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

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:

Emily Cohn, Middle School Science, Vinalhaven School, Vinalhaven, ME

Pat Paquet, Grades 4/ 5 math and science, Vinalhaven School, Vinalhaven, ME

Their Climate Action Project: Our Climate Action Project included in-class investigations paired with a visit from Judy Dow, an French Indian artist and climate educator. Our hope was to tell the story of climate change in our hometown by investigating Wabanaki stories, local geology, and partnering with our local Sea Level Rise committee.  The culminating project was to be a series of woven baskets by students that told the story and were presented to the community along with Drawdown projects.


How have you transitioned and adapted your climate change education work to a distance learning format? 

Emily: My plans for my climate change unit had to entirely shift.  I struggled to figure out how to make this lesson still inquiry-based and hands-on from afar, and how to pare back something I had planned so carefully and hopefully for. I ended up finding some resources on the Drawdown site that helped me distill a month’s worth of hands-on investigations into a 40-minute high quality video. I initially wondered if it would work, but kids have shown good understanding from it, and it actually highlighted some ideas that I wanted to cover but wasn’t sure how.

Pat: Adaptation was a bit different for 4th and 5th grade. I started our online science by having the kids choose a window at home to begin taking a series of images from. My plan was to have them observe “change over time,” comparing images from the past with their new images then predicting what it would look like in the future. The kids loved taking the images and writing about them but I did not get any further this spring. Instead, students wrote a compare and contrast essay about the changes they observed. I hope to use this as a segue to next year’s learning.

How has the COVID-19 crisis shifted your goals and expectations of your students?

Emily: During COVID-19,  my focus has shifted from creating a classroom experience to creating a user-friendly online experience for students.  Whereas in the classroom, I like to do hands-on investigations and discussions, I’ve found myself searching for  pre-existing resources and making home-made videos. I’ve really found that those who want to learn cannot be stopped, and those who are having a harder time connecting might not engage at all. 

Pat: I also believe that many parents have found it difficult to get their student(s) to engage.


What has been the biggest challenge for you as a teacher during this time?   

Emily: My biggest challenge has been letting go of all of the plans I made for an interactive curriculum. I felt the whole year had been building to this curriculum, and I had a lot of sadness letting it go.  The planned date of an activity or event would pass, and I’d feel a sense of loss because the issue of climate change is really urgent, and if I didn’t teach it effectively, it felt like such a lost opportunity.

Pat: My biggest challenge was even having the discussion of climate change when the kids were already stressed out about COVID-19. Talking about the streets of Vinalhaven flooding due to rising sea levels just seemed too depressing for me.

Emergence and Unexpected Gifts

What skills have you needed to learn? Share a success you’ve experienced in teaching during COVID-19.
I think the skill I’m leaning on most in this time is reflection: what is the MOST important skill or idea I want to focus on, and what’s the simplest, most engaging way to get it in there?  How do I teach this content succinctly? Clarifying and distilling ideas down to the essence has been essential. 

Emily: The most fun new skill I’ve learned is how to make instructional videos and online materials.  I found it so hard to concentrate in the Zoom format„ so how could I expect students to concentrate for 30 minutes with little siblings, pets, their phones, and sunshine waiting for them?  I wanted the learning to be more self-paced, so they could do it when they were ready. Short videos and online content allows them to do that. I have one student who found that 5:30 am was her science time! Some of my students with special needs are absolutely blooming with self-paced lessons. They can slow down the videos, they’ve got a support person with them, and some are really motivated to move forward.  I was not expecting that level of engagement from any child, and some have totally blown me away.

Pat: I needed to learn different online formats–ClassDoJo and Zoom. I would love to be introduced to some creative ways to keep kids interested when on Zoom.

I loved how my students used the tools on ClassDoJo to share their findings. Some loved making videos, others wanted to draw and others captured some creative photos. Like Emily said, some of the kids who were the most creative were the ones I least expected to be.

What has surprised you about distance learning and teaching?

Emily: I’m surprised that I’m not as tired as I usually am at this time of year.  Usually, the spring itch means we’re dealing with a lot of “energy” that saps some of the time from teaching. I’m sure their parents are taking on that energy!

Pat: Unlike Emily I am surprised by how tired I am at the end of the day. I also teach math so I am on Zoom all day doing individual and/or group lessons.

What unexpected gifts have emerged for you and your students?

Emily: I think I’ll continue some aspects of self-paced learning and am trying to think about how that might lead to more hands-on investigations and deeper discussions in the classroom in whatever format is deemed safe. 

Pat: I agree with everything Emily has said.  I also would like to add that parent engagement has also been a gift. I have had more communication with parents these few months than ever before and parents are seeing how their child behaves as a learner.


How has your view of the role of education in our society and world shifted? 

Emily and Pat: I think students and parents are seeing that school is about relationships, and parents are surprised at how their children are responding to the changes in these relationships in this moment- both positively and negatively .  I see a lot more gratitude for the social aspects of school coming from all parties.

What shift do you hope to see in our educational system?

Emily: I feel a big shift in myself, in how I give feedback on work.  A kid – or any  person – is more than what they produce - it’s who they are, what makes them unique, that counts.  In addition to reflecting on their learning evidence, I try to ask about a personal interest of theirs - “Hey how’s bike-riding? How’s your dog? How’s your paper on World War II going?” I feel like they need to feel my unconditional support for them as a human as I still hold them to an academic standard.  I hope they feel it.

Emily and Pat: The shift I hope to see in our school is more teamwork in general between families and schools.  This whole experience seems to have hopefully built up empathy for all parties, and if we work together, our feelings toward education could shift toward something more positive and collaborative.

When you imagine returning to in-person schools in the future, what do hope to hold onto from this time?

Emily: I want to hold on to the feeling of excitement I feel when I see a kid pop up in person on Zoom.  I’m so glad for them to be there, sometimes I feel like an over-eager puppy - like “HI!!!! SO GLAD to see you!!!”  But shouldn’t every kid be greeted with excitement and joy?  I want to do that when I return to the classroom.

Pat: I also want to REALLY get to know my students BEFORE the actual assignments begin. I want to create a community of individuals who are ready to belearners, creative thinkers and risk takers.

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