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Just Keep Swimming! Four Vital Teaching Practices

As a D.C. area resident, I can really tell when spring has sprung. Not only are the cherry blossoms near the Tidal Basin approaching peak bloom, but my friends with pollen allergies also have watery eyes and a healthy supply of Kleenex. Whether we enjoy seeing the world in bloom or not, springtime means that we are nearly in the home stretch of the 2020-2021 school year. In a typical school year (which this one is not), most of us are ready for a reset by late March. This year, the chance to disconnect from work is even more crucial and well-deserved. Having a restful spring break away from any computer screens might be our only desire at this moment, but most of us are back at it once April begins. What practices have we learned to maximize in the past year that are worth holding onto and that will inspire us to plan out the final months of instruction with a sense of excitement and verve?

Tech Savvy

As I taught my virtual class the other day, I had two laptops logged into Zoom and about 20 tabs up on each laptop. I managed to keep the momentum going without any major mishaps (believe me, a rare accomplishment) as my class shifted from slides to videos to breakout rooms. Who knew that teachers would become so accustomed to juggling multiple online platforms while teaching students at the same time? We love to hate it, but technology has been our friend for lo these many months. What have we learned that we should keep doing, regardless of whether we are in person or not? For example, a lot of us have increased our use of voice feedback on student assignments, which is usually far more kid-friendly. Students are more likely to listen to us talk them through their mastery of criteria for success if they can hear us explain what they did well and what needs work. Listening to a recording that can be replayed is much easier than having to decipher written comments that do not communicate nearly as much. Another tech tool to hold onto is the use of online boards, such as Padlet or Jamboard, that help students share quick written thoughts. We can use these tools to check for understanding, to do a short formative assessment, or to simply gather student responses in a non-verbal format. Either way, we have options we did not necessarily know about before distance learning, and we should continue applying them in person.

Engagement Awareness

With Zoom cameras going off on us this past year while we interacted with people we could not see, there have been a lot more conversations about what it means for a student to be engaged and what that looks like. It is a lot easier to notice and address student disengagement when we are physically separated from students, but we can take what we have learned with us back into classrooms. With the different locations and situations that learning has taken place in this year, we have become ever more aware of finding ways to make our classes as appealing as possible. Why stop? For example, if a student has demonstrated a preference to send us emails rather than to speak out verbally in class, we can communicate our intention to continue honoring that student’s learning style and keep the email chain going. Or, if we have allowed students to submit assignments in multiple modalities in order to be flexible, we may opt to maintain our increased responsiveness as we head into the next few months. The bottom line is that students are more likely to engage when they find class to be relevant, so this might be the wrong time to dig our heels in and do things the way we like. Instead, it might be more productive to think about prioritizing engagement through choice and flexibility.

Equitable Calling

Let’s face it: the process of calling on students can be almost as anxiety-producing as being called on. How do we remove that pressure and that “gotcha” feeling that students often internalize when they feel like they are being picked on if they don’t know the answer? One vital strategy no matter where we are is to give all students time to process a question before we call on them, ideally with a learning partner. That way, the purpose of soliciting student responses is to gauge the learning of the larger group, not to put one person on the spot. Another practice to keep in our arsenal are the multitude of random calling generators that exist online. When we use these appealing online tools (having confetti fall when someone’s name pops up is definitely cute), students can see that we are not targeting them personally or picking on them. Talk about making the transparency of equitable calling visible to students. Before we left physical classroom spaces, a lot of us knew that our calling practices needed an overhaul, but that upgrade became a lot easier with the help of some online applications. By providing students both with the thinking time they need, as well as calling on them with visible tools, we can keep our calling practices fair to all.

Don’t Skimp on SEL

People that I have known for years, many quite well, are not acting like themselves. This has been a year of significant and widespread trauma. More than ever, we are finally saying that it is okay to not be okay, and it’s not just the adults we’re talking about. The kids are often not all right, but in the past, we may have had a difficult time prioritizing their social and emotional needs because of so many other competing priorities. Now, while some schools have been forced into giving SEL more time and attention, we recognize the all-important link between well-being and academic achievement. There are so many ways to test the temperature of students’ mindsets each day, from having the class hold up color-coded cards to represent their current mood to activities that are aligned to curriculum goals. For example, in any language course, we can ask students to write a poem that reveals their feelings without sharing the name of the actual feeling (which will become the poem’s title) and then the class can guess the answer. In any content area, students can engage in community circles or other discussion-based lessons to have prioritized time for communication.

Teaching is so complex and we have so much to take care of each day. We can’t possibly get it 100 percent right most of the time (after all, perfection is an impossible standard), but remembering what to prioritize as well as what works can help us feel more grounded. When we think about what will be useful as we move into April, May and June, holding onto what we have found to be effective for the past several months avoids our reinventing every wheel that comes along. That way, we can truly enjoy the springtime flowers around us (if not the pollen that comes with them) and feel proud of everything we’ve done this year.

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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