ZOOMing Out or ZOOMing In

The phone call, texting and FaceTime remain as permanent fixtures in the COVID-19 context.  Wait time for smart phone orders have substantially increased due to overwhelming demand.  At work and at home, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated online platforms to replace face to face communication of small and large groups.  ZOOM took an early lead in the group meeting due to the ease of use.  Security requirements provided a stumbling block early in the game but they quickly pivoted to remedy the problem.  The culture of ZOOM is now the reference point for online communication of groups.  The Ministry of Education in British Columbia purchased it for all educators in British Columbia.  The Canadian Government is also using it for meetings.  How this culture of online meetings endures post COVID-19 will be interesting to watch.

There are days when I can’t bear the thought of another online meeting.  The Vancouver School Board has invested and is committed to the TEAMS platform.  In the name of good communication, there are TEAMS meetings with the District Management Team, our school staff, the Health and Safety Committee, the Finance Committee, the Tech Committee, School Based Team, Articulation with the Secondary School and any other group who might want to connect online.  In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the barrage of information is so overwhelming, that these meetings are required to focus attention on the most pertinent facts in our school context.  In what seemed like overnight, teachers also set up their classrooms to connect on TEAMS classroom and ensure a continuity of learning.  As a school principal, part of the job description is knowing and supporting what is going on in classrooms.  More online meetings.

I believe in post COVID-19 days, we will become much more demanding about what we expect from online communication.  No camera on your computer.  It’s obsolete.  Get a new one.  Not enough bandwidth – get it!  Can’t facilitate interaction. Switch to a platform that can.  Use is not intuitive.  New platform required.  Not a good use of the precious time that exists – don’t have the meeting.  Send an email.   One of the best decisions of the Vancouver School Board has been to upgrade obsolete technology.  Yes, I feel a certain ruthlessness is in order to cull the online frustrations and the sheer quantity of online interactions.

We will also need to think ahead to the situations that online communication serves.  Specific information to focus attention on in the COVID-19 context can be effectively delivered using an online platform, especially when there is a recording where information can be reviewed.  However it would not be my first choice.  The presenter is not able to read the audience or keep up with reading the “chat” on the sidebar.  I feel like I’m talking into an abyss when I’m chairing these meetings.  A slide deck presentation or powerpoint meeting lends itself to disengagement.  On a platform that necessitates all participants to turn off microphones and videos to allow conductivity, disengagement is too easy.  Participants are logged in as attending and then free to clean the desk, answer the quick question of the visiting tradesperson, or deal with a multitude of other pressing issues.   If engagement is key, the online option is not ideal.  The time spent moving back and forth into another room for discussion does not feel like the best use of time.

Some things just don’t feel good online.  Book Club will never be replaced by the online option.  The fluid conversation that emerges in a person to person context can’t be mirrored online.  The spontaneity of the conversation is stifled by the unmuting and polite turn taking of the online conversation.  The over layering of response and affirmation is missing.  Perhaps this takes time.  I recently was part of a Kindergarten Show and Tell session.  The teacher has been amazed how the interaction between students has changed over time.  However my vote in the future will be for face to face social clubs.

Cocktail hour on-line with the girls may become a permanent fixture.  Online will never replace the getting dressed up, going to a great restaurant, ordering vastly overpriced wine or drinks with names, and just catching up.   That is an institution to be revered.  However the online purge allow for the exhale.  The “let me tell you all about the woes of my world”.  The sympathetic online hug.  The empathetic and affirmative sharing.  And the laughter.  The cathartic release can be shared over miles.  Fit into small spaces.  Allow you to avoid rush hour.  Make you feel supported.  It has a place.

Yoga studio closures have had a huge impact.  My Semperviva monthly fee was taken from the bank and within days, all four sites disappeared.  My coveted points evaporated never to be traded in for that bolster to replace the one I lost.  It has been the smaller studios who most easily pivoted.    I discovered my temporary Office Admin. Assistant, Alex, was amazing with her accounting AND a yoga instructor offering online yoga classes through the Ocean and Crow, a small studio on Commercial Drive.  A great online class.  Nikki even includes a Spotify playlist to enhance the experience.  Now if I nod off to sleep during Yin yoga at the end of the night, I am so much closer to my bed!  This has enduring possibilities.

Iconic Ron Zalko Gym, which has been a permanent fixture in Kits, closed its doors as per Health regulations.  Nothing.  My upstairs neighbour invited me to her ZOOM fitness classes.  Great high energy classes.  The only problem is it’s too easy to turn off the video and opt out of the hard parts.  I clearly need the public shaming of the group in order to keep going.  In Taiwan, the gyms have stayed open through out COVID-19.  My daughter has her temperature taken with the no touch thermometer on her way in and everyone wipes down equipment as they go along.  I would love to see this happen in Vancouver.  Fingers crossed that the owners are giving Ron Zalko a break on his rent so the gym can open up soon.   Clearly I need the motivation.

What will be most enduring will be the opening up of possibilities.  Illness.  Visiting sick relatives in far away lands.  Reporting to school sick.  All of these have been issues to surmount in the school system.  I learned as a neophyte teacher that it was way more work to prepare for a “Guest” (aka replacement) teacher, than to just go to work when I was sick.  In our society, it has also been framed as a badge of honour to do whatever it takes to get the job done in the face of adversity.  A zero policy for sickness in the workplace or classroom, will change how we do school.  Bottom line, if you are sick, you stay home.  Continuing to use of online platforms will help to address these issues.  Teachers will be able to ensure the continuity of learning in the classroom.  Students will be able to engage in learning when they are not physically present.

Marking the occasion or the event while not physically present will perhaps be the most significant shift.  Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, I would not have been able to personally attend my niece, Mallory’s, graduation in Veterinary Medicine at Oklahamo State University.  It is just after Spring Break and Staffing time in the school system in Vancouver, British Columbia.  But it is a big deal.  My sister sent me that invitation with the magic link.  I could sign on.  Wait with rapt attention for her name and pic to flash on the screen.  Have my moment.  Bond with Ian, my tech guy who happened to be on site to see my eyes well up with tears.  Grab the screen shot.  Feel like a very good auntie.  Feel included in the event.

As we move into the post – COVID-19 world, we will have an increased array of how we communicate and connect.  We will have higher expectations for online platforms and different perspectives when considering purposes and options for meetings, participation in school, and celebrations.  This opens up new possibilities for not only for work meetings, but also for graduations, weddings, christenings and other significant events.  What I do know for sure is that face to face adds a depth to human interactions that online communication will never parallel.  However we will have “next best” options in our toolkit.




“Down the Rabbit Hole” of COVID-19

Just as Alice fell down the rabbit hole to a new reality in Wonderland, we are living a COVID-19 reality, too different for any of us to even to have imagined.  As in many places in the world, educators, parents and kids in Vancouver, British Columbia are missing life as how it usually unfolds in our schools.  Some great things are happening in the Vancouver School District with feeding students and organizing childcare for the Essential Service workers during COVID-19.  Some great things are also happening in the School Communities as teachers connect with families and students.

The superpower of our teachers is the way they go about foraging relationships with students as a foundation for learning.  It is something that is done over the course of many weeks and months.  Asking questions.  Listening to stories.  Laughing at jokes.  Challenging preconceived notions.  Helping students to navigate through conflicts, missteps and failures – real and perceived.  All of these things are a regular part of building relationship and daily learning.  It is not something that can be photocopied or ordered online.  We are in the process of learning how to nurture connections without daily face-to-face contact.  Teams Classroom, Zoom, Twitter, You-Tube, the school website and a variety of other social media APPS allow us to deliver messages.  Videoconferencing allows some opportunity for group discussion, or partner discussion in forums, but not the day to day conversations that happen at school from 1-1 questions, carefully constructed experiences and incidental conversations.

As my children were growing-up, sit down family conversation at dinner had to be structured.  Soccer practice, music lessons, school sports, Brownies, Scouts, and a myriad of other commitments made the drive-through at McDonalds a part of life.  Now more than ever, family conversation will need to provide the daily asking of questions, considering why the super moon appears, the discussion of characters in books, and checking out the answers to possibilities.  The who, what, when, where questions are the easy questions to answer.   The Why questions inspire higher level thinking and the imagination required for innovation and for really good conversations.  These kinds of questions frequently occur in our families; however, it isn’t always appreciated as important learning.

Teachers are currently in the process of structuring things for their students to do at home that meet the academic, mental health, physical and social needs of the students in our charge. They are trying to find the balance of different opportunities for children to engage in learning.  It will include reading and writing.  Research tells us that as the amount of reading and writing increases, so does the skill level.  However, the understanding of what is being read improves as it is discussed.  This is why book clubs are so popular with adults.  It is social and helps us to understand the text in different ways.  Research also tells us that writing for an audience improves our writing as we strive to make ourselves better understood or share something that matters to us.  The audience doesn’t need to be parents trying to work at home.  Discussion of books and sharing writing could be in a daily phone call to Grandma or an Auntie or a neighbour or a friend.

Teachers often use themes or project-based learning because they are ways to direct student interest and enthusiasm into their learning.  Birds make their presence known in Vancouver in the springtime.  We hear them first thing in the morning.  They have adapted to life in the highly populated downtown core, in neighbourhoods, and in ocean and forest habitats.  We are not invested in our students becoming ornithologists.  However, the study of birds becomes an opportunity to teach observations skills,  research skills, and how to use tools such as binoculars, a compass, a clock or measuring instruments to fine tune data.  Project based learning is often framed in a way, so students begin to ask their own questions and hone the ability to devise plans to pursue answers.  The necessity of the scientific method for a purpose other than because the textbook says so.  Check out the David Livingstone Elementary school website and see the Birds, Birds, Everywhere post for a format for this type of study.  The topic could be anything from animals in the neighbourhood to weather patterns.

We are fortunate that at this point in the school year, teachers already have established relationships with their students and know their educational needs.  As every classroom differs, so will the type of work for “school at home” to support students during this public health crisis.  Closing the doors of the school to fight COVID-19 will change our current structure of delivery of curriculum but it will not change the face of education.  A work package, an online program, a videoconference or an ingenious project will not replace the teacher.  It will not replace the power of coming together to laugh, play, and learn together in a face to face context.

Teachers go to university for five years and are mentored during practice teaching opportunities to become teachers.  Then they participate in professional development, inquiry groups and often further education. They have developed a skill set to work in a face to face context with students on a daily basis.  We don’t expect parents to become teachers overnight.  We don’t expect teachers to accomplish what they are able to do in a face to face context with kids.  We can expect that working together, we can help kids to stay curious and interested in learning.  Teachers and parents can both provide the input to ensure our students feel supported in their learning.  We can be gentle with ourselves, so the change challenges us to try new things but doesn’t overwhelm us with insurmountable demands on ourselves.