Reading and writing

What I learned as a school principal and relearned as a pandemic parent

Almost 10 years ago I was principal of a pilot blended learning school. We were a small K-8 Oakland charter, operating primarily on heart and scrappiness.

Then, quite unexpectedly, we received a big grant to test a hot new topic: personalized learning. We bought the student laptop carts and stylish furniture. We learned about smart, kid-friendly computer tools and programs.

A year later, our test scores had skyrocketed.

When our school opened in 2009, only seven of our 220 students were reading at grade level; in 2013, the majority were proficient or advanced readers. Step into our five minutes of fame as a school. Tour buses filled with men in costume pulled up outside our run down motel-style building to see the magic in action. They crammed into our little classrooms, taking many notes, asking, What’s the secret ? Is it the computer programs? Is the furniture flexible?

i knew what i should to say. I knew the buzzwords. But the truth was much simpler. We had amazing teachers who believed in our students. We had a clear academic vision. We were a tight-knit team. And now we have been fortunate to have some useful tools. It wasn’t something that revolutionary or sexy, it was just that the computer programs made it possible for our teachers to shine by giving them a way to meet each student every day, and they also made it possible for our students to have a certain freedom of action over their time.

We experienced a lot of trial and error, but regardless of the program, schedule, or office setup, we continued to learn the same key lessons: the power lay in the interaction between the teacher and the the pupil. Our teachers and students have prospered; each student received individual support and feedback each day in math and reading.

Were the blended learning programs themselves that great? No. Were they better than a spreadsheet? Of course, they provided students with immediate feedback, and teachers didn’t have to waste time creating and printing worksheets late at night.

Were the students on the computer all day? No. Blended learning simply meant that students had three rotations: teacher-led, small-group instruction in reading and math; partnership or group projects; and some individual computer learning exercises. It has not replaced recess or the morning circle or reading aloud or class discussions or science experiments or any other incredibly valuable whole class experience.

Back then, we didn’t know the right balance between personalized learning and whole classroom teaching. Since, research showed that the ideal balance is around 50/50, with students spending 50% of their time accessing and learning grade level content and 50% working on their individual goals.

Blended learning also meant that our students developed the agency over time and as they learned. They set goals for themselves. They could choose how and when to acquire a skill online. They might choose to practice math facts on the computer and then use the knowledge to solve a complex, real problem with a partner. I will never forget to watch a grade 6 student finish reading his Hunger Games book, grabs his computer to take an online comprehension quiz, passes the quiz, marks he has reached his reading goal, then beams as his whole class bursts into the blink of an eye to celebrate it without no teacher asks for it.

It was my life, my reality, almost ten years ago. Now move forward to 2020. I hysterically cry to my husband. I’ve been an educator for over 20 years – a good year, I thought – and now I’m stuck at home, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to “home educate” my three children.

My twins were in first grade. They had Zoom school 30 minutes a day, but they were with me the rest of the time.

In a way, I had forgotten everything I had learned in my old school. I created a rigid schedule. I tried to teach them math together, which always made at least one of us cry under the table. Often me. I tried to take writing lessons. My daughter wanted to write as humanly as possible in the most elaborate way. “I don’t use punctuation in my handwriting,” she announced one day. During this time, my son aimed to write as few correctly spelled words as possible. I tried the book club. My daughter showed up with idea pages and highlighted passages to discuss. My son said, “Can we just read this book on our own so we don’t mess it up with all this talk?”

Finally, it occurred to me: these are individuals. They like to learn differently, so why did I force them to do it together? They know what is difficult for them and what they want to learn. Why didn’t I keep their unique needs at the center?

So I sat down with each of them. They told me exactly what they wanted from homeschooling and what they were curious to learn. I dug up those old adaptive programs that I tested years ago — luckily, many had improved dramatically in 10 years. We have created individual schedules.

My son was able to learn on his own most of the time and only ask for help when he was stuck. My daughter preferred to take a lesson first and then train independently. Now he could spend hours learning Greek history and chess as she blew Hamilton up while drawing and writing creative stories. We got together for card games and recordings, but no longer pretending we had to function like a three-person brain. (And we all cried a lot less.)

My role as a parent teacher was to let go and let them flourish. I had to overcome my self-imposed fear of screens and question my own assumptions. Is it really terrible if they learn multiplication from Khan Academy instead of me? Will they implode if they learn a bit of history and science from BrainPop? Should they spend the same time as each other on all subjects? What is my fear of unstructured time? As soon as I released my own expectations of how learning “should” be, I saw them spring up and come to life.

Now they are happy to go back to school. They love to see their teachers and friends and the routine of it all. I am deeply grateful. Still, I can’t help but wonder: how do we keep these sparks alive? How might we redesign the school day so that students can get targeted support and feedback while continuing their curiosity? How to relax and allow students to set their own goals and manage their time? How can we take advantage of technology so that our teachers can do the irreplaceable and deeply human work of building relationships, believing in students and challenging them academically? Ultimately, who do we want our students to become as adults, and how do we plan backwards from these skills and mindsets?

I don’t have any answers yet. I know it’s more than just a magic computer program or flexible and expensive classroom furniture, as these men in suits might have believed years ago. It’s not just about letting students do whatever they want all day, but it also doesn’t require learning to be done in 45-minute lessons.

It’s about reinventing the way we can create spaces for teachers and students to thrive. It’s about trusting our students to forge their own path and uplifting our teachers to be the ones who guide, challenge and motivate them. It’s about making sure every student gets the support and feedback they deserve. and access to rigorous content at school level. I believe it is here – in this uncharted common ground – that we will discover how all children and teachers can truly spark sparks.

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson