Sunday, April 15, 2018

Social and Emotional Learning and A Little Bit of Empathy

This year, I was fortunate enough to participate in a cohort of teachers from my community that focused on Trauma Training and Social and Emotional Learning. Taught by the NEA, this six-week course provided information on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), building resilience, and restorative practices among other topics. While I have always considered myself to be empathetic and relational with students, this experience has opened my eyes and challenged me to rethink my interactions with students - especially students who seem to be exhibiting stress, struggling with social and emotional issues, and/or are not completing tasks as assigned. In a world with infinite pressures, the obstacles and backstories that students face before entering the hallways of the high school in which I teach are often unknown, and their effects remain unseen.

All trauma is relative to the person experiencing said trauma. Every student and every person will struggle at times, which may lead him or her to carry out choices that may not add up. For example, a student may have a parent who is sick at home and feels overwhelmed with anxiety for said parent or has to take on more responsibilities to keep life functioning at home. Unfortunately, there are too many struggles in this world. Young people are learning to navigate the situations presented to them, while trying to attend classes, complete homework, participate in the school community, work toward pursue post-secondary educations, and determine the roles in society that they will obtain when they officially leave high school. With numerous demands pulling them in countless directions, of course, their level of stress and anxiety are high. Their pressures can seem insurmountable, which can cause students to shut down and leave them uncertain with how to cope. 

Redirecting my focus with students this year, I now stop and question what has caused them to act in the ways they are acting and assess their coping skills. Acknowledging and validating their feelings - no matter what they are experiencing - is a priority for me. When students feel validated, they are far more open to having conversations about their situations (and about the work that needs to be completed in class). After students feel supported, we can begin to discuss grit and build resilience, time-management, and other executive functioning skills. We all need to develop and continue to develop these skills in our lives. Promoting social and emotional skills is essential. When students understand how to face their obstacles, they will learn to problem-solve, critically think, and apply critical literacy skills to their lives. In addition, they will learn how to navigate the adult world and how to work toward making their dreams and goals realities. What I want most for my students mirrors what I want for my own children. I want my students to recognize their strengths, discover their passions, and pursue goals. As they work toward individual goals, I hope they learn to work hard and exhibit kindness to everyone they met. While I know this is idealistic, I do believe that emphasizing life skills, demonstrating empathy, and focusing on being the best teacher I can for my students can make a small but tangible difference. I do my part in hopes that maybe they will believe in themselves, known that someone cares, and want to work fervently for the destinations that will bring them joy. Happiness and contentment are attainable, and amazing occurrences can happen.

I have been humbled by the love and support shown for sharing our experience with cystic fibrosis and Jordan's condition. I have been grappling with the meaning behind his diagnosis and what this means for our lives. Every doctor's appointment has been incredibly positive. The research that I continue to read (in small doses because my heart can only process so much in a given sitting) continues to provide me with reasons to hope. The CF Foundation is committed to finding a cure for CF. As a mom of a child with CF, I will be more than content with therapies and medicine that will allow Jordan to live a full life. We can work through this disorder together. While I am not a doctor, what I can glean from the research is that if the CF Foundation finds a cure for CF by cracking the genetic code, this research could mean hope for countless other people who suffer from genetic disorders. Could life become better for thousands of families? I hope for that.

I am a person of faith, and I do not believe that God wants his people to suffer. My heart is heavy for all people who face illness, poverty, depression, abuse, war, and every other hardship this world holds. There are innumerable obstacles placed before us in a given lifetime. What I do believe, however, is that we can choose to accept these challenges to create a more beautiful world in which to live. 

Today's sermon profoundly pointed out the beauty in our wounds - in the heartbreaks and aches that we have faced. Our scars, both physical and emotional, have shaped us into the people we are. They can be used to teach us and bring us closer together. My pastor used the analogy of Kintsugi, a Japanese art form in which artists take shattered pottery, reconstructs the pottery and fills the cracks and crevasses with gold dust - taking what was once broken and making it more marvelous than before. Whether it be my students and their struggles or my own struggles, perhaps this is what life is truly about. From our brokenness, we can work to fill in the cracks together. We can choose to give our lives meaning and beauty by filling it with empathy and love.

kintsugi Japanes art broken pottery

No matter what life has in store for us, I continue to believe there are blessings in the imperfections.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Team Jordan

Josh and I dreamed of having a family together since we were still teenagers ourselves. Each of us having only one sibling, to whom we are so fortunate to be close, we knew that ideally, we would have three children - fulfilling Josh’s lifelong dream of following the 90s Chicago Bulls franchise model by creating our own three-peat.  There is no greater gift a parent can give their children than a sibling. So why not have all three as closely together as possible? After years of struggling to become pregnant and dreaming of becoming parents, once Harper came, Willa easily followed 13 months later. In October this past year, the hopes of having a family of five so close in age finally came to fruition.

Jordan’s pregnancy was the exact opposite of Willa’s. Everything seemed so effortless with Willa that we thought Jordan’s pregnancy would follow suit. Unfortunately, six months of morning sickness, three cases of the stomach flu, and an incredibly painful vein condition made this pregnancy grueling and certainly solidified what we already knew – he would be the last chapter in the Sukow Sibling story.

Jordan’s birth was supposed to mark the end of our health concerns. Because of a variety of complications with his placement and my iron count, extra tests and appointments were made that all indicated how healthy and strong he appeared. Like Willa, Jordan was born a few weeks early, quickly – so quickly, in fact, I was escorted out of the school building by my remarkably kind and compassionate school nurse before the end of the school day. He was born two hours later at 3:33 PM. Passing all of his initial tests with flying colors, we were released from the hospital 27 hours after he was born – sent home to begin our lives with our family complete.

Approximately two weeks later, on Halloween just before Trick-Or-Treating was scheduled to begin and my mother to arrive, I received a somewhat frantic phone call from my children’s doctor stating that Jordan had failed his newborn screening test. The results indicated that he had cystic fibrosis, a disease we had heard about but did not fully understand. No one in my family has had any health complication, sans cancer well into their 80s. Besides anemia and scoliosis, both seemingly minor health issues that plague petite white females, I had no reason to be concerned about my health or the health of my children.

Of course, I took to Google to answer all of my questions about cystic fibrosis only to find that CF was a life-threatening disorder that historically caused infants to be labeled a failure to thrive and lead to extremely early deaths. Not knowing where to look and what information to trust, I spent the next 72 hours of crying and staring at my seemingly perfect newborn son, fearing that someday too soon, I would be saying goodbye to this tiny human who I already loved so deeply.

As we all know - Don’t EVER Google medical information.

The past five months have been a whirlwind of medical appointments, tracking every ounce of food ingested by Jordan, and learning about cystic fibrosis. Since that initial Google search, I am so happy to say that everything I now know provides me with so much hope (and the calibrations on my Google searches related to CF are much more accurate and positive). Upon his initial diagnosis, the amazing specialist that Jordan frequents once a month reassured us that the internet has not caught up with the advancements that have occurred with this disorder. We can expect Jordan’s life to be full and relatively normal – with the caveat that we will have to work to keep him healthy.

CF primarily affects Jordan’s pancreas and lungs, which prevents him from producing enzymes that break down his food naturally and lead to mucus building in his lungs. From day 15 of his life for the foreseeable future, Jordan must consume medicine that allows him to absorb nutrients from his food – but will allow him to thrive. Thankfully, Jordan is in the 70-80% for length each time he is measured. He has fluctuated weight-wise, staying closer to the 33% range. Tall and thin –  a description that is similar to my father, who Jordan seems to resemble the greatest at this point in his especially young life. He is unbelievably strong, impressing doctors with his stats, and charming every person he meets.

My reoccurring fear and anxiety center around the thought that Jordan will struggle. He will struggle to breathe; he will be in pain every time he digests his food. The unknown is the most frightening part of this disorder or actually, any aspect of parenting. I must admit, I have cried more in the last five months than I have ever cried, and I’m a sensitive soul – so that’s saying quite a bit. Again, I return to the notion that once he was born, life was supposed to become easier. He’s an infant, I am the parent, and if anyone should experience pain, it should be me. Discovering this recessive disorder in our family lineage was shocking and certainly was one of the phone calls that no one expects, and every parent dreads receiving. 

Today, I am so blessed to have a doctor and specialist team who are relentlessly positive, who view Jordan as part of their extended family, and who continue to fight for a cure – or at least medicine that could potentially counteract the gene mutations that prevent his body from functioning normally. Ironically enough, while only 35,000 people live with CF in the United States, my division leader and friend’s son also has cystic fibrosis. Sitting just two desks away, I am blessed with the incredible ally and support system as a mom with a CF kid, and even better, Jordan has a superhero named AJ in his life who he can look up to and who can help guide him on this journey. While I do not wish this disorder or any ailment on anyone, as a mom, I could not be more grateful for this support system to help us understand and fight cystic fibrosis together.

The more I learn about CF, the more encouraged I am that Jordan’s life will be a full and joyful one. The science behind curing CF is on the brink of exciting discoveries. Josh asked our doctor at one of our recent appointments how all of this new information and treatments have been made possible. What has surprised us about this disorder is the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation itself. This organization is absolutely incredible in how well organized they are and how progressive they have been regarding finding a cure. The members of the foundation are fighting for a cure for every gene mutation that causes CF; they are advocating for every person who suffers from this disorder. Their fight is now our fight, too. This year, we are joining Team AJ (now Team AJD) to learn more about CF, how we can fight for a cure, and how we can help make AJ’s, Jordan’s, and anyone who has CF’s lives better.

I am still learning and realizing that there is a great deal that I do not understand about cystic fibrosis. What I do know is that my five-month-old son is the most smiley and strongest baby that I have ever met. His joyful nature has given me so much to hope for and provided so much comfort in one of the most uncertain few months of my life. He will live a meaningful life, and he will have quite a platform on which to launch his public speaking career. Watch out for the special occasion speech to hit the speech team circuit in 2033 entitled “Life with CF,” “C is for Charming,” or “Putting the FUN into CF.” Josh tried to convince me to approve “F… CF,” but as the head coach in this duo pair, I put the kibosh on that fairly quickly. Needless to say, we’re still working on the title. Nevertheless, we are ready to go full force on fighting this disorder, and so blessed to have a team of people to help us understand, process, and travel with on this imperfect but beautiful journey.

I am grateful that I get to hold this stinker, love him, and share him with my family and friends. My world is better because he is in it. I am now ready to fight to make his world better, too. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

TED Talks that Inspired My 2017

Quiet mornings allow me to prepare for the school day. I wake up naturally and am often at school before the hallways fill. During this time, when I am most creative, I review lessons, create new assignments and activities, and grade countless essays without distraction. When I'm not grading, I love to lose myself down the rabbit hole of TED - scanning titles and subjects for my daily dose of inspiration. TED talks are fantastic examples of public speakers who are passionate about their content, willing to show vulnerability, and excited to share their life's work. While I might not be knowledgeable in the fields of medicine or astrophysics, listening and learning from these excellent presenters is inspiring. This fall, the following TED talks have brought me through some challenging moments, motivated me to overcome adversity, and reminded me that no matter what is placed before me, there is power in the words and stories we share.

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We Should Aim for Perfection and Stop Fearing Failure by Jon Bowers

After listening to Jon Bowers's talk on aiming for perfection, I am reminded that while we might fall short of goals or achievements, we should never stop striving to accomplish our absolute best. Yes, we will fail. No speech, lesson, work presentation, sales pitch, etc. is without some minor flub or flaw, but through a commitment to excellence, repeated practice, and aiming for quality in each communicative experience, we can create messages and moments that leave a significant impact on our audience. Failure is a powerful step in the journey to perfection - to becoming the best at whatever we pursue. Without failure, we cannot learn and grow. This talk does a beautiful job reinforcing the value of failure and not accepting anything less than our best. Without the learning that occurs from failing, we cannot truly know success.

What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Dying by Lucy Kalanithi

This speech is incredibly near and dear to my heart. The beauty that is shared through this speaker's vulnerability and genuine message is incredibly powerful and moving. We all have or will experience loss, and this talk does a fantastic job of showcasing both the joys and the struggles of living. On a personal note, this year I have struggled with understanding mortality and reflecting on what makes a quality life after learning about my son's diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. While there is so much hope related to his diagnosis, and we fully expect him to live a completely normal life (with work), this is the TED Talk that I needed to cope and put his life in perspective. None of us are guaranteed anything in our journeys. Living is a hazard in itself, and our lives are fleeting. We must strive to embrace the moments given to us in spite of the struggles we are facing because each moment is a gift. Dr. Kalanithi beautifully shares her story of loss and pays tribute to a life well-lived by empowering the audience to take charge of living the best life imaginable through her message.

The Happy Secret to Better Work by John Achor

Okay, slow down John Achor. This speaker talks fast, but his passion and information are powerful. He certainly is engaging and funny, and on top of that, his message is important. He talks about changing the lens of how we view the world. Our success in the workforce is closely related to how we view stress. When we view stress as a challenge, we can rise above any adversity to ascertain greatness. So often in our schools, we know students who are overwhelmed with homework, rigorous classes, and extracurricular activities. Our students, like us, feel overwhelmed. Instead of embracing the idea that the only way to be happy is to generate a list of accomplishments, we need to teach our students to view hard work as a positive challenge. This  talk emphasizes the idea that we can train the brain to focus on optimism, which serves as a primer for hard work and achievement. In a world that so often highlights the negative, this talk is a great reminder of how we can control our reality through our outlooks and perceptions.

Success, Failure, and the Drive to Keep Creating by Elizabeth Gilbert

I love Elizabeth Gilbert's talks. She is inspiring, and this TED Talk is particularly powerful because she self-discloses her feelings on failure. She discusses her rejections and losses, and instead of simply giving up, she highlights how she persevered. I used this talk with my speech team students during camp. When we put ourselves out in front of the world, we are sure to experience some form of rejection or failure. As artists, performers, speakers, writers, and creators, are work will not always be well received or be critically acclaimed, but the reason we create and share should not be for the praise or approval of others. Our work should be about expressing ourselves, finding our voices, and sharing ideas that matter. When we can find that intrinsic motivation, the rejection that inevitably occurs at a speech tournament or in some other real-world experience does not seem so daunting. Instead, rejection creates an opportunity to try again.

Age is Nothing; Attitude is Everything by Bobbie Hickey

This young speaker is such a source of encouragement. Even though she is young, she has such a powerful perspective on how to live a memorable life. In spite of surgeries and physical impairments, she views the world as a place to embrace and overcome obstacles. She believes the world is a place to explore and live fully. Her normal is different than most, but the wisdom she has acquired reminds us all to face adversity. Determination can allow us all to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Perception and a positive attitude enable us to take on the world. Her words are a great reminder that no matter what the world tells us, it is important to remember how capable we are.

How to Gain Control of Your Free Time by Laura Vanderkam

Managing time and finding work-life balance are two topics that intrigue me. This speaker does a wonderful job of reminding us that we have a limited amount of time. We live in a culture of busy. We are encouraged to feel the stress of busyness, but busy and full are two synonyms that can change our attitude. When we say our lives are too hectic to complete a task, it is not that we are too busy. It means that whatever activity is being placed before us is not a priority. A single week is comprised of 168 hours. We can make those hours full by prioritizing what we value. We can find time to read, run, spend time with our family, etc., but we must actively choose to focus on what matters. As I attempt to teach my speech team kids, busy is an attitude that means we are not living in the moment. Whether it is studying for a test, attending a practice, or spending time with friends, we need to be present and attentive - making the most of the time we have. Our society has taught us that full schedules mean we are embracing our lives as we should, but no matter what the calendar says, we should always remember that we do have time for what we deem important - we might just need to shift our priorities or our attitudes to embrace those moments and opportunities.

These TED talks have affirmed in me the value of our fleeting moments and reminded me that I need to prioritize time with loved ones, reshift my lens and attitude, and embrace obstacles as minor bumps in the road to make my life better. As I sit quietly at this moment drinking coffee (and a diet coke because my coffee was too hot), I am so grateful for the time to reflect on 2017 and look forward to everything 2018 has in store personally, professionally, and everything that falls in between.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Less than five percent of teachers in the state of Illinois have attempted and successfully completed the National Board Certification process. This process first sparked my curiosity when I was a high school student when several of my teachers, coaches, and theatre directors had attempted to pursue this distinction simultaneously in a cohort that I often heard them discuss while at practice after school. A teacher would frantically run into the room talking about his/her portfolio, and they would lament about the challenges presented. While several of them did not complete the process, what I admired about their endeavors was that they worked together. Even though they were under stress and pressure to finish their portfolios, which at that time had nine components, they shared in that undertaking together.

Fast forward five years, and I found myself student teaching at another high school in the same district, in which several English teachers had earned their National Board Certification. While I did not fully understand the process, they likened it to a student teaching portfolio or a Master's degree experience; it was also a challenge that several of them pursued collectively. Looking at teachers who had attempted and completed this process - teachers who were accomplished, creative, passionate, and talented - made me interested in one day joining them in saying that I, too, was National Board Certified. Again, I saw mentors and teachers who I aspired to emulate take on this challenge - solidifying its value in my mind.

Over a decade has passed since my first experience with National Board as a student when an opportunity for a National Board cohort presented itself in my district. Having just finished my Masters+60, I was looking for a new challenge. While I did not need this cohort for lane advancement, a subsidy would cover the costs and a coach would be provided to guide the process. In addition, several of my colleagues were also enrolling in the program - thus making the arduous tasks ahead a little less daunting.

So I enlisted for battle, along with several of my colleagues and friends. We sat together in the basement of the district office once a month for two years, crafting our portfolios and preparing for components that were still being created by the National Board (not the best time to be pursuing this distinction). As my predecessors had done before me, we lamented, we ran into each others room, and we experienced a significant amount of stress worrying if we actually submitted all the components correctly. At the moment, it was difficult to identify exactly how this was improving my craft, but in hindsight, the National Board process encouraged me to open a dialogue with my peers about how we teach, opened me up to observing others and allowing them to observe me, and encouraged me to seek feedback on lessons and ideas. I also came out of it with a few fun lessons that involve nonprint texts.

Would I recommend pursuing National Board? My initial reaction to this question is no, not necessarily. In the thick of it all, I did not fully appreciate the purpose of the process. I found the lack of clarity in the instructions and the time it would take to receive minimal to no feedback frustrating (We submitted our components in April/May with no feedback until December). Now being out of the process and away from some of the frustrations, I realize now that this is not a process that is for the faint of heart. This is not a process for people seeking a straightforward path or guaranteed completion, and this is not a process that is always going to make the most sense while it is being completed. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. With the passage of time, comes clarity and perspective. In hindsight, I was forced to examine and gather data, analyze my students' growth, and reflect upon it. I was required to glean meaning from 20+ pages instruction manuals, which only encouraged me to open up to my colleagues and rely on their insights and perspective.

The value of this certification is not that I now hold this title; it has come from the fact that I share this title with my colleagues and friends. Would I recommend pursuing National Board with a cohort of friends now that I have completed the process and have gained perspective on its value? Yes.


"What's next?" my husband, who understands my struggle with stillness, asks me as we drive with our older two daughters to Brookfield Zoo to see the holiday lights. For right now, it's time to take a breath and experience the ride that is teaching, raising a family, and living to find that balance.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Pursuing Happy

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Starting school after a maternity leave is certainly emotional and bittersweet. This return was more difficult than with my older daughters - because the time went too quickly, because this is my final maternity leave, and because this time, my child with CF needs me more. While the mixture of emotions I have felt this past week have been taxing, I have felt overwhelmed with joyful moments. The kindness and support of the school community has reminded me that we are in the business of people. Interspersed with mastering reading strategies and polishing writing techniques, there is a humanistic element to academia; from each other, we teach and learn how to live.

I am not ashamed to admit that I love schedules and to-do lists, and as a teacher, I do not think I am alone in finding comfort in a full calendar. Routine and the sound of a school bell bring subtle comfort. Pavlov himself proved that we could be conditioned by a bell, and upon hearing that sound, my life has returned to normalcy. While still tired from caring for an infant (and a three-year-old and a precocious two-year-old), I am re-energized by the people I interact with each day. Instead of having too much time on my hands to worry and plan for a future that may never come to pass, I am challenged to live in the moment and be present while with the students, the lessons, and yes, even the grading that require my attention now.

How does anyone return to the usual grind after an extended break - especially at the end of a semester and in the middle of the holiday frenzy? How does anyone maintain happiness while transitioning from a family-focused life to a work-life balance regime? 

When anxiously attempting to find a solution to this problem around Thanksgiving, I called upon a colleague for help. Relying on others to help provide feedback and share quality lessons that are effective and engaging can only enrich my students' experiences in my class while allowing me to maintain some semblance of sanity. 

This semester, I packed 12 weeks of work into the first eight weeks of the semester. Knowing that I would be gone motivated me to provide multiple writing experiences and opportunities to gain both formative and summative points. With an accelerated approach to the semester and a fantastic maternity leave substitute who kept the kids burning for learning, I knew I could ease up on introducing new content and instead, focus on reviewing essential writing and analysis skills. 

At the advice of my friend and colleague, Karah, my students watched The Pursuit of Happyness and focused on essential themes that will help students transition from first-semester content to the second semester I-Search Research project. The project's central focus and purpose is to challenge students to determine what will bring them happiness in the future, making exposure to this text a valuable conversation piece and resource for their future writing and research. Analyzing a digital text allowed students to forge deeper connections and analyze the characters and their experiences. After taking notes on the themes in the film, students were then tasked to create an Instagram (on Google Docs) for one of the characters, which allowed them to creatively capture the experiences and lessons within the movie. After captioning several photos and creating a digital story, students then analyzed their pictures and established how the pictures illustrated a major theme from the film.

While a little less conventional, challenging students to use multimedia texts to draw conclusions, make connections, and define key course themes are valuable and meaningful as we culminate a semester's worth of learning. Students then used argumentative writing to prove how three of their six pictures illustrate a theme from our discussion, which allowed them to practice and implement more formal writing skills. This activity not only provided an opportunity to be creative with the photos they took, but it also asked them to write and identify themes that we will continue to discuss next semester. Karah is a rock star teacher, and I'm so grateful that she talked me through and shared this idea!

Returning to this project on HAPPY has not only allowed me to focus on reconnecting to my students and ending the semester on a positive note, but it has also challenged students to apply critical skills using multimedia texts. I am so grateful for friends and colleagues who inspire and support this working mama as I transition back to my happy home away from home. Upon my return to my real home, though, it is always nice to be greeted with a hug.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Matters of the Heart

This semester, I have started several blog posts but left them unfinished. I continually abandoned my ideas over the past few months because each time I write, the content continues to stray further from the formal and academic discoveries made in the classroom to more personal matters. As educators, our lives outside of the brick walls in which we teach are often entwined with our occupation. Our academic lives come home with us and so too do our personal lives when we enter our classrooms. Teaching is, after all, a matter of the heart, and thus, we cannot help but give our hearts fully to our students and our professional-related pursuits.

This school year, I struggled to maintain a smile on my face, to keep pace with my former self, and to explore new instructional methods, concepts, and technology tools that normally consume my free periods. For the first two months of school, I was in the final weeks of pregnancy with my third child and in a significant amount of discomfort caused by his position on a vein that sent shooting pain down my right side. Often hiding in a faculty bathroom to cry during free periods, I fought to keep a smile on my face and deliver the best content to my students - all while coaching a lively team of passionate and energetic group of high school public speakers. It is not in my nature to show shortcomings or to project any sort of negativity, and so I tried to conceal my struggles. As with anything, the notion that a momentary discomfort is temporary kept me motivated and focused on teaching and giving my best to each student I encountered through the end of my pregnancy.

And I did. Teach until the end - about three hours before I gave birth. My son, Jordan, was approximately 2.5 weeks early, and while I knew I was having contractions, I was in denial that he would dare come before the end of the school day! 😊 With only one academic class left to teach, I succumbed to his eagerness to make his appearance in the world and left school, attempting to be as subtle about leaving as possible. With that, my third child was born at 3:33 PM, poetically marking his place in the world and our family.

Since his birth, life has changed. With the birth of each of my children, my disposition has calmed. Spending quality time with each of my children, making memories, and bonding has caused me to pause, embrace stillness, and breathe. With my son, the final chapter in our family of five who was born with a genetic disorder, cystic fibrosis, I strive to treasure these moments even more dearly. Amidst a house with three children age three and under, two dogs, and what some might refer to as pure chaos comes a desire to find work-life balance, to find greater meaning in each experience, and to make relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and most significantly, my students stronger. My world grew brighter with the addition of my son, and as a result, I am sure that it will be an amazing year in which I strive to maintain perspective, gain understanding, embrace positivity, and above all else, remember to just breathe.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Online vs. Face-to-Face Instruction: Surprising Similarities (Part Two)

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FINALLY! All classes taught (the Summer Reading Program for Freshman Struggling Readers for the high school and Intro to Speech for the community college) and taken this summer (Online Learning training courses) are completed. I can rest my mind for three whole days before Speech Camp begins; this summer is flying too fast. This summer has been one of reflection and growth as I approach the start of my 10th year of teaching while challenging me to seek balance as a mom and educator. Since online learning has been such a focus this summer, I sincerely approached this relatively uncharted territory with some reservations, seeking to find the differences between traditional and online learning. My reservation lay mostly in the subjects I teach, communication and humanities, which rely on face-to-face interaction and nonverbal communication. As the summer continued and I engaged with more instructors at various levels of teaching/experience with online learning also in these fields, I was encouraged, surprised, and eager to overcome the minor barriers to some day provide positive and growing experiences for students in this academic area.

The two topics I previously addressed include: Read "Online vs. Face-to-Face Instruction (Part One) HERE

  1. Start with organization. Always have a Plan A, Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C.
  2. Prioritize relationships and tone setting.
Both of these areas of instruction focus on the initial setup and launch of a course, which will most likely be time-consuming at first, although these aspects will become easier with time. After addressing the beginnings of a course, I knew I wanted to reflect on and note the differences of heart of the course - its content. Once the course is established, however, how do the weekly interaction and student learning change?

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3. Student Engagement is #1 - Regardless of Format

Students who participate in online learning expect to be more independent with their work, the pacing of the course, and the activities in which they are required to engage. Because of the asynchronous nature of e-learning, students are expected to be more independent to comprehend content, participate, and complete tasks assigned. That being said, students still need additional support and want to feel connected to their peers, the content, and their instructors on some level. As instructors in any format, it is so important to allow our personalities, interests, and passions to shine through our instruction and content delivery. When we engage in self-disclosure ourselves, students feel a natural connection to the course, are far more likely to log in and participate and will share personal connections and insights. The act of self-disclosure can enliven discussion (forums or face-to-face conversations), lead to higher quality work, and start a dialogue of questions and resource sharing that can lead to further understanding of curriculum by all.

Engagement is pivotal to students' overall experience with the course, attitude toward the content/instructor/peers, and ability to retain information. In an online format (or again, any format), students should share resources, complete outside research (with credible sources), and forge deep connections between the information being learned and class and their lives. An onslaught of recent research studies and articles have addressed the changing needs and expectations of students, which is often attributed to the shift in technology and the frequency of connectivity thanks to mobile device, are centered around the idea that students seek information that is relevant to their lives, useful to their careers or present goals, and involves student-centered work. As such, we ought to work to ensure that curriculum design provides opportunities for students to engage in learning in ways that allow them to take control and feel ownership of their learning. When they are connected to what they are reading, producing, and creating, the learning becomes more meaningful.

Today's students need to apply critical thinking skills and move beyond recalling (or Googling facts). Written communication becomes a necessary skill as students are assessed by their peers and professors based on their grammar, ability to articulate ideas and the tone that is infused with their writing style. Through online interactions and engagement, students develop far more skills than just the those related to the course content. As instructors, we must guide, support, and encourage them to be engaged by being present, active ourselves, and modeling strong communication skills that will enhance their experience and motivate them to continue to log back onto the course's learning management system or in the case of a traditional high school classroom - keep them from scrolling on their phones and tuned into class each day.

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4. Online learning challenges us as educators to incorporate the most up-to-date research and resources.

When students are accessing a majority of course material, and in turn producing work online, a vast sea of information is available with a few simple clicks and key word searches. We are all exposed to a slew of information with every hyperlink we select. As such, we are now challenged with revamping and revising resources to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape of the Internet. Through the experiences I have had this summer, I realize that while this may seem like a daunting task for instructors at any level to keep up with the current research, articles, news, and trends - instructors are not the ones that need to be doing all of the curating. In fact, when students are taught to effectively research and seek out credible resources, they become the fact-finders and presenters of new information. Through discussion forums, students can locate information that pertains to their interests and learning goals, share and discuss the information they find, and synthesize the knowledge they gathered with course content. Providing citations and links to both students and the instructor alike, students lead the charge of maintaining relevance all while engaging in meaningful critical thinking and researching activities.

All of this being said, reinforcing research skills becomes crucial. While it seems as though instructors at every level K-12 incorporate research projects and activities, students often forget or simply block out key strategies and reminders about credibility, how to utilize online databases such as EBSCO and Google Scholar, and cannot for the life of them accurately cite a source using the correct version of APA or MLA even though quality, paid resources like Noodletools or the Purdue OWL provides all the information for them that they could need, students still need guidance in this area. Conducting a fast Google search is convenient and often seems to produce reliable results. As instructors, we need to take the time to explain why credibility matters, how going beyond a Google search can help them in their future careers, academic courses, and even daily lives, and how to evaluate and apply the information they find. These skills require continuous guidance, support, and reinforcement, which is perhaps an explanation as to why my high school students CLAIM they never had to create a works cited page. Students, I see through you and your youthful and often innocent attempts to prevaricate the truth.

My final thoughts:

Through these courses and experiences with online classes as a whole, I have come to realize that quality teaching is quality teaching no matter what platform is used to deliver the content. Students need passionate and personable instructors who teach them essential academic skills that will not only lead to immediate success in the classroom but also life success in any avenue students choose to pursue. While shifting one's methods of teaching to accommodate a different modality can be overwhelming or teaching a course for the first time can become a time-consuming and meticulous process, the same essential elements still must be implemented by instructors to ensure an engaging, rich classroom experience for students that involves relationships, relevancy, and dare I say it, even a little bit of fun!
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