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Evaluating What Worked Best in the Rapid Distance Learning Transition

Part one of a three-part series features strategies from teachers at The Windward School, as they reflect on successful practices from the spring semester

School leaders across the country are working hard to prepare for the fall semester amid ongoing uncertainty about what back to school season will eventually look like. As teachers prepare to begin instruction, they are leaning on the experiences of peers to find strategies that will support students regardless of the learning context.

In this three-part series, teachers across various subjects and grade levels from The Windward School will share their reflections from the spring semester and the transition to distance learning, before describing how they’re using the summer months to plan for 2020-21 and eventually sharing their strategies for back to school success. Located in New York, which for much of the spring was the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, The Windward School had to navigate various online platforms to assist the school’s researched-focus teaching models. Using recording tools and a variety of apps, educators successfully transformed their teaching and learning that fit within students’ at-home environments.

In part one below, teachers reflect on their most memorable, influential, and successful efforts from the previous semester:

Reflecting back on the transition to distance learning this past spring, what was most influential or memorable from your experience?

Dina DiGiacomo, Language Arts Teacher:

What stands out the most was the resiliency of my students. While remote learning posed many challenges, my fifth graders showed up every day eager to learn. They were able to adapt to various online platforms, self-advocate when something was challenging, and demonstrate knowledge in ways unavailable to them before. Although we were physically apart, this year’s class grew closer and formed stronger bonds than I had ever anticipated. We shared our triumphs, frustrations, and thoughts, as well as our pets and hobbies! Getting to know my students in a different setting outside of the classroom enabled me to develop a deeper understanding of them as learners and the incredible children they are. 

Karen Ralph, Life Science and Biology Teacher:

The most influential moments throughout distance learning occurred during my virtual office hours. It was then that I could work with students struggling to understand the lessons that I taught. On most occasions, I carefully scheduled times to work with students on a one-on-one basis. I was determined to help students achieve a clearer understanding of concepts they were trying to grasp. It was pleasing to see smiles and hear the words “thank you” from the students at the end of the office hour sessions.

One particular day with four of my seventh grade classes stands out the most. Our focus for the day was extracting DNA from strawberries. While some students were in their kitchens, others were in living rooms or other areas of their homes. They were watching and listening to me so carefully and asking questions about the lab activity’s written and oral procedures. Some students were able to extract DNA while others were unsuccessful in the task, but overall, the students remained fully engrossed in the activity from the beginning of class to the end.

Jessica Sorna, Fourth Grade Teacher:

Seeing my students develop a new level of independence truly stands out. In the school setting, students learn routines and expectations early so they can execute them successfully throughout the year. But in the blink of an eye, our students needed to learn a new schedule, a new learning platform, and new routines that were unique to each student. I’m so proud of my students for continuing to attend class on time, being prepared with necessary materials, and completing and submitting their work. They learned all of this while upholding the expectations that were established months prior. This goes to show that modeling a structured and well-organized environment for students allows them to apply these strategies independently when necessary.

Deirdre McKechnie, Second Grade Language Arts and Math Teacher:

The most memorable moment occurred as I was reading Charlotte’s Web during office hours. I looked up, and instead of seeing the normal seven faces, there were twelve. The class had their siblings join our group during the read aloud! They were all sitting quietly, totally engrossed in the story, and I realized that what we were doing was having an impact on students and their families.

What online teaching and learning strategies did your students respond to the best?

Karen Ralph:

My seventh and ninth grade students learn best when they can see and touch manipulatives—physical objects that are used as teaching tools in order to help students make sense of vocabulary words and science concepts. Teaching students science vocabulary out of context simply does not work.

Manipulatives can be used as part of a demonstration or a lab investigation. During remote learning, we had to get creative to find manipulatives using household items. A few examples of manipulatives that my seventh grade students used to extract DNA were strawberries, dishwashing liquid, rubbing alcohol, and salt. My seventh grade students also observed eggs to determine if they were fertilized or unfertilized. They learned the technique of candling eggs to see the inside. Candling an egg requires an uncooked egg and a LED flashlight or a cell phone flashlight.

Jessica Sorna:

My students benefited from having synchronous language arts and math classes five days a week. Being face-to-face, even in a virtual setting, allowed me to continue following the Direct Instruction model that we use in school. Namely, the guided practice function, which follows an “I do it, we do it, you do it” sequence, which allowed me to continue providing immediate feedback to students. 

For example, if a student reads a word incorrectly on a word list, I could prompt that student with corrective language, helping the student to re-read the word correctly. The students also responded well to the continued use of multi-sensory lessons. Through the Zoom platform, I was able to share my screen with the class providing a visual element to accompany the lesson. At the same time, students could hear me explain new concepts of skills while watching me model strategies on the screen in real-time. Kinesthetic elements, such as writing, were also incorporated into each lesson.

Deirdre McKechnie:

Breaking into smaller groups helped tremendously. Office hours in the afternoon were also beneficial. We used them every day to regroup, reread word lists and stories and end the day with a virtual read-aloud.

Dina DiGiacomo:

I found that increasing student engagement was key to our remote learning success. Any opportunity to personalize the information, create a visual, or use multimedia in my lessons helped students remain engaged and invested in their own learning. I used features found on our online platforms, such as polls in Zoom or announcements in Microsoft Teams, to increase participation and engagement. I also used online games such as Kahoot to create interactive lessons that helped measure student understanding while keeping students motivated and engaged.

The Windward School serves students who have been diagnosed with dyslexia and/or other language-based learning differences. What strategies can be replicated by other educators to best support and engage these students during distance learning?

Jessica Sorna:

During distance learning, it is imperative that teachers keep students engaged, especially those with language-based learning disabilities. One way to do this is to display copies of student materials on your screen. Not all families will be able to print worksheets, word lists, or other texts. Making copies available for students on your screen ensures that every student has what they need to participate in the lesson.

Educators should continue with oral reading and be prepared to support students who need help decoding unfamiliar words. Using the SMART Notebook program, when necessary, I displayed a copy of the word list and used the pen feature to elicit the syllabication of words. By doing this, all students could see how to syllabicate that word and make the same marks on their word lists. When students read in connected text, it’s vital to monitor their comprehension. At Windward, we do this by planning questions during the reading. And remember, it’s important to remember to ask questions to non-readers, too! Since you may not be aware of external distractions surrounding your students from a remote location, it will make sure they are following along in the text.

Dina DiGiacomo:

Windward’s multisensory approach is a trusted and proven method for teaching students with language-based learning disabilities. By creating online lessons that included a multitude of multisensory opportunities, I was able to support their needs during distance learning. In any one lesson, students would engage with the content through teacher-created smartboards, videos, and animated gifs, as well as teacher-direct instruction. Using the features of Zoom, I was able to increase student participation using the “thumbs up” feature, having them send a response through the “chat” feature or polling the class based on a particular idea using the “poll” feature. I found that students loved participating in this way. Teachers can easily transform their lessons using this multisensory approach by pulling in visual resources found in a multitude of online sources. Additionally, I found that having a predictable structure and routine for the day really helped my students know what to expect, especially with students learning at their kitchen table instead of in the classroom.

Karen Ralph:

When it comes to distance learning for students at Windward or any school, there’s simply no substitute for being able to see and speak to students. If seeing and talking to students in real-time is not an option, I recommend a platform that allows for the recording of lessons to be observed in their own time. It’s essential to use the same teaching strategies that students are already familiar with inside the recorded lessons. Try to engage students in learning about science by using common household materials to learn vocabulary words and science concepts. Show students that science is not restricted to the classroom by having them investigate a phenomenon using items easily purchased or found at home.  Finally, introduce students to watching wildlife through the use of existing webcams or virtual field trips. Keep students accountable by providing assignment sheets so that they can record their observations and data during these activities.

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