Teaching in the COVID Snow Globe

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When a snow globe is shaken, quite often something is revealed that couldn’t be seen at first. The same can be said for teaching and learning this year. Teachers have been pushed to uncover new methods and techniques to meet the needs of our students while following all of the new safety mandates. Check out these tips from 5th Grade teacher Kelly King.

We just don’t know when the snow globe will be picked up and shaken again. 

Teachers are planners by their very nature, and school has historically been a pretty predictable routine. In March, when the world as we knew it turned upside down, all of that flew out the window. Our school lives were in the air and we had no way of knowing how or where we would land when the “snow” settled.

The summer brought a break from the virtual classroom, but not from the uncertainty and constant shifting of reopening plans. What would the new school year look like? (Shake, shake, shake!)

My district admins worked like champions to prepare, and we opened our doors in a hybrid model. Half of each class attended two consecutive days in-person, separated by Wednesdays which were ‘distance days’ when classes met virtually. Instead of the typical Monday through Friday, our weeks felt more like Monday, Friday, Twilight Zone, Monday, Friday.  We had kids in person (yay!), and we were also providing pre-recorded lessons for the at-home kids. This was an unsustainable challenge as best teaching practices didn’t translate well into ‘boxed’ lessons accessible from a distance.

All of a sudden, we learned we were welcoming back all of our kids in week 5! (Shake, shake!) Great news...but also anxiety-inducing. We had somewhat settled into routines with our tiny groups, but how would we wash hands, set up eating shields, form socially-distanced lines, etc. with double the kids? No matter….we were DONE with recording lessons.

Focusing only on kids we see in person changed the instructional game once again, however...the closer we inch toward a “normal” classroom, the more we realize how much we still can’t do. Kids can’t share materials and they can’t work closely together. Go-to supplements like hierarchy cards and place value puzzles were out. How to engage kids and how to build that oh-so-important conceptual knowledge?

One of the best outcomes for  me has been using outdoor space. In our front parking lot, I have drawn 2D shape hierarchy frames in chalk and had kids playing ‘math hopscotch’ as they name each box. For a lesson on exponents, kids were given papers labeled with either a 1 or a 0.  A power of ten was displayed, and they had to work together to build the number cooperatively while staying safely distanced on number lines scrawled on the hardtop. There is currently a chalk-drawn place-value chart on the southern wall of our building from this week’s review.

Some of the tools I have depended on to reinforce concepts have been recreated to give each student their own; because we are being so careful to keep germs to ourselves, there is no sharing of materials. 

So…..six colors of cardstock, one for each homeroom, cut out and laminated and cut out again to make ‘slidey charts’ for multiplying and dividing by powers of ten. A second place value chart to display for my other classroom so I can reference it while using my wireless microphone headset to “Zoom in” and teach. 25 meter strips cut out and carefully taped together so they each have a common reference for Lesson 4: powers of 10 and the metric system.

We are also fortunate in my district that we have been able to acquire and use technology suited to our students’ needs. We are 1 to 1 with a Chromebook and charger provided to each child, and our administrators research and support each platform we discover. 

I have been a strong proponent of the ASSISTments program, which allows us to assign practice work from our curriculum seamlessly. Students and teachers benefit from immediate feedback, and the teacher report quickly and thoroughly informs my subsequent instruction. I talk it up with my colleagues every chance I get because it solves the challenge of kids wanting to know right away where they stand on an assignment, and allows me to tend to students with questions. It will be a familiar routine in place if/when the snow globe is picked up again and we have to pivot to full distance.

None of this is ideal, and a job we thought couldn’t get much more exhausting has outdone itself. Deep breaths and self-care are very real coping mechanisms. 

The logistics of distancing kids are motions out of an apocalyptic novel….numbered tables, six feet apart, ritualistic hand-washing, attendance and lunch spreadsheets that look like brain teaser puzzles, technology (which we are grateful to have) that makes me feel like an early telephone operator...plugging in and unplugging cords in a frenzy just to share information with kids.

But, we are here and we are learning! When a snow globe is shaken, quite often something is revealed that couldn’t be seen at first. That has been so for our teaching and learning as well. Teachers have been pushed to uncover new methods and techniques to meet the needs of our students while following all of the new safety mandates. The popular teacher adage, “I learn something new every day” has never rung truer.

And yet, our kids are so happy to be back and there are moments that look and sound a little bit like normal (as normal as middle school can be, anyway!)

For now, the “snow” has settled and we are going about the business of educating kids. That is a wonderful thing!

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