In recent months, educators have had the daunting job of asking and answering, "What does teaching mean now?" They've had to make many impactful decisions and make them quickly — all while working together and teaching remotely.
Jody DeGroot, assistant principal at Bellarmine Prep High School in Tacoma, Washington, has similarly faced ongoing concerns about engaging students, assessing their learning, and supporting teachers with the right resources during the Covid-19 school closures. How has she navigated the situation? By asking guiding questions aligned with the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning™.
“How can we assess our students and make sure that learning is happening?” How can we make that more visible to us, and move away from knowledge and towards understanding?”
Joanna Michelson, director of teacher leadership and learning at the UW Center for Educational Leadership, spoke with Jody about the lessons she's learned from shifting to online learning during a pandemic. (The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.)
Joanna Michelson: We’re delighted to learn with you about what you've been experiencing in this online teaching context that you're finding yourself in now.
Jody DeGroot: Thank you for inviting me. And it's been quite the learning experience.
Joanna: So, what are a couple of the guiding questions or vision statements from the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning™ that you’ve found important to keep in mind when planning for and delivering learning online?
Jody: We had an in-service using the 5 Dimensions™ already planned for March 20th. We were going to ask our teachers to do some really heavy lifting with identifying priority standards. And the plan just naturally worked its way into our launch into distance learning. Questioning priorities just seemed so relevant and real.
We decided to go to a four-day schedule. Four days with Friday as an office hour day. Our teachers were just needing to breathe, but their need for room to ask, “What are our priority standards?” really stood out.
And so, we supported our teachers with that by providing them some tools and meeting times to talk with their PLCs about what the existing standards mean now, and what criteria we need to use along with the ones we were given. And they questioned, does that change because of distance learning, and our current situation — the fact that we're in a pandemic on top of that?
Jody: The other question from the 5D™ that came up really strongly with our teachers and department chairs was, “How do we keep our students engaged?” And since the distance learning adds another layer, how do we know they're engaged?
We wanted to know what sort of resources and environment we needed to create engagement, and also how do we keep them engaged. To get to those answers, we asked ourselves, how do we create an environment that honors the relationships we've already built with our students? And create that environment in this distant way?”
Here's another one of the questions that aligned with the 5D™. “How can we assess our students and make sure that learning is happening? How can we make that more visible to us, and move away from knowledge and towards understanding?" And we also wanted to know what strategies and tools would best fit this shift.
One teacher said to me just the other day in casual conversation, "You know, it's not about me finding content; I can find anything I need. It really is about designing. It's really about thinking about new ways to meet students where they are. And knowing that these circumstances are really unique."
Distance Learning isn't necessarily unique, but the fact that they’re home because of a pandemic is unique. So, it’s important to keep that in mind when designing.
Joanna: Right, right. Wow, I just I was just looking at the 5D™ card while you were talking, and I was hearing such clear connection to all 5 dimensions: purpose, student engagement, curriculum and pedagogy, assessment for learning and classroom environment and culture.
What you were last saying got me really thinking about the first guiding question in the assessment for student learning: “How does the instruction provide opportunities for all students to demonstrate learning?” To demonstrate, you know, real learning.
Jody: And yeah, I think that's why our professional development team is focusing on opportunities to think differently about our assessing. Sometimes we focus on how we've always assessed, but the current situation requires us to think differently. Are our students really meeting the learning goals we've set for them or they've set for themselves? The connection between learning targets and then how we're assessing is starting to be a little more clear.
Jody DeGroot: In phase one, there was this short term, "Well, this is kind of interesting, we can do this" response. But then, they started to realize that the impact is real. It’s a lot of adjusting. Some of our students have excelled, and some are struggling, as you can imagine. It's our environment, and we have to stay attentive to those students who might disengage.
So, building a really strong support system around the teacher and student I think is huge. Our learning resource team is supportive; our counseling team is supportive. We have administrators that are connecting with families and students to try to make sure we're bringing them back in.
My husband, who's a chemistry teacher at the school I work at, said, "You know, they're being impacted in many facets: psychologically, physically, emotionally. This is all change. And whenever somebody is going through change, it has an impact. As teachers we see this regularly, but in maybe one student here or there. But now, all of our students are being impacted at the exact same time. And so that puts an added attentiveness as a teacher to really prepare lessons.”
Joanna: That's so powerful. Do you have a sense of what some of the concrete changes teachers are making are? I'm just curious, you know, to really respond to this moment that all of our students are engaged in.
“I tended to do (formative assessments) a lot but in a quick way in my classroom. And now I have to be more intentional to really find out how they're doing."
Jody: Well, I think, really understanding that students learn at different paces, acknowledging that and reaching out to them is key. I think the communication through email and Zoom conversations matters.
Teachers are being attentive to who's progressing, and really noticing if a student is being present or not, really trying to take a pulse. My husband was saying about assessments, "I tended to do that a lot but in a quick way in my classroom. And now I have to be more intentional to really find out how they're doing."
Jody: He used to grab a piece of tissue or whatever and write down, “Do you understand this?" And he told me, "Now I don't have that." But then as we were talking, he realized he could have them.
So formative assessment is becoming a really strong piece. But gauging how they're doing emotionally along with how they're doing with the learning. That combination is really important.
Joanna: That's so important for everyone to think about right now. Thank you so much. This was really helpful to me to hear how you're thinking about instruction online, and I'm sure it will be helpful to others.
THE 5 QUESTIONS To ask: [download worksheet]
- What are our priority standards? Do they change because of distance learning, and our current situation?
- How do we keep our students engaged? And since the distance learning adds another layer, how do we know they're engaged?
- How do we create an environment that honors the relationships we've already built with our students? And create that environment in this distant way?
- How can we assess our students and make sure that learning is happening? How can we make that more visible to us, and move away from knowledge and towards understanding?
- Are our students really meeting the learning goals we've set for them or they've set for themselves?