Gaming in the Classroom to Boost Engagement, Part I

Creating engaging lessons and activities for learning is no easy task. With today’s technology, the Gen Z group has access to the most realistic and stimulating gaming graphics, digital art programs, and communication platforms. Their familiarity and use of technology is practically innate. Therefore, it is no wonder that holding students’ attention in the classroom has become more and more of a challengecompared to the allure of the glowing screens, our books and assignments do not hold a candle to their preferred methods of entertainment. So, one way for educators to look at it is: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

 

Ideas for the English/history/world languages classroom

  • Take a page from the NCAA and create a March Madness-inspired bracket to lure your students into the current novel, play, or works of poetry. This can work in several different ways. Teachers can have students rank their favorite texts, readings, or chapters from the unit. Then use Google forms to see which work progresses to the next round based on class votes. Students can also make predictions about which characters will come out on top at the end of a tragedy, conflict, or quest. This type of bracket works especially well during a Shakespeare unit and/or when teaching students about various battles during The Civil War, WWI, WWII, etc. The key for engagement is to hype up the bracket to get students investedconsider an Elite Eight winner, Final Four winner, Championship winner with school-related prizes. Teachers should also think about either creating a giant visual bracket on the classroom wall or a website for digital class brackets.
  • For tech-savvy social studies students, challenge them to create a digital recreation or simulation of specific historical events. For example, instead of making a typical timeline, students might choose to show Germany’s progression across Europe with a visual map simulating territory takeover. Similarly, using video programming, students can act out various historical events and arrange or splice the clips with background music, captions, historical photographs, or Google Slides. With these projects, they’re putting their technology expertise to great use while demonstrating their knowledge of the event and/or time period.
  • Students are all about their social media presence right now, so how about utilizing those platforms to demonstrate their knowledge of a major historical figure, author, or literary character. There are hundreds of websites available for classroom use involving fake instagram templates, Tiktok videos, and pretend Linkedin pages. While these aren’t exactly games, the use of such platforms can be equally engaging for students. Some ideas include creating a Spotify playlist for a specific character or historical figure. Songs should represent key quotes or important aspects of the person’s life. Recently, a student of mine did a fabulous “Desdemona’s Breakup” playlist using Spotify to write an alternate ending for Shakespeare’s Othello. I’ve also found that mock-dating profile templates can be a great, creative option for students to demonstrate their understanding of a character. Teacherspayteachers.com offers a free “Fiction Mingle” template for this exact purpose!

Another engaging activity stems from the ever-popular escape rooms. Students with experience using gaming simulation and other digital animation programs can create and share virtual escape rooms with other students as a way to review foreign language terms and vocabulary. There are numerous websites, apps, and even options for using Google Forms to create digital escape rooms for the classroom. Teachers can create various levels of escape rooms to challenge students based on skill set, level of difficulty, and individual or collaborative groups.

Teacher Tips: Keeping Students Engaged in Virtual Math Class

As an avid reader, writer, and English teacher, nothing used to scare me more than the possibility of having to cover an absent colleague’s math class. Like a fish out of water, my literacy-geared mind simply cannot adapt to the math world. Now that we educators have moved into the virtual realm of instruction, at least for the time being, I am even more in awe of how my math teacher counterparts are able to reach their students when it comes to such complex skills. It goes without saying that, for students like myself who find math to be difficult to begin with, they must be finding online math instruction to be even more difficult. Another critical piece of this perplexing puzzle is this: how on earth are teachers now adapting to make online math instruction engaging?  

 

Real World Connections

Just as we would in the physical classroom, in order to boost engagement for a lesson or concept, teachers should try their best to connect the activity or information to students’ real-world problems. Enough with the “train leaving the station at a certain time” word problems and examples. Students will inevitably zone out when the material is not relevant or familiar. Instead, use what you know about your students to incorporate their interests into your math lesson, then connect the content to a problem that they might actually need to solve at some point. Making the concepts less arbitrary by showing students how to use these math skills in the real world will take engagement to a new level.

  • To teach measurements, perimeter, area, etc., have students make a plan for rearranging their room by actually measuring out their bedrooms and bedroom furniture. 
    • Visual learners can sketch a “floor plan” for where they could realistically move their bed, dresser, desk, etc.
    • Kinesthetic learners may want to build a diorama or 3D representation of their bedroom arrangement proposal using everyday materials around the house like cardboard, straws, tape, sticky notes, etc.
  • Teach percentages and healthy eating by demonstrating how much sugar is in some of your students’ favorite candies and treats. Poll students in advance and do a little research about how many grams of sugar are in some of their favorite candy bars. 
    • Then challenge students to represent those grams in tablespoons so that they can visually see how much sugar they are ingesting. 
    • Extend the activity by discussing how much of their daily recommended sugar intake is “eaten up” by choosing that candy bar. Ask students to figure out how much of a healthier treat, like grapes, they could eat in place of the candy barthey’ll be amazed at the comparison.
  • Teach concepts involving time by having students actually time themselves doing everyday tasks, like walking to the park, making their bed, brushing their teeth, etc. 
    • Then incorporate multiplication skills to see how many minutes students spend brushing their teeth in a year, for example. 
    • You can surprise them even more by asking them to track screen time for a week and then finding out the average time they might be spending in front of their phones per year.

 

Celebrate (and Learn from) the Errors

Students don’t often spend time reviewing math errors to gain a substantial understanding. Instead, they’re correcting mistakes for additional credit, or overlooking the missteps altogether. Teachers can boost engagement by capitalizing on students’ errors in non-judgmental ways.

  • Teachers may want to try a practice called “the best mistake” in which they use anonymous student samples to analyze where a math problem went wrong. 
    • This activity encourages students to take on another’s perspective, reread and review material, and look critically at different mathematical functions and properties.
    • This activity also helps to remove the stress around math quizzes and word problems by making light of errors and demonstrating how they happen to everyonewe all make mistakes sometimes. The key is to use those mistakes and improve in the future.
  • Teachers can also increase engagement by letting students be the experts and intentionally making an error in a math problem.
    • Tell students in advance that a step or number is incorrect. Ask students to discuss and collaborate in groups in order to spot the teacher’s error.
    • Remember, kids always love being able to correct the teacher—even if the error is intentional.

Social Emotional Learning Skills by Grade Level, Part II

As discussed in part one, social emotional learning (SEL) skills have become an even greater focus now that students are limited in their opportunities to socialize, collaborate, and communicate with peers in person at school. We all know that academics are just one facet of education; the SEL skills that students learn and develop when in school are just as critical. Some might even argue that these “street smarts” are more important or beneficial than the “book smarts” we acquire in school. That said, distance learning and virtual schooling have certainly created various obstacles for students when it comes to developing and growing their SEL skills. Below is our continued list of specific grade-level SEL standards.

 

Later Elementary Grades (4-5)

  • Students in 4th and 5th grade should be able to assess a range of feelings and emotions connected to specific scenarios, circumstances, and situations. In other words, they should be able to thoroughly describe how they feel and precisely what made them feel this way.
  • Students should be able to maintain control of certain behaviors and/or emotions that might interfere with their focus. For example, if they are feeling stressed about their homework, they should choose to turn off the television and put the phone away until they finish their assignments.
  • Students should be able to articulate interests, goals, and the ways in which to develop the necessary skills to achieve those goals.
  • Students in the later elementary grades should be able to list the necessary steps for goal setting and future achievement while monitoring personal progress throughout the process. In other words, they should be able to take an active role by tracking growth and taking steps to improve along the way. 
  • Students should begin to understand social cues that demonstrate how others are feeling during certain situations.
  • Students should be able to not only recognize others’ perspectives, but specifically describe another’s perspective or stance as well. They should be using phrases like, I understand what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way. I might disagree with you, but I appreciate your point of view. That’s not how I interpreted it, but I can see how you may have experienced it differently.
  • Students should be able to engage in positive interactions with people from different backgrounds and those with different opinions and beliefs.
  • In the late elementary grades, students should begin to understand various cultural differences between groups, i.e., they should acknowledge that not everyone celebrates Christmas.
  • 4th and 5th graders should be able to describe various approaches to meeting new people and maintaining friendships while forging new friendships with peers in different social circles.
  • Students should begin to demonstrate self-respect and how to show respect to others, even during conflicts or disagreements; they choose their words wisely as to not offend others in the heat of the moment.
  • Elementary schoolers should begin to understand different social cues and behaviors of others and how they might impact one’s decision making.
  • Once reaching the late elementary grades, children should be able to brainstorm various options for solving a problem and anticipating the different outcomes depending on the situation.
  • Finally, 4th and 5th grade students should be able to identify needs in their school/local environment and perform duties to contribute to these communities. For example, if the cafeteria floor is covered in trash, they will take it upon themselves to help clean up after others.

Social Emotional Learning Skills by Grade Level, Part I

Social and emotional (SEL) skills involve more than just the concepts surrounding educational buzzwords like growth mindset, grit, and self-advocacy. SEL skills are being emphasized at an even greater extent now that students are limited in their opportunities to socialize, collaborate, and communicate with peers in person. Distance learning and virtual schooling have certainly created various obstacles for students when it comes to developing and growing their SEL skills. For this reason, SEL has become an even greater focus right now for school districts, parents, and educators. Besides providing resources for building SEL skills at home, it is equally important for families to be able to determine if children are reaching specific grade-level SEL standards.

 

Early Elementary Grades (K-3)

As expected, the SEL skills required for student success change or evolve as students progress through the grade levels. In elementary school, much of the SEL emphasis is on positive interactions with the world. Children are obviously highly dependent on adults during these years, yet they are beginning to enter their own social spheres with their peers as well.

  • Students should be able to recognize and articulate their feelings/emotions; they should be beginning to understand how feelings and reactions are connected to behaviors.
  • Students should be beginning to exhibit impulse control and regulating their emotions.
  • Early learners should be able to describe their preferences: What do they like/dislike? What are their strengths/weaknesses? 
  • They will begin to articulate personal opinions and needs.
  • Elementary schoolers should be able to identify when they need help and who is in a position to help them in certain situations, i.e., peers, family members, educators, etc.
  • Children should be able to roughly explain how learning is connected to personal growth and success.
  • Elementaryaged students should also be able to set personal goals regarding behavior and academics.
  • Students will be beginning to understand that other people have different perspectives or ways of looking at a situation; they’ll recognize that others may share the same experience, but have varying opinions and viewpoints at the same time.
  • Students will also be able to describe peoples’ similarities and differences.
  • Early learners should be able to actively listen to others’ viewpoints and recognize their feelings while listening.
  • Elementaryaged students should be able to recognize and describe positive traits in others; they’ll be able to give genuine compliments.
  • Students will begin to develop collaborative skills such as how to work/play with peers in constructive ways, how to solve and resolve problems and/or conflicts, and how to receive constructive criticism from others.
  • Young children should be able exhibit the ability to adapt to new or changing situations or environments. 
  • By the time children reach elementary school, they should be able to understand why hurting others is wrong, whether that be physical or emotional hurt.
  • Students should be starting to read social cues and adjust behavior accordingly.
  • Students should be exhibiting sound decision making and weighing right vs. wrong.
  • Elementary schoolers should be able to positively contribute to their classroom environment, including cleaning up after themselves and others, sharing, demonstrating kindness/understanding, and taking responsibility for themselves.

Virtual Writing Instruction: Part I

Across school districts, students’ grades, scores, and standardized test results indicate a widespread drop in foundational skills, some of the more critical skills affiliated with academic writing. Writing is not just an English-specific necessity. The ability to construct cohesive, clear, organized thoughts in written form is essential for all aspects of college and career readiness. As educators, we must prioritize these foundational writing skills to ensure that, even in the midst of virtual or hybrid learning, students are still being set up for success.

 

Daily cross-curricular opportunities

Writing is one of those skills that is strengthened by repetition and practice. Exposure to different styles of writing and opportunities to compose different written forms helps students to recognize the importance of writing in all subject areas. Therefore, teachers should provide opportunities for students to practice composing various genres and for different purposes. These do not necessarily have to be long, involved essay prompts; teachers can use these ideas as warm-ups, exit tickets, lesson activators, etc.

 

For example, science teachers might ask students to write and submit lab reports, compose directions for science experiments, or draft project proposals for a final project. History, civics, or social studies teachers should consider prompts that require students to compare and contrast two or more cultures, time periods, land forms, or branches of government. Math teachers can help students with procedural or sequential writing skills by asking them to compose an error analysis for any questions that they missed on a quiz or assessment. For a task such as this, students are subconsciously learning the skills necessary to craft written work that follows a problem-solution or cause-effect format. The key here is to demonstrate that writing skills, even short practices, lend themselves to all content areas, not just English.

 

Peer review

Peer review sessions are extremely beneficial, especially during virtual learning where students do not have day-to-day interactions with their peers. Dissecting someone else’s work can be a very enlightening practice for young writers. It allows them to see how another student interpreted and approached the same task in relation to their own response. Viewing another’s writing also sheds light on different writing styles, provides ideas for varying sentence structure, and demonstrates how others interpreted a text or quote. In evaluating another’s writing, students begin to grasp, not only how their own writing measures up, but how an instructor might evaluate a written response. It forces students to consider the prompt, the rubric, and the overall objectives with regard to their final composition. Peer review sessions also prompt student discourse, which, during these trying times, can help stimulate social skills, collaboration, and motivation. 

 

Formative feedback

By embedding formative feedback into weekly writing instruction, educators send the important message to students that writing is a fluid process—students are not expected to craft perfect writing on their first, or even second attempt. One of my most beneficial practices to help students with essay writing is to formatively assess the introductory paragraph first, before students continue on with their entire essay. By pumping the breaks and providing specific feedback on each student’s intro paragraph, I am able to accomplish several things at once. 

 

First, looking at the intro paragraph gives me an inside view of the foundation of their essay; I’m able to see students’ interpretation of hook statement, bridge statement leading into their thesis, and the final thesis statement, around which the entire essay will be framed. If students’ introductory paragraphs are a mess in any one of these categories, I can quickly provide necessary feedback and scaffolds for them to revise and reset before they have gone too far down the wrong path. Looking at the intro paragraph also shows me whether students actually understand the writing prompt or not. If multiple students seem to be off track or missing the mark, I can easily intervene and provide supports, interventions, and reteaching to ensure that everyone understands the prompt and how to approach it.

 

In part two of Virtual Writing Instruction, we’ll explore the impact of providing student choice, creating the necessary scaffolding for struggling writers, using virtual sessions to instruct using teacher models, and building online portfolios for student writing.

Transparency and Parent Communication

Schools being closed is certainly not ideal. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to look at the positive. It’s time to look for the silver linings in the Covid cloud we’ve been enduring for nearly a year now. One of those silver linings might actually involve the virtual learning model into which educators, students, and families have been unwillingly thrust. You see, online learning essentially lends itself to consistency, open communication, and transparency between parents and teachers. If utilized correctly, parents can use virtual learning platforms as a front row seat to everything that their child is reading, learning, and creating.

Invite Parents into the Virtual World
Whether teachers are using Canvas, Google Classroom, or any of the other instructional platforms available right now, parents should be encouraged to join as participants or viewers. Many schools made this information available at the start of the school year; however, not all parents were aware of the advantages that this form of “virtual classroom participation” would give them and their children. Educators should consider some of the following measures:

  • Send out a mass email to parents and guardians about joining the virtual classroom if anyone has yet to do so.
  • Be sure to make class codes, course numbers, and Zoom login information visible on your course home page; you can also include this information in the mass email to parents.
  • Post “parent-friendly” announcements to your course homepage to ensure that parents see these important notifications directly at the top when they login to check grades, review assignments, etc.
  • For students with chronic absenteeism, reach out to parents via email and/or phone about their child’s absences in case they are unaware of the missed classes.
  • Use the Canvas “grades” page to send mass emails to specific students and their “observers,” i.e. parents, when they have missed an important assignment deadline. This function allows teachers to email anyone who hasn’t submitted the assignment all at once without showing other recipients.
  • When interims or the end of the marking period is approaching, post a message to all students and “observers” about final steps and tasks for successfully rounding out the marking period.
  • Set up a parent page in Canvas for each course where parents can find important course information, class or weekly calendars, teacher contact info, Zoom logins, office hours, and FAQs.
  • Use Screencastify to create how-to tutorials for parents. These videos could include information on how to check grades, how to see if assignments have been submitted, how to view teacher feedback on written tasks, how to use Kami, etc.
  • Push out a parent survey using Google forms to obtain vital information about how e-learning is going at home. Ask questions like, How much hands-on homework support do you provide to your child on the average night? Does your child have access to his/her own computer for learning? Is there an older sibling or parent in the home during the average instructional day to provide tech support? Are there technology issues at home? Where does your child do most of his/her classwork? How many children are in the home participating in virtual learning at the same time? On average, how much sleep is your child getting on the typical school night? How much time is spent on homework over the weekend? What frustrations are you seeing with regard to virtual learning/instruction? Do you have easy access to your child’s grades, course materials, school resources, etc.? What steps could I take to provide more transparency/clarity to parents about our class? If your child needs more instructional support, do you know where/how to obtain those resources?
  • Finally, teachers should create engaging assignments that encourage discourse within the family. These family-centered prompts require students to bring their parents into the assignment for support and guidance, which allows parents to see firsthand what you’re teaching. For instance, ask students to interview a member of their household for a formative assessment on sentence structure. Have students write a personal essay about how they got their name, including direct quotes from their parents or guardians. Have students create a “family album” on Google slides including photos and fun facts about siblings, pets, parents, grandparents, etc.

Helping Students Combat Zoom Fatigue

Zoom fatigue is an unfortunate yet all too familiar side effect of our current educational circumstances. Depending on grade level, students are logged into a video conferencing platform for classes up to six hours a day. Yet those six hours of class are just the beginning. That time doesn’t account for the additional screen time necessary to complete homework assignments, read and respond to emails, and review online course content. 

 

It is no wonder that students are experiencing high levels of burnout and exhaustion these days. Even more concerning is the domino effect that Zoom fatigue may be havingschool districts across the nation are reporting troublesome spikes in spotty attendance, prolonged absences, disengagement, lack of communication, and, of course, a noticeable drop in grades. Virtual learning is our present reality, and we have yet to know what the foreseeable future of this school year will look like. However, there are ways in which parents and teachers can assist now with Zoom fatigue.

 

  • Teachers should deliberately frame the lesson, as they typically would in the brick-and-mortar setting, but consider adding time estimates for each task. Having an idea of how long each topic, assignment, or activity will take helps students establish expectations and prioritize their mental stamina.
  • Beginning with an engaging, yet relevant, icebreaker goes a long way with student buy-in from the get go. If possible, incorporate movement into the opener. For example, ask students to take 30 seconds to find an object around them that represents an important memory. This allows students to get up and move. It also builds classroom community and allows students to share out about a personal anecdote. 
  • Establish “No Screen” blocks of time throughout the day and stick to them. Meal times and times in between classes and office hours should be strictly considered “screen free” times. This is the same idea behind brain breaks and movement breaks, which allow for a necessary mental reset for young learners. Teachers have limited time with face-to-face online instruction; however, it is crucial that students are getting small breaks during those instructional hours as well. Something as brief as a 5minute gap of time for students to walk away from the computer, grab a snack, or stretch can revitalize heavy eyes and foggy minds.
  • Encourage students to utilize office hours efficiently to reduce screen time during those non-instructional days. Office hours are certainly necessary. However, teachers can help reduce screen use by streamlining the process for office hours. For instance, tell students to login with specific questions in mind relating to the assignment or project. Keep the office hour fluid, meaning that, once students have asked their questions or gotten clarification, remind them that it’s okay to exit the Zoom early. If they have a quick question, consider an email instead of waiting to login for office hours.
  • Incorporate prerecorded asynchronous videos, demonstrations, presentations, etc. Of course, students need live instruction, but breaking up the session with these components can greatly help with Zoom fatigue. Incorporating small asynchronous components can also help make the lesson move quicker since students are working at their own pace.
  • If teachers have finished the lesson with a few minutes in the session to spare, don’t fill that time with extra instruction or busy work. It is okay to end the session and give students a bit more of a break between classes. Of course, offer to stay on Zoom until time has expired in case anyone has a question, but often, students prefer to logout early as a nice little treat.

Close all other unnecessary tabs while in a Zoom class. This may seem obvious, but many students use Zoom classes for multitaskingmeaning that they have countless tabs open, documents and assignments for other classes underway, and a cell phone within reach. All of these things only work against their ability to focus, thus creating more fatigue. As difficult as it may be, remind children to stay engaged with the class and task at hand, i.e., no multitasking unless it is related to that class in particular. Put the cell phone away, as well, since this is just one more screen that’ll distract them during class.

Formative Assessments for Virtual Learning

For educators, formative assessments are crucial data points that we utilize on a daily basis, or at least, we used to utilize them in the classroom before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now that most of us are doing our instructing and learning in the virtual world in front of screens, formative assessments have become somewhat more difficult, but that much more important at the same time. Since we are no longer seeing our students in person, and many of us are only seeing classes a few times a week, it is even more crucial to consistently check-in on student progress and mastery. Formative assessments, even of the virtual type, help to ensure that students who are struggling or misunderstanding a concept are provided with interventions, supports, scaffolds, clarification, and opportunities for reteaching. Below you’ll find various methods for implementing formative assessments in the virtual realm. Nothing can replace the insight that educators get from in-person observations in the classroom; however, these activities help to make sure we’re getting as much information about how and what our students are learning from our online classes.

 

Journaling

Journaling as a daily warm-up is often considered as an “English-only” writing activity for obvious reasons. However, students’ journal responses can be valuable pieces of diagnostic information for any content area, so long as the prompts or questions are designed to elicit certain feedback or responses. For example, math and science classes can use journaling as a method for checking for understanding after a new concept, property, or formula is introduced in class. Teachers may choose to ask students to write about a scenario involving a time when the physical property of a substance might change. Perhaps a math teacher may ask students to write about a real-life scenario in which their knowledge of exponents might come in handy. The point is to make sure that the journal prompt is specific enough that it provides the teacher with information about who understands the content from the last class and who needs more instruction.

 

Entry/Exit Tickets

Teachers can use a Google form, a quick response assignment in Canvas, or even the chat function on Zoom to elicit formative responses about what students remember about the day’s lesson. At the end of a Zoom session, ask students to think about their class discussion, materials, slides, practices, etc. and have each student provide one sentence about the most significant point or takeaway from today’s class. If students are consistently confused or missing the mark, it should be a sign that some reteaching or scaffolds are necessary before the whole class progresses. If only a few students struggle to pinpoint the main takeaway, then perhaps a small group or breakout room would allow for more direct instruction while the others continue on with the material. Frame the exit tickets not as “got ya” moment tied to points or grades, but more as a “how well did I teach you today?” type of activity.

 

Summaries

To assess students’ knowledge of a text, whether the reading be related to math, science, art, music, history/government, or an actual novel for English class, consider having students summarize the text as a means of formatively assessing their understanding of the content. For younger students, it may be helpful to introduce the 5W’s (who, what, when, where, why) to help them to begin their summaries. The key in assessing a one-sentence student summary is to look for the main points or “big ideas” that you’d hoped students would grasp from the reading. If many students are falling short of finding the big ideas, it’s probably a good idea to go back and complete a whole group close reading of certain paragraphs, lines, or vocab terms.

 

Connections

If students are able to make connections between new content and prior knowledge, chances are good that they’ve at least begun to understand the new material. Therefore, another great method for formatively assessing students in the virtual classroom is to ask them to relate the new topic, idea, content, or material to something that they’ve seen, heard about, or learned before. For example, if students are learning about colonialism, ask them to make a list of things that they think are related to or that remind them of colonialism. These lists can take the form of a word web, a collaborative Google slide, or a padlet response. The point is for students to articulate their understanding of colonialism as it applies to things that they’ve already learned about.

Student Data in the Time of Covid

The sudden switch to virtual learning last spring threw us all for a loop. Students were perplexed, parents were stressed, teachers were overwhelmed, and schools were ill-prepared to roll out an entirely new structure for online learning. However, as time passed, we’ve become somewhat more accustomed to our new normal. Virtual learning is not as personal, effective, or sustainable as the beloved in-person classroom instruction that we didn’t know we’d miss until it was gone.

With the commencement of quarter one, it has become even more apparent that virtual learning is not only leaving much to be desired, but it’s also leaving much more to be learned. Recently reported data suggests that, across the board, students are not thriving. Worse, the achievement gap is widening, meaning that students who were statistically already hindered by certain disparities are feeling the negative effects of virtual learning even more. Math scores have dropped. Literacy scores have dropped. Enrollment is down, as is the rate of students currently passing their classes.

However, behind every data point is a story—a story that emphasizes the human component, for which standardized tests can simply not account. For instance, some secondary students are working part-time jobs to help with bills while a parent or guardian is sick or unemployed, meaning that attendance and participation may be spotty. Some students are experiencing food insecurities due to the fact that families are financially struggling during business and hospitality closures. Some students are experiencing social-emotional stressors and psychological impacts that they may be unfamiliar with or ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The scenarios could go on and on, but the point is this: data is open to interpretation, especially during these unique circumstances.

Here is what we can do:

  • Teachers should utilize office hours to check-in with struggling students about more than their missing work. Yes, it is important that their work be submitted. However, it is arguably more important to ask why a certain student is struggling to compete or submit assignments. Are they caring for younger siblings? Working outside of school? Caring for an ill family member? Having issues with technology, wifi, or connectivity? Are they used to in-person accommodations? Teachers know when students are struggling by looking at the grades and quality of work, but a more significant data point indicates reasons for their struggles—this is worth investigating.
  • Parents and teachers should utilize school counselors and other support services for struggling students. Data simply points to areas of need, but it doesn’t provide suggested interventions or recommendations for additional support. The counselors can be invaluable when it comes to providing insight into a student’s individual circumstances and needs.
  • Teachers should consider creating their own surveys and check-in forms to ask students how they think they’re doing and what they’d like to work on. Yes, Map scores and other standardized tests may indicate standards in which students are underperforming, but student voice surveys are able to tell us a lot more. Ask students about their study habits, their reading interests, learning styles, collaborative preferences, parent involvement, etc. This information can help teachers adjust and modify their instruction and assignments to account for student choice and ability level—all of which help to demonstrate important data regarding student achievement.
  • Schools or individual teachers should consider sending out a separate survey for parents or guardians to complete. Ask parents about their child’s study habits, individual strengths and needs, extracurricular activities and/or obligations outside of schoolwork, experience with technology, organizational weaknesses, procrastination habits, scheduling difficulties, etc. All of this information will help to inform educators about each student’s unique circumstances, which is inherently tied to his or her performance data.

Essential Building Blocks for Reading Comprehension, Part II

As mentioned in part one, much of the reason that young learners might struggle with reading comprehension is the fact that the process involves a compilation of other complex skills. Such foundational skills necessary for children to begin to master reading comprehension include: fluency, phonemic awareness, accessing prior knowledge/making connections, vocabulary, syntactical rules/conventions, working memory, and attentiveness. 

 

Vocabulary Strategies

  • Instruct children about specific vocabulary terms, but make sure that the new words are connected to something they are currently reading, seeing, hearing, or learning about. It is important to avoid teaching vocabulary “in a vacuum.” Vocabulary words taught at random or with little context or connectivity to prior knowledge is not likely to make it into a child’s lexicon.
  • Preteach new vocabulary terms by relating them to concepts and terms that your child already knows. Then, when she encounters the word in a text, she will have prior exposure to the word and some sense of understanding.
  • Utilize root word instruction and practices. This might include creating root word charts with examples, opposite T-charts, visual word tree trunks with various prefixes and suffixes. Practice making new or nonexistent words using roots as a silly way to grasp root word meanings.
  • Use synonyms casually when speaking to your child.
  • Create a word web wall and add to the web as you make connections between new words.
  • Emphasize context clues while reading aloud; model how to actively engage with new words by making comments like, “I wonder what this might mean in the sentence given the surrounding information…”

 

Syntax Rules and Conventions

  • Ask your child to rearrange the words in the sentence, but maintain the same meaning. For example, given the sentence “You can watch a show after you have finished your homework.” Your child should rephrase by saying something like, “You must finish your homework before you can watch a show.”
  • Demonstrate different ways in which sentences can be combined, separated, or punctuated. The key is to show them that, even with variations in sentence structure, the phrases mean the same thing.
  • Model the process of summarizing a short excerpt or sentence. Then explain how paraphrasing is slightly different. Practice this process aloud together.
  • Exaggerate the purpose of punctuation while reading aloud to emphasize each punctuation mark’s function. 
  • Provide examples of how punctuation can drastically change the underlying meaning of a sentence. One favorite example is, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!”
  • Find fill-in-the-blank reading options, where children are provided with word banks or suggestions on each page, but must use the context of the story to correctly complete each missing word.

 

Working Memory and Attention Strategies

  • Purposefully chunk down larger sections of text while reading aloud. Then ask clarifying questions or practice summarizing the section before moving to the next passage or chunk.
  • Ask your child to make predictions while reading to practice recalling and utilizing details that have already been mentioned in the text.
  • Plan for engaging questions while reading. Parents should preview the text and think about ways in which to connect the details to other aspects of a child’s life. Ask critical thinking questions as well, such as, “Why do you think the character did that?” “What do you think she meant when she said…?” “How would you have reacted differently if you were in the story?”
  • Sketch a visual timeline of events while reading. This doesn’t have to be a detailed, moment-by-moment recollection; you can use bullet points on sticky notes, a small white board, or index cards with events 1-3 on them. Be sure to deliberately emphasize the use of transition words, especially when focusing on chronological summaries.
  • Listen to an audio version of the text while following along with the physical book.
  • When reading together, once you reach the bottom of a page, ask your child which detail stands out to her the most. If she’s unable to recall a significant detail, encourage rereading.
  • Remove all distractions while reading, including background noise, cell phones/screens, etc. You can also find texts with larger print, reduced text per page, and print with extra space between paragraphs to help children visually focus on one aspect of the text at a time.