Teaching through COVID-19: Voices from the Climate Resiliency Fellowship, II

We’ve asked teachers from our 2019-2020 Climate Resiliency Fellowship cohort to offer their thoughts on teaching about climate change – and teaching in general – through COVID-19. The Fellowship brings participants together over the course of a year for a series of learning retreats that combine inspiration, creativity and teamwork.  An outcome of this program is the design and implementation of an interdisciplinary climate action project. 


The Teachers:

Emma Woodruff, Interdisciplinary Team Teacher-SS Specialist, Hartford Memorial Middle School, Hartford, VT

Kim Dumont, Interdisciplinary Team Teacher - Science Specialist, Hartford Memorial Middle School, Hartford, VT

Their Climate Action Project: Our project was a highly integrated unit on the impact of climate change. We focused heavily on four topics: food waste, education, transportation, and electricity generation. We explored these topics through hands-on lab activities, in-depth readings, and discussions about the effects of a changing climate on people, particularly marginalized groups. 

Adaptation

How have you transitioned and adapted your climate change education work to a distance learning format? How has the COVID-19 crisis shifted your goals and expectations of your students?
In the early stages of distance learning, we were preparing to continue our climate change education plan despite the circumstances. We were nearing the end of the unit and had scheduled a culminating event for April 8th. When school closed, we were right on the threshold of some major activities: The students were about to write a persuasive essay answering the question “Should initiatives to address climate change be a top priority for the United States?  Why or why not?”, and they were about to start service learning projects. We were able to successfully adapt our methods of direct instruction in order to remotely guide students through writing the persuasive piece. It was during this time that we learned that after April break (a mere 3 weeks after distance learning began), we would no longer be preparing the curriculum for our team but would instead be using the same learning activities across all teams. In order to make the work more manageable for students, families, and teachers, the focus of weekly learning plans became transferable skills rather than specific content objects. Due to this shift and the inability to authentically connect with community partners during the COVID-19 crisis, we were unable to complete the service learning projects we had planned for the spring. It was a disappointing but necessary change in our goals and expectations for the unit and our students.

Challenges

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a teacher during this time and what have you needed to learn to meet this challenge?

For both of us, the biggest challenge has been the lack of in-person face time with our students. There are so many aspects of teaching that don’t transfer to an online setting. Providing in-the-moment feedback, doing quick formative assessments, changing instruction to address common issues, and giving encouragement to individuals who might need just a little push are all much more difficult now. And there are the non-academic parts of teaching that we also miss dearly - hugs from students, inside jokes, teenage drama, being together as a whole team, the ability to see if they’re really alright, and bonding during end-of-year activities. We just really miss being with our kids.

In order to continue our work as educators, we are relying heavily on multiple forms of communication. To keep in touch with our students, we have daily core group check-ins and advisory meetings and twice a week whole team meetings. Having almost 80 people in a Google meet is incredible! When we see a student is struggling to show up at meetings and/or complete work, we reach out to them and the adults in their lives to see how we can support them. Sometimes the result is regular one-on-one check-ins or making a daily learning plan. Other times it’s just a matter of letting them know we’re here and we still care. We’re also communicating often as team teachers. Beyond our weekly team meetings, we email and text each other often to make sure we’re all the same page and to help each other through these strange times. As is often the case, excellent communication is what we have needed most.

This has also been a time of growth for each of us. In order to be successful, we have had to adapt to new technology, deal with technological snafus, and work with our colleagues throughout the building in new and novel ways. We have also had to reevaluate what is most important to us and prioritize the mental well-being of our students and their families over academic gains. While these attributes were already part of who we are as a team and individuals, we had to stretch beyond our inner circle or skill set to hone these skills. This has made us better educators as a result.

Emergence and Unexpected Gifts

What has surprise you about distance learning and teaching? What unexpected gifts have emerged for you and your students?
Teaching during COVID-19 is unlike anything we have ever experienced. The challenges of not interacting with students in person far outweigh the successes and gifts. However, there are some skills that we are all walking out of this experience with. For example, every student and teacher who has participated in our virtual learning environment has likely strengthened their skills with Google Suites and other educational resources. Whether we are teaching and learning in a blended or virtual format in the fall, this will likely prove to be very helpful. A connected success is that students are learning how to advocate for themselves via email. Our biggest surprise about distance learning is how exhausting it is for both teachers and students to be spending so much time looking at a computer screen. Kids and adults have both voiced that they feel just as tired, or even more exhausted now than they would after a typical school day. Unexpected gifts that have emerged beyond the exhaustion are the ability to move our bodies on an afternoon break, connecting with students for frequent one-on-one help, and spending more time with our families. 

Transformation

Has your view of the role of education in our society and world shifted? What shift do you hope to see in our educational system in the near future?

This has cemented the critical role of the physical community of a school. As we continue to make advances in technology, we hope that special consideration is given to balancing the kinds of learning opportunities students have. While students without socioeconomic or family-related barriers may be able to “access” virtual learning, they are not working on the transferable skills to the same extent as they would have if school had continued on-site and in-person. For students with tough home lives, this has been a very difficult time. And all students desperately need to learn how to engage in civil, respectful discourse and need to learn how to read the body language of their peers. 

As we return to in-person schools in the future, we hope that Flexible Pathways receives more attention. What we currently know about the benefits and drawbacks of technology for each individual student can help us paint a picture of what their ideal learning environment should look like. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to educating the youth of the world and we need to continue to think out of the box as to what learning should look like. 

Shifts in our educational system that we hope to see include an increase in outdoor and place-based education, more flexible pathways to meet student needs, and an increase in social-emotional support to deal with the trauma that extended time at home has presented many students. While it might be a while until school looks “normal”, as educators we need to continue to think creatively and responsively to our student and adult needs. Our goal is to support a resilient, caring generation of creative, kind, engaged learners. 

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