This case study describes the experiences of a fifth-grade special education teacher in New York City as she works to support her students’ basic and social-emotional needs—as well as their need for academic process during distance learning. She reflects on her experience and specific strategies, and she describes her classroom’s transformative experience during a unit on poetry.
I teach in an urban public school in New York City in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 38 percent of our students are English language learners, with more than 10 different home languages represented. Twenty percent of our students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Members of the school community face many challenges, including food security, housing, and immigration issues. Our school is a resource not only for academic development, but for the community as a whole. We embrace the learning needs of all students. We work in a climate of respect for all children and adults in the school community, with explicit support for social and emotional growth. To support students in attending school and succeeding, we address the needs of the whole family.
Within school, students learn a set of social and emotional skills and a set of academic skills. These include academic mindset, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors. We use the Responsive Classroom approach to create safe, challenging, and joyful classrooms to support our students as individuals. All of our learning has both a social-emotional and academic component, with individualized instruction and support to meet the unique needs of our students.
Within school, students learn a set of social and emotional skills and a set of academic skills including, academic mindset, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors. We use the Responsive Classroom approach to creating safe, challenging, and joyful classrooms to support our students as individuals. All of our learning has both a social-emotional and academic component, individualized instruction and support in order to meet the unique needs of our students.
“During these challenging times, finding ways to use academics as a further support of social-emotional growth is something we should all strive for, no matter what age or content we teach.”
Addressing Basic Needs
When the COVID-19 pandemic led us to distance learning, our teachers had to think about how the support we were providing for families and students would transition to a virtual world. The New York City public school system has provided technology (an iPad or laptop) to each family, as well as daily meals that accommodate varied dietary restrictions. Our staff tirelessly supports parents in using the technology and in accessing food and other communal resources. On the surface, we knew our students’ physical needs were provided for. But the lack of proximity seemed like a great barrier to supporting the vitally important relationships we’ve built with them. Children learn when they feel successful in their efforts and have positive relationships at school. Our school promotes a climate of respect and appreciation for individual and cultural diversity in all forms. So how does that translate?
Translating Our Social and Emotional Practices to Distance Learning
Certain social-emotional practices have sustained the transition to distance learning. For example, having a daily morning meeting where each child has a voice and is welcomed into the community has not changed. We have not missed a day of morning meeting, and our students know that their concerns, fears, and worries are heard. We have supported students through losses of family members, confusion about their health, and concerns about going outside. Even though we’re not there in person, we come together digitally to support each other.
However, other practices have altered drastically. Our lessons have varied from synchronous live learning to asynchronous pre-recorded lessons with supports for English language learners and students with disabilities. For example, all written content and teacher feedback provided is also read aloud to allow greater access for students with language barriers. Lessons are recorded to allow students to practice a skill as many times as necessary to reach mastery. Like teachers across the world, we’re learning as we go. But we never forget our goal of meeting students’ social-emotional needs while meeting their academic needs.
Social and Emotional Learning Through Academic Content in the Time of COVID-19
One example of this unique blend of balancing social and emotional learning with academic content lies in my fifth-grade poetry unit. To be honest, poetry was never my favorite genre to teach. It was something we did toward the end of the year, after we’d delved deeply into other genres with rich, interdisciplinary, project-based learning units. Poetry didn’t have that. We read amazing poems by influential authors. We wrote poems. And then we moved on.
COVID-19 has changed that. Asking a student to reflect on tone and mood during this time has opened great conversations about what it feels like to be stuck inside, to be powerless, and to be scared. We’re giving them another outlet to express themselves—and the results have been mind-blowing. Students have delved deep into themselves. They’ve written poems that truly express themselves in ways that I had not been able to access when we were in our traditional setting. We’ve seen success from students who were not traditionally successful due to varying cognitive, linguistic, or emotional barriers.
At times, we’ve involved other team members, such as the school social worker, in reflecting on the content of the students’ poems. We recognize that some students just need an outlet and for their voices to be heard. Others are struggling with significant trauma and concerns, and we’ve used the appropriate channels to support that.
To make sure all of my students can participate, I differentiate content, presentation styles, and product, just as I did in the traditional classroom. I use model poems on a reading level accessible to different students. All my presentations and lessons have a visual and auditory component to support different learning styles. Lastly, graphic organizers and other learning supports allow students with varying academic and linguistic needs to access and complete the assignments.
Students have used this poetry unit as a healthy outlet while engaging in rich academic content. Their reading analysis skills have increased as they contemplate how poets might have felt and why they chose that particular language. Their writing skills have developed as they utilize figurative language and rhythm, and reflect on peer and staff feedback. Yet the core of the unit remains an emotional support for our students during this challenging time. While combining Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Bloom’s taxonomy of educational learning objectives, we have achieved our goal of supporting the whole child as a learner and as a human.
What we learned/big takeaway
Something that we strive for as educators has become clarified due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When students feel safe and engaged emotionally, their academic growth will follow. Especially during these challenging times, finding ways to use academics as a further support of social-emotional growth is something we should all strive for, no matter what age or content we teach.
What we are still figuring out
This concept is easier to apply to some content areas than to others. For reading and writing, you can tailor the books you’re reading and the writing tasks to match your social-emotional goal. For social studies, you can focus on the voices of individuals and think about how they might have felt, using challenging times in history to develop empathy and understand emotions. Applying the concept to math or science might be harder, but I believe there is a way.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
If you focus on the child as a whole, making these academic shifts will be natural and necessary throughout the year, not just during COVID-19.