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Back-to-School 2020/2021: Sneakers or Slippers

Back-to-school 2020!

I had this flash vision of what a back-to-school ad for the 2020 school year might look like. In my vision, the ad featured a girl with straight hair wearing a blue medical mask and digital images of all the supplies needed-notebooks, pens, crayons, sneakers, erasers, dry erase boards, backpacks, calculators, etc. However, when I googled “back to school ads 2020”, there were very few ads featuring any back-to-school hype. The two that did come up, Target and Kohl’s featured digital images of supplies, but no masks. What might this tell us about the upcoming school year? I mean it is almost August and most of us in education still don’t know if we will need new sneakers or a pajama top that looks professional enough for a zoom meeting, google hangout, skype session, Microsoft meet, or other virtual video conference platform.

Regardless of which supplies we will be purchasing for the 2020/2021 school year, we will be going back to school. Although it may not look like it has for the vast majority of us, school will be in session and our hope is that teachers will be able to support the needs of their students and students will be able to connect with their teachers and classmates once again. What school will look like keeps me up at night. I wonder, how will I support all my students? How will I ensure their social-emotional needs are being met? What will I do to keep them engaged? How will I encourage hope, develop empathy, teach content, ensure they learn both the skills needed, as well as the content needed? How will I focus on their assets and strengths rather than their deficits?

While there are a plethora of lenses from which to discuss this topic, I want to focus on an assets-based and strengths-based approach to the 2020/2021 school year rather than a deficits-based and deficiency-based approach to learning and teaching.

One way schools can work towards an asset-based approach is by developing a plan to ensure high-quality relationships are the foundation of their virtual classrooms. During the relationship-building and connection-building process, students and teachers can share a sense of mutuality. By mutuality I mean teachers and students learn and grow from and with each other; this requires teachers to be open to learning from their students. It is critical to be open to hearing about and learning from the diverse experiences of students as the point of departure for learning.

Not only that, mutuality within the context of the relationship coupled with the aspect of culture and identity may provide the teacher and the student with a sense of feeling seen and heard. In order to recognize and honor the assets of others, we must learn to hear their stories. Like the physical classroom environment, teachers must create learning and sharing opportunities for their students so that the teacher and the students can learn about one another. It is important that students feel included and seen. Teachers may have to critically reflect and be critically aware of the ways in which they silence or encourage inclusion.

Schools could benefit from moving away from the deficit approach and focus more attention on building upon the assets that students bring to the virtual classroom in order to improve virtual learning. The shift from a deficit approach to what students or teachers are lacking an asset approach in which teachers and learners are honored for the unique gifts that they contribute to the classroom learning environment. This is a critical component of teaching and learning.

So, to all my teacher friends, parents, administrators, students, and the general public who are concerned about the upcoming school year being virtual, I ask you to consider how the chosen approach to teaching and learning needs to shift in order to identify the assets our students are bringing to virtual discussions. Focus on students’ needs rather than technical skills such as how to conjugate the verb “comer” correctly in the preterit tense, for example.

Students can flourish in a virtual environment! While it is not the “normal” they once knew, we have the opportunity to show off our skills as adaptable problem solvers, relational leaders, and positive organizational leaders during this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous time (VUCA).

By: Kristina Van Winkle

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