"Through this disruption, there has been a recognition that schools play a vital role beyond learning. Their custodial and community roles are central to a healthy society. As we grapple with the issues of reopening schools in this uncertain time, we must seize the opportunity to reflect on what has been learned, and what matters most..."
"Over the last decade, student engagement has plummeted. Almost one in every five students does not reach a basic minimum level of skills to function in today’s society (OECD) Moreover, many school systems have not maintained pace with technological advances; schools have not provided widespread access to digital tools. When the pandemic hit, 1 in 5 students did not have access to the internet or a device to support them in lockdown. This disruption revealed systems that already struggled to support all learners...."
"Aside from the widespread technological deficits that hampered learning for all, this period also revealed that digital alone could not replace the social and pedagogical impact of teachers. Parents recognized that the craft of teaching is not as simple as it appears. Teachers also play a vital role as relationship builders and connectors. In response, teachers embraced technology to reach out to students and families..."
"To put it plainly: it’s time to situate education as an instrument of individual and societal good."
- Michael Fullan & Joanne Quinn New Pedagogies for Deep Learning
As we look forward to the remaining four months of this school year, continuing with cohorts, multiple layers of precautionary actions and limited opportunities for collaborative, innovative and creative learning in-person, teachers are considering strategies that will begin to bring students together intentionally, without disrupting precautionary measures, to re-establish the idea of 'shared learning experiences' as fundamental sources of learning, while also fostering opportunities for learner-to-learner support.
Strategies for cooperating with each other, demonstrating curiosity as well as questions and suggestions, listening and attempting to pull new ideas together while advancing opportunities for learners to provide feedback for each other are significantly important elements of the collaborative learning process. These are not easily learned processes or strategies - they require repeated opportunities for students to engage in learning alongside their peers in different environments, working through various questions or problems, using critical thinking skills like questioning, clarifying, organizing, inferencing and problem solving together. What one can accomplish on one's own may be enormously amplified and improved in the company of innovation and curiosity of others. Learning is advanced and enhanced in collaborative settings.
As teachers, we are considering virtual, distanced, innovative ideas for designing and developing shared learning experiences that will enhance and provoke thinking without infringing on the precautionary actions we have set in place to help promote a healthy place to learn. This week we launched our new 'EHS Coulee School' website where we will be able to document and link all our activities across the school related to student learning in our Twelve Mile Coulee. With multiple entry points available for students, Coulee School can ensure they are outside studying, comparing, contrasting, questioning, researching, sharing stories. Or they might be virtually working together from different sites to gather information, make recommendations, find ways to connect each other's understandings in an interesting and innovative way. Students might be working independently for a short period of time, then move back into a virtual group to test new hypotheses and ideas. Coulee School has been part of our learning since we opened five years ago; now we have a way to track and build on those experiences while also looking forward to being 'out of the pandemic' and into a period of high collaboration both inside and outside the building.
We are also exploring ideas to generate greater well-being and social/emotional wellness within our student population. Given that wellness tends to improve through contact and sharing of experiences and ideas with each other, there are currently barriers to this work as well. Together, teachers generated many ideas and suggestions over the past couple of weeks - and now we need to begin threading some of these together to weave a tight wall of support and help for our learners.
We know our young learners need to be/love to be active! Learning is stimulated by activity - what one can learn from sitting is increased enormously when one is active. And our children need to be - deserve to be - as active as possible.
Contemplating the next four months, we are planning to find ways to foster greater opportunities for collaboration, both in-person through being outside and in the Coulee and virtually. We expect to enhance social/emotional wellness through shared wellness experiences - like whole school projects, scavenger hunts, music, active learning or building literature knowledge. We also are seeking ways to keep our young learners as active as possible - learning to slow down is an act, not a never-ending story.
Once we have successfully developed a plan and begun to navigate the shores of a waning pandemic, it will be time to look beyond the next four months to the 2021-22 school year and begin to envision strategies to engage, support and provoke creative and critical thinking and learning with all our students, whether they stayed with us through in-person learning, moved to the Hub, or chose to home school directly. Multiple entry points will become an even stronger element of our classrooms than we could have every imagined!
I suspect it may be a bit of a bumpy ride, these next 4 months, and that we are going to all come out the other side with a much greater appreciation for our learners as individuals, as critical and creative thinkers and as citizens of the world.
The pandemic may have interrupted our 'flow' but it did not stop us!
And we will persevere and see this thing through till it begins to fade away - as we begin to emerge from the shadow of the pandemic this school year, and contemplate shifting the tectonic plates of teaching and learning with school re-entry next fall.
So many things to think about! So much excitement - wrapped up tightly inside precaution - but worth the thinking!!
"We believe that the voices of students, educators and families should be front and centre in decisions about how to remake school after this moment." - 100 Days of Conversations Project, Human Restoration Project/REENVISIONED
"Being Indigenous is firmly grounded in the land that you are born into, as well as the traditional language and knowledge that goes along with that land...A day out on the land can teach you that food is medicine; it can help to pass on the traditions of your people; it can strengthen your sense of identity; it can promote belonging through sharing with family and community; and it can build character skills like patience, determination, confidence, resiliency and focus. All of these things are grounded in traditional knowledge and are extremely important to the well-being of our people: physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally." - Karl Moore & Wahiakatste Diome-Deer
Although still firmly in the clutches of pandemic constraint, there are numerous impacts of our year-long (so far!) imposed restrictions that are surfacing and beginning to demand the attention of educators, parents and students - even as we all glance longingly forward to a fall that does not demand the same level of hibernation currently required for safety.
These visible effects will necessarily nudge educators into different actions in our very near future and will significantly influence student learning - most likely for the foreseeable future. Although we think 'back to normal' almost immediately when we consider the beginning of school year 2021-22, the reality will be much different whether we acknowledge it immediately and plan differently to meet the changes with forethought and imagination, or we simply wait and respond as things begin to happen on our school landscapes.
It is up to educators - and our parent partners as well as our students - to decide whether we shape our responses intentionally as we orchestrate a gradual release from pandemic controls and risk-mitigations, or we wait to react whenever a new impact emerges unexpectedly amongst our learners. It may look like a clear, linear journey towards opening with some sort of normalcy - all we have to do is stay the course at present and sustain precautions, wait for vaccines to be administered and then we will all return to what 'school used to be like' in September.
There are already so many curves emerging on that 'straight line to September' - and we have not met all our challenges yet - with an extended, elusive vaccination period in front of us all, the absence (at present) of vaccinations for children, the continuously evolving restrictions and relaxations across our country and around the world, the tremendous demands on teachers and school staff to adapt their teaching and learning approaches - while both learning and teaching new digital skills simultaneously, the demands on our children to adapt to blended learning environments, as well as the demands on parents to fill in the learning blanks that are becoming increasingly more visible in students, it is becoming abundantly clear we are going to have to navigate carefully to travel straight down this twisting path as we struggle to write new stories of learning in what will be yet another massive shift in our reality.
What will those stories be and where will they take us as we navigate a new world of teaching and learning?
We do know that social and emotional well-being of children will require primary attention. Already we are seeing social interactions become less harmonized as students continue confined to specific spaces and groups with reduced opportunities for interacting with friends both at school and at home.
Anxieties in children are increasing as the pandemic restrictions continue to extend into their forseeable futures - some are no longer able to easily recall what freedom to come and go to play dates, shopping and activities was even like, the pandemic has taken up such a huge piece of their life. If a child is 6 years old, approximately 20% of their whole life has been spent living within in pandemic restrictions - and that percentage is their most recent experience.
Additionally, children are beginning to express a sense of loss for their previous activities and freedoms, wondering if they will ever be able to freely play with friends again or visit grandparents whenever they want, go to Disney World again. As the pandemic restrictions continue unabated, the distance in time from when these experiences were part of their real world become more remote in their memories and they mourn their losses more visibly.
Academically there are myriad challenges awaiting as we move to open and run schools in any way resembling as we did before.
Schools are organized to develop independent learning, organizational skills, critical thinking and problem solving gradually through opportunities that are spiralling in nature and encourage learners to practice their skills naturally as part of their overall learning experiences until they achieve mastery and move on to further develop new skills. This is accomplished in an environment that fosters social and interpersonal development and communication skills, while also fostering the growth of citizenship qualities, personal characteristics and understandings of social justice, empathy and care for other humans. Gradually we release the responsibility for increasingly challenging aspects of all these skills and qualities to students themselves as they progress through a wide variety of learning situations.
As students drift away from this structure through periods of isolation, online learning, home schooling and quarantine, their development in these areas also begin to diminish as they respond to competing influences where they are using a whole new set of life skills.
These skills might include helping out at home with chores or siblings, adapting to much different routines and expectations that may fluctuate in reliability and persistence compared to their school experiences, finding themselves with greater periods of free time to fill quite differently than before, accessing technology more frequently as an essential part of existence rather than for entertainment or creative expression.
Nothing is quite the same or as predictable as before; building essential foundation skills like independence, organization, critical thinking and problem solving has less reliability and predictability for every child as shared experiences diminish and limit opportunities to practice and encounter new or creative thinking.
The academic challenges resulting from a patchwork of learning experiences that lack the consistency previously available to every learner will eventually erode the skills online learners require to continue progressing successfully as students who are obliged to be self-motivated, organized problem solvers as they miss out on some, many or even all of the repetitions and gradual expansions of skill opportunities that students typically spiral through in the course of a usual school year.
Academic opportunities to gradually develop multiple learning skills and strategies.
Social interactions that foster multiple chances to build communication skills and understanding, as well as empathy, care and appreciation for social justice.
Emotional supports to assist learners with processing new demands on them as they gradually expand their circles of contact and interaction, work to restore their broader social contacts fairly and with kindness and develop greater communication skills and strategies.
These are, at the very least, some of school-based elements that will demand our attention as we continue to progress through these times of constraint and make our way to living out school in a more open, accepting and engaging way - hopefully by the beginning of the next school year.
We have work to do for sure.
Educators, parents and students will need to work in tandem with each other, starting now, anticipating the challenges and begin to write new emerging-from-a-pandemic stories as we seek and find ways to travel a path full of twists and turns as we try to see a clear path to a renewed, revisioned and revitalized school year.
This is our children's future we will be writing with them. Once these days of restraint have passed, we will need to turn our undivided attention to reestablishing their confidence and capabilities through re-envisioned quality learning experiences.
It will be, I am certain, well worth the attention, effort and grit to create successful learning paths with children and assure their abilities to stride confidently into an uncharted future.
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"The closure of schools is, of course, damaging to children's education. But schools are not just a place for learning. They are places where kids socialize, develop emotionally and, for some, a refuge from troubled family life..."When we close schools we close their lives."
"...the pandemic has caused a range of harms to children across the board from being isolated and lonely to suffering from sleep problems and reduced physical activity..."- Prof. Russell Viner, Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health, reported by Nick Triggle, BBC News, o1/28/21
The idea of 'cabin fever' is a familiar one to Canadians who are sometimes confined to home temporarily through periods of extreme winter weather, resulting in occasional restlessness and boredom. Typically, these confinements are short term, ending when warmer weather returns. We don't necessarily enjoy them but we've learned from experience to wait them out with relative patience!
These days, our restrictions are of a much longer nature, not dependent on anything as 'reliable' as the weather might be. 'Cabin fever' has taken on a whole new nuance of meaning, accompanied by additional words we have added to our everyday lexicon - like 'quarantine', 'isolation' and 'physical distancing'. And we are all living through the realities of confinement, coming to terms with the fact that these restrictions - essential to keep as many of us safe from COVID-19 infections as possible - are going to continue considerably longer into the future than we had all hoped.
I have been reflecting on the cracks in resiliency that are beginning to surface for many students who are finding the incessant, almost year-long restrictions we have all been learning to live with just a bit much to endure every day. Through the past couple of blog entries, I've been exploring what may lie behind some of the visible demonstrations of 'things are not quite right for me' we have been noticing with some of our children - specifically, students who are resistant or reluctant to participate in learning activities, as well as children who are identifying themselves as 'bored' in school or are displaying disinterest in learning new knowledge, skills or understandings. Identifying strategies for supporting these learners and encouraging them to continue to engage in learning were explored as well, with full acknowledgement and appreciation that every child responds differently to a stressful situation and there are no easy solutions waiting to be implemented in all schools.
For this blog entry, I am going to explore what might be going on with students who are struggling with social interactions, or who are anxious about all the changes that have resulted in reduced contact with others both in and out of school, as well as children who are becoming more visible or vocal with feelings of loss and abandonment as a result of the pandemic shutdown virtually world wide. What I anticipate will be the final blog in this series related to the question of "How are the Children Doing?" through this extended closure will be published in two weeks' time and will explore the academic challenges that are beginning to litter the road ahead.
'These are not typical behaviours for this child...'
I know we are a bit of a unique school - only in our fifth year of operation with an amazing, dedicated staff who have poured boundless energies into ensuring we opened and sustained a school focused on active learning experiences, Peace Education, inclusive learning environments and place-based learning - and with families who fully support engaging learners as completely as possible in a non-traditional school setting. To say our students are active learners would truly be an understatement - at least right up until March, 2020 when the brakes were applied so completely it left most of us gobsmacked and reeling in the ensuing milieu of restrictions, closures, rules and recommendations.
It is our school's approach to consistently weave a tight net of supports - behavioural, social, emotional, academic - for all our children. For those students who express their inside turmoil through unanticipated behaviours, we typically wrap them even more closely in supports, strategies and opportunities to make sense of their feelings, intending to foster greater interpersonal successes going forward in life. Behaviour is not a negative event overall, but rather a call for the adults in the building to be attentive and help a child problem solve effectively. Support with identifying feelings and their roots, developing appropriate strategies for managing impulsive outbursts or anger as well as direct teaching of strategies that support children with identifying emotions and reading social situations appropriately - these are some of the opportunities that exist for students who are exhibiting challenging behaviours as a way of expressing emotional, social or physical discomforts. So, overall, as a general rule we deal with very few incidents of inappropriate behaviour in any school year, and most of the incidents we do encounter are relatively minor in nature.
This is slowly shifting as the pandemic endures. Over the past few weeks, we have had numerous minor incidents of inappropriate behaviour popping up in classrooms and outside during body breaks or lunch times - most often these incidents are occurring for students who have no previous negative encounters in school of any nature. As we unpack these incidents with students, there is strong anecdotal evidence children are becoming increasingly frustrated by their restricted movements and circumstances. And some reach a point where they are no longer able to quash that emotion successfully and it 'leaks out' in negative behaviours.
Cabin fever has definitely set in...not weather caused but rather a reaction to COVID-19 restrictions.
Recognizing that the close cohorting of classes has resulted in 5 months of being always with the same people - for class, for lunch, for outdoor body breaks, for Phys. Ed., for Music, for lunchtime playtime - and that, sometimes, everyone would like an opportunity to see other people, play with someone they used to know, play a new game no one in the cohort ever dreamed of before. Especially at a school like ours where we have actively encouraged children to mix and mingle all day long, indoors and outside - in the Learning Commons, during Wonder Times, in the Hub, in the Maker Space.
"School has become almost unrecognizable." (Scott Muri)
There are strategies to help students cope with these feelings of irritability, confinement, restlessness, frustration, even boredom over spending so much time with the same people. All. The. Time. Some of these strategies are already taught almost daily within the context of Peace Education approaches woven directly into our learning environment.
- be kind to others at all times
- if someone seems sad, offer to play
- differences reflect the beauty of people and are to be celebrated
- every day is a new day
- everyone has a bad day now and then
- we are here to support each other in every way; there is no room for sabotage
- do your best as much as possible
- use helpful and kind words
- be mindful (focus, listen, think carefully)
- creativity is the best!
- use design thinking strategies whenever possible to solve problems
- the best way to begin to solve a problem is to listen to each other
- everyone has feelings
And there are many more Peace Education approaches that have become part of the absolute social and cultural fabric of our school.
Additionally, we offer students who are struggling with understanding theirs or others behaviours opportunities to work in small teams (appropriately distanced, masked and sanitized) to solve a problem creatively and with their words and actions, supported by the "Zones of Regulation" program. We are weaving a few tried and true support strategies back into our days, under careful monitoring, to provide a stronger web of support for anxious students - such as staggered entry engaging learning tasks, Discovery Centres, reading support, support for Fine Motor development, Peace Ambassadors. While this a fraction of the programming we usually offer, it illuminates our best efforts to support students struggling with all the nuances of pandemic teaching and learning.
We hold students accountable for their behaviours - gently. We know mistakes get made, frustrations rise, tempers flare. We know children rely most heavily on facial cues to interpret body language - and these are now blocked from view most of the time. School Counselor and author, Phyllis Fagell, describes what teachers and students are up against in a socially distanced, mask-wearing environment:
Recognize that social distancing can also heighten sensitivity.
"One of the reasons why this is hard for everyone...is that before, we were getting all this positive energy from daily interactions and reaffirming relationships... it's harder to accurately interpret someone's tone through a mask.
We need facial expressions to decipher emotions in ordinary times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic.
"Our nervous systems get activated when we feel threatened, and we can't access our prefrontal capacity as well,"
explains psychologist Tina Bryson, coauthor of The Whole-Brain Child (Bantam, 2012).
Before react(ing) with a strong emotion, take a deep breath and consider whether you're likely to elicit the desired outcome.
Lashing out in anger or placing blame tends to be divisive and counterproductive.
As the pandemic has illustrated, we're stronger when we work together...we all can show a little grace and resist the inclination to be swept up in....experiencing angst and frustration.
When I think about extending grace, the following things come to mind...
- We must seek to understand and ask questions before reaching conclusions
- We must assume positive intention and...that people are trying to make things work and giving it their best
- We must use language and messages...to communicate in ways that are clear and kind
- We must be deliberate about not placing (stress or angst) on others with frustration and short-tempered reactions
We can help children read other body language besides facial cues, listen for verbal tones and assume the best of everyone. We can help children lead with laughter and kindness rather than retaliation and anger. We can nurture the belief in students that everyone they come in contact holds a deep desire to be fair, honest and trustworthy. These are very good places to begin re-framing inappropriate behaviours. Children will understand the need to red-build trust.
It is clear there is no one strategy for bringing all our learners together and ensuring they are successfully adapting to the layers of change the pandemic has shaped in our school.
As teachers, we are constantly learning and adapting all the time too, trying to make sense of this new reality that has been so unexpectedly thrust upon all of us. We are all in this together in so many ways, and adapting to how we might best support learners who are displaying unanticipated emotions through this pandemic year is just one of the ways we are all coming together to make sense of 'school' in this new era.
'Anxiety lives inside us all...'
Without a doubt, we hear many more children express worry and anxiety on a daily basis - from the smallest concern over a lost pencil no one is allowed to touch, to the greatest concerns such as "Am I safe?" For children during the elementary school years, there are some common stressors that activate worry responses in virtually every child at some level or another. For example, Fagell mentions:
- performing in front of peers or parents (a speech, play, sports game)
- academic performance on a test or project
- health or hygiene issues such as bedwetting
- being chosen last for a team or project group
- getting along with friends/peers
- real world dangers such as fires/burglars/illness/storms
- disappointing parents or teachers
Michelle Borba reminds us "kids younger than ten are especially vulnerable to repeated stress." If we know a child has a particular stress point, we can work to alleviate any triggers that might nudge the child past worry into extreme fear.
There are a few other strategies that might be helpful in particular circumstances offered to teachers in a school by Phyllis Fagell:
- reframe personal narratives - mindsets help us understand life is a series of experiences, both good and not-so-good; and without valleys, we cannot have mountains
- prune and preserve relationships - in times of stress, everyone has fewer reserves to draw upon emotionally
- uncertainty feeds anxiety, fear and anger - emotions that hinder the ability to read social cues and adopt someone else's perspective
- build community and foster collegiality across the whole school
- name emotions and be specific; discourage and re-frame negative self-talk in children; offer a new mindset or reframe
These are global strategies we have established as part of our everyday teaching and learning, for the most part. As children exhibit worries and anxieties with teachers, these strategies are offered and reinforced on an 'as needed' basis. Additionally, Fagell notes "It's easy to feel powerless in the face of a pandemic so focus on what you can do to improve your situation." For our students, redirecting fears about the virus towards the actions we are already taking to keep us safe is one of the key reassurances children understand when they get worried over something they have heard - they know these strategies because they have lived them every day since school opened in September. They are comforting and comfortable assurances they have at least some agency over an unseen, unknown threat called a 'virus'. And reassurance that is tangible and visible for children can go a long way towards reducing fears and anxieties.
"I miss.....so much"
Last spring, when schools first moved to online learning, children were living through a period of adjustment at both home and school that was simply enormous - school as they knew it simply stopped existing; they were not even able to visit the school to play on the playground. Home became their whole focus and home was familiar. Parents were home, children were home, school moved home. That made sense in a world turned upside down. While there were many expressions of loss, in that long-ago time they were short-term in context. "I won't get to see my Grandma until summer." "When the sickness goes away we can go to the playground again." "My brother and me will go back to the pool and swim in six weeks." There was a sense of finite in the children's framing of loss.
Over ten months later, that has changed significantly.
The adjustment period has faded into distant memory - even the re-adjustment back to in-school learning and acquiring all the precautionary skills that are part of the everyday school experience has faded for children now. They accept school as it is - even when they are frustrated with the restrictions, or upset over not seeing other friends, or weary of sitting by the same person all the time, they do not express this as a temporary event. School is just what it is - school. And, accepting the adjustments as permanent in their minds has now offered the opportunity to glance backwards and find memories.
As more and more children begin to verbalize their losses, they increasingly frame them as a memory. Remember when we used to go swimming as part of school? Remember when we had birthday parties and kids came to your house and ate cake? Remember when we went to the big library downtown with the little reading house? Remember when I used to play hockey? Remember when my Grandma came to volunteer at the school?
These are just a sample of the loss statements children have offered unprompted over the past month - December has faded and they are still cohorted and restricted. The memories are sifting to the surface and, after all this time, prompting feelings of loss.
Psychologist and author, Catherine Steiner-Adair, describes four types of grief: ambiguous, acute, anticipatory and moral outrage grief, noting "and nearly everyone is experiencing two or three of them right now."
Ambiguous grief is "free-floating—the loss of summer, the pervasive sense that we've lost so much." The opposite of ambiguous grief is acute grief - this includes a significant loss, such as moving to a new home or community, or a parent losing a job. Anticipatory grief is expressed through 'what if' phrases such as "What will school be like online? Who will I play with tomorrow? What if Mom has to go back to work and can't help me with my work anymore? What if I can't do what my teacher wants me to do?" And then there is also moral outrage grief, which is a deep sadness over what has happened - and is continuing to happen to the world. For example, when a child says they have had a birthday over the weekend and in response to the question "How did you celebrate?" hesitates and says, 'Well, it was just our family you know till the virus goes away."
Teachers cannot make grief or a sense of loss disappear, of course. We can, however, name the grief to help our students tame the feelings. We can be good listeners, encourage discussion, give form to the sense of loss through art or music or movement, acknowledge feelings and validate them as real, make lists of things we miss and what we will do 'when the sickness goes away'. "Being hopeful has a therapeutic value...being able to be hopeful about the future is useful for (humans). And it provides some protective psychological armour." (David Blustein, Psychologist). As teachers, hope is an ever present tool in our collection of resources and we know the power hope has in sustaining both children and adults during times of grief and loss.
I have traced the evolution of 'cabin fever' in the school through the last three weeks' of blog entries, attempting to surface, acknowledge and offer strategies and ideas to help all of us continue to successfully navigate a long period of constraint and restriction through the experiences and perceptions of our children in school.
We see, hear, anticipate, support children as they exhibit the responses that come most naturally to them in the face of cataclysmic change - whether it is resistance to learning, boredom with the sameness of the learning environment, unexpected negative behaviours on display in the school setting, visible anxieties or expressions of loss and grief, the children are telling us in no uncertain terms they are being impacted by living in a time of constant limitation and control. We have strategies, we are sharing ideas, we are listening - always listening - to the children to support them in making sense of a world that has somehow lost all the anchors and predictability and fun it once contained.
I wish I could end this blog with a reassurance this will all soon fade and we will pick up the threads of our previous school lives and move forward with the knowledge we will restore what used to be typical to learning experiences. However, I simply don't see how that can happen - too much time has passed, the world has changed so much and the students have not and are not living out expected experiences of learning. There are so many stories of learning on the landscape of education just now - and the similarities are overshadowed by the differences in learning experiences. For a system predicated on predictability, benchmarks, tools of assessment, scales of learning abilities this year - and more - of uncertainty has done more than simply throw our children for a loop. It has, I believe, initiated a sea change that will have great ripples of impact far into the future.
Will we mark the experience of public education with 'before the pandemic' and 'after the pandemic' notations in history? That is something to ponder and explore for sure - and will be essential even as we guide and nurture and fumble our way through this accurately described (although very overused!) 'unprecedented pandemic'.
And we remain all in this together :)
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"Behaviour is the language of trauma. Children will show you before they tell you that they are in distress." - Micere Keels
"The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving an historic period of time in their lives - in our lives. The children do not need to be fixed. They are not broken. They need to be heard. They need to be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post-pandemic world." - Teresa Thayer Snyder
As the pandemic continues to stretch in front of us with no clear 'end' in sight, schools are coming to terms with the multiple changes living through this historic, worldwide event has generated for adults and, for us most significantly, for our students.
Quite honestly, when all this began a year ago, I don't think I knew anyone who anticipated the breadth and depth of changes that were rolling towards us - strange viruses had happened before (SARS comes to mind, or H1N1) and we had taken them in stride in Canada. I remember having brief conversations around the quality of our medical care and public health systems and really not being too concerned at all about long term impacts on the school - or our lifestyles - at all.
Hindsight makes me wonder at the naivety of that thinking - so many things have happened since then that have revealed challenges to fundamental supports in our world, including our health care system, our economic system, our lifestyles and to our education system all at the same time, in a historical confluence that has been both humbling and inspiring. The idea of being on 'solid ground' no longer exists as we constantly adjust our thinking to ever-shifting new information and events, both on a worldwide scale as well as on a microscopic level inside our school.
Last week I wrote about some cracks in resiliency beginning to become visible amongst our students as the winter months have arrived, with the COVID-19 realities still stretching forward in front of us for a considerably longer time than ever anticipated. I noted some of the new behaviours and conversations we've seen creeping onto the landscape gradually over the past few months that are becoming more prevalent and persistent as time passes:
- children resisting learning - not wanting to participate in specific learning tasks
- children who are expressing or acting out feelings of being anxious ('I'm worried, I'm afraid, what if...)
- sometimes children will say they are bored, or tired or don't like doing a particular learning activity
- children are struggling to read body language, solve problems in peaceful ways, or are misreading social situations
- learners are exhibiting a wide variety of learning gaps that are not consistent across the school population - we are discovering interruptions in learning and understanding that are different child to child
- questions specific to school are being asked much more frequently (Will we need to stay home again and learn online? What happens if someone gets sick - do we all need to go home? What if my teacher gets sick and has to stay home? Will school stop for a long time again?)
- children are beginning to vocalize the things they miss - like swimming, birthday parties, going to hockey or skating, seeing grandparents, etc - while this is not unexpected it is a relatively fresh phenomenon expressed in a variety of ways (Remember when...When COVID is over the first thing I want to do...I miss my....I wonder if I will ever get to....again)
As teachers, we are exploring strategies that will both reassure and support our learners as they move through the various nuances of feelings that are surfacing as the restrictions and constraints on learning seem to have become permanent for our young students. It is a tightrope walk for sure, trying to reassure while honouring the questions and feelings, trying to keep school as 'typical' as possible while also acknowledging school is nowhere near the 'same' experience some of them have loved before - while others have only this experience as a way of understanding what 'school' is all about.
Coming to school every day with a cluster of children to absorb and demand your time and attention is, without a doubt, a happy distraction from the realities of a life constrained on every front. As a staff, we have all become accustomed to the masks, sanitizing, distancing, cohorting schedules, stay-in-place expectations, restricted use of student supplies, controlled use of washrooms and hallways and the staggered entry/exits that have defined this school year. And we are grappling with the changes in teaching and learning, the spectrum of learner needs that is more diverse than anything we have experienced before and the absence of opportunities for shared experiences with peers and parents, doing our best to ensure constrained learning is an engaging, personalized and interesting as possible.
The next level of nuance in these pandemic teaching circumstances is supporting and understanding the students when they do begin to exhibit signs of emotional distress, and to work with families to better recognize, appreciate and sustain students when small emotional displays or expressions of concern do pop up.
A key strategy for supporting learners to successfully navigate their emotional responses to school during the pandemic is to better understand where their concerns are rooted. Sometimes this is relatively clear when a child can express their concerns verbally while other times it takes a bit of exploring and talking to discover where a child's anxieties may be focused. There are some general starting places where adults can begin when a child either acts out or expresses a worry, fear or anxiety.
For example, we know that when a child says "I'm bored" they are typically referring to the level of activity associated with learning rather than the actual content or task. At EHS, students who attended pre-pandemic were hands-on, active learners every single day, engaged in group projects, in working in the Maker Space, accessing the Learning Commons as needed, being part of weekly Wonder Times, participating in a variety of Ignite early morning activities designed to calm brains and bodies in preparation for active learning. Today in our school, virtually none of these opportunities exist for students. While there are a few opportunities for engaging (either masked and/or distanced) in learning with others in a child's specific cohort, opportunities for hands-on learning are extremely limited with daily school work much more focused on paper-and-pencil type of tasks. Interactions with children outside of their cohort do not exist anymore. Ignite activities when children enter school are restricted as well to individual activities. The Learning Commons is off limits at all times, even for choosing a new book to read. The Maker Space is a mask-free zone without the usual active, group-focused design and building activities many children thrive on as learners. Children are bored because they learn best when both bodies and minds are engaged in learning at the same time.
How do we support learners who are expressing these concerns about being bored with learning?
First, we listen and honour that expression, acknowledging that it is very real for that child in that moment. There is no one 'magic' solution to supporting any child whose emotions are becoming visibly demonstrated, but listening is always a great place to begin!
Dr. Michele Borba is one my go-to resources for suggestions when we are supporting students who are exhibiting any kind of emotional distress. She suggests using a 'Talk. Stop. Listen. Talk. Stop. Listen.' strategy with kids - with an emphasis on listen. Through the 'Talk' phase, teachers can as questions or offer suggestions as to why a child is expressing boredom as a feeling (such as asking what is different about this year's learning from last year, for example), as well as ideas for making the learning more active that the child might not think of on their own. While many of our learning activities are restricted to paper and pencil, there is also room for acting out ideas through Reader's Theatre or mini-plays, learning to draw in a different way (eg. 3D drawing or using shapes), building structures such as dioramas at home to demonstrate understanding, making use of video or other digital strategies to capture learning, etc. The key is to listen, to talk to parents and support their efforts to help children understand the root causes of 'boredom' and to try and build room for alternative demonstrations of learning within the constrained classroom.
'I don't want to do...'
Some of our youngest learners are struggling to adapt to daily constrained learning - being able to sit still in a similar place for an extended period of time, listening to instructions, following models and then trying a task on their own is a multiple-step process that takes time to get used to. For many of our grade 1 students, for example, time spent in Kindergarten in the classroom where routines were established and expectations reinforced for 'how to be a student' was reduced by 1/3 and then, stretched over summer, by another two months. That's a long time for 5-year-old to remember how to behave like a student - especially when the last few months of Kindergarten are the ones typically most focused on acquiring 'getting ready for grade 1' skills and strategies.
A constrained pandemic teaching arrangement brought inexperienced learners into a fairly intense learning environment with a multitude of 'rules' and expectations no grade 1 students had ever had to contend with before - masks, sanitizing, cohorting, no general playground or play time, etc. Our little ones have risen to the occasion dramatically well, learning to cope with these expectations without complaint and adjust to being in a controlled environment pretty much every minute of the day. And, when listening to the teacher seems to take too long, or the learning tasks are difficult or take a great deal of energy or time, investing in yet more 'musts' seems like just too much to do for someone whose body is itching to jump around, sing or just play.
As teachers, this is a challenge in a constrained classroom because our options for sustaining a controlled learning environment while finding a way to engage every learner is a tall order to say the least! Our learners are coming to school without a consistent set of background experiences and without predictable previous learning experiences that we have come to rely on as scaffolds to guide our learners through the various learning stages and graded content. Our support ladders have been disturbed and we are working hard to adjust our teaching strategies to absorb a much wider range of abilities and work styles than would typically come to us in an average school year.
We start with listening to the children, talking to them as well, as we try to uncover where the 'hard parts' are that are resulting in resistance towards engaging in tasks. Sometimes we've talked too long and they have tuned out from the actual instructions or directions on what they are expected to do - I don't think there is a teacher anywhere on the planet who has not experienced 'teacher over talk'! In our zeal to ensure everyone understands the next steps, we explain and explain and explain...Sometimes we need to learn to pause and this pandemic year has certainly been instructive for all of us in learning not to 'teacher over talk'! Sometimes the task is really just too complex or unfamiliar and requires additional scaffolding or coaching. Sometimes we need to chunk tasks into several smaller units and take a break in between to celebrate accomplishments before attempting yet another step in the process of learning a new skill. Sometimes we just need to take a break and get bodies moving in a quick, desk-side body break.
These are all differentiation strategies teachers know and use daily in any regular teaching context - adapting them without including movement to a small group setting or access to the Maker Space, Learning Commons or other alternative learning space makes offering opportunities for differentiating tasks a much greater challenge when we are all confined to one room and one space in that room. Additional learning tools cannot be shared (such as games, ipads) without cleaning and sanitizing in between; meeting together as an informal small group of students to get a little extra support is almost impossible when there are no additional spaces in the room to join together. Sometimes we need to find a digital solution (like an online game or listening activity) and that requires a whole other level of sanitizing too.
Teachers are adapting, sharing ideas, trying new strategies that will both scaffold and engage our learners who are resisting taking up constrained learning activities. We are coaching and encouraging whenever possible. Dr. Timothy Shanahan has always championed use of the 'Triple P' strategy for encouraging students - Pause. Prompt. Praise. and we are making great use of this strategy as children are nudged to lean into the work of reading, writing, making sense of complex tasks. Teachers are sharing scaffolding ideas with each other and with parents, recognizing the need for impromptu body breaks and trying a wide variety of small tweaks with every day tasks to promote student engagement with everyday learning activities currently constrained and restrictive for children who have a great need to run, jump, talk, laugh and play in an environment where that is no longer an option.
It is clear there is no one 'way' to gather all our learners together and ensure they are successfully adapting to the many, many changes the pandemic has shaped in our school. As teachers, we are constantly learning and adapting all the time too, trying to make sense of this new reality that has been so unexpectedly thrust upon all of us. We are all in this together in so many ways, and adapting to how we might best support learners who are displaying unanticipated emotions through this pandemic year is just one of the ways we are all coming together to make sense of 'school' in this new era.
Next blog entry I will explore strategies for supporting learners who are struggling with social interactions, anxieties and all the things they are missing as a result of COVID-19. Following that, my plan is to look forward a bit to what we might be able to do in preparation for post-pandemic learning. Things have changed and they will necessitate bigger changes overall. We didn't have an opportunity to anticipate the immense shifts in teaching and learning that all but swamped us these past 10 months, but we do have a clear path to anticipating what might come afterwards when we are all back to in-school, uninterrupted learning together without constraints.
In the meantime, we will continue to support students to the best of our ability, adapting and adjusting our practices as required, in consultation and communication with our parents. We are truly all in this together and our greatest opportunities for building success with students rests with sharing our stories and experiences with one another.
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"This storm is making me tired," said the boy. "Storms get tired too," said the horse, "so hold on." - Charlie Mackesy (The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse)
"Everyone, from parents to educators to children, is feeling the stress of uncertainty. Many parents worry that their child has regressed, withdrawn, or disengaged from school. Educators have rapidly acquired new instructional delivery methods, and some are balancing both in-person and remote instruction. Even teachers with decades of experience feel like they're back in year one, and educators across the country are on the receiving end of a steady stream of demoralizing criticism. Meanwhile, emotions are contagious, and children are absorbing all the ambient anxiety." - Phyllis Fagell (Educational Leadership, January 2021)
"Children will need a lot of the same things we have offered them pre-pandemic at school, but they are also going to need different things, and less of some things.
What better time to redefine a developmental path for children from preschool through graduation?"
- Bethany Hill (January 2021)
It goes without saying what a trying year this has been - and also without saying (I hope!) how hard the school has tried to keep things as familiar as possible within the context of absurd change.
When I think about the amount of planning and consideration we typically put into changing one small thing in a school, it is astonishing for me to consider the number of changes we have made in the past 9 months - along the magnitude, I think, of what could be generational change in any usual timeline.
We've been diligent in implementing changes to the point that excessive everything - sanitizing, wearing masks, distancing, cohorting, etc - has become de rigeur and a way of being in school. It is safe to say we have worked hard to build the strongest fortress against COVID-19 possible. And we have, through all the changes, been so impressed with the resiliency of the children.
Having survived - and hopefully thrived - almost five months of establishing this new order of how school operates during a pandemic, we are beginning to breathe a little more slowly as we settle deeply into what school might truly be for students during these unusual times. January has, in a way, brought us back together with a bit more perspective than seemed possible through the tumultuous changes of the autumn months.
One of the things we are recognizing is that many of the assumptions we have built our teaching practices around are not on the same firmament as they were before the pandemic arrived unexpectedly last spring. We are noticing there are some cracks developing amongst the resilience we have all been building together, and that is impacting our thinking as we look forward to the remaining months of the pandemic, towards the great beacon of hope that will be the 'time of post-pandemic learning'.
Truth be told, there are challenges for all of us, children and adults alike, that are beginning to take a toll on us as we continue moving forward through this school year. While the general veneer of 'we're all coping' is still intact, there are signs of stress that lead us to wonder: How are the children feeling these days?
We've observed some changes for sure....
We've noticed more children resisting learning, feeling anxious, sometimes saying they are bored, misreading social situations, exhibiting unanticipated delays in learning, worrying about many things - such as when the next online learning time will begin, or a relatively new phenomena where children are mourning vocally the loss of favourite activities they remember from 'before'. Not every child for sure, yet more than we might have expected.
This is not just a time of lockdown, isolation and separation. It is a definite time of loss and sea-change with long-reaching implications for all of us, as individuals and as families. While the children have persevered quite well for many months, the endless feel of this experience is beginning to wear on them as much - sometimes more - than the adults in their lives.
Everything about school is different for our students this year.
This one fact has, however, tremendous implications for children still growing into being students in a school setting - because the school setting is not really familiar once they get into the building, routines have changed and opportunities for learning are limited in multiple ways that are more about keeping children safe than about optimal conditions for learning.
Kids are happy to be back at school - it feels like a release from being so confined to home. Yet, once they are inside the school, it doesn't really feel like school has in their brief pasts. And the kinds of tasks they are engaging in are necessarily constrained by safe behaviours to be less active, creative and imaginative, as well as more solitary.
Educators know that knowledge is socially constructed, best acquired in the company of others. When we severely limit opportunities for collaboration, conversation and working in cooperation with each other, knowledge becomes a personal construct of understanding. There is less scope for possible challenges to single perspective understanding and fewer opportunities for applying new understandings in novel situations.
While knowledge is, of course, still acquired in solitary learning situations, it becomes a more restrained 'knowing of ideas, facts or concepts' rather than an exercise in exploring, applying, investigating, designing, re-designing, questioning, practicing, innovating or challenging those ideas to become a broader and deeper appreciation of possibilities in the world.
It is not surprising most children benefit from and thrive in a school environment where opportunities to socially construct understanding of new concepts together are offered every day, all day as part of their regular learning experience. There are reasons to get up and come to school every day and live out various adventures in learning - the motivation to engage in learning actually lies in the learning experience itself.
It is also not surprising that children are expressing frustration with constraints on their learning no matter how hard we work to make their in-school learning as interesting and as creative as possible. Regardless of how much teachers and staff try to make coming to school under pandemic restraints inviting and engaging, none of us are able to escape the fact we are experiencing school in a constrained, restrained and controlled environment that runs counter to everything we know about how children love to learn.
Dr. Brad Johnson, an educator/author who reflects often on how children learn and engage in school, noted long before the pandemic, "If we allowed children to learn how children learn best, maybe it would be a more joyous and impactful endeavour for all involved. Children love and learn through free play, physical activity, recess, Arts, Music and movement." And these are the very things we are currently constraining most in schools.
Have you noticed your child is resistant to doing learning tasks or balking at going to school? Is it harder to get them motivated when learning temporarily moves online - or vice versa? These are typical responses when children feel they are on uncertain ground and not comfortable with experiences or expectations.
We've noticed a higher number of our earliest learners demonstrating some resistant behaviours to being in school every day - most likely reflecting the interruption to building school familiarity over the past months, beginning with the school closures last spring. In a regular school cycle students gradually develop appropriate in-school behaviours and routines over time together. We are discovering - for the first time for most of us, as educators - that interrupting this regular school cycle of development has a significant impact on how skilled our students are at coping successfully with the demands of school.
This is exacerbated for our youngest learners who are now being asked to respond to school in typical ways when their preparation was not complete and, often, forgotten completely. No wonder they are resistant - school is not inviting them to do the things they do naturally - play, explore, move, interact with others - and they can barely remember what it 'used to be like' anyway. Confusion and frustration are the byproducts of small children expected to conform in unfamiliar circumstances to practices they have not encountered before. Depending on personality and background experiences, some will willingly do their best to conform while others will exhibit varying degrees of nonconformity. We've noticed several other indicators of child stress as well that are becoming trends as the pandemic endures - in future blog entries, I will further explore some of the nuances of motivation, frustration, anxiety, boredom, worry and delays in academic achievement associated with living through a pandemic in real time in a real school setting.
It is so important for us to remember that nonconformity of any nature is how a child tells us "this is not a comfortable place for me to be" - either emotionally, physically or socially. Brad Johnson reminds us always, "There are no BAD KIDS! There are kids who have been traumatized, have little hope for the future, have never experienced success, love or joy, have not learned to regulate their emotions. It is NEVER too late to help a kid who is struggling!" When a child acts out, they are sending a message to the adults in their circle that this situation is not comfortable for me but I can't explain why and I need a little help - or maybe a lot of help. And in this pandemic time of constraint and uncertainty, it may take some extra investment of time and care to actually unpack what is underneath the discomfort and causing the reaction in a child at all. It is hard enough for adults to wrap our heads around what has happened to the world and explain how we feel. For children, trying to figure out why they feel anxious or confused or frustrated in a world that is their unfathomable reality.
Dr. Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of many books on raising and educating children, offers what she calls the 'TALK Strategy' for helping children cope with anxiety, stress, trauma or tragedy. It is a 4-step discussion strategy that requires no background in psychology; just a wish to help a child in distress for whatever reason:
1) Talk about what is happening - what are your child's understandings related to an event, a situation, a conversation and correct any inaccuracies of information while listening and affirming feelings
2) Assess how your child is coping with the situation; what are they feeling and how are they behaving in school and/or at home. Appreciating the realities of the situation will help with developing resiliency in the future.
3) Listen to your child's concerns and questions. Use the 'Talk. Stop. Listen. Talk. Stop. Listen.' model as you talk to your child. As the adult, listen more than you talk. Answer what you are able to answer truthfully. Don't give more information than needed in the moment - follow your child's lead.
4) Kindle hope - despite this difficult situation and all the other challenging events taking place in the world, there is also goodness, compassion and hope. Offer awareness of all three to your child in as concrete a way as possible.
When we talk to children and really listen, we begin to see the world through the eyes of a child, to perceive and appreciate childlike perspectives we may have abandoned long ago. We find ourselves able to reframe our own thinking while guiding our children to consider alternative possibilities. We are able to offer them ideas to apply in their own situations for problem solving, using empathetic thinking, appreciating other human beings and the flaws we all carry as members of the human race. And, perhaps most importantly of all, we are able to acknowledge feelings and behaviours as authentic and normal and part of living in a pretty mixed up world. It is through these practices that children develop resiliency and become comfortable with their own feelings and discomforts.
Examining the nuances of children's feelings through these later days of a still-raging pandemic, I recognize there are many implications for successfully leading students through this time of social, emotional and physical upheaval that will require reflection and examination well beyond one blog entry.
Over the next few weeks, I expect to explore multiple aspects of working successfully with children during these uncertain times, and begin to visit possibilities for moving forward in numerous ways with children through the final (hopefully!) months of the pandemic into a quite different post-pandemic time. Our learners are on this journey with us as children of the world, and they deserve the time and attention focused on a much different future.
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
It has become a much-used word in schools through the 2020-21 school year, attempting to capture the sometimes whiplash-like changes that have occurred (and most likely will continue to happen) as school boards, governments and families grapple with the constantly-changing situation that is our current COVID-19 pandemic reality. In schools we use the word pivot within the context of the pandemic to describe teachers moving swiftly - sometimes in a matter of minutes or hours - to shift between online and in-class learning. This sounds much more innocuous than it actually is; shifting between online and in-class learning requires a significant investment on behalf of all staff members to ensure productive, positive learning encounters.
I thought I would share some of the behind-the-scenes efforts that afforded our whole school an online learning experience the week of January 5 - 8, 2021 as a way of acknowledging and appreciating the tremendous efforts of staff and students as we all work together to manage the many aspects of the pandemic situation.
Our preparations for online learning really began much earlier in the fall when teachers established new Google Classroom environments and collaborated together to generate plans for teaching and learning that correlated to a previously non-prescriptive scope-and-sequence for learning that aligned with learning in the Hub online school environment. A plan for providing learning encounters in the event of student isolation or extended at-home illness was also developed. Students were re-introduced to their google passwords, Google Meet and Google Classroom over the first several weeks of school - a 'just in case' preparatory move in the event of a COVID-19 related event requiring cohort isolation. These steps laid the ground work for any pivots toward online learning for in-school students and teachers.
When the announcement was made in late November that all students - including elementary - would be engaging in online learning for the first week of January, preparations became focused on that particular situation. The CBE presented timetabling expectations and guidelines and staff worked to collaboratively develop schedules for cohorts that were reasonable, varied and would meet students' learning needs. Once the timetable for the whole school was established, teachers planned collaboratively for instruction in anticipation of January 5, 2021. Information was shared with parents, as well as opportunities for accessing school-based technology as needed. And winter break began.
The weekend before school re-opened online, Mr. Strand spent several hours preparing digital devices for families to pick up for use through the online week of school so they would be ready for parents to pick up on Monday morning. Last minute plans and preparations were finalized on our PD day, Monday, and teachers set up stations either at home or at school complete with resources, headphones, laptops, etc. On Tuesday morning, January 5, we were ready to go 'live' with online learning - again.
From our perspective, focused preparation resulted in a successful week of online learning - there were a few glitches for sure (there always are!) but overall, the week unfolded relatively without incident and both students and teachers pivoted and adjusted effectively. We are also prepared to continue to support students going forward through the next few months when the opportunity for periods of cohort isolation will continue to be very possible, with the potential to cause students and teachers to pivot between online and in-person learning on very short notice. And teachers do have plans for modified support for students who might be isolated or quarantined at home due to exposure to a positive case outside the school or in their families.
We have adjusted to the concept of pivoting from an educational perspective, with full realization it takes the collaborative effort of a whole school, supported by the school system, to make this happen effectively for students.
From a framework for expectations related to instructional minutes, planning, teaching and assessment established at the system level, to the communication with families, decisions related to online formats and platforms and ensuring access to internet as well as digital devices that includes the necessary signatures and inventory tracking, and the actual unfolding of the daily teaching and learning that also includes opportunities for extending learning as well as specific support for students who require a little extra attention to continue to grow as learners, the robust nature of our pivot to online learning reflects an amazing level of collaboration and cooperation across our staff.
And I am the most fortunate of principals to work as part of this outstanding team!
There is no doubt the pandemic restrictions are taking a toll on all of us - our patience levels, our frustrations with endless restrictions on our personal movements as well as our professional practices, our reduced social interactions that sustain a school on so many levels, and the recognition that the success of our teaching and our students' learning is being impacted by all the layers of restrictions, changes and constrictions of learning experiences are draining energies and impacting our emotional wellness every day for staff, students and families.
Collaborative practices and checking in on each other helps immensely; it does not diminish the pandemic situation nor relieve any of the vigilance and perseverance required by all of us to continue with schooling through the next few months. Collaboration and support does mitigate, however, some of the more overwhelming effects of feeling like we can never rely on the previous conceptions of school, teaching, learning and living we believed were foundational to successful educational experiences.
We hope your child's online learning experiences were positive and accessible - they were the result of a tightly woven web of multiple levels of support and effort by everybody at the school as well as the CBE - and of course was the result of our families' extremely strong support of the school in every possible way.
Together we will weather this storm too!
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called 'Opportunity' and its first chapter is new Year's Day." - Edith Lovejoy Pierce
"We are all afraid. We are all confused. We are doing our best, no matter what it looks like. We are all lonely and weird and beautiful. And we are all here together. We should remember that more."
- Nanen Hoffman
Happy New Year Everyone!
I have thoroughly enjoyed the 16-day break from school, as I am sure all other teachers, students, administrators and parents have as well. It was definitely a different holiday season - completely unlike any other I have celebrated in a very long past - thanks to the impact of the pandemic on pretty much the entire world and definitely in Alberta. I do not recall a quieter, more confined break ever!
We return to school on Monday, January 4/21, although our first day will be a professional day with no children in attendance. And, as per provincial mandate, our school will also be virtual for the remainder of the first week, with an expected return to in-class learning on Monday, January 11, 2021. We have shared our plans for online learning with families and are ready to go!
When school returns to in-person learning next week, we will be focused on persevering with precautions, doing our best to keep things as safe as possible while ensuring students are growing as learners. While vaccinations are clearly on our horizon, persevering with layers of protective actions will continue to be our primary focus for the foreseeable future. The promise of a return to a typical schooling experience is certainly on the horizon, but we have months of persevering with protective practices before that becomes our reality again. We know there will be challenges; we are ready to persevere.
There are multiple layers of protective practices we have established and will continue to keep in effect in the coming months. The most visible, of course, are the three strategies we emphasize daily with the children and have captured in our school healthy triad poster.
Other protective strategies include those mandated by the Calgary Board of Education, such as not allowing visitors in the school or on school property, all grades wearing masks in the school any time 2 m distancing cannot be sustained, and enhanced cleaning of the school each day with additional staff assigned for these purposes. Strategies that include distancing, assigned seating, use of PPE and daily checks at home for absence of any signs of illness begin with provincial mandates. And then there are strategies developed or enhanced by the school to provide additional precautionary layers of protection from COVID-19.
Pre-cautionary strategies that our school uses include:
- staggered entry and exit times for all students
- mask wearing at all times, inside and outside, except for mask-free designated areas and physical activity outside
- hand sanitizing/washing when entering/exiting the school or classes
- individually wiping surfaces after we are finished with them (eg. tables, shelves)
- students cohorted in class groupings at all times, both inside and outside and during lunch hours
- individual supplies in labelled, personalized containers for each student
- managed used of reading books to limit cross-contact, with 'book spa' time (3 days) between users
- no use of Learning Commons, Maker Space or other shared spaces, manipulatives or resources
- controlled, supervised access to washrooms and hallways
- 4 mask-free zones in the school where a supervised cohort of students may safely take a break 2 m apart for a story or lesson
- open windows where appropriate to facilitate air flow
- occupancy limitations for staffroom and other working areas, and use of virtual meetings for staff
These strategies offer precautionary layers of protection for students and have been in place since the fall. We will definitely persevere with them as the winter progresses into spring, appreciating the support of our families, carrying a great deal of hope and optimism for keeping the virus at bay until the realities of vaccinations are able to keep us all safe and able to have learning look more like school used to and will again.
It has been a restful break, preparing us for the immense work ahead - we are energized and ready to begin learning again - with appropriate cautions well in place. Welcome back to 2021 - a whole new year of growth, challenge and (I expect) many surprises :)
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do."
- Jana Stanfield
"Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone."
- Charles M. Schultz
This afternoon was a big day at our school - it is D-Day - Delivery Day!
This afternoon we are delivering all the wreaths and cards students have made for a nearby Seniors' Residence, as well as the stockings students stuffed for 10 families from a partner school, and 4 families within our own community, that will be accompanied by donations of gift certificates from our generous community.
The excitement is visible as we load vehicles and take photographs documenting this year's efforts to share warmth and care throughout our community and our city!
These are two Peace Education initiatives our school has adopted as a way to build empathy, care and compassion with our students from very young ages. We believe Peace Education has a multitude of benefits - including reducing bullying behaviours, fostering positive social interactions, developing responsibility for our own behaviours and attitudes, learning the critical importance of humans caring for humans, creating opportunities to 'see' the world through the eyes of others, for example. Peace Education also deeply promotes empathy and care - two qualities essential to sustaining and advancing the human race.
But why do we need to intentionally teach Peace Education, empathy and care to our children?
When we intentionally support children in building empathy, we are offering them ideas and strategies for trying to see things through the eyes of someone else, as well as attempting to feel the same emotions. The Roots of Empathy program - accessed as a support teaching strategy at our school on a weekly basis - teaches children it is critically important to develop nurturing relationships with each other as human beings for, if we do not do this from the moments of our births, we will simply not survive as a species. Learning empathy is foundational to understanding the nature of human interactions - the essence of the human condition is reliance on each other through relationship.
Children who have lived through trauma at a young age struggle to develop empathy, requiring a significant investment in re-building this foundational belief. For it is empathy - caring for others as humans - that fosters trust, independence, autonomy, commitment.
We intentionally teach empathy to support our youngest learners with making investments in trusting, caring relationships that will yield personal well-being while also providing opportunities for others to build personal well-being too.
Care requires a person to make a personal investment in an act of kindness or concern towards another. It is possible for humans to be empathetic without an accompanying act of care - we acknowledge and feel emotions about someone else or the experiences they are living through, but we do not take the next step of investing ourselves in an act of kindness or help that will physically support them.
We intentionally teach care through visible acts of kindness or acknowledgement, sharing of physical, emotional or spiritual support as a way to both demonstrate our concern and to offer someone else something they visibly need or have expressed a desire for support. It is possible for humans to demonstrate care - through donations, letters of support, conversations, etc without actually taking the time or energy to consider their personal perspectives or emotions. We can care without being emotionally connected at all.
Compassion is the melding of empathy with care - when a person considers the perspective of another human, has a shared emotional connection and decides to invest in an act of kindness or concern in an attempt to influence and improve the other person's quality of life.
We intentionally teach compassion with all our children to foster recognition of the human connection through relationship as well as the active part we can all play in enhancing and improving each other's life experiences. Compassion - taught through experiences with empathy and care - gives presence and form to Peace Education.
I believe Michael Crawley said it best:
"Compassion is the most powerful force in the world. It can defeat indifference, intolerance and injustice. It is able to replace judgment with acceptance because it makes no distinction between age, ethnicity, gender or disability. It freely embraces the rich diversity of humanity by treating everyone as equals. It benefits both those who receive it and those who share it. Every person on earth desires it, and every human being deserves it."
Compassion extends our abilities as humans to make the best of our most human qualities - empathy and care - to foster connection with each other, to attend to the physical and emotional needs and reasonable wishes of each other as other humans, to have a deep and abiding respect for all living entities. These are the seeds and roots of Peace Education.
Through Peace Education, we foster attachment with each other, build strengths in recognizing and managing our emotions, develop clear, kind strategies for communicating effectively with each other and develop strategies for cultivating acceptance and inclusion of all regardless of our physical, cultural, emotional, intellectual or experiential life encounters. Peace Education promotes active involvement with each other; encourages children to develop a profound appreciation for each other and all of humanity, and to seek ways to help and act kindly, to share deep emotional human connections.
We teach Peace Education so children will be able to recognize when experiences are not generous, kind or helpful and intentionally know how to respond with positivity, care and empathy. These are not easy lessons to learn, and they must often be repeated numerous times to be truly understood in a multitude of situations throughout a person's lifetime. It is not an easy approach to living; it requires care and attention and thinking outside the box as often as not. Peace Education requires an abiding commitment to seeing others find happiness, joy and strength in relationships with one another.
It takes time to foster Peace Education in the same way it takes time to design a building, create recipes for new meals, prepare and launch a new artwork for the world. These are not small ideas - they are enormous, all-encompassing and truly remarkable!
In this season of giving, we reap the benefits of developing a compassionate approach to life as we see our students take such pride and enjoyment in the valuing of others' needs. These are not discussions about others who don't have enough as much as we ourselves do, as they are discussions about acknowledging widespread human needs in a multitude of ways.
I believe children change the world. They have the power to take up new ventures and ideas and make them real for humanity. They have the power to re-think quickly, re-address an idea swiftly and move to another plane of thinking without barriers. They have yet to become jaded with life and its' myriad obstacles. They have the determination, grit and desire to see things play out better - differently - for themselves. The possibility to find all of these skills rests deeply in the intentionality of teaching Peace Education.
And it is also how we develop a compassionate approach to life - one person, one connection, one interaction at a time.
May your winter break be restful as we contemplate a quiet, constrained holiday season. I am personally investing in a new tradition with our family - the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, or 'Christmas Book Flood' where everyone curls up on Christmas Eve with a new book to read, a cup of hot chocolate - and maybe some chocolate to eat as well! Sounds like the perfect new tradition during a pandemic - and it carries all the elements of compassion for humanity too :)
I invite you all to join me - and wish you the very best of quiet holiday seasons celebrated safely and healthily at home.
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people." - Maya Angelou
"Making difficulties into the path." - Buddha
Just over three months into the 2020-21 school year, with a history of almost nine months of disrupted learning experiences behind us, I find myself having numerous - sometimes ongoing - conversations with parents, colleagues, family members and friends about the 'children' and how they are faring through this extended time of learning - and living - disruption.
These conversations have given me pause to thoughtfully consider what I am observing, hearing, noticing, encountering with students as we travel unfamiliar landscapes. Since none of us have lived through this type of experience before, it is impossible to 'know' with any certainty what the potential impacts or outcomes on children will be. Although we will all, I am certain, strive to apply our best knowledge and wisdom as we attempt to unpack the question of 'how are the children doing?' in the coming months and - perhaps most particularly - post-pandemic - when the world begins to tilt a bit more towards the familiarity of our past experiences.
One thing I am coming to know for sure is that there are losses and there are benefits, as there are in any life experience. And it is in the balancing of these experiences that the children will find a way forward. I also know they will look to the adults to help with the balancing and with finding ways to move forward successfully into what is sure to be a familiar yet significantly altered future.
As a child, I lived through the experience of losing my mother to complications from diabetes. She was almost 34 years old and I was 11, with two younger sisters. My paternal grandmother had always been the grounding influence in our large extended family and she attained mythic status for me during the years following the death of my mom. She gave me many 'stars to guide my way' through her words of wisdom and advice and when I consider the path ahead for the children I know, love and work with every day, I hear her words as crystal clear as if she were here:
Make the best of, not the worst of your experiences.
Since I am now a grandmother myself who has always held these words close to my heart, my goal will be to balance the losses and benefits children have experienced through this pandemic in such a way as to make moving forward into a post-pandemic experience a growth opportunity rather than embracing the impediments that might seem to be a challenge to relinquish.
And we are not post-pandemic yet; there may be many terrains to navigate still ahead.
Here is what I do know...
I have the great good fortune to teach the youngest children in the public school system - it is on my watch that they enter the world of school, learning, socialization and emotional development that will shape and guide their growth through some of the most formative years of their lives. How they come to see themselves as learners and humans reflects, to a large extent, the experiences they will have within the school environment I endeavour - with the help of many colleagues - to design, structure and invite them to participate in as students. Their elementary learning years are critically important - they are the times when children establish foundational skills, understandings and attitudes towards learning, thinking, relating, questioning, caring, wondering that will carry them forward to living successful, fulfilling lives.
It is a great good fortune, yet also a truly awesome responsibility.
I also know the routines, learning environment structures and strategies, supports and services, attention to learning challenges and successes, opportunities for engaging with ideas that provoke novel thinking, encountering multiplicities of information in various formats while feeling safe, secure and capable, provides learners with the essential qualities of a school environment that will promote both successful academic achievement and healthy personal growth and development.
And I absolutely know our youngest learners have experienced unparalleled disruptions to learning, the security of their learning environments, and their social interactions over the past nine months on a scale that really eludes clear comprehension by any of the adults in their world.
What I also know, however, is that humans are adaptable, flexible and have an enduring capacity to thrive even in the most unimaginable circumstances.
The challenges and losses due to pandemic disruptions are real and the true dimensions of these losses - academic, social, emotional, physical, familial - are not yet clearly revealed or finished accumulating.
We are seeing more young children displaying symptoms of anxiety - sometimes they are able to verbally express their concerns, sometimes they act them out as a call for our attention to concerns they cannot clearly understand or express.
There are numerous academic gaps that are surfacing as learners navigate typical academic learning expectations midst periods of isolation following the reduced, emergency learning situations from the spring.
Students who thrived as learners in a vibrant, lively school environment that encouraged and supported the social construction of knowledge as a collaborative, engaging exchange of ideas and practical applications are finding it very challenging to focus their thinking and energy on controlling their bodies 100% of the time under the constraints of physical distancing, mask wearing, vigilance to sanitizing surfaces and hands. As their minds are concentrated on keeping their bodies in one place, their learning energy is reduced and understanding new ideas takes much greater concentration and focus than ever before - sometimes more than seems possible in a learning moment. Out of necessity, learning environments are accommodating health precautions rather than promoting best learning practices.
Social interactions are tightly controlled and limited by adults with the very best interests of children and health safety at heart. Even lunches and outdoor experiences are controlled with physical limitations. Learning to share, negotiate, discuss, imagine together, invent, collaborate, compromise - these are just some of the skills that will need to be acquired at a later date in a different learning environment.
Children's expressions of emotions are visibly changing - anecdotally, we are observing less spontaneity in the school setting, fewer outright peals of laughter, greater frustration with trying to follow layers of directions and instructions, a 'flattening' of discussions and enthusiasm during interactions. When negative emotions erupt, they erupt quickly and fiercely. Children are holding in emotions as they hold their bodies in check too. There are conversations, smiles and laughter of course (sometimes well hidden behind masks), and children are naturally inclined to be cheerful and upbeat. However, these anecdotal observations are on display every day as some of the exuberance of learning and being together in school has been diminished and stifled within the school environment.
There are visible benefits to the pandemic constraints that will carry young learners forward successfully.
I have written in this blog about the resiliency students are demonstrating every day as they come to school - their willingness to adapt has been exceptional in so many ways! They wear their masks without comment, line up in physically distanced lines to enter school or go to the washrooms. They sanitize and handwash every time they enter or exit a space in the school almost without fail - often, as I collect a child to come and work with me in the Learning Commons or the Hub they will effortlessly and without reminders stop to sanitize before they leave their classroom and then again as they enter the Learning Commons well before I remember to do the same! Playground times and playmates may be controlled and cohorted but their play is still active, enthusiastic and noisy. Every invitation to try something new - like bang on pails for drums or find reading books online through Epic or use sign language to give 'voice' to a song performed in an assembly when singing is not allowed - is met with enthusiasm and delight as children thrive on the novelty of something new to do. The resiliency of our children remains strong, visible and beneficial for keeping our children active and engaged.
I have observed, as well, and gleaned through many conversations, that families are building different and sometimes stronger relationships as a result of cohorting and isolating at home. Many parents have mentioned to me (including my own children) that they will not be returning to the previous levels of social engagements, sports activities or the pursuits of other childhood interests with the same scope of commitment as before the pandemic hit, preferring this quieter, slower pace of life for their families. Family dinners are on the increase - a daily social interaction opportunity that is vitally important for building emotionally connected, happy families as well as sustaining and enhancing beginning social skills of young children - not to mention, greater appreciation for home-cooked meals!
Families are more aware of children's learning strengths, challenges and attitudes as a result of the pandemic school closures that began last March - for young children, sustained learning of any kind required a significant investment of time and energy on behalf of parents (greatly appreciated and valued by teachers and students alike!). As parents connected more deeply with their children around learning, they also came to appreciate the particular learning quirks and approaches specific to them. Recognizing individual differences related to learning, parents also became more aware of the best ways to meet their children's learning needs - information they have willingly shared with teachers to ensure ongoing successful achievement with their children.
So, there are notable losses and benefits for children surfacing as the pandemic continues to unfold.
We are not through the journey yet - not at all! As we work with children, their families, teachers and support staff to map both losses and benefits for both particular, as well as all students it is crucial for us to all remember humanity thrives with adversity - maybe not at first, maybe not completely visibly - but to adjust, to be flexible, to find a new path is the very nature of being human. As we seek to balance losses and benefits for the youngest learners in our care, I hope we never lose sight of human nature and the potential array of responses to adversity that have scattered across our history as humans on this planet Earth.
Yes, learning has been disrupted. It also continues. It is in the continuity of learning that we find a path to balancing losses with benefits and move forward with our children into a brighter, safer, healthier future.
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal
Eric Harvie School
"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another."
- Charles Dickens
"I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do."
- Jana Stanfield
December has arrived, paying no attention to rising COVID-19 infection numbers or the warm weather we have been enjoying the past few days.
As we contemplate moving into what is traditionally a month of joyously excessive festivities and fun, the 2020 holiday season is absolutely bringing an uncertainty and constraints that will change so many of the typical activities we all enjoy every holiday season.
It comes at the end of a most trying and disproportionately challenging year for pretty much every corner of the world and will, I am sure, present a whole new set of challenges for virtually every member of our school community as we adjust family celebration plans to acknowledge new restrictions, move our gatherings outside and try to tweak traditions enough to be familiar yet safe.
We have been reflecting on December as well, at EHS.
Having safely navigated the first three months of the 2020-21 school year, there is no question it is more imperative than ever that we strictly adhere to the many layers of precautions we have implemented and follow every day at school regardless of the time of year - this school year appears to be merciless in requiring all of us to be increasingly attentive to every precautionary strategy possible as our only defence against an immensely erratic virus. The greatest non-negotiable for December 2020 is that there will be no easing of safety precautions, especially in elementary schools that remain open while all schools province-wide have moved to online learning until January 2021 for students in grades 7 - 12.
That does not, however, mean that December cannot still bring joy - and that is what we have, as a staff, determined will define December 2020 for our school. We will not remember this Christmas for the virus (well, not completely anyway!) but rather for the joy we are hoping to bring to our school, our community and the hearts of everyone we are able to touch.
Welcome to the "Light Up Our Hearts December of Joy" at EHS for December 2020! Our ultimate wish for this month is to bring joy to as many aspects of our school and community as possible - and oh! do we have ambitious plans :)
Our first initiative is, of course, our 'Families Helping Families' initiative - a peaceful communities project we began our first holiday season five years ago. Each year our families donate so generously to help other families (this year, as in past years, from Col. J. Fred Scott School) whose needs are so much greater than most of us (thankfully) are able to imagine. Usually children are encouraged to contribute to purchasing appropriate gifts for their classroom's family, but the the tentacles of the pandemic managed to change this as well, and we are so grateful for our families donating over $2800.00 towards the purchase of gift cards to support 14 families - a most generous gift of joy marking a remarkable fifth year of this peace project at EHS!
We are adding a new joy project this year to share some warmth and festive spirit! We want all our Seniors - our grandparents, great-grandparents and the carriers of wisdom in our world - to know how much we value and appreciate the gifts they bring to us, including helping to ensure our planet is such an amazing place to live :). So we have partnered with The Manor Village at Varsity and will be making and delivering holiday wreaths to cheer the Seniors' shared residential areas and the medical spaces during this time when isolation will be the expectation. Each classroom will be decorating two wreaths in the coming days, to be delivered to the Manor on December 11/20. Children are also making cards for each of the 166 residents at the Manor. We are planning to also share parts of our holiday musical celebration with our Senior Friends, and hope to keep our connection with the Manor Village at Varsity long past December of 2020. We are excited to develop these new friendships and connections which will bring us all greater joy!
Mrs. Coulson, our most remarkable Music teacher, is leading an exceptional internal project to bring joy to the school through December. This will include events such as crazy sweater day, crazy hat day and a pyjama day as well as a musical celebration "December Around the World" we will be sharing with classes and parents in video form. We will literally "light up our hearts" with all the donations of holiday lights parents have brought to the school over the past couple of weeks - thank you for your generosity! Classroom opportunities to decorate both our learning spaces and our bigger gathering spaces will offer our students creative outlets with a festive spirit and energy! We are looking forward to continuing to bring light and joy to our school through the next three weeks :)
While we are continuing our learning journeys through these unusual circumstances we know even these events intended to bring light and joy to our school will only slightly diminish the focus on all the constraints and dubious news that impact our daily pandemic-dominated lives. Our hope is not to divert attention from living safely during this time, but rather to find positive ways to weave opportunities for also remembering that celebration, fellowship and caring for each other are fundamental to human existence and improve the quality of all our lives. While we cannot engage in our usual boisterous, exhilarating gatherings we are still capable, willing and eager to know we share our gifts of creativity, generosity, kindness and laughter with each other in the school, in our community and around the world.
Challenging times mean investing a little extra energy into bringing joy back into the school is a most worthwhile endeavour - and be prepared for an outstandingly enthusiastic celebration of December festivities in 2021 because we are already making post-pandemic plans :)
Hope you all enjoy this festive month in as many ways as possible!
Lorraine Kinsman, Principal