COVID-19 has challenged us to re-envision education. Every aspect of “best practice” is currently up for re-examination and debate, from current academic practices to recommendations on how to best develop meaningful curriculum to how to cultivate meaningful relationships with students/families. In the process, we have also discovered that it is not enough to make education just available, it has to be accessible in order to be equitable. We often wonder, “How did we get here?” and “How do we get out of here?” without realizing between those two questions is a real opportunity for change. So, do we embrace the changes necessary and unique challenges associated with remote teaching & learning to make education fair and equitable for all students?
Simplicity and Familiarity
Virtual classroom structures should be designed to be simple and familiar so that they will be easily adaptable for distance learning needs of all students, whether we are in the classroom, out or transitioning in between. Prior to COVID, students in all of my sections were working utilizing both my personal website and the Google Suite (tech-based platforms), and were therefore familiar with the procedure of how to both access & complete their work within them. Although their surroundings were abruptly changing, there was an element of familiarity in how their instruction initially was being delivered.
Operating within that familiar environment allows us to now go further with students and to do more. It is not enough to have students simply memorize historical information, they need opportunities to be able to apply it seeing how it is relevant in the real world. Getting middle school students to embrace those challenges can be a struggle, so on day one I took a dual approach to my social studies “technogogy” and expanded upon that ideology for the rest of the year – students acquiring knowledge of history utilizing familiar tech tools, then subsequently providing multiple opportunities for choice, practical application and maximum engagement. The key to the approach’s success lied in its simple structure. First, Students were asked to complete content-driven tasks through traditional on-line resources, like audio, video, and Google and Hyper Docs, but only as a measure of acquiring background information (like doing research).
Subsequently, they were asked to complete a series of skills-related activities applying that historical background knowledge in practice to current events. It essentially becomes primary source “Living Through History” storytelling, but with an empathetical twist! All tasks had various forms of student assessment but used Google Forms/Suite as a baseline.
- MindShift Monday: analyzing newscasts for current and reliable information, examining presence of media bias in order to establish a good media literacy foundation. Some were prechosen, others included student choice.
- Primary Tuesday: Establishing trends and patters between the present and the past through engaging with primary sources of various types and levels.
- Wednesday Reflect and Connect Opinion Interview: Focus here was on staying connected to ourselves and others, within our families and communities. Students conducted personal interviews with immediate family, friends and/or community members (F2F or often facetime) discussing the pertinent issues for our present time vs their connection to past events gaining valuable multidimensional insight from multiple perspectives.
- Initiate and Innovate Thursday – Focus here was establishing empathy through an ongoing “Salute to HEROES” letter-writing campaign to thank first responders, local & state officials, community members, municipal organizations and members of the armed forces for their service during this unprecedented time. This portion was expanded upon to include a comprehensive letter-writing campaign to the military with the help of Brigadier General Vincent E. Buggs, out of Fort Sam Huston, Texas. Students wrote well over 2,000 letters in just 6 weeks!
- Garden Party! Friday – Focus here was on students evaluating and submitting their “Issue of the Week” into an AnswerGarden.ch chat room, so everyone can see, identify with, and appreciate others’ viewpoints on compelling questions as we reflected on the week in review.
While we should never be telling students what to think, we should be teaching them how to think. SURVIVOR: Quarantine Edition turned out to be the ultimate connection between knowledge, history, and humanity. Students received “credit” for every task they completed in the proposed choice board, but each was an individual measure of personal student success. Each task was work 20 points. Their goal was to earn 100 points of credit for the week, but there was still plenty of room for flexibility, for students to go even further and do more!
Students could also choose to complete Weekend Warrior Task Challenges for either extra credit (points) or in lieu of doing 2 activities during the week. Weekend Warrior Activities were designed to further promote both civic and community engagement and provided valuable opportunities for face to face interconnectedness between friends, family, and doing community service providing the valuable human component often found lacking in the digital world.
Technology is Just a Tool
The demands of distance learning and assessment promise to be an ongoing challenge for educators. With so much technology and an overwhelming variety of tech tools being, it is important to be mindful that technology is still just a tool, albeit a very important one at the moment. It is in our ability to effectively merge the best practices “something old with something new” that will be the key to our success in navigating the nuances of this strange new world.
And in the midst of all the rapid-fire change currently taking place, it is important our focus remain on not only what works best for us as educators, but what is also the best approach for all of our students while maintaining that personal connectivity that is so vital to every individual student’s success. While we may be forced to redefine what active teacher presence looks like, this mode does not, nor can it ever replace the quality of relationship built through the human connection created and shared via live classroom instruction. Digital world deadlines need to be viewed more as “guidelines” for students. Assessment needs to be progressive, not passive, while also remaining formative and continuous to be a truly effective measure of personal student growth. These, more than grades, should be our guiding principles
While our approach may look different, the fundamentals that identify our goals remains the same. Social-emotional needs, foraging personal relationships, individual student growth patterns, alternative means of individual assessment all need to be a part of our new educational frontier. Reimagining our educational system and student success doesn’t necessarily mean we have to replace everything, but rather should serve as a reminder that we need to be more mindful and intentional about how are trying to make those changes in order to make it better. In the end, creating the confidence necessary for all students to feel connected and capable of growing into this strange, new digital world and thriving far beyond it … well, that is success enough for me.