It is likely not a coincidence that this is my first blog entry since late 2019. On occasion I'd realize how long it had been since I had written anything, but anytime I tried to turn that realization into an idea of something I could write about, I just felt stuck. Like many others, I have been trying to adjust to "the new normal", which can be quite exhausting at times.
In New Brunswick, Canada, where I teach, schools were closed on March 13, 2020 and students did not return to school until September 2020. In the spring of 2020, we were all just trying our best to keep our heads above water as we tried to teach from home as much as we could. We traded in the classroom and the conference room for Zoom, and took a crash course in virtual teaching and learning in real time while trying to cope with so much change and uncertainty in the world.
Although there were a lot of restrictions put in place that seemed to be ever-changing, I consider myself fortunate to have been able to teach my grade two class in person throughout the 2020-21 school year. One of the restrictions put in place here included the use of classroom bubbles. Students could only be near their own classmates, including during recess time. Schools throughout the province set up staggered recesses and partitioned the school yards into zones for each classroom bubble. I mentally prepared for this, with the knowledge that for the last several months, due to public health restrictions, most of my students had limited opportunities to socialize with other children (if any).
Knowing my students would only be able to interact with their own classmates throughout the school day, and that many of them were "out of practice" socializing with other children, it was of the utmost importance to build a strong sense of community in my classroom. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, building relationships, learning about how to be active listeners, and learning how to work effectively in groups. While I have engaged students in community-building activities for as long as I can remember, especially at the beginning of the school year, I noticed some differences in how I executed it this year. The key differences in the 2020-2021 school year were:
- I did not limit such activities to the beginning of the year
- I spent more time explicitly teaching students how to work in groups across all subject areas, including specific skillsets such as active listening, resolving conflicts, how to offer help, turn taking, etc.
- I did not feel any guilt over "taking time away from instruction" to focus on building community and teaching students how to work together effectively
And the result? Students had made excellent gains in their abilities to collaborate. This made group activities more enjoyable for everyone, which resulted in us doing group activities more often. Through observing multiple ways of seeing things (though the eyes of their peers), and through the act of asking one another questions or explaining things to their peers (or to me), students exhibited more depth in their understanding of what they were learning. They also exhibited much more kindness and patience for one another, and learned that every member of the group has something of value to offer.
I have long been aware of the benefits of community building and collaboration, and understand that collaborating effectively is an important life skill (and part of CAST's UDL Guidelines), yet I had spent years avoiding "too much" group work because deep down I knew, that in order to facilitate effective group work it was necessary to devote ENOUGH time to teach the necessary skills. But where would this time come from? We never seem to have enough time in the school day!
I wish it hadn't taken a global pandemic and its resulting restrictions to force me to stop caring where that time would come from and just do it. To stop giving into pressure to make sure we "cover the curriculum" in the limited time we have to do so. In the age of social distancing, my little classroom bubble came together in a way that I would not have thought possible before. Not only because the world changed, but also because my teaching changed - through my intentional decision to "do UDL" more than I had before.