When the school year began for Renton students on Wednesday, teacher Teri Barlow found herself speaking to her students over Zoom from a spare room in the apartment she shares with her cats. Surprisingly, she found it felt a lot like a typical start to a school year.

“There was a lot of chaos and exhaustion, but the kids are actually giving it a whirl,” said Barlow.

Barlow, a language arts teacher at Renton High School, estimates about 80% to 85% of her students showed up for the four virtual classes she teaches; in her two 10th-grade honors classes, all but one student checked in. Many students seemed happy to be back in school, Barlow said. “We can tell they’re excited about a sense of routine again.”

Like most Puget Sound-area districts, Renton is teaching all classes remotely this fall.

Barlow is one of more than 100 teachers who participated in a district-wide steering committee over the summer — conducted via Zoom — to discuss what educators should focus on this fall. The district was motivated by a sense that the spring trimester didn’t work for many students, and that teachers needed to do things differently if lessons continued remotely, said Ellen Dorr, chief technology officer for the district. 

“We’re really trying to think about what authentic engagement looks like for students,” Dorr said.

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The first order of business: making an emotional connection with students. “Learning is a social activity,” Barlow said, and teachers need time to build a rapport with kids they don’t know over a video screen. 

Renton is one of the Puget Sound region’s most diverse districts. Students of color made up 75% of the enrollment last year. With issues of systemic racism front and center, teachers are working on ways to incorporate antiracist teaching into the classroom. At Barlow’s high school, teachers are overhauling the 10th-grade curriculum to focus on social justice in America, Barlow said.

Tenth-grade language arts can serve as a gateway to explorations of social justice because much of the work is about understanding messages in written and spoken language, Barlow said.

This year, some of her students will study two versions of a speech written by the late Rep. John Lewis for the March on Washington, the seminal 1963 civil rights event. She’ll ask her students to compare the two speeches, and try to understand why Lewis chose one version over the other. Her students will also read works by Black playwrights, study rap music lyrics, and look at artwork by indigenous Americans. 

“Good teaching is good teaching,” Barlow said. “All I’m doing is using different tools.”