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Falling Through the Cracks - Strategies for Stopping Learning Loss

This past week, I had an upsetting experience during a parent-teacher conference for my child. As I sat and listened to the verbal progress report, the teacher said to me, “To be honest with you, I’m not sure what your child is understanding or learning. I’m afraid that he may be falling through the cracks.” Perhaps because the Zoom conference had a five-minute time limit, or perhaps because I was stunned (or both), I did not say the obvious, which is that it is a teacher’s job to know where students stand through regular checks for understanding and formative assessments. As I sit here writing this, I’m still not sure how this situation will resolve from my perspective as a parent. However, as a teacher, I can definitely share all the things that should happen in any classroom setting to make sure we know what our students are learning.

Shorter Assessments

One particularly snowy year with lots of cancellations, I ran out of time to teach an essay. Instead of panicking and trying to squeeze it in the way we used to, I asked students to outline the whole essay, but just write the first two paragraphs of the final draft. As it turned out, I did not need to read several paragraphs to know whether a student was understanding the writing requirements and the content, and the shorter version was a much more targeted grading process because I had more time to address feedback. In general, we do not usually need to assign a higher volume of work to determine whether students are getting it. Instead, shortening the work still gives us plenty of information. We can often learn just as much from how a student does five math problems as we can from ten, or get a sense of reading ability with a shorter passage and fewer questions. With less to look at, a teacher has more time to weigh what they see, think about what a student needs, and provide valuable feedback.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

When I was a student, I used to comb through returned assignments looking for teacher comments. It was always disappointing (not to mention unhelpful) when there were no comments and just a numerical or letter grade present. Grades might serve a purpose, but they do not mean a whole lot when it comes to whether or not a child is truly falling behind, or just might not be turning in work or being attentive. When we put increased energy into our feedback, we send the unspoken message that we respect and care about our students, even those who are not struggling. For some of us, written comments might be too much, so we can use extensions like Kami to verbally comment on student work. We could also schedule Zoom conferences for more significant assignments and meet with students in a breakout space for that face-to-face feedback opportunity. No matter how we elevate the feedback process, taking time to have a conversation about student work gives us lots of information about how individual learners understand our suggestions for their improvement, and what they might be experiencing when they do the work for our classes.

Talk to Kids

During the same conference where I was told that my child was potentially falling through the cracks, the teacher never mentioned any conversations or attempts to communicate with my child individually. How can we really understand what kids know unless we communicate with them? If I want to learn more about what a student knows, I need to make the effort and reach out, either by phone or via email. For example, I talked to a teacher last week who works with a child who never turns the camera on when Zoom class is in session. While she finds this frustrating, the student always sends her emails after class with all of the assigned work attached, and the teacher uses this non-verbal opportunity to ask follow-up questions about both successes and barriers to learning. If I have a student who displays any kind of perplexing behavior, such as excelling on homework but failing tests, I will make it a point to meet with that student and talk about where the disconnect occurs. These kinds of conversations have always been important, but in our current pandemic scenario, they are indispensable.

My child has supportive parents as advocates, but my heart goes out to all the students who do not have that advantage. If we think about all of the children in our classes in terms of what their parents want for them, we know that any extra effort to stop someone from falling behind is an essential part of why we became teachers. By prioritizing an effective formative assessment process that encapsulates a “less is more” approach, providing frequent feedback, and checking in with kids, we can stop so much pandemic related learning loss in its tracks.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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