5 Lessons We’ve Learned Bridging the Digital Divide with We Still Teach

We Still Teach is made possible by the Chicago Teachers Union and Fox32/My50

By Kat O'Brien and Tamika J. Spaulding

Executive Producers, We Still Teach

When schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew something had to be done in support of remote learning for the estimated 1 in 5 students in Chicago without access to home internet or adequate devices. Digital divide has been discussed for decades in all levels of government but, in the face of immediate and critical need, the billion-dollar projects yielded very little in terms of impactful solutions.

As a society, we’ve been too complacent about allowing the private sector and other public services and spaces (coffee shops and cafes, community centers and public libraries), to step up and meet the needs of our chronically underfunded public school system. We knew many kids were getting by because of these stop gaps, and COVID-19 revealed that our society had abdicated the responsibility to ensure all students have the right to public education and all that it should entail.

Multiyear infrastructure plans are great for long-term thinking with an eye towards the students of tomorrow, but we need our school system to own the responsibility of supporting our students today. What good is a four year rollout plan for connectivity to the student suddenly cut off from their teachers and classmates? What is the purpose of targeting certain neighborhoods for future resources without considering that gentrification could push students in need to a completely different access desert by the time such resources were available? Where, in the face of today’s problems, are today’s solutions?

The inequitable should be simply unacceptable. That’s the sentiment behind We Still Teach.

Putting teachers on television centers the needs of today’s students: responding to the crisis, in the moment, by directly providing access to remote learning to bridge the digital divide.

This innovative concept, pioneered by former news anchor Melinda Spaulding in Houston, TX, has been our way to leverage our passion for education with our professional expertise. We Still Teach, made possible by the Chicago Teachers Union and Fox32/My50, premiered on May 11, 2020 broadcasting more than 40 original episodes of educational content to students in a 100+ mile radius from Chicago. With a minimal budget supporting a skeletal production team, we relied upon the generosity of volunteers providing time, content, and resources to produce an hour-long show, at a fraction of the cost of market-rate TV production.

We Still Teach cut through the red-tape to provide access to remote learning by leveraging the accessibility and ubiquity of broadcast television. We made every episode for that one kid who couldn’t log in to a remote classroom and join their teachers and friends for the day. We thought of that kid every episode, asking ourselves what they learned from the show that day and making sure it was as robust as possible.

As we reach the end of the year, still unsure of what lies ahead for 2021, we find ourselves thinking about how this unintended disruption to our normal lives can be the beginning of a new approach to public education. We can, with bold ideas that are the right mix of hyperlocal, customizable, and scalable, provide equitable access to education for all. To do this, we need to rethink how we use the resources we can access immediately with a repurpose / reinvent mindset. There are interesting things happening, invented out of necessity because of the pandemic, and our TV show has been just one of many innovative tools in education at this time.

During the past seven months as Executive Producers of We Still Teach, five key lessons have emerged as relevant to crisis responses, and even more broadly applicable to the future of equitable access to education. Remote learning is a necessity today, and if we invest our time and experience navigating this wisely, it can become a safety-net tomorrow.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Solutions Must be Mobile and Nimble. Multiyear infrastructure plans are essential, but cannot come at the expense of solutions that could be implemented right away. To do this, we need to empower schools with the autonomy and accountability to use discretionary funding to meet the unique needs of their school communities. For example, working with teachers throughout the city directing remotely produced content for our TV show revealed that digital divide impacts teachers and families alike. To critically account for issues such as student housing insecurity, investing in tools like mobile hotspots and device libraries ensures that access follows the student.

  • Access is Multi-Faceted. Equitable access goes beyond devices and WiFi. Connectivity, device reliability, and tech literacy does not discriminate by income and housing security. Each student must be equipped with their own devices and peripherals, as well as the support and training needed to ensure optimal use. For our youngest learners especially, this support and training need extends to their families. Season 2 of We Still Teach evolved into a weekly, all-ages family program to explicitly support students and families learning at home together. We want to launch Season 3 with strategic expansion to include distributing analog learning materials and devices.

  • Remote Learning Has Empowered Teacher Creativity. The teachers who have dedicated their time and expertise to We Still Teach have gone beyond their grade-level and subject areas to provide interdisciplinary lessons to help make our one-hour show as dynamic as possible. A cooking demonstration becomes a lesson in math, science and world cultures. A reading in ASL is also displayed in Spanish. Lessons in social justice include art and critical examinations of current events. To creatively compress the school day into an hour-long TV show for a K-12 audience requires much of the same skill-set teachers are developing by necessity during remote learning. Constraints of time, resources, and platform compelled paradigm shifts for teachers and powered their creativity.

  • Content is Key to Connection. We Still Teach is a return to the family TV hour, supporting students and families learning at home together through applied lessons, the exploration of complex topics, and projects designed to spark curiosity. Our show’s audience developed a social and emotional connection to their “TV teachers”, and our teachers used the broadcast platform to model and instruct effective strategies for engaged learning. Additionally, our teachers inspired us to program the show with rich and varied lessons that could be cross-curricular and differentiated in the moment to reach multiple grade-bands to help students of all ages, watching the show with their families, discover the learning opportunities in their own environments.

  • Diversity & Inclusion Must Be Intentional and By Design. Our show’s on-screen representation is reflective of the diversity of our target audience as well as the top-down commitment of our partners. We Still Teach set a high standard for on-screen representation that mainstream programming often fails to meet, or even acknowledge as possible. To do this, we intentionally programmed the most diverse and inclusive content we received. And when we did not have the content that we needed, we reached out to our network of educators and community supporters to source it. We offered our professional content development and production skills to support and train teachers who needed it, and empowered diverse educators not yet ready to create content -- to do so.

In August, venture capitalist Arlan Hamilton posed a great question on Twitter: Why isn’t there accessible school programming nationwide on TV in response to the coronavirus crisis? Her question grabbed the attention of more than 10M across social media platforms, and received plenty of responses. It’s too hard. Too expensive. Too complicated to figure out the curriculum. Too much work for too little reward. Everyone had a ready-made conversation point for why it couldn’t be done. When we launched We Still Teach, we didn’t know what we would be getting into exactly -- but we knew that something had to be done. We believed this would be an immediately impactful and broad-reaching solution, so we simply committed to leveraging all the resources at our disposal to do it.

Going forward, we need to continue to find ways to invest in the moment and the future, simultaneously. Big ideas that will take years to implement should not be funded at the expense of ready-to-go solutions that are both customized, and scalable. We need to optimize our investment in innovative tools to bridge the digital divide by funding these cost-effective, hyper local solutions directly impacting students today. Our kids need solutions now. They don’t have years to wait.

Put your name on one of the most innovative solutions in education! Join us in supporting We Still Teach today.