Testimony of Cheri Micheau to the BOE, June 25, 2020

At the recent Student Achievement Committee meeting I suggested that instructional leaders at 440 reach out to principals and teachers to collect specific suggestions from practitioners on best practices in distance learning, in other words, to use a bottom-up approach to improving instruction rather than the top-down approach often employed. I want to emphasize that point again, that we should not miss this opportunity to learn from the experiences of the last few months in implementing distance learning. What we learn may very well need to be applied in the fall, if distance learning is once again required for all students, but it also may inform new practices for addressing students’ needs more generally.

One of the real opportunities that teachers have described in working in online platforms is the ability to interact with small groups and to learn more about specific students’ learning styles and needs and to group them for more appropriate instruction. As we all know, one of the challenges that the SDP faces IS addressing the needs of a wide variety of students with urgent needs: English Learners, students with IEPs, students with trauma, etc. For example, we serve English Learners at various levels of English proficiency, education in the home country, initial literacy, and with varying levels of trauma. We work with students who have not progressed to grade level in reading and math, sometimes lagging five or more grade levels behind their peers. We instruct students with a wide variety of learning and emotional needs. How might the “intimate” setting of the small-group and one-on-one instruction offered online possibly be employed in “filling in the gaps” for some of these students? Clearly, teachers faced with addressing the particular needs of 30 or 35 students in a classroom are overwhelmed…….yet we know that if students can work through their challenges——-in lessons targeted to their levels—-they can progress. I’m not suggesting throwing students on a computer program in a one-size-fits-all approach. The advantage of the distance learning experience over computer programs was, indeed, the personalized attention that students received from their teachers and the chance to interact more often and more closely with their teachers. Instead, I am thinking about how enrichment and skill-building lessons might be designed by teachers to specifications for small groups of students and facilitated through these online platforms.

How to do this? Let’s find out how some master teachers succeeded in reaching students and addressing their specific needs. Let’s find out how students can be grouped not just by individual classrooms, but across the school, by the specific needs we want to address, and then how we can deliver this targeted instruction efficiently.

An example might clarify this suggestion: English Learners vary not only in their overall proficiency levels, but in their levels in individual language skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking: A student might be a high-level speaker of English, but have poor reading or writing skills, or the reverse, read and write quite proficiently, but still struggle to speak and understand English. In schools with large numbers of English Learners and the push for push-in instruction, it is not often possible to meet with groups of English Learners privately—-outside their “regular” classroom—-to target the skills that they need. ESOL teachers at one school—-or even ESOL teachers across multiple schools—could, for example, facilitate a discussion session to increase speaking fluency for Level 1 students from multiple grades and classrooms; they could do more adapted read alouds and Q & A for a certain level to help students increase their reading fluency and comprehension, while students follow along and respond; or they could do a writers’ workshop with students at different levels of writing ability, and where necessary, this could be done online. Thus, the time taken to pick up and drop off students for short face-to-face sessions could be better used in more instructional time. This would not usually be instead of the regular instructional schedule—-English Learners do, after all, have a legal right to regularly scheduled, research-based ESOL instruction—-but in addition to it, in, for example, enrichment time, before or after school, or during other open times in the day, or, in the case of newcomers, instead of instruction that is not yet accessible to them because of a lack of English. Similarly, students from multiple classrooms and grades—-English Learners and English-speaking students alike—- who have a certain reading or writing challenge might be grouped to practice those specific skills together in targeted sessions.

We know that students progress when we help them move systematically through a carefully-considered instructional program, laying a foundation and then progressing confidently from there. Where a foundation has not been laid, students struggle and eventually give up. How might our new distance learning practices—-with emphasis on the teacher-student relationship and targeted assistance—— help us move kids forward who are stagnating at a certain level for lack of attention to their specific needs? Applying some lessons from distance learning might be one component in the solution.