This process of building a shared understanding required all of us to use consistent teacher language. As we worked with students and each other, we incorporated reinforcing, reminding, and redirecting language.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, it would have been easy for our teachers and support staff of Birchwood Elementary School to give up on many of the positive pedagogical strategies used in classrooms. But it was clear to us that we needed to find ways to keep alive all of the things we know are good for students and for each other, and we would need to do so in creative ways. As part of our response, teachers and staff relied on our Responsive Classroom training even more and found that this approach helped students and staff feel welcomed and cared for, whether learning in person or remotely.
Shared Understandings and Belief System
Our work with Responsive Classroom began five years ago. We knew that we had to begin by building a shared understanding of what we believe to be true about how students learn and grow academically, socially, and emotionally. There were many conversations with stakeholders, including faculty and staff. We also hosted parent evenings to give them an opportunity to participate in a class meeting and learn more about the Responsive Classroom approach.
This process of building a shared understanding required all of us to use consistent teacher language. As we worked with students and each other, we incorporated reinforcing, reminding, and redirecting language. This shared language supported students as they moved through the day, and helped us maintain a proactive stance and avoid being reactive as much as possible. From the beginning, the common beliefs we have established together have driven our practice on a daily basis.
Relationship building is at the core of all that we do at our school. We recognize the important role strong relationships play in our work with students and each other. We spend the time and find ways to get to know each student as an individual, while also giving students time and opportunities to learn about each other. Morning Meeting is held daily in all K–5 classrooms. During this time, students and adults greet one another, share something about themselves, and have a bit of fun in a group activity. All of this continued in socially distanced classrooms while live streaming to a second cohort of students, and our Virtual Academy students who were learning from home also participated. Morning Meeting builds a welcoming classroom community, supports strong relationships, and can even enhance academics. Responsive Classroom practices allow students to belong, feel valued, and engage socially, emotionally, and academically.
We also use the writing of Hopes and Dreams as a way to articulate our purpose. What do we hope to accomplish this year? This is our guiding question that we have our K–5 students reflect on and then write about at the start of our school year. Students then work as a classroom community to write shared class rules that will help each member in the class reach their Hopes and Dreams. Each student’s Hopes and Dreams are hung in the hallways and students participate in a Gallery Walk so they can read and react to everyone’s Hopes and Dreams. This event strengthens our relationships by showing that we are in this together, supporting every member of our community. We held firm to our beliefs during the pandemic, too, by creating a video of everyone’s Hopes and Dreams and sharing it with each instructional space.
The 2020-2021 school year has required us to be resilient. Our students and staff responded with optimism and have continued to strengthen relationships, leading to continued learning in the areas of social-emotional learning and academic competencies. Our teachers and support staff have maintained a firm but kind approach with students, holding them to high expectations while providing support for success. Interactive Modeling has been a staple strategy that allows students to receive explicit teaching with ample time and opportunities to practice new learning. Mistakes are seen as a time to learn and grow, rather than something to avoid and be penalized for. Teacher language continues to be utilized to support students and each other every day.
This year has required us to maintain an open mind along with a growth mindset. The academic competencies have continued to be addressed using many of the pedagogical approaches we have always relied on. The use of open-ended questions has long been something we value to make our learning spaces equitable, setting the stage for student discussions to dig deeper into content. Through the use of various learning structures and providing academic choice when possible, we have maintained student engagement at high levels.
This year, with the required social distancing needed for in-person learning, our teachers and other team members have had to be quick learners. In the area of technology we have learned to incorporate things such as Jamboard, Pear Deck, Padlet, and breakout rooms into our daily practice to provide students with high-quality learning opportunities that allow for successful student collaboration. Through this student discourse, learning is more fun and more engaging, and results in deeper understanding. Students build on each other’s thinking, deepening the learning for all.
In these challenging times, it has been encouraging and exciting to see our staff rise to the occasion. In many ways, no matter the learning style, they continue to keep the high-impact and research-supported teaching strategies alive so our students can continue to grow and learn—even during a pandemic. Whether learning in a classroom every day, sharing time between the classroom and home, or learning remotely, our students and staff have done it! They have successfully engaged in teaching and learning and will take the lessons learned from this year into future years, and make our future that much brighter as a result. I am proud of the work we are doing and look forward to the years ahead.