Our students and teachers are struggling with the traumas and ongoing change created by COVID-19. Now more than ever, whether through in-person or remote instruction, we know that teachers need to solidly connect with their students. Part of that relationship connection is shaped through what teachers ask students to learn. The stakes have never been higher for curricular content. But, even while the coronavirus destabilizes, teachers can grab onto their tried and true “best practices.”
One teaching method that guarantees vibrant content is called project-based learning or “PBL,” a model that compels students with real-world and personally meaningful projects. Some educators think PBL, with its emphasis on student voice and choice, is now finding its peak moment, calling students to action in an unpredictable world. Using PBL, a middle school math teacher might challenge students to show the exponential growth of the virus by using the real case numbers reported in their town. Or, a social studies teacher might ask students to keep a diary of changes in their neighborhoods, and, after exploring the class collection of these primary sources, determine who in their communities might most need assistance.
Joel Lookadoo, 2020 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, loves the PBL mindset and often uses real-world applications when teaching math. He commented, “Authentic problems engage kids by providing relevance and creating excitement around learning content.” Lookadoo often tapped everyday situations when he hosted portions of “Arkansas AMI,” Arkansas PBS’ at-home learning program delivered through broadcast last spring. Reaching out to students through their TV screens, Lookadoo slipped fraction instruction into cooking recipes and taught ratios by showing kids how to create scale drawings for rooms in their homes.
In humble service of teachers, ArkansasIDEAS releases “Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts: Authentic Reading and Writing,” a new course with PBL unit ideas for English and language arts teachers in middle and high schools. The course activities, which utilize Annenberg Learner recordings of master classroom teachers, highlight various examples of authentic reading and writing projects. While the classrooms were filmed in pre-COVID times with closely-huddled groups, the content still models spot-on relevancy.
In one lesson, viewers follow a sports journalist who documents the youth skateboard culture of an Apache reservation. This segment may be shown in the classroom so that kids learn from the interview techniques. Students may use the supplied handout guide to investigate how local athletes are adapting their play and attitudes to COVID-19 precautions.
In another lesson, a teacher demonstrates how she motivated students to create podcasts for a program loosely modeled after the radio program "This American Life." Students need to voice their experiences coping with the COVID-19 world, and perhaps a spin-off podcast, “This Pandemic Life,” might be the perfect venue.
The power of poetry and personal expression is tapped in another segment in which a creative writing teacher takes a deep dive into poems about names and identity, some of which portray heavy personal struggles. The teacher then motivates students to write original poems that express their identities. Beyond literary craft, this lesson offers possibilities for students to validate who they are in the current crisis, and the practice of poetry has been shown to offer coping and healing benefits. What greater life lesson is there than how to move through a hard time and come out knowing oneself better?
About the Author:
Stacy Pendergrast, an education and instruction specialist for Arkansas PBS /ArkansasIDEAS, has enjoyed more than three decades of teaching. She has taught all levels of students from pre-school through college.