Lessons from teaching during the pandemic
By now, we’ve all read pieces about how COVID-19 is exposing cracks in our educational system, how schools are essentially assigning grades based on resources of family support and technology, and how socioeconomic differences are making a difference in ways they haven’t for a generation or more.
While most educators can see these problems and agree that these stories are necessary, there’s a component missing from the dialogue: What will we do about it once traditional classroom learning resumes? And, since that day appears to be receding for many American schoolchildren, what do we want to take from our initial pandemic experience into any learning situation—remote, in-person, hybrid?
While the urgent need for broadband access and at-home support are important topics to address, neither of those are things classroom teachers can directly control. Most teachers have realized during these closures that we need to be a little less standards-driven in our grading and overall approach, but we all know that the realities of state-mandated testing and other requirements are likely to come roaring back to life once we’re in the classroom again. Teachers may have time right now, with no commute or extracurricular activities, to tend a little more to each student, but I fear the day-to-day demands of classroom management will squash these new habits.
Here’s a list of six things some teachers, including myself, plan to change once there is a semblance of normal. Meanwhile, we’ll keep the value of these practices front and center.
1. Use online technology routinely to deliver assignments, notes, or other resources. Millions of students logged into Google Classroom (or other classroom-management platforms such as Moodle) for the first time in mid-March and were expected to be experts within a few days. Teachers faced the same hurdle, though to a lesser degree, as some teachers have used digital learning systems for years (or even decades).
Nikki Diehm, a 7th grade social studies teacher in Chardon, Ohio, thought integrating online resources would be simple, since her students have had Chromebooks for six years, but that’s not been the case. They’re struggling more than she would have expected.
“Students know their way around a smartphone and certain apps but aren’t as savvy when it comes to web-based technology.”
Should the need for at-home instruction arise again or if students start school with a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, they need to be better prepared to handle the transition. Greater familiarity with the technology also means students will be poised for success in college. Currently, about 1 in 6 students take college classes exclusively online, but around a third of college students take at least one class that way. Bonus: We could see improved makeup-work completion rates when students are out sick.
2. Stop grading individual assignments for the gradebook. Now that kids are learning from home, their support system—or lack thereof—is more important than ever. With that in mind, a huge number of districts and schools have changed their grading policies, requesting teachers give feedback and opportunities to correct the work, rather than a score.
Kathryn Young, a math teacher in Kihei, Hawaii, has found her students are more motivated to correct their work, try again, and resubmit if she withholds a grade and instead gives feedback. Does this mean there are no grades or every student gets an “A for effort!”? No, of course not. But teachers are proving that the quality of work matters, not the volume. Fewer assignments with more detailed feedback can help students stay motivated, understand the material more fully, and alleviate some of the pressure on teachers, even when giving individual feedback takes more time than right-wrong grading.
3. Assign home-based performance tests and projects. Without in-person classes, performing-arts teachers have been assigning video projects. Students choreograph dances, script scenes, or rehearse music pieces, then record and upload them for critique. Not only does this allow students to get personalized feedback without fear of ridicule from their peers, but it teaches them how to use a platform that they will need to be familiar with for college or professional auditions. Mackenzie Woods, a grade 7-12 dance teacher in Queen Creek, Ariz., says the video submissions she’s received have demonstrated impressive creativity. That creativity might not have been possible within the confines of her school’s dance studio.
4. Bring other professionals into the loop. Marcus Ellsworth, a high school drama teacher in Maricopa, Ariz., reached out to professional actors and directors during this pandemic. They’ve been more than happy to record videos for students. Authors make virtual school visits all the time. These professionals aren’t always available for free, but their insight is extraordinarily valuable to students. Creative professionals can teach students what it’s really like within their fields.
5. Create a more flexible schedule. Tabitha Martin, a middle school English/language arts teacher in Tampa, Fla., has noticed her predictions about which kids would succeed at home have been largely incorrect, and their actual performance comes down to their personal time-management skills.
Kids who flourished in a strictly controlled classroom environment are floundering because they have never learned how to manage their own time. Students who felt stifled in a highly structured classroom are succeeding because they now get to take control of how and when they get their work done. Often, our method of “teaching time management” is a rigid timetable of deadlines and micro-assignments leading up to the “real” assignment. Instead, we can guide students to create their own timelines and manage their own workload.
6. Force students to use “old people” technology. A recurring theme in conversations right now is that students know their way around a smartphone and certain apps but aren’t as savvy when it comes to web-based technology. They can text but not email professionally. They create TikTok videos to blow your mind but can’t figure out where their Word doc automatically saved. The workplace won’t evolve as quickly as technology. Kids who plan to enter the workforce in the next decade need to know how to use Microsoft Office, properly thread emails, and use technology to manage their workflow.
Whatever the classroom looks like when COVID-19 wanes, it needs to be different from what we had before school buildings closed in March. That experience has given us insights and tools to better serve our students. Let’s be sure we take those with us into the future.