I teach eighth-grade Bilingual Language Arts (American Sign Language and English) at the California School for the Deaf, located in Fremont. Our school is unique in that all of our students are Deaf, and many of them live on campus Sunday night through Friday and then are transported home to their families for the weekend. Because we serve students from all of northern California, their backgrounds are diverse and not tied to our local area. While this diversity is one of our strengths, it has also led to challenges during the pan-demic related to equity issues, especially when considering the physical distance between our school site and their homes.
Prior to the pandemic, Responsive Classroom practices were the hub from which all my classroom goals originated. I learned through experience that fostering be-longing, acceptance, fun, mutual respect, and clear expectations was the only way I was going to survive tumultuous middle school classes. My day and interactions were guided by classroom rules, and we were able to build personal responsibility and group community using Responsive Advisory Meeting, Space and Time location in the room, and teacher language to target individual situations. Each class had fun brain breaks to help them stay energized and focused, and reflecting on each class period was part of their exit routine from the class. I used a developmental lens as I got to know the students and tried to pinpoint the social-emotional skills they needed to grow, and then included this information when structuring learning experiences. The range of students that I teach and their individual needs required me to adapt how Responsive Classroom principles were applied in order to be effective: for example, I teach grade-level students whose early language access enabled them to achieve expected developmental and academic milestones, struggling students successfully overcoming language-acquisition-related academic and social-emotional hurdles and a class of students with additional disabilities who benefited from a functional academics approach.
The pandemic created new challenges for all educators, and equity issues were among the biggest challenges for our school. In addition to the diversity of our student body in terms of ethnicity, geography, culture, socioeconomic status, and family’s home languages, our students are also disproportionately impacted by whether they can communicate with their primary caregivers and family members. The field of Deaf education is fraught with controversy over what are the best language and communication practices for Deaf students. The inability of educational and medical professionals to reach an agreement and provide clear guidance makes it difficult for parents to decide which language is the right one for their child. Lack of early language access and inability to communicate with one’s immediate family can create serious academic, cognitive, mental health, and social-emotional challenges for students. Add to this the anxiety of facing a pandemic and not being at school with adults who know their language, and you have confused and scared students trying to process the limited information they have access to, trying to make sense of the changes resulting from the pandemic, and adapting to learn-ing and socializing remotely from their homes. Students need understanding adults trained in Responsive Classroom practices to help mitigate some of this trauma.
We have to set aside assumptions about what the experience of this past spring has been like for our students. We need to intentionally dedicate time to listen to them. We have to remember that our students are not the same children with the same lives that we taught before March of this year.
One of my students was out due to illness the week that school closures were announced. In her video of her end-of-year reflection on her experience learning during the pandemic, she said it was scary for her because she didn’t know why she wasn’t going back to school (her parents were unable to explain it to her because they were not fluent in American Sign Language). She found out the reason for the closings on Instagram when a peer posted a video sharing the news. In my student’s video she kept saying “I didn’t know,” “I didn’t understand,” and “I was scared,” and I felt personally responsible for letting her down. Our staff at the school were the significant adults in her life who could have explained the situation and answered her questions. Her reflection motivated me not to let it happen again. I decided I would start using “warm-up slides” at the start of each of my classes. These would include announcements or sharing prompts, such as “What will it be like for you if you have to start high school through distance learning?” and “What challenges might you face and how could you overcome them?” My reaction was a result of my Responsive Classroom train-ing that highlights how important it is to check in with students, help them pinpoint and process their feelings, and encourage them to learn and strategize collectively through shared experiences. The key to this also is the role of the teacher to relay school news to students to help them be prepared.
Another student in one of my grade-level classes expressed feelings of frustration and wanting to quit school if we continued distance learning in the fall because she found it difficult to learn when not physically in the classroom with her peers and teacher. Her family did not have a computer in their home and she had been doing her coursework us-ing a school-supplied iPad. There were two issues she faced. First, typing a paper on an iPad without a keyboard is difficult. Second, Zoom meetings with students signing are very different from Zoom meetings in spoken English. There is increased eye fatigue from trying to see what multiple people are signing as well as the developmentally appropriate eighth-grade aversion to being put on the spot in front of peers by having their Zoom video pinned or spotlighted. To her credit, this student finished every one of her English assignments from me. Thanks to Responsive Classroom training, I knew she wanted to do her best despite her resistance, and I worked with her one-on-one on Zoom during office hours using reinforcing language to support her. Practical things such as taking the time to type for her as she dictated made a difference. I believed her experience and frustration were real, and I sought out ways to reduce these negative factors.
This pandemic has caused things to be amplified that were not worth noting before. Values and priorities have been shifted in their minds and in ours.
The plan for our school this fall is uncertain. As an idealist with underlying health conditions who did not particularly enjoy teaching remotely, I’m not sure what I would like to see happen for the upcoming school year. Don’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good. I’ve taken this motto to heart and try to take each class period, each email with students, and each interaction as an opportunity to speak peace, confidence, and stability into their lives.
Regardless of what is decided for the start of the new school year, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to really try to understand the individual situations our students are in, and empathize with them. We have to set aside assumptions about what the experience of this past spring has been like for our students. We need to intentionally dedicate time to listen to them. We have to remember that our students are not the same children with the same lives that we taught before March of this year. They will have different thoughts, fears, ideas, and struggles. Our responsibility is to assess these, and then to problem-solve the areas that need growth, bring to their attention the strengths of character they’ve shown, and see what we can do to support them. This pandemic has caused things to be amplified that were not worth noting before. Values and priorities have been shifted in their minds and in ours. The trick is responding to all of this by going back to our core values of community, empathy, and creativity. For me, this means digging deeper into what I’ve learned from my training and practice with Responsive Classroom principles.