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How to get your bearings during the first 3 weeks of school

Gene Kerns
August 13, 2020

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

In today's column, Gene Kerns, chief academic officer at Renaissance Learning, offers advice on how teachers can navigate students through the first few weeks and get them on track for success. 

The next academic year will be the year of interim and formative assessment more than any other. Schools will go an unprecedented two years without summative data, and educators will have a heightened desire to know how students are performing and to what degree they experienced the “COVID-19 slide.”

Students’ academic status at the beginning of any school year always varies, but given the unusual nature of this past spring, teachers will see an even greater diversity of abilities and skills, along with larger gaps that will include skills that don’t typically need much review.

So how can educators quickly and efficiently fill those gaps and get their students up to speed and ready to tackle a new academic year? One solid strategy is to identify the foundational skills among those gaps and help students acquire those skills first.

Identifying Skills to Focus on

As long as standards have existed, teachers have intuitively known that there are absolutely essential skills commingled with secondary skills. This summer is a great time for them to dig in and identify exactly which skills in their subject, their grade level, and the prior grade are critical to accelerating learning and closing learning gaps. These Focus Skills serve as prerequisites for future learning and tend to be transferable, helping students to achieve success in adjacent domains and subjects.

Take, for example, state standards requiring students to learn to associate particular sounds with letters. It’s a very important early phonics lesson, and if students don’t master it, they’ll be held back in literacy indefinitely. That’s a skill educators can focus on to help students make the quickest, most enduring, and transferrable progress.

On the other hand, a standard requiring students to compare and contrast different versions of the same story is a nice lesson to learn, but nothing terrible is going to happen to a student’s academic career if they miss it. It’s not a prerequisite for future learning. In fact, it’s something students are likely to figure out on their own if they’ve mastered the more fundamental skills.

The law of the vital few, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that about 80% of results come from about 20% of causes. When it comes to learning, these critical skills comprise 20% of skills standards that deliver 80% of results.

Assessing and Practicing

Once teachers have identified the key skills their students are likely to have missed, the next step is assessing their students’ understanding of those skills and delivering resources and practice opportunities aligned to them. Searching for the standard’s name in Khan Academy, Curriki, or any of the other sites that host open educational resources should turn up plenty of helpful material.

PD for the Post-COVID Push

Clearly this fall is going to be a bit different from the typical beginning of the school year, which means some professional development is going to be in order to ensure teachers are prepared to best support their students. To take advantage of these foundational skills, teachers are going to need two things:

  1. Training in content knowledge, particularly around those critical skills from their students’ previous grade; and 
  2. Assessment capacity.

In an ideal situation, key skills will be tied to specific instructional and assessment resources -- ways to teach them and ways to check for understanding. If teachers have both knowledge of the most important skills and the ability to check for understanding of them, they’ll be well positioned to meet any need.

Rearranging, Regrouping, Reteaming, and Re-Pairing

Some flexibility in scheduling and grouping may help students make up ground quickly this fall -- and will help teachers address critical skills that are not in their typical curriculum. Maybe it’s as simple as pairing teachers with their colleagues teaching the same subject the year before for professional development or team lesson-planning. Maybe, for the first few weeks, students could be grouped by the skills they missed last year, according to assessment data. Foundational skills tend to cluster. There is a preponderance of critical literacy skills in first grade, while math’s key skills tend to be more concentrated around ninth grade, so in some schools, the answer may be to have classrooms with multiple grades represented for at least the first few weeks.

Exactly what this looks like is going to vary, depending upon the school, the subject, the grade, and, of course, what the assessment data suggests, but a bit of additional flexibility in how students are grouped may go a long way toward getting students back on track.

Starting with Social-Emotional Learning

Talking about Focus Skills, assessment, professional development, and how it all comes together for a big push to get kids on track early in the year may feel a little clinical and even distanced from the students themselves. But students are, of course, at the center of everything we do as educators, and their social and emotional wellbeing is key to their academic success.

With that in mind, it’s important to ease into assessment this fall, despite the real and reasonable sense of urgency about pinpointing and addressing learning gaps. Consider giving students two or three weeks before you dive into screening so that they can become accustomed to new routines.

With the staggered schedules -- or continued distance learning -- fall may bring and the already significant time students have spent away from school, this fall may be a good time to invest a little more energy in community-building exercises such as the 1, 2, 3, 4 math problem.

CASEL’s Three Signature Strategies -- 1) welcoming or inclusion activities; 2) engaging strategies, brain breaks, and transitions; and 3) optimistic closures -- are effective techniques for building socially and emotionally healthy classrooms in person or online. Even independent reading helps students develop social-emotional competencies, because reading about experiences activates our brains as if we are having those experiences ourselves. Giving kids a little extra time with a book may not feel like the most pressing need this fall, but if it helps them develop the grit to persevere through a pandemic or the empathy to help their peers through one, it may prove to be a prerequisite to any academic skill you can name.

Dr. Gene Kerns (@GeneKerns) is the chief academicoOfficer at Renaissance, which is offering a free Focus Skills resource center. He is a third-generation educator and has served as a public-school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. He has trained and consulted internationally and is the co-author of three books. He can be reached at gene.kerns@renaissance.com.

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