In this episode
Depending on your perspective, the postponement of standardized tests can be seen as a blessing or a curse. For many educators, this reality presents a chance to unpack the connection between testing and teaching, and examine how we might ensure excellence, equity, and accountability in the absence of standardized testing.
Dr. Frank Barnes, Chief of Equity and Accountability at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, joins us as we consider the meaning and effectiveness of testing in the wake of a global pandemic.
What have we learned?
Final thoughts from our hosts & panelists
BY COURTNEY BROWN
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.