Using Tech to Teach — Smartly

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Many teachers, children and caregivers who have to depend on technology for distance learning these days are miserable.

Ben Cogswell, a kindergarten teacher in Salinas, Calif., has nailed it. And he has some advice for the rest of us.

While living through screens can largely feel like a mess, talking to Cogswell was a happy reminder that technology — if we keep it in its place — can empower creative teachers to shine and help students learn through a tough time.

His experience could help all of us try to focus on making our personalities, not the technology, take center stage.

Cogswell is more tech savvy than most educators — than most people, period. But he said that what has worked best for him has been limiting both tech and complexity.

Rather than requiring parents to deal with multiple new pieces of software, Cogswell uses two: Google Meet for live virtual classes and Seesaw for students to post their online assignments or drawings.

Cogswell also has a relatively simple, predictable schedule, with class days starting with his five-to-10-minute videos, followed by two chunks of group classes. “I try to make it really consistent and doable for the kids and their parents,” he said.

Cogswell said he believed that limiting the technology and the transitions from one lesson to another has kept his students’ participation rate high, despite their home challenges. He said his students come from families that have relatively low incomes and may only speak Spanish.

Like many of the families in his class, Cogswell is juggling. He has four children at home, his wife is studying to become a music teacher, and they’re planning to upgrade their house.

When the pandemic forced the international law firm Morrison & Foerster to go all remote, Janet Stone Herman’s job changed in a flash.

Stone Herman, who leads the firm’s development and women’s leadership efforts, used to focus on performance evaluations, professional development and parental leave policies. Not now. She recently started what turned out to be popular online seminars with a family therapist for the firm’s roughly 3,000 employees.

“Under the best of circumstances when you’re a parent and have a full-time job, it’s hard,” she said. “You take away that support network and throw everyone in the house together, and you have to be the principal, tutor and babysitter …”

She didn’t need to finish the sentence.

Most workplaces don’t have the resources of a large law firm. But it was interesting to hear how thoughtful the firm has been about offering practical help and support.

The seminars have tackled employees’ questions about managing their children’s tantrums, struggles with remote learning and disappointments about missing summer camp and milestones like proms. Another focused on the struggles of employees who are home alone and feeling isolated.

Stone Herman said a surprising benefit of the pandemic work-life juggle is that some of the workplace hierarchies have melted away. Big bosses seem less intimidating when their kid is bouncing a beach ball off their head in a Zoom work meeting.

“People are so much more sympathetic across the board and see each other as human beings first,” she said. “I’m hoping that sticks.”

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