Back to School Virtually…As a Retired Teacher

Covid-19 virus has brought me out of retirement and back to the world of education…virtually, that is.  I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on in the New York Times, in teacher/union magazines, and online to find out what’s happening in education and how teachers are coping with the monumental changes taking place in schools everywhere, virtually or otherwise. I’m simultaneously horrified by what’s happening in terms of teaching and learning during Covid-19 and awed by the ability of most teachers to carry on despite all the new demands placed on them.

To get a more reality-based point of view on the above, I participated in a virtual workshop hosted this past Saturday by the Long Island Writing Project (a local chapter of the National Writing Project started in Berkley, CA in the 60s). The topic was “Writing the Moments,” … an effort to get teachers to document in writing the monumental changes  occurring in education as they and their students struggle to adapt to remote and in-person teaching and learning. The presenter offered several options for documentation including notebook entries and using such online programs as Padlet to minimize the writing output from teachers pressed for time.

Teachers spoke of the toll it sometimes takes on them to teach online for three or four hours straight, unlike in-person teaching which allows them to walk around the room, take short breaks, observe students working at their desks, lean over students to help them and so on. Several described odd combinations of co-teaching a subject online, while a second teacher is simultaneously teaching students the same material in the same classroom. A shared complaint is tech glitches that interrupt the flow altogether, forcing teachers to stop in mid-lesson and run up three flights of stairs to a colleague who is more tech savvy. One of my former colleagues told me she retired from teaching because she couldn’t imagine being videotaped while teaching all day, every day, which is the option she was assigned.

There were several expressions of genuine frustration about how best to engage students in their new learning configurations. More than ever teachers are sharing approaches with colleagues that are and are not working for them on their own time and on weekends.  Their school days are jam packed with inservice training, planning with co-teachers and struggling to maintain contact with students and parents. It’s not going to surprise anyone that younger teachers who are more tech competent are feeling more in control of their teaching than those who are older, non-digital natives, struggling with computers, computer programs and the myriad applications of them currently in use. As an “older” teacher I spent my final five years of teaching acquiring these new tech skills while also adapting to the national Learning Standards. (From what I understand from reading articles about current teaching, the Standards have pretty much taken a back seat.) It was a pretty tall order for someone on the cusp of retiring!

But there I was…from 1 to 3  p.m. on a Saturday, with two trainers, and six teachers (including myself)  spending  precious time meeting online to discuss common concerns and ways to address them. I am sure it wasn’t the measly 1/2 professional credit that convinced any of us to give up a beautiful Saturday afternoon. It was, instead, the same old story. Being a dedicated teacher requires many more hours per week than just showing up to a screen or to a classroom of actual children for seven hours a day. It means putting in the time and effort to be the best teacher possible, no matter the circumstances.

My Happy Place

For at least three decades I have been a member of a non-profit professional organization that I am today calling My Happy Place.  This past Saturday, I drove 45 minutes to a community college campus which has housed this group throughout its four-decade history to attend a workshop on using digital technology to empower learners.  The workshop was being presented by a younger teacher friend I’d made several years ago when attending a workshop. Her topic was of interest to me as I am devoting some time to cultivating community connections to provide “authentic” opportunities for learning for students.

Flattening the School Walls & Empowering Students to Learn Anytime, Anywhere!

Gone are the days when students only completed assignments for their teacher and the learning would come to a halt when school was closed. With digital tools, students can share their ideas with the world and learn and create all the time! Spend a Saturday morning with the Long Island Writing Project on February 3rd and hear how third grade teacher and LIWP Co-Director Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski has been working to flatten the walls of the classroom and inspire students to be curious learners, readers, writers, and creators through every season. Share your ideas on ways you inspire students to keep the learning going!

As I strode across the parking lot toward the building where today’s  gathering was taking place, the silence and emptiness of the campus on a Saturday morning allowed me to reflect upon my personal experiences with this group over this long stretch of time. The organization to which I am referring is the Long Island Writing Project, located on the campus of Nassau Community College on Long Island.  It is a  local offshoot of the National Writing Project which began in 1974 at  the Graduate School of Education in Berkeley, California and is one of 200 plus local  sites spread throughout the 50 states.  The simplicity of its mission is the foundation of its success: Practice what you preach.

The National Writing Project focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.

Writing in its many forms is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. The NWP envisions a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.

I  have learned more about teaching and writing through participation in this group than through any other professional development I’ve been privy to during my 25-year teaching career. Most of the PD programs in which I participated over the years, some by choice, others required by my school district, never adequately addressed my particular pedagogical interests.  As an elementary ESL teacher and as an adjunct in the English Department at Suffolk Community College with a high minority student enrollment,  I was perpetually seeking ways to improve or refine my teaching practice, while addressing the specific needs of my limited English-speaking students at both the elementary and college levels.

Although most of the PD offered through the LIWP did not specifically address the academic needs of English Language Learners,  here was a place where teachers are considered lifelong learners and where the conversation is always teacher directed and student focused. Teacher practices and opinions are highly respected and exchanges between teachers are encouraged; in fact, they are at the heart of every workshop I’ve ever attended.  Although each workshop has a specific purpose, the model for every workshop is a presentation by a practicing teacher; several pauses during the presentation to allow for quick writing responses to the topic being presented; a followup discussion of the topic with all the participants sharing their “takes” on the topic.

Teachers love these workshops because they are supportive, reflective, imaginative, practical and they offer a sheltered place where teachers can honestly share their own practices and concerns in a nonjudgmental way, while learning ways to augment or enhance their teaching and writing skills.

I retired from teaching three years ago, yet I still choose to attend these workshops because I continue to  benefit from them; they help me continue to thrive as a life-long learner and educator.  The conversation goes on…over the weeks, months years and everyone is always welcome to join in.  I have seen many young teachers launched into amazing careers thanks to the support they are given and the confidence they gain through participation in this organization. Its grassroots, no-frills, low-budget, democratic model seems to really appeal to those of us who have been lucky enough to discover the LIWP and participate as members and participants over the years. The three women who are codirectors of the organization receive very little compensation, yet they  devote much of their precious free time to keeping it alive and current despite their own full-time careers and family responsibilities.  They are there because of their commitment to writing, teachers and students.

There have been periods of my professional life when I have been very active in the LIWP and other periods when I may not have attended for a year or two due to other obligations, but I have always felt welcome and comforted by the fact that the LIWP exists: It is My Happy Place.