Catching Up After COVID: Maximizing What Kids Know

By Miriam Plotinsky

As the school year draws to a close, educators nationwide are looking ahead to the daunting prospect of catching students up in the fall. Seen from a deficit mindset, meeting a broad range of student needs once the 2020-2021 school year begins seems to be an impossible charge. Without delegitimizing the concerns about what students have missed, particularly those who have not received distance instruction for a multitude of reasons, we must give students credit for their knowledge—which is vaster than we realize—as we prepare for next year.

Make Few Assumptions

When it comes to determining what students know, we often rely on gut instinct; however, it is impossible to uncover the nuances of learning acquisition from what we see during a limited time with children. To get a clearer idea of where to start, provide choices for learning at the very start of the year. Rather than give students a reading test in the first week of school, make a variety of texts available and let students pick which ones they would like to read. Once students have had a day or two to work with the text, have conversations with them about their reading, or let them share thoughts in writing. In math classes, give students a range of problems and allow them to select where they want to begin. By seeing the results of what students gravitate toward, teachers can make more informed decisions about how to move forward and then proceed with assessments as needed. 

Use Available Data

Whether school returns to an in-person experience, remains virtual, or becomes a hybrid model, it will not look the same as it did before. While we had the advantage of knowing students personally for the first three-quarters of this school year, we will not have that benefit next fall. We can examine performance data that gives context to academic experiences prior to pandemic closures, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. To get better information, engage in articulation conversations with colleagues. When class lists are released (which should ideally occur earlier than usual), discuss each student with the teacher who had them the previous year, if possible. If a student is transitioning to middle or high school, administrators should set up lines of communication between schools so that teachers who work in different buildings can have time to connect. This articulation process should be one of the top priorities in pre-service preparation time for teachers.

Relationships First

To gauge what students need to learn, be intentional and deliberate about building relationships and uncovering information about pandemic learning experiences. The typical school year begins with a day or two of community builders; that will not be enough this fall. Spend about a week having meaningful conversations with students about their academic and social histories. If students are reticent, getting information from parents or guardians can help to create a fuller picture. During the pandemic, many adults at home have acted as de facto teachers or teachers’ assistants, and they can provide perspective that cannot be gleaned from classroom interaction.

Less is More

More instructional time does not necessarily equate to better learning. Instead of looking at the idea of academic recovery as teaching a great deal of content very quickly for coverage, narrow the focus of what students should accomplish into smaller, manageable chunks. If building vocabulary skills emerges as a priority, pick one or two high-interest texts and give students 30 minutes to work on learning words in context. If a geometry class is learning about different kinds of angles, send students on a short scavenger hunt to find examples of the angles in their environment, whether that is school or home. By shortening a lesson to highlight specific skills, students are more likely to stay engaged as they adjust to a new teacher or class. Moving forward with a growth mindset during an intense time of stress is a key component of preparing for the coming school year, as is realizing that students possess a great deal of knowledge, no matter what their experiences have been. While all of us in education feel a strong urgency around meeting student needs when school reconvenes next fall, understanding where to begin is a process. The best way to move forward is to make connections with students, to determine what they already know, and to maximize that information to make meaningful gains in achievement.

Miriam Plotinsky is a learning and achievement specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Her writing is widely published in Education Week, Edutopia, ASCD Express, The Teaching Channel, EdSurge and Education World. A recipient of the 2010 Marian Greenblatt Award for Excellence in Teaching, she is a National Board Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be found on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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