GOOD Morning Wilton checked in with Wilton Public School superintendent, Dr. Kevin Smith. Among the topics–synchronous learning, grading, and end of year celebrations.
Overall, Smith said the district is doing well.
“This has been very challenging, but I think we’re doing well–as well as should be expected given the circumstances,” he said.
One thing Smith showed off was an effort by a group of students to use the schools’ 3-D printers to make masks for frontline healthcare workers.
“We have a teacher at the high school whose husband is a doc in the ER at Norwalk Hospital. And as you know, they’ve had a shortage of supply. So she reached out to see if we could repurpose these 3-D printers we have and get some volunteers from across the community to run them,” he explained. “Collectively more than 40 masks have been printed. They were bringing a handful down to Norwalk Hospital this week to have them try them out and see if they’re going to work out or be acceptable.”
Smith answered questions about synchronous learning, including whether or not some teachers didn’t want to participate in on-camera video teaching.
“The feedback from many families has been, particularly at the secondary level, ‘We’d like more of that and can you please do more?’ The answer is, we are doing more of that and we’re working on a continuum. I would just ask people to remember, in this global health crisis, we may all be on the same ocean, but we’re not in the same boat. What I mean by that is family circumstances are different and they run the gamut from families at home where parents are available and able to provide a high level of support; and then you have others where, because of work obligations or other forces in their life, they’re not. So, providing synchronous and asynchronous instruction isn’t the same experience for everybody.”
He added that some students are ready and eager to learn in a synchronous way, but others who struggle with it. “I got an email from a teacher yesterday that said he was running synchronous sessions and many of his kids weren’t showing up. We have to remember there are all these variables that go into it.”
Variables that impact teachers as well, Smith said. “We also have teachers who totally run the gamut. We have a whole group of them that are really facile with the technology and really comfortable with this medium. And then we have many who aren’t and who need lots of support. We’ve been working primarily through our LLC staff and our tech ILs to provide that support. But people come with different levels of comfort and their own concerns that we have to try to negotiate.”
He said the district has adopted a “blended model” approach, using both synchronous and asynchronous teaching, “with some clear goals with synchronous learning that we want to continue to aspire to, because we know connection is so important.”
Smith added that many staff members are using a variety of tools to connect with kids “in real-time on some predictable interval”–but not all are.
“Many of our staff are doing that, but they’re not quite there yet. Not everybody for sure. If they’re not comfortable with this format, what is a format that they could use that would be effective in terms of connecting with kids in real-time and just checking in on them. And then beyond the connection piece, it’s the instructional delivery and how best to do that. We could probably list 20, 30, 40 examples of really good practice and people who have responded to the technology well and are delivering good instruction. And then others who have a lot of questions about it.”
He asked parents to be patient. “We’re just asking for some more time, some more patience and some more understanding. But know that it is a priority for us and it’s something that we’re working on.”
How much learning has been “lost”?
Smith acknowledged that the district is dealing with a “new normal,” that what students are doing now wasn’t what the plan had been at the start of the year. But is it possible to assess how much has been lost and what preparations have been made for catching up in the next school year, when things–hopefully–return to normal?
“There’s been a great deal of thought and energy that’s gone into trying to understand. This emergency, online learning approach that our district and every district is taking is not, will not, and shouldn’t be thought to replicate a classroom experience. It’s not possible and that is not the objective. If it was, it’d be an unreasonable objective.”
But the district team is trying to assess what is happening, and Smith acknowledges that the standards have “narrowed.”
“Our administrators, coordinators and teacher leaders have built documents that we’ll share with the Board [of Education] next Thursday that best suggest the key standards for each grade level that we think we can achieve between now and the end of the fourth quarter, June 10. It’s a much narrower band of standards, by necessity. What we’ve asked them to do is really focus on what are the key learnings and key ideas and then, can we build a range of learning experiences to take kids through those and then can we come up with a way that’s reasonable to provide students feedback on what they submit and get a sense of where they are and [what] they’re learning in relationship to each of their standards,” Smith explained.
District leaders have been “for weeks” thinking about how that will impact next year. But with so many unknowns, Smith says that’s hard to do.
“One of the popular assumptions has been, at some point–June? July? August?–things are going to come back to normal. But as each day passes and each new show I watch and each article I read, that becomes less and less certain. So we’ve got a Plan A and we’re going to have to have a Plan B and a Plan C.”
Assuming that school will resume on a normal basis, Smith says the “best hope” is that teachers will plan on catching up–and that will take some time.
“At that point our teachers are going to be busy at work with their kids, assessing what kids know and where the gaps are. And then, just like they always do, they’ll get together in their teams and they’ll make curriculum decisions and try to backfill as much as they’re able to, and really make sure that all of those key standards and the additional standards were met–and [that] kids are performing at the level that’s expected. I think that’s going to take a little time,” he said.
He also reminded everyone that this isn’t an issue impacting only Wilton.
“It’s global–we’re not the only people that are worried about this. It’s not even regional. I was on a call earlier this morning with the superintendents in the region and we’re all having similar conversations [and] similar experiences. You know, we got through more than half the school year in a traditional format. We shut down with about 15 days to go in the third quarter and then we have the fourth quarter. So, in a 180-day school year, [that’s], about 50-55 days. That’s not insignificant, but we’re not suggesting and nobody should, that we’ve lost an entire school year,” Smith said.
“This task, although it’s going to be significant, it’s certainly not impossible. And I do think, as we’ve always said, our staff is more than up to the task,” he added.
Grading for the Fourth Quarter
The question of how students will be assessed concretely has been frequently asked, especially among middle and high school families. Smith addressed that too.
“Number one, at least among the administrators, nobody thinks it’s a good idea that we should continue with a traditional grading format–it doesn’t make any sense. There are too many variables for which we can’t control, so we’re not going to do that. Rather, knowing that we have a set of standards, that we’re working towards adopting more of a standards-based approach makes more sense,” he said.
Instead, Smith said feedback on how students meet standards will be what’s assessed.
“What we’re talking about is providing feedback to kids along a scale of, ‘has met standards’, ‘has not yet met standards’, or ‘the standard was not assessed’. We think that’s wide enough to account for all of those variables in teachers’ lives and kids’ lives to make sense. What we’re going to be asking teachers, as they’re already doing, is to do their best to try to give kids really descriptive feedback on their progress towards learning and against each of these standards.
Doing the Best We Can
Smith referred to his own stress facing the current situation when he spoke to district families, asking again for their patience and understanding.
“I found myself over this last month to be really scattered and I’m not typically a scattered person. But the reason I think I’m scattered is because of the amount of stress that I’m experiencing personally. And my hunch is I am not alone. In fact, I suspect that most, if not all of us, are also experiencing inordinate amounts of stress as a result of having to manage this emergency health crisis. And so here are my messages: Number one, with respect to learning, please know and please trust that everybody is doing the best that they can and on different days that best is going to look very different.
“We all just need to take a breath and understand and trust that people really are trying to figure it out. And collectively, the educators of the Wilton Public Schools, we all have the best interest of our students and families in mind. So, if you’re a parent and you’re frustrated, I just ask you, take a breath,” he said, adding, “This is a really unusual time and people are struggling and we have to just recognize that, and do our best to support each other through this.”
He offered himself as a resource: “If you have a concern, or have something you want to talk about, call me. You can call me, you can email me, I’ll get in touch with you, we can talk about it. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
Smith added, “During times of stress in addition to being patient, it’s also an opportunity for all of us to practice being our best selves. And that’s been my message to all of our administrators and to my own children: To the best of your ability, to the best we’re all able, let’s capitalize on the opportunity to become better human beings.”
Smith also applauded town officials, especially First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, for her leadership during the crisis.
“I’ve been so, so impressed with Lynne and the leadership of this town. This community, as it always does, comes together. I’m seeing lots and lots of examples of that happening through this health crisis. So I want to give a big shout out and affirmation to all of our town leaders, especially Lynne Vanderslice,” he said.