To support teachers in the midst of the recent Coronavirus pandemic, TeachLab is switching our focus to highlight tools and strategies for effective teaching during this time. Today we talk with Michael Pershan, a New York City math teacher at one of the first schools in the country to shut down and transition to distance learning in the face of COVID-19. Michael joins our host Justin Reich to discuss what we know about online and distance learning, and what's feasible for a math teacher to do.
To support teachers in the midst of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, TeachLab is switching our focus to highlight tools and strategies for effective teaching during this time. Today we talk with Michael Pershan. He is a New York City math teacher at one of the first schools in the country to shut down in the face of COVID-19. At his school, the goal was to transition fully to synchronous distance learning. Michael joins Justin Reich to discuss what we know about online and distance learning, and what's feasible for a math teacher to do.
About Our Guest: Michael Pershan
Michael Pershan is an elementary, middle and high school teacher in NYC. Learn more about Micheal on Twitter @mpershan You can read about Michael’s professional history here and check out some of his writing here.
Join our next course on edX!
Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices
Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded by Justin Reich and Michael Pershan
Edited by Aimee Corrigan
Mixed by Garrett Beazley
Follow Us On:
Justin Reich: From the studios at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm your host, Justin Reich. Season one of TeachLab has been about equity teaching practices, but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we're taking a break to release a series of episodes about schools, colleges, the transition to distance learning during school closures, and all the issues of equity and online learning that are coming up. For those interested in our work on equity teaching practices, we've just launched a free online course on edX, called Becoming a More Equitable Educator, which we hope will be a source of stimulation and solace and support during these challenging times. You can find it online by searching, Becoming a More Equitable Educator. For today's TeachLab episode, I have a conversation that I recorded last Friday, March 13th, with Michael Pershan, a dear colleague and a math teacher in New York city. He's a teacher in one of the first schools in America to close and to try to transition to online learning during the pandemic. We talked about what's possible in trying to teach math at a distance
Justin Reich: From the studios at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich today my guest is Michael Pershan. Michael is an independent school math teacher in New York city. His school has just closed for a couple of days and is getting ready to start going online on Monday. Is that right, Michael?
Michael Pershan: That's right. I've got, let's start with normal things for a math teacher in this situation to be trying to do online, and then we'll just go down. So ninth grade geometry, high school geometry, accelerated algebra one for eighth graders, what my school calls just regular normal algebra one for eighth graders. Fourth grade math and third grade math, I come into a third grade classroom. I used to go into a third grade classroom, and I'd push in, I was their math teacher.
Justin Reich: And you still are, there's just not a classroom now. So you've got two sets of eighth graders, a set of ninth graders, a fourth grader, you've got 17 kids in each class or something like that?
Michael Pershan: And then-
Justin Reich: You're pretty sure every kid has internet access and a device at home?
Michael Pershan: So my school started handing out Chromebooks and hotspots if they could find kids who didn't have devices or who wouldn't have that. I've been using some online stuff with my eighth and ninth graders, so I do know that they have access.
Justin Reich: Okay.
Michael Pershan: Sort of, I kind of know that. I mean, I knew that they had access, now that I say it out loud, I knew that they had access when they were coming to school every day, maybe some of them are doing their work in the library, I don't know.
Justin Reich: Good. Yeah. So a little hard to know sort of who has what. And also, it could be that people had access to a device when their parents didn't need it all evening to keep up with work or things like that, who knows-
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: ... what sharing needs to happen.
Michael Pershan: Right. I teach it at a relatively wealthy New York city school. So in general, this is kind of best case scenario for students and having access to technology.
Justin Reich: What opportunities did you have to talk with kids before they left? Did you have a chance to ask them what kinds of circumstances they think they'd be in?
Michael Pershan: Yeah. People have different moments when they on-ramped into obsessing over this news, right?
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: So I can't remember exactly when I on-ramped, to being, "Oh, this is really bad and we might, and schools are closing and I bet that'll happen when this thing hits the U.S." But I felt prepared to talk about that with my students when the first reports of cases in New York or even in Washington started coming. So I was talking to kids about that, they were asking me, especially my eighth and ninth graders, they're asking me, "What do you thinks going to happen?" And I told them what I thought was going to happen, and I said, I did spend a couple days saying, "Do you have any things that you ever do online in any of your other classes that-?" I tried to test out, here's what I'm thinking would be like this, so I was kind of assuming that I'd have a little bit more time to try to figure that out and test things, and then we closed very suddenly.
Justin Reich: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Michael Pershan: We closed very suddenly on Wednesday, or we announced that we were closing on Tuesday. What my school wants us to try to do is keep up the regular schedule as much as possible, which means that kids will be keeping their regular schedule from 8:35Am to 3:25 in front of computers all day, which-
Justin Reich: And you have 45 minute class periods-
Michael Pershan: Exactly.
Justin Reich: ... and they have eight periods or something like that, a break for lunch.
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: Can you say more about why you think keeping a synchronous day going all day is not going to work?
Michael Pershan: Yeah, because it sounds awful to sit in front of a computer for 9, 8 hours every day. That sounds not fun. I don't want to do that, and I would only have to do it, I suppose for 4 to 5, depending on the day, 5, 45 minute periods, that, it-
Justin Reich: You'd be doing it half the time that students would be doing it, and that sounds daunting to you.
Michael Pershan: Right? It sounds intolerable. I can't imagine that parents want their kids sitting in front of a laptop for that much time. The other thing is I think that my school might be... I understand what my school's rationale is because I've asked for it and it doesn't make sense, which is that they want every teacher to be able to... it'd be a scheduling nightmare to give every teacher the opportunity to try this out-
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: ... while breaking down the schedule, so that's fine, I get that. But, and you think about the consequences, first of all, I'm already sitting down all day. But the other thing is, I think there's some overestimating of our ability to just preserve the normal learning experience going on. Teachers that I've been talking to at my school are trying to run, and imagine this, more or less the way that they run their classes with some board work, some discussions, some time to work, some ability to rotate. I think that, that's not going to make sense. I don't know if that-
Justin Reich: Yeah, I think it's [crosstalk 00:06:36] very unlikely to make sense and I don't think that's how the existing virtual schools that plan to do this all year do it. So one problem with using our existing virtual schools, as a reference point, is that they have really bad outcomes for kids. So, it's not clear that we should be copying them. There's an article that just came out in Education Researcher yesterday I think, which showed that kids that moved from Indiana schools into Indiana virtual charter schools had lasting negative impacts on English and math for years. And so, and those schools at least have the opportunity to plan for months or years to have students do online learning.
Justin Reich: I mean my understanding is, and I've been asking about this because I don't think there's great research out there about this, is that the best virtual school teachers have their days set up so that they do some planning, they provide what are mostly self-paced learning experiences for kids, they do maybe a little bit of synchronous work, and then they're mostly looking at their roster and going down it and saying, "Who haven't I checked in with in a while and who's likely to need me the most?" Especially the kids who are not going to raise their hands and ask for help.
Justin Reich: I could imagine an alternate schedule for your school would be something like, "Each of these 45 minute periods reserve the top 15 minutes for synchronous experiences if you need to do them, but don't try to do anything longer than that." And then everybody knows that they have some time, which they can use for synchronous things, but don't have to do it every day. And then for the most part, just let students kind of... give them some goals, have them work towards those goals for the end of the week, and then try to use the more flexible time throughout the day to kind of intervene with kids and see how they're making progress towards those goals.
Michael Pershan: I think my school wants, they want us to check in with kids, to take attendance honestly-
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: ... just like it's a normal classroom. But what we do with those 45 minutes, we've got I think, broad latitude.
Justin Reich: Well, but the other thing is-
Michael Pershan: So, I could-
Justin Reich: ... is if everyone relinquishes the second 2/3 of those 45 minutes, then every teacher can use them more flexibly to check in with kids as they need it. And if people, if teachers start only using those synchronous sessions every other day or something like that, I could, I mean, I think so much depends too upon what kind of culture you have in your school, and what kind of parental resources or family resources you have around the home and things like that.
Justin Reich: I'm sure schools will get very, very different models to work decently and I'm sure most schools will find, as you predicted, that there's just not that much learning that you can get done by transitioning to this model really quickly. No one has enough experience to be able to do it. I mean, I've been thinking, so then how do you cut your curriculum as a starting point, maybe in half or down to 40%? What are the things that you most hope people would get out of the month of March and April, or the second half of the year and kind of strategically prioritize those things? I don't know, how are you thinking about that?
Michael Pershan: I haven't. I haven't had a chance to think at all about big picture stuff, my thoughts don't extend beyond the coming week. But I would say it really depends on the class also, is part of the issue.
Justin Reich: In terms of the class content or the composition of the students?
Michael Pershan: Well, because take high school geometry.
Justin Reich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael Pershan: I love teaching high school geometry, it's great. High school geometry has a wide variety of topics, some of which I think are drastically easier to teach online than others. So my function is trying to make a decision, right? It seems to me that anything that requires images as input or output is going to be trickier.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: Text based stuff, it seems like the web is still fundamentally built on texts.
Justin Reich: Yeah. What is it? I've heard Dan Meyer say, "Computers are not a natural input device for math."
Michael Pershan: And all the more so for a diagram.
Justin Reich: Right.
Michael Pershan: So, right, so in high school geometry, I have some choices, I could emphasize coordinate geometry, which there's a lot of resources and a lot of tools out there. I could emphasize trigonometry, which is great, but I think has a lot of conceptual work that I don't know how well that will go online yet. So the function of trying to figure out that 40% of focus on, I think it's not just, "What's the most important 40%?" It's, "What's the optimization when you're thinking about both?" On one axis is important and the other axis is feasibility.
Justin Reich: That's great. Yeah. And the feasibility is determined by, "What do I think naturally students can do online? What kinds of concepts are things that people have a better chance of doing with self study versus, 'No, this is a topic which is just rife with misconceptions and it really needs me.'"
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: And then, "What are the extant resources that are out there to be able to teach this topic?" But if you can, it's easier to move towards a kind of self-paced, challenge-based check-in model. If you can find something online, which is, "Oh yeah, that looks like a unit. I bet in a week or two my kids could kind of make their way through that, and I could get folks to help," those sound like those sound like great considerations to be using on as people are selecting what to focus on.
Michael Pershan: The other thing is, as I think about my classes, two of my classes are designated as accelerated, which typically means, whatever your concerns about tracking are, that the kids in those classes are much more comfortable working independently in math. They've had more successes in math in the past and they typically don't have the kinds of learning disabilities that students in some of my non-accelerated classes have. So, I've got students in there that we're having some successes in that class, feeling, "Oh, they were surprised that they were having successes in that class." And then to, just to rip out every layer of support that those kids have, that I've built for those kids over the last, since September, I don't know what to do there.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: I need to think about what that's going to mean.
Justin Reich: My wife teaches material science here at MIT and she just had a very similar conversation, she was describing to me with a kid who is expressing his grief and sadness about having to go home, but particularly saying, "I just managed to get my rhythm here this year, this semester, at MIT. I just managed to figure out the structures that I needed to do that my faculty can help me with that let me be successful, and I'm so afraid that when I go home I'm going to lose all that." I mean, I think there's going to be some measure of triaging that needs to happen of different student needs. We'll probably find that there are a bunch of kids who love just learning by themselves online and think it's fun and do well and it might be possible to set those kids on some challenges and let them keep rolling. Or even kids who don't love it, but sort of do fine.
Michael Pershan: I want to keep things productive here, but I saw you express that most schools shouldn't even attempt online learning, they should just close. Is that right?
Justin Reich: I think if schools have lots of kids who don't have internet access, lots of kids who don't have a device, not a lot of track record of being able to practice using technology and devices and things like that. Then I think people are better off spending their time planning for how they're going to help kids make up whenever things opened back up than trying to do a rapid job of transitioning to online learning when people just aren't going to be able to spend that time effectively.
Justin Reich: And then, the more that you believe public schools have an obligation to provide free and accessible obligation for all of their students, then there's huge fairness issues that show up there. I think every school should encourage all kids to do some kind of learning while they're home, send home packets, give them challenges, get every kid logged in to Khan Academy or whatever it is. I'm not saying zero learning, I'm more saying there are lots of places that just aren't going to be able to that... It'd be a heroic amount of effort with minimal, outcomes to try to transition to online learning in the midst of a pandemic.
Michael Pershan: Right. I would say that the reaction that I've seen from school so far makes a lot of sense for the week to two week scenario, let's try this and maybe for three weeks and maybe a month, but we have no idea. We're shutting down with no idea about what's going to happen, really no clue. The longer this goes on, the less sense this plan makes to me. Anyway, okay, have you heard of literally anybody who's doing this with fourth graders? Have you heard of online learning with kids that young? For example, I just saw some resources from San Francisco Unified School District. They shared some lessons to send home, which I thought that was great. That was a really useful resource. But I don't know what online learning looks like with students that young.
Justin Reich: I think fully virtual, fully online schools for elementary school students is basically homeschooling with support. The schools assume that there's a parent or caregiver or guardian that is monitoring the daily learning activities of students, and then teachers are coming in both to coach those parents or guardians and do assessments, provide feedback, make curriculum available.
Justin Reich: But the online learning model, as I understand it, in elementary school, but also in high school as well, is basically create a self paced curriculum, have an adult there who's providing the support and feedback and structure to make sure that the student does the things they're supposed to do over the day. And then, you check in with them regularly throughout the day. So, the notion that a fourth grader could come home from your school and sit in front of a laptop all day and be learning stuff without parental involvement because you and your faculty colleagues are supervising that student, to my knowledge, there are no virtual elementary schools that attempt that model.
Michael Pershan: Right. By the way, one thing that they did start doing before we shut down, as we didn't know when exactly we're going to shut down, but they got a sense that it would be soon, is they set up Google Classroom and did minimal training with fourth graders on how to use it. And the last couple of days, my Google Classroom page for the fourth grade class is just these tiny children just being like, "Yo, hello, what's up? Cool. Okay. Hi." So, some of them apparently do have some understanding of how to type into Google Classroom.
Justin Reich: Yeah, the other day, I observed my daughter in the third grade trying to log into a Chromebook. It was a 12 minute experience of typing in her password. Young people don't have the fine motor skills and the typing skills to be able to input things into a device. Then again, there's some real limits of what they're going to accomplish.
Michael Pershan: Yeah. Right, so there are certain online activities that I think I am totally able to use with my eighth and ninth graders, but I see no way that I'll end up using them with my fourth graders until... As this apocalypse progresses, they become more tech savvy because, for example, I doubt that, without help, my fourth graders will be able to simultaneously beyond meet and switch to another screen if their parents have given them a phone or something.
Justin Reich: Yep. Will, do you think your students could record short videos of them doing themselves math and upload it to have you watch or share?
Michael Pershan: It's unclear. We have not gotten clear guidance from our school yet as to how involved parents should be. To the extent that we have had guidance, it's as little as possible. There's no way a fourth grader could do that I think, not without specific training. And also, I have no idea who's got access to... I think with specific training, is that something that you think is easy to do, walk kids through?
Justin Reich: Certainly not at a distance. Again, it seems like it's the kind of thing that if you're like, "Hey, everybody, we're starting this virtual school program and we developed a bunch of videos and we're going to do one face to face meeting in the beginning of the year that's going to show people how to do all these things." You could imagine with extensive planning, it would be possible. And teachers who try to do something more complex like that, we'll find that some kids figure it out, some kids have parents who get them to figure it out, and then there's a bunch of kids who can't.
Justin Reich: And again, then it raises these equity issues of, in your case, it could be, "Well, my mom and dad both work in healthcare and they're in the hospital all day. I'm just hanging out here with my older brother who is also supposed to be going to school and working full time. Everyone's just hoping that I stay fed during this period of time." Yeah, I think if I was working with fourth graders, I would be thinking, is there a platform that I can get them to log into that they can do some math, maybe adaptively, whether that's IXL or Khan Academy or assessments or any of these other kinds of things.
Justin Reich: And then, could I either set all of us a goal, or with 17, 14 kids, maybe set each of the kids a goal and just make it a goal to try to check in with each of them every other day or something like that, and say, "Hey, how's the math going? Oh, really cool. Oh, you're working on that and you're stuck. I'll do a little. Here's my whiteboard. Let me draw for you on my whiteboard how you do that problem. All right, let's check in in a couple of days and see if you could figure that out. Won't that be cool?"
Justin Reich: The only thing I might do is, in some form, try to put kids in... For other kids, I would put them in peer groups to be able to do that. But my third grader knows how to send text messages. She knows how to send many, many emojis in a row to her grandmother. But I don't think she knows... Your ninth graders probably know how to open a Google doc and use the chat on the side to have a conversation with each other. But your fourth graders are probably pretty much on their own.
Justin Reich: But it could be as simple as who knows how much phone access they'll have. But it could be giving everybody a buddy and saying, "Hey, Mr. Pershan is going to check in with you every other day and on the day that I don't check in with you, call your buddy and have a math talk with them and see what help they need and what they're working on and things like that." But I would do that as much to help encourage people to maintain human connections with each other than I would to actually get any math learning happening.
Justin Reich: That's probably a default, I'm sure that's going through your mind regularly. There's some purpose of this, which is to maintain learning and things like that. But there's another purpose of this, which is just to maintain these human connections we have and to be another part of the social safety net that making sure that kids are okay and helping everyone not go stir crazy during a pandemic.
Michael Pershan: Right. And the truth is that right now kids are not being asked to quarantine themselves. So, there's nothing stopping kids from going and hanging out together if they're nearby.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: And at least until when the help authorities tell us not to do that, we shouldn't. But maybe kids should be doing that as much as possible.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: If they've got neighbors and the parents are around or whatever.
Justin Reich: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You could imagine saying, "Hey, kids, form math play dates and get together." I don't know. My daughter and maybe eight other third graders do a math morning on Friday mornings, which is parent organized, and late last night was the last day that the library in my town was going to be open before it closes for a few weeks. And so, we just ran into everybody there while we were stacking up on books. They check out American girl dolls from the library. So, my daughters each got to bring home an American girl doll to play with.
Justin Reich: But we were like, "Math morning, going to have to be online." This is where I think it will be interesting to see over the next few weeks how parents do get involved in some of these kinds of things. Because if there are enough iPads and laptops lying around the house, I could imagine putting together a FaceTime group of four or five kids and being like, "Okay, let's do some puzzles," that I find online or something like that. And it's not clear how much of that is meaningful math learning versus just like me trying to babysit other family's kids and taking turns with them for a little while.
Michael Pershan: Yeah, here's a question I've been wondering because I've been seeing my colleagues, and some of them have been planning ambitiously. "I'm going to use breakout rooms on Zoom. I'm going to maintain my pedagogy as much as humanly possible." And then, other teachers I've seen being much more modest than scaling down their ambitions. Basically, what are your thoughts on that? What does ambitious teaching mean in an online context? Does it mean doing those check-ins, really trying to find ways to check in with every kid?
Justin Reich: I think it is more likely that learning time that's spent... If you have a fixed amount of instructional time that orchestrating complex, synchronous activities in a lot of cases is not going to work. Now, if you can get it to work, those things can be really rich. I happen to be on teaching leave semester, but if I went into class and my students were like, "I'm loving this class. We totally have got to keep it up. I love checking in with folks."
Justin Reich: We do a lot of small group activities in my class and they were all just saying, "Let's really try to keep doing that. I really want to stay connected with folks." Then I could imagine, especially if there's student leadership and I have other kids in the class who are helping each other figure out what to do, if it's wrong, they're like, "Oh, yeah, no, I'll call Jim. I'll make sure he gets all set up. We'll figure it out somehow." Then things that sound ambitious when you've got a lot of kids who are trying to make this work for you may prove to be not that ambitious.
Justin Reich: But I could also imagine walking in a room full of kids and having them be like, "I'm scared and I don't have a lot of good technology access and this is really hard." Then I think a more appropriate thing to do might be, if you're asked to keep instruction going, give kids a base of self-paced activities that they are reasonably likely to do, assume that they'll get through about half as much as you think they will but be ready to provide them with more. And again, I think I'm basing this on what I understand from the limited conversations I've had with fully virtual instructors that I think are really good.
Justin Reich: They say they distribute that self-paced curriculum and then they spend a lot of time checking in with people. I imagine those check-ins will get exhausting for teachers. I know that they get exhausting for me when I'm in project time or research paper time and I'm spending whole days checking in with folks. But I think I share your intuition that if a kid's day at home was they knew they had a bunch of deadlines, roughly every Friday or every other Friday or something, that they're working towards those deadlines and that they're getting a phone call once every other day or Skype or have Slack or Discord or whatever it is from their teacher, where they can spend about 10 minutes saying, "Hey, how are you making out on that problem? Whoa. You made a lot of progress on that. That's so cool. That's great. Good for you. Wash your hands.Hey, I just found these three other videos."
Justin Reich: And then, reallocating more time to, "Oh wow, this has been really hard for you. Do you not understand the content? Are you having some executive function challenges? How do we debug your schedule, your time, your support and things like that? Or how do we just do some math together with you." Basically, you become a remote tutor. And then, try to layer in, for your eighth and ninth graders, can they tutor each other? Is there some fraction of kids that could basically start doing some of that role for other people.
Justin Reich: My daughter, when she was in the first grade or something like that, was basically assigned to a boy with executive functioning problems for the year, and just sat next to him every day. I was like, "No, no, no, you're supposed to be doing this now." She didn't mind. There's kids who are just programmed that way. And so, I mean, my intuition is that that is the model that will maintain the most normalcy, maintain the most human connection and have the most likely ... The only thing I would say is, if you are using synchronous time, I would be thinking about it not just around instruction, but also about ritual and camaraderie and things like that ...
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: ... to get together and say, "Oh, we're going to do a Zoom hangout and everyone's going to be responsible for, whether one funny cat video or one news update that has interesting ... show one math figure that you found that was interesting." I mean, ideally, it would tap into whatever traditions you already have going on.
Justin Reich: I mean, I was just thinking that I had spent some time doing observations in a Christian school in the South and they did a prayer before the beginning of every class, and I was thinking, "Man, that would probably be quite reassuring to get together with my friends and pray a couple of times a day, if I was from that faith tradition."
Justin Reich: I taught at a private school that had a morning meeting every morning, and I wouldn't be surprised if they end up doing the same thing. It's like, if they can get the thing to work, "Everybody login to Zoom and we're going to pick three kids to do their announcements, do their reading, play their guitar," or something like that, whatever it is.
Michael Pershan: Yeah.
Justin Reich: It could be like, "How are you not going stir crazy time? Show us the thing you crocheted or the video game level that you beat," or whatever it is.
Michael Pershan: Yeah. Now that you mention it, my school has ambitiously decided that they want to try to maintain assemblies, the whole high school assemblies, but I think that's exactly what you're saying, that they want to maintain these rituals. It's funny that you mentioned ... I mean, I don't think this is the end of the world. There's pandemics in the past, humanity kept going. I don't think it's the end of the world, but I think the end of the world would be more or less like this at the start, and specifically for teachers.
Michael Pershan: What I have learned over the last couple of weeks is, we would still be teaching. Society would be breaking down and we'd still be trying to be like, "Well, how do you teach effectively under these conditions?"
Justin Reich: Yeah, right.
Michael Pershan: Anyway.
Justin Reich: Well, this kind of learning is pretty foreign to us, but these are the kinds of considerations that happen in refugee camps across the world every day.
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: People coming in, people coming out. There's some hope that in some future, there'll be a return to normalcy, and sometimes that's weeks and sometimes it's years, but we think that offering, especially young people, a primary education is just something that we're supposed to be doing.
Michael Pershan: In war-torn countries, they do this sort of thing, an attempt to maintain instruction via computers or how are they trying to do that, just meet whenever you can?
Justin Reich: I think there's a whole range of approaches. There's a colleague of mine at Harvard, Sarah Dryden-Peterson, who studies this, and I think there's war-torn countries, but there's also places that are embedded in permanent conflict: Syrian refugees who are in Jordan, and so Jordan doesn't have as many refugee camps. They do things like, for a while, they had been running their schools on two sessions. You did school from 7:00 to 1:00 and then another group of kids came in from 2:00 to 8:00 or something like that. I think most of that is not technology mediated, because refugee camps typically don't have great access to computers, internet access and things like that, but there are some efforts at those kinds of things.
Justin Reich: Has your school started thinking at all about what might happen when students come back? Do you have the sense that there's anybody in the administration who's asking the question, "Okay, when we find that online learning doesn't let us keep up the way we are hoping to keep up, how are we going to respond in May when we come back or September when we come back or over the summer," or things like that?
Michael Pershan: I have no idea. I really have no idea. What administrators have told us is that part of the push to really get online learning happening right away is because of ambiguity from the independent school organizations about what would happen in terms of graduation and dates and completed years. So since there's no clarity there, the school just wants to make sure that it can tally up, "We had a full school year in 2020."
Justin Reich: Got it.
Michael Pershan: Obviously, public schools have testing regimens to consider, have long-term learning effects to consider. We have the flexibility that we could say, "Well, nobody learned anything for the years 2020, 2021. We now need to teach fourth grade to fifth graders, third grade to fourth graders," and that would be okay. As far as I know, nobody's thinking about it. I feel like the situation right now is that people are talking about a couple of weeks, but if you look at experts, they're talking a couple of months ...
Justin Reich: Yeah. Someone was just ...
Michael Pershan: ... at least.
Justin Reich: ... making an estimate that the SARS outbreak was a four month thing. I mean, the thing to do is to look at recent pandemics and see what the scope of the ... but it's the middle of March right now. Your school probably has graduation June 10th or something like that?
Michael Pershan: Right. Something like that, yeah.
Justin Reich: So if you're looking at 10 weeks or 12 weeks, that's the rest of the academic year.
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: Here's a funny thing about me, is that I used to run a search and rescue group.
Michael Pershan: I saw this, yeah.
Justin Reich: So when I was in college in Virginia, I used to, when elderly people and little kids or hikers got lost in the woods, I used to go to places and help sheriffs organize responses to them. And one of the things that we learned ... This actually comes out of, there's a system called the Incident Command System, which was developed by wildfire fighters in the American West to coordinate different activities across different agencies and things like that, and it's useful thinking in emergencies. But one of their core principles is that while most people are busy with operations, there always ought to be a couple of people who are thinking about plans.
Justin Reich: When we did search and rescue stuff, we would have a 150 volunteers show up and a bunch of bloodhounds and a helicopter and all these, and we'd be like, "Go out and search in the woods and here's how to do that," and then we would take three people and we would put them in a church basement and say, "Figure out what we should be doing in 24 hours and figure out what we should be doing in a week."
Michael Pershan: Yeah.
Justin Reich: And you mostly leave them alone. You feed them updated information every half an hour or so, so that they don't totally lose track of what's happening in the world. One way to think about it is like, "Don't go all hands on deck, go most hands on deck and then take a few hands and put them below deck and have them planning for what the future ought to look like." I think more schools ought to be thinking about who they're assigning to that important role.
Michael Pershan: I agree. I think every administrator sees themselves as playing that role and sees no teacher ... I don't know every administrator, but most schools are set up with the vision that administrators play that role and teachers don't. But what I've seen in the past week is that administrators are doing search and rescue work and teachers probably need to start thinking about what comes next, because it's unclear to me if a lot of administrators have any bandwidth right now to be doing that.
Michael Pershan: And even though the chain of command in a school is top down pretty much everywhere, it's always true that you can close the classroom door and do what you need to do, but I think we have to try to figure this out, what could come next if this keeps going?
Justin Reich: Yeah. I've been thinking about, where we're losing a bunch of instructional time, so how can you make up time later in the year, either by stretching the current school year or doing more things in the summer or trying to extend time in the fall, do longer school days or something like that? And then how do you shrink down the curriculum or at least identify the parts of the curriculum that you're like, "You know what? Kids are really going to be in trouble if they missed this part of fourth grade or eighth grade or ninth grade or things like that."
Justin Reich: Math to me seems like one of the places that has the most dependencies, the most prerequisites, the most cumulative, and so there may need to be some other subject areas which aren't as cumulative, that yield some of their time.
Michael Pershan: That's interesting.
Justin Reich: I think writing is like that. Depending upon where you are in school, reading can be like that.
Michael Pershan: Right. What would it mean to be a fifth grader next year?
Justin Reich: Yeah. And how might you have to change the structure of fifth grade so that we can say, "Okay, we know that you missed these really important parts of the last quarter of fourth grade, but we've thought about ..." reteaching everything is nonsense. We're not going to double the amount of time, but you could say, "You know what? At the end of the fourth grade, man, boy does X, Y and Z really seem important." I mean, some of it is just getting all the fifth grade teachers to write down, what are the most important skills to have when people get in?
Justin Reich: And if we end up missing two weeks, in the best case scenario, which seems increasingly unlikely, then some of this is just like, "Okay, who fell really behind in the last two weeks and how do we do some extra help sessions to get them caught up?" If we miss 12 weeks, then there is more, "Who are the students that are going to be just fine and can go to camp and can do whatever they want afterwards, and who do we really need to try to get in here over the summer or in late August or for extra hours? We have to relax our sports requirement for the fall because we should just be doing some extra remediation with those kids."
Justin Reich: You got to be careful because all the things that are easiest to cut are probably the things that kids are most excited to come to school for.
Michael Pershan: Oh yeah.
Justin Reich: And we'll need to do those, because in the fall, people will probably have just had a very difficult six months.
Michael Pershan: Yeah.
Justin Reich: Well, Michael, I wish you all the best of luck with this and I'm certainly happy to keep-
Michael Pershan: Thank you so much.
Justin Reich: ... chatting with you as things go on. It sounds like ...
Michael Pershan: Thank you so much.
Justin Reich: ... you've got some good, thoughtful ideas going on, and I don't know. I kind of imagine that if we just keep listening to our students and trying a bunch of things and being gentle with ourselves, in some of these kinds of circumstances, kids will do some learning and we'll try to help everybody stay as healthy as they can for as long as they can, and then when the world wakes back up, we'll look at who missed out on things and try to help them.
Michael Pershan: That's a great perspective. I like that perspective.
Justin Reich: Cool. All right. We've been talking with Michael Pershan and he's a New York City math teacher and one of my favorite interlocutors for many years now. Thanks for joining us on the first COVID-19 edition of the TeachLab podcast. We hope this was helpful to other people who are thinking through the same kinds of challenges.
Justin Reich: This episode was produced by Aimee Corrigan, it was recorded by Justin Reich and Michael Pershan, and it was edited by Garrett Beazley. We'll see you next time on TeachLab.