College and career counseling during COVID-19

Supporting Students' Social and Emotional Well-being

Mario Piombo, Director, Innovation
Published on May 14, 2020

NapaLearns is creating this series of videos to understand the impacts of distance learning and specifically trying to collect stories from educators who are still able to push on and bring high-quality learning experience to students. Technology is a huge part of the conversation as we look at distance learning. In today’s conversation, Mario Piombo, Director of Innovation with NapaLearns, and was joined by Carla Surber, College and Career Center Coordinator at Calistoga Unified. 

Watch this short video excerpt to hear Carla Surber, Calistoga College and Career Coordinator provide her thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 school closures. 

Watch the full 30-minute video with Mario Piombo, Innovation Director, NapaLearns

How do you think students have adapted or adjusted to distance learning in Calistoga? What have you seen so far?

Carla: Initially I saw a really positive response. Students want the structure. They want to continue with school. But I’ve also seen their responses run the whole gamuts. This week the students I’m talking to are feeling overwhelmed, and they’re at that place where they’re like, “What? One more digital tool I have to learn? One more log-in I have to memorize?” Sort of like we feel, right?

I’m seeing my fellow educators take a step back and remember to put learning first and tech second and to be really intentional in choosing their tech applications. On the back end of this, we’ll probably start having some conversations about the tools that we’re using, and if there’s a particular set of tools that maybe we could focus on—narrow the field a little bit so that we aren’t asking kids to use so many different tools.

I’ve seen teachers just jump right in, teachers with different levels of experience, as well as teachers who had never heard of Zoom are using it now. They’re either recording their lessons, or they’re doing live sessions with their students. One of the really valuable lessons we’ve learned is that it’s not just about the tech access for the kids, especially given this current situation. They’re scared; they’re frustrated. The seniors are so sad and angry that the end of their senior year has been so disrupted. Who can blame them? And yet they’re still putting their next best step forward and moving ahead.

Learn first. Tech second.

I feel like those of us who were able to go through the NapaLearns Fellows program, were better prepared because I remember really focusing on learning first and tech second. We were learning how to use all of these innovative tools, but we were also looking at the standards and the why and our curriculum, and how to use those tools to enhance rather than replace instruction.

That’s certainly how I use those tools in my role as the college and curriculum center coordinator. I don’t have a lot of time with kids. I’m inserted into their other classes. So I’ve created the online resources to reinforce what we’re doing when I am normally in their classroom. A lot of teachers are having to learn that on the fly, and that’s challenging, but the NapaLearns Fellows program really helped prepare me to be strategic about how I’m using the tools and reflective on how those tools are working so that I can adjust as I go along; because if it’s not working for the kids, then it’s not working, right?

During this challenging time, we need to remind ourselves that the social/emotional education and development has got to come first. If they’re not feeling safe and supported, they can’t access the disciplinary or the content skills and knowledge that we need for them to be moving forward and we’re not losing a lot of ground during this event.

Mario:  That’s a really good point. I think you hit the nail on the head. If the technology’s not working for students, then it’s not working. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in trying to find the next best tool that’s going to help you get better online, but sometimes we move too quickly. Just as we can frustrate educators as we do that with too many new tools, I think equally we can frustrate students who aren’t used to have to adapt so quickly when it comes to technology.

What do you see as the biggest challenge when it comes to students’ individual needs in accessing technology? Have you seen major challenges, or are students being pretty resilient right now?

Carla: Students are being pretty resilient. A lot of it is just little tech glitches here and there—a student not realizing that they needed to click on the little video camera. All of those things that slow us down can be a wall for kids, especially when they’re already overwhelmed socially and emotionally. It’s hard to be persistent and have the grit to get through a stumbling block like that.

Mario: Yes, I’ve heard a lot about “The Learning Pit.” It shows students moving through different stages of productive struggle and that academic grit. Along the way, you find these little things that allow you to continue to move forward until it becomes something that you can achieve.

And hopefully you can do it again every day. Take using Zoom. Each one of those buttons, learning what it does, is going to get you one step further to pulling yourself out of the pit and being successful in your learning.

Students need to take a step back. What are they missing? What’s not allowing them to move forward at that speed sometimes?

Carla: Well, I talked to a couple of seniors yesterday. We went through an interview practice. They had an interview coming up for a scholarship. I’m still doing those employability skill workshops in Zoom.

They felt like they’d gotten to a place where now they know how to access the classes and the material. But now they’re questioning the value of the material that they’re actually getting. So when you talk about that pit, I feel like they’re kind of climbing out of that, and they’re like, “Okay. Where’s the rigor?”

Usually by the time kids are in high school, we’re mostly focused on content. We’ve taught them the disciplinary literacy. They’ve got the writing and reading and analysis and listening and speaking skills, and we’re focused mostly on content. But for the first couple of weeks of this, we had to go back to “How do you access things?”—the sort of nuts and bolts on how do we do this thing that we’re now calling long-distance learning. The content got a little soft.

They’re frustrated because they’re worried about college, and whether they will be prepared. I know that their teachers are responding to that and that the rigor will come.

Mario: I’ve heard that from a couple of people that students aren’t engaging because they feel the content isn’t quite there, and what are they doing? It takes so much work for teachers to prepare this content digitally that I think that’s the other end of it. There’s not a lot of empathy from the student to the teacher who has to create the content and to figure out, “What am I going to do? How am I going to totally pivot and bring everything online?”

It’s hard to wade through the content and figure out exactly how you’re going to rework something to be digital. I can definitely see why students question that, especially if they’re trying to stay engaged, and maybe it’s not engaging enough.

Carla: Exactly. In the classroom, I can tell when they’re losing engagement because I’m going too slow, or where I’ve left them behind because I’m going too fast, but we don’t have that interaction necessarily online. It’s hard to tell and it’s a challenge.

You’re in a very unique role in Calistoga. What is your role on a day-to-day basis? How does that translate now to distance learning?

Carla: My role on a day-to-day basis is planning for, creating and then preparing to present workshops to students, either inserting myself into their advisory class and working with them through Naviance tasks or utilizing work-based or work-readiness resources. I conduct workshops, mostly. And beyond that, I meet with individual students or small groups of students or parents to talk about career exploration and college applications or post-secondary educational options.

Transitioning to distance learning has been challenging. I’ve just had to put one of my workshops in my Google Classroom, but the students don’t really have time in their day to do it. I like having it there for them as an opportunity, and I know some will plug in and do it, but I’m worried about making sure that they all have that experience. You know, we’ll get there. I’ll figure out a way to make it up to them whenever we’re able to return.

Connecting with students and parents is challenging

The other thing, and this has been a hard one for me, is meetings with students. I can email them, or I can send them a reminder message, but I’m not getting a response. Just to give you an example, most seniors right now, have their financial aid awards sitting in their portals for universities. Previously, I would have them come in and we’d go through those awards together. We’d compare the colleges so that they and their families can make an educated decision based on financial aid.

I’ve been reaching out to parents and students and inviting them to make an appointment with me to go over that, but not a lot of them are doing it. I’m nervous about that. I’m worried about their emotional well-being. A lot of them are feeling like—and I’m hearing it—“Oh, well, it’s going to be distance learning for college anyway. I’m not sure I want to do that.” They’re teenagers, so they’re making plans based on what ifs, and I’m struggling to create the connection with them and create the time to sit down and have that conversation with them.

What I’m finding is, when I can do a Zoom and they can show me their portals, they seem to leave those meetings with a much clearer idea of what the possibilities are. They’ve even said, “Oh, I feel better about this now.” But if we were at school, I’d be sending a call slip. Their teacher would say, “Go see Surber now.” If they didn’t come and see me, I’d go find them during the break. Just making those connections is what’s been challenging for me.

Mario: Yes, definitely. The kind of work that you do is definitely based on relationships and getting to know students individually. It’s more intimate than a traditional teaching and learning environment.

What have been the biggest surprises that you didn’t anticipate, and how have you adjusted to them?

Carla: I was at first surprised that they weren’t responding to my emails. That’s not typical, right? But then as I began to talk to them, I realized that they’re just overwhelmed with emails. Every time anything gets posted in one of their Google classrooms, they get an email. They’ll say things like, “I just don’t want to get off the couch. I just don’t want to do anything.” That’s all understandable, right?

So just figuring out a way to change what I do in a way to start that conversation with “It’s okay that you’re angry that your senior year is getting screwed up. I would be, too.” You know, give them permission to have the feelings they’re having because they also feel bad. They’re healthy, and no one in their family has gotten sick so they feel like they’re being selfish, you know? Kids are so amazing.

How are you supporting students that are emotionally struggling? 

Carla: Our guidance counselor, Michelle, has done an amazing job of setting up Google Classrooms by grade level, and she’s also set up just a Counseling Google Classroom. There, she’s giving all kinds of online resources that she’s vetting, and that pushes kids into even more of an online virtual reality. Of course, what they’re missing is the human contact. But she’s also calling kids. We’re conferencing about students that were worried about—I talked to a student the other day who thought we were all going back to school on May 1st. It’s like, “Oh, how do we make sure they know?” All that follow-up to make sure that people are getting the message and that they understand the message.

One of the things our admin team has done is put together a spreadsheet. Teachers pop in there and put in the name of the student they’re worried about and indicate what they’re been doing to try to work with that student. I know that our office staff and our admin team are calling families every day.

Would you say that you have a pretty good amount of participation by students?

Carla: Yes. Initially a lot, and then they fell off a little bit, and I think they’re coming back now. You know, part of what kids are trying to figure out, too, is what is credit/no credit? What does that mean? What does “hold harmless mean in terms of grades? I think there’s just been a settling in and figuring out what all this means phase, and then I think we’re getting back to the work at hand.

How important is it for students to be able to connect with one another digitally? 

When I post a few meetings that include more than one student, they talk to each other, and they seem to really enjoy it. In the Zoom meeting that I had yesterday, I invited them to check in with each other at the beginning. In fact, I was in an online, culturally relevant teaching and learning workshop this morning through Avid, and one of the things that the host pointed out was, when they get to the Zoom classroom, be sure to give them time to check in. They need to be able to check in with each other.

How has grading and assessment changed?

Carla: This came to us from the State and four-year institutions, California state universities and the University of California. They decided that for seniors and other students who are working on their A through G college entrance requirements, that they would accept pass or credit grades for this semester, rather than traditional letter grades, A through C, which impact an overall GPA.

The district has moved to adopt that credit/no credit for all grade levels. In addition, the idea of hold harmless is, if a student entered this event with a passing grade, they cannot go backwards. They can improve that grade, but they cannot lose ground. If they came into this with a failing grade, then they can improve that grade.

The reasoning behind that is we simply cannot ensure that students have equitable access to both the technology and the curriculum. We don’t know what’s going on in children’s homes. We don’t know if parents have turned into home school teachers. Do they have a quiet place to work?

I was in a meeting the other day with a student who did not have a quiet place to work. She was on her tablet, and there was a lot going on in the background, and we got through it, but it was really hard for her. We just need to make sure that whatever we’re doing in terms of grading isn’t going to create an equity gap that wasn’t there before this happened.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to implementing distance learning are for the students specifically? Are there barriers that are at play right now?

Carla: In our district, we handed out 70 hot spot devices so that students would have Internet access in their homes. That was a gift from the Rotary, which was pretty amazing. We also checked out Chromebooks to all families that needed one, and thanks to NapaLearns, we had enough of those that we could even send more than one home to a family. We have them in every single classroom. I know of districts where families got to check out one Chromebook. They’ve got three kids in the home, all trying to use the same Chromebook. How does that work, right?

First, we dealt with the access piece of it, but then there were all of these little stumbling blocks that they’re running into.

There’s a lot of checking for understanding that we can’t do in a distance-learning model. With our long-term language learners, how are we able to make sure that they’re actually engaged and accessing the curriculum? What additional supports do they need?

The differentiation and scaffolding that students might be more accustomed to in the classroom is another piece that we’re still in the process of trying to figure out. How do we differentiate for students who aren’t right in the room with us?

You can be pushing out different resources to different kids. But if you’re not used to doing distance learning, that can be a pretty steep learning curve.

You’ve mentioned in various ways of how the NapaLearns Fellows program has prepared you. What was your focus in the program? Has that translated into solutions that you’re now using in distance learning?

Carla: My focus in the program was using online tools for writing instruction, specifically with struggling writers. I was intrigued by the fact that when they were all online or texting each other, they’d write and write and write and write, but if I gave them a writing assignment in class, it was ‘no thanks.’

Edmoto was one of the first tools I used where students could post questions and responses to each other, and they were so comfortable in that environment. I think that that still plays a role. They’re digital natives. They’re comfortable using apps, but it’s about creating the structure to ensure that the learning is first, and tech is second. How do we take advantage of these digital tools that they’re drawn to but make sure that what they’re learning with those tools is meaningful.

What are differentiation and scaffolding and how does technology help with it?

Carla: Scaffolding is about meeting a student where they are, literally building that scaffold to get them to where they need to be. Not all students need the same amount of scaffolding. Some students walk into your classroom with the sort of academic skills that they need to just immediately engage with content, but a lot of students don’t, and they need a bridge for scaffolding to get there.

Differentiation is when you provide different opportunities for students based on where they are right now, different opportunities to show what they’ve learned and what they know. So for a student who might be reluctant to speak up in class, you’d be sure to provide an opportunity for them to comment in an Edmoto post. They all have something to say, but we have to make sure that we give them an opportunity to say it in a way that is meaningful for them, but that’s also safe.

There are more academically traditional differentiations, which are if you do this up to this point in this assignment, you can earn a C, but if you do up to this point on an assignment, you can earn an A. So the student has a voice and choice on what they’re going to do on that assignment. They can pass either way, but the student who’s ready for more of a challenge can access that challenge, and the student who’s not ready can still succeed on the assignment.

What do you see as a silver lining or are there any positive outcomes that might come from having to implement distance learning the way we have? Do you see any things that you think may stick in the system?

Carla: I really do. It’s forced a lot of us who may have been reluctant to even use technology to jump into that pool, and that’s a good thing because there’s a place for it, even when we’re able to meet face to face. Another silver lining is that it’s also causing us to reboot education, as we know it. We’re having to re-evaluate our content, our expectations. I’ve been in a couple of staff meetings recently where people have just commented on how they feel their teaching is so invigorated or reinvigorated because they’ve head to really dig and look at, “Okay, I’ve done this lesson this way for six years now. I have to do it differently now.” Whenever we reflect on how we’re doing something in order to modify it or improve it, it’s a good thing.

Mario: Absolutely. Everyone’s leveling up, the students and the teachers included, right? And probably parents, too.

Carla: I hope a silver lining for students will be that they become empowered, and parents, too, that they become empowered to own their own education. I’m worried about those kids who aren’t empowered and who maybe have not been engaged and who don’t re-engage this year, but I think for those who are able to do that, it will be a really empowering experience.

Mario: That’s awesome. Well, on that note, thanks for joining me today, and giving us a preview into the life of a college and career readiness coordinator at a high school in Calistoga.