It has been said that change is the only constant in life. In recent months, public schools have been living out the reality of that statement, continually rising and adapting to the challenges of teaching and learning in the midst of Covid. Teachers have always been known for their creativity, flexibility, and adaptability, and never before have these three key traits been more evident in classrooms than with the start of this unique school year.
At Walton Middle School, seventh grade math teacher Mrs. Makala Ellenburg, along with her partner Diana Gillis, spent time carefully planning, then executing a plan for both face-to-face and innovative learning students to collaborate with each other. These days, students can’t huddle together to work in traditional small groups like they have in years past. Creatively, the math teachers found a way for students in the classroom and students at home to share their thought processes through a virtual huddle. Whether they were six feet or sixteen miles apart, all students experienced a sense of community in math class to close out the week.
Through Microsoft Teams, Mrs. Ellenburg assigned students to groups via channels. Each channel essentially functioned as a small group. First, Mrs. Ellenburg gave students instructions to introduce themselves to their channel members. She also clearly outlined her expectations, emphasizing that only math conversations were acceptable within the channel. She then walked students through how they would then participate in “Team Time” with their group. On the ClearTouch board, Mrs. Ellenburg posted a math problem, giving students time to work it out on their own, whether they were in their classroom desk or at their kitchen table. While giving instructions, the teacher ensured that both her in-house and at-home students understood her expectations. After working each problem out independently, students posted their answers in their group’s chat. Mrs. Ellenburg even had a plan for students whose families have not had the opportunity to pickup their laptops yet; those kids held their white board answers up for a group member in the class to answer on their behalf in the Teams chat. Due to Mrs. Ellenburg’s thoughtful lesson design, all students were able to actively participate in the groupwork. Each group then discussed any differences in their answers, landing on a solid final answer that they posted in the chat.
During whole class discussion, Mrs. Ellenburg spent time praising groups for productive group talk. She pointed out instances where students questioned each other’s thinking, pushed each other to elaborate, and clarified their own misunderstandings. Even though the small groups were meeting virtually, their conversations about math were often rich and thought-provoking. Mrs. Ellenburg intentionally spent a great deal of time establishing the norms for Team Time so such positive collaboration can continue throughout the year. As students and the teacher continued to work and share their learning, they even discovered together that they had the capability to take pictures of their math work, then upload it into the chat within the channel so their thought processes could be made even more visible to their peers.
No doubt, teaching and learning have rapidly changed, and the learning curve has been steep for everyone. However, Mrs. Ellenburg and her students are proving that challenges are actually opportunities to learn and grow together—coming out more capable and better equipped on the other side.