July 16 — 1:54 pm, 2020

Students need the skills to find their voices in online classrooms

“BIPOC children have been told for years that their opinions are not valid, their thoughts are not original, and their minds are not intelligent, so it is no surprise that they are often reluctant to speak freely in class discussions.”

Adina Goldstein

Photo from freepix.com

With the District opting for a hybrid learning model for the start of the 2020-21 school year, the anxieties of teachers, students, and families about online learning continue unabated. Experiences with interrupted access to special education services, inaccessible internet service, and frustratingly one-sided Google Meet classes affected many teachers and families in Philadelphia in the spring, and numerous questions remain unanswered about schooling in the fall.

As teachers all over the city are thinking through what instruction could look like, stability and routine-building will be more important than ever. Any teacher will tell you that consistency in routines is paramount in the classroom with students of any age – from routines as simple as how to sharpen a pencil to returning graded work. To that point, the Philadelphia Inquirer and several experts they spoke with hypothesized that the lack of consistency in instruction caused by the “loss of routine” and “lag in time off” during the transition to online learning ultimately made it much more difficult to engage students online. That, they said, contributed to an overall daily online attendance rate of just over half of the district’s students.

Although the District’s plan comes seven weeks ahead of students’ projected start date, that does not mitigate the problem of keeping students engaged during virtual learning. As Superintendent William Hite observed regarding the District’s success with online learning: “One of the things we’re going to have to get a lot better at is what are we asking our young people to do to increase their level of engagement” – and hopefully avoid the dreaded busywork.

That’s where explicitly teaching and cultivating routines around conversation come in. Any teacher who taught to blank screens and “muted” meeting participants will agree that conversation will need to be at the heart of any engaging learning online.

When teachers cannot read the room and look for cues such as hand-raising, nods, or confused looks from students because everyone’s camera is off (which, by the way, is an important right that students should have, given the variation in the stability in many students’ homes), students’ abilities to speak up and articulate their understandings and their needs is more important than ever.

However, we cannot expect students to do anything that we have not explicitly taught. We, as teachers, must clearly state that our goal for students is to become expert conversationalists. We must define the tools necessary to master conversation and give students chances to practice using those tools. We must allow students to authentically explore their identities as conversationalists.

Further, as districts all over the country hope to update curriculum to focus more explicitly on social justice, we must not let the pandemic set this progress back, and conversation may hold the key to implementing antiracist teaching sooner rather than later. There is a very clear opportunity to leverage online teaching to create spaces for students to critically discuss race and social justice. For the Philadelphia School District, where 86% of students are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), yet nearly 70% of teachers are white, student voices will need to be centered, validated, and empowered to begin the work of dismantling systemic racism within our schools.

In addition to explicit instruction being just plain good pedagogy, explicitly teaching students the skills necessary for conversation is especially important in districts like Philadelphia. I would argue that one of many consequences of the system of white supremacy that our society exists within is that many BIPOC students are reluctant to speak up in class. BIPOC children’s (and adults’) voices have always been undervalued by the white supremacist society. BIPOC children have been told for years that their opinions are not valid, their thoughts are not original, and their minds are not intelligent, so it is no surprise that they are often reluctant to speak freely in class discussions.

Contrasted with my experiences working with mostly white, wealthy children (as I did during my student teaching in Cambridge, Mass.) who felt their voices were important and were eager to speak up and be heard, it is evident to me that we have a duty to explicitly teach our students how to speak up and how to make their point clearly. It is a moral imperative if we are to consider ourselves antiracists working to dismantle systemic oppression by bolstering BIPOC children’s confidence in the importance and validity of their voices. It is a moral imperative if we are to authentically implement antiracist curriculum that genuinely centers BIPOC voices, experiences, trauma, and achievement.

Coming back to the overlap with online learning, how can we expect our students to “engage” in Google Meets classes, when conversation is, by far, the most authentic, meaningful way to do so, yet they may not have any practice in this type of free-flowing academic conversation? How can we academically expect students to know how to participate in (or lead) conversations comfortably when Pennsylvania literacy standards only mention discussion once?

Although we can’t expect conversations to flow easily the first time around, there are ways to teach habits of conversation explicitly, accessibly, and gradually, such as practicing using discussion protocols, coming up with sentence starters that indicate agreement, disagreement, questioning, and other reactions, and setting up the culture of conversation from day one.

The situation we find ourselves in as a country right now is far from ideal, and there are almost certainly hundreds, if not thousands, of concerns about continued online learning and antiracist curriculum that aren’t addressed through conversations in classrooms. But as COVID-19-related online schooling and the desperate need for antiracist curriculum converge, this creates the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the importance of teaching academic conversational skills more explicitly in schools.

Adina Goldstein is a 7th-grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary School. She is a proud product of the Philadelphia School District with a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is in her third year of teaching.

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