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.
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When I was a teacher, I can remember taking care to intentionally plan differentiated, or individualized, instruction. And, when I was teaching pre-K I added the same level of intentionality to which materials were available in interest areas, and how I approached transitions throughout the day.
While any level of intentionally, specifically in relation to planning, is important -- I missed a critical opportunity in being more intentional in my interactions with the children in my class.
There is always an opportunity for interaction. Some opportunities are easily recognizable: times of play, free choice, centers, small group. We often see teachers engaged in activities alongside children during these times or hear questions being asked. Other opportunities might be a little less obvious. These are the times of your day that you might see as mundane moments that merely require your supervision or monitoring. The times where you’re going through the motions. “I’m doing this thing so I can move on to the next thing.”
In a previous blog, colleague and early childhood environment extraordinaire, Heather Sason, discussed how your classroom environment can help promote effective teacher-child interactions. In this blog, I propose we explore some of the often overlooked times in your day that are ripe for interactions with children and that do promote exploration, learning, and development!
It's not uncommon for teachers in early education to need to strike a balance between following children's leads and sticking to the classroom schedule. We know that intentional teachers are aware of their responsibility to assess student progress, understand skill mastery, and plan accordingly to provide opportunities for children to grow. However, many times, as teachers begin a specific teacher-directed activity, it is unsettling when students begin to veer from the step-by-step plans the teacher has worked hard to implement.
Teacher and coach, Colleen Schmit, will share how teachers can strike the balance between following the lesson plans and giving children freedom of choice and flexibility in the classroom.
We’re more than a month into the school year, and many educators and school leaders are feeling tired or burnt out already. That’s normal in any school year, as the newness of back-to-school wanes and the reality of a long year ahead kicks in. But, this year, that tiredness may feel like it has never felt before. Chalkbeat has reported that teacher vacancies are up in 18 of 20 large school districts, and it’s not surprising. Many are exhausted after a difficult year and a half (to put it mildly!). Many are also leaving the profession in droves to find work in competitive environments that provide a substantially larger salary.