Students are learning in classrooms again, but teachers will continue to need a variety of tools--including SEL--to rebuild a community.

Balancing SEL and classroom basics

Students are learning in the same room as their peers again, but teachers will continue to need a variety of tools to rebuild a collaborative learning community

As we enter our third year impacted by COVID, I predict that it is going to take schools three years to fully recover. After spending a year at home, my high school students are back in the classroom, and I am thrilled to be with them.

However, even beyond academic challenges, students also need to work on the basics of being a student, such as getting to class on time and not relying on their cell phone for answers. Here’s how I see teachers, administrators, and students working together to get school back to something resembling normal.

SEL will be essential for students and teachers.

“Social-emotional learning,” or SEL, was a buzzword two years ago, but in 2022 it will be a necessity. As a school community, we need to focus on creating a joy of learning and togetherness. This year, I taught a lesson where students researched fairytales and folktales from around the world as we were learning about nationalism. Students then retold these tales with a modern twist and created a comic to tell their story.

After two months of school, it was the first time I heard the kids laughing and having fun. The majority of the kids used the online comic creator Pixton as opposed to hand-drawing, and I think it took away the stress of creating art and facing the blank page. With all the anxiety of being judged and graded this year, this kind of self-expression has been going a long way, and I see that continuing next year. Students told tales that reflected their beliefs, their families, and even their worries. I saw tales about COVID, racism, LGTBQIA+ issues, social media, and more. We were able to come together as a family as we were able to get to know one another in a powerful way.

I’ve seen the value of focusing on community. After being out of the school setting for so long, we also need to teach students how to respectfully debate and even disagree. Unfortunately, we’re seeing parents in communities all over the country make personal attacks on one another. We see it in comment sections and posts on social media outlets, and of course, we’re seeing politicians do it as well, so the modeling for our kids is not there. In an increasingly online world, we need to discuss the humanity behind these posts and learn that it is okay to disagree with one another, but not in the way that is all too often showcased. This is the powerful part of being a school community and learning from one another.

Social-emotional support should extend to administrators and teachers, as well. Everyone involved in education is doing our utmost to help students navigate these issues today, and it can take an emotional toll on us as well. Moving into 2022, we see the ever-growing teacher shortage and fewer education majors in college. We need to inspire the next generation of teachers and to allow teachers to be themselves in the classroom, to incorporate their passions to make them want to be in the classroom. I do this through my love of comics and hip-hop, and the passion is contagious.

Teachers will use a variety of ways to connect with each student individually.

Last year, weirdly enough, because we were online, we had more time to talk to kids one-on-one through Microsoft Teams. I was able to pull a student into a private meeting during class and not have to worry about other students overhearing our conversation. So something we need to keep in focus for 2022 is the individuality of each kid. I’ve focused on giving my kids surveys this year, just asking them, “How are you doing? What are your fears? What are your stresses? As a teacher, what do I need to know?” I use that to inform my instruction, both academically and social-emotionally.

And I’ve seen that there’s a lot on their minds, from school shootings to politics to global warming. Another activity that I did at the beginning of this year, and I’ll continue to do, is having students use Pixton to show me a day in their life. For kids who might not want to speak up in class, they can show me how they’re feeling and what’s going on with them.

To connect with each student, I’ve tried giving responses back without a grade. I’ve asked the student, “Well, how do you feel about the feedback you received? What kind of a grade do you think you deserve? What can we both do to help you find success?” I think self-assessment needs to be part of the ongoing conversation teachers have with each individual student.

Today’s history will become tomorrow’s lessons.

As a history teacher, I keep telling my kids, “You’re living history. You’re going to talk about this with your kids, and it’s going to be in the textbooks.” We were reading an article from 1919 when schools shut down for the Spanish flu and teachers still taught virtually—they broadcast lessons through the radio. What’s happening right now is going to resonate for a long time, and I see the best teachers using this opportunity to engage their students.

In my US history course, we’ll read the March graphic novels based on Congressman John Lewis’s life, and the kids will do research on a modern civil rights issue. This speaks very much to the stresses that these kids are already thinking about. It gives them a chance to talk about it and research it, and they’ll create a full comic of their own using Pixton. They’ll include annotations and a works-cited page, so the academic rigor is there, but the fun and engagement parts are there as well.

Pop culture is a reflection of what’s going on around us. In the world of comics, we’ve recently seen a gay Captain America and a Native American Captain America. I showed my students and said, “Look what’s going on. We’re changing as a society, and it’s being reflected in our pop culture.” I was just talking to them about Frankenstein and I had them draw a modern-day monster. A lot of them drew COVID. They drew monsters connected to global warming, deforestation, the protest movement, school shootings.

I started as a teacher 20 years ago with the philosophy, “Never let the kids see you smile until Christmas.” The idea was to read them the Riot Act in the beginning of the year and make sure they knew what they were supposed to do. I’ve moved away from that—in a good way, I think. Now I start the year with community-building. I share a lot about my own background so students know that we’re all people. This year, I sent a welcome video to all of my students and parents before school began so they knew at least one of their teacher’s face and personality before coming back. I will now do this every summer. I share with my students about my own fears and troubled childhood to help them see me as a human being.

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