5 ways to engage math students during COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought about changes to education that no administration, school staff or faculty, families, or students could have ever anticipated. No degree I earned or teaching experience I acquired could have prepared me for anything like this. Yet here we are, just over a year after school closures began, still learning and tweaking daily routines (sometimes by the minute) to find what helps us all succeed (or, heck, just survive) in these unprecedented times.

Over the past year, educators, administrators, families, and students have voiced concerns, celebrated small victories, brainstormed alternate learning avenues, and stepped out of their comfort zones, yet there still has not been a perfect solution to this “new normal.” Collaboration has led to some valuable ideas that have alleviated some of the pains of pandemic learning, however. I’d like to share some of those with you, especially how they pertain to the middle school math classroom.

My 2020 experience

I live and work in Union County, right outside Charlotte, North Carolina, and I am currently employed by a state-supported public middle school. Before COVID-19, my daily schedule consisted of teaching three mathematics classes with an average of 25–30 students in the classroom for approximately 90 minutes a day. In March of 2020, when the pandemic hit, our students were sent to learn from home, just like students across the country. At the time, all middle and high school teachers were already required to use Canvas, our web-based learning management system. However, we and our students had an inadequate understanding of how much our daily routines would revolve around Canvas during our remote learning journey.

In my county, social-emotional learning (SEL) was the focus for the first four weeks of remote learning. Teachers checked in with students, making sure they and their families were safe. Our staff reached out to families to make sure they had the basic necessities, like food, they needed to prepare for the unknown. We were still providing students with resources to continue learning, but we weren’t issuing grades because students weren’t required to complete assignments. Education seemed to be on the back burner, and I started worrying about what this would mean for my students and, honestly, for me.

For our school system, the 2020–2021 school year started with our teachers teaching two different formats simultaneously. Some students started the year as hybrid learners, coming in for one day a week and learning remotely the other four, while other students chose remote learning all five days of the week. A few months into the school year, hybrid students were allowed to come in two days a week. These students would come into the school building for their classes on either Monday and Tuesday or Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays were remote learning days for all students, which gave teachers extra planning time to work out best practices for reaching both hybrid and fully remote students.

Fall struggles

With approximately 75 middle school students on my rosters, my initial concern was being unable to build relationships with the kids in my classes. Strong relationships are imperative for students who struggle in mathematics, to help them build their weaknesses into strengths. My worries stemmed from the spring before when students wrestled with home internet connectivity issues, getting the support they needed, and using Canvas.

Our school administration asked teachers to create a communal start page on Canvas to ease the transition into the new school year. We each added our own personal touch to our Canvas pages and dedicated the first few weeks of school to helping students understand how to maneuver through the course page. That eased some of my worries about relationship building but, as I collected student feedback about what was working and what wasn’t and as I improved pages and lessons, I faced my biggest dilemma: low student motivation and engagement. Even with simplified list-like tasks, assignments were not completed and shortened videos were not being watched. Some students were choosing the easiest tasks to complete and calling it done, or they were not doing anything at all.

I went back to the drawing board, surveying students and paying extra close attention to the responses from students who were being successful and completing their work. It became clear to me how much they missed being in the classroom. These kids, 12- and 13-year-olds, were used to having a teacher present to answer questions and redirect them. Middle school students are at an age where they are still learning how to manage their time, make a schedule, and complete their work. Having to do all of this on their own was a big challenge for many.

Working solutions

The consolidated goal for my school’s staff and faculty has been to find something that will get students on track, boost student confidence in their learning, and help them see the value of their education. We have come up with ideas and modified them repeatedly as we learn more about our students and their situations. While it’s admittedly a work in progress, here is some of what’s worked for us:

  1. Talk with your colleagues. Share your ideas and tweak and build together, because two or more brains are better than one.
  2. Give grace. Students need extra grace right now. If it takes them a little longer to get the work done, be flexible. If a student does not feel comfortable with their camera on, or even talking, during live sessions, just let them know you appreciate that they showed up.
  3. Build relationships (the best you can). Do you feel like a tattletale for sending emails to parents? I did! So I began to give my students a chance to take responsibility for their work instead. Now I email my students first, and if I do not get a response (either an email back or work turned in) by a set deadline, I resend the email to the student with their parent or guardian copied. When a student is doing well, I send them a congratulations, with the parent or guardian copied, so they know I notice their efforts. (Tip: Make a generic email and copy and paste to make this easier!)
  4. Build mathidence (math confidence). Research shows learning math remotely has been especially challenging for many students. If you’re a math teacher, let your students know it is okay if they make mistakes, just as you would in your classroom. Push them to have the confidence to try the assignments by letting them know that you will give them feedback or have one-on-one conferences, emails, or some other kind of communication with them to remind them they can do anything, even if they feel out of their comfort zone. Remind them that we are all learning this new norm. (If you’re not a math teacher, there’s no reason you can’t celebrate the power of learning from mistakes with your students, too.)
  5. Mix it up. Students are used to the daily dynamics of going to class and having something new happen every day. When learning from home, this may or may not happen. Give students some variety by offering different choices for content learning. Yes, you have your video or livestream, but what about all the other videos or website resources that can simplify or present the content in other ways? Here are some of the resources I have enjoyed using this year: Desmos, Kahoot!, Khan Academy, Kuta Software, and Math Is Fun. I’ve also liked building a fun resource page on Canvas. It has links to various games for content review, and I assign it to students after they have completed their daily tasks. They think they are playing when they are actually learning!

Reflect and react

As we approach the end of this year with high hopes of going back to the normal we once knew, I challenge you to reflect and react. Reflect on what practices you feel have worked for you and your students in this pandemic. Send out a survey to families and students, talk to your colleagues, and make a personal list to see what you could continue and what you could throw out. Then react by looking into other ways you could improve your instruction, easing yourself and your students into the best of learning (working smarter, not harder). Try something from the list above or that someone else has mentioned or tried before this year is over. Tweak the ideas of others to make them yours and share what works best for your classes.

We may never get back to the normal we once knew, but we have to remember we are all learning this new normal together. Don’t try to make it on your own. Reach out to your colleagues and make the best out of the given situation, whatever it may be.

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