6 ways to help heal toxic stress, trauma, and inequity in your virtual or in-person classroom

6 ways to help heal toxic stress, trauma, and inequity in your virtual or in-person classroomMany of our students’ lives have been deeply disrupted this year by COVID-19 and police brutality. Even during “normal” times, our learners can be affected by toxic stress, trauma, and inequality. But the impacts of events such as the ones we’re currently experiencing can compound or trigger learners’ toxic stress and trauma.

Because we care so deeply for our students, we might feel overwhelmed and even paralyzed when we consider the realities they face. Some good news (yes, I am shamelessly stealing from John Krasinski): One thing that can help us overcome paralysis is understanding how the learner-empowerer classroom assessment model—which has formative assessment practices at its core—can help us heal the effects of toxic stress and trauma as well as help us repair systems of inequity.

The shift from learner-manager to learner-empowerer

Many of us experienced a learner-manager model both as K–12 students and as educators in training. The process looks something like this: the teacher teaches to the students, the teacher gives tests to the students, the teacher assigns grades to the students. In a learner-manager model, classroom assessment processes and practices are done to students, not with them.

When classroom assessment practices are done in this way, when students have no voice, choice, or clear, predictable rhyme and reason, the experience can feel unsafe, unpredictable, unwelcoming, and even threatening. Salvatore Terrasi and Patricia Crain de Galarce explain that, “When children perceive their environment as a dangerous place, they can become hypervigilant, experiencing everyone and everything as a potential threat to their safety. Psychologically, they have a fragmented sense of self and are vulnerable to anxiety and depression; behaviorally, they are prone to the extremes of withdrawal or serious acting-out behaviors.” All of this can compound stress, trauma, and inequity.

The purpose of a learner-empowerer model is to activate students as co-owners of the learning process. Classroom assessment processes and practices are done with students, not to them. Because the learner-empowerer model activates, leverages, and responds to students’ lived experiences, voices, choices, and needs, it can help us interrupt biased educational structures and methods. The principles of the learner-empowerer model also require employing stress- and trauma-sensitive practices, making it possible to ameliorate the effects of toxic stress and trauma while also addressing inequity. Here’s how the two align.

Learner-empowerer vs stress- and trauma-sensitive practices

Sources: Learner-empowerer practices: Revising the definition of formative assessment. Stress- and trauma-sensitive practices: Trauma and learning in America’s classrooms and Addressing race and trauma in the classroom.

How to keep empowering students

Some more good news: You’ve probably been following the learner-empowerer model, at least in part and maybe even without realizing it. The model is not a new idea; the components and learner-centered intent are already embedded in our educator professional standards (e.g., InTASC standards 3 and 6) and are the topics of existing professional development opportunities (e.g., NWEA assessment literacy and formative assessment modules). The challenge now is to continue to empower students, whether we’re face-to-face in a classroom, exclusively online, or following a blended approach.

We know that learning environments and access to resources often vary, and will almost certainly vary when classes resume in the fall. We’d like to help prepare you for whatever comes your way, so we’ve gathered some strategies that can be done with paper and pencil as well as digital tools.

  1. Incorporate welcoming/inclusion activities. CASEL has some great ideas.

Paper/pencil tools: A notebook or “do now” worksheet

Digital tools: A video chat or document on a shared platform, like Google Docs

  1. Create learning teams and expectations. Set expectations together, and elect class leaders to help monitor progress, celebrate successes, and follow up with issues.

Paper/pencil tools: Paper ballots to vote on ideas for expectations and a handout of the final team expectations

Digital tools: Mentimeter for polls, and a final or ready-to-edit-as-a-class document on a shared platform

  1. Use groups to get kids talking. Practice small, structured pair or group conversations.

Paper/pencil tool: Debrief circles

Digital tool: Flipgrid

  1. Set goals together. Cue students to record learning goals and monitor their progress.

Paper/pencil tools: A notebook or goal-setting worksheet

Digital tool: A document on a shared platform

  1. Involve students in quiz writing. After a chunk of learning, prompt students to anticipate possible quiz questions that review the learning. Students write the questions and quiz their peers.

Paper/pencil tools: Notebooks, portable whiteboards, or a worksheet

Digital tools: Kahoot! or Quizizz

  1. Try practice quizzes. Have students compare their answers to a key and reflect on their answers.

Paper/pencil tools: Notebooks or a handout

Digital tool: A document on a shared platform

Here are some additional digital tools you can use to create interactive lessons rich in formative assessment:

You can do this

We encourage you to explore this topic with colleagues so you can share ideas and get support reshaping your practice. Here are some discussion questions to get you started:

  • If there were a continuum of practice from learner-manager (doing to students) to learner-empowerer (doing with students), where would you situate your practice? What evidence would you use to support where you placed your practice?
  • What is the effect of the learner-empowerer practices you already use? How might you build on these successes and strengths?
  • What do you want to start doing—or stop doing—to move your practice further along the learner-empowerer continuum of practice? Name at least three specific ideas.

While there’s uncertainty around what our classrooms and mode of instruction will look like in the fall, our students will still benefit from quality learning experiences that develop their knowledge and challenge their thinking. Ground your practice in the learner-empowerer model and formative assessment to set yourself and your students up for success.

Lauren Wells contributed to this post. Lauren has over 19 years’ experience in education, including teaching, administration, instructional coaching, and professional learning facilitation. She received her BA and MA from Michigan State University and an EdS and PhD focused on educational leadership from Oakland University. As a member of the NWEA professional learning team, Lauren is fully committed to fulfilling our mission, Partnering to help all kids learn.

This is the fourth in a series on formative assessment. Read the previous post. And read the entire series in our e-book.

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