What Gifts Can We Give?

Anxiety is a real thing. It affects every one of us. From our students’ homes to our school buildings and into the district office, we are impacted by a myriad of things that require us to make decisions on a daily basis. Many of these decisions we have not made before, and we don’t yet know the impacts they will have later. It is imperative that we are prepared to change if we become aware that what we are doing is having negative effects on our students and school community.

I heard the phrase last month that we need to have “Compassion before curriculum and grace before grades.” What does that mean exactly? It means we need to take the time to understand where our students are as individuals. Now is not the time to protect the integrity of our courses, to hold students to all the curriculum standards normally taught in a school year, or to assign daily assignments and homework and justify credit as 90 hours of seat time. Now is the time to give the gift of grace to our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. Here are some ways we can do this.

Focus more for less stress

Take a look at the narrowed down essential standards that are the foundation of our classes. What are these standards clearly asking students to do? What does proficiency look like for each standard and how many opportunities have students had to show their proficiency? Have assignments given students options to demonstrate their proficiency in ways that engage them in a choice? Please consider making a change to support students, support families, and support yourself. We are all moving into the holiday season, which brings its own source of stress. Imagine that stress compounded with the anxiety of knowing you are going into the end of the semester with grades that are lower than your normal or even worse, you are failing classes. What kind of pressure do you think that puts on families at home? I encourage you to take a look at your practices and how you might support students at this time. I offer some suggestions:

  • Please consider assigning no more than 90 minutes of work each day, total. That is for all six classes. If each teacher assigns work, that would be 15 minutes per teacher. Remember that each student has a different home environment and support at home. You see students less than half of the amount of time you would see them in a normal school environment. That means they should have half the work to complete.
  • Release assignments to students on the same day each week and with the same weekly due dates. For example, assignments are posted to Google Classroom on Mondays with due dates on Fridays. The focus of the first Zoom of the week is to review the assignments, create opportunities for discussion and discourse, and encourage students to start the work at the beginning of the week. The last Zoom of the week will be to review where students are, cover stuck points, encourage students, review exemplars or examples of student work, and remind students of the deadlines. This organization will help students and their parents stay organized around their expectations for the week.
  • Take a look at your gradebook. How many assignments do you have posted? Are grades a reflection of student proficiency on your essential standards? If not, go back and don’t count assignments that are not related to proficiency. Give yourself permission. Just grade what counts, and make sure you give students multiple opportunities to change their grade. Student learning doesn’t happen on a fixed timescale. As we continuously learn and grow, we know more; we can apply our learning, and we can adjust our thinking. Students need time and space to do this. Students also learn more from correcting their mistakes, and we need to allow for this.
  • Call your students. Yes, I understand it takes time, and email is easy, and at least if you have email you have a record that you did reach out to them. But, they are students and you are the adults. We can’t expect students to contact us. We must operate from the perspective that it is our responsibility to reach out. Call them, review their grade and their missing work, and check on how they are doing. Create a plan with them to support their improvement in class. Maybe you don’t count some assignments and just have them focus on a couple that will give you an indication of their proficiency. Imagine the stress that might take away from that student. Now, before you say you need to have the same rules for all students, let’s talk about equity. You really don’t have to have the same rules for all students. You can meet each student where they are. Even better, if you don’t know their home situation, and you actually call and talk to them about their struggles, you will be better able to come up with a plan to help them be successful and meet their needs. Equity is about providing support to all students in different ways to allow them to be just as successful as their peers.
  • Back off on finals. This is not the time or the year for a one-and-done final exam. Students need the opportunity to compile their learning from the semester into a project that allows them voice and choice in how they can demonstrate their proficiency. The project should allow students to have options for how they can apply their learning on the essential standards in a meaningful way. Combine your rubrics or the proficiency metrics you have used to measure student success, and allow students to complete work and monitor their own progress. At this time there should be no surprises for students. Show them their end goal and give them the tools to get there.

Lean on each other

We know this is hard. You are working harder than you have ever worked before. We encourage you to collaborate with each other. There are colleagues in your building and in your district that are teaching the same courses. You have agreed on the same essential standards. Talk to each other, find out how you are assessing standards. What assignments and projects are you having success with that can be shared? Can you create assignments together that you share with your students, and then discuss student performance and how to assess the work? When we can rely on each other, we learn so much more.

As we go into the giving season, what gifts can you give each other around collaboration? What gifts can we give our students to be successful? What gifts can you give to yourself?

Thank you for everything you do every day for our kids, our schools, and our communities.

Happy Holidays!

Angela Allen is the director of instructional leadership for secondary and alternative schools at Battle Ground Public Schools in Washington.

Published in AMLE Newsletter, December 2020.