Why do students need school right now?
As the working mother of four children ages 19 to 3, I have found distance learning to be a struggle. While I anticipated the frustrations my teenagers would have, I was surprised that my three-year-old would have the hardest time adjusting to the shutdown and close of her daycare.
One week into the Stay at Home orders, my three-year-old daughter, Kaiya, was able to connect with her Karate instructor on Zoom and the transformation in her attitude was apparent right away. She lit up when Master Booe showed up on the screen. The next thing I saw was her frantically searching for a pillow and a stuffed animal to use as props and materials while she practiced her ninja skills and karate moves. Master Booe took a moment to see every kid on screen; he gave them feedback on their kicks and punches and congratulated each toddler individually on a job well done. For those thirty minutes, my seemingly clingy and dependent toddler transformed into an independent young girl who controlled her learning and her space.
A few weeks later, I had an opportunity to gain insight from a student’s perspective. Avery, a high school senior at one of our local schools, shared her thoughts on this new format of school. When asked what has been a positive aspect of online learning during Covid-19, Avery shared she liked the chance to see and talk to her teachers and classmates. One of her teachers had even built in time for connecting informally at the end of the online session, which had almost felt like being socially close during a time of social distancing.
Covid-19 has uncertainty shrouding the next days, weeks, and months. The challenges faced with teaching students were not birthed from this pandemic; they have just been exacerbated. School systems are now forced to see that what did not work for students in classrooms has also not been conducive to online learning. How can educators take this opportunity to reexamine the purpose of school for students and provide a safe space to continue to thrive as learners?
A Virtual View of Classroom Culture
Our high school and middle school students no longer get those hallway moments between classes to nod to and check in with their classmates while beating the bell to class. Elementary-aged children aren’t gathering on the carpet to have morning meetings with their teachers and share their funny stories or hear how their teacher’s day was. School is a space for social connection and relationships.
Unfortunately, in many classrooms and schools, these aspects of socialization were not seen as important elements to foster school culture, leaving more possibilities of gaps and missed learning for all students.
Personal connections and the presence of collective communities cultivate conditions that invite students to learn. It’s imperative to begin with intentionally creating classroom culture online because our students’ mental and emotional well-being is tied to relationships and having a safe space for growth as a learner. Avery’s comment highlights this necessity for attending to these elements of the online classroom culture. What resonated was the feeling the interactions left for her. As educators, we have to begin with building those spaces for our students.
As an instructional specialist in the Equity Initiatives Unit for Montgomery County Public Schools, I have coached school leaders to examine existing practices using Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2015) . Hammond makes clear connections between social emotional well-being and developing independent learners. She outlines a framework for culturally responsive teaching titled The Ready for Rigor Framework. The framework consists of four practice areas of learning that work in tandem to create culturally responsive learning environments, 1) Awareness, 2) Learning Partnerships, 3) Information Processing, and 4) Community of Learners & Learning Environment. These practice areas leverage the experiences and existing background knowledge students possess as assets and lead educators to utilize them in order to build intellectual capacity and facilitate growth. Through this process, students are led to become independent and critically conscious thinkers.
Each of the practice areas is imperative to creating effective learning environments allowing students to enter and engage as their authentic selves. As we focus on engaging students in online learning, the attention to the last two practice areas (information processing and community of learners & learning environment) need to be approached with intention and purpose. Let’s look at the last one first.
Hammond’s fourth practice area focuses on the community of learners and learning environment. The space students enter, whether physically or virtually, can have a tremendous impact on their willingness to engage and opportunity to learn. Incorporating intentional elements that invite socialization and relationship building to the online classroom creates a space for students to be present, feel seen, heard, and affirmed. A community of learners and learning environment is the safe space built consciously to allow students to take risks for the purpose of growth and building their knowledge.
|Fostering Online Classroom Culture
Some ways you can intentionally foster community in online learning environments:
The Power of Student Agency
Once we have a community of learners and learning environment, we have to engage students with purpose. Hammond’s third practice area (information processing) hones in on the necessity for providing tools and scaffolds that lead students to independence.
When I reflect on Kaiya’s karate class, Master Booe’s intentional teaching moves were empowering. For a three-year-old whose world had changed in an instant, the autonomy that karate class provided reengaged her with a learning community while allowing her to demonstrate what she knew in her own way. The power of agency, even for a toddler, can lead to impactful learning.
With distance learning, students are in both their learning and home environments at the same time. This opens up a world of ways to engage students and expand ways of thinking while also allowing them to share aspects of themselves in authentic ways.
Building their agency and allowing them to have some autonomy is one method to ignite their curiosity and elicit their critical thinking skills. Building agency provides options and relevancy for learners. The presence of both these elements move students toward independence and creates opportunities for autonomy.
|Opportunities for Agency to Increase Engagement
Some ways educators can build students’ agency:
What Does Getting Back to “Normal” Look Like?
Covid-19 has taught us about the power of humanity and perseverance. It’s also transformed how we see school and learning. We are putting relationships first and moving from knowing curriculum to building knowledge. When we return to the classrooms and reenter the school buildings, these same aspects of learning are necessary to foster equitable and culturally responsive learning environments.
Districts and leaders will walk back into uncertainty on many aspects of school, but one thing has been highlighted: the methods for approaching learning have not led to all students thriving. We have seen the lack of access to resources create inequities. We understand that social emotional well-being has to be a priority for students to learn. School leaders now have an opportunity to reexamine the practices in place.
|What Can Districts, Leaders, and Coaches Do When School Resumes?
We are living through unprecedented times that will leave a residual impact on students, families, and educators. Now we need to examine how we use this opportunity to create community, build knowledge, and prioritize well-being and success at school for our most marginalized students and families.