As educators navigate the challenges of teaching during a global pandemic we find ourselves digging deeply into concepts of trauma informed teaching, distance learning, and social responses to disease as we adapt existing structures to meet the needs of learners and their vulnerabilities due to the the current social, medical, economic, and educational environments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This requires us to consider students’ experiences and how they use technology tools to access learning and whether student-driven technology use empowers students during crisis remote learning.
Trauma, ACEs, and COVID
Evidence continues to accrue that traditionally underserved populations such as economically disadvantaged students, students for whom English is a second language, students of color, students with disabilities, indigenous students, and LGBTQIA+ students, experience greater challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic than their peers due to existing fundamental systemic inequities.
Individuals of all ages in racial minority communities suffer greater mortality rates due to COVID-19 than in white communities, which contributes to greater widespread trauma for these youth (CDC, 2020). Additionally, these youth are at greater risk of death due to the virus. Seventy-eight percent of the deaths from COVID among youth under age 21 were ethnic minorities, which the CDC attributes to “challenges in seeking care. . . including difficulty and delays in accessing health care services because of lack of insurance, child care, transportation, or paid sick leave, and social determinants of health that contribute to higher prevalence of medical conditions” (CDC, 2020). The CDC further identifies indigenous communities “one of the racial and ethnic minority groups at highest risk from the disease” and reports that the percent of indigenous children contracting COVID is 3 times greater than white children (CDC, 2020).
Children living in poverty also experience a variety of factors that increase the likelihood that the medical aspect of COVID-19 touches their lives, such as decreased access to adequate health care, parents who are more likely to work in “essential” fields, and a greater likelihood that crowding within the home makes isolation difficult. The number of children in this precarious position is growing. From May 2020 to October 2020, the poverty rate increased by 8 million people in the United States (Sykes, 2020).
Each instance of death or illness of a family member from COVID impacts the children within that household. This is because separation from family due to death or illness is one of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) that causes toxic trauma, and requires a trauma informed mindset from educators working with these children (Community Counseling Centers of Chicago, 2014). Experiencing ACEs in childhood is “correlated with premature death for both the child experiencing ACEs and for family members, one can extrapolate that this consequence is greater under current conditions” (Anda, 2009).
Beyond the medical disparities affecting youth in these groups, social changes due to the pandemic such as the move to remote learning have a disproportionate affect on these populations. The loss of in person learning opportunities results in disproportionate mental health impacts on students in these communities. For example, LGBTQIA+ students in remote learning can struggle because “school can also offer access to an LGBTQ community. . . as well as connection to counseling and mental health resources” (The Trevor Project, 2020, p. 4). For English Language Learners the move to remote learning revealed existing gaps between and ELL learning and technology tools: “even pre-COVID, most digital resources. . .had not been designed with the supports ELs need to understand instruction in English. And many teachers, including EL specialists, have received little training on using digital resources in the classroom with ELs” (Lazerin, 2020).
All of the above leads to the conclusion that children in these traditionally underserved communities are undergoing trauma-based stress due to increased adverse childhood experiences during this time, and have greater barriers to accessing an adequate education than other students.
An Empowerment Response
As educators scramble to meet the needs of students in demographics experiencing a greater degree of trauma during the pandemic, it is beneficial to consider how student’s benefit from empowerment. To understand this as a framework for effective instruction, it is helpful to find greater understanding in the use of empowerment in therapy to help individuals overcome trauma, regain stability, and increase confidence. In this context, Dass-Brailsford describes empowerment in therapy, saying:
“clients participate in all the decision making that affects their lives. The psychotherapist strives to make client participation a central aspect of treatment. The goal. . .is to provide clients with opportunities to develop and practice skills that allow control and increase competence. . .these goals are achieved by encouraging health, adaptation, and competence rather than deficiency.”Dass-Brailsford, 2007, p. 73
Student empowerment in education, involves students’ active participation in decision making directly tied to their learning with the goal of ensuring that students are given opportunities to increase their independence and competence in the classroom and through transferable skills. Student empowerment is tied to grade increases, reductions in incidents, loftier student goals and increased participation in extracurricular activities (Kirk, 2004). Increased student agency is typically achieved through classroom management and teaching strategies that focus on explicit and implicit techniques to create a more equitable classroom. However, the deployment of technology tools, technology use and expectations can also be an increasingly important factor in student empowerment.
Providing equitable technology access is a first step in ensuring that students are able to engage in technology in a way that empowers them. However, for many students this fall brought continued lack of technology access: “4.4 million households with school-aged children did not have consistent access to a computer as of September 28, and 3.7 million did not have regular internet access” (Aljezeera, 2020). Inadequate access disproportionately affects students living in poverty, English Language Learners and Native American students.
Native American communities in the United States often lack both technology and the infrastructure that connects laptops to schools. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has stated 95% of the students in some of its schools do not have Internet access at home, and delayed release of federal funding has meant that as of the beginning of this school year many families continue to lack access to Internet or technology tools (Wood, 2020). Additionally, a joint report by Arizona Republic and ProPublica found that in August this year, “the federal government was not providing an adequate education to the more than 46,000 students attending bureau schools” and had not released funds to other schools that serve indigenous students (Wood, 2020). Access to technology for these students is essential in empowering them to take control of their learning.
Attempts to provide ELL learners technology tools reveals challenges unique to this demographic: “language barriers, concerns around being responsible for expensive equipment, distrust of strangers coming to their home to deliver equipment, and requiring a government-issued ID to deliver or receive equipment. . . presented a significant barrier for some EL families” (Uro, 2020, p. 10). Ensuring that all ELL students have access to learning technology and removing hurdles (such as requiring a government-issued ID) allows students to take the first step toward technology independence.
Empowering Learning Access
Once students can access learning through technology, it is essential to ensure lessons and instructions are created in a way that allows students to access learning and complete the assignment with minimal adult intervention. This is especially important for English language learners, who would benefit from instructions that require little adult support in English (Uro, 2020, p 11). This may take the form of expanded instructions, teaching students how to access language tools, or modified assignments allowing greater choice in their completion method. Student-controlled accessibility to lessons and technology tools is an important part of empowering students in their learning.
Students with disabilities also benefit from lessons that are clear and accessible as well as technology tools that allow greater choice in how they access the lesson and instructions. For example, chrome books provide accessibility settings that allow students to modify their learning experience to accommodate physical and learning disabilities. Teaching students to use these settings allows them to control their learning environment in ways that facilitate access. Google provides a playlist of videos explaining how to use these tools in student friendly language, which facilitates their introduction to classrooms (Google, 2017).
mHowever, some of these features are less useful if teachers do not maximize their digital handouts and lessons for their use. For example, clickable documents and selectively bolded text allow diverse learners to navigate the document quickly, but unless teachers also use headings appropriately, visually impaired learners can only encounter the text linearly (Yale, 2021). Small improvements such as this in how educators produce lessons and documents can increase options for choice for students with disabilities.
Empowering Academic Choice
For many secondary students in minority communities, learning during the pandemic requires a great deal of flexibility from schools. The Council of Great City Schools reports that English Language Learners for example “may be working to provide much needed resources. Flexibility in learning approaches should therefore not only apply to health concerns but also allow high school students to remain employed and continue their education” (Uro, 2020, p. 12).
One way that schools can ensure that their students are empowered in their academic learning is to allow students to have control over important aspects of that learning. The AVID program divides academic options for student control into the following areas: pace, place, path, and time (Beckerman, 2021). Each of these areas is a different way that students can take ownership over the form of their learning. Flexibility with the pace and path of learning are particularly useful for students who have learning disabilities and English language learners. Allowing choice in pace allows students to determine how long they spend on content, while path is described as “the most empowering component of the four” in that it allows students do choose the method of learning that works best for them (Beckerman, 2021). While initially it may seem that pace and path are the most difficult for teachers to implement, anecdotally, they are among the most powerful tools I use in my highly diverse classroom. Flexibility with place and time of learning is well suited to remote learning because it allows students to choose when and where they will do their classwork (Beckerman, 2021).
Student-Driven Social Emotional Development
Social Emotional Learning is an important element of academic skill building. AVID programs, for example, place value on social emotional development because “without the social and emotional skills of grit, self-regulation, empathy, citizenship, and self-motivation, students may never get to the point where they can successfully apply their academic and transferable skills” (AVID, 2021). However, as many students experience the stressors and trauma of learning through a pandemic, teacher led social emotional learning can feel irrelevant, inauthentic and result in student disengagement.
This is unfortunate, because for traditionally under-represented students, such as LGBTQIA+ students, engagement in social emotional learning experiences is essential during the unique conditions caused by the pandemic: “now more than ever, it is imperative that we increase LGBTQ youth access to a wide range of support and life-saving resources” (The Trevor Project, 2020). For many of these students, the social supports provided by identity accepting elements of their school community are sorely missed, causing additional difficulty during remote learning:
“social isolation may be especially challenging for LGBTQ youth. They may be quarantining with rejecting family-members and losing contact with supportive social networks. The nature of quarantining means these problems are invisible to the public” (2021).Adelson, 2021
LGBTQIA+ students have pushed to regain social emotional support through technology in my classroom by reaching out via email, starting our school’s first Gay Straight Alliance, and sharing resources through a thread on google classroom. During social breakout rooms after class, these students have opportunities to gather together in a safe space to discuss quarantining with family, and to provide support for each other.
Breakout rooms provide a simple way that teachers can provide students choice in social emotional learning. Whether educators allow students to choose their breakout room directly or use the chat function to indicate to the teacher their preferred room using numbers, this can be a powerful tool in empowering students that takes little prep and has immediate benefits. By adding an empty additional room for student check ins, teachers can provide an opportunity for students to seek out individual attention if they wish (Todnem, 2020). Students in my classroom use breakout rooms to quietly work, loudly work, play games such as “Among Us, and simply be present. Rethinking how synchronous learning time is used and prioritizing student choice and social emotional needs has resulted in students positive engagements with one another and the learning in my classroom.
The shift to remote learning during a difficult time requires a shift in how we value non-academic learning at home as well as in class sessions. This is especially true as secondary students roles’ change in their households. These role changes can be particularly significant for students in the traditionally underserved communities discussed here. For example, The Council of the Great City Schools reports that “Considerable experiential learning occurred, and our resilient English learners were advocating and negotiating for resources and services for their families, obtaining jobs to help with family expenses, and were teaching and caring for younger siblings and neighbors” (Uro, 2020, p. 10).
For many students, increased independence in non-academic areas can be facilitated by technology and can have positive impacts on academic technology-based skills. As such, educators benefit from reframing our understanding of traditionally non-academic technology tools. Outside of class, students use TikTok to learn new skills, share hobbies they enjoy, and to teach others skills they’re working on. In this way, TikTok acts an an interest-based learning community where users’ “interests foster a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose, especially for young people” (Smith, 2021). Use of technology in empowering ways is a natural outgrowth of these role changes for many minority students” (Uro, 2020, p. 10). While using TikTok to pursue their interests and dive into a community of fellow users with shared hobbies, students are also building emotional resiliency and taking ownership of their interest-based learning.
As students from traditionally underserved communities use technology to make choices in their learning, engage in interest-based learning, and provide social emotional support, they are also gaining independence and empowerment. These are two important skills they will need for overcoming the disproportionate number of traumatic experiences and challenges that they face during this unusual learning time.
*Note: a “nuts and bolts” post with suggestions for classroom teachers based on the content of this post appears here.
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