Carl's Teaching Blog

A place to talk about teaching and learning

Author: Carl Oliver (Page 2 of 41)

How envisioning the future helped us work together

As I write this we are all waiting for the results of the election. For me I’m trying to do something between waiting with bated breath for to update. While I wait I will extend a little 3 day streak for blogging in the month on November. The thing that I keep thinking about is the activity we did to open a recent staff meeting.

Envisioning the good life

A lot of time was spent planning this particular staff meeting because we knew there was tension and anxiety in the air because, well… [gestures broadly at everything]. What was proposed to open the meeting was a visioning exercise that we each did mentally before engaging in small groups. We were each envisioning a future where our work has flourished, making positive contributions to our community and an overall good life. To fully imagine this we had to close our eyes and get relaxed and really try to immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds and smells of this future. After some time to think about that we brought our awareness back to the room and talked a little bit about it in small groups.

When our group got together to talk about this future it was one of the most interesting discussions that we have ever had in the school. We talked honestly about the things we were hoping for, but people also were able to discuss the things that we should change in order to really serve our students. The positive vision was so valuable that there was no resistance to the internal shifts we would have to make in order to move towards that vision. As we moved to the rest of our agenda, that future perspective pulled our discussion towards what matters and held us together even as contentious issues were brought up.

The interesting thing of thinking about that future was that no one described what they saw. We talked about how students would be their full selves, and how we effective we could be, but no one sketched out a game plan. Our tight schedule prevented us from describing what our futures with the color and the detail that a kid would if they were explaining what their ideal homecoming date would look like. This means that we were all talking about different futures, and that was ok. Trying to move towards all of our futures helped us all work together.

As I’m writing this and we are currently unsure of how this election will work it seems like taking a minute to think about a better future can help how I approach whatever news I get tomorrow morning. What will 10 years from now be like? How will my efforts to the communities that I’m a part of make our work more significant? How does what I do tomorrow impact that future?

Clog: …And we’re listening to Christmas music

Today I had to navigate a serious breach in decorum with a student in my in-person class. They were proposing something crazy, and I went along with it, and now I feel personally violated. During work time, the student convinced me to start play christmas music. CHRISTMAS MUSIC! It’s November 2nd! The halloween decorations are still up! I hung my head in shame while singing along to ‘This Christmas.’

How the year is going so far

The school year is going ok so far, so it made sense to try and write about it, which leads me to revive my class log. Lucky to have a chance to teach a class even though there are a lot administrative things I have to do. When there isn’t a global pandemic, teaching a class helps me understand what teachers might be seeing, and connect to students in a non-disciplinary way. As we worked on our staffing plan in light of Covid-19, my teaching a class became important in different ways as each new bit of information from NYCDOE was announced. At first it was good for me to teach because we needed to keep class sizes as small as possible. Then we needed more in-person teachers because about 40% were able to work from home with medical accommodations. Then, as >70% of students went remote, class sizes swung the opposite direction, and I was back teaching again for my regular reasons. If anything changes, teaching will still be a big priority for me. I think the teaching profession is going to be fundamenally changing as a result of all of this and I’m lucky to be able to see it with my own eyes. It’s not clear how it will be changing, but my ability to understand that change will be better because I’m teaching.

To plan the class we are working in a ‘pod’ of 3, on a couple of geometry that leads to a project of  building a handicap ramp. Each pod has at least one in person and one remote teacher. The three of us keep our classes tightly paced so whenever one student decides to stop attending in person and to ‘go remote,’ the transition is seamless. We’re using a combination of video lessons and straight up worksheets on Google Classroom. Nothing fancy. We probably should have spent the summer learning to do online platforms of some sort, because we were waiting to see if we will be in the building or not. Perhaps we’ll use more online platforms later in the year but it’s hard to tell if our students have the internet access to work on it, or if we have the time to learn a new thing.

Relationships with students have been pretty interesting, I’ve never had more than 4 students in the class. Our classes are 2.5 hours so I’ve really gotten to know the students. The longer classes help us reduce hallway passing time to once per day, thus reducing the number of groups that any person is exposed too. It’s a little too small though. I’ve combined with a different teacher to get more of a ‘real’ class vibe. It feels less like a small class than an animated tutoring session, so it’s working a different set of teaching muscles than I’m used to. The lack of a large body of kids to appeal to is particularly difficult. Having a large group that is working together and making decisions and learning is important for students to be a part of. Without it things can kind of feel weird. Such as when one of the two kids you have in class really wants to start listening to Christmas music two days after Halloween, and no one else is around to talk them out of it.

With all the new things going on in school and the world, it seems like capturing it is important. Therefore, I’m going to write about it in my blog more. Hopefully more blogging will get me out of my head and also help me be more present to the different things going on in and out of school. I’m going to write a lot in the month of November and we’ll see what happens.

What to do, now that the election is over

The election results have now had enough time to sink in and the results, are probably “permanent”.  “Permanent” is a relative term, of course, as this is 2020. A truckload of absentee ballots could be found inside an a shipping container in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida, and trigger more media speculation and delay. But for the moment it is time to wrap your head around the fact [Joe Biden|Donald Trump] will be President for the next 4 years.

Certainly there are lots of immediate geopolitical, and national consequences. Our participation in global climate change efforts will probably [lead to a boom in solar and electric|mean the world leaves us, and our fossil fuels, behind]. National efforts against the Coronavirus will be [bolstered by a coordinated national response|reduced to crossing our fingers and waiting for a vaccine]. It will be nice going forward to not be inundated with election ads and twitter posts, but it seems like reports of [Donald Trump not participating in, or being capable of, a peaceful transition|Donald Trump not participating in, or being capable of, working with a Democratic house and senate] are part of the political news in the months ahead. At this point, I’m [happy|disgusted] with the results, but glad this election is behind us. Whatever mental capacity I’ve gained now that it is over, is quickly being co-opted by all the work left to do in our schools after the spring.

A lot happened last spring. As Covid-19 shined a harsh light on the inequality that exists in the vulnerable parts of our society it was clear that the shadows of those inequalities are cast on our education system. At the same time, the brutality of our policing system demanded system-wide reform, which requires changes in schools. Schools are certainly part of the criminal justice system, and harm is caused to students through direct acts of  violence, and the normalization of silence. These things are pervasive nationally, but won’t have a national solution. Our national education secretary can’t be expected to come in and address this now because [their appointment will take months|she’s awful]. Furthermore, the constitution prevents the federal government from making sweeping change in education. To address these things, we are going to need that action to come from a place closer to home.

At this immediate point in history, when people around the country are are [reeling in jubilation|ill with disgust], it’s nice that we’ll have some certainty for a change. Yes, history is will be watching to see if [Joe Biden |Donald Trump] will bring about the change they seek, but now that they are in place, what are the changes that you can bring about? What are the books you could be reading, lessons you could be trying, feedback you could be seeking out? How can the values you want to see in our democracy, live in your classroom? Now is the time to go work with social workers to support students in need, or work with the deans at your school to have a more restorative discipline process.  Can you advocate for school policies more equitable and anti-racist? And can your students help? It may feel selfish or myopic to focus on your classroom and your own development in the midst of national chaos. Really it’s the first step towards sustainable long term change in our schools.

The election results are definitely [relieving|revolting], but they are also helpful, because now we can focus on things we can control. The problems that have been made so clear could be addressed with things that are within inches of our grasp. Those problems might still be around in the next election cycle if they fall off of people’s radar. This is still an important opportunity to push for the things that our students and our schools need.

The kind of policing we need, given this moment.

[Note: I’ve been working on a post to reflect and to call for change in response to the rash of deaths to black people. That post became unwieldy, so I’m going to break it up into a short series of posts, of which this is the first.]

One morning my brother sent me a disturbing video recorded while a group of people asking a police officer to stop. An officer grabs an upset kid, slaps them, and throws them face down before pressing a knee on their neck and keeping it on for the rest of the video.

“I guess that’s another thing that cops do now…” I immediately thought, making another entry in the list of things that to fear in case I have interactions with police on the street, at the train station, and in my school. 

The mental recovery for watching something like this ends up demanding some active and passive work. There are plenty of sources to trigger this fear, from videos to stories from my students. These events will keep replaying in my mind for the next few hours or days. To prevent being haunted by these replays forever, I have to think through different ways that I could survive if I were in that scenario. “Maybe If I had my phone out? Maybe if I kept my distance? Maybe I shouldn’t confront the officer?” Eventually, I’ll come up with a string of ‘maybes’ and ‘what ifs’ that convince me that I’ll be safe, or at least convince my subconscious to stop the haunting replays. 

By now I have a little database of expected violence and imagined responses, and it’s maintenance is a big part of what gets me out the door when things like this surface. Imagine how it must be for a kid who has to process facing a lifetime of these kinds of violent cases. I’m a 38-year old man and not only am I still haunted by Trayvon Martin’s 911 call, I still haven’t watched the full George Floyd video. How quickly are we expecting kids to process police violence they witness online, in their neighborhoods, and in their lives knowing they have to face uniformed police officers when they walk in the door? Who pays the consequences if they aren’t able to immediately get past these violent events?

Jerks In Schools 

Let me start by saying I am a huge fan of the officers in our building. Some students have better relationships with the officers than anyone on our staff. When incidents happen, they can de-escalate students, and manage the crowd, and collaborate with our Restorative Justice coordinator. I’ve worked with great youth officers and community engagement officers for our local precinct as well. We are lucky to have these awesome people. The only downside with them is that they all have to operate within the larger NYPD culture where people often act like di… for now let’s call them ‘jerks’.

One of these jerks will swagger into our school and make snide comments about or towards our students, ignore our school culture and approach, and/or attempt to intimidate and post while they do what they came to do. These officers embody the antithesis of any school culture, they also represent a big part of the police culture. Kids have lots of awful, triggering stories about cops safety agents acting like full-on jerks in school. Yet it seems like the NYPD and even the President, support and defend this approach. You’ll see awesome officers moderate get quiet and tighten up around the jerks come around, while the jerks seem to dial it up. As big incidents involve more officers, it’s more and more likely they a jerk will get involved, and all of a sudden, everyone starts acting like jerks. An organizational culture that defers to this kind of policing is poisonous, especially poisonous for Black and Brown students who most often bear the brunt of these jerks’ wrath.

What do we want cops to do?

The cops are doing their job, and we, as Americans, define that job. We, as Americans, also have a lot of bias, especially when it comes to people of color. When turn over unsettling events in their subconscious, many Americans find resolution by imagining violent police officers showing up and beating the bad guy. Amy Cooper’s subconscious imagined a cop that would show up and fight violently on their behalf against the “bad guy”. Police officers should be there to face our darkest fears, but some of America’s fears are VERY dark. Deep down, enough of us want police to relentlessly arrest black and brown teenagers and get them into the prison system early that we have an internationally unprecedented incarceration rate as a result. While extreme, Amy Cooper, BBQ Becky, and Sidewalk Svitlana(?) are examples of what some people expect the police to do. We need to nationally redefine what it is police are supposed to be doing and include in that clear ideas of how to support black and brown teens. If we can’t do that quickly, then let’s create a school security department that seeks to put the student needs first? 

We would have to change society to see the change in policing that we need. We don’t have affordable housing, adequate services for the mentally ill, and racially disparate economic outcomes, for starters. Unmet needs can eventually become police issues, and when they address it, it can put people in our huge, expensive prison population, or worse. Eric Garner, facing scrutiny for selling a cigarette Eric Garner and George Floyd both had minor economic infractions that ultimately had deadly consequences. One alternative to having massive police departments and correctional facilities is investing more in programs and benefits so fewer police actions are needed. Another is to not have cops escalate situations and make them violent. However, if we continue to have this brutally unequal society, there will be calls for violent police officers to police it, and we should consider how to shield our black and brown students from the negative consequences of this policing reality.

Responsive School Design For Pandemics

Our school is doing remote learning, like every school I know whose year hasn’t ended. With the end of this year comes urge to move past hastily planned system we have been running since March, and look forward to the fall. Most people are postponing thinking about the fall because every time the mayor or governor holds a press conference they can’t say what the fall will be. The truth is, we already have all the information we need to start planning, and the first step is in looking real hard at this remote situation that many of us our mired in.  Uncertainty about next school year will loom from now until it September, and will be a constant through June. Luckily, the design of this web page can help to provide a clear idea of how to plan around uncertainty.

Web Page Designs Drastic Shift

For the last decade, web designers have struggled to build websites that deliver content and look beautiful, despite companies constantly creating new devices to view the site to on.  Modern websites instantaneously adapt to screen sizes as wide as a smartboard and as skinny as a smartphone. To see this in action, try experimenting with the size of this window. As you decrease the width of your browser window, the image of the 4 devices at the top stays perfectly sized for your window. Shrink it enough and you’ll notice menu icons appear. When it’s as small as the width of a smartphone screen, title of my site snuggles down next to the menu icons, conserving screen real estate, the font is easier to read, while the image at the the top still fits in the window. Websites didn’t always do this.

Comparing the ESPN website from 2010 and 2020 shows that actively adapting websites weren’t always around. Advances in technology created a litany of web-ready devices, so website developers had to build the  adjustments to the big screen, the small screen, and every screen in between. Having a website solely for a full-screen computer was as typical for ESPN and other companies as the 7-period school day is for NYC educators. The consistency and predictability of web design was unmoored by Apple’s 2010 invention iPad, as neither the desktop or iphone sized sites really good on the really popular device. How they addressed the needs in these website issues maybe have some valuable lessons for schools looking to address the litany of fears surrounding this pandemic.

Adapt Respond Overcome

After COVID-19 forced a blunt introduction to remote learning this spring, schools now can expect a fall where being able to slide into remote learning is a new normal. Schools will be expected to dust off the Google Classroom and Flipgrid if next year brings a second wave, or some families decide to stay in quarantine, or an outbreak happens in school. This experiment has been difficult and unfamiliar, but likely to return in the fall if the pandemic is still going. How can you map out any calendar for the year if your school will still be in the building, remote, or doing some kind of hybrid? With vaccine deployment expected in second semester at it’s most optimistic, your school can expect to snap in to a significant portion of time. It would be nice if we could switch between the old  model and this new remote thing, flexibly, right? Almost as flexibly as a … Reposnsive website?

Responsive Web Design was born a few months after the iPad in an influential blog post by Ethan Marcotte. In that post he provided an example of a responsive website that now looks standard, but was like a Back 2 The Future Guitar Solo at the time. He writes:

This is our way forward. Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience.

Wouldn’t it be great if next year could feel like one coherent experience? The news of a positive test hits your school community, in mid-October, not only does your school know how to shift the learning, but the clubs, events, and all other parts of the school experience know how to shift as well. Following some of the ideas of the web design, we could try to create a responsive school experience, in the hopes of ensuring for more equitable education in the face of these challenges.

Remote First

The first step for planning for next year should be to think through a remote learning approach that fits your values. Returning to remote learning in the fall is as appetizing as returning to that nightmare I had where I was surrounded by pirahnas. However if a second wave is remotely probably for the fall, returning to it with a plan you feel good about would be like returning to the pirahana dream, but with live preservers, or better yet a boat. Tightening up this step might involve the following:

  • Reflect – How was this spring? What headaches were caused for teachers, students, parents and staff? What worked? What things were absent in a way that made you sad? For those of us (still) working in June, you may want to send out surveys, and collect artifacts to enhance your reflection.
  • Tighten – Figure out ways to make the remote learning better.
  • Extend – Make a plan for a whole year of remote, not just something that could work for a couple of months. Make the ship, not the lifeboat.

Planning “Remote First” is key because it has the most restrictions. The phrase “Mobile First” has been the ethos at Google since 2010 because after tackling the challenging restrictions of mobile computing there is also great opportunity for the future. Once these most challenging problems have been tackled, it is now possible to build more amazing experiences everywhere else.

These are some big remote learning questions (that I wish I had answer to, and would appreciate thoughts in the comments)?

  • How do you have useful discussions?
  • How can students meaningfully collaborate?
  • How do you build community?
  • How do you support students with special needs in all of the above?
  • How can you monitor student work?

With the remote plan figured out, it is now possible to go to the opposite end and think through the completely optimistic full-year building plan. It’s not quite as simple as taking what was supposed to happen this year, since the building plan needs to avoid contradicting the remote plan. If the remote plan is using some app to build community, use it the building too. If the remote plan can’t include that super awesome hand-on project, don’t include it here. Better yet, figure out how to do remotely, update the remote plan but add the full-glory version to the building plan. Having the two plans mapped out should eventually look like two trains running on parallel tracks. This is key since there is probably going to be some jumping back and forth between trains through the year. Starting with the constraining remote plan first will ensure a coherent experience for people no matter which train they are on. Deciding when to jump trains is the reason from breakpoints.


Website designers use breakpoints to define where a website needs to change for given the size of a users window. For example, if the width  of this window gets smaller than than 1000px the sidebar disappears. If it gets lower than 784 the navigation changes. The breakpoints continue until at 500px the full mobile layout takes over.  These breakpoints are aligned where the major device screen sizes would be and the designer made sure to plan which elements of the mobile layout and the desktop layout would be the right amount at each breakpoint.

A Breakpoint for a school might be an hybrid where some people are remote, others are in the building. For example, one positive test result could send a whole group of students into self quarantine. A breakpoint here would be helpful think through. These students’ teachers would know to move their instruction to the remote train, and in thinking through this breakpoint, maybe some letters home were drafted to communicate this to parents. A similar breakpoint could involve teachers being out on quarantine in such number that coverage is unmanageable. Then the classes can convert to computer labs, essentially, and students who are in the building can work remotely with the staff that are left. Throughout the summer and during the year, if it seems like a lot of people move between the remote plan and the building plan, it would be good to stop and think through how that would work, and call that a breakpoint.

Adapt, Respond and Overcome

The leap from old rigid websites of 2010 to the flexible ones we have now invovled lots of little steps. We still don’t have a lot of information about the way school will look in the fall, but we certainly know two ways it can look. We know what the remote learning looks like, and we can plan to make that better. We know what the building learning looks like, and we can adapt that so it is more responsive. With the two plans in hand, we can take little steps to handle whatever gets thrown our way, and in the process make our schools more adaptive and flexible.

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