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An Innovative Journey: Use of Total Physical Response (TPR) in an Online Classroom during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ed Prep Matters features the “AACTE Teacher Stories,” series to spotlight the experiences of K-12 educators who are attending or are alumni of AACTE member institutions. AACTE invites preservice and in-service school teachers to reflect on how they are applying the practices, frameworks, and strategies they acquired during their educator preparation program (EPP) studies to assure student success.  Email stories to knorfleet@aacte.org.

This article is authored by Michael A. Chuntz, a 5th grade math, science, and social studies teacher at Somerset Intermediate School in North Plainfield, NJ. This story was nominated by Heejung An, his master’s thesis advisor at the College of Education, William Paterson University of New Jersey, where he obtained his master’s degree in May 2021.

Boy using laptop to complete math assignment

Let’s face it, most of us taught to black boxes the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year. Were our students even there? Were they aimlessly scrolling through TikTok the entire class? Were they sleeping? Or were they taking care of their younger siblings while their family members worked? More importantly, were they learning?

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many PreK-12 teachers, like myself, to continuously question whether our students were grasping the concepts taught throughout the school year. This made many of us wonder if we were in the right profession, no matter how many years of experience we had. As a 5th grade math, science, and social studies sheltered instruction teacher who teaches ESL level II, III, and IV students, I questioned daily whether my students were retaining and understanding the information covered in my virtual class. I knew I had to change my style of teaching in order to better motivate and engage my students through our online classes transpiring on Zoom. The most successful strategy I learned to implement during the pandemic crisis was the practice known as Total Physical Response (TPR).  TPR is a method used to teach language or techniques through the use of physical motion. By incorporating this method into my practice, it allowed me to informally assess students throughout the lesson for understanding and allowed them to deepen their understanding of content.  

In science, we used TPR as a way of learning about the states of matter. When discussing how the particles in solids, liquids, and gases move, I used my body to model how the particles in each state of matter would move if they were in a jar. For solids, I stood in front of my camera completely still. For liquids, I slowly swayed back and forth with a couple of spins thrown in since liquid particles do not have a set arrangement. For gases, I ran around the classroom to mimic how gas particles move freely. Before beginning the lesson, I had let my students know that they only had to participate if they were comfortable and willing to do so. The moment we learned about how gas particles move, almost every camera went from a black box to a student’s bright and smiling face. Let’s be honest, what kid doesn’t want to run around their room? Through the use of motion, students were able to not only deepen their level of understanding but have fun while being confined to learn from their homes. I felt that this was a lesson they will always remember moving forward.

Implementing TPR in our math class was slightly different from science. I focused more on having hand signals that students could use to show understanding or to model procedural steps in a problem. For example, we used our hands/arms to make signals for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. This allowed all students to non-verbally participate throughout the lesson. Many of the shyer students would turn their cameras on during this time, point them to the ceiling to hide their faces, and just put their hands in sight to answer questions. Our biggest triumph using TPR was finding quotients to long division problems with decimals. This tends to be one of the trickiest standards for students to master each year. For each problem, we would all model the steps in order, using hand signals, to work through the problem. First, we divided (hand across chest making a half X). Next, we multiplied (making an X with fingers/hands). Then, we subtracted (finger making a subtraction sign), and we checked (students gave thumbs up/down). Finally, we brought it down (students use fingers to point to the floor). We would repeat this process until the problem was solved. By using TPR, students were once again able to increase their understanding of a difficult concept while moving and having fun.

As challenging as teaching during a pandemic was, there were some highlights and silver linings. When the year first started, it was rare to see more than a couple of student faces daily, let alone get students to participate over Zoom. By implementing new strategies such as TPR, not only did the engagement rise in my online class, but it allowed me to formatively assess students and clearly see that they were in fact learning during a pandemic. I know that when I see my previous students in the halls in future years and ask them to model how particles move they will be able to model it very easily. Moving forward, TPR is something that I plan to rely on as we welcome all students back to our brick and mortal classrooms this upcoming school year. The strategy I tried while overcoming barriers during the pandemic will remain as my innovative teaching and assessment strategy after the pandemic ends regardless of the modality of teaching.

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