Addressing Learning Loss

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Episode 59: Addressing Learning Loss

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

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Show Notes

Angela Burley

Since the pandemic began, the phrase “learning loss” has become a frequently used term in the education field. What kind of “learning loss” are teachers actually seeing in their classrooms and how are they working to address it? Angela Burley, sixth grade social studies teacher and a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow, joins the show to share her perspective on the issue.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, I'm Helen Westmoreland flying solo today while LaWanda spends some much deserved vacation time with her family. You are listening to our new miniseries, Teacher Talk. This season we are giving teachers the mic. We want to know what makes them so passionate about their work in the classroom and learn their thoughts on key education issues.

Today, we're talking about the impact of COVID-19 and the hotly contested phrase, learning loss. What are teachers seeing behind the scenes to help us parents understand what we can do to help our kids catch up or keep up? So I am excited to introduce to you today, Ms. Angela Burley. Angela Burley teaches sixth grade world cultures at Sarah Zumwalt Middle in Dallas, Texas, where she's also the sixth grade department chair and social studies lead. Angela is also a distinguished teacher in the Dallas Independent School District, a state of Texas master teacher and a 2021-22 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow. Welcome to the show, Angela.

Angela Burley: Thank you so much for having me.

Helen Westmoreland: We are so excited to have you here today. So we like to start off with our guests, just learning a little bit about your background. And so I am curious, Ms. Burley, what made you want to go into the classroom and become a teacher?

Angela Burley: It's so funny because I have a twin sister and then we have a little sister who's 11 years younger than us, so we were her mothers. We bathed her. I mean, you know, my mom wanted to teach us responsibility. So growing up, I'm not a kid type person. People have babies and they bring them into the room and, oh, let me hold a baby, I'm not that type of person. I never really have been. So I really wasn't interested in being around kids. It was not my desire. I went to school. I didn't think I liked kids. I really did not think I liked kids.

So I married a youth minister. My first husband was a youth minister, and he dealt with the youth teenagers thought that was great. They needed a Sunday school teacher and I became a kindergarten Sunday school teacher. And I was in retail management. And I'm telling you, I spent more time preparing that, those kindergarten lessons for my Sunday school class, than I spent on anything. And I loved it. I loved the interaction with the kids. I love seeing their eyes light up. and I decided to become alternatively certified. And that's exactly how I became a Sunday school teacher, fell in love and I've been teaching and that was in 2000. It is 2022, I have been teaching ever since.

Helen Westmoreland: Wow. That's incredible, what a story. So in those 22 years, you've probably seen a lot the same and also a lot change. I'm curious, particularly honing in on the past couple of years, from your perspective as an educator, what have you seen behind the scenes going on with learning? How would you characterize some of the successes and challenges of the past couple of years?

Angela Burley: Well over 20 years, I'll start with the successes. We always say we should sandwich so we start with the good, bad, and we end with, so I'll start with some of the successes. I love the technologies that are available. I started with the overhead projector and the ditto machine. The purple machine that you used it and the overhead projector, no computer. I mean, we had computers, but we didn't use them the way we use them now. No learning management systems. No computers in the classroom at all. And if we did, it was the play, oh, what was it? Carmen, San Diego, I think with the compact disc.

Helen Westmoreland: Or Oregon Trail.

Angela Burley: So, I love the fact that we move forward, as far as technology is concerned. I love the movement towards equity and inclusion and cultural diversity, because I can tell you growing up in North Texas. Like I said, I have a twin sister and I was on a military base, as a matter of fact. And my parents every year, “how many black kids are in your room? How many black students?” My parents would always ask because number one, they would never put my sister and I in the same room.

So I'd always be one or two. And I experienced a lot, I didn't have a really good experience growing up through the education system. I can say, I can name probably five teachers that I model myself after, but I could probably name 15 that I wouldn't, and as far as seeing teacher of color, that looks like me, in all of my 12, well, actually 13 years, cause I did kindergarten, I think I had 3. So I love the diversity. I love the focus on cultural relevance and inclusion. I love that. But some of the problems I have to say is that it's testing and this machine of standards and accountability. Do we need standards and accountability? Absolutely.

But we have become, it has become a testing culture. And I can say, as a, I started off as a fourth grade English language arts and social studies teacher. We focused on it, but I could teach, now it's to the point where you can't teach. If you're teaching in a low performing campus where I am, everything is about that test. So I would say that's probably the problems.

Helen Westmoreland: Let's pick up on that, because I think now, we're all seeing headlines about kids are so far behind and like, what are we going to do to catch them up? And the gaps are greater. Honing in on that test piece for a minute, understanding the challenges of it. When we hear learning loss, like what does that mean to you in terms of what you see in your classroom every day?

Angela Burley: I do think there is a lot of learning loss. I experienced it this year being a sixth-grade teacher. The students who came to me this year were really technically third graders or like first semester fourth graders, because they had not been in a classroom for like a year and a half. So there was a lot of learning loss, because there's a lot of learning that takes place between the grades third grade and by the time they get into middle school. So we had students who didn't have basic skills, like who don't know how to look things up in a dictionary, because if you're learning online, you just Google it.

But when they come back into the classroom, we do some glossary work or we teach them how to use their context clues. And this is just one thing that I can point out that I was surprised, I had the students. Students you don't know where that is okay, look in the index to find where it is in the textbook. They did not know what I was talking about. And at first, I'm like, y'all are in the sixth grade and you don't know, but then I remembered, I said you probably haven't had a book in front of you for two years.

So yes, there, there is some learning loss, and I think that as a teacher, we have to recognize it and then we have to find ways to get kids where they need to be. Once we see it, we need to deal with it. And, and that is something that I've had to do this year, rather than getting frustrated or feeling like, you know, these kids aren't what's going on with these kids. Oh, y'all, you know, you don't remember anything or like it's the child's fault. It's not. They they've missed a lot of opportunities. This last couple of years.

Helen Westmoreland: So, given what you're seeing, you started to enter this a little bit before, but like what, how do you address some of those gaps in your classroom? Is it totally different than before? And you're needing a whole lot of new supports and skill sets or are you sort of leaning into what you've always known as a teacher?

How are you addressing these big gaps you're seeing in your classroom?

Angela Burley: Well, I would love to have more support. I am advocating for it. In an ideal world, I would love for our students to be able to have like a virtual academy in the evenings. We have technology now on our campus. We didn't have one-to-one technology before COVID. We are a low performing impoverished community, but when COVID-19 came, the district made sure that every classroom was one-to-one. But now we’re one-to-one, but they don't allow the students to take the technology home. I would love it if we could provide technology that could be taken home, so that we could continue to work on those gaps. And of course, we don't do that by just creating a night school, because, no kid is going to want to come to that. This is something that I wrote about. It's like, yes, we need to use this technology. Yes, we need to have virtual tutoring like afterschool or, at non-conventional times, but it has to be engaging, it has to be communal, as in, we're not just sitting here talking about ABCs and 1, 2, 3. Let's do culture building. Let's do some relationship building, a little SEL. I don't like to say SEL, because that's the tag word, but good teachers should be and have been providing social, emotional learning, since the beginning. And we definitely need to lean into it more now. And also the final component besides engaging lessons in a communal environment, is that we've got to have parental communication and connection. And as I said, I teach in a turnaround school. And so I understand that my parents work at night.

I understand that my parents may not be in the position to provide support, or my parents might be grandparents or great-grandparents. But one thing I have learned is that my parents love it when I communicate with them. Many of my parents, I just text, I send a text. I let them know, you know, Hey, this is what's going on, this is their grades. Tutoring is this day, is it okay if they stay? Sometimes they can stay, sometimes they can't. So if we use the virtual technology, where kid is at home, a kid can be there with their little brother, little sister, their little brother and little sister can join in on some of the activities.

It's so funny during COVID-19, we had virtual school. We had just a handful of kids that actually came to the campus. I had like 25, but most of the students were at home. I had tutoring and the teachers, we could not figure out how to do tutoring. We couldn't get kids to come to tutoring, so we started playing games and, at nighttime on Zoom, well, we had a name for it, and I had a grandmother that regularly came and she sat and she played, she answered questions and I'd have to be like, okay, grandma, this is for the kid. She was invested in that activity. She wanted to participate and everything. That's how we can tackle this learning loss.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Well, and you hit on this a little bit earlier, I'm wondering if you could talk a little more about it. I'm imagining that the learning loss hasn't been the same for everyone that some kids are probably coming in further behind because of the circumstances, of their virtual learning experience. So how do you sort of address those different student? Like where they are and abilities, like, give us as parents, a little behind the scenes look of, like, when you're sort of thinking about your, I guess hundreds you've probably got?

Angela Burley: I have 120, all of sixth grade.

Helen Westmoreland: How do you think about how do you educate the kids coming in with so many different abilities, because of the past couple of years? Like where some of those learning loss have been exacerbated.

Angela Burley: Yes. Well, I mean, I'm using as many techniques as I know how to use. A lot of visuals. I do use a learning management system so that the students can work in the classroom or out of the classroom. Unfortunately, I teach a subject where I only see the kids every other day, I have 90 minutes, but our campus is what is called double blocked for math and reading. So the students go to math and reading every single day. They see me every other day. And so some students see me three times a week. Some students see me two times a week. So, I have to do things like, oh gosh, this is so funny because we just had a big debate, at our school just.

Helen Westmoreland: Let us in. Let us in. What was the debate?

Angela Burley: Well, I'm working on a joy project with the black teacher project, because, because I teach at a low it's called an ACE campus. It's a low performing campus, impoverished. One thing I realize is missing is joy, because when you're in a school that's low performing and you have to meet the standard, you do this, or you do that. They test every Thursday and they power DOL. And they, and so when they come to my room, although my curriculum is not state tested. I do have ACPs. I teach world cultures, so when they come to me, we do everything. We talk about the geography. So we go outside and we create relief maps. When we talk about politics and government, they know all about what's going on in Ukraine.

Every time we talk about a different nation, we talk about the different types of government, we bring in, Ukraine. We are in Southeast Asia. So we learned to eat with chopsticks, because in east Asia they have chopsticks, because it's more energy efficient. We turned, we talked about the history of chopsticks. They made egg rolls, they, and so we did a joint survey and the math and reading teachers were like, well, Ms. Burley, of course they love your class, because they get to eat and do all these things in your class. And I'm like, you teach math, you can do the same thing. They could do a recipe and cut it in half. And you're, you're working on fractions. You can deal with money. You can literally bring stacks of money up here, let them count and figure out, you know, do an algebraic problem.

What do I need in order to make this type of money? I mean, there's so many things they can do. The answer to your question is because I have so little time with the kids. I make the lessons as engaging as possible, as joyful as possible, in order to be as impactful as possible.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, I like that. You know, it strikes me too, even as you're describing the joy work that like, when you ask parents, like how do you know if your kid is doing well in school? Research is pretty clear, what parents say is like, they're happy. We want our kids to be happy. If they're happy at school, we know something big is going right, right.

Angela Burley: Exactly. Exactly. And they deserve it. All our kids deserve joy, you know, my daughter. As an educator, I have put a lot of energy into where she goes to school and where her opportunities are. And I'm blessed to be able to do that, but, but some parents, as much as they, they have to send their students to the school that is in their community. I believe that all students deserve to have joy and experiences and come home and tell their parents, we did this today or we went here, even if it's just a virtual trip.

Helen Westmoreland: So what's your advice to parents as you're sort of navigating this year and kids being far behind, in many cases, but, but wanting to bring them joy. You mentioned texting with your parents? Like, what are some of the key messages that you're sharing with your families are questions you're asking families right now to help you guys make a plan to support our kids together?

Angela Burley: Well for me, and this is something that I'm super passionate about. I tell my parents, read to them every day, read with them every day. I have students who don't read well. I only have about one or two students that cannot read, most of my students. I'd probably say about 30% of my students do not read well. They are reading below grade level. However, they do have the the phonetic background. So what I'll do is, you have to differentiate. I have a group of kids that are working on this activity. I take three or four outside and we just work on reading one paragraph, just one. And it might take 20 minutes, but we read at least one paragraph for me to show them, you can do it, number one, and you can glean information from this text, number two.

It's an exercise. I do try and to take students from dependent learners to independent. So, what I tell my parents is that they have to, they need to read, anything. Let them read anything. They need to read 15 minutes a day, because they are not going to be able to pass a math test or reading test. They're not going to be able to pass life's test, because for me, that's what it's about. If they don't have good comprehension skills, So as a social studies teacher and I am a reading teacher, a social studies teacher is a reading teacher. A science teacher is a math teacher. Every teachers are reading teacher really, to be honest. That is really what I would say. I mean, sometimes the gaps are just so big. They really are so big. That is where you get your biggest bang for your buck.

Helen Westmoreland: So that's very good advice. I am like thinking to myself, I got a little one mine is almost four at home, but we read every night, we read it together. I do think as parents, we hear those messages. So thank you for continuing to send them. You mentioned a couple of things earlier, I want to pick up on, because you're talking about what you're doing in the classroom, to scaffold, support our kids, what parents could do at home. You're also a Teach Plus Policy Fellow. And what we like to do is also give parents some advocacy tips, like what are some things they should be curious about, right? Or asking about right now?

What are some of the things you're learning about from a policy perspective and that you're seeing play out directly in your classroom that you want our listeners to know a little more about?

Angela Burley: Well, thank you. There's a number of things, but one, I would really push parents to ask about what is their district doing with the ESSER funds?

Helen Westmoreland: E S S E R, the ESSER fund.

Angela Burley: Yes. Yes, yes. ESSER funds

Helen Westmoreland: Everybody in your school district will know what that is.

Angela Burley: Exactly. Just say ESSER funds, they'll be like, oh, this parent knows something. It's COVID relief. It's money that has been given to the district to provide high impact tutoring and high impact tutoring is like not just two words put together. It means something like there's some criteria that go with high-impact tutoring. I know in the state of Texas, on the Texas Education Agency website, it defines what high impact tutoring is. Schools have received these funds for the last two years. And how is your district, how are they using the funds? I know that in my district, they are receiving the funds. I don't believe it's being used successfully. As a Teach Plus Fellow, I did a little survey.

But as a Fellow, I have access to teachers across the state of Texas and 15 school districts. I asked teachers, is there a tutoring plan? Is there a plan for students who have been absent due to COVID and is it being faithfully implemented out of 15 schools, only one.

Oh, one school, shout out to Welasco ISD near the border. Those people, they're like we have a teacher, they have it set up. They have a teacher designated on the campus to tutor directly with kids who are on quarantine or who have been in quarantine to work, to catch them up. Well, I wrote an article about absenteeism and I talked about this student of mine and I called him, Brian, that's not his name, but I call him, Brian, love him to death. He's one of my developmental readers, lots of energy, but I mean, gives the greatest hugs. I love that little boy.

And, the new year came. I'm like, I have not seen Brian, I haven't seen, where's Brian. The middle of January, I think it was like the 17th, 18th. It was after Martin Luther king holiday. He is finally shows up for the first time in 2022. Brian, where if you been, “oh, I had COVID and then my sister had it, so I had to stay with them and I had,” and he's just behind. He's missed like three weeks’ worth of work. So we're not doing anything, not on my campus, and of the Dallas ISD teachers that I that completed the survey, not on their campus. And I'm talking about Houston ISD, Fort Worth ISD. These are big cities in Texas. if you're not from Texas. Of the cross-section of teachers, nobody is, has a plan. So there is money but we’re not using it.

Helen Westmoreland: There's money. It sounds like part of it is just that there should be a plan. If there are disruptions in learning, right? We are living in a world now where you might have to quarantine for a couple of weeks. The school might randomly be closed for a couple of weeks. How does learning continue despite that disruption? That's a question parents should be asking too.

Angela Burley: Absolutely, and I know that there are organizations and I know that the district was working according to the Dallas morning news was working to hire tutors to come in and be a part of this funding. And I know that teachers are being, I know on my campus teachers are being offered $50 an hour to stay. But we would have to stay until like, almost like 6:30. And so a lot of teachers don't take advantage of that because, now that the sun is out, but it would be dark by five.

Helen Westmoreland: It's a long day for teachers and kids.

Angela Burley: Exactly. So I'm like, why don't we use those funds for technology. I can go home and cook dinner and then meet my kids at 6:30-7:30, and we have a little community and they're at home. I'm at home. We have the technology for that now, but there was a study that I read because a lot of people say, and it's true that online learning is not an effective way

Helen Westmoreland: a replacement, right?

Angela Burley: It is not absolutely not, but it's still a tool that can be used if used correctly. Those three strategies I had said about engagement, you can't just go on and get on virtual learning and teach the same way you teach in a classroom. Create a community and you got to have parent involvement. There was an article that talked about how successful online learning can be for students when parents are involved.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Yeah. I believe it. Angela, I could just talk to you all day. Thank you so much for all this great advice. We've talked a lot about challenges and learning loss. Before we go, what is one thing that parents can start doing right now? Cause we're going to be releasing this episode in May teacher appreciation week, so what is something parents can be doing right now? Looking ahead to the summer, to support their kids.

Angela Burley: I think number one is read. I'm a big proponent of reading. That's number one, number two, I have to think through the lens of the students that I teach, because I've always taught in a community where I felt like I was needed. That has been my mission, I became a teacher through a ministry and I believe that teaching is a ministry. And so, for my students, I believe that we have to give kids learning opportunities in the summer. There is so much learning loss in the summer. We talk about learning loss, because of COVID.

Well, we've always had to deal with learning loss, during what we call, summer vacation. Now, some kids are blessed to have opportunities where they go on vacations, in the summer. They go out of the country to camps, enrichment. But if you're in a predicament where you don't have that, I would say talk to your, talk to your teachers.

Helen Westmoreland: Is this another ESSER fund question like summer programming?

Angela Burley: Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I know that there's summer program and summer funding for that. So that's why parents who don't know, please talk with your campus, please talk with the counselors or talk with a good teacher, because they can direct you to where your child doesn't have to lose learning and also I would say, and this is just personal. Don't put your kids in math testing camp, STAAR camps, standardized testing flavored camps. They need to be outside figuring out the how a rocket works, or they need to be writing poetry or creating art. Their mind needs to be growing. They don't need to be turned off to education. So parents, whatever, whatever demographic look for an educational opportunity that is joyful, that brings them happiness.

Helen Westmoreland: I like that.

Angela Burley: And read, and read books they love and let them read, they let them read as much as they struggle, let them read.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's wonderful advice. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Angela.

Angela Burley: Thank you. I appreciate the platform. I love your questions. Thank you for this.

Helen Westmoreland: Before we go, we've touched on a lot of topics and including learning loss. Are there any resources that you recommend to parents or that if they want to dive into this topic a little more, you'd encourage them to check out or your own Twitter, this is your plugging opportunity, so.

Angela Burley: I wish I had something to plug. I'd say if I want to plug anything, I want to plug bookstores. And your public libraries. Like, let them go to story time and, sit in the half price books or the Barnes and Nobles or whatever, and don't buy a thing, just sit around and look at books and read, because that's what gets kids excited about learning. You just want them to be excited.

Helen Westmoreland: Yes, of course, of course. So thank you again and to our listeners, thank you for joining us as well. Learn more about this episode and more at