When COVID-19 hit and schools shut down, many of us were certain that it would not impact the 2020-21 school year. But after more than 18 months, it’s clear that the pandemic is still with us. The length of the pandemic has only heightened concern about COVID related learning loss - especially among underserved populations.
Engaging students in learning can be difficult, even in the best of times. Doing so when learning is online or hybrid is even more challenging. We recently spoke with a principal of a K-8 school who was concerned that some students weren’t logging onto the computer. Or if they were, they weren't paying attention during their online classes. In some cases, students logged on, but went off camera and weren’t actually in class at all.
To gain some insight into this problem, the principal sat in on some virtual classes to see what was going on. He found that while there were a number of teachers who were doing a tremendous job engaging their students. Unfortunately, there were others who were not as successful.
As we spoke with the principal, we could not help but think about the important role of teacher-student interactions. In particular, we thought about four of the CLASS® dimensions and the role they play in virtual learning.
Students need a warm, supportive environment that allows them to develop emotional connections and relationships with both the teacher and their peers. Given the fact that students have been away from in person learning—their teachers, and in many cases, their friends—for quite some time, these relationships need to be rebuilt. Teachers have to spend time getting to know students in a different environment. Taking time to reconnect with students by having social conversations and really listening to them will help the students feel more comfortable turning on a camera and sharing their home.
Now more than ever, teachers must be aware of their students’ emotional and academic needs. By doing so, teachers help students feel comfortable sharing personal struggles, academic difficulties, and things that may be happening at home. In addition, students who feel heard are more likely to turn on their camera and engage in school. Teachers should check in with students regarding family life, health, and other struggles. It’s important that teachers anticipate that things students (especially upper elementary students and young adolescents) tend not to share may become exposed in a virtual environment. Providing reassurance that even in the virtual setting, the classroom is a safe space, will help students be willing to participate, share, and take risks
Student focus, flexibility, connections to current life, and peer connections are now more important than ever. Before teachers can get students to focus on learning and critical thinking activities, it will be important for them to let students know that their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are valued. Many students feel very isolated and disconnected during this pandemic. By placing additional emphasis on what is important to the students and why certain concepts and ideas are of significance to them, educators help to re-engage students in the learning process.
Maximizing the engagement of students is the key to making virtual learning effective. It also allows teachers to move students back into learning and critical thinking. This can be extremely challenging in the world of Zoom or web conferencing. Teachers may be asking themselves, “How can I engage my students, or use a variety of materials and modalities when we are all only looking at each other in small boxes on a computer screen?” The key is to use each other and to use other technology. While not endorsing any website or product, there are many things out there to help make online learning more engaging to students. Below is a list of some programs with which we are familiar:
The savvy CLASS observer may have noted that we are not providing suggestions for enhancing interactions in the Concept Development (Pre-K), Analysis and Inquiry (Upper Elementary), Quality of Feedback (Pre-K and Upper Elementary), or Instructional Dialogue (Upper Elementary). This should not be interpreted to suggest that teachers cannot effectively interact with students around these dimensions in the virtual classroom. Rather, we have suggested the types of interactions that have to be in place prior to addressing the more difficult CLASS dimensions. In short, we have to engage students before we can teach them, and we have to gain their trust if we want them to take academic risks and difficult cognitive challenges.
How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I posed that question to a random selection of contacts via text message. What did I discover? Everyone in my sample group spreads on the PB first, then the J. There are a variety of ways though to apply the jelly, but in my random group, the jelly always comes second.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches make me think about Behavior Guidance, a dimension in the CLASS® toddler observation tool. Especially the first two indicators of behavior guidance: proactive and supporting positive behavior. Proactive is the peanut butter! It goes first. That layer of peanut butter is the base for the jelly, which promotes positive behavior.
“What I think I’m most proud of as a professional in the field is our ability to show up, our ability to still do it, to still roll with the changes… We have to adjust. That is what educators did the entire year. We show up. We have a strong why. We love what we do.” This is a quote from Colleen Schmit from our recent webinar, Celebrating Great Teaching. She’s talking about how hard the last couple of school years have been for teachers. Teachers faced a similar difficulty 20 years ago when the United States faced a national tragedy.
I was a kindergarten teacher for eight years at a public school. I loved my job, but somewhere along the road I started to become crotchety. I was often annoyed with my colleagues and frustrated with the demands of the district, and I was sure I knew better than any training or professional development session I would ever be forced to attend.
Shared physical presence is a large part of how we’re used to connecting with each other. Strong connections and relationships are important for children who may have recently experienced loss, high stress, or trauma. As teachers connect with children in a virtual setting, it can be more challenging to think about how to create a safe space for learning, sharing experiences, and taking risks.