by Christine Boatman
Over the past year, my students have experienced loss and trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic—including health crises, financial hardships, and limited access to education—as well as from a wildfire that tore through our community, burning many homes. Now that my students and I are returning to an in-person classroom, I am considering how I can best support each student through this transitional period. Teachers everywhere are faced with the challenge of helping students readjust to a classroom environment, face residual trauma from the past year, and “catch up” after what was, for many, a less-than-productive school year. Here, I share some strategies that I have found essential to supporting my students as we return to in-person schooling.
Care and Connection
One of the first phrases I learned as a teacher is “students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, showing that you care has never been more crucial. As a teacher, the first thing I can do to support students facing trauma is to be a supportive, trusted adult whose classroom is a safe space.
My school has also created a care and connection team, whose mission is to show care to families in need of support, re-connect students with school, and make home visits to chronically absent students. (COVID-19 has created a surge in chronic absenteeism.) This team works to solve technology barriers, communicate information about school reopening, such as school bus schedules, and provide referrals to community resources such as wildfire assistance, food assistance, and mental health services. The team’s work has been invaluable to me as a teacher: it breaks down barriers and helps students reengage with school, allowing me to build better relationships with my students.
Less Practice and More Focus on Development of High-Leverage Skills
Another strategy that has been helpful in providing interventions for students is narrowing the learning focus. In the context of school closures, it is impossible for teachers to cover everything we would cover in a traditional year, so it is important to take a step back and place our focus on teaching the highest-leverage skills that students need to be successful at the next grade level. For example, I have removed the novels that I would normally teach in favor of spending our limited time teaching paragraph and essay-writing skills. These are the skills students need to be successful as they advance to the next grade level.
I also have been intentional about the amount of work given to students. Rather than asking students to practice skills many times, I have been providing my students with specific instruction and very targeted skill practice, which leads to skill development. For example, if I assign my students multiple paragraphs to write in one week in which they concentrate on all the skills they have learned (or are expected to have learned), I will receive a lot of paragraphs but they will likely be very poor quality. This means that all of that time has been spent on “practicing” skills that students have not actually retained, or did not learn properly to begin with, due to the stressors of the past school year. Instead of assigning a lot of practice paragraphs, I have been focusing on very targeted writing skill development. For example, we might spend an entire class practicing how to cite quotations. Another day, we practice only writing topic sentences. This intentional, targeted practice allows students to develop the most essential writing skills they will need for next year.
Another successful strategy in my classroom has been targeted intervention groups. After students complete a writing assignment or assessment, I use assessment data to place students into groups based upon skills for which students need either support or enrichment. I have arranged my classroom into socially distanced table groups where students are assigned according to their needs. Laminated posters are placed on each table group explaining the students’ specific activity for that day. The students know the routine of following the directions on the poster, which allows me to navigate between the groups and re-teach skills for students who are struggling, or provide extended learning opportunities for students who have already mastered the skill.
Mini Lesson Videos
Another high-leverage strategy for supporting students who have missed instruction is the creation of three-minute mini lesson videos on essential topics. This allows me to quickly send a student a video link to help them catch up on a skill they may have missed. For example, one student may need my video on thesis statements in order to begin their essay, while another may need a refresher on internal citations. These videos allow me to meet the diverse needs of my students as we all work to catch up on skills that may have been missed.
There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to the many needs students are bringing to the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be innovative, patient, ready to problem-solve, and willing to take risks in order create a learning environment that will help students thrive. Hopefully, these intervention strategies can serve as a jumping-off point as you help your students return to the classroom!
Christine Boatman is a middle school social studies teacher at Estacada Middle School in the small town of Estacada, Oregon. She is passionate about problem-based learning and promoting critical thinking in her classroom. Boatman regularly presents at conferences, including the Oregon Council for the Social Studies and Oregon GeoFest, and recently she gave a keynote speech at the Gates Foundation ECET2 conference. When Boatman is not busy in her classroom, she loves hiking with her husband, Daniel, and dog, Riley.