The 4 E's of Teaching in a Pandemic
Like many of you, the disruption caused by the COVID 19 pandemic has had profound impacts on my professional, personal, economic, and social paradigms. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the totality of what’s happened; maybe even, to a certain extent, I’m avoiding that reckoning. As a classroom teacher deep into a wide range of complex, project-based learning experiences, the sudden and abrupt departure from the classroom was a shock.
That said, what hurts the most is the disruption of relationships -- with students, colleagues, administrators, and the community. Even though it was mid-March, there was the faint recognition that we were turning the corner into spring, into longer, warmer days, and into the rites, rituals, and traditions that launch our middle level students into their next life and learning stage. But it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, on Sunday, March 15th, the state of Vermont announced the closure of schools until April 6 in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. In what felt like a scrambling whirlwind, educators were thrust into a dramatic, once in a career experience. Plans were redrawn, long nights were spent moving material into online formats, technological learning curves steepened. To be honest, there was a shot of adrenaline that lasted for the better part of a week. It was a brave new world of 21st century learning.
The “maintenance of learning phase” was to last for two, two and a half weeks, and then things, we hoped, would return to normal. It was not to be. Some ten days later, the rest of the school year was cancelled. Teachers, schools, and districts have rushed to create a “continuation of learning” plan that will, ideally, provide our students with some consistency, some connections, and some learning opportunities.
In the short time that my practice has gone totally online, I’ve recognized that there are four E’s around which I’m trying to maintain, continue, and in some cases, rebuild, relationships with students who are feeling as stressed, dislocated, and uncertain as I am.
Above all, I’m trying to engage my students in opportunities that are positive, supportive, interesting, and fun. If I can engage students in low-pressure, easy-to-access opportunities, I think our relationships and sense of community can prosper.
What does this look like for me? Each morning starts with a YouTube Livestream. Low stakes. Students tune in, say hello, and, using the chat function, ask questions as needed. Each day has an easy theme: Monday = Week Ahead, Tuesday = Trivia, Wednesday = Learning Game, Thursday = Current Events, Friday = Week in Review. This is totally optional! However, it helps set the tone for the day and gives me an opportunity to see who is engaging on a regular basis. Additionally, the live stream is recorded and becomes part of our YouTube playlist.
On Wednesdays, we also have a completely optional team Google Meet. There is no agenda and no expectation. It is simply an opportunity for students to come together socially, see each other, chat, ask questions, and have a good laugh.
On Thursdays and Fridays, we also have optional Minecraft gaming sessions. We run a Google Meet to ask questions and problem solve; students have the option to play the desktop or mobile version. Again, I am simply providing a platform for students to interact, have some fun, communicate, collaborate, and potentially, build structures related to our curriculum.
Speaking of curriculum, I have framed all of the learning as “learning opportunities”. As much as possible, I am providing students with 2-3 learning opportunities throughout the week. For example, this week, learning opportunities include the construction of two bibliographical entries for Vermont History Day, the optional submission of a creative writing or journal entry, and completing a book log using Google Forms.
When completed, students receive a certificate, or credential, that is placed on the personal learning plan as evidence of their learning. These learning opportunities are designed to support student access and understanding. More than that, and I fear, students will disengage and unplug from our online community.
Finally, to measure engagement, I keep a record of all the interactions I have with students. Attendance at the live stream? Email to me asking a question? Completed feedback survey? Learning opportunity completed? All of these are instances of engagement that I log. Each week, I scan the data and identify those students who have lower instances of engagement. As a team, we reach out to those students and families with emails and phone calls in order to facilitate a better connection with our learning community.
Everything that I’m trying to accomplish starts from a place of empathy. If I have observed one constant in this pandemic, it is that we have no way of possibly knowing how it is impacting individual students, families, extended families, or localized communities. Starting with empathy reminds me of how important it is to be kind, humble, understanding, flexible, and available.
For sure, this has stretched my emotional limits. Not only am I doing this with my students, I’m also doing this with family and friends. However, by consistently reminding myself to be empathetic, I can focus on building and maintaining positive relationships with students and the learning community.
Another disturbing feature of this pandemic is how clearly it has exposed the inequities in our society. Students and families do not have the same access to the educational experience. (And that is just one, of many, many spheres in our society that are so obviously and completely inequitable.) From internet access to support at home to devices to even having a space for learning, things are simply not equitable.
It’s hard to carry the weight of inequity through this crisis. On the one hand, the magnitude of the issue is such that if I let it, it would paralyze me. Instead, I’m trying to figure out ways that my teaching could be more equitable. This has included using fewer text-based resources and more video. This has also meant trying to provide closed captioning when available as well as providing resources in as many different formats as possible. Focusing on equity has also made me think a lot about Universal Design for Learning and how I can get the most important information to the most constituents in the simplest form. And this applies to my communications plan with families as well.
Inequity has also made me think about how we structure our learning experiences and what they are about. Many of my students have smartphones. Are we creating lessons accessible on those platforms? If so, how does that platform inhibit or accelerate learning?
Are there things I can be doing to support students who may have family members who are working and need access to the internet and devices? Am I making the learning experience available at many different times of the day? Am I checking in with students in a way that also lets me know their stress levels, emotional states, or feelings about the school experience?
None of these reflective questions answer the fundamental notions of inequity. But they have me thinking about it through a new lens which is giving me a huge new perspective on the problem.
The fourth E, encouragement, may be the most important of all. Throughout my interactions with students I have tried to be as encouraging as possible. This has been especially true in regards to feedback, commentary, and communications with students and families. Feedback is always given from a place of polite, positive, and encouraging strengths-based principles. “Thank you so much!” “I really appreciate the effort!”, and “It’s great to see you on the webinar!” are just a few examples of how, through my verbal and written communications, I am trying to encourage students to want to stay engaged and even the simple addition of exclamation points adds an emotional touch to comments.
Let’s face it, this pandemic is taking a huge toll on all of us. Why not use the opportunity to be as pleasant, positive, and uplifting as possible? This even extends to adding emojis to emails and feedback. Creating that encouraging environment can only support students and families who may be dealing with extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
In our last webinar, two of my students made guest appearances. These are students who have found a great deal of success in the classroom and who are self-directed and self-motivated. It was a shock to hear how much sadness and loss they have experienced in the month since school ended. Not only have they had emotional responses to the event, they also report specific instances of feeling overwhelmed by the online experience and struggling to manage, without the support of a classroom community, the educational experience which can feel remote and devoid of comfort.
As we move into the “continuation of learning” phase, I would encourage all of us to move forward with empathy, to engage and encourage students, and to resolve to address the huge inequities that have been so clearly exposed by the pandemic.
Finally, I wish you all good health, safety, and the courage to keep moving forward.