We return this week to our home learning series, examining what playful teaching and learning look like during a time of prolonged school closures. That we are talking about play and playfulness during this global crisis doesn’t mean we don’t take the situation seriously. We are deeply saddened by the ongoing loss of life and continued toll this outbreak will take. Yet as educators who understand the value of learning through play, we feel a responsibility to help playful learning continue for the many children who are at home.
When the Eliot K-8 Innovation School in Boston, Massachusetts closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, teachers and staff banded together to prepare for an unprecedented transition to remote education. It was not an easy transition, but over the following months, teachers and students worked hard to settle into their new normal.
As remote learning kicked off, the Eliot School focused “phase 1” of the transition on providing social-emotional supports to their students. Above all, Traci Griffith – the Executive Director of the K-8 school – wanted to maintain students’ sense of community and connection to their school, and to ensure that regardless of their learning environment, students and teachers still embodied the Eliot’s guiding principles: to be responsible, respectful, safe, kind and inclusive.
This early focus has paid off: close to 100% of students are engaged in remote learning, a strong achievement as many other schools across the country cope with extremely low attendance in a remote learning environment. “Connecting with families and students in a personalized way is the lever,” Traci explains. “If you use and strengthen those relationships, if kids feel safe, they’ll work harder, ask good questions, and feel okay being vulnerable.”
While the Eliot school has had a lot of success in their transition to remote learning, there is one ongoing challenge that Traci says keeps her “up at night." This challenge is how to best serve the needs of their students with special rights, a term Traci prefers to use for its inclusiveness. Many students at the Eliot receive individualized services, such as English learners, high needs students, and students with disabilities. These are the students who are traditionally provided services such as speech therapy, applied behavioral analysis therapy, occupational therapy, or additional one-on-one support within the classroom.
In a remote learning environment, providing the one-on-one, individualized support and attention these students need is difficult for students and teachers alike. Schools across the country – and parents at home - have been grappling with this same problem, trying to provide the services these students are rightfully owed in a setting that makes teachers’ and specialists’ jobs even harder.
The Eliot School community has tackled that problem head-on, coming up with their own methods and best practices to answer the question: “What can we do to best support and engage all of our students in remote learning?” The answer teachers and staff have come up with is to establish a stable routine, get creative, and maintain a playful learning environment.
The impact of a disruption of routine and predictability on her students was a huge concern for Amanda Murphy, a third-grade teacher at the Eliot School. Right away, she focused on creating a predictable routine for her classroom. “I found it necessary to do the same thing at the same time every day,” Amanda notes. Her class day runs from 9am to 2pm, starting with a morning meeting to give students the opportunity to come together as a whole class.
Each Sunday, she sends out a message to set expectations for students and parents on what their weekly schedule will entail. She gives her students “confidence to take risks by using activities that are similar enough week to week.” Amanda’s students understand at the start of a new assignment what the length of the project will be and what the expectations are for how the work will be completed.
For students that need one-on-one support, Amanda prioritizes giving those students more face time with her by scheduling 20- or 30-minute individual or small group sessions throughout the week. She knows which of her students can be more independent in their work or have more supports available to them at home. So, when she can, Amanda dedicates her extra time to supporting the families of students who need the extra support and whose families may not have the capacity to support them with their schoolwork.
Traci encourages teachers to be just as mindful about the environment and setting for learning in a remote environment as teachers are in a physical classroom. For a boy in the upper school who has documented difficulty communicating, a whole-classroom video call was not the right environment for him to share his writing. But in a small group breakout room that Traci was in, this boy openly and enthusiastically shared the connections he was making between the ongoing pandemic and what he was reading in a fiction book about a different society. It is important, she emphasizes, to give students your individual time when possible and be purposeful about how you provide instruction remotely so that all students have access to an environment that makes them feel comfortable sharing their ideas.
Phase 1 of transitioning to on-line learning also meant ensuring equitable access to materials for students at home. This meant getting reliable internet access for students without. It meant pooling community resources to distribute materials and manipulatives such as writing instruments, LEGO bricks, magnet tiles, and paper. And in the cases where delivering materials for a lesson wasn’t feasible, it meant getting creative with the way a lesson was delivered to ensure students didn’t require extensive supplies to access the material.
Speech therapists put together social groups where students come together for a “lunch bunch” to eat and just talk about different topics. They build together and talk through the process, and watch videos and re-tell stories about the videos. Given that students have limited and varied access to materials, occupational therapists get creative with just a paper and a marker. Capturing and sustaining students’ attention is key, so even when the materials don’t change, specialists try to refrain from repeating the same task over and over to keep engagement high.
Amanda also finds herself thinking about her lessons through a lens of creativity. How can her students access a math lesson on area and perimeter in a fun, creative way? The answer Amanda and her team came up with was to have them design their dream bedrooms. On Amanda’s classroom FlipGrid – a space where students can post pictures and videos of the work they’ve done in the classroom – students posted a video of them sharing their dream bedroom design and talking about them with pride.
But students weren’t just having fun – they were engaging deeply in critical thinking. One student wanted to add a circular jacuzzi to his room but wasn’t sure how to find the area of a circle. He wrote a note to his teacher asking how to do it. Students were so engaged with the project that Traci shared it in the school’s weekly newsletter, as a shining example of how teachers can be creative with their lessons in a way that allows students to drive their own learning.
While maintaining connection and routine were important for the early stages of this transition, Amanda and Traci both note that the key to sustaining engagement in this environment is playful learning. Amanda says that making online learning playful does two important things for her students. First, it builds connection: “[Our classroom meets] as a group for academics, but we also meet for many other things,” Amanda notes. During one morning meeting, after her class has five minutes of designated “free talk” time, the class all watched a YouTube video of a family giving a tutorial on how to draw ice cream cones, and the students and Amanda all drew ice cream cones together. For Amanda, this type of connection is important for building community outside of academic work.
Traci also leans on playful moments to builds up a sense of larger school community. On a Friday while giving shout-outs to the members of the school community doing amazing work, Traci filmed and shared a video of herself and her two kids doing a dance together. Modeling these playful moments for members of her school is important to her, because she believes it builds community not just with students but with families. “If families don’t feel connected to their school, if they feel they can’t reach out, problems are exacerbated,” Traci explains. Building community gets ahead of these problems, by creating an environment that feels safe and fun for everyone at the school, at a time where feelings of safety and joy may be hard to come by.
When asked what advice she would give to other teachers and school leaders struggling with the transition to helping all their students in a remote learning environment, Traci has one message she would like to share:
“What I learn almost every day is it’s not about perfection, it’s about connection. The connections you have with students and families as educators, that’s the most important part of any successful remote learning environment."
Samantha is a former member of the PoP research team and a current Research Associate at the American Institutes for Research. In her research, she is particularly interested in the ways that schools support the mental, physical and emotional well-being of teachers and students in the classroom (remote or otherwise).