March 15, 2021
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.
As many of us head back into the in-person classroom in the coming weeks, we face stresses we’ve never had to deal with before: the challenge of concurrent teaching, engaging both remote and in-person students simultaneously; the stress of keeping ourselves and our students safe from a disease; the pressure of learning and following complex new safety protocols; and more. It’s difficult to apply creative thinking while operating in survival mode. But even within these constraints, we know a return to the old normal will not work. (Was it really working then?) So, how can we make school worth it in this new reality?
Here are six concrete actions school leaders and teachers can take to make school a place where students and teachers can thrive in this uniquely important moment:
1. Collect meaningful data.
Learning loss is real, but it shouldn’t get all the airtime. If we focus solely on making up for things lost, we ignore the meaningful learning students and teachers have engaged in this year, and we lose out on the opportunity to build on the creativity and capacity for growth that students and teachers have shown. Before we set academic goals, we need to gather information about what our students have experienced this past year. This includes students who have thrived during online learning (How did you set up your home learning environment? What do you know now about yourself as a learner?) as well as those who have struggled (What do you need in order to feel comfortable and confident as a learner? What advice do you have for me, your teacher, to help me support you best?). A commitment to collecting meaningful data is even more critical for students who have experienced the loss of a loved one and other trauma during this difficult year.
2. Prioritize relationship building.
Pre-pandemic, we understood the importance of building relationships in school – co-creating classroom and school expectations, putting routines and rituals in place, and building with our students a safe and engaging learning environment. As we re-enter the school building, it will be more important than ever to devote time to remodeling that learning environment together with students. Some students will be delighted to see their friends, some will be tentative and afraid. Some students, especially those who have transitioned from elementary to middle school or middle to high school, may be seeing the faces of their classmates (vs. black zoom squares) for the very first time. The same is true for teachers.
Making deliberate choices to create opportunities for students to claim the classroom space and get to know one another in new ways will go a long way in setting everyone up for success. And it will also be important to stay connected to the parents and guardians whose living rooms and kitchens have been classrooms for the past year. Scribe’s Record is a great way to put students in charge of capturing each day’s learning in a format that can be shared with families.
3. Support student agency.
At Inspired Teaching, we meet every other week with dozens of high school students for Speak Truth – a student-led seminar in which young people discuss and debate current issues of their choice. Recent topics have included reforming the police force, voter suppression, cancel culture, and colorism. Our students attend public, charter, and independent high schools across the region. Most have been fully remote. They miss their friends and their teachers. However, students consistently tell us they’ve grown so much during this year – independent of school. They’ve pursued issues of interest via Speak Truth, social media, chat groups, and their own curiosity, and have become experts in their own personal curricula because they have the time and flexibility to follow their own intellectual curiosity.
If school is going to feel relevant at all for young people, students will need to be in the driver’s seat. Thoughtful students will demand the opportunity to continue to learn with the flexibility and freedom they’ve experienced this past year. And we need to be wise enough to listen to them.
4. Teach critical media literacy.
While it’s important to avoid overwhelming students with the barrage of news we’ve all been navigating during this time of pandemic and racial reckoning, it’s also critical to be alert and responsive to the things we are reading about, watching, listening to, and experiencing. In-person schooling will likely offer a break from screen time and may reduce the onslaught of information that has been at students’ fingertips. Actual facetime with your students can offer a great opportunity to them to process what they’ve been watching, reading, hearing. Teach them to find reliable sources, to distinguish between real news and fake. Help them stand in a place of power by teaching them to create their own news show. While it is important to keep discussions about news we find online developmentally appropriate, helping students discern fact from fiction and propaganda from useful information is essential to their development as engaged citizens in a democracy.
Proactively soliciting student feedback is a vital way of validating the lived experience of the young people in our care. Creating regular spaces in our day to really hear what our students are feeling, learning, appreciating, and needing reminds them that their voices and their experience are respected and valued. Active listening can take a variety of forms, ranging from informal daily check-ins to instituting a student advisory committee to provide feedback to adults on what is and isn’t working.
6. Take care of yourself.
Remember the rule of the airplane oxygen mask: you can’t help others if you haven’t secured yours first. Educate yourself about what you need to stay healthy in your school. Build time into each week when you will turn off your school focus and do things to take care of yourself – like taking a walk, making a meal from scratch, watching a favorite TV show – hold that time sacred!
And find time to dream of a better tomorrow with like-minded colleagues. It’s good for your brain to spend time thinking about what’s possible, and it’s even better to equip yourself with strategies to make school joyful and productive for yourself and your students. You can do all of this at our 100% interactive March Inspired Teaching Institutes, which begin this week! Sign up for one or both of these free, virtual sessions, 3/20 and 3/24!
Wishing you a good week – and hope to see you soon!