Future educators may look back and divide the history of American learning into two distinct eras: Before Covid and After Covid.
Twelve months ago, the educational blueprint that schools had used for generations was suddenly crumpled up and thrown away by a global pandemic. The sudden shifts—first to remote learning, and then for some to hybrid models—have been incredibly difficult.
But for those who’d spent years pushing for innovative approaches to teaching, assessing and interacting with students and families, it has also been exhilarating.
Teachers at all levels of experience have been encouraged to creatively hack a system that was ripe for growth and change even before the pandemic. And thanks to this commitment to finding solutions that would make MacGyver proud, good things have been happening.
Schools throughout the Pittsburgh region and beyond are building new levels of engagement with parents. Personalized learning is becoming a reality as students are guided through some parts of their curriculum at their own pace.
Teachers are using technology to connect kids with unique virtual experiences and they are collaborating more than ever with colleagues within and outside of their own districts.
Learning loss remains a problem, of course. And troubling disparities between the resources that one district has versus another are even more visible and worrisome. But small victories, unexpected discoveries and valuable innovations are happening out of necessity in classrooms around our region every day.
And therein lies our challenge: We must capture and chronicle these small innovations before they get lost. Without them, we run the risk of returning to a pre-pandemic “normal” that never was normal or sufficient.
Small wins can become big ripples, but only if we preserve them, share them and help them grow.
To make that possible in southwestern Pennsylvania, Remake Learning has begun asking educators to add their “quick wins” to a growing database via a simple Google form.
“During the pandemic, educators have made small changes to their practice out of necessity that have yielded pleasantly positive responses. We call these ‘quick wins,’” Remake Learning has told local educators.
“Quick wins may have happened at the district level, or maybe a small shift that had noticeable impact on a single student or caregiver. They may focus on a new practice that was integrated, a new technology that was leveraged, or simply a new mindset that was brought into your work.”
Remake Learning has asked educators to identify and share as many as three of these innovations, and these are just a few of the responses that have already come in:
Using time in new ways
Homer-Center School District has altered their “specials” schedule so that students have their current special each day for three straight weeks, instead of having it just once or twice a week over several months. This was done to keep cohorts of students together to minimize the need to quarantine in the event of exposure. But they’ve discovered that it also allows more in-depth study of each special area, and students are now completing units and projects that were previously impossible.
Changes in schedule have also led to all Homer-Center students in grades K-6 receiving one week of a class called Exploring Spanish Culture, which exposes them to the culture and language of the district’s ESL students.
Afterschool time is also changing: Kiski Area School district has begun using time previously allocated for after school detention to offer tutoring services virtually or in person. This has led to increased student achievement and a new level of collaboration between Kiski’s high school students who do the tutoring and the 5th and 6th graders who are receiving their support.
Harnessing the power of virtual learning
“I had a Zoom meeting with a Holocaust survivor in order to teach the children about the dangers of White Supremacy, which has resulted in students becoming active in diversity groups,” one middle school history teacher from Seneca Valley School District told Remake Learning.
Carmichaels Area School District has begun doing the same—encouraging teachers to include virtual guests who can “give students unique experiences” and “the ability to see and pursue their passions.”
In another creative use of online learning, one high school PBL class in Greater Latrobe tackled a virtual escape room together, which led to “a great series of lessons focused on collaboration and problem solving.”
Fresh approaches to parental engagement
Many schools tell Remake Learning they are meeting with parents virtually in small groups or one-on-one. For an especially creative twist on this approach, one Northwestern School District teacher scheduled a virtual classroom visit with an author for the evening, so parents and kids could participate together. She has also created “take-home STEM kits” to allow parents to engage and learn alongside their kids.
Meanwhile, Duquesne City School District has been helping parents and guardians navigate the technology platforms the school uses, leading to a better understanding of what and how their kids are learning. And Cornell School District has implemented a new tool to send messages to parents via email and SMS that translates into their home language.
New takes on assessments and deadlines
In a simple but powerful shift, one Greater Latrobe Senior High teacher told Remake Learning that he’s begun asking students to tell him what they have learned, rather than just asking them for correct answers. This makes students think and reflect, he says, which prompts them to take a new level of ownership of their learning.
Several districts also report new approaches to due dates: “I have greatly relaxed/re-evaluated my ‘due date’ requirements,” wrote one West Mifflin teacher “to allow students to experience success in spite of the current challenges.”
In response, he’s seen “tremendous gratitude from students and thanks for being understanding and helpful.”
Along with collecting innovations like these via Google form from teachers and administrators, Remake Learning is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the nonprofit KnowledgeWorks to host series of listening sessions with educators.
Once this collection project is complete, Remake Learning and the Tomorrow campaign will widely share the results to help as many districts as possible benefit from these innovative ideas.
Teachers and administrators, share your pandemic teaching experiences by taking Remake Learning’s survey here.
Author: Melissa Rayworth, Journalist