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

Staying Connected via Padlet

Working with middle schoolers in and of itself is a complex process. You have 30 little bodies each with their own unique personalities and dispositions and only 45 minutes a day to get through whatever it is that you have planned. Add technology to the mix and now you’re looking at complex to the nth level.

I think by now most educators have realized that just because these kids are growing up in an era where technology use seems ubiquitous does not necessarily mean that these kids understand and are ready to use technology for learning (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, 2017). In fact, I think the cancellation of in-person instruction for K16 education highlighted the fact that the digital divide and the digital use divide is still a very real problem (Auxie & Anderson, 2020).

In my conversations with fellow educators, it seems as if teachers approached distance learning in two ways: continue with current pacing (albeit at a reduced level) or created new curriculum that aligned better with what students would be able to do at home on their own.

At my school, I was given the opportunity to choose if I wanted to continue with the current pacing or create an independent project. I chose the latter, and I’m so glad I did.

World history in my district is a semester course (don’t get me started on how to teach 1500 years of history in 20 weeks). So I used this time as an opportunity to try out a new curriculum knowing the level of digital access my students have at home, their technology knowledge based on what I taught them in class, and what I thought would interest them yet also provide a bit of respite from the ton of stressors that they were dealing with.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I have made a concerted effort to create assignments that would help students acquire and practice mastering socio-emotional skills. Every week there was an assignment that had students reflecting on the ethics of decisions by historical figures or making a personal connection to the content. But then I also snuck in assignments that would hopefully help to create an online learning presence – something that is foundational for online learning to be successful. I had to be careful in which apps or websites I chose to use because modeling was not an option during remote learning. I needed apps/websites that were easy to figure out, and then I used them over and over again. Padlet was one that my students used on a regular basis. Each week, students summed up their learning in a creative way (e.g., sketchnotes, open mind, meme) and posted their project on a class Padlet wall for all 150 of their peers to view and enjoy.

Padlet was our go-to app because it didn’t require a log-in, could be used on a mobile device or desktop, and was easy to figure out on their own. Before in-person classes were cancelled, we had used Padlet once. But once we were solely relying on interacting via online platforms, I decided that Padlet was going to be the tool that kept us connected.

The last assignment I gave to my students was to create a Summer Quarantunes Playlist. I wanted them to post a song that either motivated them or reminded them of better times ahead. By having students post their songs to a class Padlet wall, we created a playlist of various genres of music from my highly diverse group of middle schoolers.

For the past 12 weeks my students have been sharing their highs and lows of living with the coronavirus crisis and recent protests in their Living History Journals. But this playlist offered additional insight to how they were feeling…and I just love that. =)

Enjoy!

Made with Padlet

References

Auxie, B., & Anderson, M. (2020). As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face a digital ‘homework gap’. PEW Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/16/as-schools-close-due-to-the-coronavirus-some-u-s-students-face-a-digital-homework-gap

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology. (2017). Reimagining the role of technology in education: 2017 national education technology plan update. https://tech.ed.gov/files/2017/01/NETP17.pdf

Looking Back in Order to Look Forward

I am a big fan of reflecting on things. In fact, I tend to perseverate on too many things which isn’t helpful. But that’s a story for another time.

As the school year comes to a close (five more days!)…I decided that this would be the perfect time to collect information from my students that would allow me to know what worked and didn’t work for them during these past 12 weeks, AND I could gather information on how my 8th grade colleagues could better support them if we have to either start online in the fall or quickly transition due to rising cases of COVID-19.

The Google Form is long. But it’s a nice blend of closed- and open-ended questions. Sixty-two students have already completed the reflection which is AMAZING because it’s technically not due until next Tuesday. Could the five points extra credit have been an incentive to not procrastinate? Believe me, I’ll take it any way that I can get it. 😉

So, what kind of information was I gathering? Well, here are the main sections:

  • Technology Access
  • Learning at Home
  • Looking Forward
  • Wrapping Up

One of the main concerns I had (actually it’s a concern I’ve always had considering that I work at at Title I school) is access. What kind of access do my students have? And by access I talking about devices and connectivity. The digital divide is very real where I work.

Another concern I had was the learning environment at home. I know that many of my students live in multi-generational households, or they live with multiple families in a small space. I was curious as to whether they (1) had a place to study and (2) whether that place to study was quiet. With many people having to work from home during this crisis, I know it put a strain on space at home, in general.

Because we don’t know what the fall holds for us, I also wanted to gather information on how my 8th grade colleagues could better support our students if remote learning remains in place or if we have to quickly transition from in-person to remote learning. I was curious as to what types of communication were the most helpful, and also if the students preferred a more structured approach or independent-project approach to learning.

Wrapping up the reflection, I asked students one thing that they learned about themself during this time of remote learning as well as one thing that they could change about their study habits if we have to continue with remote learning in the fall. This harkens to my goal of making sure that socio-emotional learning skills remain in the forefront of what I do.

I appreciate the honest and quite candid answers from my students. But then again, for the most part, middle schoolers tell it like it is. The fact that they don’t have a filter (or that they don’t employ it often) is one of the things that I most enjoy about working with this particular grade level.

As of this moment, I have quite a bit of quantitative and qualitative data at my finger tips. Over the summer, I’ll be working on a longer post about what this data is telling us about the benefits and challenges of this type of learning environment, and while I don’t pretend that what we’re doing at my school is indicative of what’s going on everywhere else, I am confident that teachers, students, and parents from across the U.S. are all experiencing something similar.

At least we know we’re all in this together.

If you’re interested, here is the link to the Google Form: A Time to Reflect.

P.S. If you think of other questions that should be added, please leave a comment below or email me. =)