In a Tuesday morning webinar during the annual ISTE conference, a trio of educators discussed the "aha" moments they experienced during pandemic-era learning and how they plan to apply those lessons when they return full-time to the classroom. The session was hosted by Lisa Johnson, founder and CEO of TechChef4u and a former educational technologist at Eanes Independent School District in Texas.
While the panelists, who ranged in experience from year one to multiple decades, all noted the pandemic turned their approaches to teaching and learning upside down, each found opportunities that included helping students become more independent learners, deepening student relationships, and adapting approaches to collaboration.
Tim Smyth, a social studies teacher in Pennsylvania's Wissahickon School District who often incorporates comics into the classroom, noted that he had to rethink how collaboration occurred in creative group projects. To do this, he took advantage of platforms like Pixton and Flipgrid for assignments that asked students to create comics addressing, for instance, a particular social or historical issue, or a problem that exists locally.
On the other hand, Hayley Thomas, a science resource specialist in California's Irvine Unified School District, noted that losing face-to-face connections with her elementary students became overwhelming because much of her curriculum involved hands-on experiments.
Thomas, who was in her first year as a teacher when the pandemic hit, said she opted to return to in-person instruction once the option became available. With smaller class sizes (15-18 students rather than 30), she realized she could capitalize on an opportunity to develop closer relationships with students, becoming more familiar with their individual cultural and family dynamics in a "whole student" approach to learning.
This also meant shifting focus in her teaching practice. The Twig Science curriculum used in her school is organized by modules that have an anchoring phenomenon or overarching question. With smaller class sizes, she said, it was possible to focus more on those big ideas as a whole rather than providing smaller pieces of information at a time.
Parvinder Singh, an AP chemistry teacher in Texas' Arlington Independent School District, said his greatest challenge was, "I had to come up with ways to really give the students a sense of self-initiative."
He elaborated that students would ask for help because they didn’t understand a concept or got it wrong, and the online setting created a scenario where he would end up giving lengthy explanations for the same problems to students reaching out at different times of day. He used a program called UWorld to help solve this issue, as it allowed students to develop autonomy by seeking explanations for concepts or wrong answers through that platform while freeing him up to provide deeper assistance.
This also presented a particular "aha" moment for Singh, as he recognized the pandemic provided an opportunity to prepare his AP students for the changes to come in college. "They needed to understand that, from what I experienced, the biggest jump is from high school to college," he said, noting the shift to fully managing your own time and being a self-sufficient learner.
Additionally, Singh realized that when he was talking to students early on in remote learning, many were reticent to respond because they were afraid of being wrong. To address this, he created multiple breakout rooms to talk to them in smaller groups and lessen that fear. Participation skyrocketed as a result.
All three educators also agreed that it was essential to get over the desire for perfectionism in their lessons. Singh said it was critical to extend grace not just to students, but to himself, because no one involved was ever given a manual on how to teach or learn in that environment.
They also reiterated the importance of starting out slow in the first week back. For Thomas, that will mean helping her students look beyond ideas like "science isn't for me" and getting them to where they can see themselves as scientists. Singh suggested the first week back will be vital for helping students understand they’re in a safe space, and also understanding they’ll need an outlet for the energy they didn’t get to burn out at home. While students will also need to be reminded that they're in school to learn, the first week will need to be more about focusing on them and helping them readjust and understand that they matter.
Finally, Smyth highlighted the importance of recognizing that some students also thrived virtually and got further than they would have in person. For social studies, he added it’s critical to have ongoing conversations starting at the beginning of the year about what students want to learn about and what they’re concerned about in the world around them.