, that it’s compliance-based.

Scott Borba: I would add–this will probably be highly unpopular because it would be a cultural shift–but that would be whole class instruction. I think we should leave behind the idea that a teacher is the sage on the stage trying to get a classroom full of scholars to learn the same thing. If COVID has taught us anything, it has highlighted the discrepancies between our students to where we need to give individualized attention and instruction based on their specific needs. And there are a number of ways that we can do that now because of how powerful technology has become in the classroom. And so, again, you’re talking about a mindset shift. You’re talking about, this is the way I learned, and it’s the way it’s always been done. But I think it’s time to start having a conversation about, how can we move beyond whole class instruction?

Janice Pavelonis: So, before Seth spoke, I was going to say, ineffective grading practice, just in general. Of course, homework is a part of that. I think what this year taught us in our district is, man, we’ve got a lot of work to do around just overall grading practices and how we inform ourselves as to what kids know and don’t know. And piggybacking on what Seth mentioned as well, we use Renaissance products for STAR Early Literacy, STAR Reading, STAR Math. And it really is the core of the information that we gather, collect, and plan instruction.

Carl Hooker: What did you learn from your students during the pandemic? And how did that learning change your practice as a leader?

Janice Pavelonis: I would say that our students are resilient. We know that. We remember that. It’s part of who we are. But at the end of the day, they can step all the way up and focus deeply like we need them to.

Scott Borba: The flexibility of young children just blew me away, how they were able to pivot, which I know that’s a bad word nowadays. But they were able to pivot anytime you asked them to, and they did it with a smile on their face. And I need to take a page out of that book.

Seth Feldman: I think for us, it was 10th, 11th, and 12th graders that our students are still kids. And that regardless of all of their facial hair and their deep voices, and whatever comes along their way, they’re still kids. And they still respond to things like trinkets and toys, and gold stars. And so, we actually need to give them more trinkets and gold stars, and kid-like behaviors. And that was a real a-ha moment for us. The 12th graders are still kids.

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