3 Lessons from Pandemic Teaching

With the advent of COVID-19, I had to put my exploration of free schools and self-directed education on hold. Last year, I returned to Baltimore City and taught virtually at Green Street Academy, a public charter school in West Baltimore. What follows is one in a series of posts reflecting on my teaching experience in the past year.

Prior to last school year, I had only used Zoom a handful of times for Teach for America trainings – of which all were protracted and featured those god-awful wheels facilitators use to randomly select poor, unwitting participants.

When I opened my Zoom room for the first time last year, I was apprehensive lest my virtual classroom be as miserable as those in which I’d participated. But after a year of testing ideas, finding victories, crashing and burning, and then trying again, I’ve learned a lot from pandemic teaching.

These are some of the lessons I’ll be taking back into my brick-and-mortar classroom this year, where I believe they’ll be just as useful.

1. Embrace that school is not every kid’s #1 priority.

The pandemic opened my eyes to the number of responsibilities my students hold outside of academics. I knew this intellectually before, but this year I saw it in real-time: students caring for siblings at home, joining Zoom from work or on the bus to work, multi-tasking class and college applications, stepping away from the computer to do household chores, calling in from the hospital or the courthouse, or leaving early to dress for a funeral.

For many of my seniors, the demands of family and finances loomed heavy, and Zoom class was lucky if it took position in their top three priorities. In the past, I might have taken the stance that school should come first, but for kids who are helping keep their family afloat, that is obviously an absurd proposition. For many students, it may have been an absurd proposition before the pandemic, but the shared hardships of COVID-19 directly or indirectly exposed teachers and other school professionals to realities from which we’re often shielded.

The question was then how to support students, continue providing a rigorous and relevant education, and adapt to their needs in the moment. When I was successful at this, it was because I communicated with students and sought to connect their lives to the class.

I reached out to students regularly through text message, because that was the means that worked for me and them. I usually knew what was going in their lives and could be flexible and supportive, while also communicating and protecting my need for work-life balance. My grade-team colleagues often did a good job of sharing information, so we could all be responsive to students’ needs.

These lines of communication allowed me to tie the immediate realities of students’ lives back to my class. Little siblings were welcome to join class and take turns reading aloud – in fact, they often infused joy and levity into a class full of quiet twelfth graders. When we did interviews and observations for our research into the sociology of labor, I encouraged students to build these into the context of their workday. The students who did so had the most authentic research findings and became exemplars for others. These connections validated students’ lives and priorities while supporting the content.

2. Create simple, reliable structures that give kids agency.

I’ve always known that protocols, roles, and structures help students take positive control of the classroom, but in the past, I’ve struggled to pick a plan and stick to it. The difficulty of encouraging student participation in virtual school forced my hand towards consistency, and the outcome was incredible.

These are some of the structures I will be taking back to my brick-and-mortar classroom.

Paperless. It would be a great joy if I never have to touch another piece of hard-copy student work ever again. Having assignments posted on google classroom massively decreased my frustration while increasing students’ ability to access past notes and assignments, preview or work ahead, redo or submit missed work, check due dates, and revise based on peer and teacher feedback. They no longer relied on me to dole out pieces of paper for them to start working – a huge relief to us all.

Discussion roles. The unmute button was anathema to high schoolers across the nation. Every high school teacher learned the discouragement of entering a breakout room to find a mosaic of black screen tiles with angry-looking, red, mic-muted icons. To combat this, I created simple, consistent discussion roles and drilled them throughout the year: facilitator, who asks the discussion question and calls on other students to answer it; notetaker, who types the group’s comments into the assigned document; and reporter, who summarizes the discussion when breakout rooms return to the main room. By the end of the year, most students knew exactly what was expected of them in each of these roles, and kids consistently stepped into leadership.

Digital notes doc. A simple but highly effective structure I developed during virtual learning was to assign a notetaker (on a mostly volunteer basis) to record each student’s comments during our discussions. These notes were written in a shared google doc, posted in the google classroom where all students could access it. The document provided myriad positive outcomes: students felt validated to see their words recorded and framed as a source of future evidence and research; notetaking encouraged careful listening and paraphrasing during class discussions; students who were absent or required more processing time could access the notes at any time to see what they missed; classes could more easily pick up where they left off; and I could return to the notes to assess student learning and participation.

Flexible and structured work time. For much of the year, students were working on group projects of their choosing. By the second semester, I developed a weekly calendar that gave students’ choice and autonomy while also creating collective responsibility.

MondayRead and analyze an article related to the research topic that will push the group’s thinking. Divide into persistent, smaller research teams and set a research goal for the week, including one of the class research question and a research method.
Tuesday-ThursdayWork independently or collaboratively within the smaller research team to complete the research goal. Record and label findings in the team’s notes document.
FridayEach team presents their findings from the week to the rest of the class. These are recorded in a shared notes document. The whole class discusses which questions have been answered, which require further investigation, and what steps to take next.

This structure became a familiar routine within which students had maximum autonomy to experiment with their preferred workflow, including pace, research question, method, and collaborators. I circulated to provide support and remind students of the expected deliverable (research notes in the document and a presentation of findings on Friday), but most of the follow-through came from students’ interest in their research and their sense of responsibility to their research team and the full class.

3. The best curriculum is the one students care about.

Like both of the lessons above, this has always been true. Like both of the lessons above, it’s taken me a global health crisis to really learn it.

Last year I was given the chance to teach electives for the first time, and chose Sociology and Social Science research, in large part because I thought it would give me the freedom to focus on what mattered to kids in the here-and-now.

At the beginning of the year, we studied the story of Grace, a teen who was incarcerated for failing to complete her classwork during virtual learning, to introduce the “Sociological Imagination.” We analyzed the connection between Grace’s personal struggles (e.g. her IEP not being honored, being black in a majority-white school, having prior involvement with the criminal injustice system) and systemic issues (e.g. disproportionality in arrest rates for black and disabled students). This was a story that thematized issues close to students’ hearts, and it quickly converted many of my kids who had never heard of Sociology and came in skeptical.

After this introduction, I gave students a chance to select from four topics into which they would take a deeper dive: prisons and police, urban gun violence, museums and elite cultural institutions, and LGBTQ+ hip hop. I selected these topics based on a student survey and curated resource collections for students to explore. After completing their survey of these resources, students participated in a virtual interview of an expert in the topic they chose. This was an exciting opportunity for many and gave them a chance to contextualize academic writing and sociology within the passions and pursuits of a real person. Plus, they didn’t have to hear me talk for a whole class period.

As the year progressed and students’ analytical frameworks matured, we took on a collaborative research project. Each class period selected their own topic through a week-long process of brainstorming, visioning, discussion, and consensus-building. By the end of the week, each class had selected a topic that everyone was invested in, not just the majority who had voted for it. To date, this is the most student-centered teaching I have ever done, and it was terrifying; I had four different groups of kids working on four different topics, none of which I could have anticipated or prepared for prior to their selection. It ended up being the most exhilarating and rewarding teaching experience I’ve ever had. I’ll share more about this process in a blog post to come.

Teaching an elective outside the rhythm and surveillance of a typical school day gave me the sense of freedom and courage to try these off-the-beaten path strategies. This was more than project-based learning – it was letting students pick the topic and direction of the course and building a curriculum responsive to their interests as we went.

In the past, I’ve let standards hamstring me, especially history content standards, which are far more expansive and less flexible than the Common Core reading and writing standards. In hindsight, nothing I did in my Sociology classroom would be impossible in a more structured content area if I ditched the conviction that I had to squeeze in every objective that the State of Maryland recommends I force-feed kids. Going forward, I see last year freeing me to start with kids, always start with kids, and build a curriculum from what matters to them.

Back to Brick-and-Mortar

Going back into the school building this week brings hope and apprehension. Despite all my best efforts and the efforts of my colleagues and school team, there were many students for whom distance learning just didn’t work. We had kids who struggled mightily, kids who disengaged completely, and kids who battled anxiety and depression in isolation. I’m grateful and optimistic that a return to the classroom will allow these students to get the supports from teachers, administrators, coaches, classmates, and friends that they’ve been missing.

On the other hand, there are aspects of distance learning that I’ve loved because they opened up new insights, practices, and successes. Some of these came from the empathy forced by the hardships wrought by COVID-19, some comes from the creative constraints posed by pandemic teaching, and some came from the freedom of teaching from home, out from under watchful eyes where it’s scary to experiment and risk failure. As I transition back into a traditional classroom, I find myself nervous to step away from Zoom.

Here’s hoping last year’s lessons will stick and I’ll continue to thrive in innovation as we return to the classroom. 

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