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A data and assessment specialist weighs in on some of the biggest challenges and lessons gleaned from online learning and COVID-19

Staying Connected During COVID-19 [Teacher Spotlight]: Missy Butki

A data and assessment specialist weighs in on some of the biggest challenges and lessons gleaned from online learning and COVID-19

In partnership with eSchool News, Illuminate Education is spotlighting teachers in a series recognizing educators, the way they have moved instruction online during COVID-19, and how they have prioritized the needs of their students.

Missy Butki
Data and Assessment Specialist
Lake Orion Community Schools

“Don’t be afraid to still assess your students. Whether it be formatively on content, or informally around perceptions and feelings.”

What made you want to become an educator and what makes you so passionate about the work that you do?

I am in my 23rd year of education. It actually wasn’t my first choice, but I worked at a summer camp one summer and had the opportunity to work with fifth graders. It completely changed my mind. Whether I’m teaching children or teaching adults, I just love teaching. It’s that idea of someone coming in not knowing something and then leave knowing something new—I just really love that.

Related content: How a middle school teacher tackles online learning

Can you explain your role and what a typical day looked like for you before the school closures?

I am in charge of all assessment and data in the district, whether it’s local assessments, state assessments, or benchmark assessments. I manage the assessment time frames, the data that goes into Illuminate DnA, as well as how we look at that information and what we do with it. So on any day, I could be with the admin talking about their building results, with teachers talking about classroom results, or with the central office talking about district results. I kind of run the gamut in terms of all data and assessment purposes.

How did your district transition to remote learning?

The first two weeks we were focused on not really doing anything. We were keeping everything very minimal. If teachers wanted to contact their students they could, but no one was assigning work. We honestly thought this may be over after two weeks, so we just used those weeks as downtime. Once those two weeks were up, and we knew we would need to start increasing contact with students, we first had to get students devices to use. That was issue number one. Not all of our families had devices and not all of our families had internet. Issue number two was we needed to feed our kids. We have many students who have free and reduced lunch status, so our priority was feeding them. Once those needs were met, we were able to turn our attention to learning.

After two more weeks, we knew we needed to ramp things up. Our older students were starting using Microsoft Teams and the younger students were going to be using Zoom. We still had a slow approach though—we would bring one thing on, do that for a couple of weeks, and then bring another thing on.

What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve seen with remote learning?

Getting students engaged is definitely a struggle. We are seeing a little less than 50% of our students are actually getting on and engaging in learning or in the learning plan. We’ve tried several things to increase activity but in the end, we don’t really know all the situations they are going through. Some students may be taking care of younger siblings or they may not be able to access a device at the time class is happening. So it’s been a real challenge.

How are you currently using Illuminate DnA to support engagement and well-being with remote learners?

So actually, I just successfully ran a “test out.” A test out is for kids who don’t want to take a required course in their sequence—they’re allowed to sign up to test out of that course. We had about 150 students in a dozen different courses who had signed up to take the test before schools closed. I put all of their assessments online in Illuminate DnA, created codes, got all the communications going, and I only had one phone call where there was an issue and I resolved that very quickly. So we are remotely using DnA to assess, and then I put together a professional development on how to elicit feedback to the kids during this remote learning.

A stance that I stand by is a quote by Ken O’Connor which says, “You can learn without grades, but not without feedback.” Typically kids are motivated by those letter grades that they receive. Those letter grades sometimes give teachers feedback, or students feedback, depending on what it is. But when the schools closed, we were told that grades were frozen. We can’t penalize kids who didn’t have devices or kids who can’t get on during a Zoom meeting because they are taking care of their younger siblings.

But really what the students want is feedback. Students want to know if they “get it” and if they understand the content. So I helped teachers create a short formative questionnaire using DnA’s Flexible Assessment tool. It didn’t even have to be content-related—it could have just been asking students how they were feeling, or a good thing that happened today, or something they are struggling with. That way the teachers can have that personal feedback. Asking specific questions using a Flexible Assessment allows teachers to have that remote connection with their students— then respond to them with an actionable, personal feedback—has shown increased student engagement.

Though I don’t see the data the teachers are getting back, I had suggested to them that if they ask a question about the student’s stress or challenges they are facing, to make sure they have something to then offer them as a step or solution. That’s what we do as a district. Every week we do a mindfulness activity led by a teacher certified in mindfulness. She does one for each grade level and each age group, but also for the parents. It’s just a mindful activity where you just stop and sort of meditate and try to ground yourself and just breathe. That’s one district-wide measure that we’ve taken to support well-being.

What changes do you foresee that the closures will have on education in the future?

Well, I definitely think this was kind of the kick in the butt that we needed. We were slow moving to more technology-based learning, and then we were just forced into it so fast. But we are seeing that there are instances where technology is really useful for our jobs. One example is that I had met with every fifth-grade teacher to talk about their students’ data and moving up to sixth grade, and we had to meet virtually and shared a screen. I’ve got to say, that process was a lot more efficient than normal since usually I would have had to travel to all the buildings in our district to do it in person. We’re learning there are certain things we’ve always done in person, that can be done virtually. And I can actually see, as the students get older, to start using a more blended approach. We just need more professional development on how to do that correctly, since we are currently making it up as we go along. But I can definitely see blended teaching being a part of the future of education.

As for the immediate future with regards to our schools, we are on Plan B and Plan C. We are sort of planning on a blended 50% in and 50% out type of plan, but we still aren’t sure how that will look. Our high school alone has 2400 students, and there’s just no safe way we can socially distance that many kids. So we’re not sure how that will work but we’re looking at all those plans and just praying that we are back in the fall.

Have you noticed any unexpected positives from remote learning?

One positive for me personally that came out of all this, was that I successfully ran remote testing with just about zero problems. I was dreading having to give the assessment and was nervous it wasn’t going to work out, but when it did, there was a sense of relief that I was still able to assess our students remotely.

For teachers, I think a positive is just that they are seeing that going remote and incorporating more technology is not only possible, but it’s also not as difficult as it may have seemed.

What advice would you share with other educators?

Don’t be afraid to still assess your students. Whether it be formatively on content, or informally around perceptions and feelings. Give students that personal feedback to make that connection.

Share your remote learning story

Our education community is facing unprecedented challenges around teaching and learning. In these times, more than ever, we are each other’s best resources. We invite you to reach out and share how you or a colleague, friend, or family member is approaching remote learning.

Looking for more resources around supporting remote learners? Check out Illuminate’s Remote Learning Community Page for free resources for your team, including webinars, professional learning activities, articles, product tips, and more.

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