Teaching and Learning During COVID-19: Boston EdTalks (Part 1)

This year's Boston EdTalks fellows open up about the challenges and opportunities of teaching and learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

May 4, 2020

Boston Ed Talks 2019 group
This year's Boston EdTalks, originally to be held on May 7, has been postponed  due to the pandemic.
“We had no time to prepare. If we did, I would have given my students books and other materials. We saw our students on Thursday, and classes were called off that evening.”

Teachers’ worlds have turned upside down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond having to suddenly adjust curriculums and schedules accordingly, many teachers are finding themselves in a pickle as their classrooms are now confined to the computer screen. Connecting with students, families and other educators who have a wide variety of needs and capacities is proving to be challenging, but also an opportunity for growth.

We spoke to some of our 2020 Boston EdTalks fellows about how they’re navigating teaching and learning in this time of uncertainty. We’d like to thank each one of them for taking the time to share their experiences and best practices with us. Here is part one of two of our conversation with the fellows. Read part two here.    


1. What are your concerns as an educator with the uncertainty of the pandemic, and its impact on your students?

“I'm concerned this kind of crisis threatens to expand learning gaps. When school was suspended, not all our students had computers or internet service. That led to weeks of lost learning time. Now, thanks to Lawrence Public Schools, our awesome staff at UP Academy Leonard, and the awesome LPS IT team, our kids all have Chromebooks! And many have been able to access free internet through Comcast! Now it's up to us teachers to quickly get good at driving meaningful online learning. My biggest fear right now is making sure I can still provide enough support to my language learners and students with disabilities.” - Dan Adler, UP Academy Leonard

“As an educator working specifically with children with disabilities, I worry about the differential impact school disruptions have on our most vulnerable populations. For students with disabilities where continuity and predictability are essential elements to progression in curriculum, school closure may result in regression in a multitude of skills which will be challenging to address upon our return to school. Another significant population of concern are students with mental health challenges who receive their primary mental health supports through their schools. For these students, lack of mental health support and monitoring can have dangerous consequences, especially if students do not have access to strategies for managing crisis independent of their schooling. An added layer of complexity comes into play when students and families are asked to abide by stay at home orders. Isolation is a breeding ground for mental health challenges and can serve to further exacerbate one's anxiety.” - Becky Muller, KIPP Academy

“I believe the pandemic has further put a microscope on the importance of schools, educators, and the role they play in the lives of students we teach. The systemic inequalities that have manifested via this pandemic on the surface are as simple as food, shelter, computers, grades, or no grades. Below the surface you realize the barriers created within our education system, and how those inequities trickle down to other aspects of life. Many of my students are working currently, and many others have family members who have lost their jobs. We emphasize not focusing on the work in times like these, but in these months, educators are working on continuing to close gaps. Missing time disproportionately impacts my students. I do not necessarily worry about how to get this time back, but rather how this time away impacts our students holistically. The challenge is not limited to us as educators however, but policymakers and institutions that do not fully consider these issues as they relate to my students.” - Gavin Smith, Fenway High School

“I worry about the social and emotional well-being of my students. I teach in a low-income, urban school district, and for many of my students, school provides much needed structure, as well as two meals a day. I’m also concerned about the learning my students are missing—there’s only so much that can be done online. I worry about my students missing out on memories like field trips, prom, and graduation. I see my students’ heartache in their Twitter posts. I worry about how my students and their families will survive if they lose their jobs. I worry about students and their families working in essential businesses like grocery stores. I’m concerned about my undocumented students, who work in restaurants and clean office buildings, who may now be out of work. And I worry about students and their family members getting sick. The virus has already taken several lives in our city. The good news is my school is continuing to provide two meals a day for students, and I’m really happy about that. Our entire school community has rallied and is working together to reach students and help them with what they need.” - Nancy Barile, Revere High School

"As a Technology Integration Specialist (the person in the school who thinks about how our curriculum develops and sustains the digital skills and literacies of staff and students), I have two competing thoughts right now. The first is that this is an amazing moment of forced growth, and my teacher colleagues, whether they like it or not, are having so many new digital experiences and developing so many new digital skills. And that’s exciting to me, because it puts us in such a different place when we come back together, in terms of growing our collective digital literacies as a school community. But the other thought I have is quite the opposite. I see the frustrations of so many educators who feel as if they are being thrown into a situation where they are forced to rely on digital tools they never really wanted to use and don’t fully understand, needing to quickly up-skill in order to get their curriculum in a half-way distance-learning format. I worry that this experience may turn some teachers off of digital learning altogether, believing that digital learning is chaotic and unreliable and hard to manage. So, my concern is how do we positively evolve from this moment, meeting people where they are and acknowledging the different experiences that educators are having during this time. I hope that the impact of this experience is, ultimately, that all teachers get a little further down the digital literacy road, so when we come back each teacher will be a little more confident and competent in helping to develop their students’ digital literacies. Because that’s a team effort, across the curriculum.” - Michelle Ciccone, Foxborough High School


2. How are you staying connected with your students while schools are closed? Are there any concerns that you are hearing from students and families? Do you have any suggested strategies for educators about staying in contact with students?

“I've been doing a LOT of texting. I'm very grateful for the app Talking Points, which lets me text all of our families at once, in multiple languages. Also, the students are getting good at communicating through Google Classroom. My best advice is to have lots of different channels open for communication. Our kids and families are trying to figure out this new world of online learning, and the more available we are, the more we're all about to figure things out together.” - Dan Adler \ “I have used the platform Zoom with students quite a bit. I participate in the SAT prep class that my school offers to 11th graders, so I get to engage with their learning that way. I have also reached out to students via text, email, and phone call. My favorite times have been via Zoom or FaceTime, students are really excited to see me and I’m excited to see them. This is probably due to the small nature of my school, but I've also made time to check on former students at other schools. Some have reached out to me and found me on mediums like LinkedIn to update me on their college choices and successes. As teachers, they'd probably suggest that I teach again. For my principals, ask your teachers to join some of their virtual hangouts, even for a minute, even to say hi - it goes a long way for all parties.” - Gavin Smith

3. Teachers: If you have been offering course work for your students, what has the experience been like? What are some of the challenges that you have faced and do you have any advice for teachers who are beginning to incorporate out of school learning? “The silver lining to what's happening right now is that it's been interesting to learn and use more digital platforms, like Google Classroom, Quizziz, EdPuzzle, ReadWorks, Flipgrid, and PBS Learning Media, to name a few. My advice is to start with what you know and then branch out slowly over time. There is a LOT out there, which is great, but can also get overwhelming. I started with Google Classroom, which I've used before, and then started adding a new tool every other lesson or so. Now the kids have seen a bunch, and I've been able to tell other educators what's working well for me and the kids!” - Dan Adler

“In my pre-AP class where students are reading two books, it’s been easy to post discussions and work. We’d already started these books, and students had the necessary background knowledge. Our first Zoom was a well-being check in, with students discussing their daily lives, showing me their pets, etc. Then we discussed the readings and other work. In all my classes, I’ve asked students to complete a journal of their life in quarantine. I think they’ll appreciate this when they’re older and can look back on this time. Online learning is very difficult. You’re not there to help the students over the little (or bigger) bumps. Zooms help, but they’re not the same as in-person classes. Many of my students have said they just can’t get their brains into school and that the quarantine has affected their mental health.” - Nancy Barile


Read part two here.