Defeat and Renewal
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Resetting teaching and learning after a taxing school year
We are ending the 2020 - 21 school year as we began: fully masked, socially distanced, eyeball deep in Google Meets, and grappling with ongoing student disengagement and trauma. Last year, I wrote a bit about what I'd learned from that (even stranger) school year and how I imagined teaching in the 2020 - 21 school year. The reality of teaching this year was a sort of slow-motion, muffled (muted? Crud, am I muted? ) version of teaching as I've always experienced it. Our hybrid scheduling model for students meant that hallways were spooky empty. My lessons echoed around too-quiet classrooms. Powered by temperamental WiFi and optimism, they bounced around cyberspace on their way to bedrooms and kitchen tables. Sometimes it was hard to know if anyone was listening.
I've heard it said that pandemic restrictions stripped away most of what students and teachers like about school, leaving behind mostly drudgery. I had to recalibrate my understanding of the link between social interactions and learning, especially as it relates to the way teenagers view school. Without social cues to push them along, an alarming number of students simply abandoned the field. Humans are social creatures (and the adolescent brain in particular is wired to respond to peers) so most of this shouldn't have been a surprise. What was more alarming was the paucity of motivation and direction that was left when the social component was stripped away. I've also been mulling the likelihood that our savvy adolescents have taken advantage of fraying adult expectations and mixed messages in a totally predictable way.
In a recent Cult of Pedagogy podcast, host Jennifer Gonzalez made the point that the close of this year offers an opportunity to reflect on some educational practices that may have exasperated the educational calamity of the last 15 months. She emphasized that these undertakings shouldn't be the work of teachers alone, but of administrators and policy makers as well. Most of the points she made are summarized in this graphic from her blog post (you'll have to listen to understand the kiwi!):
I agree that it would be an ideal time to make some changes that have been a long time coming anyway. But I'm afraid that most of us are so drained right now that our greatest ambition is a return to the way things were in December 2019. Our experiences of the last year will force some shifts in the way teaching and learning happens simply because our habits have changed. For example, we've all learned to be more creative with technology and will likely continue to use some of the tools that have been pandemic staples. Also, the bifurcated nature of our classrooms this year required us to consider how both students in class and at home would engage in our lessons. Such purposeful consideration and habitual differentiation is the root of an educational approach called universal design for learning (UDL). While we should have been doing this all along, this year UDL was almost a prerequisite to successful lessons. That experience may have made UDL more automatic for us, leaving a stamp on how we approach lesson planning going forward.
While there will be some positive pandemic era after-effects, other changes will take more leadership. For example, the power of high stakes tests (such as the Regents exams in New York State) may have been dented, but these traditional gateways show no sign of changing significantly. Because of this, high school teachers working to ready their students for these tests are unlikely to make major changes to their assessment regimens for fear of underpreparing their students for these very traditional exams.
Here are a few more of my thoughts as I read Gonzalez's list:
More collaboration: I'm more excited than ever to build collaboration into my lessons next year. I observed (and participated) in the abject failure of many lecture-based lessons this year. While these never worked well for certain students, they were even more ineffectual during remote learning. The best moments I had were when I was able to get kids talking to one another about what they were learning- a formidable challenge with so few kids physically in school. I can't wait to redouble my efforts to foster collaboration when the deck isn't so stacked against me.
More remote & hybrid options: I agree that there were circumstances this year where the option for students to join class remotely was important. For example, if a student was not feeling well or had to travel, they could still join class. A handful of students experiencing severe anxiety or other disabilities thrived with remote learning. However, I do not believe that each teacher should continue to have to offer their instruction remotely as a regular part of their work. It was extremely challenging to split my attention this way when teaching and I rarely manage to do it equitably. Also, hybrid students frequently abused our system, joining class remotely even when they were not scheduled to (this almost always had negative consequences for their learning). I do believe that a remote option could be considered for a consortium of schools as an option for certain students.
More flexible, pre-recorded content: I love the idea of pre-recorded content and really wanted it to work. I had success with it in certain circumstances but it rarely seemed worth the time it took to prepare (although I've definitely gotten faster at recording and posting instructional videos). I now know that for this approach to be useful, I will have to explicitly teach students how to use video instruction and make it a regular part of my classroom routines. I'll have to think about how that might look during a more conventional school year.
Dedicated time for relationship building: For the first time in my career, I planned brief relationship building or SEL activities into most of my lessons this year. I found these to be well worth the investment. Next year, I'd like to move more of these from "get to know each other" territory (still valuable) towards more purposeful instruction of SEL competencies.
More feedback, fewer grades: This is an area I've considered carefully before and I implemented some real changes to my feedback/grading schemes this year. I learned that old habits die hard, especially for students who are used to boosting their grades by "making up missing work." I have to consider how much of my new grading scheme I will keep going forward but I believe more than ever that simplicity and transparency should hold primacy. In my case, trying a grading plan that was so different than my colleagues this past year may have violated this dictum and caused some confusion for my students. I still believe that we can do better when it comes to fairly assessing students and giving them useful feedback.
More fluid or incremental deadlines: As a teacher, I've always tried to give students maximum flexibility as well as opportunities for second chances. The extraordinarily varied circumstances of our students this school year meant that most teachers were even more flexible that usual. Unfortunately, participation rates at the end of this year were lower than ever with large numbers of students in several of my classes not even attempting major assessments like tests and projects. Large spans of class-free time for "make up work" has been scheduled for the end of June. We have provided credit recovery plans throughout the year for those students who have failed, offering second and third chances. At a certain point, I wonder if our desire to exercise grace is actually sending students the wrong message about what we expect from them academically. Many adults would avoid their obligations if they were assured of zero consequences and almost unlimited second chances; adolescents are even less likely to follow through under these circumstances.
Flexibility and patience are certainly lessons we all should have learned well this last year. However, next year will need to be a "reset" for students when it comes to meeting deadlines and being accountable for their choices. We teachers can help students in that process by carefully communicating our expectations and by ensuring that students have the help they need along the way. In turn, administrators should be prepared to support teachers as they enforce reasonable deadlines.
This year was one that some educators will try to forget. I'll try to remember the good experiences I did have: laughing with students over the absurdity of technology juggling and slow-motion lesson flops, managing to have productive exchanges with students over non-traditional mediums, and the important work of processing history-making events in real time with my classes. Although it will be a relief to have busy hallways again, this year's half-empty school afforded chances to work with individual students in a way that might not be possible normally. I suspect that some of the the relationships I managed to build during this trying year will prove to be more durable than might have been otherwise.
Our education system took a beating this year. It's hard to argue that any part of it emerged unscathed. But there's no reason we can't dust ourselves off and start planning for a rewarding 2021 - 22 school year.