It’s been a chaotic year and a half for Berkeley teachers.
In March 2020, Berkeley schools shuttered, but the Superintendent expected everyone to be back in three weeks. Before long, they learned schools would stay closed for the rest of the year. After a summer of uncertainty, came a fall of online learning — and, with it, the need to reinvent the very idea of a classroom. Weeks turned into months and Berkeley students and teachers remained at home as distance learning dragged on longer than anyone initially expected and more students earned failing grades and struggled with mental health. In March 2021, some students began to come back in person — but not all, and the hybrid model brought plenty of its own headaches.
Come Aug. 15, Berkeleyans will be ready to leave Zoom school behind, and amid the bedlam of the pandemic, educators say they’ve found a few teaching practices worth keeping.
Whether it’s new technology or a fresh mindset, the remote year has given teachers opportunity to reflect and make changes. Berkeleyside spoke with five educators who are starting the year off with new reflections.
A Type A teacher learns to let go
Marvin Reed, who teaches third grade at Rosa Parks Elementary, had always been tough — the kind of teacher to demand straight, silent lines in the hallways.
But a year of dealing with uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has softened him, he thinks, for the better.
“I’m a workaholic and I’m sometimes in that type A category, but I’m learning to bend at the knees a little bit more and understand that it’s OK to just go with the flow.”
Last spring, Reed was switched from teaching in person at the last minute. Instead, he found himself managing a virtual classroom full of students from three different elementary schools. He had to adapt, and so did his students. This fall, he’s going into the school year with a new approach inspired by the experience.
“Classroom management is not about control,” Marvin said. “It’s all built off relationships. You’re gonna do what you’re supposed to do if you trust me and if you trust your partner.”
A new way to test student learning
Hasmig Minassian has been teaching at Berkeley High for two decades, but the pandemic gave her the chance to change the way she assesses her students.
“There’s nothing like a pandemic to shake you out of some of your old habits,” Minassian said.
When schools moved online, the ethnic studies teacher realized that her usual assessments and handouts were no longer a viable option. Working from home with the internet at their fingertips, it was too easy for students to cheat. Together with the other ethnic studies teachers, Minassian went back to the drawing board.
“You had to really be purposeful in creating things that kids can’t just copy-paste,” Minassian said. “That forced us to reflect on what is real, authentic learning.”
In place of comprehension questions came a wide array of creative options: slide-shows, brochures, Socratic seminars, recorded videos. Minassian started to see how one-dimensional the old model was. Her new assessments allowed students to work together, use skills they had a knack for, and blend their personal knowledge with what they were learning. This year, Minassian said she’s not going back.
Teaching that’s responsive to trauma
Gabe Fredman has been talking about trauma-informed teaching practices for years.
Fredman started at King Middle School in 2013 as a special education teacher for students with intense emotional needs. He learned to put his students’ mental state first before plunging ahead with curriculum. “My math lesson wasn’t going to work if I had a couple kids crying,” Fredman explained.
Now, he works with teachers and administrators on creating positive school culture. During distance learning, Fredman said, he saw interest in the approach he takes to supporting kids take off. More and more teachers started to see that “a traumatized kid doesn’t learn, a traumatized family doesn’t feel supported,” Fredman said.
“I’m sad that it had to take a collective traumatic experience to get people engaged and bought in, but I’m glad they’re here now. The whole experience has converted a lot more people to prioritize just caring for the kiddos,” he said.
Fredman also worked as principal of the district’s summer school program for middle schoolers, where he saw more kids than he expected struggling to learn, breaking down emotionally, and needing a lot of encouragement.
In preparation for the school year, Fredman has run trainings for teachers, giving them tools to incorporate mindfulness, hold community circles, and turn trauma into resilience through coping mechanisms. He hopes that interest translates into real changes in the classroom.
Meeting your student’s pet
When Lency Olsen started teaching first grade on Zoom, she did not expect that she would get closer to her students than ever.
“I got to know the kids and the families in a completely different and much deeper way,” said Olsen, who teaches at Ruth Acty Elementary. “In the past, we’ve only ever known them in a school setting. And this was like, you got to know them in their homes.”
What Olsen lost in hugs she made up for in an intimate understanding of her students’ homes lives: what their pets were like, their siblings’ personalities, their favorite toys. One boy loved showing Olsen the lego sculptures he had constructed and toy sword collection.
Olsen’s students also got a view of her own challenges. Sharing a house with three children, Olsen sometimes dragged her computer into the bathroom and held class from the only quiet room she could find.
Olsen thinks the shared vulnerability made her students motivated to succeed in school. Her students ended the year with the highest reading scores of any class she has ever taught.
“I think the most important message you can send to kids is how much you care about them,” Olsen said. It’s a message she said she’s doubling down on next year.
Finessing the flipped classroom
For Shannon Mueller, a biology teacher at Berkeley High, remote learning gave her the opportunity to try on an entirely new way of teaching: the flipped classroom.
Mueller, who is starting her ninth year of teaching, knew she was spending too much precious class time lecturing at her students. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she felt confident making the switch altogether.
Now, Mueller uses Loom to record videos of herself explaining the material and assigns other online video lectures. Class time is devoted to problem-solving with peers, work that would typically be assigned for students to do at home.
“Class time should be a time for critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration,” Mueller said. “That’s what students loved the most.”
After teaching online with this new structure, Mueller surveyed her students to see if it was working. It was. They gave rave reviews. And when Mueller compared her students’ scores with previous years, they were doing better.
That persuaded Mueller to commit to teaching in a flipped classroom for good.