Equity in the Virtual Classroom

On a normal school day, you could walk into any middle school classroom in the world and find a group of young people with a wide range of experiences and identities, all in a unique moment of their development as human beings. The intellectual diversity of students is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of working with this age group, but when students and educators can’t gather in the physical space of a school, the classroom dynamics and activities teachers rely on to build the relationships that create a sense of equity are almost completely gone.

The task of “meeting students where they are” becomes much more literal and complex for educators; one of the first tasks for administrators has been to adapt breakfast and lunch programs to reach students who rely on their school to get enough to eat. The families that students typically leave at home during the school day are now ever-present as they are tasked with remote learning; for some, two parents are living and working at home, some have single parents caring for them, and some students are responsible for taking care of siblings. Most of these situations were very real and present for students before COVID-19, but now they are inescapable.

At the same time, teachers have a much harder time monitoring their students’ engagement and well-being. In the virtual classroom, a struggling student may be completely un-responsive, giving no indication why they are not engaging with learning modules or turning in work. Other students fall between the cracks and their learning gap widens because they don’t have the support they need to follow through and do their best. Assessing student work with equity in mind becomes a guessing game when each student has a different level of access to school materials and a different home experience.

If high-performing middle schools provide the best educational experience for their students when they create an equitable learning environment, how do we begin to translate those dynamics and practices to the digital space? When we get back to school, how do we use this experience to better adapt school services to meet students’ needs? It’s clear that taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach and giving all students the exact same learning opportunities is not sufficient to serve students from various backgrounds influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality. That’s why AMLE is engaged in revising our landmark position paper This We Believe, scheduled for release this fall, to take these differences into account as things to be respected and embraced rather than considered a deficit or ignored.

Educators should examine how they can build a school community that models equity for students and families through policies and a culture that acknowledges differences and ensures that students are not punished for them. Students should see themselves reflected in that culture and expect to be respected as individuals. ALL school staff, including teachers, counselors, aides, and administrative and support staff can affirm the voices of all students in the school community.

Educators who practice continuous self-assessment and improvement should always be asking “What am I not seeing?” Teachers need to acknowledge their own cultural background to see their blind spots and gain an understanding of the complex social realities that students are experiencing, as they are always influenced by social identities. Modeling this kind of social responsibility and giving students the opportunity to do so ensures a culturally relevant and respectful education, which colorblind pedagogies are rarely able to provide.

The conversation on making middle school education a truly equitable experience is only just beginning. We have prioritized discussions on equity in our webinars and #mschats, so check out our upcoming topics and get involved!