Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.21.21Erica Woolway: Lessons Learned from a Pandemic Year

Part 1 – Doubly Important: Re-Building Community and Attention

Download free photo of Brick wall,background,texture,blocks,pattern - from
Returning to bricks and mortar… just maybe a little wiser and a little smarter

After a year of synchronous, asynchronous, and hybrid learning, our heads are swirling with new terms, new platforms, and new normals. Now, as we start to emerge, we find ourselves reflecting not just on the challenges of the past year, but about silver linings. Surely there are things we’ve learned during this year of unintentional experimentation that can make us better going forward.

A great many things, actually.  Three categories of insights (besides the obvious fact that teachers truly are superheroes) struck us:  

  1. First, what is doubly important now as we return to class after disconnection and possible learning loss
  2. Second, new learnings from remote learning that can just possibly make us better going forward
  3. And finally, what has always been important but revealed more fully by spending a year teaching through a screen.

We’re going to do a series of three posts (and perhaps a workshop in the summer) sharing these learnings – all of which have come from teachers, who continue to prove to be the world’s best problem solvers. This first post will focus on what is doubly important now – community building, and rebuilding students’ diminished capacity for attention that will prove especially pressing as we strive to ensure the greatest amount of learning in the months to come.

Doubly Important Now: Community and Attention

Top of mind for teachers and the topic of one of our upcoming hybrid workshops is the redoubled understanding of the importance of community building – seeing the classroom as a place that functions by creating a sense of belonging for students through our teaching and through investing our students in rigorous content. Online teaching has reminded us that students need to feel “seen” in order to feel like they are part of a community.  In online learning, feeling seen is often fairly literal—it’s about having cameras on and letting students know we see and care about the things they do to engage. In the classroom, it may be more figurative-I see you in class, I value you, so I ask your opinion and engage your ideas- and I see you when you engage.

Little Girl Taking Classes Online · Free Stock Photo
Feeling “seen” figuratively starts with knowing you are “seen” literally

Students feel most connected to us and each other when there is a shared task to engage in that feels worthy of their time and effort. A pitfall we saw during the pandemic was trying to build community devoid of content. Teaching relies on relationships but is also the tool by which we build relationships. We learned that community building online doesn’t mean spending 10 minutes asking kids how their weekend was one by one. That often resulted in lost student attention and therefore lost engagement.

Instead, we saw teachers like Denise Karatti greet students warmly and get started with a meaningful lesson right away, sprinkling in moments that build connection in the midst of her lesson.We saw Hassan Clayton use a “Double Chat” at the top of class to allow students to respond to two questions – one academic and one a more playful community builder. Both teachers get to the academic work right away, signaling to their students that community is built in the classroom through a shared purpose that centers and celebrates content.

The double-chat

Less obvious at first is that in addition to creating a sense of community in our classrooms, we need to seek to rebuild students’ ability to pay attention.  A year spent online has fractured our own attention–we suspect you feel the scattered-ness after all those zoom calls too. The impact has been felt more perhaps by students who have spent hours staring at screens during school hours, attempting to resist the fact that the rest of the world is at their fingertips, only click away.

As we return to brick and mortar instruction, we have to seek to build up the student’s capacity to attend. One of the ways we can do this is by remembering the power of going pen to paper for memory formation.

Paper Pen Notebook And - Free photo on Pixabay
Advanced tool for memory formation and focus-building

This reflects one of our favorite tools in online learning. While we know google docs, the chat, and technologies like Nearpod or Peardeck were used to great effect – the good old-fashioned pencil and paper was perhaps the greatest tool in ensuring that knowledge was lasting. Not only does writing help students think and process new ideas, it helps them encode what they learn into long term memory.

We want to hear more about what you’ve learned too. After a year spent online, what feels doubly important to you as you return to the classroom? In our next post we’ll discuss some of our new learnings from remote learning that we can apply now that we’re back.

If you would like to learn more about the curriculum Hasan is using, visit us at

-Erica Woolway

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