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Get to the Lake! 6 Things to Keep in Mind as We Approach a Challenging New Year

Kevin Brennan
September 3, 2020

At the beginning of the “Stay-At-Home” order , I wrote an article articulating the things that we are missing by not being in a physical classroom. I expressed the desire to get back to my room as I “missed my classroom”. I still miss it, in large part because I still see the equity that a physical classroom provides over virtual learning. I still hold on to hope everyday that we can find a way to get students into our schools, and get back to the business of educating our youth. In April, I was very optimistic about the idea of returning to physical classrooms  being the reality that we all would be facing as September hit; however, more and more, that reality has slipped away from us. As that reality slipped away, the nation consumed itself in a debate over the “re-opening of schools,” as we had to seriously consider whether schools were safe enough to return to. In this scenario many educators found themselves in a difficult scenario. As I saw it one could either 1) Ball up in the corner and complain about how unhealthy it would be to return to school or 2) Start preparing for every possibility so that our kids can get the best education possible in these extreme times.

In the midst of all of this, my family had been dealing with the limitations of options of things to do this summer. Living in Washington state, the one advantage that we have is the accessibility of the great outdoors. My brother (who lives in Stanwood, on the west side of the mountains) and I decided to have our families meet in Leavenworth (centrally located) to go on a hike. I had chosen the hike based on the numerous pretty pictures on social media of Lake Colchuck. Similar to the transition to remote learning, I thought that I was adequately prepared for the challenge ahead. In both instances, I was sorely mistaken, but in each case I learned how we can be more prepared as we get to fall.

As we traversed up this very challenging hike, the only thing that kept my family going was the idea of getting to this beautiful lake at the top of the trail. The one thing going through my mind continually was “Get to the Lake!”. We didn’t put in all this work to simply quit, walk back down the trail and get in my truck, parked amongst a sea of vehicles at the trailhead. I couldn’t help but think that we will need similar motivation as we navigate our way through the upcoming school year. It will be harder than the spring, the expectations will be higher, and we need to be able to put our heads down, grit our teeth and “Get to the Lake!”

1. You always think you’ve prepped well enough….it’s never the case.

I’ve done hikes. Heck, how can this hike be that much more difficult. It’s walking, right? We’ve got healthy snacks, plenty of water, a couple Gatorades, sandwiches for the top, bug spray, sunscreen… we’ve got this!! This hike was different though. The girls and I had hiked some simpler trails and handled them pretty well. This hike was eight miles round trip, and ultimately takes us up to 5500 feet above sea level. I honestly didn’t look at things like elevation increases compared to our previous hikes. We were prepared for a hike, but not this hike.

Well, I would say that our district felt that way at the beginning of this. As mentioned in my previous article, our district is WAY ahead of the curve in regards to technology. Google Classroom, Google Drive, Flipgrid, etc… we rock! I would say, quite similarly, our school district was ready for blended learning… not remote learning. The pedagogy between the two is quite distinct. As I was talking to Ryan Sagare about my first article, he asked me if I was conducting my class synchronously or asynchronously… I had no idea what he was talking about. I could navigate the technology, but the HOW in remote learning is so much different than a blended learning environment. I could have done so much better.

Did I do some good things remotely for my students? Sure. But man, I know I can do so much better if I prepare myself leading up to the “hike” that we are all facing in the fall. No matter what, it will not be easy, but there are a lot of ways that we can make it easier, for us and the students. We need to be better, we will be better.

The crew starting the hike.
The crew starting the hike.

2. Go ahead, we’ll catch up with you.

We did this hike with my older brother, his wife and three of his four kids. As a collective (as hard as it is for my ego to say this) they were in better shape than myself and my two girls. We were all together for the first mile and half of the hike. At a certain point, I looked at my brother and told him “Go ahead, we’ll catch up with you”…and he did. In fact, they made the summit a good half an hour before we did. But we were still in it together. One of the reasons my girls did not walk back to the car is they knew that the rest of the family was going to be waiting for them at the top.

As we adapt and adjust to our new normal, some kids are going to flourish, and we need to personalize our instruction to allow them to get up to the lake sooner. At the same time, we will have students who are not going to be as prepared, they are going to take a little longer to get up to the lake. We need to be there for them and let them know it’ll be worth it… the lake will be beautiful and your friends will be there too, and the accomplishment will be just the same. We need to find ways to get kids up the trail, and once they feel that sense of accomplishment, let’s try and get them to that next hike (side note, my kids will probably kill me if I try to take them on that hike again. :-)) We can’t give a “one size fits all” approach, we need to be clear in where we want to get to and find different ways for students to get to that ultimate goal. There is so much out there right now in regards to technology, strategies etc. We need to make sure that our most disadvantaged students are not left in the dust. Of all the things that remote learning causes is an ever widening gap between the “haves and have nots.” We need to continue to encourage and let them all know that there is a beautiful lake at the top.

3. “Did you choose this hike?”

At one of our many “rests” along the way, my oldest daughter (who has never had any problem speaking her truth) looked at me and quite bluntly asked “did you choose this hike?” Yes I did. Now, I didn’t realize how hard this hike was going to be for ME, but I had to be real and honest with my kids. Yes, I chose this hike… No,  I did not know it was this hard because …I had never done this before. However, the people coming down kept on telling me how beautiful it was at the top.. let’s get there!

We will have students saying “I don’t learn this way,” “did you choose this?” and we have to be honest and humble with them. We are on this journey together, and once we get to the top, it will be beautiful. We may have to take breaks along the way, and we may have to change our approach, but dang it, we are going to get to that lake! We will have colleagues who will be saying the same thing. We will need to adapt and adjust but we need to continue to push to get to the lake. We made a choice for the sake of the health of those around us, it might be remote, it might be hybrid, we may eventually all be back in school (with plenty of restrictions)… We need to make the best of our choice, find the best strategies, adapt and adjust to make this the best learning environment possible.

One of the many elevation gains on the hike up to Colchuck Lake.
One of the many elevation gains on the hike up to Colchuck Lake.

4. Once you think you reached the summit, look up, there’s more work to do.

Not knowing the terrain of this hike, I kept on telling the girls, “Hey, let’s just get up this ridge, and it’ll get better from there”…man was I full of it. The last two miles leading up to the summit were pretty much straight up. Recurring theme….let’s get to the lake. We kept plowing through, taking more and more breaks as we hit the switchbacks and the ever increasing elevation.

We’re going to hit those same spots come fall. “Getting too comfortable” will not be allowed. Numbers could spike, an outbreak may happen at school….who knows. We, as teachers, need to be the stabilizing force for our students. We need to be prepared for any scenario given to us this fall. We need to be prepared for the fact that we haven’t reached that summit yet, and we need to do more…be better. We need to be prepared for the fact that it won’t be easy, but it will be possible. Our students will get discouraged because they will think that we made it, but we just need to keep pushing them along….”we got to get to that lake”.

5. “You’re almost there, you guys are doing great!”

As we’re about an hour away from the summit, people are heading down the trail. They see our faces, they see the discouragement, and they either a) empathize or b) sympathize. Hiker after hiker proclaimed “you’re almost there, you guys are doing great!”

We will need this as we are venturing into the wilderness of remote learning, hybrid learning or both. Some of us will be way ahead of the curve, innovating, branching out, etc. As we figure it out, we need to encourage others “You’re almost there, you guys are doing great!” My kids and I would often ask, “How much longer?” and that will happen with all of us on the journey. We got  a straight answer from those coming down and that’s what we need to do with each other. We need to encourage, empower, cheerlead, but also be real. This is going to take hard work, adjustments and adaptations.

Colchuck Lake.
Colchuck Lake.

6. Roots and rocks on the way down

So we made it to the top. We saw the lake… it was beautiful. Now it’s time to traverse back down the trail. All of a sudden the hike that took three hours on the way up is practically cut in half. Awesome! However, there are now all these tree roots and rocks I didn’t notice on the way up. Different muscles are having to do work on the way down that I didn’t use on the way up. This time around the kids are flying down the hill, and the adults are plodding along in the back. My heart is not pounding out of my chest, but my feet are screaming at me.

When we start transitioning to full time in person school, there will be new obstacles and adjustments that we didn’t experience on the “way up.” Kids will be running into the schools and we will need to make sure that we’re navigating the “roots and rocks.” We will have acclimated to remote learning or hybrid and now we will have to transition ourselves and our students to classroom norms, routines, etc. We will be “sprinting to the truck” but we have to remember that it will not be an easy transition.

Just as we were exhausted at the end of this hike, we will be exhausted at the end of this school year. It may be the hardest thing that we’ve ever experienced. We need to train ourselves, branch out, prepare for all possible scenarios. Remote learning IS different, but we can do a lot to ensure that we get the best out the scenario. I want to be back in my classroom with all my students. We all  want to be there… but we have the time to prepare for the “hike” that is remote learning. Unlike my kids and I with our hike to Colchuck Lake, we will most likely have to do it again. We had our practice run in the spring, now it’s time to train. Our kids deserve that from us. Do I still miss my classroom? Absolutely. But in the meantime, let’s make the best of what we got.

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Kevin Brennan
I come from a family of 7 kids, but the first to go through one school system, which happens to be the same district I work for now as a High School Social Studies teacher at West Valley High School. I’ve been working there for the last 18 years, I am currently the department chair, I have my Master’s Degree in History from Central Washington University and teach Civics, AP/CHS American Government and Politics, CHS United States History and American Studies. I also have coached Football, Track, and Basketball. My wife Tori and I have been married for 21 years and have 2 daughters Tai and Marli.

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