Building Equity and Sustainability into an Uncertain Fall

by | 08.9.20

Moira is a high school geosystems teacher in Virginia.

I always think back-to-school planning is a great time to challenge myself and grow as a teacher – but this year, the challenges are already built in! My school community is going to start the year 100% online, and then move into a hybrid plan as soon as conditions allow – so there’s a lot to think about. 

When our school closed, I thought I was in great shape for virtual learning. We were a blended classroom, so my students were used to accessing materials online. Once my district had provided computer and internet access for all our students, I was pumped! I thought, “This is it. This is what we’ve been sharpening our skills for. We’re ready for this thing.” But not everything I tried worked the way I thought it would! And providing every kid with a laptop and a hotspot is a great step, but that doesn’t make a learning environment fully equitable.

As I plan for fall, I want to account for the equity-related challenges and logistical issues my kids might face, so I can smooth the way for their learning. Here’s what I’m prioritizing: 

Building an organized online classroom

I always thought my online classroom was really well-organized, but recently I had the chance to review some Google Classroom pages created by fellow teachers, and that was an eye-opener! I was able to step into the shoes of my students and see the virtual classrooms from their perspective – and it made me realize that the elements of my site that I thought were really easy to navigate might be confusing. When you’re looking at an unfamiliar site, you might need explicit instructions in order to find what you’re looking for. I also realized that if we provide a student with a laptop, and they lose the charging cord, they may not be able to buy a replacement – and it may take them a while to feel comfortable saying they need another cord. In the meantime, they’re going to use their phone for classwork. If another student’s WiFi goes down, they’re going to switch to their phone, too. On a small screen, it’s even more important for them to be able to find clear directions. So this year, I’ll be spelling out exactly what to do: step one, step two, step three. Before school starts, I’ll ask a teacher friend to go through my online classroom and tell me where they get lost or confused, so I can revise. 

Supporting student-paced learning

When I started teaching in a blended classroom, and then working with the Modern Classrooms Project, I learned one big key to supporting student success: Each time you start a new unit, make the whole unit available. For some of our students, it’s not easy to find quiet times for classwork – they live in busy homes, they work, they have family responsibilities. And kids learn at different paces. I want to make sure that whenever my students sit down to study, they can access everything they need. 

Before we start a unit, I’ll create one lesson and one instructional video for each week. To do this, I write out the questions I want students to be able to answer at the end of each week’s lesson. Next, I build a PowerPoint or a slide deck for that lesson. That’s the base for my instructional video, and I’ll also use it to teach the lesson, which keeps my workflow sustainable. When we begin the unit, I’ll post all the videos and PowerPoints in our Google classroom. Kids can go right to each video for directions or right to each PowerPoint for lesson content, and that makes it easier for them to stay organized with their learning, even if they’re working on a phone. 

Providing multiple ways to engage and grow

I’m a big believer in giving students choices in how they learn. Before our school closed, I provided paper copies of our lessons to go with my videos and PowerPoints, so kids could take notes, and I’m hoping to go back to that this fall. I also want to provide assignments on paper as well as via HyperDocs or Google Docs. We’ll put our readings online, but it’s challenging for some students to read and understand blocks of new information that way. My ELL students often find it easier to learn from a book than a PDF, and when WiFi goes down, reading online is even harder. We’re also taking a new, anti-racist look at our curriculum this summer.

Building flexibility into assessments

As part of distance learning, I put my daily quizzes online, but when I can’t see students progress through the questions, it’s harder to tell how well they really know the material. I’ve thought about building quizzes into our classroom days this fall, but since our time together will be limited, I want to spend it on interactive learning and growing. So I’m planning on giving students options to demonstrate mastery one-on-one: taking a quiz during office hours, doing a phone or video Q&A with me, or recording a video. 

Prioritizing connection

Connection mattered so much to my students during distance learning. Even when we adopted a pass/fail plan, and they weren’t completing as much classwork, they still wanted to participate in video classes, show up for office hours and be in school. They still wanted to connect. So this fall, I’m going to expand my office hours and build in time for one-on-one conversations by phone and video. I’ll have less time than usual to build relationships with my new students in the classroom, but I’ll have more time to connect in other ways – so I can be there for them from Day One. 

That’s how we’re going to make learning work this year: by building our plans on shared connection and shared growth. 

We’re facing a fall of uncertainties and unknowns. Instead of returning to our familiar school schedules, we’ll be using our time in new ways. I know that can sound stressful. But as I build new routines to support my students’ growth, I’ll be building in time to sustain my own growth, too. This fall won’t bring the school days we’re used to – but it will bring the connections, the learning and the light bulb moments we love.

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