As I start this school year, all I want to do is forget about the unbelievable struggles of last year and kick off this year with classic beginning of year activities. Activities I’ve used as a teacher for the past decade. But I know it’s not that simple now. I know that the start of this school year will need something different, something that restores what was lost last year. What was harmed. What was missed. What was grieved. So, as we prepare our physical classroom walls to welcome our students, I believe we should also consider how to restore the four walls of our classroom culture in new, COVID-responsive ways.
Below are a set of remixed restorative practices to capture that classic back to school energy as we restore four components of the classroom ecosystem that we lost last school year:
Restore CONFIDENCE. Students kept hearing about ‘learning loss.’ They struggled through new academic content without all of the typical structures we know, as teachers, can help them make meaning. Parents huddled over laptops during the lunch break to try to explain homework assignments. Students started to internalize that they were not smart- rather than the truth that the pandemic made it extremely difficult for anyone to master new content like they would in a classroom setting.
How do we restore confidence in our students so that they walk into our classrooms each day with a clear sense of confidence in their academic abilities?
- Data-based Restorative Circle Conversations: As students take beginning of year diagnostic tests and engage in unit introduction activities, dedicate time right after they see their achievement scores to facilitate a circle conversation dedicated to their emotions connected to their scores. There are specific structures you can use that will help structure this circle discussion and you can read about them here. The three questions I use to facilitate this type of circle are the following: (1) In one word, how do you feel about your score (2) Why is that your word (3) What is one way you can support someone else in the circle you heard today.
- Teachers as Learners: This dynamic can be built through a myriad of strategies. Here are some examples to spark your thinking. During whole group discussion, position yourself as the one that needs to be taught by saying phrases like, “I never thought of it that way,” “I learned something new from you today,” or “Can someone present a perspective that would help me better understand?” Students can create and vote on questions they want to explore about topics in the next unit. Introduction activities can rely entirely on a transfer of students’ current skills to a new part of the content. For example, when we teach students about inferencing, we can plan an activity where students make inferences about someone’s mood in the room and you surface how they reached that conclusion before introducing the skill in your content.
Restore COMMUNITY. One day their entire classroom community disappeared. For me it was March 13th, 2020. I told my students we would be out for a few days and I would see them soon. There was no way I could have known that was the last day we would all be sitting together. Whatever your moment, your day, we all felt the same sudden loss. And our students felt it too. No matter how much resilience they showed as they struggled to connect through technology, we all know a sense of community was stripped away overnight. The laughter, the inside jokes, the classroom moments that you reminisce about at the year’s end, all disappeared without warning.
How do we restore community in our classrooms so that our students know they are part of a powerful group of people that redefines what it means to be ‘together’ and why that matters?
- Post-Activity Reflections: Many teachers have awesome community builders, so I will not seek to add to that great list but rather point you to this one. However, I think we can remix all of these practices with a reflection component. Asking students to affirm what they saw in each other during the activity, considering what class norms they can make now that they saw how the class works together, or asking the students what they would like to add, amplify, or adjust to activities are all ways to restore the connections between students and with you.
- Transient Community Building: We were caught off guard about the shift in community space with our students last year. The silver lining of this year is that we know our spaces can change in an instant: and we can build our classroom community with that in mind. Brainstorm ways to connect through technology while your students are in front of you. Create a classroom wall using an interactive tool (like padlet) even while you are still together in person. Make commitments about how we will learn together if the pandemic shuts down schools again. Why? So that the transition is seamless and the power of your community is ready to make the leap to the virtual classroom.
Restore CONNECTIONS. Our students are such different people than the last time they sat next to each other in a classroom. Some have experienced immeasurable grief; some have sat heartbroken and helpless as once in a lifetime moments slipped through their fingers; some have battled overwhelming mental health crises; all have been affected. These effects have changed them, and it is necessary that we get to know our students as they are now, not the ‘normal’ kids we knew them to be when things were ‘normal.’
How do we restore connections between students and with our students to ensure they feel fully seen, safe, and supported during class?
- Shared Vulnerability: Dr. Zaretta Hammond coined the term ‘selective vulnerability’ which means to “Show your humanness (as a teacher) by sharing your personal challenges as a young learner or your current progress learning a new skill.” This selective vulnerability can now be seen as a shared vulnerability, which is the same concept with an additional layer of human connection given we all experienced COVID and distance learning. Students will be more comfortable sharing their concerns and tough moments when they realize that we went through the pandemic with them. It’s ok to share and make space for them to share, too.
- Pivot Surveys: Many teachers have beginning of year surveys and get to know you activities that help them learn about their students. This year, what our students prefer in the classroom and how they prefer to learn may change as the pandemic evolves. Given this fluidity, we can create a brief yet purposeful weekly/bi-monthly student survey that gives us the opportunity to pivot class procedures and teaching methods more frequently.
Restore CALM. We have no idea what this year is going to bring. I don’t think I will ever make assumptions about the way a school year will go ever again. However, I do think we can build a new type of calm, one that rises above the valid difficulties of a situation and serves as a touchstone that students and educators can return to when we need to be reminded of the confidence, community, and connections that we have, no matter where we might be in the world. We restore this calm when we restore the first three walls.
Here is to the remixing, the re-imagining, and the restoration of this school year.