Great Minds® checked in with Baltimore City Public Schools Grade 6 teacher and 2019 Baltimore Teacher of the Year Kyair Butts on how he’s making distance learning work while schools are closed. Kyair teaches the Wit & Wisdom® English language arts curriculum at Waverly Elementary/Middle School. He offers great advice for teachers remotely delivering instruction.

How have you made remote learning work?

Kyair Butts photo cropped

Distance learning has been a recipe of sorts: One part patience, one part flexibility, a dash of communication and clear expectations, and then add in some experimentation and grace. This has yielded an online environment not too dissimilar from the classroom. There are community norms we go over at the top of the lesson and clear expectations for learning and engaging each other. Students are mindful of those and the fact that this is new, but we all share the desire to want to learn and build something sustainable.

Did all of your students have devices and internet access? If not, how did you or the district respond to that need?

Not all of my kids had devices. There were some technology issues, and equity was and remains a concern, among others, during this time away from school. Some students are accessing my “Live Learning Lessons” via Blackboard Collaborate, and others are using packets created by the school and district that have been available since the beginning of this closure period.

The district made Wit & Wisdom English language arts lessons and Eureka Math® lessons from the Knowledge on the Go™ video series from Great Minds available through public access television stations via its remote-learning plan. A handful of my students are tuning in to the television lessons. I’m also familiar with teachers playing the lessons by screen sharing and stopping along the way. Knowledge on the Go provides another point of access for students to receive high-quality and content-aligned instruction. As such, it’s a great resource teachers are using and also offering to parents. 

How did you provide your students with the books in the curriculum? 

Like everyone right now, thanks to fair use policies, I’m relying on digital texts. I’m posting copies of the selected pages on the slides I use for the lesson, posting passages in the chat on the video platform, and messaging the excerpts via ClassDojo and Google Classroom. I do want books in hand, but having something for students to use for reference, analysis, and fluency is also necessary, and those workarounds are paying dividends. Students are actively participating, citing text evidence and using the excerpts to practice fluency, and it really is going better than I thought.

What aspects of teaching this way works well, and what is challenging?

Teaching remotely is difficult but also presents some unique benefits that we only tangentially appreciate, namely, the idea of perspective. Many students have stayed on well after the lesson to complete the Land/Exit Ticket writing observations about the topic they studied and have offered thanks or had a parent chime in with next steps and express gratitude too. I believe that while being away is difficult and different, it doesn’t have to devastate our way of being. This newfound perspective and gratitude for each other and the classroom has pushed us to work harder, listen more attentively, ask poignant questions, and provoke normally quiet students to contribute and share. It’s difficult to do turn and talks (requiring students to talk to each other) or fluency reads (choral reading), and sometimes internet (mine included) can be choppy, but our attitudes and spirit of determination are really allowing us perspective and poise.

How have you overcome the challenges?

Challenges are met with a laugh, a shrug, an apology, and an affirmation that this is something we can get through. When my internet kicked me off the video lesson, I came back and used that as part of our lesson. I apologized and acknowledged that we are all still learning and affirmed my students’ patience and flexibility. Challenges are also met with backup plans. The lesson is emailed to students and posted on ClassDojo and on Google Classroom with instructions in the notes section in the event students have to complete it alone.

How are you connecting the current situation to the curriculum and your lessons?

The beauty of Wit & Wisdom’s deep knowledge design for Grade 6 is that it is a study of the human condition. The times we are facing define the human experience: loss, life, hope, helplessness, resiliency, and reformation. The idea that an invisible enemy (COVID-19) has captured the national attention, and rightfully so, is not going to paralyze us. As such, I have made connections to Module 1, Resilience in the Great Depression.

We’ve talked about our own personal resilience amid quarantine, a new normal for learning, and constant fear. How did Bud and Billie Jo in the book Bud, Not Buddy make the most of their challenging situations? How can we do the same? Module 2 offers perspective on the journey the hero undertakes. This new situation and global pandemic are our “crisis” when studying The Odyssey and other eternal stories that capture humankind’s fundamental values and shared human experience. How can we as a people defeat crisis? Can we rely on our mentor(s) to persevere and ultimately return and restore a new order to the world? Module 3 offers a unique perspective on narration. It’s about narrating the unknown. Our status quo is unknown, and our stories are going to go on in the annals of history when we look back on how we responded. Module 4 allows us to look at heroes and how they manage to survive and continue on despite the harshest of environments and the most arduous of challenges. Through Wit & Wisdom’s knowledge-focused designs, I am able to make everyday connections and focus on the wholeness of my kids, thus making the material more meaningful.

What are kids saying and feeling, and what’s helping them feel good and grow academically?

My kids are nervous about going outside. They’re scared because some have family members working in hospitals and helping others. Many want and long for the routine of the school day and see our 75-to-90-minute block as a part of their day that is normal, not focused on fear or worry but on connecting to each other, practicing a skill and growing academically. Kids regularly receive feedback from me via the chat function, direct verbal feedback, and through other means. Students feel comfortable and confident with our study of forensic anthropology in skeletal remains from the Jamestown colony from the knowledge-building work we’ve done [Grade 6 Module 3: Narrating the Unknown], and that’s encouraging as a teacher, especially as we start a new module.

Do you have advice for other teachers, particularly those also teaching Wit & Wisdom?

I would take a step back, breathe, and figure out the answers to some key questions. What topical design elements of the curriculum lend themselves to a deeper discussion of the situation facing humanity currently? How can I focus on social-emotional learning, skills, and content? One thing I’ve done is look through those module elements and content, make connections to what’s going on, use those as the basis for my welcoming routine when we join the video lesson, and segue into making material meaningful now that I’ve got a hook. Ensure that there are community norms for video lessons or online learning, regardless of the platform. Try to mix SEL and student wholeness with content learning. Overall, this is new for many of us and giving grace goes a long way to building a community of learners that will come out stronger than it came in to the process.

Anything else?

Find a platform or two and stick to those. This can be overwhelming for families and teachers too. Knowing a platform or two that will be used for learning makes things convenient and accessible. Also know that we’ve got this. Teachers have made every other job possible, and this, too, is a new and unique challenge for us to accept. Time and again, we’ve not only met the challenge but exceeded expectations. And guess what? We will do it again, together, as we always have.