Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#5, Student Life, March 30, 2020)

“I haven’t been bored once. Not one bit.” That’s what my 17-year-old high school junior son Dawson told Jill and me after two weeks of isolation. I believe him. He has been training for this scenario for years. He certainly likes the outdoors. He’s OK with hiking, enjoys playing golf (he breaks 100 and has the famous line, “Golf is more fun when you don’t suck.”), is happy to seek out the perfect hamburger joint (that’s a quest we are on together – #1 so far? The Apple Pan in West LA), and likes going to movies. But without question, he is happiest when he is home. He loves meals in our home and would rather eat what he calls the “RQ” food (restaurant quality) that I make than go out to any restaurant. But his true passion, and a giant reason for him loving being at home, is that our home is his base for online gaming with his friends.

Online gaming creates a world where friends can hang out together, laugh together, and compete together, without ever leaving the home. It’s like a Zoom with a view. He uses a computer that he saved for and built himself. He and his friends strategize, practice, then compete against teams that could be from South Pasadena or South Korea. He and his friends can all watch a movie together, talking and laughing together as they are watching. He has outstanding, smart, and funny friends who care about each other, but outside of school, they rarely see each other in the real world. So really, in his world, not much is different as we shelter at home.

Of course, school is different, but so far for Dawson, that’s not a bad thing. In his pre-COVID-19 school days, he would leave the house around 7:20 and get home around 5:00. By the time he got home, he had done most of his homework, so let’s call it a 10-hour day. Now, between some online classes and getting the work done, he still sees his teachers, but his day is only about five or six hours long. He thinks that’s WAY more efficient! So for him, so far so good. In fact, for Dawson, in a weird way that I’m not quite comfortable with, it may be better.

But it’s not the same for everybody. I had the opportunity to Zoom for an hour with five seniors from Mira Costa High School. I feel for our senior students right now. Everything they have been looking forward to – senioritis, prom, and graduation, is now at risk. I wanted to hear directly from them, so I set up the Zoom call and spent an hour with these five students. It was well worth my time.

We went all kinds of places in the conversation, but perhaps the most poignant point I heard was them lamenting the loss of the seemingly mundane parts of high school. One of the seniors said, “I think it’s interesting that one of the things you don’t realize you miss about school is the random people you see in the hallways. Walking between 1st and 2nd period … I would never Zoom call them up, even though I value seeing them every day. I’m FaceTiming my friends, but it’s not the same. I think we’re all now realizing that the minutes and hours we spend at school, both in and out of class, are such a big part of our social life, even though we might not have thought about it that way before.” Our society should listen to high school students more than we do. Brené Brown, who gave us an outstanding TED talk and a spectacular Netflix show, has thought about this. “I get so busy sometimes chasing the extraordinary that I don’t pay attention to the ordinary moments. The moments that, if taken away, I would miss more than anything.” These students, and I think all of us, are beginning to appreciate the ordinary moments more than ever. “Yeah, everyone was happy to leave because it sounded awesome,” said one of the students, “and now everyone’s like . . . we just wish we were back.”

Senioritis is real. None of these students are slackers, but they at least liked the idea of senioritis. I bored these students (nothing like being trapped in a Zoom meeting with the Superintendent!) with one of my senioritis stories, where my physics teacher read aloud, with gusto, to my entire class a letter he had drafted about my lackluster performance in his class, written to the college admissions department at the college where I had been accepted and planned to attend, advising them that they had made a terrible mistake. I improved my performance and the letter did not go out. Though I did not find the draft letter to be not even mildly funny at the time, my classmates thought it was hilarious. (My classmates were right.) I had been enjoying my senioritis, but it was short-lived. These seniors are missing out on even the opportunity, and for many it would have been the first time in their lives where they could give themselves permission to do maybe just a little bit less than they are supposed to do.

As for these students’ distance learning experiences, it was clear that it all depends on the teacher. They were so appreciative of the teachers who are successfully teaching and connecting. Several commented that their government teacher is their main connecting force. He is holding classes on Zoom, expecting students to turn in work, and providing students with feedback. For these students, it creates a part of the day with purpose and connection. Even so, they lamented that they felt cheated by our new isolation. One of the students said, “I feel like my time in my government class was cut short. He’s one of the great teachers.” The students pointed to other their teachers who are working to provide similar opportunities. For some of them, most of their teachers are providing content and structure that successfully engages them. For one student, it was just one teacher. I have every reason to believe that this is a function of our quick transition. We will get better.

Two weeks into distance learning, our principals are working to develop ways to ensure that they know enough about what each teacher is doing so that several things can happen.

  • We want to show appreciation for the teachers who are killing it. These teachers are already successfully connecting and teaching, trying new methods, failing, and then trying again.
  • We want to see what is working best, and make sure we share those techniques, strategies, and technology uses with all of our teachers.
  • We want to see which teachers needs assistance and find ways to support them. This is a new world, and not everyone was ready for it. There’s a hilarious song that teacher Michael Bruening sings about wishing he’d paid more attention to the technology professional development and all of the frustrations that come with figuring out how to teach in a brand new way. Necessity can also be the mother of motivation.
  • And we need to provide time for our teachers to learn on their own and to learn through collaboration. As Michael Bruening sings,

“You gave me two days to adjust
to move everything online
Did you think I’d crumble?
Did you think I’d lay down and die?
Oh no not I,
I will survive . . .”

The paltry two days he mentions for professional development are two more days than we gave our teachers in MBUSD. I sent out an email last week saying that from now on, we will be building one half day each week into the school day for our teachers to learn and collaborate. I should have done that earlier, but I’m learning through all of this too.

I’ll end this entry by sharing a few final nice thoughts from our seniors. We spend a lot of time worrying about, talking about, and trying to address the massive amount of social and emotional stress our seniors face. I wrote a blog entry about some of our efforts back in 2017. Well it seems our students are certainly feeling a little less stress in this new world.

  • One of the students said, “I feel way less stressed out. And I’m in a better mood. I’ve slept so much – more than I ever have.”
  • Another said, “Every day I would have an hour, maybe, of time when I wasn’t doing anything and could just relax. But now that number’s jumped to 8 hours a day of doing whatever I want. That’s nice.”
  • And another, “Before this happened I was REALLY busy. I was about to quit my job. I couldn’t work out, I couldn’t really do anything. Now I’m picking up shifts again , I have the time to go work out, I actually have free time.”

At the end of the conversation, I said I hoped I could check back in with them (I loved our hour together!), and I promised them that if we miss out on holding graduation on June 11, the planned date, we will have a graduation ceremony. I don’t know when it will be. It could be in August or December. But we will hold it, and when we do, it will be the most wonderful socially non-distant gathering and celebration I can possibly imagine.

I can’t wait.

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#4, Distance Learning, March 28, 2020)

I am writing this entry on Saturday, March 28, 2020 – after two weeks of distance learning. When I first started visualizing what teaching using distance learning would look like, I mistakenly imagined it would be very similar to classroom teaching. I pictured students spending the day from 8:00 to 3:00 either listening to their teacher providing direct instruction, interacting with their teacher and their classmates, reading, or working on skills or materials. I pictured teachers prepping as usual, giving directions, and being available during their normal work hours. I did not take in all of the complexities that being home due to an epidemic brings. It is remarkably complicated.

And it’s not one size fits all. Not one bit. We have students whose families have stresses that prevent them from being available. We have teachers in the same situation. We have teachers who now have to learn a whole new way of teaching, with entirely different uses of technology. In general, the teachers who are doing their best are spending far more hours than they were spending in the normal jobs. There are long hours of learning, preparation, trial and error, collaboration, research, and more. It’s tough on everyone.

Two weeks in, people are seeking to know the expectations and objectives this new distance learning paradigm. I drafted a set of objectives for our district, then received feedback from a number of teachers and instructional leaders, and together we have developed version one of the MBUSD Objectives for Distance Learning. We will be using this as an overall framework for the teaching and learning we want to see with distance learning. It is clear in its objectives, but leaves the “how” up to the teacher. I already have seen plenty of highly effective strategies and uses of technology that teachers are using to achieve these objectives, and I look forward to seeing more. We will learn together.

MBUSD DISTANCE LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Students will continue to learn. This is the message from the Governor of California, and it remains our primary objective in MBUSD. Our teachers have made spectacular efforts to be a source of strength, normalcy, care, and connection in our students’ lives. Teaching and learning will continue in MBUSD through distance learning. 

Teachers will be streamlining the curriculum and focusing on what is most critical for students to learn. Our commitment is to utilize distance learning to prepare students for next year while understanding the evolving challenges that all of us face in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. We will seek ways to focus our content on our essential standards, so we can better keep all of our learners engaged, and in order to have more opportunities to support students who are not meeting the standards. When we begin the 2020-21 school year, teachers will need to keep this unique year in mind and will teach or review critical concepts as needed before moving to new concepts.

Teachers will strive to help students regularly connect with their classmates and their teacher. The amount of isolation we are all experiencing during this epidemic presents a major challenge to our social and emotional well-being. Our students need opportunities to remain connected with their classmates and their teachers. Teachers will be using a variety of methods to achieve this.


Students will receive feedback on their assignments. We are continuing to communicate with other local districts, the county, and the state regarding report cards, final grades, and, for high school, grades on transcripts. This is an evolving discussion, and one that will place at its center the best way to reflect student learning in circumstances that are far from normal. Unless students are failing multiple courses or are notified that they are not meeting standards or are at risk of failure/retention, they will be progressing to the next level in 2020-21.


Teachers will receive additional time each week to collaborate with colleagues, discuss curriculum, and to share and learn best distance learning practices. Our teachers have done an amazing job in moving to online instruction. But there is still so much to learn, so we will build in one half day of time during one school day each week for additional learning, as this remains an extraordinarily new and evolving world of teaching. MBUSD supports each school in developing its own schedule to provide this time. Each school site will be in touch with its families once that is done.


Everyone needs to be patient and flexible with themselves and each other. Our teachers are working to adjust to a whole new method of instructional delivery and are learning as they plan, often while dealing with the same challenges that all of us face as we adjust to working from home and caring for ourselves and our families in this new reality. We will all work together to help provide students with the ability to plan, manage, and structure their day to the best of our ability. We understand that lessons and assignments may take a little longer or turn out differently than we expect. We know that flexibility is important – for students as well as teachers – and we will seek to provide that flexibility when it is needed.


We will strive to provide assignments and directions to students and families in a timely and consistent manner. Our community has many working parents, including teachers, who appreciate having the lesson plans ahead of time so they can prepare their students for the day/week, which is particularly helpful to students who may need more support from their parents to plan their day. As everyone begins to settle into this new structure, teachers will be more and more able to establish a routine for posting assignments and schedules for upcoming activities so that students (and their parents, when needed) can plan ahead. 


These Distance Learning Objectives will evolve. As we receive feedback from teachers, employees, students, and families, we will learn more about effective and meaningful practices for teaching and learning through distance learning, as well as ways to maintain strong connections within our classroom and school communities. This will be a living document that evolves as we learn.


We will get through this together. With kindness, compassion, creativity, support from the MBUSD community, and a commitment to teach and learn in a sea of change, our teachers and our students will prevail through this epidemic, and our community will emerge stronger and more together than ever.

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#3, Teams, March 23, 2020)

As I have made these COVID-19 posts on Facebook, and I as tentatively enter the world of “social distance media,” I have heard from so many people from different chapters of my life. I have been fortunate in my 58 years of existence to have been a member of many amazing and magical teams. Sometimes the situation and the people just gel to create magical moments during a lifetime. I’ve had so many. My family, which has grown and changed over the years, has always been an amazing team. As my very funny and lovely mother-in-law says, my family “puts the fun in dysfunctional.” My 6th grade basketball team. My graduating class of 1980 at Catholic High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which still has amazing bonds. My freshman dorm-mates at Stanford. My small eclectic group of friends from my year in West Berlin in 1982-83. My first teaching job in San Lorenzo. My vice principal experience at Lodi High School. My principal experience at Malibu High School. My close-knit neighbors who are an incredible part of my life. My wacky 5:30 AM masters swimming group at LMU. And my colleagues in my current job as Superintendent in Manhattan Beach. That’s a lot! All of those were amazing teams who added magical, supportive, fun-filled, and meaningful elements to my life.

I’m not sure how great teams get created. I’ve read a lot about it. If you read the annotated bibliography I’ve been keeping for the last 10 years, you’ll see a lot of books about creating and sustaining great teams. For me, part of it comes with not being afraid to start over. I’ve left many jobs that I absolutely loved to start a new job with different challenges. Part of creating a team comes from having a meaningful job to do, and surrounding myself with colleagues who are just as committed as I am to getting that job done right. Part of it comes from my love of laughter, and enjoying being around those who foster it. Finally, I think teams are created when people create spaces in the day, week, or year for downtime and an opportunity to breathe. Keith Urban, one of the hardest working entertainers in the world, sings a song called “Wasted Time,” where he has the line, “Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life was all that wasted time.” When I would spend a morning biking with my friend Will Carey, he would usually say he had, “Nothing to do, and all day to do it.” All you need is purpose, laughter, and time, and  . . . the right people.

I could write a blog post about each of the teams I mentioned above. None of them would do justice to the special nature of each, but it is nice to reflect. I’ll write today on my first teaching job, my five years of teaching History at San Lorenzo High School, where I was a part of two beautiful teams: my amazing, creative, and laughter-filled group of colleagues, and my spectacular and inspirational students.

San Lorenzo is a small suburb in Northern California, located at the intersection of the 880 and 238 freeways, just south of Oakland. (If you’re wondering why we Californians use freeway numbers and roads to describe where something is, watch the not-so-flattering series, The Californians, from Saturday Night Live). I was hired to work there two days before the school year started, as getting a job as a history teacher was not easy back in 1985. I taught four different courses in four different classrooms all over the campus. I asked for a lot of help with those four courses, and I met a lot of people as I pushed my cart around the campus between classes. And I started learning how to teach.

I look just the same today!

Let’s be clear. Teaching is hard. It’s awesome, but it is really, really difficult to be a good teacher. My first three years of teaching were some of the most challenging and most rewarding of my life. I had lesson plans that totally bombed, late nights trying to figure out what and how to teach the next day, stacks of grading that never seemed to get done, new classroom management challenges every day in class, and a wide variety of failures and successes. But it got better. And the main reason it improved was because of the afternoons I would spend with my fellow teachers and colleagues, lamenting our failures and telling stories that made us laugh. A few of us even started a band, The Underpaid, that performed at some union events and served as the pit band for that year’s San Lorenzo High School musical, Grease. We worked together, struggled to find ways to help our students, worked out together, played together, laughed together, and together accomplished great things for the students of San Lorenzo. This was an amazing team. The beauty, love, and laughter of this team has stayed with me to do this day, and I am still grateful for each person who contributed to that magical era in my life.

What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm!

But it wasn’t just the teachers. I loved my students as well. They were patient with me (most of the time) as I learned how to teach. They put up with my crazy ideas for teaching, like when I taught the American Revolution from the perspective of the Vietnam War and the Apartheid Movement. They were talented and smart, and I enjoyed seeing all that they brought to the table. SLZHS did not send many students directly to four-year colleges. The main recruiters on campus were the local community college and the US military. Those can be great options for students, but one of my primary goals for my students was and continues to be maximizing their options for their futures. In an effort to get more students to feel ready for four-year college, I started the first-ever Advanced Placement course in our district, and I began teaching AP US History in 1988. Those next two years of teaching created one of my favorite teams in my life, as I moved up with the students the next year, teaching AP Government and Economics.

For me, AP US History has always been a course that uses US History to teach students how to think and write. And, boy, did those students write. Every Monday, they had to turn in five to six essays, each one of which took at least 30 minutes of writing, and much more time reading, researching, and thinking. By the time I finished teaching my last AP US History course in 2004, I had reduced that load by 50%, and it was still a lot. The students loved and hated the challenge. I gave out my home phone number for students to call me. Half the calls were just about dealing with stress. But as we learned together, we all fell in love with our hard-working group. The students supported each other. Our class days had a lot of lecturing (too much, now that I look back on it), but tons of time for laughter, support, and conversation. We had evening review sessions, and Saturday morning review sessions. We became a team.

This experience shaped what I believe teaching should be about. Teaching at its best is like coaching. When a player fails to do what a coach expects of him or her, a good coach does not simply cut the player from the team or put him or her on the bench for the rest of the season. The quality coach insists that it be done again, and offers different pieces of advice, refusing to rest until the job is done right. Because the team will not succeed unless each player can do their job successfully. Good teaching should be done the same way. My goal as a teacher was to coach students and help them continue improving until they reached their potential. And my goal was always to believe in my students and to have extraordinarily high expectations for them.

This team of students exceeded all of my expectations. Most passed the AP exam, and all of them were ready for college. They went to all kinds of colleges, from Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) to UC Berkeley to Stanford, and so many of them are successful. They are teachers, IT professionals, high school principals, immigration attorneys, researchers, business owners, and successful parents, and so many of them are still very good friends with each other. One of the students even said nice things about me when I took the job here in MBUSD! They remain one of the most successful teams I have ever been a part of, and I love them all for what they added to my life.

So thank you to all of my friends, colleagues, and students from San Lorenzo High School. And thank you to all of my teammates from throughout my life. I hope that we all can keep building new teams as we go through life. During this incredible COVID-19 time, I already see, similar to what happened after 9/11, communities and neighborhoods bonding and teaming a little more closely. Maybe this can be one of the first ever crises that actually teams the entire planet a little more closely. Through pain and suffering, a greater good often emerges. Let’s all do what we can to build our own teams, be open to joining future and unknown teams, and see what joy and purpose it can bring us.

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#2, Connections, March 19, 2020)

March 19, 2020

Today was Day Four of online schooling in MBUSD. Yesterday, I sent out an email to our entire MBUSD community with an update. I praised our teachers and staff who are learning on the fly, acknowledged that parents have it pretty rough these days with their new world (though there is some nice humor as parents are playing the role of their children’s teacher at home), and asked everyone to be patient as we learn together. You can see my newsletter here.

One of the big game changers in this world of non-human contact has been Zoom, the online video conferencing tool. CEO Eric Yuan brilliantly gave Zoom accounts with no time restrictions to every educator who asked. We asked and now have accounts for all of our employees. In just four days, and it’s one of the platforms that’s already making a massive difference.

On Tuesday morning, I met via Zoom with the 25 members of our leadership team – principals, vice principals, directors, and my senior leadership team. The first thing we did was each get a chance to check in with thoughts of this new normal. (I’m normally not a big icebreaker/check-in fan – in fact, in most cases I’ll use any excuse to get out of it, but this was pretty special.) All of us on the MBUSD leadership team thrive on human interaction. Most of us were teachers, and all of us have a passion for knowing, caring for, and leading our teams. After just two days of school being out, it was clear that the human connection was already missing in our lives. We laughed, discussed serious topics, saw and heard each other, and connected. And though it was completely virtual – it absolutely filled a void. It was powerful.

I’m hearing the same thing from teachers and parents. At home, my wife Jill has been utilizing Zoom and Google Classroom with her 5th grade class. Her students love it. My 11th grade son Dawson has been participating in Zoom and Google Classroom lessons in his classes as well. Dawson actually likes the fact that this new version of  high school is so much more “efficient.” He said that he can now get through his whole school day and all of his homework in four to six hours. In a normal day, he spends at least 10 hours attending school or doing homework. The kid never complains, but in a weird way, he thinks this new normal may actually be better for him than traditional school. So far. (Dad note: I get what he’s feeling, but . . . he’s wrong.) I am hearing from so many parents that the Zoom lessons are a great part of the day in the homes, as their children are craving seeing and interacting with their teacher and their classmates. And I think that all of us running a Zoom meeting secretly like the fact that when necessary, the organizer can just click the “mute all” button. Where is that button in real life! We are improving in our use of Zoom, Google Classroom and other methods we can use to make these connections with students.  Patience, Grasshopper. We will get there.

In four days, my overwhelming lesson from our experience so far reinforces what I already know: The primary role of teachers is helping students make connections. My friend Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has been writing about that for years. It’s not about the content. As a high school history teacher, I don’t care whether or not you know what year the War of 1812 was in. (Though I bet you know at least one of the years!) I do care that you are able to read, think, write, and see the meaning of key events. Those skills are critical to learn. But the key ingredients that allow students to successfully learn, and Dr. Immordino-Yang has brain research to prove it, is students’ confidence that their teachers know them, care for them, and believe in them. It’s all about the connections.

So thank you, Eric Yuan. You are going to make a gazillion more dollars from this and you are connecting us in a time when we have never needed it more. And thanks to our teachers, students, parents, and employees who are making those connections in a whole new way.

Stay connected and stay healthy,

Mike

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#1, Beginnings, March 17, 2020)

March 17, 2020

Last week was one of the craziest weeks I’ve had as an educator and perhaps as a human being. Whether or not to close schools was a huge debate for our area and for the country. Many parents and medical professionals were saying that the sooner all schools closed, the more quickly the nation could slow down the spread of COVID-19. But it was also a debate on child care, as closing the schools meant that working professionals, including first responders and medical professionals, might not be able to go to work if schools were closed. I heard from parents and medical professionals about that as well. It was a week where the news was changing every hour, rumors were flying, and emotion was high. For the first time in my life, even more than 9/11, a sense of panic has been evident throughout the nation in terms of making sure people felt that they had the supplies they needed to survive. I heard from employees and I heard from parents, and it truly was a 50/50 split on what was the best tactic to take. And, by the way, it was a highly emotional 50/50 split. I was in regular communication with individual board members, with the Department of Public Health, with other superintendents, with the County Superintendent, with employees, and with district leaders. In the end, we made the decision to close our schools about a day before the County and the rest of the world did. And now, there are only a few schools in the nation, if not the world, that remain open. We have entered a new and hopefully unique phase in our lives.

As we begin this week without students in our schools, there are many important items to work out. We have to address how we are going to effectively and lovingly teach our students, how we are going to best utilize all of our employees, how we are going to keep our employees and our students safe, and how we are going to continue to get the necessary work of the District done. Our teachers began planning for this possibility well before our decision to close, but they are learning a whole new world of online instruction. We are already hearing amazing stories about how our teachers are interacting with our students. One of our kindergarten teachers is already legendary in my mind because I had the chance to see her first video for her kindergarten students, where she was wonderful, but her outstanding performance was truly hijacked by Coco the cat. Her cat made several appearances in the video, and if my kindergarten student had seen that, he would have been head-over-heels for Coco the cat. Even I can’t get enough. I can’t wait to see Coco the cat again! I look forward to seeing many more examples of our teachers working with our students. I am hoping that our parents, when something great happens, will let me know about it. Our teachers are often too humble to share the great things they are doing. That being said, I hope everyone is patient with our teachers, because again, this is a whole new world. Our schools are closed for four weeks at this point, but I know many professionals are saying it will be at least eight before schools across the country re-open, and tonight, the Governor said we may not re-open before the end of the school year. Nothing is certain at this point, and we will continue to learn.

I have many different perspectives on this remarkable time period, which has only just begun. Of course, I am superintendent of our schools here in Manhattan Beach, so I have that perspective. I am married to a 5th grade teacher at a Malibu elementary school, and I have Jill’s perspective as she learns her way through this. And I have the perspective of my two sons. My younger son Dawson is a junior at Malibu High School. He was out of school last year for six weeks because of the Woolsey fire, and now it’s happening again. What a crazy experience for him. And my older son, Ryan, is an attorney living up in Sacramento, so I have his perspective as well. I am thinking that maybe I can share glimpses of all these perspectives in the upcoming blogs. I think it will be a good record of a unique time in our lives, and I hope that it can provide something – I don’t even know what that might be – for others as we work our way through this time. I will be doing my best to make several blog entries a week as we live through this unprecedented time. Even if it is read by only a few, I hope it can be supportive to those, and I know I will benefit by taking the time to reflect, write, and share.

Wishing you all good health,

Mike