With the 2019-2020 academic year coming to a close, teachers and students are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic known as COVID-19. In March, as students and teachers were eagerly anticipating their upcoming Spring Break, Coronavirus set in, and abruptly disrupted their everyday lives. What started as temporary, only lasting a few weeks, turned in a new-normal as schools across the country were forced to close for the remainder of the academic year. Within the blink of an eye, learning and instruction went from the classroom to the living room, with no one having adequate time to prepare. Teachers were forced to change how they provide instruction. Parents became overnight teachers on top of additional responsibilities, and students had to learn in a way that was new to them.
Recognizing the need for assistance, and to ensure that students continue to receive the best education possible, Chicago-based nonprofit, LEAP Innovations, launched a free six-week Remote Learning Seminar Series, taking place each Wednesday, aimed at equipping educators with tools to help overcome challenges. To further explore this groundbreaking program, we had a conversation with LEAP Innovations, Senior Marketing Manager, Jessica Bee, on the series and what it means for students, teachers, and parents.
Racquel Coral (RC): How did this Remote Learning Seminar Series come about?
Jessica Bee (JB): We have been working with schools across the city to help them transition to personalized learning and support their students with becoming agents of their own learning. With the pandemic, we became curious to understand what our principals, schools, and educators were going through. We began having focus groups with our long time principal partners. During those conversations, we learned that a lot of schools are struggling with students that are having traumatic experiences happening within their families. Some of the concerns that we heard were job loss, having acce
ss to the internet and devices, as well as social-emotional learning. But at the top of the list for our schools was thinking of how we provide support for our students in need. Our educators were thinking about their academic needs, but how do we ensure that there’s a continuity of learning for students? So we took all of that insight and put together this offering called the Remote Learning Seminar Series, which is designed to help support our teachers. They are on the front lines having to adjust, prepare students, and keep the learning going.
RC: The series officially launched May 6?
JB: Yes. The May 6th session was about Connectivity Basics to Fuel the Continuity of Learning and Community. We have partnered with Class Dojo, which is a popular platform that schools use to communicate with parents. Google for education is another one of our partners. They are helping to provide professional learning to educators surrounding the use of technology, how it can be leveraged to continue instruction, and build a sense community between parents, students, and teachers. Also, the goal of each session is to have school perspectives. We want to have teachers learn from other teachers, and schools learn from other schools so they can understand and pick up new approaches and insights that schools may implement to benefit others.
The remaining sessions are:
- May 13 – Relationships, Routines, and Resilience: Addressing the Impact of Trauma and Enabling Children’s Learning and Thriving, Both Today and After Re-Entry. This addresses how we build up those things within our students and help meet their whole needs, especially when it comes to social-emotional learning. For this, we will be bringing in the senior advisor and founder of Turnaround for Children, a national organization that helps support schools with trauma and support. She’s going to talk about how trauma and stress impact brain development and offer educators practical strategies to help reduce stress and help children while everyone is at home.
- May 20 – How to Create a Quality Virtual Lesson Plan for Literacy. Because of the data surrounding potential academic loss for students, especially in math, we put this session together to help teachers understand how to continue assisting students according to the learning standards. We will partner with Lexia, a popular, robust, and robust literacy ed-tech tool, as well as Amplify, to talk about how technology tools can help them. Those two partners will also speak with a literacy expert to guide teachers and coaching on what quality, virtual lesson plans look like.
- May 27 – How to Keep Making Moves with Math. This is similar to the previous session. Math is one of those areas where students have been making a lot of progress, and we are concerned about the loss that’s going to happen. To ease those concerns, we’ve put this session together, in addition to partnering with Dreambox Learning, to figure out how to help parents and students understand how math is a part of their everyday life. We’ll also be ensuring strategies both with and without technology for math and how it can be incorporated into daily learning.
- June 3 – Parents as Partners: A Fresh Look at Parent Engagement. Teachers can’t do the work without parents, so we’re going to encourage teachers to take a fresh look at parent engagement. They have learned a lot of new tips, strategies, and approaches for the parents that have been engaged and are currently engaged in the students’ learning. We want to consider how to build upon all that knowledge that we have gained in the past eight weeks and what true parent and educator partnership looks like going forward. For this, we’ll be bringing in New York and local partners to help us learn what is working in Chicago and other regions.
- June 10 – It’s Year’s End. How Do You Know What Progress Your Students Have Made? This is a hot topic because, based on all that they have gone through, is it fair to give the students grades? But at the same time, if we are going to prepare students for the fall, we need to understand where they are, what they have learned, and what they have lost. This will be an honest conversation about that. We’ll be looking at national best practices on how different districts are tackling this issue, as well as talking about competency-based learning, which is a move from letter grades to mastery over the information of knowledge that the students should have.
RC: Is this program just limited to Chicago instructors?
JB: No, it’s available to any teacher. We are doubling down on our Chicago educator presence because we’ve worked closely with Chicago Public Schools and local Chicago partners. Still, we also work with other districts through our survey program. So any and everyone who is an educator, who is looking for support can participate.
RC: How will you measure the success of the program?
At the end of each session, a survey will be used to gauge how beneficial educators feel the information is. We always take a data-driven approach and use data and feedback to improve all of our offerings. By taking the learnings from the services that we get from each session and incorporating them into the next, we can make sure that we’re hitting our goals. Each session has a set of agendas and learning outcomes that we’re hoping to drive through our educators.
RC: Will there be an additional program in the event of the pandemic extending into the 2020-2021 academic year?
JB: We’ll be thinking about how to create more virtual opportunities by taking the learnings from this Remote Learning Seminar Series, in addition to focusing on re-entry. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, we want to be there to support teachers. So we’ll be thinking of other ways and programs to help meet the needs of our schools.
RC: I know that LEAP Innovations is known for its personalized learning. In doing this series, will you be giving teachers tools to do personalized learning with their students?
JB: As part of the LEAP learning series, there are two tracks. The first track is the free six-week Remote Learning Seminar Series. There are personalized learning strategies built into the approaches and recommendations, but the focus isn’t customized learning. It’s really about driving immediate real-world impact. Our goal is to get actual tools and strategies for educators. Because it’s open to anyone, not all educators have familiarity with personalized learning. The sessions will ground them on our framework because it’s a part of everything we do. The second track is a comprehensive six-week professional learning program focused on a rigorous, standard space remote learning instruction. It includes access to all of LEAP’s existing resources. Our goal with that program is for educators to exit the program and ensure best practices for remote learning.
We will include everything we have been doing for the past six weeks and incorporate that knowledge about personalized learning. Still, our primary goal is to get teachers acclimated to remote learning and everything that it encompasses. The goal is to create a more adaptable personalized learning environment. So there will be a lot of that integrated, but it will be less structured because we are reaching out to people who are trying to get their sea legs and may not have gone through the LEAP personalized learning program.
In those focus groups, there were a lot of principals that had been doing personalized learning and said that they felt like they didn’t have to scramble. They just had to pivot. In a lot of schools that were doing personalized learning, the students already knew how to implement their own learning goals and plans. They already had that agency and knew how to self-direct. So when telling them to do that in a home environment, they just had to pivot. Personalized learning has aided the shift for many of our schools during this pandemic.
RC: When doing the focus groups, what were some of the barriers or obstacles that the teachers mentioned when switching to remote learning?
JB: Some of the immediate challenges were student engagement. Just connecting with every student and for different reasons. Older kids were checking out. Younger kids needed to have access to the resources. Students needed computers, technology, and quality broadband.
One of the things we’ve done was curate ed-technology tools. When we started this, we started putting together resources surrounding all of the ed-tech tools that we have vetted, and shared that publicly, for both literacy and math. We’ve also helped to provide basic needs like food and school supplies.
Parent capacity was another one. Parents are struggling. A lot of the parents aren’t comfortable with technology. They’re trying to understand where everything is and how to connect to it. There are also parents with language barriers, communication, and the struggle with keeping up with communications and expectations.
Non-academic support is also a concern. Students have concerns about their home life, hunger, social-emotional learning, homelessness, and temporary housing. When it comes to academics, really thinking about meaningful learning for students. Trying to minimize the loss was a goal that a lot of the schools had. A vast need that may be going under-met is the support for diverse learners—also, assessments, trying to do their best with grading. A lot of schools are working to navigate that to support their teachers and parents.
We’re all trying to do what we can to support parents, teachers, and families during this time. It’s hard, and I think the big concern will be everyone’s mental and emotional stability coming out of this. The more we can all do from our various vantage points, the more we can help build up and support parents and teachers while we can.
RC: Will you be doing anything related to mental health and wellness for the instructors, parents, and students?
JB: I think it’s something for us to consider doing more of. We’re going to take the learnings from our parent survey and think about the additional support we are in a position to provide. Nothing is off the table, especially as we think about going back. So we’ll be listening and understanding where the support is most needed and how we can leverage our resources and connections to bring those to teachers here in Chicago.
For more information on LEAP Innovations and their Remote Learning Seminar Series, please visit https://www.leapinnovations.org/lls/.