As this extraordinary school year wraps up, with all its chaos and trauma, and many unknowns swirling about the future, one big question looms: Where should we focus our attention as we prepare for the coming school year?
People are understandably concerned about academic backslide. But before we rush to catch students up to prequarantine goals, we need to understand what's happened and where it leaves our students. Our job has always been to meet students where they are, never more so than now.
Before we begin planning for students, we must admit the losses we ourselves experienced. As teachers, we want to solve everything. We like to feel in control. Coming up against our own limitations can be especially hard.
Most of us left our classrooms without notice, as if we were fleeing for our lives—which, in a way, we were. We tried to do our work with imperfect technology, without essential materials, and through fear and confusion. We lost so much time with students. We canceled field trips, school plays, team sports. We watched our students (and our own children) lose the main fabric of their social lives. People they know—and we know—lost loved ones, jobs, homes.
None of this is over yet, and there's no magic to make it all go away. Anxious to get back to "normal"? Me, too. But we need to restrain that impulse. We need to just feel what we feel. "Normal" is gone.
Most of our students have been living with a lack of human connection and lack of community. For young people, socialization is crucial to their development. That unmet need alone can trigger depression, and I see more and more signs of this when students check in with me. Many are quietly enduring even more acute traumas.
When they come back to us in the fall, our students' need for connection, belonging, and real-world experience will be fierce. In school, we often fight against those drives, and I'm worried that if we start teaching in the fall with an extra urgency to cover content, we will find ourselves in serious conflict. As we plan to reconvene with students, whether in person, online, or some combination, we need to adjust our approach based on their needs.
While we can't solve everything, teachers will be in a valuable position this fall to support students' social-emotional development. We can do this through our disciplines by shifting away from efficiency and toward whole-child learning.
This spring, while teaching English via Zoom, I began experimenting with prioritizing compelling experiences that would build community and connection. Attendance and participation were very high, and I attribute that to some of these choices. Here are my key takeaways.
• Adopt a "less is more" mentality for your curriculum objectives. Once I realized I could not keep the same pace in remote learning as I had in my classroom, I let go of my sense of hurry and my usual curriculum. (I didn't have access to the novels anyway.) I chose content I felt was important and accessible, and we went deeper into it. This paring-down created a calm, coherent, and inviting class. The cancellation of standardized tests certainly made this shift simpler this spring, but either way, student engagement is a requirement for learning at all. By thinking carefully about what's most important and planning well around fewer objectives, I believe more students stay with us, and the net learning is greater.
• Make class an experience for students as much as possible, rather than aiming to deliver information or using a basic skill-and-practice format. For people dealing with trauma, motivation and focus can be difficult. Get students involved in something meaningful. That way, their genuine interest might outdo any struggle to pay attention. Through experience, we construct our own understanding of content and can think more critically about it. Bonus: Experiences also give students something to talk about with their friends later.
• To get more experiential, try going back to the roots of your discipline. When we had no access to books, I reminded myself that people enjoyed stories long before books were widely available. Oral storytelling existed in all cultures and time periods, and it could happen over Zoom, too! I had students select a folk tale from any tradition (from their families or found online), summarize it, and learn to tell it by heart. Each day, different students shared their folk tales.
After each one, we analyzed its elements and noted patterns and connections among them on a Google Doc chart. We found interesting connections between folk tales and modern stories, and students wrote in their reflections that hearing their classmates tell stories took their minds off their stress.
In social studies, a teacher I know led students in virtual debates about current social issues. A science teacher helped students formulate questions and conduct experiments in their homes. She made videos with instructions, and students would document their scientific processes throughout the week.
In each of these examples, students are gaining new experiences within the discipline, while practicing valuable 21st-century skills.
• Make room for student voices and peer-to-peer interaction. Students want and need to hear each other. In our storytelling unit, we devoted most of our class period to listening to students. This helped students feel connected to one another in a new way. Student-driven discussions, presentations, games, and group work are worth our time. Virtual breakout rooms work with some practice, structure, and accountability. Remote or not, I'll be taking time in September to establish group-work protocols, providing ample time for collaborative work.
• Tune in to students. Ask for feedback. To feel a real sense of belonging to a learning community, students need to feel some ownership over how they learn. This spring, I used Google Forms more than ever to ask students for feedback on our class. I listened and made adjustments. This allowed students to use their voices, not just in specific lessons and activities but to influence the direction of the class.
Instead of succumbing to pressure to "catch up" quickly, students will need us to help them regain some of what they've lost: community, meaningful experiences beyond their homes, interactions with peers, and a chance to belong. As teachers, we're in a uniquely strong position to recover those important things.
Ariel Sacks (@arielsacks) is a middle school language arts teacher and curriculum coach. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach.