Last week, I interviewed Liz Katz, our incredible Director of School & Student Support at One Schoolhouse, on how schools should support students as they move to distance learning. Here are her thoughts.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO of One Schoolhouse: Can you talk about what's different about supporting kids in a distance or online learning environment compared to how you support kids in face to face schools?
Liz Katz, Director of School & Student Support at One Schoolhouse: It’s important to start with the reminder that the tools that are experienced and fantastic teachers have at their fingertips in the classroom aren't there in the online space. When I was a classroom teacher, I could read the room, I could see when people were losing attention. I would notice if a student's quiz answers were really different than they usually were or if they looked really tired or when somebody suddenly changed their seat and wasn't sitting next to their good friend anymore. All of those things are pieces of data that we take in without thinking about them.
When you're online, you have to use data in a different way, and your data is different. The first thing that's really important to do in distance learning is to identify what those markers are that raise your flags of concern. At One Schoolhouse, there are a few flags that are probably similar to what you do in your face-to-face classroom. We get worried if grades drop to a certain point; we get worried if somebody’s average drops suddenly.
But there are also a few that are a little different. We get worried if a student is missing more than two assignments, and we get worried if a student isn't responding to messages.
One of the things that we know about students working in an online space is that when students have a hard time, they go downhill pretty quickly. And so we want to try to be at the front edge… we'd rather raise the flag early and then be able to pull it back down instead of being in the position of waiting too long and having a bigger situation to sort out.
Brad: Liz, can we pause there for one second? There's something really key there about what you just said. We want to make sure that we are on top of the situation even sooner in this type of setting. That can sometimes be a difficult thing for administrators to help faculty members understand, can’t it?
Liz: One of the things that we have, like every other school, is a set of expectations in terms of grading. We expect our teachers to grade work within five days, which isn’t too different from most independent schools. The reason why that's really essential for us and why we emphasize it with our teachers is that missing work is often one of the warning signs.
Frequently, teachers will say, “Oh, you know what? He’s such a great student. I just want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give him a few extra days to turn that in.”
And what we've learned is that if we frame our support not as punitive or disciplinary, but instead as supportive and as growth-focused, then students understand that our concerns aren't about getting them in trouble. It's making sure that they have what they need and that they're getting the tools and support from their face to face schools, and also from us online.
Brad: That's helpful. So I know I interrupted you there, too, in terms of some of the other differences that you see in the online space.
Liz: Sure. The other one I mentioned is that when we don't hear from a student, that that's really important. What we know is that when students get uncomfortable, just like all human beings, they tend to avoid a situation. And when somebody isn't responding to their teacher’s emails, sometimes it's an oversight. But a lot of times it's that first warning sign that something doesn't feel right, so they want to back away from the discomfort.
Part of helping students develop a growth mindset is helping them to lean in when it becomes uncomfortable. The first step is to train students to reach out for help when something feels hard. We do that all the time in face-to-face schools in our advisory program, or informally, when we pass a student in the hallway and pull them aside to say, “Hey, how's it going?” When we’re online, we don't have hallways. And so we have to figure out other systems to get those students to reach out to us, too.
Brad: Liz, I've heard you say to schools at times, the good news about the situation is that the kids who you were worried about on campus are probably the same kids that you should be worried about in distance learning. Now, can you speak to just why you know that and even the data that you have that supports that?
Liz: Sure. Let me start with the data. I mentioned that you need different data in an online space. One of the things that we track very carefully is who we reach out to when we have concerns. We’ve tracked this data now for three years. It's pretty consistent that about 60 percent of our students get all the support they need from their teacher that day. When they run into a tricky spot, they ask their teacher, their teacher gives them the support and the student never hits any of those thresholds that I was talking about. They get everything that they need from their course teacher.
We have another 20 percent of students that, at some point over the course of the academic year, need one or two of those reminders. They need me to reach out in my role as Director of School Support. They need their on-campus contact to reach out to them as well. Usually, that little nudge helps everything fall into place, and the student picks up the behaviors that he or she needs in order to be successful and able to implement them for the rest of the year.
We know that we have between 5 to 8 percent of students who need ongoing sustained help. I'll tell you from my work as a dean of students that that number is pretty consistent with what I saw in the halls of a school, too. Usually, when we're reaching out about those students, the school says, “Yeah, that doesn't surprise me,” because these are the students who often have a hard time getting work in or maintaining positive study habits or working independently.
What we know is that the way that a student behaves at school is typically the way that they behave online. Is that always true? No, not 100 percent of the time, but it's a pretty good place to start! As you're moving to distance learning, if you have students who are on that list regularly, you're going to want to plan to be checking up on them regularly in this context, too.
I'll also say that right now we're in uncharted territory. And in terms of the toll that the current crisis is taking on all of our students, on our families and on our communities, we know that kids will be having a harder time than they might have in face-to-face schools. That's not about the transition to distance learning so much as it is about living where we are at this moment in time. I would encourage you that when you have kids who run into distress--because everybody's going to have a few of those--to make sure that you're putting it in the context of what's going on in the bigger picture.
Every year, usually in the third week of school, I get e-mails and calls from schools who say, “I have a student and he says he just can't learn online.” And I usually say, first of all, this is exactly when we would expect somebody to run into trouble.
So here we are. Most of us are in week three of distance learning. This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where it stops being new. This is when most of our teachers have been slowly ramping up to, whether it's because they started with review,or kept the pace slow because we're all learning how to do this. Now, [our teachers think,] here we are in week three. We should all know how to do this. We've got to start introducing some new material. And so, quite frankly, this is probably where it's going to get a little tricky for some people.
What we know is that every student can learn online. And we also know that it's harder for some people than it is for others. The way that we talk about it at One Schoolhouse is that we don't expect you to come to our online courses with all of the metacognitive skills that you need to succeed. What we expect is that you come ready to build them. And that means being flexible, being willing to consider new ways of doing school and organizing time and being open to feedback. I would be really surprised if you aren't having students and families who are going through this right now at your school, and it's OK.
The other thing that I say in week three is, listen, you've learned how to do school one way for many, many years. Now, you're doing school in a new way. That's like being a football player taking a yoga class for the first time. It's not that you're not in great shape. It's not that you're not a great athlete, but you're being asked to do something you haven't done before. You will be sore. You will have some aches and pains. You will think, I don't know how to do this, but those skills, those foundational skills that you have, are still there. They are going to stand you in good stead. The values and the goals in distance learning are the same. Just the tools are different.
Brad: OK. So, Liz, I'm going to pose something to you here, you've just talked about the really proactive and positive ways that we can answer the question, “I can't learn online or my child can't learn online.” What are some of the things that we should avoid saying in those conversations as well? You want to show empathy to the situation, but you don't want to accept the premise.
Liz: Right. Don’t accept the premise that distance learning is not for that child or for a group of kids. But the other thing we say is, yes, it's hard. It's OK for it to be hard. And here's the thing: most of our students identify as, being good at school and being good students. To be in a new environment, which every single student in the country is right now--that's destabilizing and that's scary. And what you do when you're scared is you freeze up and you say, I can't do this.
We have to help people establish a growth mindset about this moment. “I don't know how to do this yet,” is different than “I can't do this at all.” The other thing that I'd say is that we know that one of the biggest indicators of success in an online course is the student’s relationship with teachers. And this is where your schools have this all sewn up, because your teachers know your students, and your administrators know your students.
Those relationships, those connections… your families know how much you care about them. They know where your values are. They know that you are in their corner. And this is the place to pull on those relationships and to remind people how much you care about them and that you are going to get through this process with them. It may not always be graceful. You may not always feel grateful, but you will get through it together, because that's the kind of school that you are.
Brad: That's so good. You and I have been recipients of messages from schools and kids and parents over the last couple of weeks. We’ve heard from a few parents of kids who struggled at the beginning of this year who are now saying, thank goodness my child started to take an online class earlier this year because they're prepared differently to move into this scenario.
Let’s shift back to the structures that schools might want to think about putting into place to identify these kids needing extra support. Previously you mentioned two missing assignments as a marker to be wary of.
Liz: So let me talk about the system that we've developed at One Schoolhouse and how that translates to what that might work for your community. We send a questionnaire out to our teachers every week. We send it out on Monday. We want it back by Tuesday night. And we say, tell us about any student who you're concerned about. And then we list those flags that for us are those non-negotiable thresholds of concern, like a grade threshold or those missed assignments.
But our teachers, because they're experienced teachers and they know their students really well, are also looking at other things. I’ll sometimes get a note from a teacher saying, “This student’s answers have gotten a lot shorter lately, and I wonder if everything's OK” or, “There's a big project due, and he had he hasn't logged in a lot. I'm just concerned; it could come in and be fine, but I'm just a little worried here.”
We say to our teachers, use your skills and tell us what you know and why you're worried. When we get that information, we then send an email out to the student and to an administrator at their school. We call that person on campus the One Schoolhouse Advisor.
We keep the message pretty simple. We say, here's what we're worried about; here's how you're doing right now; here's the snapshot of your grade; and here's what you can do to get back on track. We send that out to the student and the advisor, and then we trust that connection will continue to support students.
Depending on how you're communicating out with your faculty and your staff, you may find that a form is a really useful way to do it. For us, it works well. We use a Google form that aggregates to a Google sheet. We can sort and take a look at the data. We can break it down by course. We can break it down by teacher or by school. So, for instance, we might notice that, oh my goodness, this week we have a lot of kids in AP Gov who are struggling, and that's unusual. We can reach out to the teacher and give some support. So it also helps us to support our teachers better. I would recommend having a system of some kind. That’s because consistency is really important. Keep the system as simple as you can: tell me what you're worried about and tell me what somebody can do to fix it.
I will tell you that even in an online program, nine times out of ten, the advice that we are giving is the same advice that you would give in your classroom: get the work done and meet with your teacher. Nine times out of ten, that does the trick.
Brad: What else should schools be thinking about in terms of student support now, Liz?
Liz: I'm feeling this [current crisis] as a parent at the same time that we're working with schools. So one of the things that I am taking from my parent life and bringing into my work life here is how deeply parents do not understand the magnitude of what schools are asking our faculty to do. I was on a parent call the other night, and a parent who I know well said, “Let me ask you, as an educator, why can't the school just get it together? And I thought, “Oh, it's a really good thing we're separated by a screen here, because if we were in the same room, this would not go well.”
As you are thinking about what comes next, consider how you communicate with parents. That’s in part because parents have so much faith in your teachers and they know how great your teachers are. They don't understand that what we’re asking teachers to do is like swimming in Jell-O. Our teachers are extraordinary educators. And I say that regardless of the school, the city, the division, the kind of school you are in. People become teachers because they care about kids and they care about their growth and they care about learning.
We need to help our parents understand that what we're doing is the best thing for their kids. You know, it's sort of a truism that if you've been a student, you're an expert on schools, and everybody thinks that they know what school is supposed to look like. Nobody knows what school is supposed to look like right now. And that's OK, because nobody knows what this world is supposed to look like right now, except that we want to keep people safe and healthy and we want to build resilience.
The goal here is not finishing up 11th grade and being ready for AP Calculus BC. The goal is getting your students ready for a world where they're engaged in learning, ready to thrive, able to put things in connection. It's also where they are building the skills of autonomy, independence, time management and prioritization that are essential to their success. The older our students get, the more essential these skills are. These are essential college readiness skills. We may not be giving students the content they expected to have, but we are still teaching them. And arguably, the lessons that we're teaching them now are the ones that they are really going to use for the rest of their lives.
Brad: I think that's a perfect place to end, so thank you so much for taking some time to share your thoughts. My guess is we may do a follow up webinar at some point later this school year too, as we start talking about how to end the year with student support, because there are some other things to think about there, including things like comment writing.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)