By Amber Chandler
I’ve written quite a bit about pandemic gains like increased responsibility, social awareness, and empathy amongst children because I hated the constant buzz about “pandemic learning loss.” It wasn’t like I thought things were going to be fine when the entire world shut down and students were away from the safe haven of predictability that school provides. I knew that my Google Meets, though specifically designed to be interactive and engaging, were actually competing with gaming, texting, and the like, so learning wasn’t going to be what it was pre-pandemic. Nevertheless, I wasn’t too worried. Kids would bounce back, as they always have. I’ve cited the many other disruptions that have impacted students through the years: major weather events, wars, and other health crises.
Yet, here I am, trying to figure out how to prepare my 8th graders for the rigor of high school when they were in elementary school when their worlds were turned upside down. If you aren’t familiar with the world of middle school, it is important to look at the vast growth physically, socially, and emotionally that occurs between entering 6th grade and leaving 8th grade. My own son grew 5 inches and 40 pounds one year, another 2 inches the next and lost the same 40 pounds, netting him 7 inches taller with the same weight as he was to start. He went from baby fat to very skinny and taller than me in 3 years. The social and emotional changes that school helps facilitate was ripped away from him, and now, as a freshman, he is starting to recover and enter the realm of a “regular school year.” So, as I talk with my 8th graders, I am hearing growing anxiety about high school and the work they will need to be able to do. Many are concerned about the amount of work and what they are expected to know and be able to do, and to be honest, I have been panicking about their transition as well.
When I gave this year’s pre-assessment, my students were lower in basic skills than I’ve ever seen. They also lacked the stamina that regular school years develop through the middle years. This years’ group would have been better suited to snack times, nap breaks, and small reading groups than they are to essays, a return to full participation in athletics and activities, and independent academic pursuits that are typical of 8th grade. I had to develop a plan to “get them there” by the end of the year. First on my agenda was to develop a list of non-negotiables for high school, secondly was to build their stamina in reading and writing tasks while simultaneously “filling their buckets.” This last part—filling their buckets—was instantly obvious as I got to know my students: they were depleted, and that deficit was causing more issues socially and academically than perhaps anything else. The pandemic stole the gentle, naturally supportive environments that are fertile for growth and replaced them with isolation and often methodical, digitized learning.
What’s working? As an ELA teacher, I knew that they had to be able to sustain reading and writing for longer chunks of time in order to be successful in the high school. I have spent the last month nurturing these skills in a very structured but highly interactive way. Students chose an independent reading book with the help of our librarian. Then, in class, we started an every-other-day routine. Read for the ELA period one day, respond to a journal in two complete paragraphs the next day, repeat. I do mini-lessons as I see the need from their journal entries, but I spend the day that they are reading responding to their journals with detailed feedback. I provide video links to specific skills that they are lacking, I scaffold their learning about how to write well, and most importantly I fill their buckets. I’m exhausted from giving so much personalized feedback, but by the end of the month, my students will have written 8 different journal responses of a minimum of two paragraphs each and read at least one book, while many are on their second book.
At first, students struggled horribly. They simply couldn’t read for the 35 minutes. They couldn’t sit still and focus on the task. We took brain breaks, but that disrupted the whole class, and some students were able to read uninterrupted. Then, I began playing classical music very quietly in the background to establish the environment I wanted. As they read, I graded paragraphs with honesty and direction. Each was worth 10 points, and most students were not able to achieve more than a 7 because there were too many errors—typos, grammar mistakes, and formatting issues that they’d never been asked to handle. I explained that we were playing catch-up, and I promised them that we would close the gap in what they’d experienced by going through this reading and writing boot camp for a month.
We are going into our final week, and I am beyond thrilled with the results. Students are reading my comments that I fill with encouraging mantras and tips individualized just for them. For example, I might say to a student who is still struggling, “Aidan—I see that this is still hard for you, but remember how much you’ve learned! You are no longer making formatting mistakes, you know how to use Grammar.ly, and it shows. Keep it up!” and, for those students who are ahead, “Tyler, Excellent job! I’ve attached a video about how to use semi-colons. In your next journal, give that a try. You are writing sophisticated sentences, and this will build your toolbox!” It may not seem like much, but every student will have very direct, nurturing, and specific feedback on eight occasions, which is making a difference.
The gap is closing, and students are looking a bit more like the middle-of-the-year 8th graders I’ve had in the past. We will continue to do this targeted intervention on Thursdays and Fridays, even as we move along to new curriculum. I am excited to hear students say that this is getting “easy” because it should be. I’ll introduce more mini-lessons and challenge those students who need it. Most of all though, I’ll provide the kiddo-specific feedback, kind words, and nurturing to fill their buckets for high school.