A lot of folks have reached out asking me to write about what learned about moving online when you can’t be in your building because of what happened to SLA in the fall. I can tell you that it’s not easy to write about… and I am not sure that people will find a ton of comfort in what I write next… but in the spirit that it could help someone, I’m sitting down tonight to write.

But before I write anything about how we might think about school during this time, go ahead and read what I wrote for NASSP about Leading During a Crisis. That is as good a lens as I can come up with for thinking through how to act and make decisions and treat people during this time.

With that said…

People need to get comfortable with the idea that, in many respects, whatever we come up with for school right now isn’t going to be all that great. There’s a lot of reasons for that – first and foremost is that we’re not ok right now. People – students, teachers, admins, parents – are anxious and scared and cooped-up at home and all sorts of things. That’s very real, and we know that – in the best of times – the world outside school impacts school in powerful ways. Now is no different.

Secondly, as many folks have written, the level of access is wildly different, family to family, kid to kid, community to community. Even in a home where there’s access – does every child have a solid device? Do families have reliable wifi? Is there someone techie enough in the family to troubleshoot when something goes wrong? All that said – I applaud the efforts of districts like New York City and Boston and Philadelphia who are mobilizing on the fly to get internet-ready devices into every students’ hands. That might be their least bad option at the moment, and importantly “least bad” might be the very best they can do.

Third, this kind of shift happens best when it’s intentional and thoughtful. There are dozens of questions that schools should answer thoughtfully when they move systems online — and that’s even if they are going to a blended format. Simply getting good at the tech is really just one piece of the puzzle. And those questions should be tackled thoughtfully, engaging all stakeholders in a conversation that just isn’t possible right now. 

And yet… here we are. We’re probably all going to be out of school for a while, so we’re going to have to figure some things out on the fly and do the best we can. So here are some thoughts on what “as best as we can” might look like.

First, one of the most important mindsets I think schools need to have is this:

What is the least bad decision we can make right now? 

That sounds defeatist, but it’s not. It’s realistic. And it guards against any kind of hubris – which could quite possibly be the worst frame of mind to have right now. This isn’t a moment for those of us who have loved a lot of these tools for a long time to rush in. It’s a time for humility and an understanding of how fragile this moment — and those of us in this moment — really is. Thinking about “What is the least bad thing?” is a recognition of the moment we’re in. Kids didn’t choose this. Your teachers didn’t choose this. You probably didn’t choose this. So, now, given all that – what is the least bad thing you can do in the moment. 

And by the way, this isn’t to say that there can’t be some amazing things that happen. There will be kids who find ways to do incredible things during this time. There will be teachers who find out that they have a facility with ideas and tools that they never gave themselves the opportunity to explore before. And that is all great – and you should definitely make a point of capturing all of those things so that, when all get to the other side of this pandemic, you can learn from the best things you did and use those amazing moments as building blocks for however you choose to move forward into whatever new normal we discover.

“What is the least bad thing we can do?” is, in some ways, a darker version of “What is the worst consequence of my best idea?” which is a concept we’ve used at SLA for years to make sure we stayed humble and never fell in love with an idea without examining unintended consequences or questioning who is privileged by it or what will go wrong, even if the overall concept goes right. “Least bad” is a recognition that whatever we do right now to move schools into an online version of themselves, it’s not the way we should do it under any normal circumstances, and what it becomes, then, is perhaps our own educational Hippocratic oath to remind us that so much of what we’re about to do is triage. 

So how do you make your least bad decisions?

  1. The single most important thing to understand is that the axiom “We teach kids before we teach subjects” holds even more true now. The single most important thing school can do right now is make sure every student knows that their teachers care about them, and that we are thinking about them, and we want them to know we’re out here, wanting to teach them. 
  2. Know that many kids are going to struggle with this new modality. Kids will struggle for all sorts of reasons. Some will be because of access issues. Some will be the loss of routine. Some will be the lack of face to face interaction with teachers. Some will be the lack of face to face interaction with classmates and colleagues. Some will be because of the anxiety and stress they feel over the pandemic. Some will be because they are watching younger siblings while parents have to work. Therefore, setting up systems where every teacher and counselor has a reasonably small group of students they are checking in on – not just as a student of a subject, but as a whole person, several times a week is really important. At SLA, we have a robust Advisory program, and that’s the backbone of how we take care of kids in normal times, and it is even more important now. 
  3. Simplicity of assignments matter even more now. That does not mean “easy,” it means that our instructions should be simplified so that the structure of assignments do not get in the way of kids’ ability to access the work. So your favorite multi-step project with lots of complicated things to do before you can progress to the next thing… probably not going to work right now, and it’ll only cause a lot of frustration. 
  4. You cannot assess the way you traditionally have. You just can’t. On our best day, assessment is challenging because we never fully know if we are grading effort, knowledge, anxiety, lack of sleep, etc… but now, there’s no way we know what we are actually assessing. Lots of schools are choosing to make this time ungraded, and I think that’s awesome — and the kinds of questions we should ask about that is going to be a whole other blog post — but for right now, figuring out what we would assess, how we would assess it and importantly – why we think we need to assessment something with a grade is really important.
  5. Assessment may be less important, but feedback is more important. The ability for us as educators to give meaningful feedback on student work so that kids can see our comments and have a path toward growth is a high leverage point for us right now. It’s a reason for kids to share work with us — and do the work in the first place. It’s the difference between going to an empty gym and shooting a basketball with no one working with on your form, and working with a coach who helps you get better. If the work is worth doing, then it’s also worth getting high-quality feedback on. 
  6. Agency and relevancy matters a lot. Now is a time to help kids see the “why” in everything we would ask them to do. We leverage the compulsory aspect of schooling a lot in America – and right now, that’s not the primary driver in a lot of places. 

There are probably a lot more, but that’s enough for now. 

Of course, all of these ideas are good ideas for us to consider all of the time, but they take on added import now. Intentionality and stepping back to question why we do what we do is something that we can all do a better job of. During “normal” times, it’s very easy to fall back on “Because we’ve always done it that way…” but we’ve never done this before, so we lose the easy answer there. But because of the speed with which everyone has to operate right now, it would be easy to just try to replicate “school” online. If we do that, and in our haste, we fail to see the unique challenges of this moment, we’ll do harm, and our first guiding principle should always be to do no harm.