This month, ShiftED is joined by Cycle 1 educators Stephanie Gordon and Alexie Csipak of the semi-private Vanguard School, whose mission is to “help students with severe learning disabilities by offering them the resources that will enable them to learn and to experience academic success.” I was excited to have this conversation with this dynamic teaching duo and their professional journey through the COVID-19 pandemic. We discussed their students’ reactions to online learning, some happy surprises with the start of the 2020 school year as well as the myth of students automatically being digital natives. Lots of wonderful exchanges were shared and some amazing insights.

edited for readability

Chris: Welcome to our ShiftED podcast series. It’s this ongoing series where we’re talking with educators about how they’re adjusting to the pandemic and the shift in education, how things have changed so much over the past nine months. I’ve got a great tag team here with me today. I have two teachers from Vanguard who teach Cycle 1 together (team teaching). We’re going to talk to them a little bit today about how things started off in March, where things went to, what they’re up to now, how they’re keeping their kids engaged and exciting. So, there’ll be lots of good conversation. So, I will introduce Stephanie and Alexie who are two teachers at Vanguard Cycle 1.  I know that you’re a semi-private school and you’re not really attached to a school board, per se, but you are a part of our lovely anglophone community. I’d love it if you guys could situate us. Give me, give us, a little idea of who your clientele is and where you’re at and the levels, what you teach, and all of that stuff.

Stephanie: So, Vanguard School is a semi-private school just as you said, where it’s all students who have learning difficulties. Even though we’re located in St. Laurent, we have students that come from all over the greater Montréal area and are bused in from pretty far to go to Vanguard.

Chris: You talk about special needs or students with learning difficulties…Could you tell us a little bit, what’s the range of this? What are we talking about? What are some of the learning difficulties that the students come to you guys with?

Alexie: So, you just heard Stephanie. I’m Alexie. Our school caters to students who have all forms of dys’s. So, dyslexia, dyscalculia, even dysphagia, we’ll have dysgraphia, we have also ADHD right, attention deficit, and we have some cases of higher functioning Autism spectrum.

Stephanie: We also have students with central auditory processing disorder.

Alexie: Speech, language, and normally most of our students will have more than one diagnosis. We’ll have students who have dyslexia and also ADHD. Every single student has an IEP (an Individualized Education Plan).

Chris: Wow! That’s a lot to handle. So, when you’re talking about having diversity in the teaching, you guys are really practicing this in real time, continuously, every single day because you have such an array of students in front of you.

Alexie: Oh, yeah. We do a lot of differentiation on a day-to-day basis but our class sizes are also smaller to accommodate this. So, most of our classes will have a maximum of 17 students in order to make it so that we can help them all.

Stephanie: Right, and typical grade seven classes will have 35 to 40 students in the public sector.

Chris: Huge, huge class sizes, so it’s good that they are smaller. So, let’s keep the clients or the students in mind that you guys are dealing with. What was the reaction when in spring? When everything shut down, when  COVID just started coming up and they said, ‘Okay, we’re shutting schools down.’ I imagine that must have been a huge shock for your students. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that and also what was the reaction? How did they handle it?

Stephanie: And it was really funny because at the first week back from March Break, you know, Alexie and I were teaching and like, ‘if we hear one more conversation about COVID…’

Alexie: Oh! It was terrible!

Stephanie: ‘…we’re going to give you detention!

Alexie: Because all of the students have already heard from their parents and they were all, you know, ‘Oh my gosh! You know there’s this big new illness and it’s called COVID,’ and we just couldn’t get through a lesson without students bringing it up and I mean…We were just – we were fed up hearing about it and I mean…We addressed it right from what we had heard about COVID. I mean, in the early on, you know and part of it.

Stephanie: A lot of our students have pretty severe anxiety and so we don’t want them to just spiral out of control during school time. So, we’re like, you know, ‘let’s kind of get back to the lesson,’

Alexie: And so we’re trying to contain it but in containing it we were like, ‘we just can’t talk about this! You know it’s really not that big a deal guys and then it was. It was a very big deal! So, we apologized to them when we went back online – well, when everyone went back online. We were like, ‘So, you were right and we were wrong. This is a very big deal and you were right to, you know…’ Then we talked about all the things that we could do to make things go a little bit more smoothly and the students were very receptive to it, but it was very fun because we had that, ‘I told you so, Miss!’ moment.

Chris: I’m sure that many students felt the exact same way: just that anxiety and the unsureness of going online. What does that mean? So, let’s start there. So, schools shut down and how did your school respond? What was your plan when the initial COVID started in and you guys were all at home? What was the plan that your school had organized to keep the learning going and keeping the kids’ spirits up and stuff. So, tell us a little bit about that plan that you guys had.

Alexie: Well, we were very lucky because our school is already one-to-one so every student has a laptop. Unfortunately, because of how quickly things were going, a lot of students left their laptops at school. But our school was really quick to create a time and to have shifts in order for students to come and pick up the materials that they would need for online learning: their laptops were allowed to be brought home; all of their binders; and their notes.

Stephanie: Their textbooks.

Alexie: and I really liked – Steph can talk about how the school did that in terms of…

Stephanie: So, I actually went to volunteer. I don’t have any pre-existing conditions and so I’m pretty healthy. It was all on a volunteer basis. The teachers went into school with the mask, the gloves, and all families that needed their materials sent an email and they were given a slot to come by. They came into the school in their car. They were seated in their car with a piece of paper with their name on it.

Alexie: They did like a drive-through, basically.

Stephanie: We popped the trunk. We put the laptop and other school materials in. Close the trunk. All right, off you go. And so, because we already had all of that set up with Google Classroom and all of this, it was pretty smooth, the transition to online.

Alexie: I’m very pleased with how Vanguard handled it. I mean, of course there was going to be a little bit of up in the air questions. Getting everyone on the same page is difficult but I mean, in general? We were able to have the students with their materials, with their laptops, able to do online classes fairly quickly. They also made it so that the students, for the first chunk, when we didn’t know when we were going to go back to school, where it only seemed like we were going to be gone and online a short amount of time… They created a schedule for the students where they didn’t have too much screen time during the day. It wasn’t a full day of classes. I think it was four hours total of classes, so that it wouldn’t be overwhelming because we kept in mind it is very stressful. We have all these cases of anxiety. We didn’t know what we were dealing with and it went really well.

Stephanie: Just before that, as a semi-private school, we also follow all of the government recommendations and so when school was online, school wasn’t mandatory first period. We were just sending work and reviewing things with the students as well and that was all on their own. So we had a nice two-, three-week grace period for the students. And then after what, three weeks, it became really mandatory with schedules…

Alexie: But what I was most impressed by was that, even though it was kind of optional, school during that first period, really we had full classes. The students came online, followed the schedule, were really present, were doing their work as best as they could.

Stephanie: Some students just came in to see us and you know, ‘We miss you! We miss being at school. We miss seeing our friends.’

Chris: It sounds like you guys had a plan that was quite adaptive and worked out quite well. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that? What were some of your big successes in that original time when we were all online? It kind of felt like we were all driving blind, right? You’re going down a highway at a million miles an hour and you can’t see anything and you hope you stay on the road. What what were your successes during that time, that you guys felt as two educators? What did you guys find worked really well online?

Alexie: One of the things that I found worked really well was that our school already had Google Classroom. All of the students were familiar with Google Classroom and we were able to give them their assignments online. We already did a lot of online work even within the classroom, so that helped the transfer to go more smoothly.

Stephanie: Right, just all of their tools that they use every day in class, right? Read&Write… so the programs that read…

Alexie: That are text-to-speech (TTS).

Stephanie: Right and they have that on their computer with their Vanguard usernames. In terms of tools as well, it’s the other one too that I’m forgetting. WordQ, Read&Write and word prediction software.

Alexie: Since they were already used to using those things pretty independently in the classroom, it made it a little bit easier. We also have, in terms of the English sector at Vanguard, I can’t necessarily speak for the other section, right? I really like that a lot of people, if they were uncomfortable with the technology, were not afraid to ask other teachers for help with the technology. Even if we were having a difficult time, we didn’t feel completely stuck because we could just like, call up a co-worker, write a colleague of ours, a team member of ours, and ask them those questions relatively…

Stephanie: Judgment-free.

Alexie: Judgment-free, exactly! I asked Stephanie all the time for help with technology and she was answering questions for other teachers and I was answering questions for other teachers. It was really, that was very nice, I found.

Stephanie: We’re pretty lucky to be in the fairly younger generation of teachers that are very comfortable with technology. So, I feel like it wasn’t a huge, huge adjustment for us in terms of doing everything online. I mean, yes – teaching online and teaching in person is completely different, but in terms of using the technology as a teaching tool, it wasn’t too much of a jump.

Alexie: And I would say that the administration was very supportive of us too and really tried to not overwhelm us… They understood that there was just change after change after change and they tried to make that as easy for us as possible which we really appreciated as well.

Chris: The teachers seemed to be adapting well. Let’s flip it a bit. We call our students nowadays digital natives, right? They have this capacity to handle . Do you guys agree with that statement? Do you think that students have a certain capacity that whatever you throw at them digitally, they’ll figure it out?

Stephanie: I mean, for certain things, right, we noticed that students – I mean, if you give them social media, yeah. You know, very comfortable in terms of certain games, really comfortable. But in terms of working tools, we notice that students have a lot of difficulty using technology independently. We’ve noticed that often they have to be taught really direct instructions on how to open up documents, how to attach documents, how to attach pictures.

Alexie: How to turn in work, how to take notes on the computer. One of the things that we find the most difficult is, if they’re using their computers during class time, knowing not to be on other tabs that are going to distract them. Very basic things like this, that need to be taught and even typing skills, right? Because it’s not necessarily taught outright to them. It’s assumed that they’ll know how to do that, and then they’ll be very slow typists which makes the rest of the work very slow.

Stephanie: Right because even if they’re natives on their phones or their iPads, the typing skills don’t necessarily convert or transfer to a keyboard.

Chris: Sounds like there were a lot of successes. What were some of your really big challenges as a staff, as a school, when you guys came back in September? You know, school’s starting up, the kids are coming back, how challenging was that? What were some of the big things that you guys had to figure out as a school, as a staff, as a cycle? Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Stephanie: Just the beginning of the coming back to school, and all the uncertainty, and is it going to be safe, are we going to be able to have the physical distancing, and are we going to be able to have all of the things, right? When we went back to school in August, it was just really, really scary.

Alexie: I was going to say there was a big climate of fear because I mean, the uncertainty was through the roof. Also, I mean, at least for the grade seven team, we had never met the students. All the teachers hadn’t met their groups. A big part of what made online learning so successful in March was the fact that we already had a rapport in person with our students. We were nervous that we were going to have to make a rapport with them online, which is a completely different skill compared to doing it in person.

Stephanie: I mean, keeping students engaged on the computer is so much harder than it is to do face-to-face, right? As much as I team teach with Alexie, I also teach Science and we teach robotics and we have other courses like that. And the hands-on courses, it just takes so much time and energy to transfer those classes to a way that it would work easily online. So, for a lot of teachers, having their whole curriculum kind of, have to be turned around, and turned over on its head, and rethought, and redesigned, also added to teachers stress of going back in September.

Alexie: The other thing that comes into play is that, not necessarily all the students came back. There were a lot of students who had doctor’s notes, who could do learning like hybrid learning, right? Or, not hybrid learning but learning from home which kind of made it hybrid learning for teachers because we had…The way that we did it was, we have a camera in each of the classes that’s set up for those one or two students that are learning from home for the year. So, we have to teach not only to the students in front of us but also to the student who is at home. The fear is that, what we’re going to do in the class is going to be lost on the student who is at home, who can’t necessarily get the full experience. So, that was another stressor. And to not forget about them, right? Because they’re just as important as their peers, but it’s so hard.

Stephanie: It just really makes teachers have to think about so many more things to an already kind of exhausting task, yeah.

Alexie: Our brains are being pulled in a million different directions. And with this, I mean, it’s no secret that teachers are already doing so many other jobs within the classroom that isn’t just teaching, right. Making sure that students’ mental health is good. That they’re socializing well. That they’re taken care of. That they’re following the material. And then on top of it, to have to keep all these other things on our minds as well. Then making sure that they’re wearing their masks, making sure that everyone is sanitizing their hands, it was just that –

Stephanie: …that they’re standing one meter apart or two meters apart depending on…

Alexie: I had to start writing down lists for myself because I just couldn’t keep everything in my head, because there was just so much.

Stephanie: It was just so exhausting too, teachers are very tired.

Alexie: And the same can be said about the administration. They look so tired too.  They’re trying their hardest to make it so that they can support us and we see that. It’s just, we’re all very tired. But the students are so kind and they see it.  I mean, one good example is because of the bubble system that was put in place, the students can’t go into each other’s classrooms. So in our school, and in the English high school, we don’t have detention anymore. We physically can’t have a space for detention because we’ll have all these students coming from all these different classes, which is a big no-no. And so, basically at the beginning of the year, we explained this to the students. You’re gonna have to be the wonderful students that we know that you are… And I mean, honestly? They really rose to the occasion and they’ve been wonderful. There really hasn’t been a need for detention. Of course, you’re gonna get the one or two who are gonna be like, ‘Oh, what are you gonna do, Miss? Put me in detention?’ But, I remember when this one student said that to me, and I said, ‘Or you could just be a decent human being,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah…’ and that was it! And so the students also recognize that we’re having a hard time. They are trying to help us as well, because they see how much we’re trying to help them.

Stephanie: And I mean, they really have a horrible time learning online on their own.

Alexie: They hated it! And so like, it’s funny because it’s the cool thing to say like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to go home and learn at home and everything,’ but really what we found is, when it came, when it was coming up again in September like, ‘Oh, are we gonna have to close the schools back down?’ The students were like, ‘Oh no! I really hope not!’ So, they really don’t take it for granted the way that they might have in past years. So it’s been an interesting change in dynamic.

Chris: So many things have changed though, eh? I see that as well …My kids, you know, were just going, ‘we didn’t want to stay at home anymore!’ you know? But before the pandemic, ‘Oh, I really don’t want to go to school today,’ and now school is the place to be which is pretty outstanding. That shift that’s going on just inside the kids themselves.  I really like what you guys said about that connection with your students. The worry that when you got your new students for the new school year that that relationship would be different, you know? That it wouldn’t be there if they were online. What were some of the things that you guys did to create or establish that relationship in September with the students that were online?

Stephanie: We were very fortunate this year in the fact that most students, I mean all of them came back in September. We didn’t have any students from the get-go that were online. So, we really spent a lot of the time in the beginning just kind of getting to know the students. Also teaching them how all the online tools work, just in case you were going to be online, so that we would be able to continue – So, this is how your camera works, this is how this works, this is netiquette: How to behave online. Really just going through all of the motions. Expecting well, if school closes down tomorrow, at least we’re able to connect with all of our students and be able to reach out to them.

Alexie: I know that Stephanie and I, especially with the seventh graders, really made a big effort at the beginning of the year. I mean, we always do, but especially at the beginning of this year, to really get to know the students. But also to mention many times how much we care about them and you know, how wonderful they are and just really, the positivity…They are wonderful! But, so that they would already have that rapport with us when or if we would go back online. Even in the case, I know Stephanie has, she teaches a Sec. 3 Science class and she already has a rapport with that group because we teach grade 7 so, or Sec. 1 and so…

Stephanie: It made it much easier to go online and just kind of check in with those students. Another thing that we do too…

Alexie: Well, because you have that one student who started from the get-go who was online. The rapport was already there. We were very lucky. I can’t – I don’t know if the same could be said for other teachers. I don’t know what I would do. I think it would be very difficult. I don’t know what I would do. I haven’t been placed in that position and I’ve had to do a lot of juggling already to figure out these things but it’s been very much a touch-and-go in terms of this year.

Chris: Are you guys ready to go online if that situation presents itself? How ready do you guys feel of going completely online at this point in time?

Stephanie: So, as I said before, we have some students that are in the class that are online. So, both of the work that we do is basically all on Google Classroom every single day. Students are absent because it’s happening more and more. Students are getting tested, they’re missing school. We don’t want to make those students feel uncomfortable or like they’re missing out,  so everything is posted even if they didn’t have access to all of it. We even had a practice day where everybody stayed home.

Alexie: Our school did a practice day. We had a PED day that was one of the PED days that was mandated by the government, we used it in this way.

Stephanie: So we had a lot of things. All the students stayed home and all the teachers stayed home. We did ‘pretend it’s a pandemic day,’ – follow your regular schedule. Everybody does at-home learning and then, the next day, it was really great because okay, you know, ‘oh, you were having trouble connecting online. Okay, did you try this? Did you try that?’ And so, just already troubleshooting all of the issues that people were having the next day because we were able to do that with the students. That was fantastic.

Alexie: I think that we would be ready to do it again if we had to. Is it our first choice? No. There’s really something to be said about classroom learning. Like, being in person, it really makes a big difference.

Stephanie: I mean, people are always saying, ‘Yes, teachers are going to be replaced by robots,’ and I think this whole pandemic has really just kind of shown that that is not true!

Chris: All right, so I want to thank you guys first off just for for taking some time with me and chatting like this. I think your words are really inspiring and soothing. Because there is a lot of stress out there amongst educators of this Winter and before Spring and what’s gonna happen, who knows… My final question to you guys is: we’re in this flux right now, where change is being pushed on us, whether we’re ready for it or not. It’s probably the biggest transformation education will go through in our lifetime anyway. Where do you see it going? Or, where would you like to see it going? How could we make, how could we seize this opportunity that we have in front of us to make our educational system that much better?

Stephanie: So, for the first part, what I think is that it’s really forcing students to be much more independent in their learning.

Alexie: I completely agree.

Stephanie: Students have a really hard time with that right whereas in the past, they’re just used to having the teacher present. Asking their questions and getting the help immediately. Right now, we were kind of working on telling the students, ‘Okay well, you know, what if we’re not there? What else can you do?’ And so we’re spending a lot of time modeling other strategies to the students and getting them to be more independent in their learning. You know, Youtube, Google it, you know…Ask your friends. Facetime your buddies and ask them for help with this assignment.

Alexie: And this is a really big shift from, here’s this worksheet, do this worksheet. You know, the kind of spoon feeding that has happened in the past. I’m not saying it happens today, but it’s really been kind of shocking to see how difficult it is for students to be independent learners. But I mean, it makes sense developmentally that it would be difficult especially since we’re seeing Sec 1 students. But I’ve been hearing the same from teachers of the older grades as well.

Stephanie: And I mean, if I were to do online schooling, even in CÉGEP or university, I know that I wouldn’t have been the model student either. I would have had a really hard time.

Stephanie: I would have gone online –

Alexie:  I have an academic brain, I never really struggled in school and you did. And so it kind of shows in terms of our teaching styles as well. But yeah, it’s a massive, massive shift and I think that is the thing that – I agree. I think that’s the thing that I’m the most happy about, is really working on making sure that students are really ready to be autonomous and to work on modeling those skills for them.

Stephanie: But that’s really difficult for students as well.

Alexie: It is and I like that they’re also out, like where they’re getting outright strategies and learning opportunities for independent learning, but also to interact with their technology. Especially, like we were talking about earlier, you know for academic purposes, because they’re excellent on their phones and their ipads, like you said. But when it comes to doing an assignment, it is a big shift. I just think about when I was a student and it was rare for anyone to have a computer. They’d have one computer in their house and now it’s like everyone has a computer at their fingertips. So, we went from, talking about digital citizenship to now they really have to interact with it in a very interesting way. Netiquette, like you were saying. Very important during like the online learning so…I don’t know if that answered your question but I think as teachers that was…That was a big thing that we noticed.

Chris: I agree with you guys. I totally get it: teaching kids how to learn. And it’s the skills, right? What I’ve heard from educators too is that we can put content aside a little bit and focus on skill development in the kids and that’s really where you’re going to get kids to become learners, right? Lifelong learners or you know, learn to learn. However you want to phrase it. It’s that capacity that we’re trying to now shift things over to more of a skill base where, you know, get them to problem solve, get them to learn how to communicate, netiquette. Again, you know, digital citizenship type of stuff. I really love that idea that we could pause a little bit on the content that tends to just dominate and overwhelm the kids, and which makes them not want to learn.

Alexie: You put that so well! That’s exactly – that’s exactly it. I loved your summary. Man, that’s exactly it.

Stephanie: Teaching kids how to learn.

Alexie: Teaching kids how to learn! Skill-based learning.

Chris: Well, let’s leave it there. It’s on a good note. Again, Stephanie, Alexie – thank you so much for sharing your ideas and your thoughts with us today. It’s been a real pleasure to just talk with you guys again. We haven’t chatted in a long time. So thank you so much for jumping on and giving a bit of your time up to talk with us today. I just want to thank you both. And we’ll be hopefully hearing from you guys again soon.  I know we do a lot of professional development together and I want to keep doing that. And I do want to come to visit Vanguard eventually. Maybe when the schools open up again. So, thank you for that.

Stephanie: Thank you!

Alexie: Fantastic, Chris! See you soon!

Chris: Take care. We’ll talk to you soon guys. Be well. Be safe.