Reinventing the classroom community, assessment and our own self-care

As I reflect on my teaching for the past year and review the pedagogical lessons learned, I have started to rethink my teaching practices and gradually change to make sure the upcoming semesters match. for my intention to encourage and empower the learners in my class, including myself – throughout these times of transition. As a result of this reflection, three areas requiring my attention have emerged: cultivating an inclusive and compassionate classroom environment; offer flexible and creative assessments; and create a fundamental daily wellness practice.

An inclusive and compassionate classroom

When we’re together in a physical classroom without a mask, relationship building often happens easily and organically. In our new reality, I welcome students from a distance, engaging them in informal conversations on the sidelines of our class meetings. While chatting with my students in person 6 feet apart, I try to get to know them behind the masks. I even need one-on-one meetings. Often times, I learn that students are overworked and isolated from their peers, and as a result, I listen more and engage students in their small group conversations. I respond intentionally with kindness, compassion, and empathy, using student names so students know they are seen, heard, and owned. I also build confidence by being generous with my time and attention. I encourage lingering after class, in person and online. I invite students to student hours when I answer questions, but I also encourage informal conversations to build community and a sense of belonging.

As in the past, I give students a brief learning inventory and ask them about their favorite study habits and learning methods. However, I am now collecting data from the Learning Inventory, not only to guide my teaching, but also to provide creative and flexible assessment ideas tailored to students’ learning preferences.

Flexible and creative evaluations

Providing flexible and creative assessments is one of the most compassionate ways to support our students. My most important change offers students the opportunity to collectively start a student-led podcast—Available on multiple platforms – in which they work collaboratively on Zoom, having meaningful conversations about resilient practices studied throughout the semester in our course. This assessment, inclusive and supportive of student growth, offers a flexible deadline. Creating podcast episodes as a team allows students to have the socialization they need while providing an authentic experience for their listeners. Students are each responsible for their own episode, but each team supports each other in their discussion-based conversations, and part of their overall individual score is based on how supportive their colleagues are in the process. Students report that they do not feel alone and feel invested in their teams since they have built relationships by working together for several weeks. To our surprise, the Fall 2020 students who worked on this podcast received the Interdisciplinary Award for the First Year Seminar Symposium from the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Hartford. In the future, students enrolled in my current and future freshman seminary courses will add to this podcast. While this project has some built-in adaptability, as this project progresses I want to instill more flexibility and provide multiple avenues for collecting evidence of learning.

Additionally, I started offering different delivery options for the same assessment and also offered different assessment methods for the same assignment. The only question that keeps me on track when reviewing the assessment is: Is this assessment still consistent with the learning objectives? As long as the learning goals and the new assessment are in sync, I make the changes.

A simple change is to offer different delivery options for the same assessment. In keeping with my intention to remain flexible and compassionate with students, providing them with choices as to how they submit the assignment may be the flexibility some students need to be successful. For example, when I assign small groups the task of creating slideshows using a shared document, I can give students a choice of how they will present their presentations. Groups can view the presentation on the discussion board with audio, present live to their class on a web conferencing platform, or only present the presentation to the instructor during office / student hours online. Providing these simple choices creates the freedom to deliver their presentation in a way that works best based on the preferences of each group.

When we offer a whole class exam, we are unintentionally assessing the talents expressed by that particular assessment method. Instead, we can create a menu of assessment options all aligned with the same goals and learning objectives, allowing students to choose the format in which their strengths will shine. Here are some ways to get creative with reviews:

  • Conversational reviews
  • Word Problems and Solutions eBook
  • Photography, works of art, poetry, sets of non-fictional texts of great interest
  • Infographics and posters leading to a virtual symposium on shared documents
  • Movies / Vlog, podcasts, blog posts
  • A mid-semester assessment that assesses student needs
  • Final spoken thoughts
  • Writing conferences via shared documents
  • Videos created by students of themselves speaking through their thought processes

Instead of the usual bulletin boards, I ask students to get creative on Canva by creating infographics, posters, and even eBooks that can be saved as PDFs. Some students chose to create a blog post or Vlog instead of a poster. The students appreciated the choice and the creative aspects of the project. Giving students options will engage them and empower them to succeed. However, in order to support our students and make educational changes to our teaching practices, we need to be at our best and take care of ourselves.

A daily practice of well-being and personal care

One of the gifts of the pandemic has shown us that we need to take more substantial care of ourselves in order to show ourselves fully in the world. After reflecting on my struggles to achieve this, I implemented a Basic Wellness Daily Practice highlighting areas that will help me be the best of myself. I have learned that when I integrate these practices into my daily life, only then can I show myself fully for my students and for myself.

This year, I hydrate and rest more, move my body every day, preferably outdoors, and eat more vegetables and less sugar. These seem simple and straightforward and what most of us try to do. However, following them daily with intention was intense on some days – I realized I was sitting in my chair all day teaching and writing, barely taking a sip of water and never setting aside five minutes for one. stretch in fresh air.

I also started a practice in which I track down my best time of day – even our worst days have a brilliant time. This practice led to creating a happy list, a list of what I love to do. Some of the items on the list are from my best times of the day and some are what I love but rarely do. According to my happy list, I should find ways to kayak, climb mountains, and walk beaches. Glancing through the list every day helps me plan my time and reminds me of what’s possible even on tough days.

My last daily practice revolves around self-compassion, which is all about giving myself permission to be human and having realistic expectations for myself. It’s about showing up and doing my best, which changes from day to day. It is also recognizing that taking two steps forward and one step back is part of our humanity; we are not machines. I realize that self-compassion is necessary for me to cultivate more compassion for the learners in my class. Sharing these practices, especially self-compassion, with students shows deep care for them.

High levels of self-compassion are linked to optimism and gratitude. My hope is that we enjoy the small, ordinary moments and remain optimistic about our teaching practices – reflecting, reinventing and refining during these ever-changing times.


Julie Sochacki, JD, is Clinical Associate Professor of English and Director of the Secondary Education Program in English at the University of Hartford. Julie is a lifelong learner and has been experimenting with active and collaborative learning in the classroom for 26 years. Follow Julie on Twitter: @profjulies or contact her at sochacki@hartford.edu.




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