Leveraging The Habits of Mind In The Midst of Disruption


By Craig Gastauer

March 13, 2020 was the day we received the news that all districts in San Diego County were shutting down physical operations due to COVID-19. A week later, our teachers were directed to begin thinking in terms of what was essential for students to learn between now and the end of the semester and revise the curriculum via a virtual experience. As a school in which 80+% of our students are designated as Low SES, we also worked to get our families continued access to food and figure out how we could provide them with access to the internet so that they could connect to the newly developing online education experience. But on April 6th, the wonderings and planning met reality. Students responded to surveys or spoke to their teachers and the vast range of emotions rocked many of us to our core.

Some students were doing fine but longed for a return to “normal.”

  • “I’m sooooo bored. One day I picked every seed off of a strawberry.”
  • “These women are driving me crazy.”

Some students felt cheated.

  • “What is going to happen to prom and graduation? Am I even going to graduate?”
  • “I worry that March 13th was my last day with the kids I grew up with and will never have a chance to formally end my high school career and say my goodbyes.”
  • “I don’t know what to do since I had a plan in place and it got destroyed. I just try to keep myself physically active by working out, jogging, riding BMX. All this makes me feel like I should just get a job and forget about this.”

Other students feel a new level of responsibility.

  • “I have been doing chores around my house and taking care of my 2 younger brothers and younger cousin during the day till my parents come back around 6-7PM. Then I can do my own things.”
  • “I share my Chromebook with my younger sisters and help them with their learning during the day when they connect with their teachers. It’s only at night that I can try to work on my assignments. But I fear that my teachers won’t be available then to help me.”

And then there are those students in most need.

  • “My mom was deported. What are we going to do?”
  • “My mother used to work in house cleaning in this hotel, but due to the current pandemic, she lost her job.”
  • “My parents have lost their jobs. We’re using the money set aside for my college to pay rent and buy food.” (A large number of parents own small businesses in our area and these businesses are no longer receiving customers.)
  • “Both parents lost their jobs. They are also undocumented so we won’t receive any of the money being sent to people by the government.”
  • “Someone in my apartment complex tested positive for Corona. I’m really scared that I’m going to get it.”

We also know students’ family members have died over the last few weeks and at least one student is confirmed positive for the virus.

Lexi Kunz, one of our science teachers, responded in a way that resounded with many, “I was overwhelmed with what these students were having to take on and what was happening in their lives. These students are incredible people and they’re stronger than I am for being able to take this on.”

All these emotions raised the question:

How might we leverage the Habits of Mind to better address students’ needs and continue to refine our efforts to maximize the growth of students’ abilities during the COVID-19 shutdown?

As I spoke with teachers regarding what we can do for students, helping students further develop the following Habits of Mind seem particularly important.

HOM: Thinking about your thinking.

With stay-at-home and social distancing orders in place for California, students truly are without the resources that school can offer. Therefore, we can help students to become more aware of their thoughts to know when they understand or do not yet understand during their learning process. I believe it is important to note that this includes both their mental wellness as well as their academic understanding.

Our Wellness teachers help students to develop the practice of “Mindfulness.” This strategy asks students to turn their mind from the hustle and bustle that is occurring all around them and instead pay attention to their mind and self. By encouraging this strategy, they may better recognize when and how they are feeling stress so that they may do what is necessary (relax, exercise, stretch, research, find help, etc.) to take care of themselves.

When it comes to academics, I think about something Sophie Monaco, one of our math teachers, co-created with Allison Zmuda before winter break. They developed a visual of the thinking process that students follow to solve math problems. By sharing this with students Ms. Monaco is helping her students better understand where in their process they might be “getting stuck.” In this way, students have a better sense of what part of the process they are experiencing success and where they have questions. Rather than saying, “I don’t get it,” now they can target their questions to the part of the process giving them difficulty.

HOM: Persisting

It becomes easy for students to give up when they are faced with questions and have that feeling that they “don’t get it” especially when isolated in their house without access to tutors and/or their teacher. Those who can persist through challenges are those who can engage in strategies and ideas to help them through confusion and questions.

Returning to Ms. Monaco’s thinking process flowchart, one way to help students become more persistent is by working with her students to co-create questions and a list of strategies to use as students work to “get unstuck.” By having these ideas to navigate through their questions, it becomes easier to not give up and identify what may help them when they experience other challenges in the future.

As I spoke with teachers regarding which Habits of Mind may be most important for teachers to focus on, the following seemed to repeatedly come to the forefront of our discussions.

HOM: Listening with understanding and empathy AND Thinking flexibly

Another science teacher, Kristin Magnuson, described in anger that this pandemic has proven once again that “the safety nets aren’t in place for the most vulnerable.” So while these two Habits may seem the most obvious, they may also be two of the most essential. Every student’s world has been disrupted. Ms. Magnuson commented, “How can we even be expected to teach these kids content when their world is turned upside down? If we don’t address their basic needs, they won’t be able to do anything else.” Ms. Kunz followed up with her own experience, “The students aren’t even sure what they may need or want but they are looking to understand what resources they have available to them.”

Ms. Kunz pointed out that in her first video conferencing opportunity, students expressed anxiety about this new experience not being the best way for them to learn.

  • “I learn so much better when I have someone there thinking with me.”
  • Another lamented, “Now that I have to work to help my family, I can’t even guarantee I can always be on these conference call times.”

And while we often complain that students spend too much time on their phones, Ms. Kunz and Ms. Magnuson also noted that as the students interacted in class conference calls, they became more alive. Other teachers have also commented that as their conference calls with students came to an end, students often stayed in the Google Meet to continue interacting.

As we listen to and recognize what students need, we can adapt our plans to ensure we are meeting students where they are. Ms. Kunz and Ms. Magnuson indicated that they will provide students some of their “class time” to continue to connect and interact with one another. And as we respond to student needs, we also build stronger relationships with our students as we demonstrate that their voice matters in this time of disruption.

HOM: Thinking interdependently AND Taking responsible risks

While the idea of developing our students’ digital and media literacies has been a goal for many, this pandemic makes it clear that across the United States, we have not helped all students build the capacity to operate proficiently in this virtual learning space. Therefore, in this unprecedented time we need to try out new ideas, find out what digital and media tools can help students learn, help students build capacity with these tools, and understand what actions are and are not working by sharing our experiences with one another. As we gain insight from one another, we can continue to build more effective learning opportunities with our students.

Additionally, math teacher Sandy Bailey has committed to reflecting on each week’s experience by listening to what experiences the students believe did and did not work for them. By receiving student feedback, she can refine her plans and enhance student learning experiences.

In the week leading up to our school closure, the science teachers created a text thread to share answers to questions and anxieties that filled our minds. We have continued to use this thread to post information, ask questions, vent our frustrations and stresses, commiserate about the current situation, and just stay connected. Kristin Magnuson shared, “I’ve always appreciated the people that I work with but it’s made me appreciate them even more. Not once have I felt that I’m doing this alone. I feel like I’m part of a good working group of people.” And Lexi Kunz followed up, “Honestly, that text thread is such a safe place for me.”

Final Thoughts

Shutting down the familiar school setting and moving to a virtual environment has resulted in a wide variety of emotions for students and teachers alike. Making it more difficult, teachers cannot meet as easily with students to speak with them one-on-one to better understand what is going on in their current reality. This new state of being reminded me of the definition of the Habits of Mind: “Having a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems, the answers to which are not immediately known.”

By returning to a focus on specific Habits, I believe we can refine our plans and actions to better meet the needs of students and teachers in these forced online experiences. I also believe that engaging students and teaching peers in these ways, we do a better job of honoring each other’s voices and ideas resulting in a co-creation of experiences to help us all maneuver through these unknown and stressful times. We may be socially distanced but it seems to me that utilizing the Habits of Mind as a framework for interacting and supporting growth allows us to be more effective as we work #AloneTogether.



Craig Gastauer is currently Internal Director of Pedagogy at Vista High School in Vista, CA. He is proud to be working with great teachers and students to create a more learner-centered public high school experience.


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