The new question-of-the-week is:
What is the best thing that has happened in one of your classes this year?
It’s been a ‘helluva” year, and we’re only about two months into the school calendar!
Despite our many challenges, we’ve all had some great experiences in our virtual or physical classrooms, though perhaps not as many as we’ve had in previous years.
Let’s celebrate them!
Today, Neema Avashia, Ann Stiltner, and many readers share the high points of their year so far.
For me, the best moment had to have been when I was teaching my ELL history class in Zoom the day before Halloween. I wear a fedora every day to school to protect my shiny bald head from the sun, and many students in this year’s class knew me from previous years. All of a sudden, in the middle of a lesson about the Pilgrims, spooky music boomed from someone’s microphone. Just as I was going to say something in an irritated tone, many students turned on their cameras to unveil themselves costumed as ghosts with fedoras!
The kids are all right ...
Hearing from poets
Neema Avashia is an 8th grade civics teacher in the Boston public schools, where she has taught for the last 18 years. She was a 2013 Educator of the Year in the city of Boston:
I ditched my whole curriculum and started over this year. I learned in the spring that remote learning requires a different approach—one that people in education have talked about for the ages, but that is absolutely essential in the context of teaching and learning online: the notion that less is more, with a focus depth instead of breadth. Instead of my traditional civics curriculum, I decided to create a series of issue-based units, each of which delves deeply into one idea and looks at it from different angles over the trajectory of the learning experience.
My first unit focused on the idea of resistance—on what it means to resist and what different forms resistance can take. On different days of the unit, we explored how musicians, athletes, artists, poets, community organizers, and young people engage in resistance and what impact their resistance has on the rest of us. On the poetry day, in addition to exploring poems by Eve Ewing, Claude McKay, Martin Espada, Wendell Berry, Nikki Giovanni, and many others, students also read Danez Smith’s poem, “juxtaposing the black boy and the bullet.” When we reflected on the poems at the end of class, students expressed that they were blown away by how such a short poem could carry so much weight and could send such a strong message about conflicting American values—about what we want to protect and what we want to get rid of. On a whim, I tweeted at Danez and some of the other poets we’d read that day and asked if they’d be willing to come to class. In an in-person teaching situation, this would have never been possible, but remote teaching created a new opportunity to build connections between my students and people in other cities, and I decided to take advantage of it.
Danez wrote me back immediately, offering to come in to do a reading and answer questions. And a few days later, they were on Zoom with my 28 8th graders, sharing their poetry and taking questions. There were many powerful moments, but perhaps the one that hit hardest was when Danez read their poem, “my president.” With the election looming, it was a powerful reminder to the young people, and to me, that one form of resistance is writing into existence the world that we want to see.The presidents that we want to see. Danez made my students think about both poetry, and presidents, in a different way from they had otherwise. And that would never have possible had I simply modified my in-person curriculum for the online environment.
Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:
When I agreed to answer this question, my school year hadn’t even started. There were more questions than answers. I focused my time reading up on the latest, trendy remote learning technologies and scouring for ideas from other teachers who had already embarked on this brave new world. I expected to write about an innovative lesson where students took great risks or where I used an amazing new technology that magically kept my students engaged. I am here to report that this was not the case. It turns out that the best thing that has happened this year didn’t happen in a classroom but goes back to the foundation for all learning—no matter what form it takes—and the essence of what makes an educator a teacher in the eyes of their students.
Once the dust settled, our district developed a hybrid model with synchronous learning through Zoom. Families could select fully remote learning or a hybrid model where students attend school 2-3 days/week alternating with synchronous learning at home. This meant that my classes were a mix of hybrid students in front of me and the rest Zooming in remotely. I got used to seeing the faces of my remote students without their masks on. I recognized my hybrid students by their masked faces on their days in person and got accustomed to seeing their entire smiles on the days they would Zoom in. Despite the obstacles, like all teachers, we strove during those first weeks to create personal relationships similar to what could be developed full time, in person.
Our school administered the PSAT on Oct. 14, just over four weeks from the start of the shool year. Full-time distance learning families had the choice to send their children into the school building to take the test. For many of my freshman full-time distance learners, this was their first time in the building navigating the halls to find their testing rooms. Teachers had responsibilities that day as test proctors or monitoring restrooms, which was my job.
I had hardly gotten the restroom doors unlocked before a student called my name. I turned to see a masked student whose eyes only peeked out over the top of his mask. I hesitated because I did not recognize this student. He quickly sensed my confusion and identified himself.
“Miss, it’s me! Mike!”
Now, I had several students named Mike, and, at first, the name did not register. I finally realized I didn’t recognize Mike because he was a full-time distance learner who I had never seen with a mask on. He was happy to have bumped into me, and we marveled at the coincidence that we would see each other on this day in such a large building. After more chatting, Mike returned to his testing session but continued to come visit me during the breaks. He was excited to be in the building, finding his way around, and being part of a school again. It meant a lot to him, he told me, to meet me in person, to see my classroom after the testing was done, and to meet my paraprofessional who works in the same class. He remarked again and again how great it was to meet me and he was appreciative that I took time to talk to him and share in his excitement at us being together in person. As the dismissal bell rang, he commented, surprisingly, how nice my paraprofessional and I were. The joy on his face and the thrill he expressed to be back in school were the best things that have happened to me so far this year.
No matter how much we struggle with these new distance learning formats and worry that we are not doing enough to connect, strong personal connections are still being made in spite of all the obstacles. Our students continue to reach out to us, modeling how to form bonds in these unusual times. The challenge for teachers now is not to lose sight, in spite of all the demands placed on us, of these bonds. These relationships are the key that turns an educator, in the eyes of their students, into their very own teacher.
Comments From Readers
I strongly believe in giving my students choices in reading, even in guided-reading groups. Last week, I chose three novels to share with my 5th grade students, with the intent of letting them choose one for us to read together. The three novels were: A Walk to Water, Chocolate Fever, and Ida B: And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World.
After showing them the cover, reading the blurb for each book, and a short discussion, we decided on A Walk to Water. I started to put the other books away. Then ... one of the students said, “Mrs. Vo, we didn’t vote on our second choice yet!” Surprised, I asked them, “You want to read the other books, too?” They all said, “Yes!” So we chose the order that we would read the three books. I carefully labeled them and put them on the counter, all the while trying to contain the joy in my teacher’s heart and the tears welling in my eyes. I’m teaching READERS! And they share the same love of reading that I do!
Nicole Schlossman Foley:
Even though we are 100 percent virtual—relationships have been established, and the kids say they love school.
We have parties on Fridays. I send them things, and we play a Jeopardy game roundup of what we learned. Then just relax and be silly together.
Melinda Raiford Buchanan:
Several of my students (9th grade) are finishing their independent reading books, and three told me that it’s the first book they’ve ever finished on their own.
A parent message saying her son, who has previously struggled in math, not only enjoys my class but says I make learning easy and fun.
I went on a Google Earth trip to my student’s fishing village. He showed us where they caught shrimp to sell each day. He showed us his grandmother’s brightly colored house and the yard where she has chickens. We then “walked” past his school with 86 students and the church he “sometimes goes to.” We saw the house he used to live in and where he lives now. He shared photos of his sister feeding the goats and where they grow sugarcane. It was a wonderful “visit.”
I teach an integrated class comprised of special ed. and regular ed. students. We are a learning pod. Friendships are flourishing as we spend the entire day together. Everyone joins in on every game during recess. They cheer for each other. Some of the kids in my class have sadly never had the experience of being fully included. Of course, the positive social and emotional vibe carries into the pursuit of academic excellence. Only when students feel valued and accepted, can the academic magic occur.
My school district is still mostly virtual and my classes are going well. I am teaching my high school math classes through project-based learning. Students have made connections to state standards through topics of their own choosing, including mask wearing, social distancing, virtual vs in-person schooling, LGBTQ+ rights, men’s issues, availability of jobs, BLM, bullying, and litter.
Many students who may have been quiet during in-person classes feel comfortable contributing to class discussions using the chat feature in the online classroom. And I can go back in the chat to keep track of which students are contributing and which may need some encouragement. I stole the “chat blast” from someone else. This works great to get answers that don’t just echo previous answers. Everyone types a response without pressing enter. Then we all press enter at once and we have a lot of responses to compare.
Thanks to Neema and Ann, and to readers, for their contributions!
Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.
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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.
Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.
I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.