How can we make distance learning better?

Crisis distance learning is nobody's first choice. From single parents struggling to make ends meet while supporting their kids' learning, to teachers unable to connect to new students because of barriers both technological and socio-emotional, everybody desperately wants to return to the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

But here we are, and with Alameda County firmly in the purple in the statewide pandemic ratings, we are sure to be distance learning for a while to come. Even once we can go back to limited in-person classes, at least half of instruction for most students will take place virtually, probably until the end of the school year if not longer. So how can we make it better?

The biggest idea I heard was to subsidize parenting. Middle school and high schools students may in most cases be able to work independently during the day, but many parents say that helping elementary students with learning is a part-time job of its own. There are about 24 million elementary-aged students in the US, so giving those parents a $10,000 tax break per child for the work of facilitating crisis learning would cost the federal government about $240 billion - not a small amount, but much smaller than the $669 billion small-business PPP bailout program of last spring for example. Obviously that's not going to happen under this administration, but if the coronavirus crisis drags on and we have a new Congress and President, we should consider how better to advocate for working parents with kids at the elementary level.

The same is true of students with special needs - there has been a lot of hand-wringing, but little advocacy that we take the problem seriously and fund it appropriately. The federal government legally requires schools to meet the needs of all students, but has never funded that requirement appropriately. Now would be a good time to provide the needed support to families to help their students at this difficult time, which like all education expenditures is an investment against higher expenses for the future if students do not get the support they need to grow into independent adults. As a former special ed teacher wrote to me, "If we can support this population, we know it will benefit everyone. That has always been the way special education has worked best."

With the many crises across our country right now, the silent crisis of young people's mental health is going unnoticed. Here is a great article from Chabot school psychologist Jennifer Porter about helping students of all ages, but especially younger ones, to process their feelings about isolation and the pandemic. If we do nothing else, each of us can do a better job taking the time to notice our own feelings and our kids' feelings about everything that is going on right now.

A couple of parents wrote to me with simple concrete suggestions: first, the district (or state department of education) should be providing more centralized resources with activities for students by grade level, aligned to the curriculum. When the pandemic first hit, it seemed like their were resource lists everywhere, but their profusion was more than a little overwhelming. You would think that by now there would be a good central resource list online (if you have a favorite one, send it to me and I'll provide my own list of links). Giving the overwhelming number of online activities, the biggest need is for more ideas for offline activities aligned to the curriculum. It would be great to 'gamify' these so that students could feel like they were working to achieve a goal.

Second and even simpler, one high school mom wrote to complain that her student has had no one-to-one outreach from any of his teachers. I understand that high school teachers each have a large number of students, but there should be a minimum expectation of the school that each teacher does one-to-one outreach to a certain number of students every week, even if just to a few of them for a short 10-minute conversation each. Also, teachers should share the list of student email addresses for each class, because some new students have no idea how to reach out to any other classmate for missed work, which just adds pressure on the teacher as the sole point of contact.

This gets to the bigger picture of how to change distance learning from a teacher-centered model to a student-centered one. Top-down, teacher-centered instruction wasn't working before, and it will work even less on a mass Zoom call. One teacher told me she thought it was impossible to get truly interactive on Zoom with more than about 10 students on a call, so small-group work is essential.  At the middle and high school level, teacher-student ratios make that impossible, so it is going to be essential to develop a culture of students leading study groups effectively. There is no way for teachers to do all the teaching - maybe there never was - so we are going to have to require students to take a more central role in being responsible for their own learning and for the learning of their peers.

I had a great conversation with John Watkins, an education consultant with the Deeper Learning Dozen, a cohort of superintendents working together to transform their school districts. Many of the lessons of how to effectively transform instruction apply to distance learning as well. For example, top-down professional development trainings will never be as effective in changing teachers' practice as collaborative time between teachers, where they can share their great ideas with each other and work together to move forward. This is how the best ideas will bubble up to the top.

Some of the few plus sides of distance learning are that teachers are beginning to explore digital collaboration in a deeper way - John gave the example of a teacher using the Discord social media platform (usually used by teens for gaming together) as a way to create servers and channels where students collaborate to work on projects together and develop community and knowledge as a group.

Distance learning also makes it more possible to pull adults from the wider community into the classroom more easily. A meeting between professional mentors and students that would have been so much work to set up pre-Covid is now just another Zoom call.

I would love to see more tutoring relationships set up over Zoom between high school and elementary students at this time. This would address both the isolation that many teens are feeling, and the need for support that younger students have with their learning right now. If I weren't busy with the logistics of a campaign right now, this would be my pet project - starting small and then figuring out how to scale up as much as possible.

I hope this article has sparked some ideas in you, and maybe just a little hope in these dark times that change is possible. I know that not every idea is completely fleshed out, but I have to stop writing now so I can go help my son with some of the outside learning projects that we have set up for him. I am worried for him, because he is so much more isolated now than before the pandemic, but also grateful that it has given me more time to spend with him. Let's hope his generation does a better job with this mess of a world than we have.

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