What to Expect When We Return to the Classroom

By Patti Drapeau, author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation and Diane Heacox, Ed.D., author of Making Differentiation a Habit: How to Ensure Success in Academically Diverse Classrooms (Updated Edition)

What to Expect When We Return to the ClassroomWhen we all return to school, we know there will be changes for both teachers and students after the months of online learning. We can expect students to have lost a significant amount of learning during school closures. In addition, the experiences students had with well-designed and engaging online learning changed them as learners. These remote learning experiences will likely affect students in both positive and negative ways, and as a result, teachers won’t be able to simply push the reset button and go back to how school was. We’ll have to do school differently. By looking at the positives and negatives of online learning, teachers can predict possible adjustments to make when everyone returns to the classroom.

Let’s first look at the students who have been successful with online learning. Consider these positives:

  • Students have more control over the pace of their learning. If they want to go deeply into something, they can. If they want to move quickly through content at a surface level, they can. Students like that their time is not broken up with a bell system.
  • With asynchronous learning, students feel even more in control of their learning. There is no teacher standing over them telling them what to do when. They have a choice about how they want to organize their time. Students feel a sense of independence.
  • In many schools, there is less emphasis on grading. Some students thrive without the pressure of grades. In a number of schools, teachers are told not to grade the work and use the pass-fail option.
  • For some students with problems staying on task, online learning is an opportunity to be more focused because there is less face-to-face socialization and fewer opportunities for loss of focus.
  • Shy students or those with social anxiety who do not speak up in the classroom are more comfortable when they have more time to construct written responses rather than being rushed to respond verbally in a physical classroom. Plus, they are not overpowered by verbal students who often control classroom discussions. Online, shy students do not have to push themselves to be heard over the talkers in the class.
  • For students who have been bullied at school, home is a safe place to learn and engage with others.
  • Hyperactive learners can get up and move around as often as they want or need to. Unless they are involved in a synchronous class, they can control how long they work at the computer, can decide whether they work standing up or sitting down, and can allow themselves distractions that teachers might not allow in the classroom.

What can we conclude from these positives that will inform our future instruction? In the classroom, students who are easily sidetracked will work with teachers to discuss ways to eliminate distractions and provide greater focus. Teachers who conduct primarily discussion-based classes should allow students to opt out of discussions and choose a writing option or another way to exhibit their mastery of content. Teachers will need to find ways to allow for more movement in their classrooms. Students who were able to learn at their own pace in online learning will have difficulty being told they can no longer learn at their own pace (at least to some degree) when they return to the classroom. Teachers should allow longer and shorter amounts of time, without needing all students to stop and start working at the same time. Teachers can offer some pass-fail options or engage students in choosing how they want to be graded. Encourage students to self-assess and grade themselves some of time too. Students have experienced control, choice, and independence during online learning, and they will not want this taken away. Teachers must find ways to include more student autonomy when making decisions about what and how to engage students in learning. Due to an increased range of learning resulting from remote learning, differentiation will be more necessary than ever!

When we take a look at what has not worked for students learning at home, we might find information that will inform us of what not to do when we return to the classroom. The negatives include:

  • Students who lack writing skills are at a disadvantage when asked to only respond in writing.
  • Without preassessment or formative assessment in online learning, students may be engaged in rerun lessons rather than authentic new learning.
  • With no grading and only pass-fail options, students may lack the motivation to work hard. They may only do the minimum amount of work because they feel they can get by with doing less.
  • Parents may not know how to extend or enhance their students’ learning, so students may not have gone beyond what the teacher set up.
  • During online learning, relationships between students and their teachers and between students and their peers may have deteriorated. The community may have been broken.
  • There are many technology inequities that exist that make it difficult for a student to work remotely. In April 2020, over 10 million students in the United States did not have the technology to engage in online learning. Schools have been trying to rectify this situation in a variety of ways, but it has been a struggle. Even if there is a computer in the home and internet service, multiple children and their parents may share one computer.
  • The family dynamics may not support learning. The family situation may not be secure for many reasons, such as fear of physical safety, mental abuse, food insecurities, or lack of physical space in the home. Members of the family may not know how to help their students, may not have the time to help, or may not support education.
  • Some students are unfamiliar with different technology platforms and are not adept at flipping from one system at home and another at school. If students need tech assistance and there is none in the home, their productivity for the rest of the day will end.
  • When students are stuck, there is no one to ask for help. We see this particularly in math content. Parents either do not remember how to do advanced math or they feel they cannot “teach” math because they are not good at it.
  • There is no way of knowing who is really doing the online work. Parents could take over the projects or go too far in helping their child finish an assignment. Parents need to know how much help is too much help.

What can we conclude from these negatives? We will need to continue to build student-centered communities in our classrooms. We will need to pay more attention to technology skills because online learning in one form or another is not going away. All students need to be up to par with their technology abilities commensurate with their age. Students need to feel comfortable knowing when to ask for help and who to ask. A system needs to be in place in the classroom to make sure this happens in a timely fashion. Teachers must discuss with students what grades mean, how they are determined, and what is fair. If we want students to buy into a grading system, they need to understand how it works. We have to pay attention to students’ learning preferences, readiness needs, and strengths and limitations. Educators must engage in ongoing assessment and take students from where they are to new learning. Teachers must differentiate more often and make sure they allow for a variety of response and product forms. When work goes home, parents need to understand when they should and should not help their child.

When students and teachers return to their classrooms, instruction should not look the same. There will be a stronger need for significant differentiation to occur. Teachers must develop an effective management system to keep track of who needs what and when. Technology must be integrated into instruction because students have been relying on it for learning during school closures.

Teachers can take advantage of the power of technology to help students learn. Consider the use of a hybrid model combining online and in-class experiences. Empower students with more choice, voice, and control, and encourage their independence for successful transition from total online learning back to classroom learning.

Denny, Gina. “6 Classroom Changes Teachers Will Make When Schools Reopen.” Education Week, May 18, 2020.

Ferlazo, Larry. “We Might Have Gotten Remote Learning Wrong. We Can Still Fix This School Year.” Education Week, May 13, 2020.

Fleming, Nora. “Why Are Some Kids Thriving During Remote Learning?Edutopia, April 24, 2020.

Horn, Michael B. “Seven Steps for Districts Navigating to Remote Learning.” Educational Leadership, Volume 77, 28–31.

Kettner-Thompson, Rachael. “If You Build It Will They Come?Teachers Going Gradeless, May 9, 2020.

Minahan, Jessica. “Maintaining Connections, Reducing Anxiety While School is Closed.” Educational Leadership, Volume 77, 22–27.

Patti DrapeauPatti Drapeau (pattidrapeau.com) is an internationally active educational consultant, author, and presenter, with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Patti conducts keynote sessions as well as short- and long-term workshops in the United States and abroad. She commonly presents on the following topics: differentiation, creativity, engagement, gifted education, student empowerment, and personalized learning.

Patti is the founder of Patti Drapeau Educational Consulting Services and has received the New England Region Gifted and Talented award for outstanding contributions in gifted education and the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented award for exemplary service. Patti coached programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, Explorer Vision, and math teams. She also developed a curriculum model for the regular classroom called “Affective Perspectives: Combining Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Affect,” and authored a variety of articles for the Maine Exchange, Teaching Matters, and Understanding Our Gifted. Her other books include Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving, Differentiating with Graphic Organizers: Tools to Foster Critical and Creative Thinking, Differentiated Instruction: Making It Work, and Great Teaching with Graphic Organizers.

Patti currently works as a consultant and she is a part-time faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine.

Inspiring Student EmpwermentPatti is the author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation.

Diane HeacoxDiane Heacox, Ed.D., is a consultant and professional development trainer focusing on strategies to increase learning success for all students. She is professor emerita at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a national and international consultant and professional development trainer to both public and private schools on a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. Dr. Heacox has taught at both elementary and secondary school levels and has served as a gifted education teacher and administrator, as well as an instructional specialist in public education.

Dr. Heacox was recognized by the Minnesota Educators of Gifted and Talented as a Friend of the Gifted for service to gifted education. She is also in the University of St. Thomas Educators Hall of Fame for her contributions to the field of education.

Free Spirit books by Diane Heacox:

Differentiation For Gifted LearnersDifferentiating Instruction in the Regular ClassroomMaking Differentiation A Habit

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