This past year has been both eye-opening and made want to close my eyes and hibernate until all the tragedy subsides (P.S. that will never entirely happen). It’s been hard. In different moments I have been leading tens of thousands of teachers forward through training and advocacy and in other moments I’ve been trying to do socially-distanced diaper changes in head-to-toe protective gear with Kindergartners with autism. New York City has been the center of tragedy through much of the pandemic, and my district was the epicenter in schools. We have lost 50+ staff members in my district alone (paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators) including people I knew well. And in the midst of challenges and accolades I received for my efforts I was suddenly kicked from the role I was inhabiting amongst the many poor decisions we’ve seen from city and district leaders who knew little of what was happening on a ground level.
Despite all of this though I was committed to creating an environment where we didn’t just endure but instead thrived in the midst of challenge. I wanted there to be moments and memories in the midst of the madness that spoke of our joys and successes and not only our collective sorrow. And so into that moment I sought to create events and opportunities for both students and teachers to find purpose and build connections. And while these were borne out of a moment of unique hardship, there are many I plan to continue into whatever “new normal” we find ourselves venturing into. So here is a, by no means comprehensive, list of some of those moments I was involved in and tools to help you do the same
NYC Minecraft Challenge
I’m not sure at what point it was, but at some point I became the go to NYC teacher for Minecraft in school. To be fair I was using it with students long before Minecraft: Education Edition existed and have discussed previously the means by which I’ve made of use Minecraft to teach my students with autism. But here was an ambitious challenge that we set for students across the city.
Along with the citywide STEM team and some folks from Microsoft, I helped lead an initial Minecraft training, I created tutorial videos to help teachers get started, and we created a Microsoft Team where teachers could share resources and pose ongoing questions. We also made it clear teachers didn’t have to be experts or even good at Minecraft for that matter to participate.
The challenge was for students to create a new/redesigned public space here in New York City with a focus on sustainability, accessibility, and public health. You can check out the NYCDOE Minecraft Challenge informational page and watch the challenge video. It gives instructions on getting set up and how to build the most effective space. Students only had a few weeks to complete their world, record an overview of it, and submit it to Flipgrid. The best ones from each grade across various rubric categories were posted so staff and students could view them. More than 1500+ students submitted their work. Here is an example student response from an 8th-grade student.
I started my education career as a music teacher, so while I am now in STEM I have still long believed in the power of arts instruction to stand independently as a key to fostering creativity and empowering students. So here are some ways I partnered with arts educators and community organizations to make that happen during the pandemic.
I’ve long been part of school and district film festivals including a whole program for student news broadcasts that we used to produce. This year was a bit different, but it remained important for students to express their voices. So there was a mix of subjects and mediums. Some of the videos were animation, others were stop-motion, and still others had people in front of green screen in different rooms. Some was filmed before the pandemic, and some was during it. They cover civics, art, personal stories, and disability advocacy.
In the end though we had a big virtual event with multiple hosts all dressed up with a virtual red carpet. I wore a tuxedo (at least the top half) while our superintendent even attended with kind words. The creators were so eager to share their stories and speak about what it meant to them. And I really think this is an efficient way to allow all schools to attend without having to dealing with bussing and missing a full day of instruction. You can check out a few of the student submission videos below.
Immersive Art Gallery
We had planned a wonderful art exhibit where students would present their works at a city gallery in collaboration with the Positive Exposure organization. But as we’re told, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The students had created amazing pieces with paint, chalk, mixed media, and the power of their imaginations. But with some creativity and some scanning of those pieces, the show could go on and the students could be celebrated.
We reworked the plan and put together a virtual reality art museum using ArtSteps software which has some easy to use software. We were even able to make it accessible with audio of visual descriptions of the paintings and artist statements recorded by the artists when possible (and by my own children and others for non-verbal students). You can watch an intro video, but you can visit the actual interactive gallery (no VR goggles required).
We also collaborated with variety of partner organizations. We had students share their responses after visiting virtual art museums in Flipgrid The explored with leaders from the virtual transit museum at a time most of us were avoiding mass transit in the real world. There were live performances where we partnered with local theatres for people with disabilities similar to what was seen from the Borough Arts Festival. At one point students even helped to recreate a whole museum and artwork inside in collaboration with the Newark Museum of Art. So many helped to bring out all the creativity.
I’m not going to go into great depth on this one as it was a huge undertaking that I led. So I gave it its entire own post about Differentiated STEM Challenges. In short it was a challenge for District 75 students to reimagine their world through a series of fun projects and exploration. The challenges are connected to meaningful instructional goals that would empower students to impact the world around them, even if it’s from their own home. And we partnered with several EdTech organizations like BrainPOP and Discovery Education to connect the activities to lessons and resources across each level and theme.
There are 6 challenge themes, each with 3 levels. And while we created a guiding calendar you can use for each week, it is meant to give you the freedom to choose 1, 2, or even all 6 challenges. You can decide what fits your instructional needs. To further allow for differentiation, each theme is broken into 3 levels. These are not meant to be sequential, but rather based on skill level that may be appropriate for your students. You can decide based on grade level, population, or interest. You can have multiple levels within one class.
The activities we share are just suggestions of how to meet that standard. We offer alternative activities if you need them, and you are free to find a related activity using hands-on materials or a digital platform (Nearpod, Minecraft: EE, etc.) that your students are familiar with. We make it so you can simply engage in the challenge or you can utilize an array of connection and extension activities including virtual field trips and meetings with experts.
There is a document for each theme that contains an essential question, video examples of each leveled activity, supporting documents for each activity, related virtual field trips, a submission zone and additional resources and instructional materials that you can connect to the topic. Check out the overview document for more information.
Students weren’t the only ones who needed camaraderie and support. It was important to have events for teachers too. Yes, we had meaningful professional development throughout the day and Q&A sessions, but we needed more. Most months before the pandemic we would have GEG (Google Educator Group) Get Togethers, Apple After Hours, and Microsoft Meetups at the offices of those respective companies in Manhattan. We would eat, drink, and engage in merriment. And in the midst of that staff from those and related companies along with city teachers would informally share their best practices in breakout sessions.
So while I was part of other conferences and helped organize external EdCamps too, it was important to try to maintain these amazing opportunities virtually. What was great about it was we could have more teachers involved (100s each month) and we could bring in experts from far and wide. I invited some notable educators who are personal friends that I am so grateful for to share their expertise. I could invite folks directly from Nearpod, Pear Deck, Flipgrid, Classcraft, Buncee, and more. And so many teachers stepped up and became new leaders and shared real stories from their experiences.
These weren’t formal, but they were serious. We asked deep questions about teacher burnout and creating equitable experiences. We got deep into some tools and deep into fun experiences. We wore costumes, sang songs, told stories, held a massive tech summit with major speakers. At points we said good bye to people changing careers and acknowledged those who left this world. In December we had a huge collaborative event where we celebrated all that the year has been. The events were simultaneously informative and cathartic. Without them I would probably be in a less healthy place.