Overcoming Skills Gaps in K-12 Classrooms

In the early 90s this is where my love of learning and literature was fostered.

There is a lot of conversation now in spaces of education on overcoming the skills gaps that are a byproduct of the pandemic. The impact of this pandemic is yet to be determined but these byproducts what will most definitely include academic, social-emotional and physical implications on children in grades K-12. The focus of this post will examine the most effective strategies implemented inside the building of this Feltonville middle school, which fostered my love of learning and drive to succeed. In the end, the details of your childhood become a blur but the skills which are fostered in a caring environment endure.

Back to the Basics – Read, Write, Discuss

What I remember most are the small reading, writing and discussion circles that were held during ELA classes. I remember receiving individualized attention from the teacher, although for moments at a time. I remember talking to my 5th grade peers and thinking we were discussing the most important subject in the world, The Bridge to Teribithia, of course. And it was magical.

As an educator breaking students up into small groups was something I feared in my first few years in education, yes, it’s tricky putting kids in groups and having them stay on task, but clear instructions, consistency along with trial and error is how you can gain confidence as an educator. Clear instructions, group roles and general guidelines all help students stay on track, and most will. Small group work practices can be implemented across the board, not only in English Language Arts, AND they can be implemented in the virtual world as well. As a high school educator, by December of our completely virtual year – Socratic Seminars had become a space for students to engage in important dialogue around our unit of study. For instance, a unit on the Colonialism and Independence of Africa in a high school history class, students were given a space to discuss each portion of the reading without teacher interference. Strategy: guidelines in place which included – collective group grade, reference the text for support and evidence, ask questions, be respectful of your peers. I turned off my camera, muted my mic and took notes. I was blown away with the results. This was a great way to reinforce what they learned from the readings but also engage their own thoughts on the text, promoting critical thinking.

Reading, writing and discussions are often associated with humanities courses but can be applied to all fields, including
(and especially) the sciences! I would argue, it is now more than ever we need to infuse the analytical skills which come from reading, writing and discussion across the curriculum. In a hyper technological world, in a world that needs healing, in a world where students need to be prepared to compete in a global economy, we need to slow it down for our students and engage them with the skills necessary to untangle the complications being hurled their way.

Quality Educators

Art class was one of my favorites. Again, details are blurred but I remember the passion and skill the art teacher infused in the lessons and activities we undertook. It felt like an escape – in what would be deemed a “poor” neighborhood by todays measures – and that is excellent teaching. A measure in which time pauses for a bit and you are immersed in the subject matter, what is happening beyond the classroom walls no longer matter. You may be thinking, ya, well, that’s art class, but what about everything else, like history? This erasure of time can happen across the board, I know, I am a high school history teacher. Often time, students come to my class thinking it will be as fun as watching paint dry. (By the way, that’s the reaction of parents when I tell them I am a history teacher as well.) However, it is the passion, skill and care that each educator brings to the table that students remember, and that is the art of education. Students know when a teacher’s heart is not in the game – and it’s hard to learn from someone who doesn’t want to be there to begin with, kids know.

Finland has a higher functioning education system than the United States, in large part due to the rigorous teacher training programs. According to Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, in Finland “schools attract better-educated teachers and retain them over time, establishing a baseline of professionalism and prestige” (Ripley, 2013, pg. 95). She continues to state that Finnish schools foster a “great deal of respect for the institution and faculty in the students. This can be partly explained by the academic rigors that teachers had to endure in their journeys to becoming educators. The students were well aware of how accomplished their teachers were” (Ripley, 2013, pg. 96).

Considering the long term impacts teachers have on students, training should be rigorous and our society should respect the profession. If you read any news article associated with education and you are brave enough to read the comments, you’ll know this is not the case. In fact, doing so will leave those who pour our heart into the profession on a daily basis disheartened.

It is an intertwined relationship – standards in the field of education have to be uplifted in a meaningful way, not just bureaucratic protocol. I am grateful I had educators that were skilled enough to instill a love of learning, which very well may have influenced the trajectory of my life.

The library located right across from the Feltonville middle school, and the place I spent so many afternoons.

Spatial Justice

Spatial justice as I will be using it is defined as the space around students that gives them equitable access to quality education. Granted, the middle school was and still is located next to a graveyard (which I never really thought much of a 7th grader, as it just blended in the background), but right across the street was, and still is, this jewel. This library was were my immigrant mother brought me throughout my elementary years and the place I was allowed to go during middle school. It was a space that required no money (unless your books were late), and was again that necessary escape.

Right next to the library was the rec center, although I don’t remember going inside, it was fully equipped with an outdoor playground and a pool in the summer. Although this was a “poor” neighborhood, it felt like it was rich in resources in the eyes of a child of immigrants. This is because the adults in my life made decisions to make it feel so. Skilled educators who enjoyed being with students, even though said students were often difficult, challenges were navigated compassionately. Whoever planned this area did so with a vision that would serve a community in a wholesome manner.

A school, a library and a rec center. Back to the basics for an overly complicated world.

As the adults navigate a pandemic world, it is on us to serve our children with compassion, skill and vision. Otherwise, the ripple affects will be disastrous.

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