Teaching Through Uncertainty: How One Educator Supports Students’ Academic and Social-Emotional Needs
This blog post is part of a series profiling educators’ experiences teaching throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Hear from 1st-grade teacher Michelle Webb and intervention specialist Pamela Kral.
As a veteran turned lawyer turned fourth-grade teacher, LayToya Herring thrives under pressure. So when the pandemic hit last year, she was ready to pivot. “In the Army, things always change, you never know what’s going to happen,” she says. “I’ve always liked the uncertainty. I’m a pretty flexible person, and it feels good to be challenged.” Still, even for a seasoned pro like LayToya, teaching through change and uncertainty has thrown plenty of curveballs. She’s needed to find new ways to differentiate, boost student engagement, and support social-emotional needs in both a remote and hybrid learning environment. How has she been able to address these needs, even as where, what, and how she teaches changes almost every day? In this post, you’ll learn more about the many ways LayToya has adapted amid uncertainty, and how Easel by TpT™’s digital tools have helped her respond to change.
Managing fluctuating attendance during hybrid learning
LayToya started the 2020-2021 school year with a diverse group of 25 remote students. However, as the school year has progressed, her class makeup has fluctuated regularly. Not only has her class size shrunk to 15 since the start of the year, LayToya’s class is often the go-to for extra students when their teachers are sent home to quarantine. Altogether, this ultimately means that, in any given week, LayToya may be teaching her virtual class of 15 students, or she might be teaching both in-person and virtual students, sometimes across several grade levels.
How has LayToya managed this frequent fluctuation in her class makeup and routine? LayToya notes that one secret to her mixed classroom success is Easel by TpT. Using Easel’s suite of flexible digital tools, educators like LayToya are able to adapt their resources for all the ways they teach. Easel empowers educators to create custom, interactive digital activities from resources on TpT or their own original materials with tools like digital annotations, text boxes, movable shapes, and more.
“Easel has made it super easy for me to prepare for anything,” says LayToya. “Today I was planning on using an Easel Activity, and when I got some in-person students, I was able to just print it off in PDF form, to make it work for the in-person students, too. And when other students get sent home to quarantine and they need to join a virtual classroom, it’s so easy to just add them to the Easel Activity we’re already doing.”
In any classroom, but in LayToya’s hybrid class especially, differentiated teaching is critical for student success. When she receives students from other grades, those students must join in on whatever topic her fourth grade class is learning about. But thanks to Easel Activities, those students can still learn at their own level. “If I’m teaching the Underground Railroad and I get a second-grader or a fifth- or sixth-grader for the day, they’re going to learn about the Underground Railroad with us,” she says. “I’m just going to go find something on Easel Activities that’s on their level. That way, they’re able to answer questions at their level and experience some success.” Better yet, sometimes the Easel Activity she’s using with her class already includes resources for multiple grade levels, meaning that LayToya doesn’t even have to go searching for another activity for the new student.
Easel Activities also help LayToya differentiate her reading comprehension lessons for a range of reading levels. For example, she’ll use the highlighting tool to color code comprehension questions for various reading levels, add hints in the margins with the text tool, or circle key ideas with the pen tool for the students who might need the extra help. That way, even a second-grade student is able to participate in her lesson that day.
“I don’t believe in just giving anybody the answer. You have to do some type of work to get it,” she says. “That way, the student has ownership in it. That’s why I love the Easel Activities tools. That pen tool is heaven-sent, because sometimes what I need to say or do isn’t available on the keyboard. And the shape tool helps me diagram sentences so I don’t have to draw messy circles with the pen.”
Boosting student engagement with interactive activities
When it comes to keeping students engaged in virtual learning, LayToya says Easel has been the most effective remote teaching platform by far. “You can’t teach the same way online that you teach in the classroom—you’re going to make them bored,” she explains. “Easel is very interactive, so it makes the students want to pay attention.”
The tools within Easel are completely intuitive, which means LayToya’s students were confident with Easel Activities immediately. LayToya’s school district purchased a different virtual platform, but the interface made it too challenging for her students to learn their way around. Comparatively, Easel’s digital tools made it even easier for students to interact with what they were learning. For example, when LayToya taught fractions and other math functions with Easel Activities, the pen tool helped them stay engaged and on track. “It’s nearly impossible to do long division with a keyboard,” she says. “Once you start having to tell students how to find symbols and things, you lose engagement, and it’s hard to bring them back in. With the pen tool, they can simply write it out and keep it moving.”
One of the engagement strategies she has also been able to employ using Easel is what she calls “be the teacher,” which involves designating one student at a time to read instructions aloud or circle the answers for the rest of the class. It’s been so popular with her students that she has to keep a rotation to ensure everyone gets a turn. “They want to present, so I don’t usually have problems with truancy or kids not wanting to turn on their cameras. Being the teacher makes them feel cool. They get a lot of ownership. There’s a built-in component of automatic success there for the students. Easel tools make them feel like, Okay, I really know this.”
An added bonus: Easel also preempts some of the accountability issues she used to encounter before the pandemic. “When I assign an Easel Activity, the timestamp feature means I know when my students turn it in,” she explains. “They can’t be like, ‘Well, I lost it.’ I love that.”
Using online activities to support students’ social-emotional needs
Perhaps the most daunting challenge LayToya and her colleagues have faced is the emotional uncertainty of not only a global pandemic, but massive economic hardships and unprecedented social and political turmoil, too. For teachers, helping students understand and articulate their own feelings about the major events shaping their world has always been part of the job. But with so much change happening so quickly, LayToya has had to adapt her lessons rapidly to account for new emotional data, sometimes on a daily basis.
“This past year has taught me to think outside of the box, so that I’m always able to make things happen,” she says. “When I come in in the morning, it’s with a much broader outlook: How am I going to keep students interested? I think of about three or four different ways to get through the day, based on various scenarios, because you just don’t know what’ll happen. You might plan to teach fractions, but then somebody’s parent passes from Covid, and we’re not teaching fractions — we’re doing something else.”
LayToya even uses Easel Activities to support her school district’s restorative justice practices. Instead of completing paper-based worksheets, Easel Activities focused on social-emotional learning help her students cope with whatever big feelings they might face. “Many of our students are coming from situations where they’ll be lucky to see a parent three hours a day,” she explains. So to give those students the extra in-school support they might need, “It’s good to have these activities to help guide them,” she says.
How Easel by TpT helps teachers adapt to changing classroom needs
Easel’s intuitive set of digital tools helps educators adapt during times of uncertainty. Here are a few ways Easel can help you teach in a changing educational environment:
1. Maintain flexibility in a changing teaching environment.
LayToya says having straightforward digital activities that are editable and compatible with Google Classroom™ has cut down on time she used to waste grappling with technical complications. Even if her district switches platforms, she can assign her Easel Activities to students in whatever format she needs, which keeps delivery to students simple and direct, no matter what.
2. Differentiate activities for students at all levels.
LayToya is able to customize her resources to fit her diverse, evolving classroom. Even younger students can participate in her reading comprehension lessons, thanks to annotation tools that allow her to identify appropriate passages, highlight key ideas, and add hints in the margins while she’s teaching.
3. Keep students engaged with simple, easy-to-use tools.
Easel’s tools — including text boxes, a pen, and movable manipulatives — help students stay focused and present during lessons and activities. Plus, Easel’s presentation mode allows LayToya to make lessons a team effort, which gives students the sense of ownership and accomplishment they need to succeed.
4. Provide timely feedback and empower students with timestamped submissions.
LayToya’s students can access their Easel activities from any internet-connected device, and LayToya can see when each student has started and completed an assignment, which she says helps her encourage accountability. Now, teachers can also view in-progress student work in Easel.
Overall, LayToya credits her success with students to her ability to work smarter, not harder. She stresses that teachers need to think in broader strokes, to ask colleagues for support, and to use tools that already exist rather than reinvent the educational wheel. “Don’t overwhelm yourself,” she says. What matters most, after all, isn’t who designed the lesson — it’s how LayToya delivers it: “As teachers, we all get pre-packaged curriculum, but we make it our own when we put our own spin on it.”
How Are You Using Easel?
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