Three teachers and a staff developer from Passaic, NJ who have been teaching virtually for a year examine how they approach building students skills for self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Clearly, there is no going back to “normal.”
Get in contact with Chad, Director of Staff Development at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have a great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:33 Teaching virtually for a year-teachers’ thoughts on building social emotional skills. Today, I am joined by a group of educators from Passaic public schools in New Jersey. Chad Leverett at the director of staff development is with us along with James Robinson, Emily Tessalone, and Carla Valledor. We’re going to spend some time exploring why and how these educators are focused on social-emotional learning. The teachers and the students in the Passaic school district have been working virtually for a year at this time. So welcome team. Chad, am I correct that as a district, you were focusing on social-emotional learning prior to COVID? And if so, what took you in that direction and how has that modified or adjusted as you’ve gone through this past year?
Chad: 01:43 Fortunately, we were starting the conversation. We were trying to work out how we can begin to gather some data directly foams the staff and students and begin to craft a plan on how we can address social-emotional learning in the district, both on the – you know, using that data. That was all pre-COVID. Thankfully, we already had the ball rolling and had some ideas and well had a plan, a concrete plan actually, on how we were going to approach the data collection period. Then of course, life was interrupted, but because we had that plan, we already had the relationships and the framework to really, to roll out the data and now we have some good data from both our students and from our teachers and staff just as a whole, from an SEL perspective, especially. And we’re going to use that data now to start planning both services for children, but also professional learning for staff and our teams in general.
Steve: 02:49 Terrific, terrific. Teachers, I’m wondering, as you, as you began working with SEL, what did you that was already a common practice or part of your instructional or classroom procedures without it having been labeled? And then what are some other things that you ended up becoming more conscious of because of the study and the exploration of SEL?
Emily: 03:21 Steve? Yeah, I’d like to comment and say I’ve been doing things all along prior to COVID and prior to having that label, as you said, just making sure that my students are connected, making sure that they’re safe, that they’re welcome in my classroom, whether it be a physical classroom or a virtual classroom. I think those three aspects are something that have always been incorporated within my daily practice and I’m sure within the other participants here. And just giving them a voice, making sure that they have a voice within every lesson that happens. I think that’s a strategy in SEL that I’ve been carrying over here within to the virtual, remote learning world. And just always having those real-world connections being present in every lesson that I teach. I’m an ELA teacher as are the other teachers here.
Emily: 04:17 So I think a lot of the content that we’re teaching lends itself to a lot of the infusion of that real-world stuff. And you know, I do things like questions of the day, but also trying to make sure I get down onto the student’s level to tie it into what they’re going through, real world stuff and just making sure I’m connecting with them emotionally and making that connection to the content that I’m going to teach to engage them. So that’s something that I’ve brought forth in this process.
Steve: 04:50 Carla, I see you’re nodding your head there while Emily was speaking.
Carla: 04:55 Well, prior to COVID, I always had my students learn about growth mindset and grit. I have interactive notebooks and we would engage in strategies, group strategies, and assignments, and team-building projects that are all centered around growth mindset and grit. After once COVID occurred, I continued the new year with the same practice as I did before, but it looks slightly different because we’re not in person. One thing I do in addition to what Emily – piggybacking off of what she said, because our theme, our curriculum, I mean, we do cover the standard common core NGSS standards, it’s thematic. So basically, in addition to having my students kind of work on self-awareness, their self-awareness being, you know, what is your grit level? How is your growth mindset today? What do you need to on with regard to grit? I actually have a reflection form that I give my students a couple of times a week, and it’s sort of check-in to, you know, ask them how they’re doing, but also for them to self reflect on what is it that they need to do or where are they and what do they need to work on.
Carla: 06:14 So that kind of ties back to the whole grit and growth mindset, which is something that I usually tap into. I think it’s important for students to be aware of what are they doing well and what do they need work or help with. And it gives it sort of like, I’m not going to say a label, but it kind of does, because let’s say in grit, you need to redo an assignment. You know, it’s sort of like labeling these different sections so they can help themselves figure out what it is that they need to do to get to that next level. So it’s that mindfulness of being self-aware of how you work and how you engage in your assignments and what it is that you feel that you’re missing – that missing point to help get you to the next level.
Steve: 07:01 Can I plug the word empower into what you’re saying there? The empowerment of the learner with the awareness that you’re doing?
Carla: 07:09 Absolutely. I mean, they take ownership. They will need to take ownership over their work, right? And it allows them to do that and it does empower them in the sense that they are able to understand, okay, so I need to work more on, let’s see redoing an assignment, or I need to work more on taking my time to finish an assignment and not rush through it. So it does – it definitely does empower the learner to take that step back and become more self-aware of their own process and what they need to do. And that is a weekly – it’s not every day, but it’s definitely at minimum once a week, just to see where they are among the other questions that I ask on that form.
Steve: 07:51 James, it looked like that empowerment word connected for you.
James: 07:56 Yeah. Something that I had tried to build in as far as to help students focus on their relationship skills was our classroom discussion and having that be student-led. So having students be giving them an opportunity and a voice in the process as far as what issues do we want to focus on in the class and being able to step away from the conversation and allow the students to have that dialogue with each other.
Steve: 08:25 How have you carried that out virtually?
James: 08:27 Yeah. Being able to, you know, giving students options as far as whether they want to participate by unmuting themselves or participating in the chat or going into a breakout room or doing it through a Padlet or a jam board. I think if we can provide students with multiple opportunities for them that they’re comfortable with to engage in the conversation and not force every student to do it in the exact same way, I think we give them more pathways success as far as building those relationships skills. And as a teacher, it’s important to allow them to discuss it, you know, to set parameters as far as what we might be demonstrating in our conversation, as far as our body language, as far as the way in which we agree or disagree with one another, but being able to set back from the conversation and not have to push students to arrive at one answer. To allow them to wrestle with topics, to bat ideas back and forth and allow that to happen organically and see where that goes. And allowing them opportunity gives them more freedom to be able to engage in those conversations and to build their relationships with others.
Steve: 09:40 Do you think that virtually, you may have added more options while you were working virtually?
James: 09:49 Absolutely.
Steve: 09:49 [laughter]
James: 09:49 It’s sort of, you know, the nature of what we’re doing is you know, we have students that are willing to participate in different
ways and are unwilling to participate in different ways. They’ve been virtual for a year and you know, we have to go to them in some cases. So we as teachers have to give them those platforms in which they’re going to be able to participate, otherwise, they won’t. And so if we can give them multiple avenues in order to do that, then we increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to get them engaged and hopefully empowered in that process.
Steve: 10:28 How do you think that carries over when the doors open up and the kids are back in the classroom?
James: 10:35 That’s a great question, Steve.
Steve: 10:36 [laughter].
James: 10:38 I think that it’s incumbent upon us as teachers and curriculum writers and school leaders to not just go back to well, here’s how we
did it before so let’s go right back to doing it that way. Students are – when they come out of this, you know, this has been quite an experience for them as far as their mental health and some students have gravitated to this process and other students have struggled. So we need to be able to carry those opportunities that we’ve created remotely and be able to bridge that and build more opportunities when we go back and we open the building.
Steve: 11:14 So there really is no back to normal. The kids are different. These are different kids because of what they’ve experienced. Emily looks like that looks like that struck a note with you.
Emily: 11:27 Yeah, certainly. And I think what’s cool about what James said was that we now have this like, bank of all of these different ways that we could do one particular task, right? And what I think, and I’m not sure if the other teachers agree with me, I’ve taken a lot of risks. More risks now in virtual teaching than I ever have within the career of 12 years of teaching. And I think that’s a great thing to do not only for yourself as a professional, but to show the kids that you have to take risks in your learning. You know, when I’m trying out a new activity or a similar activity, as I’m sure the other teachers have done philosophical chairs or world cafe tasks in their class to spark discussions, but now we had to look at it through a different lens.
Emily: 12:18 How are we going to get the same or a similar outcome, but changing the process a little bit. So it kinda, you know, pretty much begged myself to look outside the box and think, what am I going to do to get this outcome for my kids? So I had to try all of these different things and I did try them and, you know, some things worked, some things didn’t work, but it was cool to show that to the students that not everything is going to work out, not everything is going to be picture-perfect every single time you try something. And that’s life. That’s a direct collect connection to –
Steve: 12:55 So you were modeling some social-emotional learning there. And Chad, I know I’ve heard you talk about the importance of teacher risk-taking during this time.
Chad: 13:08 Absolutely. Because we’re all learning, right? This is the first time for everyone involved. And teachers can’t feel constrained to not try strategies that have been not found to be effective, that they may have come across, right? You know, as long as we’re all on the same page about what the potential benefit from any particular strategy or approach or whatever. Teachers just need to feel like they have some ownership over this process and that they’re not being held back to try something because they all know that every administrator that’s evaluating them has no idea how to teach in this setting.
Steve: 13:48 [laughter] That does make it safe, huh?
Chad: 13:48 Right, right. So for us to constrain them and not allow them to be like, the entrepreneurs of the classroom and support and help them grow in this is extremely important. And then allowing them to take risks, you know, this is all a risk, you know, so why limit the risk, you know, as long as we’re all on the same page as far as what we’re getting ourselves into.
Steve: 14:20 Folks, I want to read off a list here of areas that the CASL network has identified as being important to developing student social-emotional wellbeing. And then if you would, just share any of the things that you’re working on it and implementing with your students that fall under one of these categories because it gives us a pretty wide range of things to look at. But the CASL network describes that we build students’ self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. James, you got a spot there you might jump in to start us off?
James: 15:09 Absolutely. I think as far as decision-making, that it’s important moving forward to be able to design projects and units that build in opportunities for student choice and voice. So allowing students to choose the materials that they use to practice their skills or how they want to demonstrate their learning. You know, reading an article versus listening to a podcast. You know, do they want to participate in a live discussion in a small group or in an asynchronous online discussion? You know, a teacher-led small group or watch a video and complete a lesson on edpuzzle? So if we can give students multiple pathways to success and control over their learning, I think we increase the likelihood that we engage them and that they feel empowered through that decision process. But it’s important that our assessments also reflect that as well because, you know, we talk a lot about giving students choice and voice, but then so many of our assessments ask students to jump through the same hoop. It doesn’t – we don’t always give students the opportunity to share their gifts or to be able to demonstrate their learning in divergent ways.
James: 16:24 So I think it’s important for our assessments to be able to allow students to demonstrate their learning in different ways.
Steve: 16:31 Thank you. Carla, you got an area to jump in on?
Carla: 16:36 I completely agree. I do the same thing. I allow my students to select the medium that they would like to present their work. And so whether it be a PowerPoint or a Google slide or a Prezi or a video, I like to leave that up to them many times. One thing I have done in my classroom is – well with regard to topics covered in a literary selection, like I’ve connected – I’ve tried my best to connect that social and emotional part of it where relationships are concerned. So for instance, in one of the texts, I’ll just mention a fellow, for example, I will provide my students with student choice if they would like to analyze an article on building trust, how to build trust once trust has been destroyed. Manipulation, jealousy, and how not to become jealous. So I’m giving students choice. I picked several topics, usually four and I ask them to cover two.
Carla: 17:50 Analyze any two that they would like. And then of course it would be in alignment with whatever we’re covering. Like let’s just say central idea, determine the central idea. And I feel that that gives the student ownership as well as teaching them and bridging that relationship and social connection to the text. So that’s one way that I connect those.
Steve: 18:14 Great, great. Emily, got one to share with us?
Emily: 18:18 Yeah. So the area of self-management has always been very important to me. Even before remote teaching, I always have my kids keeping track of their grades, their assignments, and things like that by way of a portfolio. So I thought that having them record, you know, their assessments and tracking their grades without me, you know, having them do it, solely them doing that, I thought that it was, you know, it was eyeopening for them to see on paper. This is what I’ve achieved. This is what I need to do. This is how far I’ve come from the beginning, you know? And when they see the growth or sometimes maybe lack thereof, it promotes change for them and it also helps them emotionally as well. Like, oh my gosh, look how far I’ve come, you know? So I kind of had to think of a way to, you know, bring a portfolio type thing back because I thought it was an effective tool.
Emily: 19:16 And so I made a digital portfolio where the kids still – they’re still tracking what they’re doing. This time, it’s even easier because they’ve got PowerSchool at their fingertips, they have all of their assignments in front of them, so they could track it in that sense. You know, it gives them a sense of ownership as we talked about before, you know, taking control of their education. Just really quickly, another area is that relationship skills. So sometimes when I did have the kids track these portfolios, I would take, you know, take advantage of that opportunity to meet with these kids individually, physically in my classroom before remote learning. So I also wanted to adopt that same strategy and I started to – and we talked about this, I believe in the second the second session that we had together a few weeks ago – I believe one of the teachers said that they do individual breakout rooms with each one of the kids.
Emily: 20:09 So I actually did that and I was amazed at just the connections – it’s almost March and I was just amazed at some of the connections I was able to make with some of these kids, just with a simple five-minute meeting with them alone, like individually. And they were able to open up to me and I was able to find out just so much information about them personally. Not even just the grades, just personally what these kids are like. Making, you know, other connections. And you could tell that the next day when they came into class, they wanted to participate more. So, you know, just by having their teacher reach out to them individually, I think is important.
Emily: 20:48 I think there’s definitely a long way to go with that. You know, trying to get the kids to talk to each other and connect to each other is a hurdle that we have to kind of get over.
Steve: 20:57 I think you’ve established an important piece there that that that we need to hang on to when the doors open up and the kids are back in the room. I think there’s a lot of kids who were in the room with us that we didn’t know. Now that they weren’t in the room, we realized we didn’t know and so we created things like an individual breakout room and purposely plan those three minutes to catch that student. And we got to make sure that it’s going to be just as important with kids back in the room. I think people felt a freedom to pull a little of curriculum time away in order to focus on social-emotional learning and I think there’s a caution that when the doors open up and the kids are back, that we think we can put that piece back on the shelf and let the curriculum run us again. I that’s gotta be something we have to be very conscious of. Well folks, before we close out here, I’m wondering as you look at your own social-emotional wellness, are there conscious decisions you made for yourself and or interacting with your colleagues around the issue of social-emotional learning?
Chad: 22:24 Well, one thing is the power of the group chats for venting purposes, right? And really respecting that as a place to really just kind of share. Because we’re not in this alone. You know what I mean? And we need to feel that. And even on down to the sharing of memes, right? I mean, like shows like, oh, it’s just like a release of the, you know, like yes. Because if you didn’t develop the memes, I mean, there’s not one guy that’s just sitting around the country, just pushing out memes, right? These are a bunch of people that are all over the place that are sending stuff out that’s expressing how we all feel, right? And it’s good because it allows us to feel like, oh, if someone sent this to me, it’s because they’re also feeling what I’m feeling.
Steve: 23:19 Yeah.
Chad: 23:20 And so that type of community building – I don’t think people really see it as community building, but that’s really what it is. I mean, there’s a – solidarity is big, right? Not being on an island – that you don’t feel that isolation, right? And we need to remember that a lot of the kids that we’re dealing with are feeling that isolation. So the way that we release and the way that we need to continue to encourage kids to find their appropriate releases as well, you know? So the strategies that work for us can work for our kids and we need to just encourage them and be mindful of that. You know, virtually, in-person, hybrid, whatever you want, whatever the modality, it doesn’t matter. You know, we just need to just always be mindful that just like we seek help, we need to help kids learn how to seek the help that they need and to find the releases that they may need as well.
Steve: 24:19 Yeah, that word empowerment still keeps ringing for me. As a teacher, I need to be empowered to know how I reach out to get what I need and that’s the same thing I want to create for kids.
Emily: 24:32 I think – Chad, you definitely mentioned some very true and funny stuff there about the memes. I mean, I have group chats with a lot of my colleagues and it’s just memes. But you know, it helps you to just laugh and, you know, like every day at some point or another, you’re going to get frustrated. Like it’s just the nature of the beast in virtual learning. And it might not always be the kids. It just, you know, we got a lot on our plate and, you know, the risk-taking and trying to figure out how to make things engaging, you need a moment to laugh for sure. So I think that is huge with virtual learning. And I think just being open with your colleagues and just being willing to help them through whatever, I mean, relying on each other and just knowing that you’re all going through the same thing.
Steve: 25:25 You think this situation made us more open?
Emily: 25:29 Definitely.
Steve: 25:31 Yeah. Teachers became more vulnerable with each other and more vulnerable with our students.
Emily: 25:37 Sure. I’ve built even stronger connections with some of my colleagues I’ve worked with for a number of years now. I was going through a rough situation yesterday. I called her up – one of my colleagues up immediately and she’s like, “relax, I’m going through the same thing. You’re not alone.” Like, those were her words – you’re not alone. And you know what, I’m going through the same thing. So don’t think it’s just you. So that’s reassuring and it’s a better feeling to know that you’re just not alone in anything.
James: 26:07 Adding onto that vulnerability piece, totally agree with what’s been said and that it’s okay for, you know, for us as teachers to say to one another, you know, and to even say to students that, you know, this is new and we haven’t done it this way before and we’re going to try something new and we’re going to try something different. And to have that honest conversation that it may not work out the way that I have in mind. And I think if we can do that and sort of model that social awareness piece, that we’re going to try something, but it might fall flat on its face, I think that also helps build relationships because we’re sort of going through something together. We all are going remote together, at some point, we’ll all come back to the building for the first time. And I think it’s okay to have those conversations with other teachers and students that, you know, none of us are experts in this. We’re all sort of experiencing this for the first time in a way, and we’re going to try some things out. And I think if we can share that, it helps build those relationships, that we’re sort of doing it together and we’re going to try and fail things together.
Steve: 27:10 Well folks, it’s been my pleasure to have you on the podcast as I’ve worked with you in a couple of the online sessions that we’ve done, I’ve been impressed by the energy and the enthusiasm that you’ve all brought to your jobs and you’ve reinforced that for me again here today. Chad, you got any closing comments you’d like to wrap us up with?
Chad: 27:42 Really giving credit to the work that teachers have put in, in their learning. Teachers are getting a really bad rep by a lot of folks across the country as being this – a belligerent group that doesn’t want to work. And I just really want to acknowledge like the work that teachers have really put themselves through, right? Because we’ve had sessions where we’ve had to continuously offer more and more learning because they were busting at the seams because teachers want to get this right. And they didn’t want to get this right for themselves because a lot of the accountability measures were waived and things like that, they were trying to get this right for their kids, right? For our kids. And we really need to give them the credit that they deserve for the effort that this all takes and for the time that it takes, because teachers are working around the clock, they’re burning the midnight oil. They’re asking questions. They’re trying to find out. People that have been technophobes for decades are now using breakout rooms and Google slide presentations, Bitmoji classrooms, and all types of things. And every time we offer something, “oh, I want to jump on that and learn how to use it.” So we’re talking the newbie and the veteran teacher alike have really just put in all types of effort and they really deserve our adoration during this time. And I’m thankful for them, for what they’ve done.
Steve: 29:10 Thanks, Chad. Thanks for that comment, because that is that is critical across the board. And I think what you’ve described there as well as in many of the comments today – that we really can come out of this stronger. And so there isn’t going back to an old normal, it’s a new place that we’re that we’re ready for. Chad, would you mind giving your email address out to folks here and if they want to connect something, they hears one of the teachers say they can they can do that by checking back with you?
Chad: 29:42 Absolutely. email@example.com.
Steve: 29:42 Terrific. And we’ll make sure we put that in the lead into the to the podcast. Thanks everybody. It’s just been a pleasure to spend
the time with you.
Steve [Outro]: 30:08 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.