By Rachelle Dene Poth
It has definitely been an interesting year in the world so far and for a couple of months, a challenging time in the world of education. Thinking back to how the 2019-20 academic year ended. Schools were closed. States were and still are under stay-at-home orders and while some countries are opening up again, there are others still on lockdown. End of the year events like graduations, award ceremonies, academic and athletic competitions, club activities, and more did not happen. For educators, conferences, and opportunities to network and collaborate in the same space did not happen. Our daily routines, summer plans, life as we know it has completely changed and challenged us all. It is still challenging us. As an educator who loves being in the classroom and learning, traveling to conferences, and having time with friends and PLN, a very comfortable and enjoyable part of life suddenly stopped. I know that many of us are feeling the same way.
Life is still changing and there are many questions unanswered about what to expect in the upcoming school year and even just in our daily lives. We are all doing our best to balance our personal and professional responsibilities and also find time to rest and recharge because it has been a busy couple of months. While summer is typically the time to perhaps take a break from thinking about school, this summer is different. Conferences and vacations are either postponed or canceled. Instead of taking the breaks that we might during this time, instead, we are trying to plan for the unknown of the upcoming school year. Perhaps wondering how can we continue like this and what if this becomes the new normal? It was one thing to end the past school year as we did, fortunately, we had the opportunity to build relationships with our students and their families throughout the year, but what if we have to start the year in distance learning? How can we prepare for that? How will we get to know our students? It is important to reflect on what we have learned and use our reflections to determine where we go from here.
What can we learn from this experience?
As I have been processing my thoughts and feelings about this pandemic, something that has disrupted our lives so greatly, I think we have to find a way to leverage our experiences to our advantage. Are we able to find some positives from our experiences and use them to guide us as we plan ahead? What can we learn from other educators that will help us and our students as we prepare?
When I think back to the first two weeks of teaching remotely, I tried to transform my typical classroom activities into the virtual space. It was hard to figure out how to do that and I found myself spending so many hours planning, trying to include everything that I would do in class. I became frustrated and overwhelmed. I wondered how I would be able to finish the year and keep up with everything. I realized that I was overthinking my plans and not focusing enough on what I should have been: learning about my students, their families, and their circumstances during this time.
What I have learned is that during times like this and always, it is important to focus on building and maintaining those relationships with our students and their families. Looking to the upcoming year, while we don’t yet know what the school year and format will bring, there are steps that we can take, regardless of what happens. We can start by focusing on ways to foster and build those relationships and create connections. We can focus on the spaces for learning and connecting.
Creating the right space
Whether we are in our classrooms, fully distance learning, or following a hybrid plan, we still need to create the right spaces for our students to learn. When schools closed, the shift to remote learning required implementing technology and for many educators, this may have been entirely new. Regardless of experience or comfort with using digital tools, it made little difference especially at the onset of school closures. What I realized is that rather than trying to use all of the tools and bring in all of my usual resources, it was more important to create a space for students to connect with each other, engage in meaningful learning opportunities, and be able to collaborate. Setting up meetings through Zoom, using tools like Buncee and Flipgrid, enabled us to see each other, talk, and connect. It created a space where we could see and hear each other. While not mandatory class meetings, many of my students joined because they said they were counting on it, it felt like something was normal about the “school” day and they felt less alone. I know that it made a big difference for me and each day that I could talk with students, interact and learn together, but most importantly, have time for conversations. For students, being able to hear each other’s voices and have a space to interact with one another made a difference.
Where do we go from here
As we approach August and the start of a new school year, it will be unlike any other prior start to a school year. We are still facing unknowns and may have to shift again quickly as we did in the spring. While we cannot necessarily prepare as we normally would for our classroom space, there are some ways that we can prepare regardless of where our year starts and if we have to transition throughout the year.
First, always be mindful of the circumstances of our students and their families. We can do this by using a survey to find out about their preferences and needs. Check-in with them, make phone calls, send emails, use a messaging app, and if possible and safe, visits to homes work well too. During the closures, school communities were coming together to provide more for students and families. It is critical to have that strong community set up.
Other things that we need to consider:
How can we get to know our students and their families?
How can our students get to know us?
What do our students and families need from us?
How can we be available for students beyond the school day?
What are some ways to extend learning beyond our classroom space?
Where can we provide resources for our students to access if we have to transition quickly to distance learning?
Planning for our Future
These are just a few questions to consider, but they are helpful for planning ahead. Take time to think about how many changes you made when schools closed. What new opportunities did you embrace? What challenges did you have? How could you improve on something that you did during that time? What did you learn from other educators that can help?
As we know, we may need to continue with remote learning and transition several times throughout the upcoming year again without much notice. Now that we have some experience, we can do better.
Although this is a very challenging time in the world, it is an opportunity to do more for our students. Start preparing your classroom today. Create a video to share, prepare as best as you can with what you know now. Make a list of five tasks that are important and plan how to carry them out regardless of where learning is happening. Don’t forget to share your experiences. We must continue to reflect and share our experience with others because we are truly better together.
Rachelle Dene Poth is an edtech consultant, presenter, attorney, author, and teacher. Rachelle teaches Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology at Riverview Junior-Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle has a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She is a Consultant and Speaker, owner of ThriveinEDU LLC Consulting. She serves as the President of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and serves on the Leadership team of the Mobile Learning Network. At ISTE19, she received the Making IT Happen Award and a Presidential Gold Award for volunteer service to education. She is also a Buncee Ambassador, Nearpod PioNear and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.
Rachelle is the author of four books, ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” (EduMatch) and “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” Rachelle Dene’s latest book is with ISTE “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World." Rachelle is a blogger for Getting Smart, Defined Learning, District Administration, NEO LMS, and the STEM Informer with Newsweek.
Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at https://anchor.fm/rdene915