Elise Catalano, Cooperative Middle School 7th Grade Teacher
If you were to ask me for the past 27 years what has been the priority for each year of teaching, I would, without hesitation, tell you, “relationships and mathematics!” No, neither would take priority over the other. They would work in tandem. I would provide rich, meaningful mathematical tasks and develop relationships with middle level learners as they would grapple and most importantly, succeed with those tasks. I always thought these two priorities happened in tandem. Until this year.
We all know what makes this year so dramatically different. Students had such varying experiences last year; some students were remote all year, some were in the classroom all year, and yet others were hybrid. There will be students entering my classroom who have not entered a school building since March 14, 2020. Nearly 18 months ago. EIGHTEEN MONTHS ago. I know for certain there are students who thrived learning at home; those who could focus solely on academics and did not have to worry about the social aspects of school. They would eagerly participate in Zoom chats and in breakout rooms without turning on their camera. They would share how they solved a proportional reasoning problem with confidence without worrying about who they would sit with on the bus or at lunch.
As we all know, there were also students who struggled with remote learning and eventually were able to return to in-person learning. Those who thrive with structure and social connections anxiously returned to the classroom only to find that the in-person or hybrid model was not a typical classroom experience. Most of my students who were in person for all or part of last year were there under very unique circumstances. They were seated six feet, then three feet apart, giving a very different structure to collaborative learning and “six inch voices”. Special care was taken when using manipulatives; many times, students were given their own sets and could not share. Throughout most of the year, students ate lunch in their classrooms and had assigned seats on their bus. They had few opportunities for making social decisions and connections.
As I prepare for this school year, I know I will need to retrain, not reinforce, my students’ ability to work collaboratively, in person. I am fortunate that teachers in my district develop collaborative and cooperative learners. Students who come into my seventh grade math classroom typically know and understand group roles. This year, I feel as though I will have to explicitly reteach these roles once again. They may need to relearn how to listen, take turns while talking, respectfully disagree, and provide feedback to each other. To help facilitate this, I will begin this year with cooperative activities such as “100 Numbers to Get Students Talking” (Sara Van Der Werf, https://www.saravanderwerf.com/100-numbers-to-get-students-talking/).
As I read other articles and blogs about preparing for the upcoming school year, I get frustrated as I read, over and over, the term “loss of learning”. I understand students have not had traditional school in the past eighteen months; however, they did not “lose learning”. Students may have lost traditional instructional time, but many have gained skills they would otherwise not have learned. They have learned resilience and empathy. They learned to advocate for themselves. This led me to think, “what hasn’t changed?” They are still young adolescents. They are searching for their identities and developing independence. They are beginning to think long term and set goals for themselves. They are still middle school students.
Reflecting on the previous 18 months and my previous first school days, I understand that my priority will actually be exactly the same as it always has been. In retrospect, I realize I have put the priority on relationships with students by creating relationships first before focusing on learning mathematics. We know that students will learn in an environment where they feel safe and valued. It begins with the moment students walk into my classroom. I will continue to warmly greet them and let them know I am excited they will be learning math with me this year. I will introduce myself and ask them to tell me about themselves. I will go to their football games, plays, gymnastic meets, and piano recitals. I will get to know their families and learn about their pets. I will create connections with students to foster the best possible learning environment.
Yes, this coming year is unlike any others. The only difference is that this year, unlike others, I know my priority will be relationships before mathematics. I believe, as Dr. Brad Johnson (@DrBradJohnson) so eloquently states, “Relationships Before Rigor, Grace Before Grades, Patience Before Programs, Love Before Lessons.” I understand now that relationships definitely come before learning can occur. I think I always knew that; now, it is more evident than ever.