by Ron Litz
The pandemic suspended our traditional classrooms and methods of teaching, forcing many of us teachers to revise our long-established approaches in order to better meet the needs of our students. As we return to normalcy, we should remember that many of these changes can and should be carried forward into the traditional classroom. As a seventh-grade history teacher, I found that while teaching virtually I made crucial adjustments to four main areas of my practice: establishing connections with students, designing student schedules, introducing content, and assessing student learning. These changes, necessary for a successful online learning environment, will also improve my students’ in-person learning experience.
Establishing Personal Connections with Students
I’ve always made a point of building personal connections with my students, both through interactions during lessons and during “down time” in class. This rapport allows me to identify necessary supports for student success. In the online classroom, I realized that understanding each student’s unique identity was more vital than ever to the success of our class, but that making these connections virtually was also a much greater challenge. To bridge this gap, I spent more time than usual learning how each student viewed themselves in regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, hobbies, and family life. I found that this unit on Identity and Community from Facing History and Ourselves was especially helpful in meeting this goal. While some students shared more personal details than others, I learned that just showing students that I wanted to know as much as I could about them helped in establishing connections and developing instruction based on those connections. I plan on incorporating this unit in my traditional classroom going forward.
Designing Schedules with Students
One of the most important changes I made while teaching online was asking students to design their own schedule, including setting their own deadlines, due dates, and expectations for daily assignments and long-term projects. As a result of engaging in these conversations with students through group or peer conferences, I now understand more than ever how the pressure of juggling all academic subjects, a social life, extracurricular activities, and home life can lead to stress and burnout, and that this impacts how a student learns. Allowing students to design their own schedule so that it fits their life helps relieve some of this stress and improves performance. I’ll be continuing this collaborative decision-making through conferences and discussion even in my return to in-person learning.
Introducing Content in an Engaging Way
Virtual learning showed that lectures are not the only (or even the best) way to introduce new content. When school buildings closed or reduced their in-class attendance, teachers across the country explored a variety of tools and methods for delivering lessons in virtual and hybrid learning environments. One of the results of this unprecedented experiment in remote teaching was that we realized anew the importance of keeping students engaged in our lessons.
While teaching online, I asked myself more than ever, “Is this something I would want to do as a student? Will the students view this as meaningful?”
One way to increase engagement is to vary the method for delivering new content to students. For example, a history teacher might select a news clip that helps students connect past and present or develop a simulation to engage students with new material. Another way is to experiment with the organization of the class. Students can be introduced to content individually, in pairs, small groups, or through a task that involves the entire class. Rather than lecturing through an entire period, your role as a teacher can include clarifying student responses, asking questions, or correcting misconceptions as students are introduced to new content in smaller groups.
Allowing Student Choice in Assessment
Assessment certainly shifted during the pandemic from the prototypical tests and quizzes at the end of a unit to a more project-based approach. Quizzes became more comparable to formative assessments that did not translate directly into the gradebook. Teachers—both beginners and veterans—explored what worked best for their students, with many arriving at opportunities for student choice in how to demonstrate their learning and understanding. When students have the power to make decisions about their learning, they become more invested in their work. Conversely, when instruction provides little opportunity for students to ask meaningful questions or discuss the content in depth, they lose interest. The ability for students to choose how they learn content or demonstrate their learning is ideal for engagement and for encouraging student voices, whether online or in a traditional classroom.
“Pandemic teaching” led many educators to reevaluate their practice, and we must carry this spirit of reinvention with us back to our classrooms. The lessons we have learned this school year—in adapting to circumstances, prioritizing, personalizing our content to meet our students’ individual needs, and much more—can help us do more for our students as we move forward.
Ron Litz is a 7th grade U.S. History teacher in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He was named an Exemplary Secondary Educator in 2019 by the state. Ron continues to explore how to develop student-centered activities that promote cross-curriculum learning for students, especially how to enhance student voice in the classroom. Ron has several articles published via Edutopia. He regularly tweets @litzishistory on Twitter.