Engaging Student Learners During a Pandemic

Today we have a very special guest blog by Susan Corrie, a former elementary building principal for the Clarence Central School District in Western New York. Susan has worked in education for over 35 years and works with PLS 3rd Learning, PLS Classes’s parent company. Thank you Sue for sharing your ideas with our readers!


Children at schoolLike many retired administrators, I decided after some time away that the connection to school was a vital part of my life. To maintain an ongoing relationship with teachers and students, I recently began supervising student teachers. The school district I am working with created a model of half-day instruction five days a week for elementary students. It is within this structure that my four eager student teachers and I are learning together about teaching and student learning during a pandemic. 

A New Challenge Uncovered

As I visited classrooms over the past four weeks, I noted the phenomenon of “mask muteness”. It seems that since students are wearing physical masks, during classroom instruction, teachers have had to work harder to get children to respond and participate. The mask appears to simulate placing your hand over your mouth to stifle a sigh or a giggle – “mask muteness”. (Interestingly, I have seen the same phenomenon in my adult fitness class! The normally chatty group of women now wear masks and stand quietly waiting for the teacher’s instructions.) While many teachers would tell you that pre-pandemic, they have had students that they could never get to stop talking, the phenomenon of “mask muteness” is much more difficult to counter and can be more discouraging.

Teachers who are teaching remotely have encountered a different form of “muteness”. Observing these teachers in action, you often hear them asking students to “unmute” themselves or the opposite, “mute” their microphones so that the sounds from students’ home environments do not impact the lessons. In addition, some students are hesitant to raise their virtual hand or speak over the computer in front of other students. Further, it is difficult for a student to get the attention of the teacher or participate in classroom discussions due to being in an online classroom (Terada, 2020).

10 Ways to Overcome “Mask Muteness” 

In classrooms, teachers are implementing additional strategies to engage students and promote student involvement. Here are a few that are worthwhile to try…

  1. Be patient. Despite these challenges, what I also observe each time I visit the classrooms and the remote computer screens, is a never-ending abundance of patience. Today, I observed a student teacher presenting a fifth grade math lesson. Normally, this would have been a 30-minute lesson. Due to student and teacher struggles with technology as well as the slower pace inherent in the remote learning format, the lesson ran well over, overlapping with the class Library Google Meet. During the lesson, a student asked a clarifying question via the chat feature but unfortunately, only the teacher could see the question while the student teacher could not. Although the teacher attempted to get the student teacher’s attention as she continued to present her lesson, the student teacher could not hear her. The features of the program did not allow for easy communication between the two teachers and the students. Above all of this discourse, what amazed me most was the patience of not only the teachers but the students as well. Students have come to accept that there will be tech glitches, and they patiently wait for them to be resolved (Heubeck, 2020).
  2. Set aside time at the end of each lesson for questions.  Allocate a few minutes at the end of each class where students can ask questions or make comments to share. Tell your students ahead of time to write down questions during the lesson and that you’ll have time at the end to ask and answer will help students become more involved in learning and will allow them to have designated time to participate.
  3. Give students brain breaks. Mask wearing, social distancing, virtual learning — it’s a lot to handle. One way to ease the stress and get students ready to learn is by incorporating brain breaks into your school day . “Brain breaks benefit not only students but teachers, too. They help improve the pacing of your lesson while keeping you and your students refreshed, focused, and engaged” (Morin, 2020). Give students time to take a few deep breaths, try a guided mediation, lead a stretch, or allow some socializing before presenting your lesson.
  4. Tell them it is ok. Let your students know that it is ok to ask questions, comment, or share ideas during class. Tell them it is ok to raise their hand during class.
  5. Get student teachers or aides involved. If you’re lucky enough to have a student teacher or aide, perhaps he/she can be in charge of responding to questions in a virtual learning environment.
  6. Share a story.  Children love to hear a story.  Most children will tell you that one of their favorite classroom activities is the class read aloud.  Many teachers have reconfigured their lessons to incorporate a read aloud.  Whether online or in-person, a good reader can capture student interest and share important content.  This activity can be used in both literacy lessons and content such as Social Studies and Science.
  7. Use humor. I have observed an increase in animated teacher actions as well as humor to encourage student participation. While students are well behaved in the setting, they often may appear detached from instruction.  A little humor and increased energetic presentation performs wonders.
  8. Utilize breakout group features.  Many of the virtual learning platforms teachers are using such as Google Classroom, provide for smaller breakout groups.  In some buildings there are larger spaces available that small groups can safely socially distance.  Having a smaller number of students to attend to provides for greater in depth conversations which all can be comfortable participating (Taplin, 2020).
  9. Slow down. Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. Especially in the remote classroom, teachers have quickly learned the importance of pacing and scheduled breaks.  Ideas such as ten minute walk abouts, going on a scavenger hunt in the house for a common object to show on screen or wiggle breaks with programs such as “Go Noodle” are engaging for screen-fatigued students (The Learning Network, 2020).
  10. Be kind. One of my colleagues mentioned that her fifth grade daughter was practically in tears because she followed the wrong virtual classroom code and by the time she figured it out she was 10 minutes late to class. While we want our students to be on time, sometimes stuff happens. Show grace and kindness and you’ll ease fears, tension, and embarrassment in your students.

What I Learned

I leave these observations reflecting on what our children and our teachers encounter each day as teachers try so hard to continue providing high quality education. In education, we continually reinforce the importance of developing positive personal qualities in students.  In our current pandemic world, the development of these qualities could not be more important.  Educators must demonstrate not only empathy but also resilience, perseverance, creativity, patience, and open-mindedness.  While teachers expand their repertoire of strategies to help students succeed, we are reminded of Winston Churchill’s quote as the world approached the end of World War II, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  As educators diligently pursue meeting students’ needs in a pandemic world, they just may be discovering the new landscape of our educational system.

Sources:

Fung, J., Ph.D. (2020, July 20). The One Character Value Parents Want Their Kids to Learn. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-being/202007/the-one-character-value-parents-want-their-kids-learn

Heubeck, E. (2020, July 28). The Essential Teacher Trait That Has Emerged in the Pandemic. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.topschooljobs.org/article/the-essential-teacher-trait-that-has-emerged-in-the-pandemic-/

Morin, A. (2020, October 15). Brain Breaks: An Evidence-Based Behavior Strategy. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/for-educators/teaching-strategies/evidence-based-behavior-strategy-brain-breaks?utm_medium=paid

Rianne, C. (2020, April 14). The Most Effective Tool in Your Teacher’s Toolbox for Teaching During a Pandemic. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://thriveglobal.com/stories/the-most-effective-tool-in-your-teachers-toolbox-for-teaching-during-a-pandemic/

Schleicher, A. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 on Education Insights from Education at a Glance 2020. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.oecd.org/education/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-education-insights-education-at-a-glance-2020.pdf

Taplin, A. (2020, October 26). Adapting an Effective Math Collaboration Activity for Distance Learning. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/adapting-effective-math-collaboration-activity-distance-learning

The Learning Network. (2020, August 26). 80 Tips for Remote Learning From Seasoned Educators. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/learning/80-tips-for-remote-learning-from-seasoned-educators.html

 

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