First Things First

Today I met with my department colleagues for the first time since June. We had so much to discuss from materials distribution to our learning management set-up. Revisions to our learning scales and how we assess students were also topics on the table. All of those are necessary conversations to have because we want to deliver a consistent message for the students who will be joining us in 20 days: special education, English language, and gifted learners. 

Now that we have some of our foundational routines set, I am now moving my attention to how I can support the emotional and social needs of my new students. I teach at a Title I school: Grades 7 and 8. As this is my 26th year in the classroom, I know very well the trepidation that 7th graders experience. It usually takes them one full quarter (that’s 10 weeks!) to get their bearings. They go from having one or two teachers to six teachers. They switch classes several times a day. Now add the various challenges and unknowns of technology to the mix for distance learning and you have a perfect storm a brewin’.

On the first day of school, after I do the introduction to world history, I usually have my students engage in the scavenger hunt where they get to meet their peers. Did I mention that we have students from no less than FIVE elementary schools who feed into our school? Talk about starting over! But the scavenger hunt was a great way for them to stand up, walk around, catch up with friends, and meet new friends. By the time the bell rang on Day 1, I would ask my kiddoes . . . “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” And the majority of them would shyly nod their heads almost with a look of relief as they walked out my door to another class with a different teacher and a different set of students.

Since we are starting virtual this year, the first day of school routines have to change. And since I intentionally focused on social-emotional learning (SEL) last year, it is natural for me to continue with that since there’s so much more I need to do for my students in this current educational climate.

Aside of SEL though, I also think that it’s important to consider how to integrate culturally responsive teaching into my instructional practices. When you think about it, these students have not had a “normal” school experience since mid-March. Life for them has most likely been a series of unknown challenges, ups and downs, and all-around uncertainty. For the record, middle schoolers crave parameters and routines–even if they normally try to buck the grain.

Needless to say, students this year are starting with a completely different mindset and outlook. 

I’m sure they are exhausted. They want to be with their friends. They want some kind of normalcy (I mean, don’t we all?). But I’m not talking about making things “normal” for them in the virtual learning environment. I’m thinking that I need to tackle issues that are closer to the heart.

I recently came across an article in KQED by Amielle Major titled How to Develop Culturally Responsive Teaching for Distance Learning. She aptly writes that we need to be “thinking about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning.”

Think about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning.

Kids these days cannot control their environment. They cannot control what is posted on social media. They cannot influence what is presented in the news. And these things can wreck havoc on the mind and heart if one doesn’t make a concerted effort to step away from the fray here and there.

So, while my incoming students cannot control their environment, social media, or the news, they can control their learning experience if I design and offer opportunities for student agency. As we are (without a doubt) going to have to reduce the amount of content that we would normally cover, I am also thinking about how I can design my world history lessons to allow for even more voice and choice. Content is important—I know that. But so are skills. And that’s mainly what I focused on last spring. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t subscribe to the naysayers who claim that students didn’t learn during the last 13 weeks of school. My students learned self-regulatory skills; they learned how to analyze multiple causes and effects; they learned how to visually display their learning; and they learned how to be there for each other. 

My point—and I remain steadfast to this goal—is to focus on the development of the whole child. I will focus on more than just their content knowledge of world history from 500-1500 C.E. I’m going to pay particular attention to how I can better support the culturally and academically diverse group of students who are going to log in on August 24 to my world history class.

Major’s (2020) article suggests that teachers who are interested in integrating and incorporating culturally responsive teaching into their instructional practices do the following:

  • Deepen the background knowledge of students (reduce the gap by front-loading)
  • Cultivate cognitive routines to help students make connections across their learning
  • Build word wealth so that students can articulate their thoughts, feelings, and learning

Since we are forced to change how we are approach teaching and learning in the fall, I think it’s a great time to also examine our teaching practices to see how we can better support and empower our diverse group of learners. 

There are many things that need to be done at the start of any new school year. However, I think one of the more important considerations is to meet our students where they are and then work to equip them with the skills and knowledge to become empowered learners. 

And that’s how we can help close the equity gap.

Reference

Major, A. (2020). How to develop culturally responsive teaching for distance learning. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55941/how-to-develop-culturally-responsive-teaching-for-distance-learning

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