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Pandemic-related learning gaps may take more than a single academic year to close, but with some flexibility, the right tools, and a little grace, it can be done

Addressing learning gaps with a little grace

Pandemic-related learning gaps may take more than a single academic year to close, but with some flexibility, the right tools, and a little grace, it can be done

At Sonora Elementary School, we’ve been fortunate to be able to offer in-person classes to most of our students this year. Our district gave all students a fully online option as well as the option to return fully in-person or blended. At the beginning of the school year, about 500 of our 600 students came back full-time, and by November we only had approximately 20 students who were still blended.

While having students on campus almost feels like a luxury these days, it certainly doesn’t mean that our staff and students have been unaffected by the pandemic and the learning disruptions associated with it. Our district moved to an alternative method of instruction (AMI) last spring. Based on the district options, at the beginning of this school year our teachers were planning for three classes at a time: their daily students and two different blended cohorts. Fortunately, we’ve only had two student cases of COVID-19, but even now, there is always a group of as many as 10-15 students who are quarantined because of an older sibling or parents’ exposure.

When teachers are coping with a multitude of disruptions, including attendance and daily routines for safety, learning gaps will occur. At Sonora, we’ve worked to address those gaps by being flexible, using any data accessible to understand where students are, and giving everyone a little extra grace.

Staying flexible

One of the big changes we made this year was to give teachers the opportunity to “loop” with their students. Moving from one grade to another can be a big change for a teacher and we didn’t want to add any additional stressors in an already overwhelming situation; we thought it was a good opportunity to offer students and their families as much consistency as possible. We gave teachers the choice, and some chose to loop with their students into the fall semester, while others chose to go down a grade in preparation for looping up with their classes next year. To provide a similar ‘looping’ experience for all students, we kept class cohorts together when moving them to the next grade level. We understand that some students are going to be working to close learning gaps beyond this school year; we’re preparing for that journey now.

A key tool for us in remaining flexible with regard to teacher professional development has been our professional learning communities. The professional learning communities are a collaborative opportunity for our teachers to discuss how they are collecting data, what data they are looking for, and how they are using it. We’ve invested in professional development specific to assessing and responding to learning gaps— during our spring closure several teachers attended virtual webinars offered by Solution Tree’s Mike Mattos, entitled “Mind the Gaps.”

As we learn how to find specific individual and cohort data in the various programs we are using, we’ll make a screencast of the new learning to share with the teachers in the grade level learning community.

Triangulating and intervening

In the Mind the Gap webinar series, Mattos alerted educators that the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) was predicting that students would have larger gaps in mathematics than reading for the fall 2020 school year. When our students were assessed this fall with the NWEA Map Growth, we found similar trends at our building level.

Formal assessment is important and NWEA’s tools give us irreplaceable and actionable data. However, any assessment is still just a snapshot of a moment in time. If a student has a terrible morning or they were hungry or worried about a friend who is sick, they may not do as well on the assessment as they could.

Even in a more typical school year, it’s important to pair formal assessment data with other information to triangulate where students actually are. What is their teacher seeing in the classroom? How are they doing on assignments? Are they making progress in the learning programs they use?

The ability to drill down in that last area has been particularly helpful this year because of a program we were already using before the pandemic called ST Math. It uses spatial-temporal puzzles to teach math concepts in a game-based environment. Students play to move JiJi, an animated penguin, from one side of the screen to the other as they solve the puzzles. The problem-solving approach to teaching math concepts is reinforced with informative feedback in the case of incorrect solutions so that students can learn from their mistakes and try new approaches, encouraging productive struggle and a growth mindset.

In the past, all of our students had daily ST Math time. This practice has continued however the teacher has the autonomy to use that time to intervene using multiple data points. All students still get ST Math on their own grade level, but now students who are struggling in math might get a little extra time with it. Their teacher may use the assignment feature to give them puzzles focused on concepts requiring additional practice. It’s also a real lifesaver to have something students are already familiar with, which they can work on at home if they need to quarantine.

The data ST Math collects for each student has been incredibly helpful. Whether a student has gaps or is ready to move beyond grade level content, we can see how they’re doing and, even more importantly these days, how they’re progressing.

An extra helping of grace

This year, it really is the progress that matters more than a predetermined level a student needs to achieve. As educators, we’re always striving to ensure that every student is meeting grade-level expectations. While we couldn’t, in good conscience, say that it’s okay when students don’t have the opportunities they need to meet them, it’s also important to understand that in these conditions students are going to need extra support all year and even beyond. Sometimes, we need to revise our expectations and remember that progress is how we get there, even if it’s slower or spottier than we’d like.

ST Math is helpful in tracking work and presenting milestones to celebrate. We’ve begun sharing a leaderboard for those who’ve completed the most puzzles, and in class, teachers are looking much more closely at the ratio of puzzles completed in comparison to time.

Gracefully relentless

It is imperative that we keep the focus on what matters this year, and the magic is what happens in the classroom. It can be difficult to let go of some details like keeping the halls colorful and full of student work. This year our priorities are student growth, engagement, and safety. This means a bulletin board might not be decorated.

What is essential this year is acknowledging that we’re all human, and all humans enjoy a little treat now and then. Sonic drink days and “No sweat!” sweatpants days have proven to be surprisingly popular with our teachers. These are small and easy ways to help relieve a bit of stress as we all focus on the work to be done.

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