By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching
Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.
When I was teaching sixth grade, I remember starting the year filled with excitement, and what seemed like an endless stockpile of lesson plans and ideas. August and September were devoted to community building exercises, introductory explorations of topics we’d dive into later, and goal setting for the year. In October we built on the groundwork we’d laid in the first six weeks, and things really got moving. And then November hit. Somehow the seemingly endless lesson ideas would run out, the energy we’d built would diminish, and my stamina would start to drain – with Thanksgiving and the December holidays feeling far away.
During this extraordinary 2020-2021 school year, many of my teaching colleagues are hitting this point of exhaustion now, in mid-October. We started the year with a sense of novelty as we built classroom communities for the first time in this new reality. Whether the novelty of the start of the year was filled with excitement or dread, or both, that newness is wearing off now. The challenges of online and hybrid learning are stretching our creative thinking and problem solving skills to the max. One teaching colleague recently shared that she is experiencing migraines for the first time in her life due to too much screen time. Another says he is starting physical therapy to address spine compression he’s experiencing from too much sitting. Another has to change masks throughout the day because she keeps sweating through them. Many of us are still experiencing a steep technology learning curve as we navigate the new and changing tools that connect us to our students and to one another. For many of us, these are not the conditions that inspire creativity.
So now what?
Pause for a moment and really listen to and observe your students. Notice what they are telling you – with their words and actions. These three reflection questions can help guide this process:
- What do my students need?
- What are my students interested in learning, and in doing?
- Are there opportunities for leadership I can offer them?
The answers can be big (1-love; 2-getting out the vote; 3-student-facilitated lessons) or small (1-twenty jumping jacks; 2-going outside to collect fall leaves; 3-let students take attendance). Either way, the act of observing and listening to students will offer valuable insights, and maybe even some inspiration.
Finding answers to these core questions can be difficult if you’re teaching exclusively online. If your students keep their cameras off and primarily communicate through chat, you’re not able to observe with all of your senses. But a survey built around these questions might be very revealing and to the extent you can find time for individual or small group conferences you can glean a lot from a focused conversation.
You can also weave these questions into your daily whole-class instruction. They can be presented as part of a warm up, or connected to specific content/curricular goals, i.e.
- Given what you already know about solving single-variable algebraic equations, what do you need right now to be able to solve a two-variable algebraic equation?
- Now that you’ve completed your project on Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series, what are you interested in learning next about the experience of Black Washingtonians who came to our city from the South?
- Would you like to lead the first part of our class discussion on Act II of Macbeth? What kind of support would you like from me to prepare you to lead that discussion?
Student responses – joyful or otherwise – will offer useful information about where to go next.
Part of what makes this time of year so difficult is that demands on teachers often feel like they pull us away from the biggest source of joy in our profession: our students. And the unique challenges of this school year already made connecting with our students more difficult. But see what happens when you ask these questions of yourself, and your students. There are likely seeds of inspiration to be found in the answers.