Learning Gains, Reflective Practices, and Looking Ahead: A Conversation About Teaching Middle School During a Pandemic

Learning Gains, Reflective Practices, and Looking Ahead: A Conversation About Teaching Middle School During a Pandemic

Jean Holenko is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher in her 27th year of teaching. She has been using the Responsive Classroom approach with students since 2001 and has been sharing it with teachers since 2006. This past year, along with teaching health, Holenko has taken on the new position of social-emotional learning coach for teachers.

Responsive Classroom Educational Consultant and Coach Kerry O’Grady had a chance to sit down with Holenko to discuss what it was like to teach middle schoolers during a pandemic, including what middle schoolers learned, the role reflection played, and what Holenko hopes teachers will take with them into next year.

I know we’re talking a lot in education about learning loss. But I wanted to ask you about learning gains. What learning gains have you seen? What have you noticed about middle schoolers living through this pandemic?

One of the things that a lot of students have gotten an appreciation for is the act of going to school. They have said, “I would have done anything to come back to school. We now have this perspective that school is more of a gift.” And they’ve learned to appreciate it a bit more. I feel like they’ve also gained a greater appreciation of being able to be together. 

There are a lot of skills they’ve gained, too, in terms of how to interact with people if you’re not actually with them. They’ve learned how to communicate, whether it is in an email or a chat, and have learned how to be succinct in what they are trying to ask somebody for.

They hear this whole learning loss piece, too. Because they’re hearing that, I feel like they’re being more metacognitive about their own learning and thinking whether they’ve actually learned something. 

I also believe they gained the knowledge that the adults at school really care about them. They gained the idea that school was here for them in particular.


What are some ways you’re helping your students reflect? What are some things that you’ve noticed with those reflections?

I have been especially more mindful of putting reflective pieces into my lesson plans. I’ve been concentrating on the reflection not being about what you learned, but how you learned it. I tend to use playlists — some people may call it a choice board — where they have various tasks that they’re going to use to learn about something. Academic Choice, in Responsive Classroom speak. They might have a choice for how they’ll show what they learned.

The reflective piece I’ll use is: which are the tasks that you learned the most from? Or, why did you choose the tasks you chose? So, the reflection is much more about how they learned than what they learned. Especially in middle school, they can think so much more deeply about that. 

I’ll try to bring up their reflection when we go to start the next unit. I’ll say, “Let’s think back to the last time that we did these things. What were some of the things that you chose that you felt like you learned a lot from? What were some of the things you avoided? Think about why you avoided doing that.”


I keep hearing people talk about “getting back to normal.” How can we use this time to rethink what normal looks like for middle schoolers? What would you like to go back to? What would you like to keep doing that you’re doing now?

The biggest change I want to keep: During the end of last year, when many of the students were not in school, teachers were really searching for ways to keep students engaged. What are activities that are really going to engage students so that I can keep them on Zoom? They were really thinking about what it would be like from the students’ perspective and how to engage them and how to create experiences that were engaging, joyful, and enjoyable. I don’t want people to lose that. 

What I’d like to get back to normal: Everybody being back in school and knowing that they’re being taken care of. My hope is that there’s even more of an appreciation for being able to do things together.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.