The Data on Virtual Learner Engagement During COVID-19

Due to the pandemic, classroom instruction is now virtual. Learning is to take place at home for school age children across the U.S., with few exceptions. Learners in New York City public schools have been mandated to receive their academic instruction via remote learning platforms. Requiring wifi access and devices to receive this instruction, not all students have guaranteed access to learning.

Those students who do have access to the tools they need to logon to their classrooms, aren’t all doing so. Since last Spring, when instruction first became via remote, the numbers of students who have actively engaged appears to be discouragingly low. A middle grades learner whom I have been tutoring during this time, told me that among his classmates, only 4 or 5 students have been logging in for class on a daily basis.

little girl taking online classes

Perhaps it is naive of me to assume that the transition to remote learning would have been a smooth and seamless one. A convenient transition for students,teachers and families alike. My assumptions couldn’t possibly have been mine alone. Surely, educators believed the same thing, as well. Otherwise, appropriate plans would have been made. The reality has demonstrated differently, grossly confounding these assumptions.

Planning remote instruction, for schools, was done quickly, not comprehensively conceived or strategized in alignment with needs or circumstances of their populations. We have left previously existing barriers to learning unaddressed. These barriers continue to pose problems for learners, block access to instruction and impact their levels of engagement. So many students are struggling, as are their parents. Who are these students? They are those with disabilities, in temporary housing, language learners, and those who live in low income communities. Primarily, children of color in New York City.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, about 185,000 school-age kids in New York City have no broadband internet at home, and half of those have no internet access at all. Another 75,000 have internet access but no device available to them.

The Education Department counted multiple interactions with school: a student’s submission of an assignment, participation in an online chat, or even just a response to a call or email — any form of communication from the family.

Even by this limited measure of engagement, English language learners, students in temporary housing and students with disabilities all engaged at lower rates than others during the all-remote part of the spring semester. Faring worst of all in terms of interaction were students who were either in temporary housing or doubling up with another family. Among this group, on average 20% failed to make any contact with school whatsoever. While there was no specific breakdown of students in foster care or in juvenile detention facilities, it’s probably a safe bet that these students make up a good number of that 20%.

If the findings from this new report by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York[CCC] is any indication of the nation’s total student population, then we must all act swiftly so as to not continue to fail our children. We must collectively identify, acknowledge and address the numerous factors that are severely impacting youngsters’ ability to learn and make progress through the academic offerings provided by our school systems.

LEA[local education authority] and SEAs[state education authorities] need to advocate for its students. Beginning at the community school level, going to the state and then federal levels of government,  it is time to lobby for equity. In fact, demands need to be made, appealing to internet and cable service providers, as well as businesses that manufacture computers and other devices now required of learners. Children need fully operational devices at home and families need internet access. Both are to be deemed essential services.

man in yellow polo shirt sitting on chair


It is clear that education outcomes are directly impacted by social realities. These realities inform us that the inequities that exist in the greater society have great influence on what happens in school and public education, specifically. The framework of public education is that any child, from anywhere will benefit from the knowledge and tools acquired in school. 

Separate has never been equal in education.  Even though they are still highly segregated, for PreK-12 children enrolled in public schools, learning opportunities are supposed to be equal and equitable. There has to be one standard prerequisite condition, for all. Now that learning is to take place in the home, every child, in every family, no matter their economic status or race, is to be equally minimally equipped to learn. The tools needed today are different from yesterday. Not just paper and pencil or books; children need access to devices and technology, right where they are-in those spaces they call home.

Among the other things that affect healthy growth and learning, these are the ‘new’  21st Century basics that haven’t received sufficient attention until now. Hopefully, as our eyes are more open, we rise to the occasion, seize the moment, and  begin to understand that learning does not happen in a vacuum. Without the tools needed for learning and academic achievement, neither students nor their families will actively engage with schools or the educators who are the facilitators of learning, to achieve the best potential outcomes through frameworks built on the principles of equity.



Can REM Sleep Halt the Negative Effects of Trauma?

Did you know that there is new evidence that suggests the existence of a time-sensitive window when—if you intervene to improve sleep—you could potentially stave off the negative effects of trauma? According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, increasing the amount of time spent asleep immediately after a traumatic experience, may ease any negative consequences.

Published in Scientific Reports, the study helps build a case for the use of sleep therapeutics following trauma exposure. It was found that if you can increase sleep, you can improve function.

close up photography of woman sleeping

The findings hold particular promise for populations that are routinely exposed to trauma, such as military personnel and first responders, and may also benefit victims of accidents, natural disaster, violence, and abuse.

In a series of experiments in rats, researchers  examined the links between poor sleep and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a psychiatric condition that affects an estimated 8 million Americans each year.

People with PTSD often experience nightmares and other types of sleep disturbances, such as frequent awakenings and insomnia. An initial thought was that those sleep disturbances may cause further cognitive impairment and worsen the effects of PTSD or the initial trauma. The researchers thus set out to see whether repairing the sleep disturbances associated with trauma exposure could help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.

Their study used methods reviewed and approved by Washington State University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees all university animal research procedures to ensure animals’ humane treatment throughout their lifecycle. This included a commonly used PTSD rodent model in combination with optogenetics, a technique that uses light-sensitive proteins to control the activity of brain cells.

After going through the PTSD protocol, rats were assigned to two groups. In one group, the researchers used optogenetic stimulation to activate melanin-concentrating hormone (MCH)—a sleep-promoting brain cell type—over a period of seven days. Animals in the second group served as controls.

Comparing the two groups, the researchers found that optogenetic stimulation increased the duration of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—the sleep phase thought to be important for learning and memory—across the rats’ rest and active phases.

The researchers then assessed the rats’ behavior on a three-day classical conditioning experiment involving a memory task. On day one, rats learned to associate an audible tone with the mildly unpleasant experience of receiving a small foot shock immediately after hearing the tone. After several occurrences, rats would freeze after hearing the tone, anticipating the foot shock. On day two, they heard the tone 30 times without receiving the shock, allowing them to gradually extinguish that memory. On the third day, the researchers played the tone 10 times to test to what extent the previous day’s memory extinction had stuck. They found that rats that had received optogenetic stimulation to increase their sleep time had more successfully extinguished the memory, freezing less than control rats.

toddler lying on pink fleece pad

It seems likely that if you are kept awake after a trauma, this could potentially be harmful to your cognitive function, though it wasn’t directly tested in this study. As an example, victims of traffic accidents,  may not get much opportunity to sleep as they are poked, prodded, examined, and treated after being hospitalized for injuries. Though prioritizing sleep may not be feasible in victims with potentially life-threatening injuries, increasing sleep in other trauma-exposed populations could practically be done. Military personnel coming back from  tour of duty could be encouraged to sleep and potentially be given sleep-promoting drugs to help them stave off any trauma they may have experienced.

Although these experiments suggest that manipulating sleep immediately after a trauma may be beneficial, such an intervention may or may not be effective for traumatic experiences that occurred in the more distant past. These researchers, consequently, now wish to pinpoint those molecules that are important for regulating sleep or learning and memory, to help them identify targets for the development of better drugs to help trauma-exposed populations.

Based on their findings, it is also suggested that the use of antidepressants known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in people with PTSD may need to be re-examined, as SSRIs are known to suppress REM sleep. Ultimately, we may be doing trauma  victims a disservice by prescribing drugs that actually eliminate a potential therapeutic avenue  by removing  REM sleep when these findings suggest that they should be increasing REM sleep.




Aiming High for Excellence: “Parental Voice” Can Transform Education

Debbie Pushor, University of Saskatchewan

Repeated efforts to improve public school education across Canada — curricular enhancements, increased accountability, intensified literacy and numeracy initiatives — are failing to improve student achievement.

In the province of Saskatchewan, student achievement results have flatlined and only 43.2 per cent of Indigenous students are graduating on time.

Saskatchewan’s results are not atypical. In her analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Man-Wai Chu, assistant professor of education at the University of Calgary, said Canadian students have shown no improvements in science, mathematics or reading over the past decade.

So what can we do differently? We can engage parents — in ways that enable students to do better, like school more and stay in school longer.

Five decades of research evidence attest to the benefit of parent engagement. The educational and moral imperative is clear: to shift the existing student achievement trajectory, educators must intentionally and systematically use parents’ untapped knowledge to enhance student learning.

As educator and family-engagement expert, Dr. Steven Constantino said in his book Engage every Family, “If we as educators could successfully teach all children by ourselves, then it seems to me we would have already done so.”

Walking alongside children

During more than 20 years of research into parent engagement, I have come to understand it as a philosophy and a pedagogy of “walking alongside.”

This is both a belief system about parents and their meaningful and authentic voice in their children’s schooling and education and a way of enacting those beliefs in practice.

Parent engagement in schools can deepen relationships as well as enhancing learning.

When parents are seen to be holders of knowledge, as capable and as possessing gifts and strengths, then this can be leveraged alongside teacher knowledge to enrich programming.

Engaging parents entails assuming a new worldview in schools — in which parents are seen to be central to the work of the school, not separate or apart from it.

Elementary math bins

A former graduate student of mine, Kirsten Kobylak, is now a Grade 1 teacher at Willowgrove School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. As part of my research on the impact of graduate teacher education, she shared with me how she wanted to engage parents in their math theme, “Math is Everywhere.”

In an email home to parents, she explained how important language and culture are to children’s learning. She posed the question, “Where does math live in your culture?” and asked parents to share such things as game ideas, artifacts with patterns, number lines in different languages and more.

As items came in, the children created math bins — patterning, fact families, number lines, problem-solving.

Parents came in and taught games and shared materials, comparing versions of items from one country to another, simultaneously sharing culture, language, history and family stories.

Through this parent engagement, children learned and strengthened math skills such as skip counting, memory, estimation, addition, greater than, less than.

They also deepened their relationships with one another, their knowledge of diversity and sense of social cohesion.

‘We are all Treaty people’

Jesse Reis, another former graduate student, is now a high school teacher in Warman, Sask. He shared with me the example of a daily email he sent to the parents of students in each of his classes.

In the email he included a concept the students and he had discussed that day, something interesting that arose, and something parents could chat with their son or daughter about that evening at home.

For example, in one email, Jesse shared with parents of students in his Social Studies class a statement they had explored that day: “We are all Treaty people.” He noted that while some students saw themselves as “Treaty people,” others did not. He invited parents to discuss with their teen what stance they took and why.

The daily email took Jesse less than five minutes to send per class, but gave him potential contact with every parent every day. Parents were able to engage in meaningful conversations with their children about curricular concepts in the normal course of their day — and to add their voice and knowledge to their son or daughter’s teaching and learning.

Parents are a vast and untapped resource of knowledge and expertise.

Parents were always invited to respond to Jesse’s email as well, sharing with him their conversations with their child and thus bringing home learning back into the classroom. Parents asked questions and offered to participate in the unfolding curriculum in other ways (sharing knowledge, stories, artifacts or suggesting potential resources and experiences).

What we see in these examples is that parent engagement can happen on the school landscape or off of it, and with all ages of students.

Critical to parent engagement is that it draws on parent knowledge, is connected to teaching and learning, honours a parent’s hopes and dreams for their child, enables a parent to remain in the role of parent, is authentic and meaningful, promotes shared decision-making, is strength-based and ensures everyone benefits from the engagement — children, parents, and teacher.

The possibilities of parent engagement in education are endless when these critical attributes are embraced by teachers and lived out in ways that are contextual and culturally responsive — honouring students, parents, families and communities.

A gentle revolution

To shift from the current worldview in education, one which reflects schools as a domain exclusive to educators and students, to a new worldview where schools are using parent knowledge in teaching and learning will take a gentle revolution.

Notice the word “love” embedded in revolution? By working together, with mutual respect, care and concern for one another, educators at all levels of the system and parents can work together — to revolutionize schooling.

We need to establish “parent engagement offices” in ministries of education, develop core teacher education courses on parent engagement, require parent engagement coursework for teacher certification, establish school district positions for parent engagement consultants, structure parent universities and establish parent mentor programs.

The results of such a gentle revolution — creating an integral place and voice for parents in their children’s teaching and learning — will positively impact the trajectory of student achievement and other educational outcomes.

Further reading

Parent Engagement and Leadership

Portals of Promise: Transforming Beliefs and Practices through a Curriculum of Parents

Living as Mapmakers: Charting a Course with Children Guided by Parent KnowledgeThe Conversation

Debbie Pushor, Professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies, University of Saskatchewan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


You Can’t Be Anxious AND Relaxed at the Same Time

During COVID-19, so many of us have been anxiety-ridden. Our children, too. We have experienced anxiety surrounding our health status,  the future of work, learning at school and navigating life as we once thought we knew it. I know for certain that I am one of the many people whose heads have been spinning around in the midst of the uncertainty at this time. Trying to adapt, recover and respond to stress in healthy ways.

With social distancing and the wearing of masks and gloves, being social beings has operationally morphed into unfamiliar territory for which we have little personal reference. If the rules have changed, what are the new rules of engagement? How do we maintain or, for young people especially, establish meaningful relationships with others? Everyone seems to be on edge.

With social distancing, we have to practically yell at one another to have conversations. With masks covering our faces, which can disguise the visual cues that we use to decipher communication or decode verbal messages, how are we sure about what people really mean or feel when speaking to us? How are we supposed to go to work, if still employed at this time, and leave our children at home alone all day, when most childcare facilities are shut down?

The anxiety can be quite intense. How do the bills get paid, so that the electricity and the gas stays on? What about the mortgage or rent, car payments….groceries? Stimulus payments have been temporary band-aids, lasting but a few months during this pandemic health crisis. We have all been surviving in our own common, but uniquely stressful situations. These myriad of concerns all intersect with one another, and can work us down to our ‘very last nerve’.

Then, when someone notices your stress, you are told that “you should relax”Have a drink.” That approach can backfire, become problematic, and produce even greater stress, if it becomes our automatic ‘go-to’, as a means of daily coping or escaping the ‘noise’. blck girl

Relaxation can sound like a luxury, but it is a necessary state of being. It is unhealthy to spend most of our waking hours in a constant state of hyper-arousal. On edge, body tense. The impact on the physical body, triggers our brain to operate in what is called, our ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism. It is our body’s way of responding to ‘anxiety’- those external factors[like stress] that disrupt our internal balance[‘homeostasis]. In 1956, Hans Selye described three stages in this stress response, as the General Adaptation Syndrome. The stages are: alarm, resistance and then exhaustion. Think about it and the way we feel when we are stressed. When we do emerge from it, we are exhausted-spent.

So, how do we disrupt anxiety? Behavioral breathing techniques is one way.

Behavioral breathing techniques can reduce stress and focus our attention on the present. Not the external factors that cause our stress. Rather, the enhancement of our ability to focus attention on ourselves, our internal processes. Even before you can feel gratitude or count your blessings, you have to be present first. Relaxed, without distraction.

As an alternative to your fight or flight response, activate your relaxation response. Reciprocal inhibition tells us that we can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time.

When we are anxious, you notice that you will breathe through your chest, thus allowing less oxygen in the bloodstream to circulate our body and  into the brain. The key is to breathe from the diaphragm– deep and slow breathing from your belly.  The diaphragm is the largest muscle separating the lungs from many other internal organs, and makes the lungs contract and expand.

Combining diaphragmatic breathing with other relaxation techniques, like mindful relaxation, we can become less anxious. It is at that point of relaxation and full presence, in the moment, that we can begin to make more sense of this ever-changing world. We can then mindfully tackle the uncertainties and put things into perspective. In fact, once relaxed, we can count our blessings and feel and express gratitude.

photo of woman laying on ground

The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.

Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Try doing this:

  1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You could be seated on a chair or on the floor on a cushion. Keep your back upright, but not too tight. Hands resting wherever they’re comfortable. Tongue on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
  2. Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe.
  3. Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins.
  4. Now as you do this, you might notice that your mind may start to wander. You may start thinking about other things. If this happens, it is not a problem. It’s very natural. Just notice that your mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing.
  5. Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thought, then return to your breath.
  6. After a few minutes, once again notice your body, your whole body, seated here. Let yourself relax even more deeply and then offer yourself some appreciation for doing this practice today.

This can be your much needed “Calgon, take me away!” break each day; to be totally present, mindfully relaxed, focused on you and your well-being. Make it a daily habit! Once again, you can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time!

Try it and tell me what you think.