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I Hadn't Thought About It Like That: Finding the Silver Linings in Today's Situation

Surreal. That is the only word I can come up with to describe the times in which we are living. We are navigating waters that are not only uncharted, but also unknown.
I Hadn't Thought About It Like That: Finding the Silver Linings in Today's Situation
by Monica Simonds, M.Ed., Richardson ISD

 
Surreal. That is the only word I can come up with to describe the times in which we are living. We are navigating waters that are not only uncharted, but also unknown. Now that we have had a week or so to get past triage mode both personally and professionally, I think it's important that we acknowledge what we have lost and continue to lose while looking ahead to what could be. As someone who thrives on community and collaboration, I've spent some time reflecting on what all of this means for me—it's possible you are on the same journey.
 
The Modified Kubler-Ross Model lists seven stages of grief: Shock* (added to the modified version), Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Testing*, and Acceptance. Most of the information I've read states that one does not go through these phases linearly but rather in an ebb and flow—maybe even looping back to previous stages and maybe even experiencing them out of order.
 
Shock: I don't know about you, but I definitely felt this about a week ago. I am a current events junkie married to a history/economics teacher, so it's not that I was blissfully unaware that there was a novel virus wreaking havoc on China and then other countries. I was aware it could become a global pandemic and I could rationalize through that possibility. I saw people buying up all the toilet paper and I wondered why. However, the 24 hours between Thursday and Friday, March 12-13, threw me fully into shock. Our district was sending home devices and preparing for the very real chance we would not come back from spring break. Wait—that just doesn't happen to public schools. I mean, I was teaching in Louisiana when Hurricane Andrew plowed through, and we stopped school for 2 weeks because there was no electricity and it wasn't safe to try to get to school. Buildings were destroyed. The physicality of school was damaged. Unlike this situation in which school buildings are fine and so are most people so far.  I don't have anything tangible to hang my understanding on. So, I did as I was asked kind of in a fog of reality. 
 
Denial: All through spring break, I watched district after district announce closures from one week to “indefinitely.” And then it was our turn. But this is just a sickness, right? School doesn't stop. It just doesn't. Until it does. 
 
Anger: I saw so many people who were immediately angry, and I don't blame them. Look what we are losing: Time with our students, lost jobs and wages, and sometimes lost friends or family. Those seemed obvious to me, and then I realized that this was so not about me. There were hundreds of perspectives I had not considered: Seniors in high school losing out on prom and graduation, students missing banquets and competitions they had spent months preparing to join, sports teams whose seasons were now not going to happen, the list goes on and on. College students are going strictly online and have days to get out of the dorms or their apartments, children may be going without school-guaranteed meals, and children may be spending more time in abusive homes under higher-than-normal stress. The anger extended to others, to those who refused to physically distance themselves to businesses and governments.
 
Bargaining: So the bargaining began. This often took the form of “if only . . .” statements. If only schools would reopen . . . , if only the governor . . . , if only the president . . . , if only the businesses . . . ,  if only the Millennials (sidenote . . . it was more likely Generation X who were not following the distancing protocols), if only the parents . . . ,  if only the timing . . . , and so on. Often this stage turns inward to thinking we caused the situation in some way and we can bargain our way out of it: “I'll never be angry with my class/family/spouse/neighbor again if . . . “ It's a never-ending assault to the emotions as seemingly everyone seeks to find the magical entity that could stave off this new reality we are all facing.
 
Depression: The emotional toll on each person is different. Some realize that the situation is dire and inevitable and may withdraw. It may be an intense sadness as reality settles in around us like a heavy blanket on a summer day . . . at once comforting and stifling. 
 
Testing: Finally, we are ready to find solutions to the problems at hand. How will we “do school” now? How can I connect with people when I can't be around them? Our superintendent, Dr. Jeannie Stone, held a virtual meeting with us last week and she began by telling us that there was a way we did school before spring break, and there is a way we will do school after spring break. She went on to say that it would look different, and we had to make that mindshift and find ways to make it work. I don't think she was talking just about school, and I don't think she means we need to find a way to “get by.”
 
Acceptance: And so we will make it work. Will this be just until things get back to “normal”? Is there a “new normal”? Do we even want either of those? Some things will be easier than others. We will embrace some changes and others will take reflection and flexibility. We will have to accept that we will get some things right and others wrong, we will change direction, take steps back, and miss opportunities. And that's OK. 
           
Our entire Teaching and Learning central team is learning about strengths-based leadership. We all took the Clifton's StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment as part of this training. My top strength? Input! I am always a learner. Four of my top five are in the strategic thinking domain. I'm also very future-oriented. I'm a “what's next” thinker. I'm somewhat of an eternal optimist. A Pollyanna, of sorts.
 
And this is where it can get a little sticky for me. I can jump too soon to how opportunities abound for us in this moment. If you're aren't there yet, that's OK, too. Read the rest of this when you are. Until then, lean into the stages above. Feel them. Allow yourself to grieve whatever you have lost or are losing. Name it. Journal about it. Don't put timelines on the process. And most of all, take care of yourself.
 
Now for the silver linings. 
 
On a personal note, I'm encouraged. People are going on walks and bike rides as families. Teachers across the nation and world are sharing their curated resources to help both parents and teachers in these unique times. Businesses that have educational content such as museums and zoos are sharing their resources for free. Goodness, you can listen to a book read to you by an astronaut IN space or your favorite author, actor, or actress. Who doesn't want to hear a book read by Betty White?
 
In education, Elizabeth Swaner, Richardson ISD Executive Director of Advanced Learning, called this “a watershed moment in education.” Teachers who have been vilified are now seen as heroes who have the knowledge and expertise to make learning happen in any setting. Those who have been resistant to utilizing technology for instructional purposes now will have the opportunity to use it and, hopefully, embrace it as a way to personalize learning for the students. With state-mandated testing waived for the year, teachers have been freed of the burden of that preparation and are empowered to utilize innovative strategies and resources usually reserved for after testing if used at all. 
 
If we pause for a moment and think specifically about the world of gifted education recently, especially in Texas, we remember losing the weighted funding for services coupled with enhanced accountability and requirements of the new Texas State Plan. Some districts have already announced plans to reduce staffing dramatically or they have already done so. 
 
How can we use this unique time in our professional lives to impact the learning for high-ability students and how do we implement it in such a way that it has lasting effects in future school years?
 
District leaders in gifted services can leverage this time to overcome some obstacles the new State Plan presents. While we appreciate the enhanced expectations and accountability, for some districts, the reality is they will be all but impossible to meet.
 
For example, Section 4.9 of the State Plan states that “Educators must adapt and/or modify the core or standard curriculum to meet the needs of gifted/talented students and those with special needs such as twice-exceptional, highly gifted, and English Learners.” In other words, simply pulling students out for a couple of hours a week isn't in compliance. We must be able to point to exactly how and for whom we are adjusting the curriculum in the core content areas. 
 
Teachers, what if we took this time to prepare resources for extending and enhancing the upcoming core curriculum to meet the needs of advanced learners? Sharing them with classroom teachers provides both a ready-made resource as well as modeling that the teacher can replicate in the future.  An easy one to get started with is the frames that use the Depth & Complexity icons. We can write sample extensions for the lessons the classroom teachers are providing remotely. 
 
With districts focusing all their resources on appropriate at-home learning experiences, gifted services may not be provided at all while schools are not physically in session, providing a unique gift of time. Parents are concerned about their advanced learners who may have already been a challenge for the classroom teacher to keep engaged. They will be reaching out. How can we support their learning? TAGT, NAGC, and KAGE have all curated resources for high-ability learners you can share with parents. 
 
Both Sections 3.8 and 4.5 require acceleration and flexible pacing for students in their areas of strength. Now is the ideal time to look for innovative ways to do that while keeping an eye on how those same strategies can be employed next year when, hopefully, we are back to attending school in person. Can we create online courses that are accelerated? What about self-paced options? Do some already exist that we could purchase? How can Credit by Exam be a part of the solution? 
 
Right now, we are in a time filled with questions, and I feel the worst thing we can do is to answer them with the way we have always done things. Don't look for ways to simply move your current lessons online. Instead, use the creative thinking skills we espouse to our students and truly seize the watershed moment.  If we don't, I fear there won't be another chance in the span of our careers. I'm just not OK with that.
 
 

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