In pre-pandemic times, Linda Biewer-Elstob, a veteran teacher and instructional coach with the Davis Joint Unified School District, wore many hats as a math, writing and history-social science coach. Over the past ten months, she has taken on so many roles that it’s hard to even name them, though we’ll try: Ethnic Studies Task Force Leader, professional development provider, curriculum creator, lesson study facilitator, fellow with the California Global Studies Project, and co-leader of the CHSSP 5th Grade Group. Her thirty years of experience in education (more than twenty of which she spent as a 5th/6th grade teacher) have given her the know-how to quickly connect with teachers. Given the very real challenges of teaching in a pandemic - particularly for longtime teachers who are not digital natives, - Biewer-Elstob is leveraging her experience and expertise to help other teachers. Hoping to be regarded as “a thought partner, collaborator, co-planner, and definitely not an evaluator,” Biewer-Elstob is working right alongside teachers as they learn to navigate their new professional roles.
A leader in a district that has fully-remote instruction right now, Biewer-Elstob advocates building relationships within the virtual classroom as a primary goal. To do this, she helps teachers design “responsive classrooms” that provide students with thirty minutes of Social and Emotional Learning each day. Classroom routines like morning meetings, she explains, can help “all students feel visible, heard, safe, and cared about, so that learning will happen.” Her version of the 5C’s are integral for learning and engagement: a caring community sparks kids’ curiosity and allows for creativity, choice, and collaboration.
Biewer-Elstob also help teachers make choices about coverage with an eye towards equity in remote learning. She encourages history teachers to create opportunities for students to see themselves in the material they learn about; making connections between themselves and the past fosters student curiosity in important ways. This fall, a small group of fourth-grade teachers sought her guidance about practical strategies and course planning with remote instruction. She encouraged them to make instructional choices that focused on depth over breadth. Collaborating with teachers to design schedules that work for their own contexts, Biewer-Elstob encourages a balance of synchronous and asynchronous work time, and suggests small group support that oftentimes include activities like book groups.
“Preparing students to be civically responsible as they leave school and join a global society” is what drives Biewer-Elstob in so many of her roles. As a fellow with the CGEP, Biewer-Elstob works to promote global competency in curriculum and workshops. The Global Exchange Program (Empatico), or the Global Book Bag, in which teachers receive and utilize picture books to launch lessons about significant topics, is a favorite way of hers to do this. For example, Water Princess by Susan Verde, an author who grew up in Burkina Faso, wrote a story book about how a young child works to bring water to her community. As Biewer-Elstob explained, Water Princess “is really about the scarcity of water, how to treat precious resources, and how children can help their communities as activists.” Books like this can be springboards to broader pieces of curriculum that “help students go out into the world to make change,” Biewer-Elstob hopes.
As Biewer-Elstob aims to integrate global competency and civic engagement into classrooms, she’s very much “a teacher’s teacher,” Kate Bowen, veteran CHSSP teacher leader and a longtime colleague of her explained. To Bowen, this means that Biewer-Elstob is pragmatic, clear, and focused on making content and pedagogy concrete and student friendly. Asked about her go-to strategies for virtual learning, she rattles off activities like virtual gallery walks, close analyses of pictures (in which the teacher divides a picture into quadrants to have students analyze), and Jamboards. One Jamboard activity in particular that Biewer-Elstob and Bowen recently shared with their 5th Grade Group asks students to do a close read of a 17th-century newspaper rewards advertisement for an enslaved person who had escaped from bondage. The Jamboard allows students to work in groups and mark the text, while an accompanying matrix leads students to distill and synthesize essential information. But ever the teacher’s teacher, Biewer-Elstob is the first to remind us of the importance of keeping it simple, but meaningful. “Don’t feel like you have to learn everything,” she explained, “If you like Padlet, use that for a few weeks, then move to Jamboard, or Nearpod. Find something that works, use it, and then change it up only when you’re ready.” Biewer-Elstob suggests that educators, who are all novice teachers in remote classrooms, should not need to learn everything to do their jobs well. Giving teachers the freedom to connect with their students and make meaning in their classrooms is what should drive so many educational choices.