This article is part of Open Book, a Slate series about the new school year.
The anxiety for teachers right now is palpable. As I trudge through this long Sunday night that is August, and I recall the intense challenges of last spring, I’ve found myself worried. I know that this fall, our educational system needs to do many things differently in order to truly serve our students. If we can’t “reimagine” our system, many of our already marginalized students will only fall farther behind.
I teach second grade in a Title I school south of Seattle. Our school is majority Black and other people of color, and more than 70 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced meals. Many of our students are refugees from Ukraine, Somalia, and South America. We have countless students who have experienced various forms of trauma, such as homelessness, poverty, and hunger. During a normal year of operation, our school struggles to authentically reach and support the various needs of our families, but because of COVID-19, students like mine may have lost as much as an entire year of academic learning, according to the New York Times. As we head into another (possibly very long) stretch of distance learning, I know I need to do more to keep my students connected to their education. Of equal importance is to keep these students connected to the social safety net that is public school.
Last spring, I struggled with how to engage with my students, as half a dozen of them dropped off and didn’t attend class at all. I spent nights worried about how to get through to these 8-year-olds and how to get their families the resources that they needed. My colleagues and I regularly leaned on one another to exchange ideas for what methods of communication worked and brainstormed ways in which we could improve. I’ve spent the summer doing more of the same. As we head into the school year, I’m facing it armed with specific strategies to lift my students up. If you are an educator, advocate, or parent, and you want to do more for disadvantaged students next year but don’t know where to begin, here are a few thoughts on what has worked for me so far, and what I plan to do this year, to get you started.
Compile a Current Database of Resources
When COVID-19 hit, most school districts posted a list of support resources available for families. I’ve found, however, that these are often limited to academic and food resources, and my families required a much broader array of support than what was publicized by our district. I had one student, for instance, who was dealing with clinical depression from being cooped up in her small home for so long. Another experienced the trauma of separation anxiety, because she could not see her father, who had contracted COVID-19. My students and their families needed access to health, mental health, financial, technological, child care, food, legal, and even spiritual resources—and they needed them quickly. I made it my mission to have an updated, personal database of resources at my fingertips, so that when my students were in crisis, I could immediately direct them to the appropriate care.
Going into the fall, I plan to update my database, since many organizations that were once offering free services have stopped. I’ve found it’s easiest to do this by culling information from various local organizations’ spreadsheets for services, seeking out places like the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, East African Community Services, faith-based organizations, and nonprofit mental health organizations.
I recognize that it’s one thing to have this resource available; it’s another to get my families to use it. I’ve found continually mentioning it to my students and their families in one-on-one meetings and phone calls, as well as posting it on our class homepage, has been most effective. I have also found that I can never mention it too often—the families that need it the most are often embarrassed to ask for help.
Concerned community members can help in this way, too. Compile a list of comprehensive local resources—offer it to administrators at neighborhood schools. If you are on a school PTA, make sure that they disperse it, or volunteer to do so yourself, whether with local flyers or on your school’s listserv.
When putting together this list, inquire with these organizations about possible volunteer opportunities. Make a second list of resources for families who want to provide help to those in need and concrete ways in which they can do so. This could be coordinating food delivery and supplies to local families, collecting donations, or offering translation services.
Call, Call, Call
One of the biggest issues educators experienced last spring—and certainly the biggest issue that I faced—was student engagement after closures. Very few of my students participated in class daily, most popped in and out as their parents’ schedules allowed, and some couldn’t participate at all due to lack of resources. Some districts reported daily absences ranging from 20 to 40 percent of their student population.
I’m steeling myself for the fact that September may be even worse because my students will have never met me in person. It was challenging enough to connect via Zoom with students I’d gotten to know intimately through seven months of instruction. I know it will be even more difficult to connect with students whom I don’t know yet at all and who don’t know me. This lack of established relationship will require us educators to go the extra mile in building meaningful bonds with our students virtually. For me, this means taking advantage of the time I’d usually spend commuting to make regular check-in calls with my students and their families.
I don’t envision these calls being laborious. I plan to say hi, praise their awesome kid, and remind them of all the resources that are available on my homepage. I’m not under the delusion that this method will work for all of my families. There will be some kids (and parents) who won’t know how to ask for help. Some don’t speak English; others may be completely disengaged. Many of my students’ parents don’t have the luxury to work remotely, or are currently working odd hours or additional jobs to make ends meet, but I remind myself every day of how important it is to continue to reach out. We as teachers need to be prepared to exhaust every possible means of keeping our families engaged—there is so much at stake for our students if we don’t.
While all of our students face the negative impact of COVID-19, many of our students face the devastating pandemic of racism. I’ve already gone into depth here on this matter, but what I’ll say again is that we need to begin the school year with equity in mind. Our Black students and other students of color have been through so much in the past six months, and access to mental health and socio-emotional resources has proved to be scarce. This is another way in which my resource spreadsheet comes in handy. I consult it and try to find organizations that have therapists of color who share my students’ identities. Taking the time to do this goes a long way with my students and families: By lowering the bar to entry for help, and matching them with therapists who can understand their perspective and their struggle, there’s a better chance that they’ll begin therapy, and get more out of it.
For my students who did attend class last spring, I tried to explore and experiment with how to teach effectively through video. My class and I took virtual field trips to the Smithsonian museums, and we completed digital scavenger hunts for information on historical figures. I found that if these activities are done well, kids are really responsive to some of the interactive aspects of distance learning. (See my colleague Matthew Dicks’ piece on how to make Zoom more engaging for students.)
One thing that proved especially useful to my student population: Given that so many students weren’t available for online learning during school hours, my second grade colleagues and I provided both live and prerecorded lessons. I uploaded my lessons to YouTube, and this year, I plan to create a channel dedicated to my classroom. With YouTube, I can create playlists of multiple lessons on a specific topic or skill. For example, this year in addition to live instruction, I plan to do an entire series on the various strategies students can use to add and subtract one-, two-, and three-digit numbers. These resources can be accessed by any student at any time, and they can also be used to support parents in teaching their kids at home.
My school is currently planning on virtual instruction for the first few weeks of school, and it will reassess its plan as the situation develops. But for those schools beginning with some level of in-person instruction (and those that plan to eventually transition to opening school), many, including Seattle, are considering some form of outdoor class (most of these plans call for a few hours of instruction outdoors on alternating days of the week). If your district is planning to reopen and isn’t considering this potential model, you could still deliver some lessons outdoors with your administration’s blessing.
Many studies have shown that simply spending time outside can have positive effects on a child’s mental health, and I have certainly found this to be true with my own students. We often leave the classroom to look for real world examples of math, science, and the other subjects we learn. While the academic learning opportunities outside for my students are wonderful, I find the real magic happens is in the socio-emotional learning—conducting a lesson on self-regulation and belly breathing in a calming outdoor environment works wonders for students of all ages. Teaching lessons outside not only provides an opportunity to adequately socially distance but also allows for students to continue to form interpersonal relationships with their teacher and their peers. These types of experiences are critical, especially for younger students, and cannot be mimicked through a screen.
Whether your district is planning to return in person or is gearing up for remote learning, be sure to include some movement in your lessons. Most districts going back to the classroom are looking at reducing transitions—kids will have music, gym, lunch, and library all in the same physical classroom. Pandemic or not, students always need an opportunity to get their wiggles out. The lack of movement throughout the school will only exacerbate this, so trying to keep kids active within the walls of the classroom will be a necessity. Kids at home in front of their screens will most certainly need this as well.
For movement videos and materials, my go-to is BrainPOP. The site has a collection of dances and songs, some of which align with common core standards. Last year, I played these videos through my screen over Zoom and had my class join the activity from home. I find that when I give my students an opportunity to move, it makes all the difference in making learning more engaging, and it also helps them return to a lesson with renewed focus.
Unfortunately, no amount of movement will adequately address the looming mental health crisis that faces our nation’s youth. Spending hours each day stuck in front of a computer with little face-to-face interaction will have enormous negative effects on students’ well-being. As I’ve mentioned, I’ll be calling my students on a daily basis, but I’ll also be scheduling one-on-one check-in Zoom meetings with my students. During these meetings, I will teach socio-emotional lessons like deep-breathing and meditation exercises, and I’ll ask my students specific questions about life at home. What’s it been like to have Mom working the night shift? Is Grandma feeling better after being sick? Were you able to get outside at all yesterday? The day before? What did you have for dinner last night?
What I’d love to see districts do is supplement the support that teachers can offer with what I’m calling “communication specialists.” As I’ve said, one of the major hurdles I encounter with my students is just getting through to them—getting ahold of their parents, getting students to sign into school.
Like all major cities, here in Seattle we have numerous nonprofit agencies—such as Africatown and El Centro de la Raza—that provide after-school programs and opportunities like mentorship and tutoring for kids of all ages. These community-based organizations have very close relationships with our students and families, sometimes even more so than our school system, because they see these kids, their siblings, and their parents regularly, developing familial relationships over many years as opposed to just one school year. How great would it be if schools partnered with these organizations by assigning each family a communication specialist from said organization? The specialist could make house calls to the family once a week to check in; they could help with schoolwork and make sure these families have food and tech support. This would be another way to look out for our under-resourced students to make sure that they have the support that they need during these extraordinarily difficult times.
As we head into an extremely uncertain and unprecedented year, the most important thing to remember is to pace yourself. Don’t try to implement all of these suggestions at once. If one or two of them resonate with you, start there and build out as you have the capacity to do so. We have a long and challenging year ahead of us, and in order for us to best serve our students, we ourselves need to be able to show up whole and ready to work. Because our students are counting on us to deliver the best educational experience possible.