Most of our schools have launched a new school year in a start like no other with the majority of classes being offered virtually or in hybrid format. We send our warmest wishes to you and your school communities as your year gets underway.
How do we approach Fall 2020 with its continuous requirement to develop and adopt plans, change adopted plans, then repeat as circumstances shift? How do we align our belief in developmental, relationship-based, arts-infused education with distance education, physical distancing, fear for well-being, and the accumulated weariness of months of work-from-home and juggling of roles?
There are no easy answers, but our personal and professional principles help guide us. We can return to our personal mission: Why do I teach? What do I understand to be the purpose of schools and of teaching? What is my view of childhood and of children? Plus, as members of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, we can turn to our shared Core Principles to provide guidance for our work in this extraordinary, uncharted time.
Our Core Principles help us navigate this time of multiple crises. As an example, we see this in one shared dilemma: the use of screens. We have held a position on screens and children that is thoroughly grounded in research; unlike much of education, we have kept screens out of the classroom as much and for as long as possible and expended time and energy dissuading parents from use of screens with their young children. We have explained what we know: children learn best in direct, engaged relationship; learning is most effective when it is “whole child,” somatic and experiential. In the physical classroom, we rely on multiple cues as we constantly engage in formative assessment and adapt our teaching to meet the students. We know, and have told our communities, that screens work against all of this. They encourage unnatural stillness. They impose images on children rather than inviting them to develop their own. They affect the way the young child’s brain functions.
This all remains true, but we are now confronted with the reality of a time in which, for most of us, we cannot be together in a classroom. Virtual contact, typically through Zoom, has become really important. How can we reconcile and explain this in light of our previous stance against screens? The key thing to remember here is that Zoom is a tool to support our pedagogical principles and work. Even with significant limitations, Zoom helps us maintain connection and community, provides students with access to their teachers, and allows teaching and learning to proceed.
Since March, we have heard many, many examples of creative and innovative teaching using the tool of Zoom, teaching that directly reflects our Core Principles. Educators are bringing their knowledge of child development as they decide how and where to use Zoom. (How much is too much for the younger child? Which activities work well for different ages on Zoom?) They are keeping in mind our image of the holistic human being. (How do we bring movement, art, nature, and social-emotional learning into a virtual environment? How do we include a mood of gratitude and wonder?) They are fostering and maintaining community and connection through class and community events and activities.
We know this is not simple or free of problems. Schools are balancing accountability requirements for instructional time with concerns about length of time on screens. We are all concerned about access and the widening of existing gaps. In our current reality, access and diversity remain our most challenging principles. Systemic racism and inequity that are far from new have been laid inescapably bare in recent months. Our virtual reality has highlighted fundamental issues of equity, access, and inclusion of all students. We are all looking anew at who is in our schools and classrooms, who has the technology and access needed for virtual access, where we make assumptions about students, homes, and resources, which parents are “essential workers”, who is working from home, who has the luxury of time and space to support distance learning.
We are engaged in a great awakening. We worry, rightfully, about existing gaps growing wider. Yet, another of our Core Principles strives for social change through education. We must seize new opportunities for change and growth. The pandemic will end at some point. Schools will reopen. Our challenge will be to take this enforced opportunity to reexamine assumptions, to awaken, to support a reshaping of schools, of classrooms, and of the process of teaching, based on a coherent, complete image of all children’s childhood. Our children are counting on us for this.
Sending warm wishes and strength to each one of you and deep gratitude for the principled work you are doing every day,
On behalf of the Board of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education
Views from the Field: 20 Observations, Tips, and Questions from Teachers on Virtual Teaching and Learning from last week’s Zoom Town Hall
1. Build in frequent breaks. Encourage students to move, look outside (even better if they can step outside) during breaks
2. Adapt movement to the screen. From a kindergarten teacher: “Here we go round the mulberry bush” became “Here we go climbing the mulberry bush” so she could see the children
3. Headphones can be a challenge as they tether the child to the screen. They may be necessary if there are siblings, crowded space, or the child is participating from a daycare center
4. Encourage moments of a longer gaze, away from the screen; looking at something green is even better
5. Hydrate! Important for students and teachers
6. Be in dialogue with administration about overall screen hours – for you and for the students (some of us have split classes and are teaching double)
7. Engage parents and be aware of unrealistic expectations on parents (especially “essential workers” and working from home)
8. Children in childcare may have little support for classes. We need to be mindful of settings
9. Practice self-care – many are depending on our teacher and this can be exhausting. We need to remind one another to take care of ourselves
10. Have open office hours for parents of younger children and for students and parents in older grades
11. AND, establish clear boundaries. You can’t be available 24/7
12. Be prepared for technical glitches (what happens if the teacher gets kicked off?)
13. Many are still dealing with disparity of technology and access. What can be offered?
14. Build in movement and eurythmy gestures to counterbalance sitting still and hunching over
15. Parents need reassurance and support – frequent emails with supportive messaging help
16. Students are so excited to see their teachers and one another. It is a new beginning
17. How do we sustain their initial enthusiasm without feeling as if we have to be entertainers?
18. What is the right rhythm for class parent meetings?
19. How are we managing special education assessment? Is our district allowing these to be in person?
20. Add notes to children in supply bags or boxes