BY ASHLYNN WITTCHOW
Planning for the school year as a new teacher can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances, let alone during the third year of pandemic learning. Many teachers are returning to their classrooms for the first time in over a year, and for early-career teachers, this presents unique challenges. New teachers, particularly those who completed their student teaching in entirely virtual settings, may not know what to expect as we move back into in-person spaces. The added uncertainty of quarantine protocols and potential returns to virtual learning may make this first year seem even more daunting.
Though it may feel intimidating, we believe that it is still possible to plan for success as we continue to navigate unprecedented times. With these realities in mind, we can help you plan for an effective and meaningful first year of teaching.
Arranging the physical space
In the fall, many first-year teachers are stepping into physical classrooms for the first time. While virtual classrooms present their own unique pedagogical challenges, the return to in-person spaces may be a challenge for many students and teachers alike. Breakout rooms and chat boxes have radically changed how we conceptualize discussion, collaboration, and class participation. What do these look like in our physical classroom? Though we may be relieved to see our students in person again, we can’t just mute all mics when faced with a rowdy classroom, as tempting as it may be.
In our physical classrooms, the arrangement of the space can significantly shape our culture of classroom discussion. We have a ton of options when it comes to arranging the space — rows, small groups, pairs, horseshoes, etc. — and each arrangement comes with pros and cons. Rows may seem too regimented and teacher-centered, but groups may become chatty and difficult to manage. While I love a good horseshoe configuration, I’ve been in classrooms where the physical size of the space makes them a challenge, if not an impossibility.
As we move back into physical spaces this fall, you may also be contending with the challenge of creating seating charts and arranging desks to maximize instruction, while also adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols. As much as we may wish to place our students in small groups, this may be a challenge given social distancing requirements. Even if we’re in the same physical space, we may need to fall back on remote discussion strategies in order to remain safe.
In all cases, it’s important to have a plan, but be flexible. Remember to let the space work with you and your lesson, not against it. In my own classroom, my students learned to expect new seating arrangements depending on different instructional goals. When we were focused on Socratic discussion, they might walk in to find the desks in a horseshoe. When they collaborated on inquiry projects, they could be found in small groups. They might be partnered for writing workshops, or they might be in rows for standardized testing. (Over the years, I became very quick at rearranging desks between classes and my students came to expect the unexpected.) When it comes to arranging the physical space, find a plan that works for you and your students!
Building classroom culture
Even after years of teaching, I’m always nervous to meet my students for the first time. The first several days sometimes feels like a revolving door of new faces, and as an introvert, it can be exhausting. I want to make sure I remember my students’ names, interests, and quirks — a daunting task when rosters contain hundreds of students. Yet, forming these personal connections lays the foundation for building a strong community of scholars. As Courtney Brown, Director of the New Teacher Network, shared in her article on classroom culture, “creating a positive classroom climate is key to a productive school year.” Taking steps to establish a positive classroom culture ensures that you’re building your school year on solid ground. Check out some of the activities below, which can help spark ideas for how you might approach getting to know your students:
Invite students to share information about themselves via surveys using Google Forms and/or other software. Surveys can be a great way of collecting a variety of data, including gauging your students’ prior experience and level of comfort within your content area.
Write a letter introducing yourself to your students. Then, invite students to write their own introductory letters in response, giving them the opportunity to share what’s important to them, what they’d like you to know, and what a successful school year might look like in their eyes.
Students get to know each other by producing Humans of New York-inspired narratives. After sharing age-appropriate models from the Humans of New York database, you can invite students to interview each other and create a digital Humans of Our Classroom showcase using Google Slides. This will encourage students to move beyond facts about their classmates and find interesting stories to write up and share with the whole group.
Memoir & Poetry Writing
Invite students to explore their identities with creative writing. Consider 6-Word Memoirs and Themed Poetry Collections as ways to introduce mentor texts and writing protocols while simultaneously getting to know your students.
Encourage a growth mindset by inviting students to set SMART goals for the upcoming school year. For an artistic take on goal setting, you might invite students to create vision boards to help them visualize the end in mind.
While we hope one or more of these culture-building activities has sparked your interest, it’s also important to remember to engage authentically with your students. Make sure that your classroom culture reflects your personality as a teacher. What works well for your team leader down the hall might not necessarily work for you, and that’s okay! As G. Faith Little writes:
Ultimately, though each of our classrooms might look a little bit different from the outside looking in, positive classroom environments tend to share certain qualities. When I close my eyes and imagine this classroom environment, I see a space that is warm and welcoming, a space where my students feel safe expressing their authentic selves. I also see a space where high expectations are maintained for all students through differentiation. The ideal classroom is warm, yet appropriately challenging, and it’s important to set these expectations up front, particularly after a year of virtual learning, when many students may have felt particularly isolated and disengaged from school.
Establishing classroom structures
After more than a year of virtual learning, returning to in-person classroom routines may be difficult for many students. It’s important to establish and maintain consistent classroom structures and routines that work across in-person spaces and virtual platforms, while also factoring in possible quarantines and temporary returns to virtual learning. Here are a few things you might want to consider as you plan for the school year:
Plan for Student Behavior
Have a plan to proactively respond to student behavior, and use our Understanding Off-Task Behaviors resource as a guide. There are four types of behavior that have a negative impact on the classroom environment — it’s important to be able to recognize what each type of behavior looks like, as well the motivations behind it, so we can act proactively as opposed to simply reacting.
Plan for Material Management
Make sure you have a plan for managing the materials in your classroom. How will students turn in their work? Will student work be entirely digitized via Google Classroom or another online learning platform? If students are receiving printed materials, how will these be stored and submitted? Having a plan for how materials move through your classroom will save you a headache when it comes to the end of the marking period.
Plan for Curriculum
Some of our classroom structures are linked to our curriculum and planning. Check out a sample curriculum planning template — according to Courtney Brown, “these templates help new teachers thoughtfully organize and plan their curriculum while examining classroom rituals and routines, assessment strategies, and more!”
Though this is just the beginning of everything you may want to consider as you plan for the new school year, try not to overwhelm yourself by overplanning or becoming too cemented into a particular routine. My mentor always liked to remind me to be prepared to modify and adjust, a lesson that I’ve taken to heart in the years since. This year, like the last, will likely demand a great deal of flexibility and ingenuity, so be prepared to modify and adjust, but most importantly, be prepared to give yourself grace!
If you’re interested in learning more about planning with successful instruction in mind, check out our upcoming online course, Designing Coherent Instruction. This professional opportunity is intended to support new teachers in strengthening their instructional core, increasing strategic planning skills, and ensuring that lesson objectives align with instructional methods and assessments. Within each module, we’ll delve into the key competencies of the Danielson Framework, examine the key look fors, and offer promising practices and practical strategies that can be implemented in-person and online.
Culture-building strategies that will help us build a foundation for our classrooms.
CRSP & New Teacher Specialist
For educators, creating a positive classroom climate is key to a productive school year. Even halfway through the year, we can push restart and reboot our classroom culture. However, whether we’re starting or restarting the year with blended or remote learning, the notion of building culture may feel tricky, or at least different from what we’ve experienced in our brick and mortar classrooms. And when the school year is interrupted and unpredictable, it gets even trickier.
During this period of teaching with a pandemic pedagogy, we have an abundance of challenges to face. But we also have opportunities to reflect on our practice and bring our instruction into the 21st century. We can work alongside the current generation of students — who are digital natives — to not only support them in developing academic and social-emotional skills, but also bridge technological gaps in our community and meet the future head-on. No matter how our instruction is reaching students, we need to find ways to build and maintain connections — between us and our students, and between the students themselves.
We’d like to encourage schools, teachers, and administrators to take the current challenges in our educational and civic reality as an opportunity to re-envision how we cultivate a conscious classroom culture and address our students’ social-emotional needs using 21st century digital tools, while deepening relationship-building and connectivity. Inspired by rich discussions with a range of educators from around the country on our Teaching Today podcast, we can outline some culture-building strategies that will help us build a foundation for our classrooms.
Teaching the tools
Ensuring that all students have digital access is the number one priority and starting point for equity in learning. Matt Mazzaroppi, Principal of the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx, NY, reminds us that before a blended or online classroom culture can be developed, we need to ensure that getting technology into the hands of families and students is a priority in our community. In an effort to do this, Dr. Tangela Williams, Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District in North Carolina, began extensive efforts within her community to bring devices to students’ homes, as well as enhance local Wi-Fi offerings.
But what happens when we have access to technology, but don’t yet know how to use it? Dr. Jenan McNealy, a guidance counselor in Atlanta, attested that one of the most important factors for online school culture in a blended or remote situation has been training school communities — including all teachers and families — how to use and maximize digital platforms and educational technology. According to McNealy, increased training for online systems has made a significant difference in her school district. Now, she says, teachers, parents, and families can navigate the systems well. In turn, they are better able to support students.
As we shape the digital landscape within our school communities, we need to strategically use the digital tools available to us without overwhelming our students and their families with too many platforms.
Community & communication
Schools and districts agree that implementing strong school-wide communication is a good starting point for fostering classroom community during a turbulent time. Establishing school-wide communication tools and approaches is crucial to maintaining interactions with families and students throughout the day, as well as the entire school year.
Just as we remain flexible about our teaching environment, we need to be flexible about using multiple forms of communication within our community. For some, texting works best, for others phone calls are more helpful, while some find emails easier to manage. Identifying communication preferences can help alleviate concerns about how to reach families, and when.
Prompt communication to address lateness, absences, or missing work becomes a strong lever for maintaining community and student engagement, especially when most interactions are happening online. Students need to be acknowledged as crucial members of their classroom and community. Schools in which a teacher or guidance counselor promptly calls families and students when they don't show up for an online class have reported that it goes a long way in promoting student engagement. When students are acknowledged as critical members of their classroom and community, it can bring them back into the fold.
"Students read the teacher's energy and if the energy is real, they can relax.
If they relax, you can nurture the relationship.
Once there is a relationship, students can learn."
— Matthew Mazzaroppi, Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies
Consistent connection & compassion
If remote teaching and learning have taught us anything, it’s that we need to find ways to stay connected with students, and we need to help students connect with each other. In order to create an online culture that offers a positive learning environment for students, we’ll need to establish (and then be prepared to re-establish) norms and routines. How do we do that online?
In this unpredictable educational landscape, it is crucial to create consistent programming and predictable online routines. Matt Mazzaroppi underscores that creating consistency is a clear priority: “After clear communication comes consistency. Consistency makes everybody feel safe and if they feel safe, they're open to a new culture, new relationships, and ultimately open to learning.”
Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang explains that norms are “the things we should do versus rules, which are typically the things that we should not do.” It's the difference between the dos and the don'ts. If we believe in creating and setting a tone in any educational space, then being able to elevate expectations is important. Both online and in person, we need to create norms that offer clear expectations for student engagement, as opposed to rules with punishing consequences.
G. Faith Little offers a vision of the classroom as being “more like a garden where we plant seeds and allow our students to grow to be the flowers that they were meant to be.” She believes that, as educators, we need to listen to students and their families in order to create norms that cultivate and nurture our students. Interestingly, norms that use a garden metaphor are also aligned with high-level evaluation on the Danielson Framework.
Acknowledging each student
We can't underestimate the power of greeting our students every time they enter our classrooms. We may feel that this a missing link in our online classrooms, but is it really missing?
Many educators are finding unique ways to acknowledge students as they enter the virtual classroom everyday. Carolyn Lucey, a 10th Grade English teacher at New York City’s Charter High School for Computer Engineering and Innovation, with whom I work, greets each student as they enter her virtual classroom, explicitly takes attendance, and then throws a quick warm-up question into the chat, such as What was your favorite part of the weekend? or What word do you relate to today, and why? To model and connect, Carolyn generally offers her own responses as well. Dr. Laura Rigolosi takes attendance by asking each student in the “room” a relevant question such as, What was the best thing you did over the weekend? for a Monday class, or, related to the work at hand: What part of your project are you working on?
Connecting with our students each day as they enter our virtual classroom is a key ingredient in engagement and relationship-building. The positive impact of a simple daily acknowledgement of each students’ presence and participation helps create a sense of belonging, and helps them feel recognized as a part of their community.
Acclimating to online participation
Getting students acclimated to participating in an online classroom is crucial. Clear instructions for them to use the unmute audio feature versus the chat feature for specific purposes can help to build consistent participation. As an example, consider asking students to use the chat or survey feature for closed or yes/no responses, and respond verbally to higher order follow-up questions. Students can also be encouraged to use the chat feature to share written or “stop and jot” responses, as opposed to unmuting to add spontaneously to discussion questions, which can be difficult to manage virtually.
When questions are asked in a virtual classroom, most of us have noticed the long pauses before participants respond. Some students may not have strong WiFi connections, or may be in noisy spaces that make participation challenging. Asking students to use a “rotating chair” approach, in which they call on one another, helps develop student-to-student interactions, and can also help keep discussions moving.
Breakout rooms for small group projects also offer students a chance to increase participation, and create an opportunity for regular interaction between classmates. Developing strategic, consistent breakout groups can help add to a sense of accountability and engagement, and working together in small groups creates a sense of community.
Each class — whether synchronous or asynchronous, in-person or online — is a precious space for connection and community-building. Setting clear expectations, offering students opportunities to connect, and modeling clear communication is not wasted time. Classroom culture is everywhere. Every move we make creates classroom culture — how we speak to students, how we interact with them, even how we think about them — and each moment is an opportunity to make each member of our classroom feel seen and heard. As Matt Mazzaroppi shares, “students can read the teacher's energy, and if the energy is real, they can relax. If they relax, you can nurture the relationship. Once there is a relationship, students can learn.”
By LAURA RIGOLOSI
In addition to the excitement (and anxiety, let’s be real) of beginning a new year and a new teaching semester, we all now have the added worry about how we will adapt or continue with our hybrid classrooms or remote teaching, without meeting our students face-to-face. Like many of you, I am prepping to teach online this spring, and my courses will be a mix of asynchronous and synchronous instruction — terms I had never considered before teaching during a pandemic.
There are some perks to teaching online of course, particularly the lack of commute and the choice to dress professionally enough for a Zoom meeting. But preparing to teach online has spurred me to research the best practices for teaching remotely. I know what an engaged class looks like in person, but will I be able to match that same level of engagement in an online setting? To be clear, I believe an engaged classroom is one where the students are doing the deep thinking, discussing, writing, and reading throughout the class. For so many teachers, classroom discussions are not only one of the greatest joys in teaching, they are essential for student learning and engagement! And most teachers are evaluated through Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching, which highlights teachers whose students are actively problem-solving and discussing complex concepts. So, how can we have meaningful class discussions remotely? Is it possible?
As I listened to Teaching Today’s episode on this topic, I kept pausing to jot down notes that will support my instruction. The episode’s panelists — Courtney Brown, Dr. Cristina Romeo Compton, Dr. Sherrish Holloman, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, Dr. Marcelle Mentor, and Brian Veprek — left me with takeaways that I can implement in my own online classrooms, to help promote discussions during a time of distance learning.
Who’s doing the asking?
When we create space for students and encourage them to ask questions about our curriculum, we are putting students in the driver’s seat, and allowing their curiosities to drive the curriculum. This is a way for students to buy into the learning, and as Cristina notes, encouraging students to ask questions about the curriculum or texts is a powerful way to promote engagement. The importance of having students generate their own questions (instead of replying to a teacher-created question) is punctuated by the concept developed by Roberta and Brian: when students are the ones who are driving the learning, there is no need to worry about student buy-in.
Speaking of students asking questions…
Grade school students often ask “why?” and are frequently less self-conscious about asking questions. Secondary or adult learners can be more guarded and do not always feel comfortable sharing their questions or wonderings. Teaching students which questions are the most fruitful for a discussion is a great technique for all ages. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is one option for teaching students how to practice asking a variety of questions about a particular topic. This protocol encourages students to pose both “closed” or “open” questions, and then students decipher the different types. No matter how teachers use this protocol, student questions often lead to more engagement and deeper content knowledge.
Small group discussions
Sharing in a low-stakes way
In the timeless Mind in Society, Vygotsky (1978) advocated for student discussion explaining, “By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.” In the spirit of giving students “frames for thinking on their own,” having them discuss academic ideas in small groups is a less intimidating way for students to share their thoughts. For synchronous classes, Zoom breakout rooms can replace small group discussions. Creating Zoom breakout rooms, perhaps after a jigsaw reading or as a way to practice sharing in a low-stakes way, is a way to replicate small group discussions. Teachers can join each breakout room to listen in and observe, just as they would circulate in a classroom. Of course, teachers can be concerned that students may get off task in breakout rooms, but this is the same issue we face in in-person classrooms — we can’t be everywhere at once. As Roberta points out, we aren’t really in control — we only have the illusion of control.
Familiar breakout groups
Don’t switch it up! If you’re teaching a group of students for the first time and the class meets synchronously via Zoom, Courtney suggests keeping breakout groups the same, at least for the first part of the year. While the instinct may be to switch groups so students can get to know each other, starting the year with online or blended learning is different from anything most of our students have experienced. If issues in groups arise, then it may make sense to revisit grouping, but if possible, try to keep the groups the same for an entire unit — maybe even for the semester. This will help students build a community within the group as their interaction with other classmates is so much more limited. And as with any group work, it is always important to discuss norms, expectations, and set routines for small (and big) group discussions.
Even though you’ll be able to see students' faces through little boxes on your computer screen during big group discussions in a synchronous class, you may have a harder time “reading the room” — anticipate having to insert writing breaks and purposeful pauses in order to give students time to process and participate.
One way to help students notice their thinking during a discussion (and to encourage them to stay on task) is to have them share or post their discussion notes. This is also an effective way for teachers to notice patterns and themes that are emerging in student thinking. How can we take notes during an online discussion?
If students are already using Google, asking them to utilize a Google Doc for notetaking (perhaps one ongoing document that they add to for each discussion) is a practical strategy. In Google Docs, students can take turns as the notetaker, and others can add to the document if anything is missing. As Brian points out, teachers can notice who is participating in taking notes on their discussion by checking the doc’s version history. This is a way to see if students are, in fact, all adding to the notes. In addition to joining breakout rooms, viewing groups’ Google docs in real-time is a way to gauge which group is on their way, who needs help, and how much time they may need to continue their discussion.
Chatting within Zoom
For full class discussions, asking students to write in Zoom’s chat feature is a simple way to capture students’ ideas in real-time. At the end of the Zoom call, Marcelle recommends that the teacher copies and posts the chat on their class website as a record of notes from that day (much like a chart paper of class notes on the classroom wall). I’ve been concerned about how I would capture class discussions the way I would in a physical classroom — now, we can all write our ideas into the chat, and voila, there is a record of our class! But remember — the Zoom call has to end before the chat can be copied.
Discussions don’t always have to include talking
One of the perks of asynchronous learning is that it can allow for more flexibility, and help lessen any anxiety students feel about live video calls. Using platforms such as Padlet or Google Jamboards are alternatives to having shared, written discussions. Marcelle suggests a quote-centered protocol for moments like this — students are asked to share (in writing) quotes from the class text, and then their classmates are asked to respond to the quotes, taking time to consider why the quotes are significant. This is not only a helpful option for having a discussion asynchronously, but also a chance to give students a break from face-to-face interactions.
Protocols can be your discussion friend
Providing simple discussion frames with sentence starters like “I believe this means...”, “This is significant because…”, or “As a next step, perhaps…”, offers students a meaningful way to discuss a topic, or process a text or problem set. Students can begin by jotting down their ideas in writing, which will help prepare them to share their ideas in a discussion — asynchronous or otherwise. Not sure where to begin? Try our What, So What, Now What? tool that supports student observation, analysis, and inquiry.
Low-tech options require your imagination
Marcelle suggests using a phone app such as WhatsApp to send out discussion prompts to students, and asking them to write back within the app. Teachers can then collate the responses and report back to the class what others have written. Another low-tech option involves breaking up your class structure, pairing students up, asking them to exchange phone numbers, and having them call each other on the phone to have a conversation on a particular topic! Let them write up their conversation, and post or share it with you or the class.
Similarly, you can pair students up to explain the written assignment, and ask them to write letters to their partner, then send via USPS! It will cost students about $.50, but what a delight to receive a letter in the mail! (Of course, there is no way of screening letters, so you may need to set up some parameters). It seems ironic to suggest these systems of communication for an online class, however students (and teachers!) may appreciate these alternative ways of discussing concepts.
After listening to the Teaching Today team and reflecting on their conversation, I am recommitted to believing that meaningful classroom discussions can still happen during distance learning. And while I am still concerned about teaching online (what if my students have weak wifi? What if my wifi is wonky? What if my own kids are having a difficult time working independently while I’m teaching?), I also realize these issues are somewhat out of my control. I now feel more confident incorporating discussions into my online classrooms — even while teaching in a blazer and yoga pants.
Our challenge is to redesign what engagement looks like, what it feels like, and what it takes to get kids onboard — because engagement is everything.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
When we consider some features of a “good student”, we might think of someone who uses a quiet voice and raises their hand, or someone who comes to class organized, turns their work in on time, and always has a pen and paper. But one problem with the attributes on this short list is that none of them address learning! While some may enhance the learning process, most of these characteristics are actually about behavioral compliance. Which prompts me to ask: how much of in-person school is actually about compliance, rather than engaging in learning?
Compliance is the act of conforming, yielding, adhering to cultural norms, and cooperation or obedience. Compliance is focused on a mindset of having power over students, rather than empowering them. And whether we’ve recognized it or not, in-person learning is dominated by compliance-oriented structures which often mimic the behaviors of engagement. We structure how students enter, exit, and move throughout the building, we structure where they sit, how they sit, when they can go to the bathroom or eat food. Let me be clear — we need to structure many elements of student interaction in schools to create a safe and productive learning environment, but we often confuse the results of compliance with engagement. Or at least, we used to.
COVID changed all of that. As school doors closed and students’ laptops and tablets dinged with notifications, educators quickly saw how compliance gave us a false-positive on engagement. Without the same physical constructs, the social construct that motivates compliance disappeared, and one by one so did our students. Muted, video off, not present in the chat, missing synchronous calls, submitting late or incomplete online assignments — as students disengage from school during remote learning, educators are overwhelmed, disoriented, and discontented. This isn’t what anyone has signed up for.
But COVID hasn’t given us any problems we didn’t already have. So our challenge is to redesign what engagement looks like, what it feels like, and what it takes to get kids onboard — because engagement is everything.
Pillars of engagement
In our work across schools, we’ve come to see three pillars of student engagement: academic, intellectual, and social-emotional. While many attributes of these pillars are organically supported during in-person learning, they all must be explicitly pursued during times of remote or blended learning.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explains that for adults in the workplace, intrinsic motivation is nurtured by three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And in fact, the same is true for students — with scaffolding, of course! Working within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), learning is enhanced when kids can find Flow, which Csikszentmihalyi describes as a state in which people are so involved in what they’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. These three theories work together to illustrate the engagement that empowers students to take responsibility for themselves and their learning in all circumstances.
Pillar 1: Academic engagement
Academic engagement is the type of engagement that is required for students to complete their academic tasks. Tapping into executive functioning skills, academic engagement is all about helping kids to show up, stay with it, and stick the landing. Teachers know that kids can’t learn if they aren’t in school — the same is true if they aren’t logging on, can’t find their Zoom link, or lost their password, again. Many executive functioning skills like working memory, cognitive memory, and inhibitory control create major obstacles for students who want to do well, but have such a difficult time regulating their behavior that they aren’t able to hang in long enough to let the learning process work.
Especially during these challenging times — and, let’s be honest, during non-pandemic times as well — our students will be better off when we create deliberate structures, procedures, rituals, and routines to support them. To develop specific strategies, first consider what types executive functioning skills are students struggling with. Is it planning? Working memory? Time management? Is it self-control or initiative? If we can pinpoint where or how students are struggling, we can design aligned strategies to help them cultivate these skills.
Pillar 2: Intellectual engagement
Once students are showing up and staying with their classes, it better be worth their while! If they perceive our content to be dull, or find our assignments to be too easy or too hard, they won’t stick around for long. Creating opportunities for intellectual engagement is essential to reeling in students’ interests, gifts, and talents. Intrinsic or internal motivation is a very difficult thing to cultivate in someone else — but through personal challenges, purposeful tasks, and propelling curiosity, we can trick our students into learning while they’re having fun surfing the internet, or playing games.
First, we must think about ensuring that our assignments are differentiated and are creating a purposeful challenge for students at every level. When kids can hit that just right instructional challenge, they’ll keep working to reach their goal — just like they do in video games, sports, and other hobbies. We increase the likelihood that students will stay engaged when we can help them to make real-world connections, pick and choose elements of the assignments they complete, and when we propel their curiosity by creating opportunities for advancement, acknowledgement, and future challenges.
Pillar 3: Social-emotional engagement
Some say the term “social distancing” was a mistake, and that instead, it should have been “physically distant, socially connected”. The reality is that while educators view academics as a school’s main priority, socialization is a huge factor in what brings students to the school building everyday. Social-emotional connections seem to come naturally between students in peer groups as well as between students and teachers during in-person learning. But online, there are far fewer opportunities to bump into someone, stop by their classroom, or check in with them in the hallway. These are critical moments of social interaction. And for young children and adolescents, these moments aren’t just about making them feel happy or have fun — they actually help to shape identity.
As educators, we must consider strategic ways to increase student-to-teacher relationship-building outside of the virtual walls of the classroom, giving students a place to connect, ask questions, and share openly. Additionally, we can create opportunities for students to engage with other students without tackling academic concepts. Especially when the school year is marked by massive interruptions, mask wearing that covers up facial features, and months of isolation, students need moments where they can just be with other kids.
Engagement can seem elusive, especially when all of our interactions are mediated by the digital world, literally boxing us in. But we can’t let these challenges get the best of us. Our current circumstances can help reveal what true student engagement looks like, when not limited by the components of in-person compliance. As you explore new possibilities, bring a colleague along for the ride. It’s not just the students who are isolated and struggling to get and stay engaged. Each of these pillars applies to us as adults as well as to our students.
By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
What do you do?
I’m a teacher.
Oh wow, I could never do that! [long pause] It must be so rewarding, though.
I’ve had this conversation at least a hundred times, maybe more. There’s the same rhythm of awkward pauses each time, where the other person looks to say something positive, and I recall small, not-so-rewarding incidents that have happened over my teaching career.
Yes, I do find my work in education, both in and out of the classroom, to be extremely rewarding when I focus on the big picture. But on a day-to-day basis, teaching can be a struggle. It’s a struggle because, contrary to popular belief, teachers do not teach Math or Science, or History — they teach students. From tiny to tall, students are actual human beings with independent identities, personal autonomy, and a will of their own. The concept of “controlling your class” is both inaccurate and impossible. On any given day, a highly effective teacher can facilitate, guide, support, foster, and nurture a positive learning environment — but we can never control it. Subsequently, creating classroom culture or managing student behaviors is a major stressor for teachers at all levels.
Many teachers maintain the myth of classroom control and as a result, they may struggle to embrace student-centered instructional strategies like peer-to-peer discussions, group work, and student choice on tasks. The more fear we have, the more likely we are to become hyper-vigilant micro-managers in the classroom, which can sometimes magnify small issues and escalate conflicts, creating disruptive and potentially dangerous power dynamics that can block off relationships and erode trust between teachers and students. None of which feels rewarding, I promise.
As teachers, we have a lot of power and responsibility to set the tone in our own classrooms and create a culture of learning that empowers students to engage in the lessons with respect for themselves and others. Here are three ways we can de-escalate conflicts and maximize positive learning opportunities for students.
Don't take it personally
The first thing we want to remember is that all of our students are actual human beings who typically live 23 hrs and 10 minutes a day without us. When they enter into our classroom after a bad morning, feeling hungry, distracted, or any number of other emotions, it’s easy for us to take their words and actions as a personal attack. This can put us on defense, or worse — on the offense.
Before reacting, we will benefit from asking a few simple questions that will help us to strategize our next steps.
Even in the smallest classes, teachers are outnumbered. As a result, we’re hyper-focused on distracting, disruptive, disrespectful, and defiant behaviors and we’re far more likely to address everything that’s going wrong, rather than what’s actually going right. Often, we’re addressing negative classroom behaviors in front of the whole class because it’s more efficient to say, “Brian, stop talking” from the front of the room than it is to walk to the back of the class and talk with Brian privately in the middle of a lesson. But culture is shaped primarily by the narrative, and as teachers, we have the privileged opportunity to set up a positive narrative in our space. By eliminating public criticism, and praising publicly instead, we have the power to create positive momentum, spotlight all the students who are doing the “right” thing, and set clear expectations for what students are supposed to do.
Reflect & redirect
Our goal is not to become afraid of addressing students’ negative behaviors directly, but rather to begin addressing them strategically. If we can remove our personal feelings from the situation, we’ll be better positioned to find a method for motivating students to fully commit to a proactive and positive learning environment. Part of that methodology is public praise — the other part is personalized reflection and redirection. Especially when working in a culture that is vastly different from one’s own, focusing on short, private conversations when it’s necessary to address a negative behavior can only have a positive impact on the culture.
Our classroom spaces will feel physically and psychologically safer when we acknowledge that students’ behavior is a form of communication, even when directed towards us. When we allow ourselves to be personally offended, we are likely to simplify the situation and vilify the student. This leaves us more likely to respond defensively, criticize, and engage in power struggles. Each of these instincts are likely to increase tension and escalate conflicts at the exact moment when we know that diffusing the situation would be more beneficial to our students and ourselves.
By AVANTI CHAJED
Culturally sustaining practices (CSP) allow, invite, and encourage students to not only use their cultural practices from home in school, but to maintain them. CSP allows students to exist not only in the culture of their school, but also in the culture of their home.
For teachers within New York City, it’s important to note that culturally responsive pedagogy, or culturally responsive-sustaining education according to the DOE, is a requirement for New York City schools. This requirement emphasizes the need for teachers to embrace diversity, get to know their students, and to help students feel welcomed and seen in school.
There is no one way of practicing CSP — this would go against the very idea of sustaining students’ cultures! — but there are ways to understand what a CSP approach may require from a teacher. Think about CSP as a mindset rather than a series of practices.
But even with a mindset of wanting to be responsive to student needs, it can be difficult to figure out what you should actually do to respond to student cultures, and much of the information out there comes from the world of academia, which can be difficult to translate into practice.
Funds of knowledge
CSP asks: what do my students already know? What are their strengths? What are the strengths of their families and communities?
It’s important to investigate the funds of knowledge that your students bring to the classroom. Funds of knowledge can be applied to every area of classroom learning and behavior. A three-year-old who appears to read books backwards may have funds of knowledge stemming from reading in Arabic, which is read from right to left. A fifth grader who fights often on the playground may be defending her friends and family. As teachers, looking at both situations from an asset perspective will change the way we teach these children, whether it’s demonstrating how English texts are read without telling a student that what they’re doing is wrong, or disciplining with compassion and an understanding of the virtuous (though inappropriate) intentions involved in engaging in a fight.
Funds of knowledge do not only apply to knowledge about culture and language, which, while important, are not the complete extent of how students bring their cultural experiences into the classroom. Tabitha Kidwell and Luis Javier Pentón Herrera offer an example of how a teacher in the US learned that one of his students, who was from a marginalized indigenous group from Guatemala, had spent much of his life working in fields surrounded by nature. The teacher used this new knowledge to plan a lesson where students went outside and collected rocks for a future project.
Why is CSP needed?
School practices currently reflect the norms of monolingual, white, middle class students, which often excludes students who come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Students who are excluded from these norms are often viewed through a deficit lens, which means that teachers or school personnel attribute poor academic performance or behavior problems to faults within the students.
Deficit lenses can be directed toward anyone in the school or community. If, for example, a teacher believes that parents in a particular cultural demographic are not involved in their child’s education and blames this for their students not doing well academically, that teacher is looking at the parents through a deficit lens. A deficit lens may mean a teacher believes a student to be incapable of learning due to language, disability, or personal characteristics, or attributing behaviors due to “culture”.
Even literature from respected sources may be operating within a deficit lens. In my first teaching job in the US, my school district required us to read a book on how poverty affects children’s development and cognitive abilities. Although the book appeared to have a sympathetic view of children living in poverty (and I lapped it up eagerly at the time), I can see now that it was hugely problematic.
The book created a focus on what my students could not do. On their supposed deficiencies that I did not blame them for, but did allow me to envision myself as some sort of savior. My students did not need saving. They needed love and compassion and understanding. The book projected a deficit lens of an entire social class.
Incorporating a CSP approach into your practice can help you to question the deficit lens that may exist in your school, and work towards diversifying materials that are available to your students. From a CSP standpoint, students and their families are viewed as people who possess assets for your classroom — a stark contrast to the deficit lens, which implies that they are lacking in some way. This shift in mindset will help you to meet the specific cultural needs of your students as you begin to bring their cultural practices into the classroom.
It’s not necessary to know everything about every culture or language in order to incorporate CSP into your classroom. It is important, however, to try to get to know the cultures and lives of the students you’re teaching, and to evaluate ways in which your instructional practices can support your students.