Learning Gain #3: Listen to the Children

Last week, on the one year anniversary of teaching pandemic school, my fifth grade teaching colleagues and I invited our students to reflect on the past year. We asked our students to consider what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, what they’ve missed, and even what they now understand that they didn’t understand 12 months ago. Our fifth graders were given space and time to share their thinking through writing.

Not one of our 64 fifth graders, 1/3 of whom are learning from home full-time while the other 2/3 are learning in a hybrid school environment, mentioned that they worried about “learning loss,” academic standards, or about keeping/catching up. Oddly, many adults removed from classrooms or direct work with children are loudly sharing concerns with anyone who will listen about our children falling behind an arbitrary benchmark or standard. These same adults have likely not asked any children to reflect and share their thinking.

Let’s listen to the children. I have gained quite a bit by listening to our fifth graders over the past few months. Here is what some of them had to say last week, on our one year anniversary of doing school during the pandemic…

On Themselves

  • “Through this pandemic, I have realized more about myself, from my personal preferences to how I think. I have learned a lot of life lessons, and now I know how to better cope with bad things that come my way. I think I have also become a better person, I’m more self-aware and persevering.”
  • “I think that I have learned to be patient, and I still am learning because the virus hasn’t stopped yet. One thing that I have realized about myself when I was stuck in quarantine was that music and singing could help with my anxiety. Music has really helped. I can always depend on my music.”
  • “I really miss what life was like before COVID-19, but I’ve grown during this time. I’ve learned how to have fun with myself and that I need to appreciate time with others. But it’s really good that I know how to enjoy my time alone. It’s ok to be alone sometimes.”
  • “I’ve learned that sometimes just making it through is an accomplishment. We should all feel accomplished.”

On Relationships

  • “I have learned to be grateful for what I have and to not take things for granted. I’m so grateful for my family. Other people have lost so much and I realize I am so fortunate to have my family. I will never take them for granted.”
  • “I’ve learned the importance of family, even if we drive each other crazy. They are the ones I love and care about. I need them just like they need me. We all need each other. Especially now. We are united, together, and a team.”
  • “I miss playing with my friends everyday. Even though I don’t get to see them in person I’m glad we have found other ways to do things together. I appreciate my friends more than ever.”
  • “This year has been filled with tears, laughter, and new friends. I met new people! I actually met new friends in school but in weird ways. It wasn’t like how I used to meet friends. I feel more confident to talk to new people now. Everybody needs friends and I see that now.”

On The World, Advocacy, and Change

  • “I’ve learned that the world is a really big place and a really small place. I’ve learned that it’s important to care about other people and other places in the world. That if I can help I should help. I want to help all people in the world.”
  • “I also think that I have learned how bad racism is, which makes me so mad and upset. I know I need to do something about it. I need to speak up. I will speak up.”
  • “I have realized that we need to adapt to our environment, it won’t adapt to us. But, I have also realized that if we want anything to change we have to do it together. We have to actually do something. Not just wait around for others because if everyone does that then nothing will actually change.”
  • “This pandemic has turned the world upside down, and once the vaccines are done, hopefully it will be turned back again. No matter what happens, it will always stay a little tilted from all the changes it has made to the way we live. It showed the human race how no matter what challenges we face, there is always a way to persevere. It showed us that even in the darkest tunnels, no matter how overwhelmed you feel, there will be light at the end.”

On Overcoming Obstacles

  • “I have also come to understand that we will face big problems in our life that we can’t always fix alone. We have to take them slow like a math problem that we don’t understand yet. And slowly, but surely our problem will start to get fixed. Not just like that, but it will fade away slowly with work. We can’t always solve the problems in our lives, but we have to try different ways to solve them and never give up. I know that these days are really hard for everybody, so we all have to try to make a difference.”
  • “Everything has been so hard. But I now realize that I can overcome hard things. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Sometimes I need to ask for help and sometimes I don’t. No matter how hard something feels I now know that it’s probably temporary. It’s ok if things are hard sometimes.”
  • “The pandemic has brought us problems, but also solutions, solutions that can carry on even after these days of troubles. Solutions that will make a difference even in the far, cloudy future where kids will be learning about how this year was one of the strangest humanity has seen. This year has taught everyone how easy our society can shatter, but also that we can put the pieces back together.”

On More Traditional Academics

  • “I learned things! I learned how to draw better and I learned more math! Which has surprised me and everyone around me! It’s inspired me to work harder. I know I don’t really need normal school to learn new things.”
  • “The pandemic has also shown me that I love to draw and I’m good at it. For example, in fourth grade I didn’t know how to draw, I didn’t even really try. When the pandemic started, I began to draw to fill the time. Now I enjoy drawing and have found it as one of my hobbies. It even helps me with my writing!”
  • “I learned a very important lesson. I learned that I can choose my own books. I don’t have to just read books others want me to read. That helped me so much. I actually like reading now.”
  • “I learned that school can be done anywhere. I miss going to my actual school, but I know I can learn from home. I actually kind of like it. I like doing math and writing at home. I never thought I’d say that.”

So, the next time someone makes claims about our children, ask them if they’ve given children the opportunity to reflect upon and share what they’ve learned and realized over these past 12 months. When we take the time to give our kids an opportunity to truly reflect on their feelings and learnings and express themselves, we can learn so much more than we could ever anticipate.

It’s time to listen to the kids. It’s long past time.

-Christina

The next few posts in this series will describe lessons learned about ways of now doing school that I’ll carry over to post-pandemic schooling. Click on the follow button to have each post delivered to your inbox, or check back here in a few days! All posts in this series can be found at this link.

Learning Gain #2: Blunders & Missteps Modeled

“I can’t hear you. I see you’re not muted, but I can’t hear you.” The images on the Zoom screen showed mouths moving and gestures of conversation, but I could not hear anyone on the other end.

Suddenly, messages started flooding the chat…
I can hear her, Ms. Nosek.
She sounds fine to me.
Ms. Nosek check your settings.
Are you connected to audio Ms. Nosek?

I started to grow a tad frazzled as we only had a short amount of time for the reading workshop ahead. The added pressure of seamlessly managing the tech know-how of Zoom meetings while simultaneously leading a reading workshop is real. Not only did I need to respond to student reading needs in the moment, but I also had to respond to tech-issues, often my own, in the moment as well.

The advice continued in the chat…
Remember this happened before.
What was it last time when this happened to Ms. Nosek?
Ms. Nosek, is your computer volume turned all the way down AGAIN?

I immediately looked down at my keyboard, repeatedly pushed the volume button, and watched the volume symbol on screen grow from zero to ten. Yep. That was it. My computer volume was once again turned all the way down and I didn’t realize it. I planted my hand on the familiar spot on my forehead, took a deep breath, and sighed, “Thank you, fifth graders. What would I do without you? Shall we start reading workshop now?” Then, a friendly, understanding response came my way…

“It’s ok Ms. Nosek. These things happen.”

If your teaching is anything like mine, you’ve made quite a few missteps and blunders this year. Not only have I continually made these flubs, but I have made them publicly, in front of my students and even their families on occasion due to being broadcast into some of their homes. However, the power of this lesson does not come from the blunder itself being made. Rather, the power comes from watching me, the teacher in charge, publicly make them, learn from them, and eventually bounce back.

Some of the missteps and blunders I’ve unintentionally modeled in front of my students have included accidentally ending the entire Zoom meeting instead of closing breakout rooms, allowing my own typos to go unedited on assignments while realizing it as I’m explaining said assignment, and even making a simple arithmetic error in front of everyone while modeling a strategy on how to add fractions with unlike denominators. In all of these instances, rather than trying to cover my tracks or make an excuse for the blunder, I named it, owned it, repaired it when I could, and moved on…

Some of these lessons from the blunders have been simple- make sure double check the button I’m about to click in the Zoom meeting before I click on it. Others have been a bit more impactful- when I speed through my work without rereading it, even as an adult who is well versed at doing school, errors are bound to go unfixed. So, be sure to always reread or double check my work. The public and often unintended modeling of noticing, naming, accepting, and then finding the remedy to the errors is where the power of the lesson resides.

After a few weeks together, I noticed students started going through the same process with their small blunders. When minor blunders were made, students would say things like, “Oh well. Let me just fix this and move on!” or “Oh, now I see. Got it.” The embarrassment and self-consciousness of school years past has transformed into a humble confidence of sorts. During this school year more than any other, students are granting themselves grace or are even partially celebrating their minor blunders and then are just moving on.

I’m not able to draw causation from my public unintentional modeling of my missteps and blunders, but I do wonder if this has had an impact on my students when they make a minor misstep as well. I wonder if my frequent publicly made blunders are putting students more at ease for when they make them. I may never have an answer, but I do know I will carry this thinking with me well past this school year.

Learning gained: blunders and missteps publicly modeled are a beautiful thing.

-Christina

Learning Gain #3 will describe the power of listening to our kids. Click on the follow button to have each post delivered to your inbox, or check back here in a few days! All posts in this series can be found at this link.

Learning Gain #1: Friendship Found

During a meeting back in October with my fifth grade teaching partners and principal, I expressed that I was worried about one of my students. “I’m really concerned that Jill does not have a close friend in the current cohort. She needs that connection to feel safe,” We were working to place our students into cohorts of 10-12 kids each as we were moving from a full distance model of school to a hybrid model. In our hybrid model, students would remain with the same cohort of children for all activities both in and out of the classroom each day- they would learn together, eat together, and play together with no physical exposure to any other children at school. So, we spent quite a bit of time creating, rethinking, and then recreating our cohort placements. Ultimately, many of the placement decisions ended up being out of our control as we had to ensure siblings were in the same cohort time frames in addition to a few other considerations as well. So, we did not have as much flexibility as we would have liked.

On our first day back I was worried for Jill as her two closest friends were placed in a different cohort. The first hour and a half of the day went smoothly. We reacquainted ourselves with physically being back in school and of course read some great books! Around 9:30 that morning, I decided to bring my students outside for some unstructured extra play time. I figured that they had not been with other children in 8 months, so the more play time together, the better! As students moved into our designated play zone for the day (each cohort is assigned a rotating play zone everyday in order to stay physically distanced from other cohorts), I noticed Jill stayed back a ways and just observed the others. The rest of the kids quickly gathered together (at a safe distance of course) and started chatting. It looked like they were figuring out what to do. I’m a firm believer in allowing kids the space and freedom to structure their own play time, so I decided to hang back and just observe. As a little more time went on, the kids all moved into a game with jump ropes. They all grabbed ropes, helped tie a few together, and formed a line to take turns running into the spinning jump rope two at a time. It brought me immense joy to watch them giddily play together after months of being separated. However, Jill was still hanging back on her own.

As I was about to walk up to Jill to invite her to play with the other kids, Layla, another student in class, looked over and gleefully yelled, “Jill, what are you doing? Come play with us!” I took a step back and just looked at Jill. As she quickly glanced up from whatever she was staring at on the ground, a smile grew across her face, and she ran over to the other kids to join the jumping line. That’s all it took.

Every single day since, Jill’s cohort has played together like a family out at recess and during extra play time. All kids in the cohort of ten are always included. They do this completely on their own without my prompting. Instead of small groups of two or three children doing their own separate things, they always make it a point to play as a whole group. The ten of them, all coming from different friendship groups in previous grades, have become a caring and nurturing bubble of classmates. Not only do they continue to play together without my intervention, but they also share their personal poetry with each other, audibly laugh with each other in class (mostly at my frustration with tech issues!), and even resolve conflict with each other in a compassionate way. Our days are not always without conflict, but that conflict is now met with a layer of compassion that’s much deeper than I’ve ever previously observed as a teacher.

Someone recently asked me how I work to foster friendships in a hybrid model classroom. I honestly answered that the kids have done it themselves. They just needed the adult around them to get out of the way. Or, I should say, they needed the adult around them to give them the space to apply what they have learned and experienced as humans living in a pandemic to build relationships with the people around them. It didn’t matter that Jill wasn’t placed in a cohort with her best friends. What mattered on that first day back and still matters now is that the people with her value her as a fellow human being and she values them as well. Friendship was found in simple, beautiful ways because of our situation, not in spite of it. Imagine if I would have intervened with Jill that day. I would have taken away that feeling of acceptance she felt coming directly from the other kids. Adult intervention is definitely necessary at times, but more often than not, the kids just don’t need us- and we have to recognize what a beautiful thing that is! 

Interestingly, when chatting with students’ caregivers at our conferences a couple weeks ago, a few parents mentioned that they were concerned at first because their child’s close friend was placed in a different cohort, but that the concern quickly faded as new friendships were immediately formed. In talking with a few of my colleagues, they are also noticing the same level of new friendships blossoming as well.

Whether our kids are in a full distance, hybrid, or even back to a full classroom model of learning, one thing I know is true. Our kids have realized and prioritized the importance of friendships and relationships during this trying time- whether those relationships are developing in-person or online, human connection matters now more than it ever has before. Being physically away from others has really demonstrated how important we all are to one another.

We have gone through so much loss as a global community. Our children have not been spared from this loss. In these overwhelmingly difficult times, friendship, love, and compassion for each other have been found and fostered. It’s not perfect. After all, who has ever heard of a perfect friendship or a perfect love? But, it is real and it is perhaps more important than anything else. Authentic human relationships and budding or growing friendships have been shining lights in the darkness of this pandemic. Our kids see it, believe in it, and most importantly, act upon it. It’s time for us to follow their lead. 

Learning Gain #2 of this series, Blunders & Missteps Modeled, is coming out soon. Click on the follow button to have the post delivered to your inbox or check back here in a few days. Until then, follow the lead of our kids- they clearly know what they’re doing!

-Christina

All posts in this series can be found at this link.

Learning Gained: Understanding & Knowledge Found During a Year of Teaching Pandemic School

Close to one year ago, on March 13, 2020, my school along with many others across the country closed our physical buildings. We spent the remainder of that spring figuring out how to both teach students from a distance and navigate life in a pandemic. I took the lessons learned from that spring and paired it with reflection and study over the summer to write and share the blog series 15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year. When I wrote those 15 lessons, I had no idea the learning and knowledge my students, colleagues, and I would gain between August 17, 2020 (our first day of school) and now, about two-thirds of the way into this school year. We’ve not only gained knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning, but we have also gained many lessons about how to better care for ourselves and each other. From my perspective, nothing is more important.

Those removed from the actual work of educating our children have been crying “learning loss” for months. Their fear mongering and scare tactics have prompted many politicians and decision-makers long removed from the classroom to make hasty decisions and declarations about the schooling of our children. Frankly, I’m done listening to their nonsense. Enough of the deficit approach to education- it’s time to move forward with a different mindset. Not one more word of this post or upcoming blog series will even acknowledge that harmful, deficit-based noise.

In the coming days and weeks ahead, I am excited to share another blog series, Learning Gained: Understanding & Knowledge Found During a Year of Teaching Pandemic School. With this blog series, I plan to share the stories of my students’, my colleagues’, and my own learning over the past year. While so much has been lost in our world that we will never get back, namely dear family members, friends, and loved ones to the pandemic, we have also gained quite a bit. I’m excited to name and highlight some of those gains. I’m hoping this blog series will bring some much needed love, light, healing, and motivation to my fellow teachers and all others who choose to follow along.

Click on the follow button to have the posts in this series delivered to your inbox or check back here in a few days. Until then, take care of yourself and do something good for others.

-Christina

Learning Gain #1: Friendship Found
Learning Gain #2: Blunders & Missteps Modeled
Learning Gain #3: Listen to the Children
Learning Gain #4: coming soon!