Part 1 of our conversation with Joellen Killion, senior advisor for Learning Forward

Here is the transcript.

– Hi, I’m Adam Geller, Founder and CEO of Edthena and this is PLtogether and today we’re doing another Lounge Talk. Today we’re talking with Joellen Killion. She’s senior advisor for Learning Forward and also the author of several book about the link between high quality instructional coaching and the impact that it can have on student achievement. Joellen, thanks so much for joining us.

– It’s a pleasure to be with you, Adam. Thank you.

– Yeah, yeah. Well, let’s jump in and for those that might be unfamiliar, I was thinking maybe we could start by what is Learning Forward? What does that organization do?

– Learning Forward is a 50 year old professional association that is focused on professional learning for educators, the leadership of professional learning, policy advocacy in professional learning, and ensuring that every teacher, every educator has high quality, professional learning so that every student is successful.

– I like that you lead with the 50 years piece. This idea that professional learning and prioritizing it is not something new.

– Not at all, we’ve been around for quite a long time. People know that when educators are learning, their students are more successful.

– That’s right. Well, let’s start I guess the new phrase is with some good news. There’s a lot of things out there about adjusting and changing and challenge but there’s a lot of bright spots as well, so–

– There are.

– Maybe let’s share a story that you have about an educator, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a classroom teacher, who’s adapted or changed or really risen to the moment and how that’s, I guess, inspiring you and giving you some energy to keep pushing forward.

– I wanna highlight two coaches. Ebony Flott and Courtney Simpson from Gwinette County, Georgia. These are coaches who almost immediately figured out how to support teachers in an online environment. And they created this wonderful little graphic that came my way of all of the different ways they could support teachers. It was personalized, it was focused, and it focused on the work that teachers are doing. And it was so exciting to see their work. They got right to it, didn’t skip a beat, and continued their focus on making sure every teacher had access to high quality coaching. So I wanna celebrate them and I wanna celebrate all of the coaches and teachers who have figured it out.

– Yeah. I like that idea of figuring it out. It doesn’t mean that we’ve arrived anywhere, just means that we’re progressing, right? We are adapting as the moment goes. Tell us again the names of those coaches ’cause I suspect some people are going to wanna Google their names and image or Twitter or something like that. So tell us again their names and we know Gwinette County so that people can try and find them.

– Right, Ebony Flott, F-L-O-T-T, and Courtney Simpson. And Learning Forward did a webinar that included Ebony and Courtney on coaching in the virtual arena. And people will find that on the Learning Forward website and they’ll find access to this wonderful graphic that they created as well.

– Awesome, so if folks aren’t familiar, the website’s going to be

– That’s correct, that’s it.

– Well, let’s talk a little bit about teachers. They’re adjusting to what teaching looks like. I have been adopting the phrase, distanced teaching, to try and suggest there’s lots of different ways that could look. But in my intro, I said you were someone who thinks about that link between what happens in the classroom and the student achievement, so I mean, has in some ways that link been broken by creating all this distance between teachers and students?

– Oh, I don’t think so, Adam. I think teachers may be working harder now that they ever worked before to keep that link alive and to figure out really what is most crucial for students to be focusing their attention on. If there ever was a time when teachers are figuring out what is that enduring learning that is crucial for students to develop, and separate the wheat from the chaff, in a sense, that’s what teachers are doing. So I think initially, it seemed like it could be a lot of busy work jut to keep students engaged, but now teachers are realizing that what’s important is connecting students with real work, real learning, measuring their learning with authentic tasks. An example of that, my niece is a chemistry teacher at a high school outside of Detroit. She’s home with her two young daughters. One is a second grader and the second grader was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books and produced this wonderful little video in the character of Laura Ingalls Wilder talking about her life and her life experiences. She uploaded that video for her classmates to see using Flipgrid and students were able to observe each other’s presentations about the authors they were studying. This is the kind of real work we might not necessarily have time for in the classroom that allows students flexibility, freedom, choice, interest-based, and yet holds them accountable for some of that demonstration of learning.

– I think what I hear you saying is that it’s not that the link’s broken, it’s that we’re redefining how we understand that student achievement. I think that, you mentioned the flexibility and kind of the opportunity that the extra context in time may provide us right now, but in some ways it begs the question of should this new style of learning, the focus on the wheat instead of the chaff, kind of mindset, should we be thinking that whatever choices we’re making now really are helping us reveal and distill the types of things that we should be prioritizing when we go back, whatever back is going to be?

– Yes, absolutely, and I know teachers are thinking about this. I know certainly people in district offices are thinking about this. And probably parents are worrying about it as well. Students will come back to school in many different places. If we ever needed to really hone our ability to differentiate learning, to identify those core expectations for all students and be able to design the learning experiences to meet students where they are, that’s what we need to be ready to do whenever we get back. And I promise you, that will require more use of classroom-based technology, whether it’s really in four walls of the school, or whether we’re still doing it at home.

– Yeah. And obviously, lots of work to get done on the access to technology piece. I don’t want us to overlook that or drive by it without noting it, but not necessarily our topic for today. So thinking still about the teachers and how they’re redefining. I don’t know about expectations, but how they lead students to success, let me say. I know one thing that I’ve been hearing is this question of how hard to push and I think it’s like the kind of tension between the desire to maintain high expectations and the realities of what’s happening at home for students. I mean, let’s even just take a younger learner who may need some more facilitation. Well, that facilitation requires an adult and maybe an adult isn’t available for four hours a day, right? There’s a whole set of questions around designing these experiences that I think have people asking, okay, well, are we still aiming at the same end goal? Should I really still be pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing? So, if I’m a teacher, help me sort through that, right? Because I aspire for my students to end up in a place that they’re well-prepared to continue moving forward, but I can’t kind of be setting that goal absent the context they’re in maybe.

– Yeah, I wish there were an easy answer to the question you’re asking. I think it is dependent on so many factors. One certainly is the home context. Whether or not students have access to the technology, whether or not they have access to a place where they can work that isn’t constantly being interrupted. So many factors, supervision, support, encouragement, monitoring, all of those things matter. So teachers, I think, are being very savvy right now and doing their best to assess each student’s conditions and context and using that as a basis for designing and supporting students through a variety of learning experiences that may be appropriate. For some students, it may be 30 minutes a day as to all that’s available. For others, it may be three or four hours, and teachers are working hard I think to help parents figure out how to support learning in different context and to figure out different ways to engage students, whether it’s schoolwork or whether it’s community-based or neighborhood-based or yard-based or walk through the neighborhood based learning experiences. So assessing context is important, but not forgetting that students really do want to learn and they really do want to succeed as do parents. And so I think it’s that balance of knowing what’s appropriate, knowing what students have access to and figuring out that right flow, that right sort of space between too much and not enough. And that’s very personalized. The whole notion of personalized learning is really what teachers are facing today as they are engaging students.

– It’s interesting because I think when I was considering this… topic area, I thought in my mind, okay, we need to talk about the issues of equity and I think hearing you without saying that word, it’s almost like we can be equitable for our students by maintaining the high expectations while also keeping in context and in view what is… possible, maybe is the right word, given the current situation for the students. And like you said, maybe there’s a way to go inventory aspects of the neighborhood that support certain skills that you want learners to be developing and that’s a resource that everyone can have, and if that’s what is possible, you can still create high quality learning experiences with the tools and context that you have.

– You know, Adam, I think, if you don’t mind me sliding in one more idea, I think it is very inequitable to have expectations of students that we know they cannot meet. And it is our job as educators to ensure that we are holding the same high standards for all students and designing experiences that will help them achieve those same high standards within the context that is available to them. So equity is really at the root of all of this. I think it’s bring back what we were trying to do in the early 1980s about broadband for all. These are things we’ve tried to do decades ago and only now are beginning to recognize how difficult it is when we never acted on those intents back then.

– Yeah, I mean, I think if I were to grossly overgeneralize what you just said, it would be unacceptable to be someone like an educator as a teacher, a school leader, or whatever, and say, oh, well, we don’t have X so I guess we can’t do it. That would, it feels like, be the ultimate failing in this particular moment because it wouldn’t be rising to any challenge, it would have just been throwing up our hands and giving up and that’s not why I went to the classroom everyday when I didn’t go.

– Right.

– All right, Joellen, thank you for these thoughts on teachers and distance teaching. We’re gonna wrap this part of our conversation up but we’ll join you again for more of our Lounge Talk. If you’re interested, you can visit and find the rest of our conversation as well as others. Thanks so much, Joellen.

– Thank you, Adam, and congratulations to all those teachers working so hard out there.