Teaching Middle School During a Pandemic Has Its Benefits

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

While many of my teacher friends share tales of woe and

While many of my teacher friends share tales of woe and higher stress levels, I would like to offer an alternate view of teaching during the pandemic.

Yes, a majority of us have been thrown into something we’ve never experienced. As a 26-year veteran, I thought I had pretty much seen it all, and then COVID-19 happened.

In some ways, it’s a bit (or a lot) of a shit show. Even the school districts who probably felt like they were somewhat prepared for distance learning have experienced curveballs they weren’t expecting.

We are suddenly being thrown into the world of Zoom meetings, using Padlet, creating lessons that can be both digital and paper-copied, and figuring out ways to keep students engaged and motivated.

We are asking ourselves how we can deliver essential learnings and pondering the ethics of grading when all students cannot be reached either by choice or necessity. Teachers report spending more time on lessons and responding to student work.

And then there are our parents who are trying to work full days, are making sure their kids’ basic needs are being met, and are filling in as teachers.

It’s no wonder stress levels are through the roof. School districts are trying to make decisions to meet the needs of every student. Individual teachers are trying to deliver content. Parents are trying to fill in the gaps. Students are trying their best, but many of them are frustrated and tapped out.

It feels like a no-win situation.

How my school district is handling curriculum.

At the district level for our middle school curriculum, we have broken it down into six essential learnings over a six-week period. There are six of us in the department at my school and we are in teams of two, so every three weeks it’s my team’s turn to take one of the essential learnings to deliver a lesson. Even if 117 of our students turn in the work for the week, the feedback is divided by my teaching partner and me. We would each have roughly 59 responses in a perfect world, but as you can guess it’s much fewer than that. In any given week, I’m responding to around 25 assignments.

While I would much rather be responding to all students, I will take what I can get at this point.

I know I’m very fortunate in the way my district has decided to handle what we are doing at the middle school level. Many of my counterparts in other school districts are having so much more put on their plates. I get why their stress levels and anxiety are causing sleepless nights.

As with everything, there are parents who feel like we should be doing more while others think it’s too much.

Again, it’s a no-win situation.

Why I’m framing it differently.

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

Instead of looking at teaching right now as the entirety of the picture above, I’m focusing on what I can control within the frame.

It’s making all the difference for me.

While I’m adhering to our district’s expectations, I decided to do something to feel more connected to my students. It also falls under the category of something I’ve never experienced.

I decided to create a YouTube Channel, and I post daily videos. (You can check it out here.) Each video is roughly 3–5 minutes, and I give students a daily challenge to complete for points if they choose to do so. These challenges range from explaining their personal meaning of a quote, determining the parts of speech for a sentence, or telling a story using a prompt.

In addition, they can continue turning in book reviews (something we also did while school was in session) for more points. Completing the district assignment for the week is also worth a varied number of points.

While there are significant academic challenges, the videos are somewhat entertaining (or I’m sure weird, according to my students). My husband comes on to deliver dad jokes twice a week. Our cat Chloe has made a couple of guest appearances. I record the video from different parts of our apartment. Sometimes there’s even singing, or what I like to call, making a joyful noise.

At the end of each week, I add up student points. If students participate in the district assignment and in at least two of my activities, they are put into a drawing for gift cards. Three students are drawn each week and then I send them the gift card with a note letting them know how much I appreciate their participation and hard work.

The end result.

While I wish more students participated, I get that it’s not realistic for every student. Some don’t have technology or a way to get the paper copies. Some parents simply don’t have enough hours in the day to be able to sit down with their students. For some of my students, they are fortunate if their daily needs are being met. It’s a matter of survival.

For the students who are participating regularly, they are blowing my mind! Several of them are writing more than they ever did in a classroom assignment. I believe much of it has to do with the creativity behind the lessons. Much of our curriculum is so structured that there isn’t time for the creative endeavors.

Having less stringent guidelines during this time is giving me the opportunity to give students more creative, outside the box assignments. For example, one day I asked them to draw a picture of a hamburger riding a bicycle and then to write a story as to why this would be happening. Another day, they wrote about building a snowman with the added component of highlighting the prepositions they used. Creating a sculpture out of paper and telling me about it was another way for students to explore and try something new. They are taking more risks and writing more than they did previously.

More importantly, I have gotten to know some of my students a lot better during this time. It’s a weird feeling, because there were students who showed up to my classroom day in and day out, did their thing, and then moved on to the next class. Now I’m finding out more about their interests, what they are excited about, and what is bothering them during this time.

They are opening up and sharing more of themselves with me through the written word. They share a word document with me and continue to add to it each day. Others send emails with their responses. They know I’m checking in daily during my office hours, so they know when to expect feedback.

No, it’s not perfect, but then again it’s not going to be. We are living in a very strange time right now. I’m not kicking curriculum to the curb, but I am putting a lot less importance on it and making more time for connections. Students need to know they are being heard and that I care.

And that is a win-win situation.

Published by Christine Denker

I love all that life offers, I believe that mistakes make the best lessons, and I work to make the world a more positive place.

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