Creating Contexts for Readers

Diane Stephens is a co-author of Reading Revealed: 50 Expert Teachers Share What They Do and Why They Do It, a winner of the Learning® Magazine 2020 Teachers’ Choice Award for the Classroom.

Everything we do is based on beliefs we hold. When I first encountered this idea, I was taken aback. Everything? And then, slowly, through reflection, I realized it was true.  When I put my hand on a door knob, I believe it will turn. When I walk into the room behind the door, I believe it will hold my weight. I also believe I will be able to sit in the chair in the room without it collapsing and put my books on the table which will also be sturdy. Philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (Buchler, 1955) argued that it is belief that allows us to act. If we do not believe, we do not act. This can be seen in studies of babies asked to crawl across a piece of glass between two wooden structures. Babies hesitate. They do not believe that the glass will support them.

Pierce outlined four ways that people come to their beliefs: they believe what they want to, what they always have, what someone has told them, and what they have researched for themselves. 

All of these ways are necessary. None of us have time to research everything. And so we reach for door knobs, walk into rooms, sit in chairs, and put books on tables. It is through research that we can determine new truths.

As teachers, our beliefs impact everything, including our relationships with our students and how we come to know them, how we think they and we should act, the materials in our classrooms, how we organize time and space, and what we say and do to help students progress.  

In a previous blog post, I shared a list of beliefs that a group of teachers in South Carolina hold about readers. They believe that in order to progress as readers, students need to:

  1. Understand that reading is a meaning-making process that requires thinking
  2. Believe in their ability to make sense of text
  3. Choose to read because they find it both purposeful and pleasurable
  4. Self-monitor for meaning
  5. Have a repertoire of skills and strategies to problem solve for meaning

The teachers came to these beliefs via research. They read widely, closely observed their students, and talked with each other, reflecting both on what they read and observed. Through their inquiry, they also came to believe that in order for students to acquire the above characteristics, teachers need to provide classroom contexts consistent with them. For example, if teachers want students to understand that reading is a meaning-making process, then what teachers say and do and the materials they provide should send the message that reading is meaningful.

So what might these contexts look like? The idea is explored throughout Reading Revealed. First and foremost, teachers help students fall in love with books. According to Reading Revealed contributors Deborah MacPhee and Robin Cox, one way to do this is to read to students and have them interact aloud with the text. As addressed by Tasha Tropp Laman and Janelle Henderson, another way is to provide time for independent reading during which students read a variety of texts for pleasure. This should mirror what adults authentically do when they read for pleasure—sit comfortably, read a book of choice, chat informally with someone about what they’ve read. We don’t see adults filling out worksheets about what they’ve read!

Some teachers will ask students to let their peers know whether they liked a particular book or not. In Reading Revealed, Kay Wynter-Hoyt shows how this can be done via book talks in which students take turns telling their peers about a title they read. There are many ways for students to do this kind of sharing. When I facilitated an after-school reading program at the University of North Carolina - Wilmington, a group of elementary students decided to make a chart called, “Is it Hot or Not?” They put their names across the top, and along the side, the names of books they’d read. For each title, they decided whether to put a red sticker (the book is “hot”), green (“pass this one by”) or yellow (“so-so”). With this method, students got recommendations from other readers. This particular group of students also decided it would be helpful if they put short summaries in the backs of books once finished. That these ideas came from the students, not their teacher, meant that the practices were authentically useful to them.  

A third way to help students fall in love with books is to give them time to explore the books in the classroom library, identifying ones that look interesting to them. Reading Revealed contributor Pat Heine developed an engagement called Look, Think, Pass, in which the students sit in a circle and they are each given a book with which the group might not be familiar. Students have 30 seconds to look at the book and then pass it to their right. By the time the books have gone around the circle, children have identified new books they are interested in.

Reading Revealed contributor Michele Myers recommends that students put their favorite books into Browse Bags, which are bags or boxes in which students keep books that interest them. This way, students have quick access to books they want to read, just as I have a pile of books on my nightstand.

Teachers have an important role in helping students choose books with which they can be successful. The importance of success cannot be overstated because people like to do things which make them feel good. They avoid things which they haven’t been successful with in the past and suspect they won’t succeed with in the future. Literacy coach and Reading Revealed contributor Sally Somerall posits that teachers should encourage students to choose books that are “interesting and easy.” She shows how she helps students make these decisions and offers to go “shopping” in the classroom library with students who need additional help.

Students who fall in love with books are students who choose to read. Students who choose to read, both in and out of school, grow more as readers than do students who do not choose to read. This is consistent with what we know about doing anything—the more we do it, the better we become. While there are other aspects of classrooms in which students grow as readers, helping them fall in love with books is a great place to start. To do this, teachers need to provide them with opportunities to be read to and to read independently. The books they read independently should be books they consider fun and easy. Once that’s in place, teachers can move on to helping kids talk about books and encourage them to share them with their peers. Teachers who believe and act on this belief create contexts in which students grow as readers.

Reference

Perice, C.S. (1877). In Buchler, J.(Ed). (1955). Philosophical writing of Peirce. New York, NY: Dover Publications, pgs. 98–119.

Showing up for Black Students, Recognizing the ‘Unsung Heroes’ of Schools & More

Below are a few of the education stories we’ve bookmarked recently.

'Teachers Cannot Be Silent': How Educators Are Showing Up for Black Students Following Protests

With protests erupting throughout the nation, teachers are tackling tough conversations with their students about race and racism. Education Week’s Madeline Will interviews teachers, who are helping out their students in a variety of ways. "Teachers cannot be silent during this time…Teachers have to take a stand. Students are absorbing this, [and] they’re going to ask themselves later on in life or even now, ‘What was my teacher doing during this time?” says Detroit Achievement Academy teacher, Patrick Harris.

 

The Systemic Challenges in K12 Education During These Times of Social Unrest

Gholdy Muhammed, author of Cultivating Genius, with Ivelisse Ramos-Brannon, a NYC Advanced Placement teacher, joins Education Talk Radio’s Larry Jacobs to discuss the Pre K – 12 education system amidst today’s current social unrest. During the conversation, they cover the need for educators to develop students’ social-political consciousness, so that they are not contributors of oppression, but rather they are able to become disruptors and social change agents against racial oppression within their communities, in addition to cultivating classroom practices that provide safe spaces for students to talk about social justice issues.

 

A Positive Classroom Climate, Even from a Distance

Teaching lives changed substantially as schools closed and moved to online and distance learning formats. Nancy Frey, Dominque Smith, and Douglas Fisher examine just how important it is for educators to keep providing students with a positive climate to exist and learn within. “The positive climate of the classroom and school fuels student learning…In fact, whole-school efforts to positively affect school climate have promising results on student learning and achievement,” the article states. Although many of the in-person rituals educators have relied on in the past are now virtually impossible, teachers can continue supporting and fostering a positive climate so their students can thrive.

 

The ‘Unsung Heroes’ Keeping Students and Families Fed During School Closures

Nearly 30 million children across the United States rely on their schools to provide them with discounted or free meals, so when schools closed their doors due to the pandemic, many children were faced with a new problem—hunger. EdSurge explores how some school districts were able to tackle this issue and develop food service plans in a matter of days, as well as how the role of food service is largely important to learning. As Emily Tate reports, the role of food service should not be understated. “It’s hard for students to focus on academics—or really anything else—if they’re hungry. And research shows that children who eat nutritious meals, especially breakfast, are more available to learning and cognitive development.”

 

Seven strategies for supporting student learning in a remote environment

As we have come to see in the past couple of months, COVID-19 has drastically upended the traditional modes of school and has made remote learning a reality for many students and teachers. On ASCD InService, Jay McTighe and Dr. Giselle Martin-Kniep explore how the learn-at-home circumstances most students and educators find themselves in right now can offer more engaging and meaningful learning experiences. They also offer seven strategies for planning and conducting remote learning, which will help challenge students and promote the development of their learning agency.

Why Professional Learning Matters While Working From Home

Carol Chanter, Ed.D., Senior Vice President for Professional Learning Services at Scholastic, outlines why professional learning is critical for educators now and year-round, with tips for discovering new sources of professional inspiration. 

Your world has most likely been turned upside down. If you are an educator, not only are you being asked to provide instruction virtually, but simultaneously you may be teaching your own children, making sure your friends and family have food and supplies, and keeping your own household a float. You are carrying a heavy load.

The health and safety of you, your loved ones, and your students are priority—that will never change.

We understand that your own professional learning may be the last thing on your mind. But as you continue to support student academic and social-emotional development during school closures, we encourage you not to lose sight of yourself and your own growth as an educator. This matters not only for you, but also for your students and school community as you collectively look ahead to mitigating learning loss during the summer and returning to the classroom. Yes, one day, this will happen.

Here are four reasons why you should foster your own learning now, and throughout the year:

1. Learning renews the brain and recharges your energy

Learning something can increase dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter. The right balance of Dopamine is essential for both physical and mental well-being. We often think of re-energizing as resting or relaxing, but sometimes to best way to re-energize is to throw yourself into learning something new.

2. Learning provides opportunity for socialization

You need socialization now more than ever and learning is a social act. The benefits of social interactions are similar to those of physical exercise. Learning with others helps to boost your mood, reduce depression, and sharpen the mind. Today, with so many social media learning options, you don’t have to go out to participate in a learning network. Social networking is also a great way to make new connections with colleagues around the world and build relationships.

3. Learning fights boredom

Following the same daily schedule can quickly become boring and impact motivation. This is even truer during times of isolation, but learning something new breaks that cycle. Learning new ideas and skills raises your level of inquiry, and inquiry expands your mind. As you gain new knowledge, you become more aware of how you connect and contribute to the world, and that is not boring!

4. Learning makes you better at your craft

Learning and practicing skills actually increases the myelinization of neurons in your brain. This means you will be able to respond more quickly to student needs. Your teaching moves will become more automatic. More of your brain will be freed up to notice student behaviors and respond quickly to student needs. Create time for your own learning and your students will achieve at higher levels than ever before.

So, what are some quick, easy ways to get your learning going?

  • Try a new social network: These digital networks will help you feel connected and fill that important need for socialization. Try #virtualschool on Twitter, or consider joining the Educator Temporary School Closure for Online LearningFacebook group. On Instagram, browse #virtualteaching and #virtualteacher.

And of course, don't forget YouTube, but do it with purpose. Think of a topic you have been meaning to learn more about such as literature circles, academic discourse, project based learning, cooperative learning, supporting ELs, virtual teaching etc. Put it in the YouTube search and you are off and running with new learning opportunities.

  • Read a blog or start one of your own. Share your first-hand experiences and lessons learned with your friends and colleagues to enhance their learning. To get started, check out these blogs on various aspects of online learning posted on Desire2Learn at https://www.d2l.com/blog/category/online-learning.

These ideas will get you started, but you will soon discover many of your own best learning strategies and resources. Remember too, if you feel that you just don't have the time or bandwidth, start small. Set a timer and learn deliberately for ten minutes. Practice this twice or three times a day and your weeks will fly by.

 

For additional professional learning resources, watch free recorded webinars featuring best practices from leading authors, literacy experts, and educators, here.

Tips for Families and Educators who are Managing the Pandemic Juggle

Dr. Jamie Lipp is a University Trainer for Reading Recovery® at The Ohio State University. Here, she shares four tips for educators and caregivers to support their children’s learning at home while balancing working full-time during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has affected all of us in a variety of unforeseen ways. Particularly in education, these changes are unfamiliar, unprecedented, and often unimaginable. Thankfully, teachers are flexible and resilient, and many shifts and accommodations have happened, quite literally, overnight. If you have ever wondered if teachers truly are superheroes, these past few weeks have certainly confirmed this!

These immense shifts in education mean big changes for everyone involved, including teachers, students, and caregivers. As a working educator with three children of my own, I have grappled with what to even call what I am doing (or trying to do) here at home. I realize this is not true homeschooling. I also know that actual distance learning is something very different. I have settled on a sentiment I heard recently, that what our children and students are doing at home is “crisis learning,” and teachers are “crisis teaching,” making my role as a mom one of “crisis-teaching support.”­­­

I can confirm that this juggle of being a mom, a caregiver, a supporter of crisis-teaching, all while working a full-time job not meant to be done from home, is very challenging. I’ve seen social media posts of moms who have created lofty homeschool schedules, and even more learning extension opportunities. And there is no shortage of pictures of children actively engaged in learning and fun. I simply feel as if I have no additional time in the day to provide this kind of enrichment. When I say that there have been tears, I don’t mean just from my children, and I know I can’t be alone in feeling this way. 

My family is operating in week eight of this new normal. It took me the first few weeks to realize that some things in this house had to shift in order for us to survive. Along the way, I have learned what it looks like to try and meet the educational needs of our children, who span a variety of ages, all while working full-time. My personal experiences may not mirror yours, but I have found that being honest with myself about my situation has helped to create some calm in this storm. My children are 13, 10, and 4 years old, respectively, and they each have very different needs and levels of independence. From the standpoint of an educator, here are some tips that have helped me manage my pandemic juggle that I hope will help you, too.

Organize their academic time around your meetings/work time. 

A friend recently asked me what time my children do their schoolwork. I told her I couldn’t give her a set time—the time revolved around my meetings and work responsibilities for the day. I have a demanding, yet fulfilling, full-time job that has become even more demanding now that I am trying to navigate those responsibilities from home. The constant check-ins and online meetings are still on my calendar. Therefore, each day I wake up, I check my calendar first, and carve out time in between my major happenings to devote to supporting my children who are less self-sufficient in completing their school assignments. This requires some support, as detailed in my next suggestion.  

Instill responsibility in your older children in different ways.

My older children have learned to write down each of their assignments for the day and place a star beside the ones they think they will need my support with. We can then go through and decide together what they need to work on independently while I am also working, and what will be our focus on the academic time I schedule between my meetings and work responsibilities.  This has been a process, but ultimately I feel this has taught them about prioritizing and organizing in a way that is meaningful—so I count that as a win! 

My older children are also required to read for a certain amount of time each day. Likewise, it is important for my preschooler to be read to each day, and sometimes I am not available to do so. I believe, reading is reading. Period. Asking my older children to read to their younger sister for periods of time throughout the day ensures that the reading that is so important for each of them is happening. When my boys take turns reading to their sister, they are learning to be responsible, but also learning about caring for another human and forming a bond with their sibling that is especially important during these uncertain times.  

Lean on your own version of learning stations for your little ones.

My four-year-old daughter is excited when she wakes up to find the activities I have set out for her in the different rooms of our house. Let me clarify, I am not up late at night cutting and pasting crafts for my daughter to complete while I am working. I simply place different things she likes to do in different areas of the house and change these daily. For example, today I left her playdough out on the kitchen counter. She ate breakfast, and I asked her to make me something pretty using the playdough. In my office, she saw my giant Post-it chart and her basket of markers on the floor, waiting for a drawing of her favorite unicorn. In the living room, her blocks and a few dolls were there, inviting her to build a playground for them. And in the dining room, some construction paper, a glue stick, some stickers, and some cotton balls were on the table. Make any creation of your choice, sweet girl. Do the activities keep her busy all day? No. Do they give her something to do when she gets bored, or when I am not able to be interrupted? Yes. Add some sidewalk chalk in the driveway, and I’ve even scheduled recess for the day!

Let it go!

The work life you had before this pandemic is not going to be feasible right now. You can only give your next best version of productivity. Similarly, the school structure and work ethic your children formerly maintained while attending school now has immense limitations. Once you embrace the realization that everything, including working, schooling, and caregiving, cannot happen simultaneously at 100% efficiency, you will free yourself of a weight that you never should have been carrying. It’s important to remember that we can be kinder to ourselves and simply let things go!

For example, the video-game system serving as technology time for my older boys—let it go. Finding my daughter with a spoon and an ice cream container after a long meeting—let it go. The assignments my teenage son refuses to complete because he is, well, a teenager—let it go. The work email that took two days longer to respond to than usual—let it go. Insert your own examples here—I am sure you have plenty!

One way to help yourself learn to let things go is to schedule brain breaks for everyone involved.  When I take five to ten minutes to play a board game with my boys in between my meetings and their schoolwork, we all feel more relaxed. Coloring a quick picture with my daughter or swinging on the swing set helps her feel more connected to me and helps me feel better about the amount of attention I am able to give her at this time. And if all else fails, a quick dance party in the living room can calm everyone’s nerves. Rely on whatever short breaks typically help you and your family relieve stress and let some things go. 

Finally, and most important, our children will remember this time at home for many reasons. I have settled on the fact that if I must be all things at once, I have to give myself and my children the gift of grace. I encourage all of you to consider what you read on social media and online, including this post, from the lens of, “Which part(s) of this work for my family and me?” For the parts that don’t make sense for you, forget them. It is never helpful to compare ourselves to other people because no two lives are the same. This juggle will never be perfect, and it will never be easy. But I have hope that it will not be permanent. Some days, it will feel like it is all just too much. Some days, it will be. And other days, you may feel like you’ve figured some things out. That’s called balance, and finding balance is key for any juggling act, including this one we’ve unexpectedly found ourselves part of today. Together, we can get through this.

Helping Kids and Parents Cope with COVID-19 Anxiety: A Conversation with Dr. Eli Lebowitz

What can parents and educators do during the pandemic to help kids cope with uncertainty and continue to learn and thrive? Suzanne McCabe, editor of Scholastic Kids Press and host of the Scholastic Reads podcast, recently spoke with Dr. Eli Lebowitz, an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center and director of the center’s Program for Anxiety Disorders.

Below are highlights from their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can also listen to the entire interview here.

 

Q: What are the long-term implications for cognitive development, collectively, now that young children are not in school?

Dr. Eli Lebowitz: I don't think we know. We don't even know how long of a disrupted reality we're looking at. That's going to be a big factor. A few months is different from many more months.

But it's important for this period to not just be a kind of black hole in terms of development. We have to try our best, with a lot of acceptance for the fact that we only can try our best and nothing more. Make this a time when kids can be learning and developing, whether that's through school interactions, social interactions online with friends and family, books and other educational materials, and even just conversations and games. Making this a time that's not just stagnation, but also a part of children’s cognitive and emotional development, is crucial.

Q: Most of us have an escalated level of anxiety now. How can parents and caregivers keep kids on track, or get them back on track if they notice them feeling more anxious than usual?

EL: We should be on the lookout for behavioral signs that a child is in distress. Maybe they're not sleeping as well. Maybe their eating is different. Maybe they're more upset more of the time. Maybe they're angry or irritable more often. All of these could be signs that a child is experiencing more anxiety and might need more support.

When we do have a child who is coping with elevated anxiety, the first thing is just to acknowledge that in an accepting way and to let them know that we see it, and we understand it. When your kid is having another temper tantrum or a meltdown, you take a deep breath and remind yourself that this could be your child being anxious. Take an interest in what they're feeling, as opposed to just getting upset, and have conversations about it. Teaching them some simple, easy-to-use techniques that they can practice, or that a family can practice together, also can help regulate anxiety.

Techniques like doing some slow, deep breathing, even for just one or two or three minutes, can really help to reduce anxiety. One trick that we teach a lot of kids is to take a little soap bubble toy that you might have in your house and try making a nice big bubble because every child knows that if you do that, if you want to make a big bubble, you have to blow a slow, steady stream of air. That helps to get them into a mode of slow, relaxing breathing.

Kids can also be given different ways to express what they're feeling. Some children might like to write about it. Other children might want to draw a picture or make a doll that represents some of the anxious feelings they're coping with. Finding those different ways to express it and to talk about it, even in a playful way, can really help to cope with the anxiety.

We also have to be thinking about the day after, because even though there is a lot anxiety in this period, some of the fallout from everything that children are experiencing right now is actually going to be more evident when we ask them to get back into their routines, when they have to get up and go to school again, interact with other people, and be in a class and separate from their parents. We should be thinking about all of those challenges that are suspended to some degree, but that we're going to be asking them to start doing again. Then, when they do go back, it won't be as difficult to transition.

Q: What advice do you have for educators on how to manage kids' and parents' expectations and anxieties over the summer, and when they do welcome families back to school?

EL: Educators and families should be thinking hard about how to optimize for that challenge. For example, by maintaining contact as much as possible, now and over the summer. Stay in touch with teachers. Practice the things that kids and parents will be doing when this is over. We're socially distancing, but we don't have to be socially isolated. Stay in touch with classmates. Teachers can organize class Skype or FaceTime meetings, for example, so that kids remember how it felt to go to school and what it felt like to be a student. We want kids to know that being a student is part of their lives and who they are.

We also have to be ready for the transition to be challenging and not get too upset if the first day is hard. Maybe we want to do something gradual. Maybe kids will go back for a short visit before they go back for full days. Maybe that first week will be a little bit more difficult, but if we go into it expecting that and prepared to cope with it, then we'll be less taken by surprise and better able to get through it.

Q: We know the many benefits that children get from reading for pleasure, but focusing these days can be difficult. What ideas do you have for parents and families to help kids just read for fun?

EL: One of the things about anxiety is that it tends to take over our brains, making it very hard to focus on other things. That’s actually a good thing. It's not a bug. It's a feature, meaning our brains are wired that way because when we're dealing with a real threat, it doesn't make sense to think about other things until you've dealt with the danger. The way our brains have evolved is that if there's something worrying me, I tend to focus on that, and it makes it much harder to focus on other things.

In a situation like this where there's a constant drip of news and information, it might be keeping our stress levels high, and it can be really hard to sink deeply into other material, to have that long period of reading and be really engaged with it. But it's important to keep reading, partly for the reading itself and partly because we don't want to succumb to complete immersion in COVID-19 and nothing else.

Try to structure times for reading. If your child can read for a long time, that's great. If they can read for a shorter period of time, do that, and keep it up so that it doesn't go away entirely. Maybe you want to read together. For a lot of children, it might be easier to listen to a story than it is to actually read it. They’re still getting a tremendous amount of benefit from that.

We also want to keep information somewhat limited. It's great to have conversations about COVID-19 and the pandemic, but it doesn't have to be the only thing we talk about. If you're having dinner, that doesn't have to be the only topic of conversation. It could be one, but we could also talk about the book we read or a character or something else that's on our mind. That will help to shift our focus away from the things we're worried about and open up space to take in other information.

Q: What about children who may be grieving, who've lost a family member, or may be frightened about family members? Many children have parents who are essential workers. How can parents help them grieve during a time that we can't be with loved ones or express what we're going through?

EL: It is so hard. Of course, one thing that makes it harder is that when a child is grieving, the adults caring for them are probably grieving, too. That means everybody is coping with a difficult situation at the same time.

Parents should give their children the opportunity to express what they're feeling in the way that the child wants to express it. We shouldn't have pre-formed notions about what's the right way for a child to express their feelings. Sometimes, parents might be puzzled or worried when a child isn't expressing things in the way that they think the child should, but maybe that's what's right for this child at this time. On the other hand, maybe it's a difficult thing to talk about, and parents might be avoiding talking about it with their children. But that means that the child doesn't have the opportunity to talk about it.

Let your child take the lead on what those conversations should look like, how much and how they want to talk about things, and also whom they want to speak with. Maybe it's mom. Maybe it's dad. Maybe they'd prefer to speak with somebody else, and that can be arranged. Maybe there's an online call. Maybe a therapist can be available online to speak with them. So many mental health providers now are really shifting their practices online. Find the way, the quantity, and the person the child wants to speak with to let them express what they’re feeling in the way that's right for them.

Q: Many parents are feeling a sense of loss as they see their children miss out on graduations, athletic events, school trips, and other milestones. How do they cope with those feelings when there are so many life-and-death issues?

EL: There's a lot of frustration and a lot of disappointment. My 11-year-old was supposed to be on a school trip that had been long waited for and expected, and it was supposed to be the very first week of social distancing. He was really disappointed that they weren't able to go. We do need to let children express those feelings and accept that they're going to be frustrated and disappointed.

But there's also an opportunity for us as the adults to model to children how we cope with disappointment. Are we just angry? Are we looking for somebody to blame, or can we also see this as an opportunity to find the positive things, to think ahead to the time when children will be able to do the things they can’t do now? We can model healthy coping with disappointment, which is a really good opportunity because children are going to grow up long after COVID-19 is over and this pandemic is a distant memory. There are going to be a lot more frustrations, disappointments, and irritations that children are going to cope with. See this as a chance to teach healthy coping mechanisms and acceptance of the things we can't control. Model flexibility and show that we can have a good day even if it's not the day we had planned.

 

For free activities and resources for families to use during this difficult time, visit the Yale Child Study Center & Scholastic Collaborative for Child and Family Resilience website.

Why Creativity Matters During a Crisis

Christopher Wisniewski is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which presents the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He describes why art and creative expression are particularly valuable in difficult times, with recommendations for engaging students at home.

With the public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, much of what we take for granted in our everyday lives—schools, neighborhoods, and communities—has been upended. Many of us are feeling unmoored. Some are even wondering: What is the point of creative expression? Yet I have come to believe that encouraging young people to engage in creative projects is more important than ever.

When so many of our country’s children and teens are learning at home, it is vital that parents, grandparents, and caregivers encourage their children and teens to express themselves through artmaking and creative writing. So—why does this matter now?

There are many reasons, but I would offer two that are especially salient at this time of crisis and change: First, creative expression can provide an outlet for identifying, working through, and expressing complicated emotions under difficult circumstances; and second, sharing art and writing builds bridges between people, offering opportunities for connection and empathy in times of isolation.

Practically, this can take many forms, but the most important advice I would give is to help students make time for creativity every day. With many students around the country learning remotely and adults working from home, we are more reliant on our screens than ever. Further, in relying on our screens to connect to our teachers, colleagues, family, and friends, we also keep ourselves plugged in to information streams that can feel unrelenting, if not discouraging. Build in quiet time every day, when you and the young people in your life can step away from screens and spend a few minutes writing or making art.

Sketchbooks and journals are wonderful tools for this kind of daily creativity. Because they are informal and personal, they open up a space where young people can reflect on their experiences and express themselves without the pressure to produce something that is refined, or the fear of judgment from others. A sketchbook or a journal is a safe space, and when it becomes part of a routine, its use can serve an important therapeutic function. This is just as true for adults as it is for young people. Model creative self-reflection for your kids: Put your computer and phone away for a few minutes every day, and spend some time journaling, doodling, sketching, or drawing. Give yourself the opportunity to be present with your own emotions so that you can be present for your children’s, too.

While it is important to respect the fundamentally private nature of a journal or sketchbook, I would also encourage parents and caregivers to open up a space for conversation—without communicating any expectation for how much or how little your kids and teens might be willing to share. A simple, open-ended question can create a supportive space where you and your kids can communicate with one another about what you’re going through. For example, “What are you thinking about today?” “Do you have anything you’d like to share?” or simply, “How are you feeling?”

In partnership with the New York Life Foundation, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards provide special recognition to teens whose work is shaped by a personal experience of grief—many of whom started their work with a sketchbook or a journal. While not all the young people living through this particular crisis may be grappling with the loss of a loved one, like our New York Life Award participants, many are working through a form of grief. They are grieving lost time with friends and canceled social experiences—from birthday parties and school graduations to sports meets and family vacations. They also are grieving the abrupt physical separation from the places outside of their homes where they used to seek inspiration or refuge, and from many of the people in their lives they depend on to talk to about all of the exciting, frightening, and complex experiences they have every day.

Our kids and teens need an outlet for sharing how they feel about these huge societal disruptions. That’s why it’s so valuable to make creativity a part of your routine. Still, you may find that not every young person feels comfortable jumping in to a sketchbook or journaling project. That is perfectly understandable under any circumstance. If you encounter initial resistance, you might need a little more encouragement, or even some prompts to get started. With the New York Life Foundation, the Alliance has published an anthology of student work, Healing through Creativity, which includes helpful prompts that build off the student work. Consider this prompt, based on a personal essay included in the book:

“Being present in one’s emotions and having a friend to share [them with] is powerful. The author and his friend return to a place of happiness—a grassy island—for healing. Describe [or depict] your place of healing.”

Again, while the inspiration for the original student essay was a personal loss, it is easy to see how the prompt might be relevant for a young person living through social distancing—particularly since the pandemic may have cut them off from their places of happiness and healing.

We need to acknowledge and honor what our children and teens are going through now. Creativity allows us to do that, and because it results in a product that can be shared with others across any distance, it also provides opportunities for empathy. At a time when we are all missing those connections that define our daily lives, few things could be more valuable.

Support Literacy at Home with Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza

We applaud all that educators and families have done for students to keep them engaged and learning during today’s unprecedented school closings. As we enter the summer months, we all continue to adjust to this new reality together.

Now, more than ever, it is critically important to keep kids engaged in summer reading to ensure their academic success in the fall.

A new research brief from NWEA highlights this urgency. The nonprofit’s study projects that students who lack steady instruction during the coronavirus school shutdowns might retain only 70% of their annual reading gains as compared to a normal year. The study also points to how school closures caused by the pandemic create a greater loss of resources and learning opportunities beyond the traditional summer vacation kids experience annually.

Scholastic is committed to supporting literacy at home during this pressing time with the reimagined Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza program. This year, we are excited to share a brand-new kids experience in Scholastic Home Base, a free digital destination which offers full books, live events, and games in a moderated and safe online community! Within the Home Base summer zone kids will be able to:

  • Read free digital books. Exclusive to the summer zone, kids will have access to select full ebooks in their entirety.
  • Unlock book donations for home libraries. For every two consecutive days a child checks into the zone, they will create a Reading Streak which will unlock a new free print book for another child with limited or no access to books. Reading Streaks are earned when kids check in to the Read-a-Palooza zone to confirm they have read that day. With the goal of unlocking all 100,000 books by July, United Way Worldwide—the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit—will distribute the books across the country to locations where access to more high-quality books is needed most.
  • Share reading progress. Kids will be able to create and print individualized reading reports summarizing their reading progress. These easy-to-download and printable reports can be shared with teachers or parents to show reading accomplishments.
  • Earn personal reading milestones. Kids will be able to earn accolades ranging from bronze, silver, gold, and diamond levels for their reading streak progress while collecting summer-specific accessories to dress up their avatar.
  • Join a community of readers. The summer zone offers kids a safe social platform to interact with friends and make new companions along the way. Through this summer reading community kids will share and discover the joy of stories and help provide books to their peers with limited or no access.

The program runs from Monday, May 4 through Friday, September 4, 2020. To learn more about Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza and access free summer reading resources, visit: www.scholastic.com/summer.

The Challenge of Fostering Teacher-Student Relationships, How to Support Social-Emotional Learning Remotely & More

Below are a few of the education stories we've bookmarked recently.

9 Ways Schools Will Look Different When (And If) They Reopen

With many schools closed for the rest of the academic year, many people find themselves asking the same question, what will schools look like when they’re open? Michael Mulgrew, the head of the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers explains, “A school building is not what you would call an ideal place in the middle of a pandemic. How do you make sure there's a plan in place to make sure the people walking in are not spreading anything?” Reporter Anya Kamenetz from NPR takes a look at the future of schools and what reopening might look like for teachers and students.

 

Coronavirus becomes unprecedented test for teacher-student relationships

While transitioning to distance learning can come with many challenges, teachers share with Hechinger Report that maintaining relationships with students is a top priority, but this isn’t easy. “My biggest worry is the kids I’ve gotten no response from. I’m calling and emailing them constantly,” shares Karen Rose of New Rochelle High School. Educators, in addition to experts from the Harvard School of Education and nonprofit Turnaround for Children, weigh in on how to navigate the student-teacher relationship during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

School parades bring joy and tears for Utah Valley students, parents and educators

Schools in Utah have found a creative way to keep students and their families engaged during school closures—hosting social-distancing school parades. For students, the gesture is a joyful boost as they see their teacher drive by and call their name. One educator added, “Since the parade I’ve heard from two parents who hadn’t had any communication with me before, and I got more work turned in today (Thursday) than any other day since the schools were closed. I had no idea the parade would have such a positive effect on both students and teachers.”

 

How to Teach Social-Emotional Learning When Students Aren't in School

How can educators foster students’ social-emotional skills when they aren’t in class together? Education Week recently interviewed experts to discuss how teachers can teach students SEL skills to help them cope during this difficult time. “If you don’t know how to deal with the lack of control of your future, or the feelings of uncertainty that you’re having, your brain is going to stay in a constant fight or flight mode….And if our brain is in fight or flight mode, then it’s not in learning mode.”

7 Strengths to Support Our Students and Families at Home

In case you missed it, Pam Allyn recently hosted a free webinar titled “7 Strengths for These Challenging Times.” Watch it here.

In these unpredictable and confusing days, our students will experience many of the same emotions we find ourselves also facing as adults—the fear and anxiety that come with a rapidly-changing world and uncertain future. But know, too, that children are still growing, still hungry for learning, still in the midst of their own major changes, from a lost tooth to wanting to make new friends. With every passing day, they can either leap forward or fall back as readers, writers, and learners.

Right now, everyone’s routines have been altered, as families seek ways to simplify the long, unstructured hours at home. Let’s try to make the world as normal as possible for them. Caregivers know that food and exercise are essential to their children’s health and spirits, but may not realize the importance of social-emotional nourishment in the form of language and literacy. Let’s help give kids a safe space at home, and later, in school, through the knowledge that reading is a joy, a comfort, and a way to find worlds of possible.

Our children need the comfort of predictable routines, a sense of belonging to an expansive community beyond the family home, and deeply engaging worlds of learning, possible through the books they love to read. Yes, it is a matter of creating robust learning lives for our children, but also promoting hope and humanity through reading, as well as the courage that we will survive and thrive. 

This morning, I woke to an unexpected snowfall. The trees were covered with sparkling snow, and the sun was shining. I felt a surge of gratitude for the simple pleasure of looking out the window to see such an ordinary, yet remarkable, sight. Our children are built to see the world this way; the gratitude of a moment is natural for them. The times we live in now are not natural. There is nothing natural about being separated from school, friends, routines, and the ways our children have been oriented to learning. And yet, children are still fundamentally predisposed to gaze upon the world the moments of joy in this world. They are hungering for them. So, life must continue for them.

How do we honor students’ growth, while grappling with all that we’re facing as a society? We can be the beacon they long for and need, now more than ever. We can say that learning continues. The human spirit always wants to learn. It is a singular desire that continues throughout life. Reading, writing, storytelling—these are the foundational tools of learning.

But learning is not just academic. Learning is in the layers of relationships, interactions, encouragement, challenge, resilience, resistance, and love. For this reason, learning is more complex and multidimensional than people might think. This is why children at home may now be looking for something that previously existed, in a special way, during school hours. As educators and caregivers, we have the power to give them a compass, a guidepost for how to find themselves, each other, and a sense of community in this uncharted territory.

Working alongside children and young adults in some of the world’s most challenging places and circumstances, I’ve seen how quickly children can adapt. But in order to do that, they must have a sense of journey, a way to continue to learn no matter what. For this reason, I have outlined “The 7 Strengths,” a social-emotional literacy learning framework to help teachers and families support children as they navigate the world boldly, courageously, and with confidence. It can apply at home, today.

  • Belonging: Inviting, including, and welcoming all voices. Co-create with children what the home learning space can look like. It can be a small space such as a corner of a table, but make this space feel like their own. Make clear commitments to the idea of belonging, allowing room for everyone to voice an opinion. Affirm risk-taking by making sure that children feel like they can have ideas about their schedules, routines, and the books they choose to read. Value your own school and family stories, and encourage children to talk about what they love about school, what they look forward to again, and what they love about learning at home.
  • Curiosity: Celebrate the power of the child’s mind by trusting their imaginations to inquire. Ask: What are you wondering about? What do you want to learn? What more could we do to make our learning grow? In any way possible, give children access to multiple forms of learning, both online and in books in hand—learning about the natural world, history, human nature, and more. Encourage children to be deeply observant and ask questions, looking closely at the objects in their environment or the faces of their loved ones.
  • Friendship: Reassure children that they are going to see their friends again. If they have access to the internet, they can do video calls together. If they don’t, invite them to keep a journal to record daily ideas, questions, and memories of their time spent at home.
  • Kindness: As Mr. Rogers said, make sure you point out all the helpers, whether in the news or in classroom magazines or in the community. This is a very scary time for all of us, and our children internalize this. Focusing on acts of kindness can be a solace. Point out the helpers in children’s books and stories—the friends who extend their hand. That is what we are all doing by staying home. We are helping others, not just ourselves.
  • Confidence: This is a really important time to notice and affirm the small steps our children are making academically, socially, and emotionally. Try creating a daily affirmation chart, stickers for small increments of growth, or rituals such as small chants and songs to commemorate growth moments.
  • Courage: It’s going to take courage to get through the weeks and months ahead. Our children will realize that they are not going back to school this year; they will worry about their parents and about getting sick. They will worry about all the things adults worry about, but they will worry in their own ways, at their own developmental levels. It takes courage to overcome fear and to navigate a new world. Let’s use the books we read aloud to create space to talk about courage, to see simple, ordinary efforts as courageous, and to invite children to name their own acts of bravery during this difficult time.
  • Hope: One of many extraordinary things about children is their capacity to PLAY. The imagination is a muscle and children are uniquely equipped to exercise this. It takes imagination to get out of a difficult situation, to create a story, to build a world and to solve problems. It is perhaps children’s greatest capacity, and it’s our responsibility to nurture this. Let your children draw and write often. Let them create perfect worlds, imaginary universes of hope and delight.

The poet Dana Levin once wrote for the Academy of American Poets: “During these extraordinary days in which we find ourselves enclosed, the capacity to hold nature in the mind, to revisit light by means of the Muse—by which I mean the Imagination—is a crucial and beautiful human gift. It offers shelter.”

Reading, and books themselves, are a form of shelter. Let’s make sure our children have access to this now. Let’s make sure they’re able to feel the delight of their days, of the moment of the snow on the trees, of the nearness of a read-aloud, and let’s keep the learning continuing forward.

How to Establish Remote Learning in Your School: Six Key Focus Points for Making an Impact

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, children around the world have had their lives change overnight. As adults, we are working tirelessly to catch up. Teachers are now contending with how to look after the kids in their own households while ensuring that their students still receive an exemplary education and feel a sense of community. District and school administrators have found themselves needing to run the many aspects that make up a school, including budget, food distribution, technology distribution, and learning expectations—all from their homes. Families are now figuring out how to keep their jobs, while managing the daily aspects of their child’s education. All the while, many of us are worried about the health and safety of our loved ones and how the future will unfold. This is a lot to bear.

Research shows that students learn best when they feel a strong sense of belonging. Right now, students’ overall sense of belonging is off-kilter. School, the place where they went each day, and likely one of the primary places where they felt safe, is no longer available to them. Never has it been more clear how deeply intertwined a student’s home and school lives are. As leaders in a school or district, it’s our job to ensure that we are providing adequate support for teachers and families as we transition to remote learning. This is a time to come together and focus on how we can best support young people.

LitLife, an international literacy consulting firm, has worked with hundreds of schools around the country and internationally. Now, we’ve watched as schools and districts everywhere begin remote learning. In the past few weeks, I’ve observed successful districts as they consider the possibility that this new paradigm may last longer than initially anticipated. These districts have a longer-term plan in place and are taking into account the very real social-emotional effects of this pandemic on their students.

In order to support students during this challenging time, it can be helpful to narrow your focus on one tenet of instructional delivery each week, rather than overloading the system with too many mandates and directives. By focusing on one umbrella concept, while monitoring one or two data points during a two-week period, you’ll be able to ensure that all stakeholders build a sense of stability around the basics, and feel secure in taking on this new challenge.

Below are six key focus points, shared with me by teachers, families, and school administrators, that they’ve found work well to successfully establish a routine for remote teaching and learning. While schools may be in a wide range of implementation stages for distance learning, my hope is that these takeaways will be valuable as they continue to support students and engage with families remotely, now and in the months ahead. 

Weeks 1 and 2: Focus on Meaningful Connection

The first two weeks of remote learning should be taught as though they are the first two weeks in a brand-new school. We all need to get to know each other in this new space and ensure that all students regain a sense of belonging. Building connection should be the first focus.

Teacher goals: Give the right support and clear guidelines

  1. Develop student connection

Teachers overwhelmingly reported a need for time to build community within their new virtual classrooms. They need to spend this time gathering information on where, how, and when their students will be connecting with them. During these two weeks, ensure that teachers are ready to be up and running with one main feature, such as Google Classroom, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, and one supplemental feature such as Padlet, Nearpod, or Seesaw.

  1. Tiered support
    In order for teachers to be able to properly support all of their students during this time, they need time to get used to the technology they’ll be using. To do this successfully, teachers must be allowed to self-select what professional development they need. Because of their unfamiliarity with the software, some teachers may need an introduction to remote learning with topics such as what buttons to click when, how to invite students to join them in the virtual classroom, etc. You should provide a range of coaching opportunities and allow teachers to decide what level they are on and what additional support they need to be successful with their students. It’s also important to make sure they feel comfortable asking for support no matter where they are with their remote learning capabilities because this is new territory for us all. 

Family goals: Student attendance and access to technology

  1. Set expectations for attendance

Most importantly, ensure that you know where students are, what they need, and how they will be reporting to school. Will students be required to sign in and complete assignments daily? Or will assignments be due at the end of each week? Be clear that this is the beginning, and there will be time for experimentation with feedback in the coming weeks.

  1. Ensure all families have access to technology

During this time, poll families to see what technology or learning materials they’re using for their children and help them get what they need. This may mean seeking donations from outside companies to get iPads and laptops for students, as is happening in NYC, or allowing the school busses that are currently not carrying students to serve as WiFi hubs, as is happening in South Carolina. This is also a good time to gather information on how many families will be sharing a single device, and informing teachers on ways you can stagger lessons and ensure that all of their kids get the access they need, when they need it.

By focusing on giving teachers and families all of the tools they need to succeed, you are setting a strong foundation to ensure that everyone is prepared and supported to begin meaningful learning in the coming weeks.

Weeks 3 and 4: Focus on Experiential Learning

By now, most schools report having their technology sorted out, and teachers are beginning to feel comfortable within their new systems. Teachers and students are getting creative with their lessons and work, and families are beginning to solidify routines. Now is the time to begin experiential learning, as the district administrators seek to better understand the work that’s happening in each classroom.

Teacher goals: Flexibility within structure and key reporting metrics 

  1. Key reporting

By giving teachers just one or two things to report on, you ensure that you’re getting the timely information you need while allowing for the necessary flexibility, as everyone works to adjust to this new classroom environment. These reporting metrics should come from your district’s initiatives that were put in place before remote learning began. For example, one school I work with spent the year focusing on small group instruction. Now, with remote teaching, the principal is asking for data on how many small groups teachers are pulling together weekly. The key metrics that were in place before remote teaching should remain the key metrics now.

  1. Work with partners to further key data points

Make it clear for all partners providing professional development, technology, or other services to your school which goals are “must-haves.” This way, teachers continue their learning and have room to make their own classroom decisions, while continuing the instructional priorities of the school or district.

Family goal: Family feedback on instruction

  1. Feedback with next steps

By this time, families have developed a sense of what works and what doesn’t for their children. Now more than ever, families have unique insight into what students are learning and doing in school as they see it happening in front of them. Let’s use this time to hear from them what’s working and not working for their children. We can ask questions about:

  • Timing: What time is your student learning best?
  • Method: Does your child prefer pre-recorded content or live?
  • What is working within this new system?
  • What would you change?

Weeks 5 and 6: Assessment and Moving Forward

After four weeks of methodically getting remote learning up and running, most school and district leaders report that they are newly able to refocus on assessment and learning. By spending four weeks monitoring family, teacher, and student satisfaction with schedules, technology, and methods for learning, leaders are able to use this foundation to begin planning for longer-term learning targets.

Teacher goal: Put together assessment expectations

  1. Assessing instruction with key metrics

Many schools have allowed teachers to self-report what markers they’ll use to monitor student learning. Right now, as a school leader, it’s important to give guidance around what will constitute learning for your school or district in this time. By making the expected assessment metrics clear, teachers can then get creative and use different technologies and methodologies to ensure students are learning.

Family goal: Begin regular instructional communication

  1. Weekly instruction at-a-glance

By now, most families have gotten into a rhythm with home learning. Now is a time for teachers to begin regular communication with families, letting them know what to look out for in their children’s learning that week. What are the objectives you’ll be seeking to teach and how can families support that? Some schools have used this time to set up a “virtual help desk” to allow families to call in with instructional questions. 

This is perhaps the only time in the history of education that the lines between home and school, and between families and teachers, have been so blurred. Let’s use this to our advantage to come together to ensure all of our kids are supported in learning. From our living rooms, kitchen tables, cozy corners, and basement offices, let’s work together to provide students with the world-class education that comes when all the caring adults in their lives are rowing in the same direction.

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