“How will we provide authentic learning experiences through a screen? How will we respond to social and emotional needs if we are teaching remotely? How will I work and simultaneously help my child learn remotely?"
All valid pandemic-era questions. And despite all the forums, virtual conferences and think-tanks, no one has found a solution to do any of this the right way. But here is the opportunity as I see it: to demonstrate the problem-solving mindset we learn in class and apply it to the pandemic obstacles. To have my students see me practice what I teach.
Teaching has never been easy, but now there are so many more constraints that hamper my ability to create stimulating and engaging learning environments, including:
- Limited sharing of materials between student cohorts
- Sanitizing any shared devices or tools
- Providing equitable learning experiences and access to virtual learning students (and getting materials to them in advance of each lesson)
- Having time to actually teach my classes (while devoting enough time to sanitize and navigate Zoom et al)
As an elementary STEAM educator, most of my curriculum revolves around solution-based thinking. I present challenges to my students and encourage them to find or create answers. When one strategy doesn’t work, we pause and reflect on it, and then try a new approach. In other words, I help students learn how to learn. In that spirit, almost any new obstacle - even a pandemic - can be a welcome classroom opportunity.
Lots of plastic barriers are yet another pandemic obstacle!
Adapting & Learning
Usually my lesson-planning begins with the end in mind - my intended learning objectives. However, given the pandemic, it’s been more difficult to jump directly into a regular lesson plan. Lately I’ve been starting with the question “What do my students need from me?” as a path to arrive at those intended learnings.
After the winter break my school chose to operate virtually, which meant my lesson plans prepared before the holidays had to change. Certainly, I fretted about how I would encourage creativity, problem solving, and hands-on learning experiences through a screen. I also knew I couldn't just jump into our usual lessons, because the pandemic has been scary and exhausting for my students.
I decided to lead my first lesson back with this: “How are you feeling?” Simple, but also what they needed to ask themselves and each other. So, I asked them. And as I hoped, my students openly shared in response. I then asked them to find a nearby object to represent those feelings, and we discussed those things as well. I could feel a bit of calm enter our remote session, even through the screen.
I then suggested that we could all share an experience (like the pandemic), and yet each have unique perspectives and emotions. Some students offered that they felt relieved they could remain home for a few more days, while others lamented that they missed their friends and wanted to return to school after their long winter break. My students were listening to each other and feeling heard.
Making & Sharing
Now that they were a bit more relaxed, I felt that they were ready to express themselves creatively. I shared with them some images from my set of OuiSi photo cards and asked them to choose the one they were most drawn to. Many of them chose the picture in the middle (looking through the holes of a metal park bench):
Once they decided on their picture, I asked them to brainstorm as many ideas as they could imagine the image “to be.” This exercise of “this reminds me of ...” is easier to see by example than explain, so I presented my own interpretation of one photo card to my students (below). There were no limits on their ideas; they could interpret the image in any way they chose.
After several minutes, they each selected their favorite brainstormed idea and began sketching how they "imagined" that idea (like I did with the fish). Then I asked them to make or build this idea from whatever materials they had available to them at home. If limited on supplies, they also had the option to code their idea in Scratch. Take a look at the park-bench photo (with all the circles) again, and then examine my students ideas below.
Noticing the trees behind through the holes in the park bench.
The pattern of circles reminded a student of a carton of eggs
A student saw the pattern of circles as the scales of a dragon.
One noticed the unique patterns within each circle of the park-bench, comparing them to Chinese characters.
One student saw the circles as a metaphor of people living in their own unique worlds, beside and separate from each other (really!). I loved seeing my students creativity.
By focusing more on what my students needed from me - to feel seen and to express themselves openly - they were able to connect with their inner selves and their peers in a way that I hadn’t witnessed previously. And those connections enabled meaningful opportunities to learn, create and play.
Certainly, the pandemic challenges have brought many more stumbles, mistakes and headaches than wins like this. Indeed, the latter have felt few and far between. But that's part of the problem-solving process. And I know that it's not as simple as just asking my students "How are you feeling?," but I can say that the question was a way for us move forward. That feels like success in such an obstacle-filled school year.