Do We Need to “Go Back to Normal” in September?

The world ended, but we’re still here.

2020 certainly felt like the end of the world as the very fabric of our lives and communities was torn apart by the coronavirus, but here we are, coming to the end of the most challenging school year of our lives.

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.

HCSS did a lot of things right; as a school community, we worked incredibly hard to keep doing our thing. We still offered study hall, after school tutoring, and a range of clubs and extracurriculars. It was not without its challenges, but our school has been business as usual, more or less, albeit in a virtual environment. As we reflect on the challenges of this year, I urge you to also think about the things that actually worked.

An Example: Virtual Writing Conferences

For years now, we have tried to adopt writing workshops in our ELA 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. Even as we conference with students one-on-one, our eyes and ears always wander from the paper to the dull chaos of the rest of the class. 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.

Maybe Not Everything Has to 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 their parents to ferry them back and forth. We’ve been able to have district-wide PD and department meetings with teachers from both campuses, allowing collaboration across grade-levels and schools.

It will certainly be wonderful to see our students again in-person in the fall, but that doesn’t mean we have to pretend the last 15 months didn’t happen. The pandemic has brought with it tragedy, but also opportunity. As summer vacation looms, I encourage us all to take this time to consider how we might take the lessons of this year and learn from them. What tools did you discover this year that positively impacted your teaching? What strategies worked for you in virtual school that you will take with you into in-person learning?