Podcast: Teaching Through Historic Moments on Teachers in America

Photo: Bianca Cole in her classroom.

This week on HMH Learning Moments, we are joined by middle-school educator Bianca Cole of Washington State for an important minisode of Teachers in America. Bianca discusses what it's like to teach not only her class, but her son, during these times of major change in America. From the effects of COVID-19 on Seattle to the Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place across the country, 2020 has already presented Bianca with ample teaching moments both inside and outside of her classroom. Follow Bianca @blikebianca on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, and check out her blog at BlikeBianca.com.

The following transcript of the episode has been edited for clarity.

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Bianca has been teaching virtually from her home since schools closed in her district due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Alicia Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is Teachers in America, hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris. In this minisode we sit down with guest Bianca Cole in early June to discuss Teaching Through Historic Moments.

Bianca is a middle school special education and language arts teacher outside of Seattle, Washington. When school closures began to take place due to COVID-19, Bianca made the leap from the classroom to teaching her students virtually from home. She had to quickly familiarize herself with two platforms—the one that her own school was using and the one used by her son’s school so that she could help him navigate his online learning as well. Bianca is also an avid writer, and runs a teacher/parent blog called BlikeBianca.com, where she shares classroom strategies and lifestyle advice.

As protests take place across the U.S., HMH stands in solidarity with the black community. Our belief is the same as that of our guest—that education is an important step in combatting racism.

Now, here are Bianca and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America podcast. Can you tell our audience a little bit about you and what is happening in your home remote classroom?

Bianca Cole: Hi, thank you for having me. I've been teaching since 2012. I started just in Language Arts and then went into special education when I found out my son was developmentally delayed, so special education has been a passion for me. I've enjoyed working as a special education teacher for the past, going on, nine years. Today I feel like I'm coming to the end of my distance learning, not just with my students, but with my son.

It has its good days and it has had its challenges. And it's just been a learning moment for the both of us.

Noelle Morris: You brought up a couple of things that I definitely want us to dig into further, especially being a teacher and a mom and supporting your own child's learning. But Bianca, one of the things I wanted to bring to our audience is actually talking about you living in the Pacific Northwest, in the part of the country where some of the initial conversations of, where as a country, everyone was figuring out what COVID was. Can you think about where you were and what was happening?

Bianca Cole: Well, I remember… I want to say at the end of February, that last week in February, I remember being in downtown Seattle and I noticed there wasn't anybody wearing any mask, even though we knew that there was COVID-19 and people had a worried sense. I remember it being in that moment and downtown and being afraid to cough because I have asthma, but I was afraid to cough because I don't want people to think I was sick. And then coming back that Monday to school, that's when I remember a lot of students started asking questions about it and teachers were talking about it.

We didn't know that we were heading into closure, so we just were navigating into the unknown. And as teachers we'd like to be prepared, we like to have things planned out, we like that to know what it looks like down the road, and we didn't have that.

Bianca and her son had to adapt to working from home together once school closures took place.

Noelle Morris: So Bianca, as you were transitioning into school closure, and you think about March to April, compared to the transition of where you are now, as you said, coming to the end of your distance learning as a teacher and as a mom, what has the full cycle been?

What would you tell teachers you've learned about, you've been concerned about, and you've decided, “That's not something I necessarily need to worry about or think about now.”

Bianca Cole: What's really kind of funny is I learned to be comfortable with hearing my voice on video. I started just having to learn different learning platforms or platforms of where I could teach.

My son goes to a school that's not in the district that I teach in and he uses Google Classroom while we use Microsoft Teams. So I'm learning both Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams so I can navigate for him and then navigate for my own students. I've been learning how to make videos and recording myself on these videos so I can have them prepared for my students, and trying to learn how to just get to the tech things behind it so I can teach my students and teach their parents.

But the biggest concern is, I don't know how to help my students when they're having problems getting logged in. Usually when I was in the classroom, I [was] right there. Probably the biggest concern is not being able to help them [the way] I wanted to help them. And I guess some things that kind of set our district back a little bit was our students weren't ready for distance learning. They didn't have laptops at home and they were not used to the Microsoft Teams program. They weren't savvy for email correspondence.

But they did have the sense of, “Oh, I know how to use YouTube.” So that's why I decided to make videos, because I felt like that was something that they could be comfortable with and they knew how to use. As we're coming to the end of our school year, I think one thing that might kind of hold them back a little bit is the packets.

We were passing out learning packets and they felt like they had to do the learning packets and do the online learning. And I felt like one or the other was best. And then some students were trying to do both and keep up and that probably heightened their stress and their frustration levels a little bit more.

Free writing and independent reading assignments are a good way to spend time while distance learning.

Noelle Morris: Thank you for sharing that, and I know that many of our listeners and our fellow teachers will relate to that. Similar to what I want to talk to you about now, which is, I think you’re about to be going through some additional changes, right? You're going to be consolidating two middle schools into one, something that should be so exciting.

What are your emotions now about this new change and what are you doing to prepare and be ready and motivate yourself?

Bianca Cole: This was my very first year in this district and in this building, so I didn't have the [same] kind of emotions [as] some of the teachers that have been in there 10 years or 20 years.

But it was new to me and I wanted to experience the entire school year. I wanted to be able to go to the assemblies and participate in the eighth grade graduations and just be there as a teacher. And I was getting comfortable, but I felt like I had just moved in in August and already had to move out at the beginning of April.

So goals that we worked on in September, we usually reflect back on in June, and we weren't able to do that as a classroom. And then in January we wrote letters to ourselves, and I started receiving some of the letters and [it's] just this week that we're going to discuss it online. But just being able to have that feeling in the classroom and that team feeling, the family kind of feeling that we have as a classroom, we won't be able to experience that.

I know for a lot of other teachers that were there, that have been there a long time, they are trying to preserve that family feeling that they always had in their building. We've been making a lot of videos and doing virtual tours of the school building before it gets demolished, because it's going to be an industrial site going forward.

Noelle Morris: The fact that you just said your students are returning letters and they're writing—it shows you that even from their perspective, what they need for closure and part of their tradition of the last day of school, they're also searching for. So I applaud you for that and I know, and I can imagine, that reading those letters is going to bring more emotion out that, as a teacher and as a mom, you're going to be processing and working through.

Let's talk about the realities. You now have been home for three months. You have been a primary teacher for your son. He's engaged and remote. What did the typical conversations and day with the two of you look like and sound like?

Bianca Cole: Early on, I made him a schedule. I wanted him to only focus on a class subject or two a day. I didn't want him to have to work on all of his subjects because I know he gets frustrated with that.

We have a great relationship where he is able to ask me when he needs help and let me know that he's struggling in some areas. When I talk to him and check in with him, we have to have separate times of working, so I go in and I start teaching my class and then I have him check his assignments for the day.

That's how he always starts to check his assignments for all those classes, even though he's just working on one thing. And so, he's usually pretty responsive. He doesn't mind me telling him, “Oh, I need you to read for 20 minutes” or “I want you just to write freely for five minutes.” He doesn't mind that at all.

He's a pretty good kid but doesn't like being in the distance learning, even though he likes staying at home. He's like, “I like to stay at home, but I don't want to keep doing this.” So when I assign him extra things, [like] a reading assignment, he doesn't mind. He just continues with it and he sits next to me and he reads and I ask him questions and we just kind of work together and it's [become] a little bit more natural as time went on. We did lose a little bit of our steam starting out. I know in the first two weeks we were going really strong and then I could see him getting frustrated.

And I just tell him, “Hey, we can save that for tomorrow,” or “You know what, let's save that for a Saturday where I have more free time to work with you.”

To avoid frustration and overworking, Bianca made her son a schedule that helps him focus on one or two subjects per day.

Noelle Morris: So tell me what toolkit [you're using] and what you're going to be thinking about this summer as you're planning, going into school year 2020-2021.

Bianca Cole: There are probably four big things I’ve been using.

One is my reader response cards, and I use that with my son. It's just a really quick reader reflection that students can choose from. I feel like even at home or at school, if you're a parent and you just need something for your child to do, the reader response cards are very easy and simple to incorporate when your student is just reading a book of their choosing.

It's just questioning, doing the basic feeder connections, strategies. Before we went into distance learning, I started working on a list of accommodations to modifications that teachers can use in the classroom. And I've been working on transferring that into even at-home learning and distance learning. Everything kind of fell into place and I use that even with my own son, accommodating and modifying for him if I feel like he's having trouble with his projects.

Also, I'm old fashioned. I use a paper planner and I use attendance records and grade books by hand. And I feel for me, that's a lot easier just to make quick marks, especially if my students are online.

Going forward, I'm going to be using my attendance grade planner a little bit more purposely and just making grade checks and quick marks for students that have at least got online, because they may not understand the work because they're trying to keep up. And I want to count that for them as, you know, at least showing up for class and trying to be there for themselves.

Noelle Morris: Oh, your heart comes out in your voice. I'm just like, they're trying. What is your one piece of advice you have for new teachers joining the profession?

Bianca Cole: I would say my one piece of advice would be to build connections with students, build that relationship with them, get to know them. I always say, try to learn one thing about your student that you wouldn't normally know as a teacher. Something, one personal thing about their life. So maybe they like skateboarding. Maybe you know what their favorite movie is.

I feel that goes a long way with classroom management, social emotional learning, and just learning how to develop your lesson plans so that you get to know what type of learner they are. So building connections, relationships with students, that's the biggest, the number-one thing I think all new teachers need to focus on.

In the virtual landscape of 2020, sometimes the old-fashioned methods allow for quick note-taking.

Noelle Morris: Solid advice.

So Bianca, who is someone that you want to thank and why, and how did they impact your life?

Bianca Cole: My senior English teacher, Mr. Grimes. He pushed the limits of English and he made it more serious and more thoughtful. I do feel like he inspired me to do better.

I was always kind of holding myself back within writing because I didn't want to share too much information. I was always wanting to be reserved. So I think he made every single use of our classroom time and he would always promote a diversity on his walls and in his classroom.

And I know he had a curriculum that he had to teach, but he always pushed the limits to make us think a little bit more.

Noelle Morris: There's so much happening right now across our country. Our conversations around social injustice and valuable and much-needed protesting that's happening, and the tipping points that we're at. As a mom, as a teacher, what are those conversations that you're having with your son right now?

Bianca Cole: You know, as a person of color, we've had these conversations quite frequently. I just want him to know that change starts just with one person.

I try to focus on more of the change aspect. "What can you do? What could we do? What do you think is best for society to do?" And I always promoted education because I knew, even growing up I knew, the only way that I could change or inspire others that might look like me—because I never had a teacher that looked like me until I was in ninth grade—thinking about those things, I always tell him we have to continue education. We have to try to fight within and move that way instead of maybe trying to do something that might be more of a distraction, in terms of destruction.

I understand that at this point in our lives, we're tired of seeing the same thing happening over and over again and getting the same outcomes over and over again. But I'm a firm believer [that] education paves the way for things to change. If we get more people educated and get them into higher positions of power, then things could change within. And I always tell him, you know, keep reading, keep researching.

If you have questions, I'm always here to answer those questions.

"Education paves the way for things to change."

Noelle Morris: What you just said really explains why we all, somehow, if we're a teacher, we're led into this path from different directions—not even necessarily if this was our first chosen profession. But it's evident that you belong here and that you're needed and that we need to broaden our space for more people of color to be within the conversations and making change.

I'm so glad [that's] within your resilience, within your understanding of your purpose, and that sense of belonging. Thank you so much for being a guest. I look forward to ongoing conversations with you, and I hope that the rest of your school year and summer is exactly what you think you can plan for today. But I know you'll be ready for whatever it is tomorrow.

So thank you so much, Bianca.

Bianca Cole: Thank you.

Alicia Mitchell: If you'd like to be a guest on the Learning Moments Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

We hope you enjoy today's show. Please rate and review and share with your network. You can find Teachers in America on the HMH YouTube channel and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped for the transcript and key takeaways. The links are in the show notes.

During this time, HMH is supporting educators and parents with free learning resources for students. You can visit hmhco.com/learningsupport for more information. Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.