We all know the disruption the pandemic has caused in education, but as a consultant who has continued meeting with clients around the world—via videoconferencing, of course—I can report a positive trend that I’ve witnessed: Teachers are finding innovative ways to incorporate student voice into lessons. Not content with direct instruction over Zoom, they are increasingly building lessons centered on the active involvement of students, and this is a trend that, in my experience, they want to build on once schools are able to operate at full capacity.
Here are some simple but highly effective instructional practices I’ve observed recently in virtual elementary school classrooms in Bahrain, Saipan, Colorado, Hawaii, and Tennessee. All of them have helped teachers retain the joy—and the effectiveness—of their work by elevating student voice.
6 Ways to Emphasize Student Voice
1. Connect: Something as simple as a poll to check on students’ well-being as they log into the class can provide insight into their emotional state. Example: Which of these four songs portrays your mood today? Poll Everywhere, Google Hangout polls and Forms surveys, and Zoom’s poll feature work great for this.
This takes two to three minutes, and you can follow up later with any student whom you believe needs some attention—for example, if a usually cheerful student picks a sad song. I’ve also observed many teachers starting their lessons with a quick breathing technique or song to get everyone in the right mindset to learn.
2. Don’t let up on demonstration and collaboration: In a classroom, students create presentations, act out skits, create music videos, write songs, build structures, transcribe poetry, and on and on to showcase their understanding of content. This is all continuing in the virtual environment, with a little pivoting. Students are still working together by sharing their findings in a variety of online platforms—they’re collaborating on slides to teach and present new content to the rest of the class, and they’re collaborating to create scripts, advertisements, songs, short stories, movies, and more to show what they know, or to teach the rest of the class more about a topic. Every unit of study should be mined for opportunities for these kinds of collaboration.
3. Check for understanding: I think a lot of us were concerned that formative assessment, which occurs so naturally in a physical classroom, would get lost online. Yet I’ve been amazed at how seamlessly teachers have continued checking for understanding. Using one of any number of platforms, teachers simply send a link in the chat for students to click on and begin sharing their takeaways from the lesson.
The teacher gets real-time information to see who they need to reteach at an alternative time in the day, or during the last few minutes of the live class session. Asking for help can be hard, but for students, the technology we now have makes it much easier.
4. Hold office hours: A small blessing of working from home: Office hours are easier for teachers, students, parents and caregivers, and interpreters to attend. This precious time is an opportunity for students to express what they need to be successful, and for you to personalize their learning accordingly.
5. Arrange for hands-on learning: This is a resource issue just as reliable internet access is, but to the extent possible, young learners need educational materials other than an electronic device: whiteboards to practice on and use to show that they understand the content, magnetic letters to help with sounds and make new words, rulers to measure things, Play-Doh or clay for a chance to be creative and demonstrate understanding.
Mostly they need time away from the screen, to learn how class material relates to their personal world. Have young students get up from their device and measure something, find something inside or outside their home that relates to the content, and be creative.
6. Maintain the routine: Online or off, teaching and learning require specific and predictable routines that involve you, yet center on the students. Were you in the habit of greeting each student at the door? (I hope so!) Then greet each student when they log on—even latecomers.
Have a predictable agenda that students know you will hold yourself to. That could include hooking interest with an engaging question or video clip; providing time for student discussion in breakout groups to ponder what you just asked or shared; spending 8–10 minutes on direct teaching; and finally providing processing time through a collaboration tool so students can begin to personalize the content and reflect on how it is relevant to them. A short, focused assessment, with cameras on, will let you see who needs reteaching or would benefit from enrichment. Again, you’ve given students a way to express what they need from you.
The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning, the saying goes; by making you aware of who’s speaking and who isn’t, technologically mediated learning gives you a distinct advantage in recognizing if you’re dominating the conversation and need to create more space for student voice.