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While education is always evolving, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought extraordinary disruption to the field. It called for a rapid pivot to different approaches to teaching and learning, creating challenges for the academic community and students alike.

But these dramatic shifts provide a renewed focus on educational priorities and an opportunity to take a fresh look at what is possible, according to members of the Fordham Graduate School of Education community. To meet the demands of a quickly changing landscape, they point to transformative work being done to reimagine higher education, deliver teaching in new ways, focus on student outcomes, and create community partnerships.

“We had to quickly move to emergency response teaching,” said Margaret Terry Orr, Ph.D., associate professor of educational leadership, administration and policy, during a recent discussion with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “This meant immediately transitioning to an all-remote learning platform, which we quickly learned provided opportunities for creativity. New constructs opened possibilities to working differently.”

“My advice for higher education is to … really learn how to put our students’ districts and those we work with at the center of the coursework,” she continued. “Our students are mid-career professionals working on very complex situations and problems and have the opportunity to be innovative. We need to use our coursework to frame this and investigate it together, putting theory into practice.”

Delivering Educational Excellence in New Ways

The pandemic has demanded a sudden change to the ways that students learn and professors teach. Digital pedagogy tools have expanded beyond Zoom and videoconferencing into a broader structure of educational technology, embracing a much larger audience and far greater participation than what is always possible with in-person learning. 

In her August message to the GSE community, Interim Dean Akane Zusho shared that faculty members have worked tirelessly to ensure that GSE students continue to receive a high-quality and transformative Jesuit education by finding ways to incorporate best practices in inclusive, equitable online instruction into their courses. She reports that faculty members have also written articles and grant proposals on ways to support schools and communities in the face of both the pandemic and systemic racism.

Among the keys to supporting the faculty’s work in this situation are the resources and strategies provided by GSE Director of Online Learning Rachel Um and GSE Assistant Director of Online Learning Veronica Szcyzgiel. The online team greatly increased remote teaching resources and information for faculty via weekly newsletters beginning in March and by creating a GSE Online Course Continuity Support Page, which hosts webinar recordings, links to resources, contact information, and newsletters. They also offer small group and individual instruction to support faculty learning how to use online tools, including multimedia teaching tools like Perusall and VoiceThread, library services and course reserves, and Zoom.

“[We] are here to support [the faculty]who are delivering online teaching, by providing them with best practices and helpful tips for both asynchronous and synchronous instruction,” Um said. “We have worked tirelessly to understand the types of courses faculty are teaching, assess comfort and confidence levels with using online tools, and provide workshops, resources, and coaching tailored to individual needs.”

Individual faculty members, too, have successfully adapted and shared insights with their colleagues. Su-Je Cho, Ph.D., professor of childhood special education and chair of the childhood special education program at GSE, said she recently gave advice to 50 GSE students who will be teaching students with disabilities in a hybrid classroom. Special education teachers were already facing unique challenges with their students.

“Many children with disabilities have behavioral issues, and it’s difficult to keep them all focused in the same room—and even harder from behind a computer screen,” said Cho. She added, “Keeping them all online and teaching them together remotely [as a class]—that’s not even possible.” Cho’s advice? “Tutor each individual student twenty or thirty minutes at a time online.”

Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, Ed.D., assistant professor in the educational leadership, administration, and policy division, agreed that educators need to maximize their limited in-person time with students. “While covering content and meeting grade level expectations is very important, I think that it’s imperative for educators to make time for students to process their experiences,” Stosich said. “Children of all ages are grappling with not only the challenges presented by the pandemic and fears for their parents’ livelihoods, but also concerns about racial injustice. It’s important for educators to not sweep anything under the rug, but to really create an open space for dialogue.”

A Broader Focus on Outcomes and Transformation

The impact of higher education on each student is not only intellectual, but also psychological, emotional, and spiritual. These impacts are less measurable, but no less important.

Building the less measurable experiences, even online, requires a sharper focus on students and their needs. According to Zusho, GSE faculty members are actively attending to issues of access and bias when considering course content and delivery. Zusho emphasized that “in service of others” is more than a motto. As an example, she said, “We have provided several webinars a week for teachers, parents, and other school community members on issues of well-being and anti-racism.”

She also noted that students and faculty have organized town halls to share very personal stories about microaggressions that they have suffered or witnessed in the halls of GSE. New initiatives have been added this fall that will strengthen GSE’s anti-racist and online pedagogies, enhance student governance, and help the whole community heal and grow. More broadly, Zusho has personally pledged “to investigate and address the structural inequities that have disadvantaged some and advantaged others in our school, and to foster an environment where we all feel like we have the agency to make a difference with and for each other.”

During a recent panel discussion titled “Re-imagining Schooling in the Wake of COVID-19: How Can we Make our Online Schools Anti-racist?” co-moderators Jane Bolgatz, Ph.D., interim associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor of curriculum and teaching at GSE, and Clarence Ball, lecturer and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business, spoke to panelists about how to address those structural inequities specifically as they relate to remote learning. Among the themes that panelists came back to were flexibility around student deadlines and expectations, and frequent communication with families about their needs.

One of the panelists, Soto Kingsley, who teaches at KIPP All Middle School in the Bronx, said that the school has done surveys and formed working groups to help families raise issues and get what they need.

“The number one thing that we want to do is just stay in touch and ask them how they’re doing,” Kingsley said.

Sharing Innovations and Creating Community Partnerships

While honing students’ academic skills in a mostly distance learning environment, GSE is still encouraging them to become agents of change in their communities, especially in the community of New York City.

One of the biggest portions of GSE’s community outreach in New York City comes from its Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP), directed by associate dean Anita Vazquez Batisti, Ph.D. The center is composed of a group of scholars and practitioners committed to applying cutting-edge research in the service to K–12 teachers, administrators, students, and parents, as well as to sharing it with education and government agencies to enable all children to achieve and succeed academically.

In the current environment, Batisti notes it is important to include social-emotional elements during virtual, blended, and in-person learning models being implemented during the pandemic. Doing so, she says, will help to reduce the stress that teachers, students, and parents are experiencing. The center’s three technical assistance centers, funded by the New York State Education Department, have been providing webinars and Zoom sessions featuring certified psychologists, bilingual counselors, and social workers who assist school staff and families with the mental health aspects of remote learning and the pandemic.

Batisti has also worked with Jill Thompson, associate partner with Education Elements, to develop tips for engaging with parents remotely, including using every contact with parents as an opportunity for engagement, using social-emotional strategies to help reduce stress, and connecting families to psychologists, counselors, and social workers.

Individual professors, too, look for partnership opportunities. Annie George-Puskar, Ph.D., GSE assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, notes that Fordham’s location in New York City “provides us access to an incredible network of early childhood intervention professionals and thought leaders—at both the state and city level.” George-Puskar is connected with the New York City Early Childhood Research Network through the Foundation for Child Development and has received an Early Career Scholars grant to support her research on transitions for children entering the Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) system.

Another unique partnership has developed between GSE and Icahn Charter Schools, allowing undergraduate and graduate math and science students who are working to obtain Transitional B Teaching Certificates to play a key role as teachers in four Bronx schools. Transitional B certificates permit employment of an individual as a classroom teacher in a New York state public school for up to three years and lead to an initial teaching certificate.

Four Fordham students in the program conducted remote-based student teaching at Icahn schools beginning in March. Their student teaching and training courses were overseen by field supervisor Anthony Cavanna, Ed.D., with critical support from Karen Andronico, Ed.D., director of field-based education and accountability; John Craven, Ph.D., associate professor of education; Alesia Moldavan, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics education, and Arlene Moliterno, Ph.D., clinical professor of education. As of September 2020, the student teachers became teachers of record.

According to Cavanna, “This is a unique program—ideal for students who may not have necessarily thought they would become teachers, but are interested in considering it as a career option.” He added, “The partnership with Icahn Charter Schools is a fantastic opportunity to provide New York City students with high quality mathematics and science teachers.” He noted that this partnership is even more beneficial because “the skill and familiarity that these students have with online teaching methods make them particularly well-suited to delivering instruction during this time.”

By delivering on academic excellence in new ways, creating a broader focus on educational outcomes and transformation, and sharing innovations by creating community partnerships, GSE has been able to embrace the new normal in education in a very powerful way. Interim Dean Zusho recently shared her thoughts with the GSE family: “I remain optimistic and I couldn’t be prouder of our community. If close to twenty years of teaching in education have taught me anything, it is that we educators, counselors, and psychologists are a resilient and innovative group, and I know that our bold reaction to the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism will change our future for the better.”


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