“I sometimes think we must be all mad and that we shall wake to sanity in strait-waistcoats.”
“If we judge ourselves only by our aspirations and everyone else only their conduct we shall soon reach a very false conclusion.”
Two months ago, when the decision to offer a virtual option was made, MNPS signed a 5 million dollar contract with the Florida Virtual School. The thinking was that in these unprecedented times, having a common curriculum would create uniformity across the district. Switching to a canned curriculum was supposed to take the pressure off of teachers and as District Superintendent Dr. Battle told the MNPS School back in June, “It allows teachers to focus on supporting students rather than creating lessons.”
In July the district made the decision to go all virtual. A decision that has been borne out as the right one based on increased cases of COVID across the state. In making the decision, Battle further emphasized the need to engage the Florida Virtual School curriculum, “”We will be utilizing a standard curriculum to be used across the district in all schools, and this is very necessary because we need to provide a continuity of learning plan for consistency for our students.”
Unfortunately, that consistency hasn’t materialized.
MNPS may have acquired a standardized curriculum but they didn’t create a standardized implementation. As a result, virtual schooling looks different at every school in the district. Teachers are scrambling to learn multiple systems while also trying to adapt the curriculum to fit their individual classes. Many elementary teachers did not even get a look at the curriculum until a week before school began, middle school and high school got a look only days before them.
A brief training was given to teachers on technology and the assumption was made that every teacher was fluent in Microsoft, Schoology, and Florida Virtual School. An assumption that was quickly proven false. This lack of training for both teachers, students, and parents, has resulted in the majority of the last two weeks being focused not on SEL instruction as advertised, but rather tech issues.
In a previous life, I ran a call center. We enrolled people in their workplace benefits. At the peak of the 4th quarter, when most enrollments were conducted, I’d be running a team of 250 counselors receiving tens of thousands of calls a day. Invariably there would be tech issues. One of the first lessons I learned was that a uniform means of communicating with IT was needed and staff needed to be trained in it. Sounds basic but it was anything but.
During my first year, counselors would come to me and say, “My computer is not working.”
“What’s it doing.”
“Not what it’s supposed to be doing.”
I’d rush off to the IT department screaming, “Jane’s computers not working.”
“What’s it doing?”
“Do you have a name or file for me to look at?”
“What do you need a name for? I told you it’s not working. Can’t you just fix her computer?”
Invariably IT would be pissed at me and I’d be angry with them, and the tech problems would continue unabated. Eventually, I got semi-smart and realized that there was essential information that they would need every time I reported an issue. It took a bit of time, but I trained our staff to always include this information with every report and amazingly issues got resolved much quicker.
This is just one example of the kind of training MNPS failed to provide teachers in preparation for the deployment of virtual schooling. As a result, teachers have had to learn to navigate multiple systems while helping families do the same. It has not been uncommon for teachers to spend hours working to help families through the kinks of Schoolology and TEAMS, all the while learning it themselves.
Due to the huge learning curve, and the expectations during the school day, teachers are finding themselves working extra evening hours and weekends. Finding a teacher out in public this weekend was like spotting an albino whitetail buck. They are out there, but few and far between. Keep in mind, that this time spent working off the clock is at the teacher’s expense and unpaid. Contractually teachers work 7.5 hours a day, though few work that little during the best of times, let alone now.
This week MNPS begins formalized academic instruction utilizing the curriculum provided by Florida Virtual School. In theory, a teacher would just upload a link to their Schoology page, kids would click it open and teaching and learning would commence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.
MNPS chose to use Schoology as the learning management platform(LDP) instead of FLVS Educator, the proprietary FLVS Learning Management System. The merits of that decision are subject to debate, but what this means is that somebody has to upload individual courses to individual Schoology pages. In this case, it becomes teachers.
Now I’ve heard it argued that uploading only takes a few steps. I’m not debating the complexity of the task, just pointing out that while it may only take 8 steps, when combined with the 4 extra steps here, the 12 steps there, the 7 steps over there…you get the picture.
These are just a couple of the issues that have contributed to the untenable position that MNPS educators now find themselves in, with district leadership continuing to old onto unrealistic expectations.
The miracle of all of this is that over the last two weeks, at great personal expense to both teachers and principals, the majority of Nashville’s children have successfully participated in virtual school. It hasn’t been perfect, but there is no reason to believe it won’t improve. Unless of course, we completely burn out our educators in the first four weeks. A very real possibility.
MNPS starts the third week of school today and with it comes even more responsibility for its participants. While we are still navigating technology issues – i.e. how do you see kids to call on them when presenting a PowerPoint without a second device – this week MAP testing will begin, homework assignments will start, and teachers will be expected to deliver rigorous instruction with a curriculum they are barely familiar with – much of which conflicts with how they’ve been taught to teach by MNPS in the past.
In my opinion, we are making two big mistakes with our current strategy. The first is that we are trying too hard to make virtual schooling look like traditional schooling. Like it or not, a paradigm shift is taking place. With the huge challenges, we are currently facing comes huge opportunities as well. A chance to re-evaluate past practice and perchance break with tradition in favor of better strategies. Hell, the YMCA gets it, they are offering admission to newly created learning academies for families at a reasonable price. More people will quickly follow.
If you are looking for things to return to how they were before, you might might as well start feeding the pigeons because you’ll be sitting on that bench for a long time.
Let’s look at the subject of homework for a second. Starting this week students will be expected to complete homework and turn it in for a grade. Is that really necessary?
The jury has long been out on the value of homework, especially for younger children. Supporters talk about the need to teach children to work independently. Detractors have pointed to the unfair advantage enjoyed by those who parents who can help.
Under current circumstances, kids are expected to spend 3- 4 hours a day engaged in asynchronous learning with teachers expected to hold 2, 45 minute office hour sessions a week. Instead of assigning arbitrary homework, just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, why not support the asynchronous learning opportunities and encourage students to take advantage of teacher office hours to ask additional questions. Thus both the pros and cons of homework are addressed. Grading homework at this time makes absolutely no sense to me and reeks of defending the status quo for the sake of defending the status quo.
As I’ve repeatedly said, we have to move away from looking at the current situation as “crisis management” and begin to realize that what we do know will serve as a precursor to the future. It’s an opportunity to shed ineffective practices and replace them with more efficient ones. Others have already grasped that and are embracing the evolution, the longer it takes MNPS leadership to grasp current circumstances the more the district will be at a disadvantage.
MNPS’s Hunter’s Lane High School began it’s evolution several years ago and is now benefitting greatly from that transition, seeing an increase in test scores, along with graduation and student participation rates. As Principal Sue Kessler states in a recent WPLN article,
“Our kids really are ready for it. They lived most of their lives in the virtual setting,” says Kessler, a 26-year educator and nationally known blended learning expert. “We were the ones saying, ‘No, you need to go sit in a brick-and-mortar building and look at a whiteboard,’ because that’s how we’ve always done it.”
The second mistake being made is that we are failing to properly manage resources. Here’s one of them sports analogies for you. Your squad is playing their squad in a game of football. The beginning of the game goes completely awry. You suddenly find yourself down 21-0 within 10 minutes of the first quarter. The natural inclination is to start running a hurry-up offense and throwing the ball around in an effort to reclaim lost ground as quickly as possible.
The prudent coach though recognizes this proclivity as a mistake. They realize that there is still 3 more quarters of football to be played. They realize that they are going to need their players to have the ability to compete at a high level for the duration of those three quarters. They realize that rushing around and trying to do too much, too quickly, only increases the margin of error, and if they are not careful they could find themselves down 41-0 in the third quarter, with little chance to recover.
Instead, they reduce the game to its core elements. They play to the strengths of their team and start looking for means to score small victories that can be built upon – first downs, 15-yard passes, defensive stops. They use those small victories to build a cohesive strategy, one that puts them in place to win the game in the 4th quarter.
That’d be my advice to MNPS. Cancel the MAP testing, for now, our next normal window is early November. By then everybody would be more comfortable with the digital platform and the results would be more accurate. Let teachers ease into instruction, building relationships as they go, and thereby strengthening bonds. Let’s identify what the core elements are and build on them. In other words, let’s make sure the tires on the car are all fully inflated before we start hanging fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror.
I have complete faith in teachers to reinvent what a successful public school looks like. One that successfully serves even more students than in the past. But we have to give them room and time to work. We have to honor their expertise and their experience. And we can’t continue to use them like chunks of coal feeding the steam engine that is public education.
In order to supplement k – 2 students’ literacy education, MNPS purchased a number of books for children to be able to have at home. One of those books, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation made it home this weekend and raised some concerns for some district parents. It’s a reaction that should have not been unexpected and further demonstrates the value of a quality teacher.
The book in question is a beautiful and inspirational story about early efforts to desegregate California Schools. I would question the appropriateness for second graders, but at the very least it shouldn’t have just thrown out there with no guidance from teachers. Some of the pictures illustrating behaviors of the past could serve to create divisions where unity is desired without a teacher’s careful hand introducing the complex themes and emphasizing the need for inclusion. Introducing a book of this magnitude while relationships between students and teachers are still developing is incredibly insensitive.
Racism and its horrific effects on society should be openly discussed in schools, a place that is meant to serve as a safe harbor for children. However, it is imperative that we do so in an age-appropriate inclusive manner that guards against unintended consequences. To reiterate, this is where the value of the veteran teacher, one who understands the importance of trust and inclusion, truly shines.
In the hands of a qualified teacher, this book would have aided in creating a truly transformational lesson. Unfortunately due to poor planning, for many students that opportunity has been lost. We have to do better.
AND ANOTHER MIS-STEP
I always say, in politics, you never know what is going to blow up until it blows up. On Friday I briefly reported on a new Child Wellness initiative created by the Tennessee Department of Education. As part of the initiative, it was proposed that government representatives would check in to Tennessee family’s homes to ensure the welfare of every child. It was further proposed that teachers be enlisted to complete home visits. The backlash was fast, immediate, and large scale, with parents voicing the opinion that this was a gross overstep of state government.
By 8pm Friday night Commissioner Schwinn had been forced to release a letter stating that she would be withdrawing the “wellness check” document and her team would be heading, at the Governor’s behest, back to the drawing board. In her letter, she characterizes the controversy as the result of a communication failure, and that the tool in question was always meant to be optional for districts to utilize in reaching at-risk students.
All that sounds good until you go back and listen to Schwinn’s words when she was interviewing for the job as Massachusetts’s Education Commissioner. In her interview, she spoke on compliance and performance management,
“In some cases, the role of the state, especially when you think about accountability, is identifying areas where there is high needs, areas where performance is not happening in those cases. You invite yourself into the home — sometimes asked, sometimes not — and you help to figure out solutions or facilitate conversations in order to help those districts meet expectations parents have for those schools.”
In all fairness, Schwinn could have been talking about entering district HQ’s and assessing what they were doing wrong, as opposed to actual homes of citizens. Still, those words indicate to me a belief in an inflated power held by the DOE. That’s a little disturbing.
When it comes to Schwinn, I find myself repeatedly returning to the words of Maya Angelou.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
It seems to me that the Commissioner is on the 17th or 18th time, and counting. Trust me she’ll do something else inappropriate within the next couple weeks, because as Little Richard once sang, “The girl can’t help it.”
Let’s take a look at the results from the weekend’s poll.
The first question asked if the numbers supported, if given the opportunity, would you return to face to face instruction after Labor Day? 28% said that you’d really have to think about it and consider the numbers for yourself. 21% indicated that you were just getting used to virtual school right now and wanted to stick with that, while another 21% said they couldn’t even consider a change right now. 16% indicated a willingness to leap at the opportunity. Here are the write-ins,
- Yes. Without masks!
- No way. We just started this. Numbers aren’t low
- Only if Schwinn has a dashboard for it.
- I would leave. No way it is safe. This is not an experiment
- Let’s try it Q2
- I doubt it will be safe and would mean these 5 weeks have been wasted effort
- Prefer not to given numbers
- Most likely
Question 2 asked if you thought it was appropriate to administer MAP testing at this juncture. The preference was pretty clear here, with 54% asking if we could just take a minute to get our feet under us. 16% of you offered a preference that we let teachers assess while building relationships. 13% expressed a concern over our technological competence. Only 5% of you indicated a heightened need to assess learning loss. Here are the write-in votes,
- Hell. No.
- MAP for what? Really!?
- Absolutely not.
- Absolutely unnecessary!
- Stupid idea. I’m sure Results won’t be skewed at all
- Rather put the money into good technology
- All students need technology
- Test is pointless even when not administered virtually
- Hell. No. MNPS foolishness on full display
- Only to be used as intended
- What difference will the results make and how they provide education to my child
The last question asked what the number one thing you missed from pre-COVID. 25% of you missed seeing extended families and 14% said smiles. Here are those write-ins, sometimes I get stung myself,
- Both Sitting at a bar And also having said bartender ask me what I’m having.
- Everything 😀
- I wanted to travel this summer. Had saved money for two years.
- Bars and Restaurants
- Daily Literacy beating on the Commissioner
- ou supporting the health of our kids and teachers
- Socializing w/ church, friends & family members
- Eating out
- I’m fine. Don’t really miss anything.
- Just quietly sitting at the bar with a decent beer.
- Getting together with friends
- Just living life unencumbered
- Hanging with friends
- going to lunch/dinner with friends
That’s it for now.
If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.
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district is flailing about wildly at this point
does not matter if teachers are doing heroic work if the number of self-inflicted wounds at the district level kill everything in sight