When Schools Reopen, It Shouldn’t Be Business as Usual

Voices | Remote Learning

When Schools Reopen, It Shouldn’t Be Business as Usual

By Todd Flory     May 11, 2020

When Schools Reopen, It Shouldn’t Be Business as Usual

Even amid the uncertainty of what the school year will look like in the fall, teachers are itching to get back to some semblance of normalcy. Greeting students at the door each morning, chatting with them about their weekend, providing in-person feedback on projects, and facilitating student-led conversations are among the many joys we miss during this pandemic.

Aside from the in-person interactions and serendipitous moments, there are other parts of the educational experience worth revisiting and reconsidering before we return to business as usual. Many of these issues are ones that educators have long known about and advocated for. But the strains and challenges of remote instruction have thrust them into the spotlight, with a new level of urgency and emphasis.

Less Testing, More Feedback

Parents and educators have long pushed for focusing less on grades and tests, in favor of spending more time on giving student feedback. During this time of remote instruction, many school districts are forgoing giving grades. In addition, many states have cancelled giving the required state assessment tests that usually occur in the spring.

While it is important to assess students’ learning and keep some records of what skills they have mastered, the more important process of learning involves dialogue, teacher feedback, student learning conversations and self-reflection. Grades simply aren’t the most important aspect of learning, especially among the younger grades.

Learning is a messy process, full of mistakes, corrections and adjustments, and the journey of discovery is often just as important as the end result. During this time, I have tried to become more intentional about giving additional student feedback on projects and assignments the students are doing at home. I have also seen many teachers express relief from the usual feeling of being encumbered by grades and state assessments. Despite all the other challenges of remote learning, they find themselves able to work with their students more on the process of the learning, rather than feeling the need to give a grade and move on to the next concept.

Quality Over Quantity

One of the changes that my district implemented as we were planning the transition to remote continuous learning was to focus more on the essential standards and content, and less about getting through an entire set of curriculum. Each grade-level district team met virtually and figured out the most important content areas that students needed to learn before the end of the year.

We accepted the reality that there would be many aspects that we simply would not be able to cover. Still, we needed to identify the most important and critical areas to focus on. For example, instead of covering all of the Common Core reading standards for my fourth-grade class, we decided to focus on one standard: identifying key ideas and details in literature and informational text.

This approach has allowed us to go deeper with the learning since we are focusing on fewer concepts. Concentrating our efforts on a few critical content areas helps students emerge with a deeper understanding of that academic concept.

Too often, educators feel rushed to get through the myriad of lessons in the textbook or curriculum guide. During this pandemic, some educators have been given the freedom to slow down and provide more quality instruction, instead of following a rigid pacing guide that adheres more to the curriculum schedule than to students’ educational needs.

Focus on Social-Emotional Learning

In addition to the dramatic disruption to teaching and learning, another significant blow has been the strain on students’ social and emotional needs. They are missing the opportunity to connect with one another, both informally and within structured student learning conversations. Schools provide structures and schedules that help foster students’ social and emotional learning, and which are difficult—if not impossible—to replicate with everyone at home..

When my district started remote instruction, many teachers planned regular video conferencing sessions solely to address their students’ social and emotional needs. Every Tuesday and Thursday mornings, my class gathered over a virtual meeting, where the purpose is simply to stay connected with one another and continue to build relationships and develop empathy. Students share about their weekends, struggles and successes, and we often conduct virtual class-building activities.

Some students who may struggle to complete and submit online assignments are regulars during our virtual class meetings. It’s a way for everyone to connect with one another and still maintain that sense of belonging and being classmates. When we return to in-person classes again, I hope we remember that addressing our students’ social and emotional needs is often the fuel they need to focus and perform academically.

Technology Equity

Throughout this pandemic, it’s become clear that technology is a necessity for teaching and learning. It’s also become increasingly clear that not all students have the luxury of a device or internet access in their homes. Reliable internet is a basic utility that should be accessible to all regardless of one’s location or income.

While we won’t necessarily be as reliant on technology and internet for learning when school buildings reopen, the remote learning experience has shown us new ways in which we might infuse video messages, conferencing and other online tools in the classroom.

It has hopefully also shown others that while technology supports teaching, it doesn’t replace it. Learning is, at its basic construct, a social activity. Digital tools can help teaching and learning, and investments should be made in schools and communities to foster that. Too often, students have been told to leave their devices at home or in their lockers during class. But perhaps this pandemic has shown us that those devices need to be available as a learning tool, as it may free up devices for others to use.

The pandemic has forced us to reexamine education and to adapt, whether we were prepared for it or not. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to large, systemic problems in education, such as inequity and overtesting. But this is also an opportunity to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t working, and to renew our commitment to the ideas and values in education we know should be a priority, both in remote continuous learning or in-person instruction.

When we finally do recover, we should throw out what the pandemic showed us wasn’t important. After all, if it isn’t a necessity now, how essential was it to begin with?

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