Are you ok? Like most greetings these days, our conversation with Michelle Berman begins with the question: How are you? “In a word, tired!” she answers with a laugh, “But, thank you for asking.”
It’s a lot to ask teachers to do what they do today – keeping kids safe, adapting lessons to hybrid and remote learning, mastering the ins, outs and new apps of online instruction, building the connections needed to keep students curious, engaged and learning, meeting with parents worried about how their kids are doing and what they’re missing.
“We do what we can,” Michelle says, “And I love what I do. But right now, teachers are on the frontline, putting our health at risk giving our lives to the education of our children.”
“I could talk about education all day,” Michelle says in conclusion to our two-hour ZOOM interview. But it’s almost noon as she ZOOMS off – from her classroom to homelife, from her students to her husband, Michael, and sons, Jesse and Dylan, giving everyone her all, the boundaries tend to blur.
Portrait of an Essential Teacher: A Conversation with Michelle Berman
On Family Life in the Time of COVID
myJewishDetroit: Please give us a snapshot of your family.
I was born and raised in West Bloomfield, attended West Bloomfield Schools, and beyond my college education at Michigan State University, I’ve lived and worked in West Bloomfield my whole life.
My husband Michael and I have been married 18 years. Mike planned to propose in September of 2001, but his dad got stuck in Turkey, so he delayed the proposal until the family could celebrate the announcement together. I mention 9/11 because I reflect on the story of Mike’s family now that we find ourselves in a world pandemic and, once again, in a social upheaval. In twenty years, our adult lives have been bookended by extraordinary events.
Michael and I have two amazing, beautiful boys, Jesse (13) and Dylan (12). A year apart. We joke that they are Irish Jewish twins. As it turns out, Mike’s large Jewish family is genetically Irish; his sister, Debby, had results that came back from one of those DNA ancestry tests showing that she’s 50% Irish – most likely from his mom’s side of the family. Our boys indeed grew up as close as twins. At the core, they are the same, but their personalities and interests are very different. We are in the midst of planning their virtual b’nai mitzvah at Temple Israel, along with a socially distant celebration. Our photos will document our wearing masks. That’s our reality today.
On my side, I have a family of educators: My brother, Aaron Fenberg, is married to Lisa, who is a Special Ed teacher in West Bloomfield, also currently working in some of the parochial schools in the district. My mom, Lynne – my best friend, my everything – is married to Leslie Schultz, who was a special education teacher in the Detroit Public Schools for over 40 years. And my dad, Michael Fenberg, served on the Birmingham School Board for 12 years.
And, on Mike’s side, there’s his sister, Randi Berman Sakwa, former V.P. of the West Bloomfield School Board. Reflecting on my family background just now, I find it interesting that I started my journey as a teacher on my own, years before all of our family connections to the world of education actually unfolded. My dad often tells me it’s a wonder how teachers handle the challenges we all face today. . . it’s a lot!
On Becoming a Teacher . . . (and Still) Learning New Steps
myJewishDetroit: What drew you to a career in education, teaching K-3?
A summer job. In college, I was studying to be a nutritional psychologist. In the summer before my Junior year, my dad found a job for me at Congregation Beth Ahm in their Pre-School Day Camp. I always had loved being around kids, babysitting. Though teaching was not on my radar, I easily jumped in to fill in for the teacher when called upon. The Director, Anita Lampcov took notice of my skills and asked whether I was in the School of Education. When I told her that I had not considered teaching, she suggested I rethink my choice because I was a natural. She then offered to write a recommendation, which got me thinking how education might be a good fit. I wanted a job where I impacted and helped people. Even though the practice of child psychology was intriguing, Anita’s words were planted in my head. I returned to school and applied to the College of Education. And here I am – without prior thought to where and just how far my career in education would lead.
As my grandma would often say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I still feel that psychology and empathy (the elements of therapy) are still deeply rooted in me. I am, at heart, a helper, a peacemaker . . . a teacher, wanting the best for kids.
myJewishDetroit: What insights and strengths do you bring to the uncharted challenges of teaching now?
Endless energy. Creativity. Adaptability. Resilience. You name it. We’re on a different planet now. Absolutely! We’re teaching in the Twilight Zone. Changes, especially in education, do not happen overnight. There are cycles of thoughts about educating children, and it takes years to research and standardize curricula. I think about all of the work on the district committees I’ve been on; to introduce new curricula or a new program, you have to go through a pilot, show data through a cycle of a few years. And now? Everything is needed yesterday and happening tomorrow! We’re going to launch this, change that. There’s no waiting for answers. We say the word pivot a lot these days. The pandemic has accelerated a learning curve we couldn’t have dreamt we’d see in our lifetime. The changes that we’re making and the things we’re doing are astonishing. I never knew we could be capable of doing all the things we’re doing today.
On Managing Uncertainty, Lessons Learned Navigating the Unknown
myJewishDetroit: West Bloomfield School District was among the first in the state to shift to online learning at the beginning of the COVID-19, then the first public school district in metro Detroit to welcome elementary and middle school students back in September. In what ways has your District been proactive?
There’s a joke among the students that West Bloomfield never takes snow days. Last February there was a snow day called for every district in our area – with the exception of our schools. Fast forward to March 13, and we took our “snow day” as a teachers’ conference day. Beating the clock in preparation for remote learning, we understood that we had to take the show on the road immediately. Fortunately, many of us were already using Google Classroom. We had the foundation and many of our tools in place.
Our district has continued to stay ahead of the curve. Throughout the spring and summer months, we put our plan for the 20/21 school year in place – from Classroom to Cloud. To develop the plan, we gathered administrators, teachers, parents, community members, students – all stakeholders – all working together with the health department to evaluate every aspect of the safety and feasibility of our plan.
By August, we arrived at a hybrid plan, suitable for both remote and face-to-face learning. Where our high school would maintain its virtual classroom formats, grades K-8 were to be divided into two cohorts to reduce classroom numbers. After consultation with all stakeholders, we netted out with a half-day schedule four days a week. Students come to school with their cohorts either in the morning or in the afternoon and the school is fogged every day between sessions – with additional deep cleaning every Wednesday. At home, learning continues with online specials – art, gym music and library – as well as independent studies.
Beyond our hybrid plan, the West Bloomfield School District developed and launched Lakers Online, a brand-new school open to the community as a fully online learning experience for K-12. Enrollment is currently 620 elementary students and about 800 students 8-12, for a total of more than 1,400.
Lakers Online is where I’ve chosen to teach this year. The school opened in September, complete with a new principal, vice principal, secretaries and channels of instruction for the West Bloomfield curriculum taught by West Bloomfield teachers. While the majority of my students are from West Bloomfield, I have students from Pontiac, Walled Lake, Waterford, all different areas, where online school plans we not yet fully developed or solidly in place at the start of the school year.
The move to a virtual classroom has opened a new horizon for me, creating new challenges as well – all in the confines of the converted classroom in the basement of my home. There I hold online classes for 23 third graders, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week.
myJewishDetroit: Six hours sounds like a full school day. How do you manage the time online?
I start at 8 a.m. for office hours, where I answer emails, or meet individually with parents or students as the need or requests arise. At 9 a.m., our live ZOOM classes begin with math – with some students going into an advanced group along with 4th graders. Around 10, we take a quick screen break – then hold our classroom meeting, where we have a “check in” to share our class “Pledge” for good work and other positive vibes from home. We then take a snack break and return at 10:30 for writing. At 11:15, the kids leave my ZOOM and go to their specials – art, music or gym. After lunch, we have our reader’s workshop, then science or social studies . . . and finally, at the end of the day, from 2:15 to 3:00 we have what we call “asynchronous time” or practice time, where the students work independently. I use this time to pull smaller groups together to review lessons or to check into their work. I put kids in their individual breakout rooms, so I can see that they are still on task and sharing their screen. As a class, we stay together until 3 pm . . . with the understanding that no one leaves, that we’re in class together and we’re working together.
myJewishDetroit: And how are you doing, and what are you hearing from the kids?
Of course, the kids want to be back in school. They miss their friends and the playground. But I find it amazing, under the current circumstances, that they want to stay on ZOOM with me throughout their breaks and sometimes even after school. The kids have connected. They have become friends and ask for extra time online to be together. I’m at home, not going anywhere, so it’s okay with me to supervise their interactions for a little while after school ends. And their parents thank me for my time and tell me they feel like I’ve become a part of their family, hearing my voice all day long.
Remote learning may be new for many of us, but the feedback we are getting is mostly positive. In a recent survey evaluating our academic quality, West Bloomfield School District found that an overwhelming majority of our staff and parents feel that their students’ academic needs were being met, whether by learning face-to-face or online.
myJewishDetroit: In what ways has the District supported your curriculum, creativity and innovation – online?
Lakers Online follows the same curriculum as the West Bloomfield School District. We send home and use the same math books, science material kits, art materials and supplies used in our brick and mortar schools. The gym teachers have provided jump ropes; the music teachers have sent home rhythm sticks and drums – so students have hands-on equipment to use during their specials.
The big difference, of course, is that teachers have to adapt their lesson plans to the screen. So, we have learned to make a lot of our own teaching videos and share them with each other. We team teach writing, reading, science and social studies, which means we all pitch in and help one another in designing our lessons.
Beyond the Google Classroom platform used in the spring, the District has purchased a more advanced learning management system – called Canvas. With Canvas, we post our lessons online, produce videos with one of its programs, and build and link web pages for kids to easily navigate to their assignments and complete them. I’ve learned a lot about web design just using this program myself.
Another digital tool that the school purchased is Kami, an online annotative app that allows us to share our screens, write, type and draw on a shared document. We also work with interactive slides that allow us to project a lesson onscreen as we would using an interactive whiteboard in class. With this tool, I can ask my class questions and, in real time, see them working out their answers, typing their responses and sharing them with the class. Beyond instruction, our goal is to encourage communication, collaboration, contribution and critical thinking – what we call the Four Cs.
myJewishDetroit: So, do you think virtual classrooms are here to stay?
Yes. I believe we have the need to develop viable and robust channels for remote education. I think that’s why West Bloomfield made the decision to launch Lakers Online as an official school. We are looking to our future. And our teachers, kids and parents are finding their way. Suddenly, and much sooner than ever we anticipated, we are in the business of transforming education. I truly believe that.
As a teacher of young children and mom of young teens, the best I can say is that our kids are resilient. They are rising to the challenge. The tech world is their world. They were born with digital tools in their hands. Where we had books and libraries to dig into, they have the internet – the whole world of knowledge in their own hands in a different way of searching, thinking and solving problems. We are in the first chapter of the story of their lives. And we are all in this together.
myJewishDetroit: And how are your boys doing with remote learning in middle school?
Jesse is taking it all in stride but misses the social component. As an 8th grader, it’s all about social connections! He is adapting well to online learning, but says it’s hard to do things at home. Dylan is having a tougher time with being online. He needs the student-teacher engagement of face-to-face learning. He struggles with the communication piece with his teachers. He sees how hard I’m working and so he doesn’t want to “bother” his teachers by emailing them questions. I tell him to ask . . . that’s what they’re there for! He’s too empathetic. I am lucky that my boys are bright and catch on quickly in school because I’m just not as available as I want to be to support them.
On Essential Work: In the Balance
myJewishDetroit: What do you do to maintain your work/homelife balance?
For the time being, everything blends together. My classroom work has taken over my homelife. I have no balance! I feel like I am living in my basement as life goes on with my family upstairs. I am on my computer with my students from 8 to 3, and sometimes until 3:30.
After my school day with my students, I go back and look at their work: Did they turn things in? How did they do? What do I need to change for tomorrow? I answer emails until 5:30 or 6:00, then head upstairs to check in on my boys and see to their dinner.
By 8:30, I’m back at it. Making my lesson plans for the next day, linking all my pages. My “homework” can take as much as another 4 to 5 hours. Dinner? Sometimes it’s my first real meal of the day, at 10 or 11 p.m.
And it’s not just me. It’s every single person I talk to. My teaching partners and I are constantly on the phone – often until midnight. We have union meetings, teacher meetings and all the discussion spins around the amount of time it takes to do what we do virtually.
Believe me, in 25 years, I’ve never worked harder, never spent more time in preparation for the day ahead. Face-to-face with kids in a conventional classroom, I can walk in unprepared and teach my best lesson of the day. As an experienced and skilled teacher, you could “build the plane as you fly” if you really needed to. Teaching multiplication? You throw some counters on a table and leave the kids doing their thing under your wing. Well, I can’t do that in my basement classroom. If I want to teach multiplication to my students using manipulatives, I have to create the experience virtually for them.
In an online classroom with young children, you can’t just teach what you know. You can’t just lecture – kids need to walk through visuals step by step. It takes everything out of me to give 100% of what the kids need.
So how do I feel about all this? I’m exhausted, exhilarated, motivated. I feel like I’m cutting paths through wild, uncharted territory. I am passionate about what I’m doing now, because I love teaching, I love education, I love everything that it involves, and I’ll do everything I can to make it happen for my students – but right now, it comes 100% at the sacrifice of myself and my family.
And the rewards? Oh, my goodness! I’m hearing from the parents saying, “My kids love you. All we hear is Mrs. Berman does this, Mrs. Berman said that.” That’s my living proof that I’m making a connection through the screen. Building relationships and trust. More than anything, that’s the social piece of the puzzle we need in online education today.
And I know the sacrifices Michael and I are making today are sending positive messages to our sons. I can see that in the way they care for one another, in their preparation for their bar mitzvah and in their choices that they have made for their mitzvah project. This afternoon, we have a ton of Amazon boxes to unpack; the boys have chosen to donate toys for Children’s Hospital of Michigan and multi-cultural books to Brilliant Detroit. They make us proud, they give us hope, they challenge us to greater heights. This is a year we will never forget.
Parting words of wisdom
As my father-in-law, Marvin Berman, of blessed memory, used to say, “This too shall pass.”
As we say in West Bloomfield Schools:
“Mask Up, Stay Safe, Save Lives.”