Learning Pods : Pros and Cons

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on and changes the way students are educated, many parents are exploring ways to get their children and teens back into some manner of in-person learning. One idea that has gained traction among many parents is creating “pods” of students who stick together and attend class, homeschool, and/or tutoring sessions as a sort of closed-circuit group. 

What is a “Learning Pod”? 

A new idea, there are two primary conceptions of a learning pod. The first has the same group of students rotating between their various family homes for home/remote learning, so that parents in the pod can take turns acting as teacher and child care provider, thereby giving them some days off to go to a workplace and alleviating some of  the stress of providing home instruction. The second idea of a pod is similar, but instead of parents acting as the sole education providers, the group hires a teacher or tutor to come and provide home instruction, homework help, and/or subject-area tutoring to the students one or more days a week. 

Why the Push for Pods? 

The idea behind learning pods is that families can limit the amount of people their students come into contact with, thereby allowing for some in-person teaching and learning while mitigating the risks of getting or spreading the virus. Both styles of pods have some benefits as well as several drawbacks. Since we’re all navigating this new reality, without much consensus from government, health, and education officials as to how to best proceed, it’s worth exploring the pros and cons of learning pods. All families will ultimately have to weigh both the health and educational benefits and drawbacks and make the most appropriate and feasible decision for their children and families. 

Pros:

  • Learning pods allow for students to engage with their peers for both educational and social purposes, including participating in cooperative learning and group projects
  • Creating pods of students seems safer than students attending school together en mass, thereby reducing worry and stress among students and families
  • Rotating groups of students between a few households allows parents with specific subject area knowledge to teach specific subjects each day
  • Small group learning with an educational professional is an effective method of instruction and allows for individualized learning within a group interaction

Cons: 

  • Pods may seem safer than some alternatives, but no pod can be a closed system and even if everyone trusts their fellow members, students and parents may still unwittingly get exposed and pass on the virus 
  • Pods consisting of just students and their parents are easier to manage and keep “closed”, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee that teachers, who will travel from pod to pod in addition to living their own independent lives, will not become infected from nor spread the virus to various pods
  • Students in a single pod may be working at different levels and have varying degrees of mastery in various subjects, meaning that some of the instruction may be more or less effective for different students

Other considerations:

  • Anyone considering hiring a teacher or tutor to teach their “pod” of students must understand that that person is likely going to other homes to teach other individual students and pods, thereby increasing the risk of infection for all parties
  • For high school and college students, most teachers and tutors are not equipped to teach every subject, so a single pod may require 2 or more tutors
  • Taking the pod outside, especially given the data suggesting that virus transmission is much less likely in open air, would be the safest in-person option when the weather permits
  • Members of the pod must develop common protocols for the pod and address issues including mask wearing during lessons, expectations for behavior outside of the pod, etc…

Takeaway:

Parents are understandably desperate to return to some sense of normalcy and for their children to receive appropriate and effective instruction after a dismal spring semester when most districts and teachers were figuring out how to teach remotely for the first time and without much time for planning. Pods offer an enticing potential solution by allowing students to gather as a small group on a consistent basis to receive instruction and do schoolwork. The obvious benefits of this may outweigh any potential risks for some families, while others may not see the educational, social, and mental health benefits as worth the risk of potentially getting a family member sick. These are tough times, and families and older students are facing difficult decisions regarding if and how to attend in-person classes, and more generally, how best to approach learning, testing, and educational planning. There is no perfect choice; the best solution seems to be to get educated, weigh all your options and their pros and cons, and go with your gut regarding what is best for your family. 

Quarantine

Pass/Fail Grading and Its Future Impact

We are living in an unprecedented and stressful time for a variety of reasons. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to uproot our lives in myriad ways, many high school and college students are left wondering how virtual learning and pass/fail grading will impact their future prospects for college and graduate school. As any admissions expert can tell you, grades are one of the most critical determinants for entrance into a college or graduate school. As such, the pass/fail grading option which most schools and universities have implemented due to coronavirus is causing confusion and stress for many students. Unfortunately, due to the unprecedented nature of this time, we don’t know exactly how this will play out and how colleges and universities will choose to handle applicants’ pass/fail grades. That said, some common sense ideas, advice, and perspective may help students and parents who are understandably anxious about what this means for their and their children’s futures. 

  1. Continue to work hard and do your best- don’t act as if grading no longer exists simply because pass/fail is now a widely available option. 
    • If you can still take a letter grade, you should strive to do so and should only accept a pass/fail option if you are really struggling and have few resources to help yourself. Continuing to work to the best of your abilities can yield excellent letters of recommendation from teachers and professors, as well as exemplary projects and papers that can later become part of your portfolio. 
  2. Remember that everyone is in the same boat. 
    • A quarantine pass is not the same as a pre-quarantine pass. As in, all students in almost every school in the nation are facing the same situation of digital (and often subpar) instruction, and colleges and graduate programs will have to be understanding and will likely modify some of their admissions standards and requirements in regards to grades, because they have to.
  3. Beef up other areas of your resume. 
    • Now is a great time to look at any holes in your resume and extracurriculars and step up your game where possible. While the coronavirus pandemic has rendered certain activities unfeasible, others continue to meet, and new opportunities, especially for volunteerism, mentoring, and community activism have arisen. Students who were overly reliant on good grades (as well as those who were not!) have an opportunity to step up their extracurricular game, which will serve to complement grades and other achievements. 
  4. Work on your skill sets. 
    • Just because classroom learning has turned into online learning for students across the country (and globe) doesn’t mean that students of all ages can’t continue to develop their skills. Whether it’s reading comprehension, research, organization, essay writing, math, or any other relevant skill, students have many opportunities to continue learning during the quarantine and now over the summer. Between online tutoring, workbooks, webinars, videos, podcasts, and many other media and delivery methods, there is so much content on the internet and off (paper books still exist and are wonderful resources!) for students to continue to develop skills which they will need for future schooling. As students return to traditional classroom settings and grading structures, these skills will serve to make their work easier and their grades better, thereby improving their chances for future admission into college or graduate school. 

Other words of wisdom to keep in mind:

No one knows how this will pan out; not a single human alive, in or out of academia, has experienced a pandemic that caused a global shutdown of physical schooling and a near universal pass/fail grading option. As such, we must maintain some perspective and move forward on the assumption that programs will simply have to modify some requirements and standards, as virtually all members of their applicant pools will be in the same boat. 

My best guess is that colleges and universities will rely on trends in students’ grades over time to make admissions decisions while also taking into larger account students’ letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, and test scores (especially pre-and post-pandemic). I also believe that schools may start to rely more heavily on portfolio submissions, especially in programs where they are typically not required, such as health sciences. 

The last thought I’ll leave you with is this: we can only control what we can control. So, if taking a pass was your only viable option this past semester, take it and move on. Do something actionable and within your control, such as boosting your skills and/or finding relevant extracurriculars, so that when normalcy does resume (whatever that means and looks like), you will be set up for greatest success in the field or program of your choosing. Now is an ideal time to reach out to a professional tutor or coach who can help you build critical skills that will enable future success! 

Tips for College Success

Even though I’m a bit late with this one (oops!), it’s never really too late to get organized, get prioritized, and get on track towards achieving academic and all-around success in college. Freshman year of college is an overwhelming time for even the most prepared of young students. The demands and workload are greater, and the accountability systems and oversight are fewer than in high school, so many new students are understandably overwhelmed. Add in the pressure of a new social life with far greater temptations, and college life can seem unmanageable and trying to navigate for new students.

However, with some simple tips (and then putting them into practice!), all students who want to achieve success can. Here is Part 1 of my tips for a successful college career:

1. Get acquainted with your school, program, and dorm

Every school is quite different in terms of how offices are set up, how and what services are provided, how information is disseminated, etc. The more you know, the more you can tap into all of those resources and maximize your experience and tuition dollars. Here’s how:

•       Attend all orientations

•       Walk around campus until you feel like you know it well (use a campus map!)

•       Spend time on the school’s website and platforms (e.g. BlackBoard) that you’ll be using and will be required to navigate effectively

•       Find out about services (career, tutoring/writing, accommodations/disability services, health center, counseling/psych, etc…) and locations of those services

–   Go right away to any offices or services that you need immediately (or know you will need in the future)

–  Many schools have different tutoring centers for different subject areas. Some will have a science specific tutoring center that is separate from writing help, for example. Find out what these services are and where on campus they are located, and don’t wait to go if you need help as appointments are generally required and are usually booked on a first come, first served basis

–   If you have a documented disability, go to your disability services office immediately AND tell your professors right away

2.  Be proactive with academic planning

As I said recently to a college student (who wanted to not make a plan and instead see how things would “pan out”): Panning is not planning! As in, don’t just go through the motions with a wait and see attitude. I’m not suggesting that plans will not change or that all will go according to your plans, but making plans that are real but flexible is a necessary task for academic success. Do the following things:

•       Meet your advisor and get to know her or him right away

•       If your advisor in nonresponsive, follow up via email, phone calls, and then showing up to their office to follow-up.

•       Some academic advisors are very active and participatory and helpful, others frankly are not

•       Go to the head of an office or department (or loop them in) if you are not hearing back or receiving the help you need from an advisor. CC them on emails and show up at the office to speak with someone

•       Take your school’s core requirements ASAP

•       Don’t put off required courses beyond a semester

•       But DO wait to take a specific class if you’re waiting for a specific professor to teach it

•       BUT…Don’t rush to declare a major

•       Take different classes and explore your options. This is the time to do that!

•       Plan smart:

•       Don’t overload your schedule with too many challenging classes in one semester

3. Manage your time

I know, this one’s easily said, but not so easily done for many. However, it’s a worthwhile endeavor as scheduling, planning, and prioritizing are critical for success and a less stressful experience in college and beyond. College is much less structured than high school and there are no parents or teachers to hold you accountable in that way. College assignments are not broken up and checked the way high school assignments and readings are, so it can be easy to fall behind. Find pragmatic, day-to-day strategies such as setting a timer, that work for you. And utilize metacognition and goals to guide you towards intentional, realistic behavior. Some strategies for time management include:

•       Create your own pacing schedule with reading, break up large assignments into smaller ones, and set due dates for yourself

•       Use a planner/calendar religiously

–      Find a system that works for you: get a weekly/monthly planner from the store, use the calendar or an app in your phone or tablet, etc…

–      Always have that calendar with you and check and update it daily

–      If you need more structure to your daily schedule, use an hourly calendar to block out your day

•       Have a long-term and a daily to-do list that you constantly update

–      2x per day is reasonable: morning and evening

•       Be realistic with your time goals and expectations for what you can accomplish

–      If you notice that you have a tendency to underestimate how long projects or tasks will take, take that into account! Add on an extra hour or day (whatever) to your initial estimate

•       Deadlines are real, even if you pretend otherwise!

–      Don’t stick your head in the sand if you find yourself getting behind. It happens, it’s almost expected during freshman year.

–      Do reach out for help- talk to your professor ASAP, reach out to your advisor if needed, and seek help from a tutor or the writing center.

–      I’ve seen students be afraid or ashamed to speak with a professor if an assignment is late, missing, etc. Remember: This happens to most students at some point, so you are not unique or special because of this and no one will remember (or care).

4. Stay organized

Again, easier said than done. But I firmly believe that anyone can stay organized if they’re willing to put aside time each day or week to do so.

•       Go through your school bag 1X each week- file away papers in proper binders/folders, recycle garbage papers, make sure things are neat, clean, and follow an order that makes sense

–      Don’t throw away old work or tests. File them away – just label each file or notebook with the class and semester

•       The syllabus is your main set of guidelines, due dates, and schedule for each class. Use it religiously, bring it with you to every class, and write down ALL changes to the syllabus on the syllabus- because it WILL change

•       Keep your desk/workspace neat. A few times a week, go through all papers and books and again, put them in the correct binder, folder, or recycling bin. Sell back (or donate, if you’re feeling giving) old books that you’re certain you will not need again (I suggest holding on to books relevant for your major)

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve gleaned some practical strategies for college success- comments are welcome! Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll address procrastination, self-advocacy, how to navigate group projects, and more!

The Power of Games

Parents and educators sometimes forget that games are some of the best teaching tools that exist. While no widely agreed-upon definition of game exists, to me a “game”, in its most primitive form, is a teaching tool. Ancient societies used games to teach essential skills to their youth; many of these early games may have focused on developing hand-eye coordination critical for hunting, fighting, or weaving. Games are interactive, multi-sensory, engaging, and often fun. This is why humans have been using games to teach children for millennia.

Yet in our modern times in which we focus heavily on standardization of learning (especially with the new Common Core Standards) and rote, memory based tasks, we seem to be moving away from and forgetting about the great power of games to teach critical reading, math, thinking, and life skills to students.  Educators and parents, especially those struggling to reach disengaged or seemingly unmotivated learners, must remember that games can help students develop many types of skills, from social and interpersonal lessons of cooperation and teamwork to math operations, problem-solving skills, and early literacy development.

I especially like to use games with younger students and find them to be some of the most effective learning tools that exist. Children enjoy the very idea of playing a game; whether it’s rolling dice, picking cards, moving pieces across a board, earning points, moving one’s body, or placing tiles in spaces, the various aspects of playing a game are exciting and interactive. Games require the use of many modalities: players have to manipulate physical parts and pieces, communicate with other players, record data and/or scores, mentally solve problems, and visually keep track of players’ progress, to name a few. I commonly use simple board, card, and dice games to teach and reinforce elementary math concepts and phonics skills; children often become so engaged in the game that they forget that they are learning!

In fact, I do have one very clever 2nd grader who figured out my ploy and recently said to me, “I see what we’re doing. We’re playing a game but we’re still learning reading.” Nothing gets by this one, and how right he was! I asked him if he still thought the game was fun and wanted to continue playing, and he replied in the affirmative!

Many learning games are quick and easy to make up or put together using common household items such as flash cards, dice, a deck of cards, dominoes, paper and pencils. It is simple and easy to turn a boring, rote task, such as memorizing multiplication tables, into a fun and exciting game that will teach and reinforce the same skills. For example, I turn memorizing times tables into the popular game of War by using multiplication flashcards instead of a deck of traditional cards. Here are two websites with additional game ideas to get you started:

http://www.granby.k12.ct.us/uploaded/faculty/wyzika/Dice_and_Card_Games_to_Practice_Math_Facts.pdf

http://www.education.com

While I also like to recommend computer-based educational games for parents to encourage students to play instead of, say, watching TV, one of my favorite aspects of simple, non-computer based games is that they require us to unplug from technology and learn, connect, and have fun in a simpler and more hands-on way.

There are countless word, letter, number, and problem-solving games that will help students acquire essential academic skills, and I imagine it is a lot easier for parents to get their children to sit down and play a game than to sit down and complete a worksheet. So now that summer is upon us, use the power of games to keep learning over break and all year long!

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