Physical Space

Teaching With a Mask On (Ep. 176)

Today, Nic tells her story of what it has been like to teach with a mask on during the pandemic. Listen as she reflects on the year, shares some strategies that have worked for her, and talks about some ideas that have benefitted her students in more ways than one. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Some of us are teaching online, some of us are in person with our students and some of us are doing both. I have had the opportunity to do several of these learning models this year. One of my biggest concerns, especially when I was teaching my students in person was having a mask over my face. Now, currently we are highly recommended to have a mask and a shield over our face, and then also still communicate with our students and teach them the best that we possibly can. This has been kind of a challenge for me. Today we’re going to talk about teaching with a mask, what that looks like, some of the adaptations that I made in my classroom and how I’m still able to communicate clearly with my students.

This is Nic Hahn, and this is Everyday Art Room.

Teaching with a mask can be quite a challenge for many of us. This year, it’s our reality. It was something that I was really worried about starting the school year. And it’s something that even as I come back into face-to-face teaching again, we were in full-distance learning for a period of time, it was a little concerning how we were going to do this. How were we going to communicate with our students in such a way that we had full communication but our mouth is covered, and as I mentioned earlier, now I even have a plastic shield over the front of my face?

Okay. Well, there are some things that I’ve done this year to kind of adapt to the new rules. I’m constantly adapting. We all are. But one of the big concerns was how am I going to show emotion to my students? So often I show them a big smile when they’re coming into the classroom or when they share something with me. I have really relied on my smile to communicate this approval to my students for many years. I have just done some adjustments when it comes to emotion.

One of the big changes mentally, and then therefore, physically, is I’m giving a smile with my eyes more than my mouth. Of course my mouth is being turned up and my teeth are smiling, my teeth are showing underneath my mask, but what the students are able to see are these creases ever getting deeper next to my eyes that allow them to understand that I am smiling at them. This is actually been pretty successful. Students see that expression in my eyes, and sometimes I even give them a wink. I can see it in them as well. It’s just brought a different consciousness to what the upper part of my face looks like when I’m giving that face of approval.

I also try showing more of my non-verbals with my whole body and my whole self. I find myself golf clapping, like in the golf games that nice silent … Can you see this? I’m actually doing a golf clap right now to explain it. No, of course you can’t. But the nice quiet clap when I’m approving or spirit fingers. Yes, I was a cheerleader back in the day. Spirit fingers are something that are quiet. It’s just raising up your hand and moving your fingers around. That’s a celebration, a quiet celebration. Or a sign language applause, which is two hands up and hands rotating from side to side. Some people might compare it to like jazz hands. These are all ways that I have just … not even trying. These are ways that my body has just moved towards like, this is how I’m celebrating with you because I don’t have this smile I’m using my whole body.

I’ve also seen this when I’m trying to be more assertive or direct with my students. My body does the same things. My eyebrows of course, are probably coming down if I’m getting very serious with a student. My body is squared up a little bit more. Both feet are on the ground, and I might be facing the student if I’m directing them as to giving them a little redirection. My hands might be on my hip or my hands might be crossed in front of me. Just indicating, “Nope, I’m not super happy with what’s happening right now, but I want to communicate this with you, and I don’t have my face to really explain that.” We’ll talk about voice in a little bit.

But either emotion, this approval, or even if I’m questioning something, another thing that I’ve done is my hands are often coming out in this question. You know the emoji; the two hands up, shoulders up a little bit, what are you talking about, that type of a look. My whole body is doing that instead of just my words or my face, because I had found that my mouth is muffled to a certain degree. And so using my whole body definitely has been a change that I’ve done in my classroom and has been working with my students thus far.

Another thing when I was coming back into school and I was asked to wear mask, is I was watering wondering about students not being able to hear me as well. Well, I had mentioned this a couple of times on this podcast because it truly is part of my practice, my everyday practice. I went to a training a couple of years ago. It was called Envoy then, and now it’s called The Catalyst Approach, which is a better name for it because of what it stands for. I’ve even interviewed some of the trainers on this podcast before. So we’ll put that interview in the podcast notes, in case you’re curious as to learning more about it because it’s become the biggest tool in my toolbox. It’s almost like a Swiss army knife. Okay. So The Catalyst Approach is the big red Swiss army knife, and then all the parts of it; the corkscrew and the little mini knife and the can opener, these are all the parts that come out of The Catalyst Approach.

One of the big ones is talking about value of voice. This has become so valuable to me as a teacher wearing a mask. Many times we give directions and we walk into the room and we say something. I’m just going to give an example. Let’s see, “The first thing you’re going to do is put your name on the back of your artwork. Okay. Yep. Go ahead and do that. Get started on your art. Oh, don’t forget your name. Actually, why don’t you flip your paper over? Don’t forget to write your name on the back. Make sure that your name is on the back. If you have your name on the back, go ahead and get started on the rest of the artwork. Okay. And your name is on the back, great.”

Then you go to gather all of them at the end of the hour and five out of the 30 kids did not write their name on the back. And you’re wondering how can this be? I literally said it 30 times during this hour that you need to write your name on the back. What’s happening is they’re tuning out your voice. The students are tuning out your voice. Your voice has become white noise to them because it’s just constantly rambling directions and saying the same thing. Okay. I have my name on the back. I’m going to just shut that voice off and not listen to anything else because I’m working on my project right now. You don’t want your voice to become white noise.

Part of The Catalyst Approach is value to voice. So the words that you say are really thoughtful. You also want to wait until your students are completely quiet before you give any instructions. Sometimes this can take a really long time. But being patient, having some procedures. So maybe you say, “Boys and girls, quiet voices, please.” You say that in a very strong upper voice, one that is stronger than the students in your classroom, and possibly hold your hand up.

This is just one example. I hold my hand up with five fingers on it and then I bring it down to four and three, until I eventually slowly bring my fingers down to zero. My hope is that by the time I get to zero, most students are quiet and looking up at me. This five finger countdown allows my students to wrap up the conversation that they’re having and tell their neighbor, “Hey, Ms. Hahn needs our attention,” whatever it is. And then the voices just calmly come down. This is of course on one of my better days, right? Of course, there’s times that maybe I need to do a second, “Boys and girls, I need your attention,” and maybe start with a five again.

Once voices are quiet and I’m ready to give an instruction, what The Catalyst Approach suggests is that you use a quiet voice to start out with. “Thanks for listening guys.” You’ll say that very quietly. “Thanks for listening students.” “Okay, now what we’re going to do;” that gives us a little bit of a pause. Students are kind of leaning in to hear what did she just say? Their attention is focused in on the secret that I’m giving them. It usually has very little to do with the content.

Or I might even repeat myself. “Now that we have our geometric shapes … now that we have our geometric shapes, we’re going to,” AB and C. So now you’re moving on, but you give them that little secret first. Then you bring your voice up to kind of a regular voice level, so just a talking voice level, because you have your students bringing their bodies and their ears into what you’re saying. Now you can speak at a normal tone and not raise your voice over them.

You guys, how many times have you had a loud classroom and you’re trying to get their attention? And so you bring your voice up higher, and then a lot of times what I found is they bring their voices up higher. What you’re doing is competing with them. You’re adding to that verbal pollution that’s happening in the classroom, and they’re competing with you. So raising your voice escalates things. The Catalyst Approach suggests the opposite. When you bring your voice down, when you make it calm, when you wait for attention, this is when students will bring their attention to you and you don’t have to speak in a loud voice.

I also have a microphone and this microphone sits on my chest and it actually doesn’t work off from projection, but rather it’s working off from my vocal chords. It sits next to my vocal chords as I’m speaking. This has been a godsend just because it allows the students with different abilities of hearing to also hear me, even though I’m talking in a regular conversational voice. That is a tool that I still appreciate, and it has been helpful with a mask. Also, I’m really thinking about how I enunciate my words when I’m speaking.

Another way that I’m doing the same with my voice is giving intention to my message. I do that through video. A lot of times I will record my video ahead of time, giving students the ability to see my face, my full face without a mask on. I also give students the ability to look closer at my hands. This is something I’ve practiced over the last 10 years I’d say, creating a video and actually using it in my instruction during my class period. It has given me so much peace in instruction. I might show one section of my video. I might say, “Today, we’re going to learn about geometric shapes,” and then I’ll push play on the video. The kids know the meat, the instruction, the importance is in that video, so they’re going to look at that video.

I don’t know, I want to say it has something to do with this YouTube generation as well, but if it’s on YouTube, if it’s in a video, they seem, at least in my class, they seem to cue in a little bit closer. Plus, a lot of times I am showing a demonstration with my hands, where I can get up nice and close and personal and actually show my hands, like from making a pinch pot, like twisting and pinching, twisting and pinching, and we can have a real close view of what my hands are actually doing. This helps communicate as well, but really the videos can be used in so many versatile ways, ways that we would have never even thought of in previous years.

For example, my video can be shared with a teacher if I’m going into their classroom to teach. Maybe some of you are on carts and you’re moving into the different spaces, you can send a teacher, a video and possibly have them play it as you’re setting up your classroom. You can use that video to share with students who are learning at home. Of course we know this; a lot of us are teaching in this sort of way, teaching students at home using a video. We can use this to communicate with special ed teachers that are helping with students who need that additional support in their classroom, maybe being pulled out of your classroom for either the whole hour or part-time.

I also share it on Schoology and Seesaw, so parents know a lot of times the concepts that I’m covering as well. This video allows me in the classroom with my mask on to project what I’m trying to say, to communicate at whatever volume I so choose for my students. It has been a really powerful tool as I’m teaching with a mask on. The Catalyst Approach really highlights the idea of non-verbals as well.

Taking this training, I’ve learned that having visual and written directions allows my students to go to work and have fewer questions when it’s work time. I’m going to just bring you through that. After I give a demonstration, either live, like in person, maybe how to draw something or whatever, or showing the video, I will pause at a certain part, and then I will walk over to my whiteboard where I have three words. There’s actually four in most classrooms, but for art, I feel that three works.

The fourth is you would have the word “need”. That indicates what you need. What tools do you need to create your art for today?

“Put” is the next word that I have on the board. That means, where am I going to put this piece of artwork when I’m done? Does this go on the drawing rack? Does it go in the turn-in bin? Where’s this going to go when I’m done?

The next one is “do”. What are you going to be doing? In what order?

“Then” is the next word that would be on your board. I have these made in magnets so that I can move them up and down, according to what I’m writing. Then just means if I’m done early, what are my options? Am I going to work in my sketchbook? Am I going to have free draw? Am I going to be working on the carpet with blocks and manipulatives? It tells the students what they can do when they’re finished as well.

Let’s go back to those instructions, the do. I told you I don’t need very often. I go into do, because I find that I put the tools in and the materials in with my do. I might say number one with a Sharpie, and I have a magnet that looks like a Sharpie, I’ll put that magnet up there. With a Sharpie, you’re going to draw a texture on the turtle. Okay. I’ll write texture on the turtle with the Sharpie right beside it.

Number two, when you’re done with that, you’re going to take texture plates and crayons. I’ll put a texture plate up there with a magnet and crayons with a magnet and add the background. I’ll draw a little turtle and the background is colored in. Or I might actually have a turtle that I’ve made that looks like theirs and it shows the background colored in.

Number three, color the inside of the turtle with the medium of your choice. I might put up markers and colored pencils and crayons beside that instruction. Then I will say, “Do you have any questions?” I have been working on this for a long time, so I actually don’t even say the words anymore. I can just raise my hand. I raise my right hand, and then I point to my hand up with my left, left hand is pointing, and students know that they can ask their questions then.

To begin with when I was training my students that cue, that nonverbal cue, I would raise my hand, point to it and say, “Any questions?” Next class, raise my hand, point to it, “Any questions?” Next class, I might raise my hand, point to it and pause. If nobody’s raising their hands I might say, “Any questions?” as a reminder. Eventually you’re going to reduce your verbals and just use your cues of your hands. I’ll raise my hand, point to it. Now students are raising their hand ready to ask me a question. “Should I write my name on the turtle?” a student might ask? I say, “Oh my gosh, we forgot to put that on here.” So I’ll go back over there, and before number one, the instruction of number one, I will write, “Write your name on your paper. Good idea. Thanks for bringing that up.” A lot of times students will discover steps that I forgot to write down for them.

The next question might be, “Miss Hahn, can I use markers with the texture plates?” Now instead of responding verbally I might nod my head no, because we’ve already gone over this, and then I’ll point to step number two, where it says texture plates with crayons. And then I’ll look at them, so I’m saying nod, “No, texture plate with crayons,” and then look at them and give them a thumbs up, like, do you understand? And they’ll go … their head will nod up and down. We’ve had this whole conversation with no words. Also I’ve reinforced where the resource is. If I don’t know what to do or what medium to use, where do I look? I’ve not only reinforced that for that one individual student, but also for the entire class.

Using those non-verbals in training your kids in what the icons mean or your body language, is absolutely essential to saving your voice and communicating with a mask on. Once all questions have been answered, I release the students and I wait until everybody gets settled in. Even if a student raises their hand right away, I might give them the universal one moment please; one finger up, one moment. They know that I’ve seen them, but they know that I’m going to be waiting for just a minute.

Once all of the students slowly get into their places and are all working independently, except for one or two, I will slowly walk to each of the children that are still not working. I’ll say, “Do you have a question?” If they ask me a question that’s on the board, I’m going to bring them to the board and point what answer … again, just kind of reinforcing the answer non-verbally. I might whisper, “Do you understand that?” Most of the time that helps them out. I might go around and do that for multiple kids.

I use non-verbals signs and signage on a regular basis. Even when students are coming into my classroom, I have a whiteboard that has a handle on it. I recently got these this year and I absolutely love them. I might write just maybe two. Two is really the most that I ever write, two directions as students are coming in. The direction might say, “Go to your seat. Open up Schoology.” I stand there and I’m holding it as students are coming in. We have in our fifth grade, about 35 kids coming into my classroom at once and so the line is super long.

I could continue to say, “Go to your seat. Open up your Schoology. Go to your seat. Open up your Schoology. Go to your seat. Open up your Schoology,” for every 35 kids that are coming in, or I can stand there, give them the smile with my eyes, not my mouth, and hold the sign allowing my fifth graders to read those two words and then be prepared once I’m able to enter the room as well. Another two direction welcoming sign might be, “Supplies are at your table. Go sit at your sit spot.”

For my youngest artists, I might actually have a picture of someone sitting on the carpet. “Get a worksheet. Go to your seat. Get your sketchbook.” Sketchbooks are held in my room, and they’re a three minute activity just to hand out all of the sketchbooks. So if I can give students that initial welcome, and they’re doing that activity, I don’t have to welcome them in the classroom and then take time to have that distribution; I can just go ahead and get started right away with instruction when everybody’s sitting down again.

I also have used the table markers at each of my tables. Currently I’m using numbers. So I have a table, one, two, three, four, five, all the way up to 10. At the front of the room, I have one through 10 as well. This really helps me with transitions quite often. I will say, “Okay, if you are ready to go, show me.” They know again, we’ve practiced this in the past, that their table needs to be cleared, their supplies need to be organized by them. Students are bringing in their own toolbox this year. I teach them to sit at their table with their hands together and look up at me.

I’ll wait, and when I see a table that is doing this wholeheartedly, then I’ll point to their table. So maybe table number three. I point to the number three, and that table knows that they can lineup. They push in their chairs and lineup. It’s amazing. Once one table has lines up, more tables start settling down. More friends tell their table mates, “Shh. I want to go. I want to get in line,” and they’re quiet. They’re looking at me because they want to see if they’re the next number that has been chosen. I point out a second number. That table pushes in their chairs and lines up.

I’m not using my voice at all anymore. I’m pointing to numbers and I’m giving some thumbs up when they’re doing what I really appreciate, or when they’re doing their job. By the time all students are lined up, there might be one or two tables that just need that extra little help, and I’ll be able to walk over there and help them, of course.

We went over a ton of things, but here are some things that I would recommend if you are teaching with a mask on. Consider using videos to truly explain your thoughts. Actually, I’m going to stop there and do this as an outro. Okay.

Today, we talked about just a plethora of ideas to really help you out as you’re teaching with a mask on. Let’s go over those one more time so that you can let your brain think about which ones would fit best into your situation, your teaching situation.

Do you think that adding videos into your face-to-face classroom is appropriate at this point? Is that something that you would want to include to save your voice and to help with communication? Remember, you have value in your voice. Use your voice when it’s most important. Don’t let it become white noise. Make sure that you are using non-verbals as much as possible; writing out instruction, using cues with your body, as well as little icons with your instructions. Making sure that you can communicate as often with non-verbals. And of course, make sure that you’re giving that smile, even if it’s just with your eyes, to every student you encounter.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.