It is the middle of June...
And now our thoughts, deeds and concerns begin to point to September - always the mingling of 'good-bye' with 'Hello!' and a conglomeration of planning, cleaning, organizing, anticipating, re-visioning, sadness and joy. Such is June in a school and, despite the pandemic, this is still true in 2021.
A few years ago, when I had been a principal for just a couple of years, I remember describing the process of closing a school in June, only to re-open in September, as being similar to shutting down a bank in June, closing out all the accounts and changing at least 30% of the staff and sending everyone away on summer vacation. Then re-opening the bank branch on September 1st with some of the same clients, a whole bunch of new ones and everyone opening their accounts even though none of the customers had the same needs as before! it is a process quite unique to learning institutions and, as I have come to learn over the many years between sharing that description and today, this it is a process that takes several months to execute successfully. Planning for June actually takes the months of April/May/June - at the very least!!
As we look to close out the 2020-21 school year, there are still many pragmatic pieces of information that have not been decided yet for Eric Harvie School - such as the impact of pandemic health and safety procedures - as well as some undefined components like how many students will be returning from home schooling or CBE-Learn online schooling to in-person learning - or vice versa. Slowly, we are beginning to fill in some of these questions with answers but there is still much to be determined for our school before the beginning of September. Class lists, teacher partnerships, use of space, whole school initiatives, professional development, extra-curricular events, parent evenings, etc are all still in the development stages this mid-June. However, the thinking and planning are well underway - there is much thoughtful considering required to open a school year successfully for all students.
In preparation for the next school year, I have also been reading and researching about potential issues regarding a return to 'before' in schools as we all fervently hope to see the end of the pandemic restrictions we have lived with for about sixteen months begin to recede. Throughout the world, many realizations have emerged from the various closedowns, virtual classroom experiences and the impact of these past months on children globally, including in Canada and in Alberta. I believe the one common experience that has been universal is simply that every child has experienced the pandemic differently - and most of them have experienced an identifiable impact of some kind on their learning, emotional well-being and/or sense of trust in the security of the world.
Understanding the implications the pandemic experience may have on children is a significant element of effective planning for schools as we contemplate in-person, unrestricted learning once again - what used to be so natural now seems so foreign and strange! Considerations for our school as we make plans for re-opening as fully as possible in the fall of 2021 include exploring the dynamics of student engagement, emotional well-being of all students, student academic achievement and skill development, and the best possible organization of schools to meet the needs of students coming to class with vastly different learning histories and experiences. In Part 1 of this two-part blog series, I am going to explore ideas related to student engagement and emotional well-being; next week, in Part 2, I will take a look at academic achievement and school organization - specifically within the lens of EHS.
One of the primary areas emerging as a potential concern for educators and parents everywhere is the impact of motivation on student success. This is not an outcome of the pandemic - while student motivation has certainly been exacerbated by the current situation, the pandemic did not cause motivational concerns for and with students over the past decade or so. Fullan, Quinn, Drummy and Gardiner, in their 2020 report "Education Re-Imagined: The Future of Learning" clearly describe the motivation (or lack of motivation) phenomena:
"The challenges highlighted during the disruption should not come as a surprise. Over the last decade, student engagement has plummeted. Almost one in every five students does not reach a basic minimum level of skills to function in today’s society. (OECD)
Moreover, many school systems have not maintained pace with technological advances; schools have not provided widespread access to digital tools. When the pandemic hit, 1 in 5 students did not have access to the internet or a device to support them in lockdown. This disruption revealed systems that already struggled to support all learners. To put it plainly: it’s time to situate education as an instrument of individual and societal good." (Fullan, et. al. 2020)
Motivation, student engagement and attention are all closely interwoven with cognition and academic achievement. When learners feel comfortable, are interested in attending to the learning, have tasks to take up that provoke their thinking and curiosity, their capacity for learning something new is maximized and their achievement improves. These student perspectives are all connected through emotion and “emotion is the gatekeeper of motivation, cognition and attention.” Therefore, establishing an environment that focuses on well-being and belonging for all is job one for teachers. In short, well-being and quality learning are intimately related. (Fullan, et. al. 2020)
To improve student engagement, educators must find ways to strengthen and continue to foster emotional connections with students, and to help learners develop greater emotional connections with each other. As our children come back to school in the fall following a long stretch of uncertainty, forced isolation through fixed student cohorts in school, stretches of online learning or periods of quarantine due to illness or exposure to positive cases, they physical safety requirements may begin to wane just as the emotional needs take centre stage.
Social isolation from a larger peer group inhibits the growth of social interactions that would usually grow and change through any given school year in the company of multiple peers from a variety of classroom settings as children gather both formally and informally throughout a school day. This may lead to loneliness, less connection or fractured relationships with other children they are now seeing repeatedly for a whole school year with an almost relentless consistency. During periods of online learning, social and peer connections may be completely interrupted or, in some cases, disrupted with longer-term consequences for friendships. Students may have enjoyed online learning more than school, or appreciated the independence and autonomy it afforded them. Others may have enjoyed their leisure pursuits more than normal, with lots of play in the picture. Some students may have simply refused to participate and idly pursued other interests while at home. And any emotionally challenging period of time in a child's life will naturally impact motivation, attention to task, ability to cognitively engage in an activity and their overall level of interest in being in school - their school engagement.
Teachers can ease the social pathway
• facilitating connection and conversation
• re-creating norms that will allow students to feel psychologically safe in an optimistic and efficacious learning environment
• Inviting each student’s perspective by asking open questions so that each student feels connected to the learning community• Providing trauma-informed learning for staff, parents and students, enabling everyone in the school community to recognize and respond mindfully during this crisi
• Appoint a caring adult to build a relationship with those students you know to be vulnerable (Fullan, et. al. 2020)
It is clear that emotional health and student engagement are tied very closely together - to successfully re-integrate students into a world of engaged learning will take time and effort but it is essential if we are to support our learners to become adaptable, skilled thinkers and doers in the world.
"Educators would be wise to examine their own practices that can extend flexibility, choice and voice to students. Simple ways to do this are to:
• Invite students to share the positive insights emerging from the pandemic. What did they learn? What did they learn about themselves? What are they grateful for?
• “De-front” the classroom by taking the emphasis from the teacher and placing it on students
• Promote collaboration among students. When students work in groups, there is flexibility, more voices engage, and smaller children can wiggle around as needed
• Incorporate choice into assignments and classroom activities
• Arrange the classroom to support student movement
• Create a discrete way for students to share vulnerabilities or concerns
• Enable students to make suggestions about what and how to learn
- Fullan, et. al., 2020
Prior to the pandemic, education systems around the world were beginning to re-examine teaching and learning practices and to explore possibilities towards developing responsive approaches to learning that would engage students more fully and successfully in the learning process.
Our current system has been called into question numerous times for its flexibility, ability to respond to student learning and weave effective use of technology organically into teaching and learning. While reforms to education have received significant attention in the past couple of decades, they have been quite focused on improving teaching and learning in literacy and numeracy, and with the goal of improving high school completion, rather than focusing on enhancing the emotional connections students might make that will keep them connected to learning throughout their lifetimes. Living in an unpredictable global society requires attending to students' holistic needs as a person, rather than strictly their academic development.
"Quality learning must be built on the interests of students along the following dimensions:
• Connecting to purpose and meaning
• Challenging students to have high expectations
• Positioning learning goals that focus beyond the basics
• Using engaging pedagogies
• Building relationships and belongingness
• Providing opportunities to contribute to the world
This combination of readiness for change and urgency arising from the current crisis has the potential to shift the education system from one of outdated “schooling” to future focused ‘learning” and take learning out of the classroom and into the world." (Fullan, et. al., 2020)
A key finding through the multiple options that have emerged for teaching and learning through the pandemic has been the emphasis on the importance of student-teacher relationships. While this is not necessarily a new finding - relationships have long been the most common predictor of student success - it is telling that learners clearly indicate they do not want to be taught digitally, by and large, but rather by teachers who know them and understand how they learn best. (Class of 2030 & the Life-Ready Learning Report, 2020). Most teachers with traditional pedagogy struggled with transferring their particular styles of teaching to the digital environment and found it challenging to engage students in open-ended learning tasks that would encourage creativity, collaboration or pique curiosities.
Since relationships remain the strongest predictor of student success, and acknowledging the need to develop positive emotional well-being connections for students to foster interest in learning and positive student engagement, it is essential as we bring all our learners back together in open, inquisitive learning spaces that educators, parents, community partners and students seek to optimize student engagement through positive relationship development.
Some key questions can foster deep reflection and be used to engage thinking about what are the next best steps for learners in our schools: