Regardless of the educational model, concerns over how to address students’ social-emotional needs and potential learning gaps have taken center stage. How do we meet learning needs and deliver instruction safely for all students, staff, their families, and the larger school community?
It is a tall order to prioritize and balance student mental health, wellness, and safety while creating an authentic educational program that serves the needs of our diverse learners. But instead of an impossible undertaking, I see the makings of what could be one of education’s greatest stories yet.
The answer just might lie in the COVID-19 twist of fate that can, in fact, bring all stakeholders together and allow for a deeper understanding of what constitutes the modern S.A.F.E school. Bolstered by letters from my own students and parents, I propose a new approach to school safety for the mid- to post-COVID era.
It has been a trying time in our community, as well as in our nation. I am writing this letter to thank you for all that you do for our community and our school! I really enjoy attending your class, as everything we learn about is so fascinating! I really love the activities you assign, because they’re so much fun; especially the Survivor Quarantine Edition assignments.
The ambience of your class is very calming, if that makes sense. I always tend to feel more at ease there. I also really enjoy our discussions in class. To be honest, I’m really timid, but as time goes on, I’ve become a bit more confident in participating and engaging in our discussions. The discussions in question are always very interesting, too; not only are the questions very nicely structured, but the way my classmates speak so passionately about what we’re learning in class is always incredibly intriguing and fascinating to listen to.
From: Rania (To be continued)
Rania is a typical, shy 13 year old. As a virtual student, she came to class every day eager to learn. However, I learned quickly that it was going to take more than technology to get her to transcend from just wanting to be seen, to wanting to be heard. As educators grapple with how to reintroduce learners to in-person instruction, all stakeholders should celebrate what we were able to accomplish together while also acknowledging that there remains great uncertainty and challenges ahead.
Safety in its most basic physical form is the condition of being protected from harm. If we are to properly protect students, especially during pivotal times of change or uncertainty, social-emotional well-being is a “must have” for all modern SAFE schools. This should be considered in conjunction with academics and not in lieu of them. As a result, the traits that constitute the 21st century educational experience become more about:
- Building Character through Caring
- Displaying Excellence through Communication
- Unity Created through Collaboration
- Equity & Empathy Built with Experience-based Academic Opportunities.
These ideas are not new. The shift is allowing for a more prominent focus on skill building and collaboration to accomplish our academic goals with an emphasis on how we do this together as a community.
“ I feel like Social Studies is also a really nice safe space as well. I like how you hardly (if not at all) share your opinions on certain topics, and instead allow us to decide what we think instead; without forcing us to conform to a certain way of thinking. Even if you might disagree with some of the topics or anything the students say, you always remain incredibly respectful and never behave unkindly. As a student, I especially appreciate this, as I like thinking for myself — even if it’s a bit troubling for me.”
[To be continued]
A NEW APPROACH TO S.A.F.E SCHOOLS
I believe that modern S.A.F.E schools provide all students with:
S: SOCIAL EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
A: AVAILABLE & ACCESSIBLE OPPORTUNITIES
F: FLEXIBLE & FORMATIVE LEARNING
E: EQUITABLE & EMPATHETIC EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES
As an example, Grace was a student who came to my social studies class every day worried … about science. She was not doing well. Together, we devised a plan to help her be more successful. With the support of her mom and science teacher, we began to see her grades dramatically improve. We celebrated that victory and shared her “secret to success” with other students on our team. Her gains in science made her a better student overall, and allowed others to learn from her experience. Sharing success is life changing for a middle schooler. When teachers and student are willing to creatively and constructively come together in an effort to better understand and identify with students’ needs, that is meaningful. And it makes all the difference.
Academic success comes, but only after students understand the classroom to be a “safe space,” a place that can propel them forward, to take risks, and to strive for success. The result allows students to more confidently explore diverse learning experiences.
Let’s dig into each aspect of a S.A.F.E. school.
S: SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
“ … including diversity will benefit everyone, not just students who are people of color. It is good to be educated on other peoples’ culture and history, because how else, will the world progress if we are not aware of what is happening around us? Students should be aware that they are not the only citizens in America and their race, culture or background isn’t the only one either. “
-Lamiah, 13 years old.
It has never been about whether we communicate, but rather more about how and what we communicate. For students and families, communicating that their social-emotional needs are a priority is essential to earning their buy in and making them fully-vested stakeholders. The post-COVID world of education will require teachers, counselors, and school professionals to get personal by recreating a familiarity that all kids should experience at school:
- Established routines, procedures, and processes that bring people together
- Established empathy and “workable contentment”
- Social-emotional polls and check-ins as a regular part of every student’s daily school routine.
- Springboarding conversations starting with “where students are” emotionally to help teachers provide all students with exactly what they need.
This social-emotional guidance walks hand in hand with student’s academic growth and success.
“Students being able to relate to our subjects better in school would really be helpful to better understanding for all people. Learning information has an effect on people. checking on others mental health and nothing changes that are harming students both mentally as well as physically is important. I feel like if teachers had more guidelines about specific curriculum and were allowed to focus more on mental health, it would have a great impact in helping all students to be successful, especially those who don’t focus on their studies. Good mental health, along with a sense of perspective and belonging, of being able to relate to our studies will help all students in New York and across the nation.”
– Evelyn, 13 years old
A: AVAILABLE AND ACCESSIBLE
We must tailor our instruction to meet student’s individual needs both in and out of the classroom. Transitional and transformational teaching and learning should promote empathy while also recognizing the need to track personal growth and progress. With modern technology, the possibilities are endless and might include:
- Learning about history through the lenses of different cultures and races so we can better understand how each contributed to today’s society,
- Bring middle school and high school students together for a symposium to discuss racial justice and social etiquette, or discuss how they might contribute to improvements in their school and community.
- Zoom in other educators from other cities or countries to learn about kids from kids.
Establishing connections, celebrating personal accomplishments, and setting a positive tone for student success and individual growth can come in all shapes and sizes, but the end result is game changing.
“Although I was a completely virtual student this year, I still had the opportunity to examine history from multiple perspectives by going on virtual field trips. I spent-time with my classmates analyzing Asian & African American history; and debating on some topics. I’ve also continued to see some of the parallels in the Asian American and African American experience from past to present.”
-Naomi, 13 years old
F: FLEXIBLE & FORMATIVE LEARNING
“ When Nelson told me he wanted to make a garden, I was glad to say yes. This could be beneficial to us because I have heard that food was running low in some stores”
For students to broaden their horizons while staying connected to the classroom, varied learning tasks need to provide continuous opportunities for student voice, choice, practical application, and relevant problem-solving both in and out of the classroom. Incenting students by integrating causes important to them, their families, their school, and the local communities helps them connect their education and citizenship. Transforming their backyards into “Victory Gardens” while studying World War II, helping provide food to families in need during the pandemic, providing support to senior citizens, and conducting initiatives targeted at thanking and supporting local businesses, are all examples of ways students can engage in varied educational opportunities to become true, immersive learners. Assessment now was not just formative and flexible, but exploratory and beneficial. And it gives students choices on how best display their mastery of content.
E: EQUITABLE & EMPATHETIC EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES
“My parents were also immigrants and students don’t get to learn about the difficulty of being immigrants or how it is to grow up feeling like the “odd” one out. If we were to include these issues in the curriculum, I do feel like students would feel more comfortable at school and be inspired. “
-Ismalay, 13 years old.
My students were so excited to visit San Francisco, California. “It was like we were actually there,” even though it was a virtual adventure. Technology has allowed educators to provide all students with previously unavailable life experiences. Virtual field trips have provided students real world access to the content they are studying. Traveling to Angel Island Immigration Station to see hand carved Chinese poetry on the walls, or to The Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi to learn about how Medgar Evers became Mississippi’s “Martin Luthr King, Jr.” captured student’s imaginations while continuing to promote more equitable, culturally responsive, and inclusive instruction. These types of opportunities are important for all students, but especially for middle schoolers. Through primary investigation, students were able to learn about the historical impact of domestic events, while discovering the significant relationship that exists between our history and the modern world. The importance of acquiring multiple perspectives and discussing worldviews on our greater shared humanity gives all students further opportunities to broaden their perspectives.
THE CONCLUSION: BEING HUMAN, FIRST
“You’ve been a wonderful teacher, and I really appreciate all that you do for me and my fellow classmates. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done, Mrs. Ingold!
As educators, we now have not just an opportunity but a responsibility to reshape education for the future. Middle School is often the time when students begin to plan for that future and set goals for their life. The first step is a willingness to stay connected to being active participants in that process. Creating S.A.F.E environments that allow all students to thrive requires educators be authentic, work together, and prioritize being human, first. The result will be students who recognize the valuable transformational role their education plays in self-discovery.