Working toward flexible school experiences

We asked several educators who work with students with diverse needs to reflect on what the past months of the pandemic have been like for them, how they’ve coped, what resources they’ve found most helpful, and what they wish their education community knew. Read on for their responses.

On taking time for gratitude

All educators and students are experiencing this unique time in vastly different ways. In the spring, I did my best to connect with families as an art teacher by recording videos of artistic inspiration and sending emails to any student who sent me images of their work. But personal connections were lost.

I am now teaching in a hybrid format where students attend school two or three times a week and continue learning at home the other days. I get to connect with students in real ways by learning about their experiences at home, the new ways in which their families are coming together or falling apart. I am here to listen and learn along with them.

The art room can be a place for students who learn and think differently to thrive because there are always multiple solutions to a challenge. It is critical that all students have access to the arts, especially in this time — in a traditional classroom, over Zoom calls, or in thoughtfully recorded videos. Through creative expression and exploration, students can find their voice and share their experiences.

We start every class with a two-minute “Quick Draw” challenge — like students drawing themselves as superheroes — which gives me a glimpse into strengths, needs, and individual voices and gets students’ creative juices flowing. Students know that their work is not going to appear perfect but will be a snapshot of their thoughts on the topic. They keep each drawing in an artist book as a record of their thoughts for each assignment.

I also introduce students to multiple artists that work with a specific technique or subject matter, so that they can see there are many ways to utilize learning. When third-graders learn about collages, they discuss the famed work of Matisse and several contemporary artists working with cut paper in unique ways. Knowing that there are alternative answers from multiple perspectives is an important aspect of learning.

My fellow teachers are working harder than they ever have before and in ways they never would have imagined. Getting a simple “thank you” email goes a long way to fill teachers up and keep them going. When I get home in the evening, I make it a point to ask my daughter about her school day and send an email of gratitude to her teachers specifically telling them of her enthusiasm for what they had done that day.

Jonathan Juravich (@JJuravich) is the 2018 Ohio Teacher of the Year and an art educator at Liberty Tree Elementary School in Powell, Ohio. He is also the host of the digital series Drawing with Mr. J. and an Understood Teacher Fellow. 

On supporting teachers as well as students

It’s jarring to think back to a time when school was in person, when I gave hugs to colleagues and students daily, when I didn’t own a single mask. I haven’t hugged a student since our goodbye hugs in March. We have about a dozen cloth masks Granny has made to suit each of our personalities. No more long commutes, but somehow teacher hours have morphed into a 60-hour workweek.

Our learners are overworked and weary as well. They are expected to stay on track in learning environments that range from serene and comfortable to chaotic and unsafe. Students with disabilities have had to adjust to a whole new way of learning without much of the hands-on support and relationship-building exercises that special educators and instructional assistants provided them every day.

In the midst of these earth-shifting changes, there are still ways we can better support our students who learn differently and their teachers.

For students

Get clear on your academic bottom line. What is really essential right now? Work to pare down things to the most simple and basic form. What do students need to know and what’s the simplest way for them to demonstrate their understanding? Students are a wealth of information. Ask them how they are doing and how your class can be more accessible to them.

Relationships, relationships, relationships! Our classrooms should always prize connection over curricula. What do check-ins look like? Are we implementing visits from the counselor, brainstorming and brain breaks, work-free days, working pods, a shared communal language, or an inquiry-based approach?

Give grace. Resist the urge to over-assign, bombard students with emails, or stuff Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology to the gills to ensure “rigor.” Instead of shame, blame, judgments, or assumptions, our students need an abundance of grace right now.

For teachers

To better support teachers, administrators can adopt the language and actions of collective care. This can look like encouraging staff to provide asynchronous work for learners or take mental health days at least once a month. Scheduling times for counselor sessions, booking a virtual staff yoga or meditation session, or executing a low-stakes hydration challenge are all ways to show care for the members of our school teams. The school counseling team at my school implemented a Care Lounge for teachers and staff to have a centralized affirming space to gather online.

Ultimately, none of us knows what the future holds for this school year or the next, so we must systematically place people’s needs above data, charts, and standardized learning plans.

LaQueshia Jeffries (@MsJeffriesDesk) is a special educator, behavior interventionist, and yoga and mindfulness teacher leader based in Woodbridge, Virginia. She is the host of the Reframing ED podcast.

On finding opportunities in a crisis

In early March, online learning was a forced choice for much of the education community — an emergency reaction to an unforeseen pandemic. But since then, we have had time to recalibrate our thinking. We have learned a lot about online learning, particularly for students who learn differently. Special education services and protections still hold true despite the changing circumstances. What is more challenging, however, is identifying what works. Every crisis brings opportunities, and so it is with COVID-19.

The time is opportune for the education community to rethink solutions for barriers to student success. One such barrier is traditional assessments, ranging from statewide assessments to in-class quizzes. Though accommodations and modifications are useful, they are not enough for many students with learning differences. This is the time to take another look at creative options that counter test anxiety and allow students to demonstrate learning mastery and competencies.

Assessments grounded in the principles of gamification — using elements in games to increase engagement and intrinsic motivation — is one such approach. Students engage in a quest rather than a literature review; they perform as novices, apprentices, intermediates, or masters rather than being assigned a letter grade. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project notes that neuroscientists say gamification elements “can cause feel-good chemical reactions, alter human responses to stimuli — increasing reaction times, for instance — and in certain situations can improve learning, participation, and motivation.”

David Rose, the co-founder of CAST, once said, “What we do for students at the margins ends up benefiting everyone.” It is important to rediscover the message in these words. At Landmark College in Vermont, where I work, our COVID response includes offering courses online to all neurodivergent students. We take pride in debunking the myth that online learning and learning differences do not mix by designing the courses with built-in scaffolds and supports for executive function challenges and a delivery system that includes a “course advisor” to help students with online navigation and communication.

There are many pathways to online success for students with different learning and thinking abilities. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to be innovative and decide which legacy traditions we must discard and which innovations we will pursue.

Manju Banerjee (@ManjuBanerjee) is vice president of educational research and innovation and an associate professor at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. She has more than 29 years of experience in the field of learning disabilities, ADHD, and postsecondary disability services.

On making virtual learning easier for students

As an educator with ADHD and learning and thinking differences, I look over all of my lessons and plans through the lens of, “Would this work for me now, and would this have worked for me as a student?” If the answer is no, then I immediately look at how to change it. A big challenge for me as a student, and even as an adult learner, was knowing where to start and pacing myself. This is true for many students with learning and thinking challenges during the best of times.

If an assignment requires multiple steps, I break it down to smaller chunks. If one lesson for the day is reading intensive, I may change the reading requirements of a lesson in a different subject to create a more balanced day. I am lucky in that my district and building have allowed educators a fair amount of flexibility in how we structure our assignments and day. I do my best to pass that flexibility on to my students.

One thing I make sure I do every day is provide students with a schedule and list of what we are doing that day. The list is on a Google Slide with links to the Google Classroom to reduce the number of pages students need to look at. In our morning meeting, we go over the day and the schedule. As much as possible, I try to keep the rhythm and flow of the day the same. When presenting materials to my students I provide both written instructions in Google Classroom, as well as a video demonstrating how to do the assignment. For larger assignments, I add an example.

When possible, I try to add choice. I use sites like ReadWorks and Epic to provide students with reading passages and books. I love that I can find articles, stories, passages, and books on one topic at multiple levels, so I can ensure students are accessing the content at their level.

TJ Thornton is a fourth-grade teacher in Tumwater, Washington, and an Understood Teacher Fellow. Thornton has been teaching for 10 years.


Explore related topics

Read next