I remember the first time I saw the Brooklyn Bridge in real life. Not only did it connect Manhattan to Brooklyn over the East River, it is a beautiful monument equipped with caissons, towers, and cables. Walking through the brick arches on the pedestrian promenade made me feel like I was part of a piece of art that has been around for over a century. When you add in the majestic skyline of Manhattan, the experience is overwhelming. Looking across the river, I could only imagine how they felt when they began to build the bridge in 1869. A daunting task to get from one part to another, safely, with hopes of sustaining beauty in the future.
Fast forward to March of 2020, we are faced with a similar task. Students, teachers, administrations and families were suddenly met with a daunting task: how to proceed with school during a global pandemic. There were no blueprints to help us begin.
How Do I Do This?
I remember waving goodbye to my fifth-grade students as they left for spring break. Their backpacks were filled with books, supplies, notebooks, and whatever else we could fit inside. There were rumors that we would shut down for a few weeks and we wanted them to have supplies just in case the rumors were true. Not long after, we found out that we needed to transform our instruction to a virtual environment in the blink of an eye. The only question that was racing through my mind was, “how am I going to do this?” The answer was daunting, “build a bridge and get over it.”
As educators, we quickly realized that every school and district had a different design of how they were going to make it work. But, there was one thing in common: we all needed to get over the bridge… as we were building it. There was not a moment to lose because our kids deserved to keep learning. After a year and a half of virtual, hybrid, high-flex, synchronous, asynchronous instruction, learning in person, with cohorts, and masks, we made it to the other side however we could manage. We laid the final brick and gave a sigh of relief.
But now as we start a new year, a new question arises: “How are you going to bridge the learning gap?”
Meet Them Where They Are
It was clear that despite our best efforts to keep learning alive in all sorts of environments, kids may not be where they need to be. What are we going to do to help them be most successful? How do we get from one point to our goal of closing the gap? How do we do it in a logical and safe way that is best for students? Can we do those things while also having our students view their education as a beautiful journey?
The answer is very similar to building a bridge. While there is no clear cut blueprint for this, a great way to start is to meet the students where they are. Find what they are able to do and build from there. Don’t be afraid to look at the grade level standards that build to what you are supposed to be teaching at your grade level and start on a smaller scale. Keep in mind that your students’ attitudes and motivations are going to be very different than before, so finding ways to make meaningful experiences for them will be crucial.
Like I mentioned before, there is no foolproof plan to bridge these gaps. Every student is going to have to travel a different length across the bridge you are building to get there. What I can offer is suggestions on how teachers and administrators can get over this new bridge.
Teachers, give yourself some grace.
Hopefully, over the summer you have stepped away from the computer and you have gotten outside to breathe in the fresh air and feel the sun on your skin. You have moved mountains for a year and a half in ways you never imagined. It may have been challenging, but you did it. Celebrate that.
Be reflective and set a small goal.
If you’re anything like me, you constantly are thinking about how to improve your teaching, your lessons, your level of class engagement. Think back on something small that you want to be better at with your incoming group. It’s okay to find success in even the smallest goals. Showing your students that “Hey, it’s been a wild ride, but I still want to do better!” Being a model for your students will be powerful. Not every goal needs to be monumental… like figuring out how to teach during a global pandemic.
Plan for creativity.
What kids need now more than anything is hands-on and creative learning. Yes, it is amazing the things they have learned how to do digitally or online. But they need to be given the opportunity to build, design, explore, and create! Look into makerspaces, inquiry-based STEM activities, and sensory bins. Or, just give them time to play with open-ended materials. Building up their imagination will help foster a sense of thinking outside the box which is a necessary thinking strategy in all aspects of learning.
Collaborate with other teacher teams.
This school year – more than ever – your approach to teaching your new students must be a team effort. Talk to the teacher teams of the previous grade to understand what they were able to accomplish in a judgement-free way. Find out what learning may need to be covered before tackling the curriculum you are used to. Meeting the students where they are at will establish a sense of care and trust with them. It’ll help them be motivated to succeed. Also, remember that you are not alone. Reach out to other teams of teachers that teach the same grade. Ask them what they are doing and share ideas. Some of the best professional development is the teacher next door or in a nearby building.
Administrators, read the room.
Before pushing initiatives for the 2021-2022 school year and projecting the harsh data of last school year, read the room when your staff comes back. Although still on break, many teachers are still feeling burnt out from last school year. As you begin the year, take time to acknowledge the level of work ethic you saw in your staff over the last 18 months. Remind them how proud you are of their accomplishments and the way they built the bridge while crossing it. Share with them that you know they will continue to do what’s best for kids. Check in with staff members individually to see if there is anything that they need. When a staff member feels supported, they will be motivated to work harder.
Help with the heavy lifting.
Teachers know that the assessment data from last year could be rough. They know that they could not teach in the same ways that they were used to. They know that kids were not giving the same level of engagement that they usually do in a “normal” school year. Teachers know that it is their job to be experts in teaching their grade level, but they will need help bridging the gap.
Help with the heavy lifting by working with your literacy and math coaches to provide a short scope and sequence of the most important standards that should have been mastered in the previous grade. This will help your teachers more easily plan for differentiation or pre-teaching, and they will feel supported because it is one less thing that will be on their plate to find and implement.
Looking for another way to help? Join in on the learning! Don’t come just to observe, grab a small group, plan ahead to help co teach, share the load working side by side with your staff.
Allow for creative endeavors.
You are in a tough position because as a leader of your school! Why? Because you need to make sure learning and growth is happening for all students. You need to prove to your superiors that your students are performing at high levels or working to close achievement gaps.
Teachers understand this, too. They also see first hand when kids need to be kids and explore through creative outlets and play. Encourage your staff to plan time for this during the school day. Especially at the beginning of the school year, even if it is only a few minutes a day. Creativity and play are going to be essential and a great way to unite a group of students from all different academic abilities.
The next time you look at a bridge, remind yourself that there are many pieces in place to make the structure functional and beautiful. Without all of the pieces in place, it cannot support the people that will travel over it. Students, teachers, staff members, administrators, and families all play a role in bridging the gap this upcoming school year.
And they all need to provide their piece of the bridge to create a strong foundation, so we all can travel safely across.