As Adams 14 middle school music teacher Jason Malmberg was getting to know his students during the first week of school, one of his four classes was being extra quiet.
It occurred to him to pause and ask: How many students have not been in the buildings since the start of the pandemic nearly 18 months ago?
About half of the students in that class, at the suburban Denver school district, raised their hands.
“It just so happened that that’s how that roster shaped up,” Malmberg said. “So of course they’re going to be more nervous.”
In-person learning was disrupted for students everywhere when COVID-19 swept across the U.S. in early 2020, and significant numbers of students chose to stay in remote learning last school year even after in-person classes resumed.
In Adams 14, a community hard hit by the virus earlier on, more than half of students opted to keep learning from home when the district reopened school buildings this past spring. This school year, the district only offered 300 online spots for middle or high school aged students who were able to handle not having live instruction.
Teachers who started classes in Adams 14 last week are aware that many students are in a physical classroom for the first time since March 2020. And they are already finding ways to informally evaluate their students and trying to plan how they’re going to cover more ground this year.
Teachers say they’re focusing more on relationship building this year than in previous years, and are being more intentional about helping students who may be out of practice with their social skills.
“I’ve already said with my co-teacher: Let’s brainstorm more icebreaking activities,” Malmberg said. “We might keep this going for a little while.”
One of the icebreakers Malmberg hosted in his class involved sitting students in two rows of chairs that face each other. The teacher asks a question such as “What’s your full name and where does it come from?” or “What’s your favorite fast food restaurant?” and tells one of the students to answer first. That removes the awkwardness of middle schoolers having to decide who talks first, he said.
“It’s just to get them out of that shell,” Malmberg said. “Once we kind of get over that social shock of haven’t been in a building with 500 kids in 18 months, I think it’ll be like riding a bike.”
Malmberg also got his students excited about a new music class: guitars. He got them through a grant, and will start teaching students to play this year.
The district’s new superintendent, Karla Loria, said she has emphasized that teachers should take more time to build community and a positive culture within their classrooms this year.
She also said she’s sent district administrators into schools for the first week of school to help with any issues or extra needs that come up. At Adams City High School, she said, that meant helping students get schedules, an issue that is often cited as a challenge in the beginning of the school year. Loria said this year the extra challenge is students showing up who haven’t yet registered. The high school also experience a bomb threat on the first day of school that, combined with bad air quality outside, prompted the district to send students home before midday.
As far as formally evaluating students, Adams 14 kindergarten teachers have already completed their initial assessments to see where students are, though the data still has to be analyzed. Other teachers have a three-week window to give the district’s tests.
Lacey Mueller-Taschdjian, a middle school math teacher, said she isn’t going to worry about really jumping into math until this week. She gave students an initial assessment Friday to see how they are doing, but noted that even in normal years there are students who lack a good understanding of basics such as multiplication or division.
She is hoping the district assessments later will give her more details to guide her planning. Generally, she plans on introducing or reviewing missing pieces throughout the year, where they relate to the new concepts she’s teaching.
In the meantime, she’s setting up her class norms, and hoping to get to know more about the students. She was happy to learn after the first day of school, for example, that students weren’t opposed to wearing masks.
“I have heard zero to no complaining about masks at all,” Mueller-Taschdjian said.
Emotionally, she said middle school students can be hard to read at first.
“It’s exaggerated in eighth grade, they’re the top of the class and come in with that attitude first,” Mueller-Taschdjian said.
Deborah Figueroa, who is teaching fifth graders this year, said she was checking students’ skills the moment they came in the door. She tested their ability to be patient when she greeted them. She tested their listening skills as she gave them instructions. Those were in good shape, she said.
In another exercise, she got them excited about guessing her age. Instead of letting them keep guessing, she told them the year she was born and asked them if they could do the math to calculate her age. She did the math on the board as they instructed her, and purposefully made mistakes to see if they would catch her.
“They were totally engaged,” Figueroa said.
And from that exercise, she learned that her students need to revisit how to do multiple-digit operations like subtraction.
Figueroa said she was also a little alarmed to hear some students were unsure about the difference between a sentence and a paragraph. Some students admitted that they didn’t read at all over the summer.
“There’s no way, they should not have any doubts,” she said.
But in everything she was gleaning, Figueroa also tried to factor in that her classroom was too hot. The air conditioning in her wing of the building isn’t working, and the resulting heat was messing with her concentration too.
Academically, Figueroa said, she has a plan to help students catch up. It also involves engaging parents. She started conversations with parents even before the first day of school.
Malmberg said he’s got the luxury to be teaching in a subject that isn’t tested by the state.
But because his class can give students an opportunity to unwind, express themselves, and improve their social and emotional health, balancing the need to give students rigorous instruction, while also helping them catch up with basics, is still on his mind.
“I know the difference that music has made in my life and many of my students’ lives and my main goal is to keep that going,” Malmberg said. “If I don’t have appropriate rigor they’re going to pick up on that and they’re going to get bored.”
“I think it would be a little disingenuous to say we’re just going to pick up where we left off,” he added. “My approach is let’s be honest about our reality. Every day matters and we only get so many of them.”