Is the pandemic a teachable moment?

The fall is fast approaching. Despite the lack of clarity about what school is going to look like, teachers are starting to prepare. One of the topics I’ve seen come up in teacher conversations: whether or not to use the pandemic as a teaching moment in our classrooms. Should you create math lessons using data about case numbers in different states, for example? Should students write pandemic journals? Would it be appropriate to do a unit on the 1918 pandemic flu?

Idil’s thread on pandemic math sparked me to write this post. She sums it up well when she says: “It’s a lot to ask to do a math lesson about this well. It is hard pedagogical work & hard emotional labour. We have a responsibility to speak to the moment, and it’s a pandemic and maybe folks aren’t ready to learn to do all of this at the same time.” 

This is really the “both/and” that lies at the heart of trauma-informed practices. Ignoring hard topics and pretending they do not belong in the classroom is to ignore our students’ (and our) life experiences. The truth is that it’s not possible to “leave it at the door” especially when, for many of us, there is no physical door to our classrooms anymore. When the “door” is a Zoom window, it’s really not reasonable to ask people to pretend that things can have any semblance of normalcy. At the same time, trauma-informed practice doesn’t mean we must (or should) directly engage with or unpack student experiences of trauma. It can be triggering and overwhelming to examine or reflect on hard times while we’re living through them. So we both cannot ignore trauma and hard times, and we shouldn’t focus on trauma and hard times in ways that do harm. How do we make sense of this?

As with most things when it comes to teaching, there is no single “right answer.” Instead, here are some guiding questions that can be helpful in navigating your decision-making about using the pandemic as a teachable moment.

Guiding question 1: is this lesson/activity/unit appropriate if one of my students, students’ family members, or colleagues dies from COVID-19? 

This question, for me, is the most important consideration. I’ve seen a few “cutesey” activities shared on Twitter and Instagram, including a journaling project called “I survived the pandemic!” In this project, students are supposed to write in the style of the Scholastic “I Survived” series. When I saw this, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would feel like to hand this writing prompt to a student whose parent had just died from COVID, or who was worried every day about getting sick and not surviving. What is the value of this writing project for that student?

If you’re considering using the pandemic as a teachable moment, remember this: the pandemic is not over. Thousands have died and thousands more will die before a vaccine is available. Students and staff in your school will lose loved ones or have lost them already. Students and staff in your school are afraid and anxious. We should not do any activity that makes light of the pandemic, treats it with irreverence, or fails to recognize the emotional gravity of the situation. 

Guiding question 2: Am I asking students to opt out or opt in?

For some students, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will be triggering, stressful, and overwhelming. For others, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will feel relevant and empowering. Some students might feel both ways at the same time. Choice is important. I sometimes hear teachers say: “well, if any student has a problem with it, I’ll just offer them something different.” Here’s the thing: that puts the burden on students to recognize they are having a hard time and then make themselves vulnerable in speaking up.  If you require the whole class to engage in a pandemic-related activity, it might be overwhelming for students to try to opt out or ask for an alternative activity. Because of the power dynamics in most schools, students may not even realize they can ask at all. Instead of asking students to opt out, provide multiple options from the start. 

Make it shame-free. Don’t say “this is the activity we’re doing, unless you don’t want to in which case you can do this other not-as-cool thing.” Create two (or more) equal options, or open-ended projects or topics. For example: “Today we’re practicing persuasive writing by creating public health messaging. Your task is to create a public service announcement. You can choose from this list of topics: eating vegetables, moving for 30 minutes a day, or washing your hands and wearing a mask.” Or keep the prompt wide open!

Elizabeth Dutro, in writing about trauma-informed literacy pedagogy, says that “making intentional space for stories of trauma is always posed as invitation, never as requirement.” This frame is essential whether we are inviting students to directly reflect on their experiences or to engage in academics connected to ongoing collective trauma.  

Guiding question 3: What’s the balance?

Engaging in pandemic academics will help some students process and make meaning of their experience. But making meaning shouldn’t be forced or required, and often it’s impossible to make meaning of a traumatic experience while the experience is still happening. Remember that your students (…and you, and your colleagues) may just be in survival mode until the danger has passed. If you have personally experienced trauma or grief, you likely know that meaningful reflections on those experiences often come months, years, or decades after the actual event. 

At the same time, creating space to process and check in can be powerful. Whether it’s a community circle, a rose and thorn check-in, or another structure, it’s important to make space for your students to bring their full selves to school. Witnessing one another’s daily triumphs and struggles is part of what builds a strong community. Students often look to their teachers to help guide their understanding of the world when the world feels complicated. Classrooms – virtual or in-person – should be centered around our shared humanity. To show up as full people, in all of our complexities, we need space to talk about what’s going on and what we’re feeling.

The key here is balance. It’s not helpful to remove all mention of current events from the classroom and ban all discussion of the pandemic. It’s also not helpful to spend all day, every day engaging in heavy conversations, with no break from the weight of the world. Make room for students to escape into unrelated topics. Make room for joy, fun, and silliness. Those moments matter. 

Guiding question 4: What do my students say they need?

As a final guideline, we need to remember that we’re not going to get it right all the time. It’s not possible to avoid every single potential trauma trigger in the classroom, or anticipate every person’s emotional reaction to any topic. You can only make decisions informed by the best information you have available. The bulk of that information needs to be your students’ and their families’ feedback and ideas. Find ways to build in regular, ongoing feedback from your students. You might use a simple Google form, send an email, or schedule 1:1 conferences. Ask about how things are going, what feels good about class, what feels challenging, what students and their families need from you. Adjust your practice based on what you learn. 

This year is going to be difficult. There won’t be any single answers to the complicated questions in front of us. I hope these guidelines can help you to embrace a “both/and” approach. Sending each and every one of you strength and support. Thanks for reading. 

Embracing Students’ Own Goals, or what a VW Bus Taught Me About Decision-Making

What happens when students have dreams for themselves that don’t involve being “college and career ready?”

Personalized learning plans are picking up steam in Vermont and throughout the country. Although they look a little different in different settings, the general idea is to help students identify a goal and ensure that school is helping them work toward that goal. The Vermont Agency of Education website put it like this:

A personalized learning plan is a formal document created by students, parents, and teachers and available in digital and other formats both in and out of school, that, at a minimum: establishes individual student goals based on academic and career objectives and personal interests; sequences content and skill development to achieve those goals and ensure that a student can graduate college and career-ready; and is updated based on information about student performance in a variety of learning experiences – including assessments – that indicate progress towards goals.” 

My school has been using the personalized learning plan concept for a long time. One core piece of the philosophy that the school embraces is to “differentiate between the young person’s own goals and others’ hopes and expectations” (Mitch Barron in Centerpoint’s Core Strategies). When I think about this in relationship to personalized learning in mainstream schools, I wonder about how schools are embracing students’ actual goals, and not only offering a narrow view of what it means to be “college and career ready.”

While many of my students have had goals centered around going to college and getting a good job, some students have other goals that challenge us to walk our talk.

Honoring students’ own goals

I once had a student whose goal was to live in a VW bus in a field and make art.

What would you do if, in the PLP development process, your student stated that as a goal? Respond, “OK, that’s great, but what about college?” Say, “well, that’s not realistic, what are you going to do for money?” Would you shut down this student because her goal doesn’t fit neatly into college or career?

What would happen if you simply said, “Cool! Tell me more about that, and let’s figure out how to get you there?”

We often rush to make statements or offer solutions before we fully understand young people, out of our own need to “do something” or to be heard or to make sure we’re saying the “right” thing. Remember that what is needed in these moments is about the young person, not about the adult. Whether or not I think that making art in a VW bus is a realistic goal, if through our conversation I come to understand that it really matters to this young person, it’s my job as a supportive adult to help her get there. It doesn’t mean I need to throw all of my hopes and goals for her out the window, but I also can’t strip her of her autonomy by imposing my own will over hers. 

Ask more questions

Challenge yourself to ask three more questions before you offer any kind of statement. Listen a little more before you have anything to say, even if every part of you wants to just Say The Thing You Should Say. Do this especially when what the student is saying shakes your sense of what’s expected or “good” for the them – because we don’t know what we don’t know, and the only way to find out is to ask. 

So when my student told me about wanting to live in a VW bus to make art, I asked her about what kind of art, what she loved about being artistic, what color the bus would be, what type of field. What would be wonderful about her dream? What would be hard? Instead of shutting her down, we had the conversation, and we became partners in the process instead of adversaries.

Considering the pros and cons – all the pros and cons

Decisional balancing is a frame that can be very helpful to help you through what may feel like counter-intuitive questions. It’s simply considering the pros and cons of two choices, but often with teens we skip consideration of the pros of the choice we (the adults) would rather the kid not choose.

Example: a student says, “I want to drop out of school.” As the adult, we might say, “But think about the pros of staying in school, and the cons of being a high school drop-out.” What if instead we asked: “What would be good about staying in school – and what would suck about staying in school?” What if we asked: “What wouldn’t be so great about dropping out – but what would really work for you about dropping out?”

decisional balancing
A basic decisional balancing chart

The scary part about this approach is that, given full consideration and thought, the student might actually determine that dropping out is better for them. As adults, we actually have to be okay with that in order to fully be there for teens. Teens know immediately when adults don’t trust them. Giving full consideration to all choices, even the ones we don’t want them to choose, is a way to lean into trusting relationship with our teens.

The big picture

Encouraging young people to ask for help only works if we are truly open to listening when they do. When we slow down on our impulse to fix and instead keep ourselves open to listening, we create an opening for teens to really tell us what’s going on. We model how to think through all available options, not just the ones we think others want us to choose. We put aside our own agenda and become partners in collaboration, strengthening our role and our opportunity to make change.

If the process leads to students who are “college and career ready,” that’s great. But if the process leads to a happy young woman, living in a VW bus in a field full of flowers and making art? Well, that’s perfection.

 

VW photo by Marcus Spiering, CC license