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.