How 3rd Grade Elementary Teacher, Marisol Rojas fostered autonomy in her classroom through empathy and innovation during a global pandemic.
October 4, 2021
When the world shifted online, making sure students got everything they needed to be successful learning from home was a challenge that required patience, empathy, and innovation.
Marisol Rojas, 3rd Grade Elementary Teacher at Hiawatha Schools saw the move to online learning as a way to further build connections with students and their families on an individual and community level. The Chicago-Northwest Indiana '14 Teach For America Alum managed to support her students in building community even at a distance, allowing them to truly feel valued in her classroom even when online.
One of the largest parts of Marisol's strategy for student success in the unprecedented year was organizing virtual home visits to meet her students’ families. By connecting directly with her students at home support system, she built a shared understanding and partnership to further ensure success.
For Marisol, the connection with families is personal. Reflecting on her own education experience, she realized how things like inflexible scheduling and language barriers create gaps in success.
““I always had to do the translating,” said Marisol, speaking on her childhood experience, “and it wasn’t fair to [my parents], they felt intimidated going into schools because they couldn’t speak the language” ”
Marisol's endless motivation comes from her own experiences as a student. Growing up, her educational experience was not as fulfilling as it could have been, and Marisol is motivated to ensure her students do not feel the same way. Recognizing the ways that schools can be inaccessible or intimidating to parents, Marisol is always intentional about bringing the classroom community together and making it as connected and accessible as possible. Marisol recognized that community building as an educator is integral in ensuring student success. Student success needs to be approached holistically- and including families and caregivers in that journey is integral. With so much of the year's turmoil happening directly in the school’s neighborhood, that connection and accessibility was as important as ever to Marisol.
“Right now we’re balancing school and real life,” said Marisol, “I was really trying to be there and be as supportive as I could.”
Through building trust between herself and the families, Marisol was able to also create a system of accountability and independence in her young students.
“I really made it a point for students to understand their own learning,'' said Marisol, ''and to take the approach of ‘I want to do this’ first.” This approach involved ensuring students knew their own learning targets and objectives through reflection. “After we're done with the lesson I would ask students to reflect,” said Marisol.
The focus on reflection allowed for students to stay in touch with their learning targets. If a student was missing the target, or felt frustrated, Marisol had the time and tools to individually work with them. “Zoom was just able to help me,” said Marisol, “I had more opportunities to meet with them one on one. I was able to meet with them after school hours.”
This new tool, thanks to the unexpected impact of COVID-19 created a way for Marisol to be more innovative in her classroom to better meet the needs of her students. With kids coming in at different stages in their learning, being able to better individualize learning, and equip students with self-advocating tools motivated Marisol.
Through engaging personally with students, Marisol encouraged her classroom to embrace taking ownership of their learning. Instead of skimming over the learning objectives before every class, Marisol created space for her students to internalize and interact with them, using them as a roadmap for their learning. With the intention of fostering intrinsic motivation in her students, she even held reflection days so that students could pinpoint their own growth and goals for themselves.
“It felt really good as a teacher,” said Marisol, “knowing that students could use that language and could go into the next year, being like, ‘these are things I’ve mastered, and these are still things I’m growing in and having that growth mindset versus thinking ‘I can’t do it’.”
“Marisol is the epitome of a student-centered educator. Marisol believes in the boundless potential of every student, and therefore builds deep, meaningful relationships with them and their families. She is an exceptional teacher and makes every lesson relevant, joyful and challenging. Furthermore, Marisol builds a culture of learning that is palpable: her students collaborate and join together to learn, grow and celebrate one another in their successes and challenges. ”
Before joining the TFA Corps, Marisol was studying to be a child psychologist, so her interest in the development of youth extends beyond the classroom. Marisol finds herself looking past test scores and state standards and looking for vocal and non-vocal feedback. How students react to the school, the classroom, and once online, trying to mimic the joy and engagement she produced in the physical classroom.
In 2020, Marisol worked with TFA Twin Cities as a content specialist, imparting her insights on the importance of family connection with corps members. During Saturday sessions, Marisol challenged corps members to think about how they can incorporate students' identities, real-life events, and their unique personalities and learning styles into each lesson.
Marisol was compelled to share her insights because her own success came from asking for help. As a TFA alum, she relied on support from the community. “I really had to step out of my comfort zone,” said Marisol, “and ask for help and find resources outside of the school.”
“I had to really ask other people who I knew who were in the teaching field longer than I was around what I should do, what things I should try, what video I should watch, what I should read. I really just took it upon myself to really figure out what the best things to do in my classroom were” said Marisol.
Although the past year was unprecedented, innovative teachers looked to their communities and within themselves to create positive outcomes for students. When families and students worried that 2020 would be brushed away as a lost year of learning, teachers like Marisol Rojas stepped up to the challenge to open up their approaches to education as the world was shutting down creating changes that will last long after we return back to normal.