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Podcast: Connecting Through Coronavirus with Mathew Portell

/ Jason Sholl

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad and I'm super excited to have my friend and thought leader, Mathew Portell on the show today. Mathew has dedicated over a decade to education in his role as a teacher, instructional coach, teacher mentor and school administrator. He currently serves as Executive Principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary, an innovative trauma-informed pilot school in Nashville, Tennessee, which was recently featured on Edutopia.

In 2008, he combined his passion for literacy and cycling and founded the double award-winning nonprofit Ride for Reading. The organization permits literacy and healthy living, the distribution of books via bicycle to underserved children. Ride for Reading has donated nearly 500,000 books to children nationally, which is fantastic.

Hey Mathew, thanks for being on the show today.

Mathew Portell: Hey, I'm super excited. It's always great to chat with you for sure.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. You know, we were together in Nashville and one of my favorite memories of you is that we were going to a meeting one day and I was walking with a group and all of a sudden we heard this loud trashcan banging noise and you had scared one of my friends, Dave, and I still see post the memory every year so you are, I definitely remember you being this fun, energetic kind of prankster.

Mathew Portell: That was one of the finest moments I've had in my career for sure.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Now, do you still do that? You still like run up to people and scare them?

Mathew Portell: If I could have a job, if I could be Ellen DeGeneres, if I could be her just scare person. That is my, that's my dream job.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, my friend, you are doing wonderful work right now and I'm so appreciative of you coming on today just to kind of share your perspective. I've been a huge fan of yours for a while now and I'm listening to your trauma-informed podcast and getting into the network and so I'd love to hear, I know our listeners would love to hear more about how you came to kind of create this trauma-informed network and then what does it mean to be a trauma-informed pilot school?

Mathew Portell: Yeah. So the network came about like most professional networks. It came out of necessity where being a principal of a trauma-informed school, I just want to be open and transparent, is extremely difficult, where you're trying to challenge paradigms and shift the way we see behavior based off of adversity that children may or may not have experienced and looking at behavior as a form of communication from all kids.

And so I started the network. It's a social media Facebook group and in the first year I think it hit like 4,000 or 5,000 people. It was great. The dialogue was great, the resource sharing was great, the problem solving was great, and then it just began to explode and I think right now we're at 25,000 people who are on that network sharing and connecting, which is important because we're in the human business.

We really are connecting as human beings professionally and even on a daily basis. So that's how the network came about and the trauma-informed work came about out of necessity as well, where I had realized in my first year of principal that what I was doing was doing things to kids and not for kids and that a transformation was required because I knew what we were doing wasn't working, but it was also, I've used the word and it's kind of a scary word to use, but I felt like we were committing malpractice for kids because we weren't understanding the language they were speaking through their behavior. We were just trying to punish it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, it's phenomenal, the work you're doing, and just, I can see, with you Mathew, it's one thing just to say it, but I see what you're doing and I see in the Facebook groups and in social media how you're sharing. I mean, you called every single, I think you called every single family in your school for this crisis that we're currently in with COVID-19. Is that correct?

Mathew Portell: I am down to pre-K, so I've called fourth, third, second, first and kindergarten and I have called every single family. And that came about because was calling one of my students who I mentor. So he and I throw a football twice a day. We do it at 11:30 before he goes to lunch and we do it right at the end of the day and he needed somebody to connect to and he spent some time in my office. He found a football, we sparked up a conversation and that has been his leverage of connection. So I called him, he didn't answer, his mom had him call me back and when I answered the phone, he asked for Mr. Butterfingers, which is what I call him when he misses a catch. And it brought me, the amount of joy that that conversation brought me as a principal and a professional, was the spark to say I've got to call every single kid.

And to be honest, Dr. Lang, what it's done is it's challenged me as a leader to really identify do I know every kid in my school and do I know something about them and can I connect to them? And I'm proud to say that every kid that I called, I knew their name. I could recall an interaction that I could connect to from our past.

But it was eye opening and it's something I intend on doing at the beginning of every school year from here on out.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That's phenomenal. So Mathew, whenever you called these families, what were some of the responses and obviously, you shared just a powerful example of what this connection means, but, I mean, I assume that these, you had very positive responses from families.

Mathew Portell: Absolutely. And I'm going to be honest and tell you I think the adults needed the connection as much as our kids did and that I got to connect to parents and I would, I mean I would call, I would say who I was, I would say I just want you to know that we miss you, we're thinking about you, how are you, and that one question and asked in sincerity, I really am and still stay concerned about some of my families and just to hear the outpouring of loss of employment or fear of not coming back to school and the difficulties in being a stay at home parent. I have three boys. I can contest, I would rather be a principal than a stay at home father.

So just those type of connections are priceless. It's, again, I think it's a friend of mine use connecting through Corona and I think it is using this time to connect to people is imperative.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, I mean, and I see it as an extension to what you already do in the brick and mortar face to face world and I think it's what's interesting is that you realized how important the connection component is, because I use the word like in the human behavior business and you translated that to the remote learning world.

I'm interested to find out how this is carried into your communication with teachers and students. So obviously, you have a really important relationship building with your students. What are the expectations that you have for teachers in remote learning and how have you communicated those expectations?

Mathew Portell: So the first expectation was there was no expectation in remote learning and that was the initial, right? Like I took a stance very early on through this process and communicated that with my families that I don't want you to be a homeschool teacher. I don't want you to stress out and stress your children out about trying to do work and academic based work because we were in crisis. And to be quite honest, so many families are in crisis. I just got off of a call with my network of principals and the highest need right now in our network of 14 principals is food access.

And so, I think it's really keeping things in perspective. And to be honest, it's the same with my teachers. And I tell people what I want for my families is what I want for my teachers. I need them to know that number one, as the leader, I'm here for them. It's my job. My job as the principal is to support my teachers, support my family, support my students, and support my community. And to reiterate to my teachers that you're doing enough because I know that when we get into situations like this where we, there's a lot of our circle of control, it can become extremely stressful.

And so having, you know, staying home with three boys and trying to navigate three boys to get three different grade levels of work, to try to get them access, it's overwhelming for me.

And so, I just keep that perspective for some of my teachers have children and they're trying to parent and be an educator at the same time. And some of my families don't have access to technology. For goodness sake, some of them don't have access to a house. We have children who right now are in transitional housing where they don't even have a home.

And so, it's really about perspective. And what I've told my teachers is please reach out to every single family, find out what they need and tell them I have work, we have work we can provide to you. We have websites we can provide to you. We can have videos that we can provide to you, if you need it. Because someone or anybody in crisis, we have to look at the hierarchy of need, and some families are at the very bottom of that pyramid and just trying to get safety.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, it's heartbreaking to think about the families who are really struggling and it's one thing to say, yes, across America and across the globe, there's so much struggle happening. But when it hits your own community and when you find out that your kids, it's not a matter of them accessing curriculum, it's a matter of accessing food and nutrition for the day. It really puts in perspective what our role is as education leaders. It's so much more than making sure that they have the technology or the curricular resources to learn.

Mathew Portell: And Dr. Lang, I think the big piece of this is that we have an opportunity right now, that this COVID-19 pandemic has exposed with certainty and bright light the inequities that possess in our communities. And I think that if we can't come out of this, well, we have two opportunities when there's crisis. You can come together and become stronger or you can go back to the status quo or even worse, go below what you started with.

And I think that as educators, we have to stand in a space for all kids and bring these inequities to light where, and I'm going to be honest, we are not a, we're a resource family. We don't have any needs that aren't met. And yet when we, when my son's school started sending websites, we realized we only have one computer in our house.

And so it's like, hold on a minute, we can't even access all of this. So I had to order some refurbish computers just so we had something to do. And it's like, but I have that resource and imagine, what I've told my staff is right now is not where we're going to eliminate the academic divide that's happening. Where we're going to break up the academic learning divide that's happened in our communities is by coming out of this and advocating for all kids. And I think that, I hope, and I'm insanely optimistic that as educators we can start having a deeper conversation around that at the end of this pandemic.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. And I think timing is everything, for sure. You know, Mathew, I have heard of the term relaxed learning and opportunity learning used in conjunction with remote learning. And I really like it because I think it speaks to your point that, okay, so the families are in crisis. There's a lot going on, but in the midst of crisis, it's important that students feel a sense of wellbeing and belonging, but they're also being able to exercise their minds.

Again, once their needs are being met, once they're fed, once they feel safe and secure, and so being, then taking the next step, being able to say, look at this world around me, look at the opportunities all around me to learn.

I'm curious if you've had the opportunity to kind of share that message with your teachers as far as getting kids to really, again, I love the no expectations, but giving them the freedom to explore learning around them.

Mathew Portell: Yeah, so and I think that what we've done for families is we've given those opportunities through a variety of ways. And to be honest, most of our activities that we're asking families to do is really about connecting to a family, connecting to each other, showing off your talents, recording it with a phone and posting it to the school's closed social media page, showing off your pets and reading to your pets if you have pets, like things like that, that connect, but also build learning.

And even for my own family, I mean, we spent a day, I live in a subdivision, but there's woods behind us and there's a creek that runs in the front of the neighborhood and I took my three boys out and we just explored for like two hours and they came out so excited and then we wrote about it, right? Like they didn't know they're learning. So they're really going through the scientific process and it's, with our families, that's what we're encouraging, are authentic learning, engaging opportunities that exist in front of us every day.

And I think too that I'm very impressed with Metro schools and even the state where they've teamed up with PBS and every day, they have a teacher that is on television that is guiding lessons for kids. So if they have a television, which most kids do, it gives them access to some kind of learning that they can engage in, which I think is an awesome idea.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. Well, I've seen pictures that you posted of the grounds and the woods and the pond behind and so I know that your boys had just a ball out there, really just taking in nature, but I love the fact that you're an educator and you happen to be their dad, so I mean, the luxury there of being able to help them with kind of structuring their thinking and being able to look at nature and then writing about it.

So what have you done with your community to be able to say we understand where you are, but if you have the opportunity to engage your kids in simple and fun activities, here's some ideas of how you can do that. Was that the student email, was it through a phone call? How were you able to communicate those things?

Mathew Portell: Yes, yes and yes. So we have communicated in every avenue possible, and to be honest, one thing that we've learned is this has increased our social media engagement from our parents, which in response engage the parents with parents.

So we do call outs, we do emails, we do text messages. But what we've really done is guide our parents to individual class social media or individual grade level social media pages and then the school. And the reason we've done that is because we can then create videos. We can do tutorial with our video as opposed to a phone call. We can use translators during that time. Of course, like most educators, a lot of my teachers have connected through Zoom with their classes. But we've also done every week, every day there is, we call it the spirit week, but it is like go outside and document what you see.

So those type of opportunities we're kind of providing via social media and other avenues and really just connecting with parents on an individual level. Some of my teachers have talked to families multiple times in the last two weeks. I know one of my grade levels, my second grade, had already prepared for the last nine weeks. And so they took all of their prepped materials and they left them at a drop off point and parents came and picked them up.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That's fantastic.

Mathew Portell: So I mean, there is all kinds of accessibility. And again, do we expect kids to come out academically stronger having this happen? No, that's not realistic, to be honest. But what we're trying to do is engage and exploratory learning and engage them in things that they want to know more about. But every kid that I've talked to, I will tell you is saying they're bored and they miss school. So if anything, hopefully, they'll come back to school a little more appreciative, having going I was so bored I want to go back to school.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Right. Rejuvenated, refreshed.

Mathew Portell: Right.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yes. Well, it's interesting. Yeah. So you know, of course, because you dropped some tools, I have to share one of them, one of my favorite, obviously, WeVideo, but for making videos and I've seen kids when they take their nature, they take their walks in the backyard or they'll take pictures and they create a cool kind of video journal of the day or whatever fiction book they're reading, they'll create a book trailer of the book they're reading.

But you know, our thinking is when they go back to the brick and mortar classroom that they'll want to continue down the road of these fun and meaningful learning opportunities and though view schools not as series of the things I have to do to do school. I think so many times, you know, back before this pandemic, it was all about covering standards and it felt like they had to be doing these tasks and now hopefully learning is reframed that it's more about engaging them in a meaningful and personal level and it's also putting the student in the driver's seat, because right now, the students are pretty much having to take control of their own learning. There's not a teacher there saying it's time for math or time for reading, time to get a playground. They are being encouraged to essentially exercise their own play and discovery and creativity, which is fantastic. So now the key will be getting that to translate back into the classroom once kids do come back.

Mathew Portell: Absolutely. And I think it's imperative. I think it's imperative that learning is fun. I mean, maybe we should make a hat that said making learning fun again.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: There you go.

Mathew Portell: But I think ...

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That's a hat I would actually wear.

Mathew Portell: Yeah. You and me both would be the only one that would be in that space. But anyway, yes. So I think that you're right. I think that we've got, and it's also comes down to have we built intrinsically motivated kids at this time and that's something we have to reflect on of if you take the teacher from out in front of them, are kids still curiously wanting to learn, and I think that's a way we need to evaluate ourselves right now and moving forward.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. Oh, Matt, this has been fantastic. Thank you for sharing all of your wisdom with us, your expertise and Mathew, if our listeners want to continue to keep up with all the things that you're doing or follow you for the very first time, how can they find you?

Mathew Portell: I'm on Instagram and Twitter as @principalest, which is translated as the most principal. And then also on LinkedIn, I'm by my name, which is Mathew with a one T, Portell, and then also on Facebook, the same.

I have not TikToked yet, but I've been challenged by fourth graders.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, you better do it.

Mathew Portell: So I'm exploring. We'll see how that goes.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I'll be looking for you on TikTok than because that'll be a fun video to watch.

Mathew Portell: Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Thanks again, Mathew, and looking forward to talking with you again very soon.

Mathew Portell: All right. Thanks for the opportunity.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Thanks for joining me on the Deeper Learning With WeVideo podcast. If you liked this topic, recommend this to your friends, give us a five-star review, and check out our other episodes on this platform.

Be sure to get a copy of my latest book, WeVideo Every Day: 40 Strategies to Deepen Learning in Any Class, available now on Amazon. You can interact with me on Twitter and Instagram at @drlangraad. You can also check out more media content on YouTube at youtube.com/wevideo.

WeVideo empowers all students to express their ideas authentically and creatively. To illustrate these ideas of sharing stories, broadening perspectives, and promoting student confidence, check out WeVideo on Twitter @WeVideo, or also check out the website wevideo.com/education. See you next time. Bye.

About the Podcast

Deeper Learning with WeVideo explores ways to inspire creativity in the classroom, activities that ignite deeper learning for students, and interviews with thought leaders in education that motivate teachers and influencers in education technology. Listen to us on your favorite podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, SoundcloudSpotifyStitcher and TuneIn!

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