Chalk Talk with Nicole Godard and Kevin McKenna: Learning a few things amid disaster

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Published: 2/16/2021 3:48:16 PM

The world ended, but we’re still here ... and we have students to teach.
Last year certainly felt like Armageddon as the very fabric of our lives and communities was torn apart by the coronavirus, but here we are, standing at the outset of a new year and what will likely be a new world.

As a fragile hope begins to creep its way back into our homes and hearts, many seek a return to normalcy in our society and our schools. However, the various tragedies and challenges of the past year have revealed that “normal” wasn’t quite good enough for many of our students. Instead, we urge educators to reflect upon what they have actually learned from this experience.

First, our teaching context: We work at a charter school in Chicopee, serving a little over 500 students from the Springfield metropolitan area, which has had remote learning since last March. Our school has had a 1:1 Chromebook program since 2017 and our students now log into classes virtually for their daily schedule of four 84-minute blocks. We still offer study hall, after-school tutoring, and a range of clubs and extracurriculars. It is not without its challenges, but our school has been business as usual, more or less, albeit in a virtual environment. And here are a few things we have learned.

Writing workshop that … works?

For years now, we have tried to adopt writing workshop in our classrooms, but the results have been mixed. We follow the Teachers College model, with targeted mini-lessons, plenty of mentor texts, and a wealth of time to work, but there are often just too many distractions in the classroom. Kids are social beings and stubborn procrastinators, which naturally impacts their ability to focus on writing during this time.

While virtual school certainly lacks the enthusiasm of our in-person writing workshops, we cannot deny that our students are actually more productive this year.

Canvas allows us to organize our mentor texts and mini-lessons; GoGuardian makes it possible to keep track of students’ writing progress in real time; and Zoom breakout rooms makes it easier to provide small-group and one-on-one instruction. With less energy expended on classroom management, the truth is that we actually have more time now — we just need to think about time differently.

Ultimately, we have learned that the majority of students simply need time and a quiet space to write, and a virtual environment provides these far better than a traditional classroom.

Must we go back to ‘normal?

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many of the failures of our social systems, but it has also revealed that human beings are inherently adaptable. We are building the plane as we fly it, but the plane does not need to look the same when it lands. The tools of virtual education need not retreat back to the toolbox; the strategies we’ve learned won’t become useless when schools open their doors to all students.

The daily attendance rates at our school are higher than they were before the pandemic. We had more parents attend our virtual parent-teacher conferences than ever, with many parents Zoom-ing from their cars or parking lots at work. Our after-school club and activity attendance has exploded now that students don’t need to rely on parents to ferry them back and forth.

The pandemic has brought with it tragedy, but also opportunity. And while it sometimes seems impossible to summon the emotional energy to innovate, that’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we need to continue to do, even if the world does go back to “normal.”

Nicole Godard is director of curriculum and instruction at Hampden Charter School of Science-East. Kevin McKenna is an ELA 10 teacher at the school.

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