Checking In: a conversation with Breck Foster
As part of a new series called Checking In, the Review spoke with Breck Foster — a teacher at Lake Oswego High School and advisor of the LOHS Green Team. She talked about the challenges and silver linings of distance learning, the LOHS Green Team and the parallel of the current crisis to the climate crisis.
Parts of this conversation have been edited for clarity.
Coming from the perspective of a teacher and parent of a high schooler, what are some observations or insights you have about distance learning since you get to see it from multiple angles?
On the positive side, digital learning has been an opportunity to do things differently — to shake us out of our routine. And I think students and teachers have benefited from working at our own pace and setting our own schedule. I think that I've enjoyed accessing guest speakers and materials that have been creatively provided by outside sources — organizations, newspapers, guest speakers and materials that we could use for remote learning — that I otherwise probably would not have tapped into. And then also just collaborating in new ways with colleagues and students. (Distance learning has) required an extra level of communication with colleagues and also with students. On the downside, I think it can feel isolating at times. And I think some students have struggled to stay engaged. As teachers, we're trying to figure out how to best connect with students, especially in light of the fact that this is a virus and we can't physically reach out to students.
You mentioned some fun guest speakers. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah. So, for example, this Friday, we're having a guest speaker from an organization in Israel that does cultural outreach. And so in my freshman history class, we're studying the formation of Israel, and the conflict between Palestine and Israel. This person, who was going to come into my classroom originally — the physical building — decided that he could provide this opportunity remotely. He's gonna have a one hour Hangout with my class and talk about the formation of Israel and current conflicts and regional issues. I'm hoping that's just one example. I'm hoping that we can see this as an opportunity in the future. It could be just as powerful to have a speaker in your virtual room remotely. I've posted links for students to some Zoom webinars where New York Times climate change reporters and photographers and others have basically talked about their work and it feels like they're right in your living room. So I think that's also been powerful for students.
What grade levels do you teach and have you seen some grade levels respond differently to distance learning than others?
Those who were engaged before continue to work with the same rigor and academic integrity. Students who were less motivated continue to be less motivated, and because we have to limit the amount of work we give students I try to really pare it down to the most essential learning and look for meaningful engagement but just on a really small scale, and I find that most kids are successful in doing that. Some invest more time than others, I think. And again, there's a lot of reasons why certain kids are not investing as much time and some of that is problems pertaining to the pandemic. But I think also some of it is just, you know, personal motivation. I would say generally, they are responding to the same kind of carrots and sticks. For example, if we do an assignment where other students can see their response, that tends to motivate students because they know they're going to be viewed by their peers. The most exaggerated difference, of course, would be with the seniors. And I did think it was disappointing that seniors were pretty much told they were done before digital learning even really started. I understand that. But I do see like in California, they have continued to engage with seniors. So I think we could have maybe done that differently in Oregon. I think we all have to take that philosophy that we know people are making really tough decisions higher up at the state level, at the national level. And so sort of trying to roll with it and understand that it's bigger than us.
You're the LOHS Green Team advisor and the Green Team was really active before all this happened. I know they had plans to do more in the spring. What have conversations with the Green Team been like? How are they doing?
We have had a couple of lunchtime meetings to commiserate that we were disappointed. We had planned to have an Earth Day celebration where we tried to lower our carbon footprint by encouraging people to carpool and bus or bike to school, among other things, so that was sort of just a collective sigh and sharing of disappointments. But I think one thing that is exciting is that we've been advocating this year to have sustainability be part of our district's five-year strategic plan. And just yesterday, we did get an invitation from the superintendent soliciting the Green Team student input. That was really exciting to get that recognition. That's a silver lining for sure. I think this will be a good way of getting the kids focused on something they can do remotely. We have to have elections for next school year and so that's going to also kind of establish a new leadership team and I think that will be another way to get kids focused.
We've all been spending a lot more time at home. What have you been doing when you're not working? Have you picked up any quarantine hobbies?
So, I've been doing a lot of the proverbial smelling of the roses. A lot of just taking walks in my neighborhood, sitting in my yard. I do a lot of watching my family garden because I myself am not a good gardener. But then I really do enjoy cooking. So I've gotten back into a lot of cooking and baking and a lot of listening to books on tape while I'm sitting outside or walking. I want to pick up the hobby of learning the names of trees because I don't know a lot of names of many trees and I just read the book "Overstory" by Richard Powers, and it's all about this theme of trees and how they're like the unsung heroes of our planet. So it's made me hyper aware of looking out at all the trees around us, but not really knowing their names. So that's, that's kind of my future hobby, but I have not officially started it yet.
Do you think this crisis has made people think differently about the climate crisis?
Most people are focused on surviving this pandemic and the economic fallout, but those tuned into climate change concerns do see it as a preview of the kinds of challenges we will face as climate change worsens, and those that see that connection see an opportunity to use this crisis to prepare for the larger one that is looming so that we can get ahead of it and be proactive rather than reacting defensively as we are now.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
I'm hoping that people use this time to kind of reflect on our interconnectedness and how we're facing this big scary thing as climate change and just sort of taking the time right now to think of how something big and scary out there can happen to us and that this is a good opportunity to reflect on our interconnectedness and to prepare and to change course.
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