Jennifer Snelling
Teacher Nicole Butler-Hooton connects with her students remotely

During a unit on African-American history, Nicole Butler-Hooton asked her second-grade students if they had ever seen anyone in real life who looks like her friend Mr. Hale, a Black teacher from Texas. The mostly white class at Irving Elementary in Eugene, Oregon, took a look. No one raised their hand.

Hale talked about how sometimes people who look like him will play the bad guy in a movie, but not all people with dark skin are like that. Butler-Hooton helped the students understand the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. Even over Zoom, the conversation happened organically. Butler-Hooton ended by asking her students how they could be change-makers. And how they could get to know cultures different from their own.

A deep topic for second grade, but Hooton, Oregon’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, considers equity and social justice a mindset, core to how she approaches teaching every day.

“My mission is to create an environment where all students feel they belong. I will continue my efforts each day to be an educator who makes a difference for equity and social justice.” 

Connecting to cultural backgrounds

As a Siletz and Apache tribal member herself, it’s a topic close to her heart and how she was raised. “I had teachers who saw me and made me feel like I was part of the learning system,” she says. “I want to be the transformative educator that students remember. The one who listened and provided space for them to be their true authentic selves and connected with their cultural background. I want students to feel empowered through the lessons I provide to live in an anti-oppressive world.”

To that end, Butler-Hooton starts each year with a culture unit. Students share their family makeup, traditions, languages, foods they eat and holidays they celebrate. She also brings in indigenous storytellers, including from the federally recognized tribes of Oregon. Later in the year, students do a Google Slides presentation on the tribes.

Butler-Hooton also gets to know her students through data, a strategy that the pandemic has made easier in some ways. She pays close attention to data, whether reading data to support fluency, math data to demonstrate problem-solving skills, or just checking that the student is interacting and looking healthy when they log on.

“Data is part of everything we do in education,” she says. “All that information is going to help me make sure the curriculum is accessible for each student. I use data in a way that shows my students I am adjusting and meeting them where they are.”   

A personal touch

While she appreciates the technology now, early in the pandemic, it took extra effort to ensure every student's technology was working. She put on her mask, went to their houses and walked them through how to log onto Seesaw.

When parents reached out to tell her their child felt isolated, she stayed late on Zoom to allow for virtual playdates or games or charades or show and tell. She also started a weekly book club after school on Zoom, something she hopes to keep even after students return full time.

Now that her students are back in hybrid, she misses the connection that some of the online platforms created, including opportunities for a more interpersonal dialogue between teacher and student. Sometimes students felt more comfortable expressing themselves and asking for help online.

Now, if a student isn’t finishing their work, Butler-Hooton leaves them a voice message.

She also uses the platform to differentiate work for students ahead of grade level. If a student finishes early, she asks them, for instance, to circle an adjective and give her three more.
Another thing she’ll keep after the pandemic ends? “Being patient with ourselves as we are navigating technology,” she says. “And giving each other the grace of asking if there is a need.”

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Jennifer Snelling is an education blogger based in Eugene, Oregon, who explores how technology enriches and enhances learning.