“Lessons from Pandemic Teaching for Content Area Learning” by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in The Reading Teacher, November/December 2020 (Vol. 74, #3, pp. 341-345); the authors can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].
In this article in The Reading Teacher, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (San Diego State University) say they’ve noticed an increased focus on content in the classrooms they’ve visited during the pandemic – more social studies, science, and the arts. “Students had questions about the biological, physical, and social worlds,” they say, “and teachers responded. We lost count of the number of read-alouds we witnessed focused on informational texts, the inquiry projects based on content area learning, and the curation of websites focused on information related to grade-level science and social studies.” Fisher and Frey believe this is a healthy correction from the previous test-driven focus on reading and math, and they hope it will continue.
Based on their observations in schools, Fisher and Frey have five suggestions for remote and hybrid instruction in months ahead:
• Tune in to what students need. A big takeaway from previous interruptions in schooling – Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Enschede fireworks disaster in the Netherlands in 2000 – is the importance of finding out where students are academically and emotionally and tailoring instruction accordingly. “Teachers all over the world put down their planned curricula, focused on where their students were right now in their learning, and taught from there,” say Fisher and Frey. New tech tools make this easier than it was just a few years ago: students making video recordings of their responses on Flipgrid; using Tell About This to record young students’ responses to visual images; using PlayPosit to embed questions into videos; using Pear Deck and other polling apps to check for understanding in real time; using Google Forms to collect end-of-lesson feedback; and using voice feedback to give students appreciation and suggestions on their writing.
• Pay attention to areas where parents are likely to struggle. “Families have a limited capacity to support their children when school is at home,” say Fisher and Frey. Many find themselves running multi-age classrooms, and may be tempted to do children’s work for them. Homework and high-quality worksheets may be helpful in the upper grades, but not for younger students. At the elementary level, it’s better to ask family members to read with children, or suggest questions students can ask their parents. With challenging science topics, a good approach is having students asynchronously watch videos with embedded questions. Some apps take students (and their parents) back to the relevant portion of the video if students get a question wrong. With math topics that are likely to be unfamiliar to parents, synchronous lessons are better, with the teacher explaining skills and procedures in ways that will help parents get up to speed.
• Help students feel connected. “Feelings of connectedness to school come from positive interactions – lots of them – with classmates and the teacher,” say Fisher and Frey. This means starting live sessions with emotional check-ins: “How are you doing?” “Who is your favorite person to talk to?” “What would you ask people about their jobs?” “What would you choose for an entrance song to be played whenever you enter a room?” Classroom norms for synchronous sessions need to be created and continuously refreshed, including:
- “Eye contact” with the person who is speaking;
- How students signal agreement (thumbs-up) and uncertainty (the American Sign Language gesture for “I have a question”);
- Appropriate use of the chat function;
- Treating classmates with the care they deserve.
Breakout rooms need to be structured, with the teacher frequently popping in, say Fisher and Frey. Fishbowl discussions are also helpful, with a small group diving into a thought-provoking question while others watch, take notes, and post their thoughts in a collaborative space like Padlet for further discussion.
• Avoid do-it-yourself school. One lesson learned in the early days of remote learning was that independent tasks were often not completed, stalling learning for many students. “Now that we have had a chance to take a breath and assess,” say Fisher and Frey, “it is apparent that instructional design is crucial.” Specifically:
- Well-crafted Tier 1 instruction;
- Scaffolded learning experiences;
- Interaction with the teacher and peers;
- Checking for understanding;
- Responsive feedback;
- Meaningful summative assessments.
In short, successful learning of grade-level curriculum happens when nothing is left to chance.
• New challenges reinvigorate teaching. “Although the initial shift to pandemic teaching created a mental whiplash effect for most of it, with time, we are all getting the hang of it,” say Fisher and Frey. Teachers are discovering new methods, reaching out to their colleagues, and stretching themselves via book clubs, social media, and professional learning opportunities. “School will probably never be the same,” they conclude, “and that is a good thing.”