A Participant Reflects (The Pitfalls of Online Professional Development)

FOMO vs Fatigue

I recently took part in a three-hour professional development session in Zoom (groan, if you need to). I want to be upfront and say: I liked the presenter well enough, as they demonstrated strong knowledge and understanding of their topic, and this video session replaced an in-face session that wrapped up an interesting hybrid course on the teaching of reading that unfolded over a few months time (when we were all still in school).

It’s not the instructor’s fault they had to do this final session via Zoom. It’s the Pandemic and social distancing. They did the best they could to cover the material they needed for the job they were hired to do. I get it. It’s also possible that I went in a little weary of video conferencing, as so much time is spent doing so with students and administrators and others. That’s on me.

But … I thought afterwards of some lessons I learned by being a participant in the Zoom session as I think about being in the role of presenter in online gathering (as I am leading some work next week for colleagues.)

These are my observation notes to myself:

  • Avoid sharing three-hour online PD agenda, with only one scheduled 10 minute break. I was sighing at that before the session started. I’d say, in a three hour session, there should have been at least three or for breaks, chances to get away from the screen. And make those breaks visible in the agenda.
  • Maybe re-think three-hour virtual PD sessions altogether.
  • Avoid talking for 60+ minutes straight. There’s something about the sound of a single voice, with the eyes on the screen, that starts the mind (or my mind, at least) to drift. Find ways to break things up.
  • Regularly stop, and encourage engagement. Offer writing moments. Share polls for questions (and add an off-subject zinger in there now and then). Collaborate. Come at the audience from left field. Startle them back to the task at hand.
  • Don’t cover material that was already covered through reading or other course/PD work elsewhere. Engage the brains with something new, not reviewing what is already known (some refresher tips is fine, of course, as long as it sets the stage for something to come).
  • End with some sort of collaboration, to allow participants to reflect and think on next steps. Gather ideas together and share back out. Open the teaching to everyone (particularly in a room full of other educators).
  • Use an exit ticket to learn what worked and what didn’t work in this new world of online professional development delivery. (Write your own reflection on what you think went well and what didn’t, and what you might change).

I’m no fan of this new push into video PD format but I understand it is our world for the foreseeable future, and so, we need to find strategies that make it work for everyone. Listening to a voice talk for long stretches never worked before and it works even less now on screens. We need to think about engagement, more than ever.

Peace (thinking on it),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Nearly Done Writing (for now)

A week from today, the school year for kids will be over (we teachers will still be doing a day of PD on remote learning to get ready for what’s likely coming next year). With wrap-up events happening this week as our students transition from our elementary school to the middle school, yesterday was our last day to meet with all of our sixth grade classes in Google Meet, for one final classroom session on the small screen.

I went over different things — a few scattered assignments still out and about to complete, where to bring borrowed novels and assigned textbooks to school, our upcoming Step Up Day ceremony, etc. — but I made sure I spoke of my deep and heartfelt appreciation for the writing they have done since we left school in mid-March, and how so many of them were able to persevere through hard work, and how they remained connected to us and to each other.

I encouraged them to find books they want to read this summer, and to take their eyeballs away from the screens. I reminded them of my regular urging as their writing teacher that they keep a writer’s journal of these times, for their own sake (to look back and remember) and for future generations, too. I talked of writing poems, of making games, of imagining stories, of organizing essays. I tried to cram a year’s worth of what writing was for us into a short video chat, and it was impossible.

I hope I left them with love.

When I asked how many were happy the year was finally ending, most raised their hands. When I asked how many were sad the year was ending, most raised their hands. Same here. Same here.

Peace (in transitions),
Kevin

Music of the Pandemic: Words Left Behind (The Wheel Won’t Spin)

I’m nearing the end of my collection of songs written and recorded during this Distancing Time of the Pandemic entitled Notes from a Quiet Corner. This song is just acoustic guitar and voice, with little production, entitled Word Left Behind (The Wheel Won’t Spin). It will be probably the final song on the collection of songs I am curating for release on Bandcamp in the coming days.

Peace (listening),
Kevin

Drone Fly-By To Remember School By

Our school technology specialist (and all around geek) used his drone to make a short film of our elementary school — now vacant and quiet and empty — and the video he made is both intriguing for its view of the place but also sort of sad because of what it reminds us we’re missing as the school year is coming towards an ending (a week from Monday is our last day).

Peace (flying slowly over),
Kevin

A Poem Can’t Change the World (But It Can Try)

 

One of my morning podcasts that I always listen to is The Slowdown by former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She is so perceptive in her choice of poems — she rarely reads her own work, choosing instead to feature the work of others. This week, she has detoured from new editions of her podcast to surface older podcast pieces that grapple with race, identity and politics, and I’ve appreciated her voice in my ear as I do my walking and thinking on the world.

My regular morning poetry writing has been centered on the events unfolding in our country, too, although sometimes slant, as Emily Dickinson might say. I’d never suggest that a poem can change the world that way we hope — and certainly, not my poems — but poetry can provide another lens to better understand the self, the larger place we inhabit together, and the injustices, and the love.

I recommend The Slowdown podcast, that you allow a few open-minded minutes each morning with Tracy K. Smith, to let her insights and worries and words, and her voice, to sit with you a bit, and allow the poems she chooses to share to anchor, or maybe unsettle, your heart and mind as you start your day.

Maybe that is all we can ask of poems, anyway.

Here are my own poems from the last week:

It’s all facade
facing us —
beautiful windows
and bluster
quickly broken
by a handful
of ragged stones
and loud shouts

one lone voice
then two
add
threefourfivesix
then
seven, more
voices,
eightnineten
more, added,
add it again,
twenty
thirty
fortyfiftysixty

collective voices
as street symphony;

no voice
is the lone
voice anymore

such streets
some cracked
some beaten
this season
we stand
for reason
we march
for right
for justice
we shine
light, revealing,
an act
of believing
in something
much better
than this

History
sleeps not
just in the moments
we remember
but also in the moments
we choose for now
to forget

An Autumn chill
arrives on
the first of
June

Harbinger
of the beautiful
or more news
to subsume?

The world beyond,
sleeps, now
accustomed to spin,
perilously
out of tune

The danger
becomes us;
wrapped in a shell
of words we consume

Peace (rippling out),
Kevin

Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins

Traveling back by book into Panem, even as protests in real life take to our city streets and the federal government’s threat of a strong-arm military response, is an unsettling reading experience, to the say the least. Suzanne Collin’s latest book — The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — is a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, focusing on the story of the emergence of Coriolanus Snow, 18, who will later emerge the main antagonist of Katniss Everdeen in his role as ruthless president.

Here, the alternative world of Panem is only ten years from the squashing of the violent street revolutions that wracked the world, and the Hunger Games ceremonies are being used to beat down the Districts that rose up against the central government in The Capitol by forcing the children to kill each other on live television. But the games themselves are still in development — one problem is no one from the Districts watches the games, and so part of the problem being tackled by the central government is how to make the games more “entertaining” and “television worthy” — and the terrible elements that we see in the games of the first three books of the series are either hinted at or introduced here (food and supplies sent to players via drone; the betting on winners; etc.)

Might makes right, in this book’s world, and the military power, and the use of it to crush any opposition, has echoes in the rhetoric of the White House right now. Add to all of this my own listening to a podcast version of Malcolm Gladwell reading a chapter from an earlier book of his (David and Goliath), in which he explored how the British heavy-handed use of force in Northern Ireland during The Troubles actually increased, sparked and seeded violent rebellion, not quelled it, and I found myself worrying about the path my country is on.

In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Snow is likable and sympathetic (an odd feeling, knowing who he becomes) — his once-respected family has struggled since the war, he saw things in the war that he can’t shake, he is barely hanging on to the education he needs to get ahead, he become a mentor to a young woman reaped (chosen) for the games, he falls in love, he protects and betrays his friends, he survives for another day (and we know that he not only survives, but becomes president of Panem, and architect of the ever-deadlier Hunger Games).

Snow lands on top — that’s the family motto and the last words of the novel.

Dystopian fiction is designed to make us think of the world we live in now, by casting shadows and possibilities of a dark future on the present. Collins does this well, and her use of action and character drive this tale forward. Just be ready to put down the book and pick up the news, and see convergence in the most uncomfortable way.

Peace (in Panem and beyond),
Kevin

 

Political Comics: Views on a Wayward President

Somewhere in the White House

I don’t even harbor the thinking that a comic can put our country on a better path. Particularly a comic that I make. But it is one way I process the world.

We The People

The challenge, I have found, is to try to project some insight, without getting too snarky. My political view on this president has always been clear: he’s a fraud who’s taking us down a bad road, with terrible consequences, and the GOP, led by the Senate, is letting him do it.

Hiding in the Bunker

Peace (elections on the horizon),
Kevin

Slice of Life: I Can’t Read This Room

I took a breath before starting up my Monday series of video chats with my sixth graders. These are short sessions, with two offerings per week, for students to choose from. I’ve done some mini-lessons in the weeks at home with these video meets but mostly, I’ve used it as a check-in, pep talk, address questions kind-of-thing.

“If we were in the classroom, together, we would be talking about current events,” I tell my students, trying to read faces and body postures and feeling frustrated about how the video delays, spotty Internet connections, and small screens and faces-only visuals, not to mention the reluctance many still have of even engaging in conversation on the video, all stymied my approach.

I could have chosen to avoid this topic altogether. I could have but really, I could not. How can we?

“And there are events going on that you may have been following from Minneapolis and other cities,” I continue, noticing some nodding heads. One student quickly wrote “George Floyd” in the chat for everyone to see.  Another shared a sad emoji face. I pause, and acknowledge George Floyd’s name and then give an overview of what has been happening in cities across the country as a result, including nearby Boston (and later, I find, right in my small city, too, where the police station was the scene of a rally/protest and target of graffiti).

I connect what is happening now to our work earlier in the year in discussing race, civil rights, and systemic violence of the black community — particularly young black men — from our work with The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, and try to balance the news headlines of looting stores with the tenets of peaceful protest marches, as civic action against injustice being the heart and soul of our country. I avoid the president, despite the voice in my head, altogether, trying to keep the politics neutral.

Repeatedly, I open the floor up in the video for questions, and pose questions of inquiry. I receive some response, but mostly, not much. Just silence. Either they are reluctant to discuss difficult questions or engage in difficult dialogue via video, or they have not really been paying much attention to the news, or something else. (I refuse to believe it’s because they didn’t care). I could have (maybe should have) done some writing with them, but I wasn’t sure if they had enough context for that.

I could not read the room, despite my many years as a teacher, and this happened four different times with four different classes. I could not … read the room.

Yesterday, I disliked (hated, really, to be honest) this Distance Learning situation more than ever for the barriers it puts in front of me helping my students see the world through a larger lens, with context and compassion.

Seeing them there in little images, stuck inside my computer screen, isolated and maybe only seeing news through their social media applications, or if lucky, in discussions with parents, and here I was, a teacher they would often rely on to talk about these issues, feeling as inadequate as I have ever felt, trying to engage them in critically important issues, and seemingly failing in my efforts to do so.

Maybe they were thinking as they were listening, at least. Maybe that.

Peace (in frustration),
Kevin