Choices, Choices

I know that I appreciate having choices, and as a teacher, I found that providing choices to my students was an effective way of engaging them in their own learning. Rather than giving everyone the same assignment at the same time, students could choose from an array of activities that were designed to address skills and strategies that were aligned to standards. These suggested assignments were differentiated according to the strengths and needs of the students. What I discovered was that given choices as well as the time to complete the required number of tasks, students were much more engaged and committed to their learning. Additionally, they learned to rely on each other to navigate the tasks because they knew that if I was busy with a small group, they could ask a classmate for help. As a principal, I observed classrooms where students had opportunities to choose how to share their learnings, and their projects were often amazing. Student choice was important and led to motivated students who showed evidence of learning in multiple ways.

In this time of the pandemic, school plans for the new school year are being shared with their communities. I wonder how many teachers were asked about their choices. There are too many teachers, here in Hawaii and on the mainland, who are concerned about going back to school while the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. For some, it appears to be a choice between staying or leaving the profession they love. They are afraid because they are concerned about their health or the health of their family members. Do they stay and risk getting sick or do they leave before the school year begins?

For others, it’s a choice about doing what’s always been done or trying something different. Because schools and educators were forced to try a new way of reaching their students via virtual learning during the fourth quarter of the last school year, I hoped that schools would see this as an opportunity to make changes this year in teaching and learning. We are two decades into the 21st century, and yet, many educators had not embraced technology to engage and empower students in their learning until they had no choice. Here are a few suggestions that schools could consider as they discuss the opening of the new school year while following health and safety guidelines:

  • Half of the class in the morning (8:00-11:00 including lunch to end the day) and half in the afternoon (11:00-2:00 including lunch to start the day) Fewer students means more individualized attention; teachers are always asking for smaller class sizes. This is a chance to see if that makes a difference.
  • Blended learning – students attend school part of the week and connect virtually the other days
  • Total distance learning – students and teacher work from home; students check in daily. Teacher connects with students via virtual conferencing, emails, texts, or using platforms such as Google Classroom. 
These are just a few ideas that are different from the full day/every day model that many schools have opted for. If schools don’t make the change now, when will they change? This is the perfect opportunity. Think about it. Even if students are back in school every day, their classroom and their schedule will not be what it was like pre-COVID-19 when students were encouraged to work together via partner work or cooperative group work, where students and staff could converse while walking through hallways, where recess was a time to socialize with friends from other classrooms, where community circle was an opportunity to discuss problems or questions from the group. Instead, students will be socially distanced, 6-feet apart, all facing the teacher, all wearing masks. That is more like the factory model that I was taught in many years ago, not 21st century teaching and learning.