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Moving Forward with Successful Online Instruction and Engagement

Four standout teachers describe the successful spring strategies they’re carrying over into the 2020-21 year

With the immediate shift to remote learning nationwide in March, countless teachers across the country had a lot of learning to do. What works best in online instruction? How can I keep my students engaged and connected, both academically and with respect to social-emotional needs? 

In this article, for elementary and middle school teachers, each of whom is part of the 2020 class of Extraordinary Educators named by Curriculum Associates, share some of the strategies that worked best for them in the spring, which they are carrying forward this fall. Find out how they are supporting students and families during this difficult period, to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be successful.

What are a couple of successful practices you developed in the spring that you are continuing with, and perhaps even building upon, in the new academic year?

Amanda Kipnis

Special Education Teacher

San Altos Elementary School, Lemon Grove, Calif.

I’ve sat through (literally) hundreds of hours of professional development since March 13th. The Friday the 13th that ended (hopefully temporarily) our lives as we know them. Some webinars have inspired me. Some, but not all, have taught me new skills. In a strange twist of events, the most relevant and useful trainings I have found came from…Facebook! 

I, along with hundreds of thousands of educators around the world, have gone down the rabbit hole and into the world of Bitmoji classrooms. I have spent hours learning how to create the perfect virtual classroom. Do you need a Bitmoji to be a successful virtual teacher? Of course not. But here’s my simple reason for doing it: it’s fun! If I’m going to spend hours of my little free time bettering myself, I want to enjoy it. I want to learn from it. And I’ve learned a lot. I can now create engaging and interactive synchronous and asynchronous lessons in Google Slides. I can now post a video to YouTube and add Safe YouTube links to inviting pictures and voice recordings for my nonreaders. I can track their progress. I’ve learned more in the last five months than I have in the last five years. If adding baseball and Harry Potter to my classroom motivate me to keep going, then so be it. My Bitmoji has rekindled my love of learning, and I’m excited to see how far it’ll take me!

Cynthia Chapman

5th grade teacher

Elsie Johnson Elementary School, Hanover Park, Ill.

One successful practice I developed in the spring was to create weekly agenda slides. This provided students and parents an opportunity to see what the day’s activities would be and would include the link to the video or assignment they needed to complete their assignment. All of this was connected into their Google Classroom. 

Another successful practice I developed was celebrations! Children love to be celebrated and we do so much of this in the classroom; why would we stop just because we are virtual? I celebrated for weekly accomplishments in i-Ready, work completion, participation during Zoom calls, helping their peers and being a leader. Some of this could be helping a peer remember to log into Zoom on time or remembering to turn in an assignment, or better yet helping their friend offline via online video calls when they needed to have a friend explain a concept or procedure. Sometimes having information shared in a kid-friendly way makes all the world of difference! I also celebrated my students and continue to do so with online certifications and mailed certifications, video messages, and actual phone calls home. They love the attention, especially since we are at home most of the time.

Carrie Claypool

Middle School Math Teacher 

Lakeside Middle School, Perris, Calif.

A successful practice I learned in the spring is to prepare and post activities for the entire week. This has been helpful as students have access to content prior to class, can preview, and ask questions. It has also been helpful when there are issues with our “live” distance learning classes. Students still are able to access and complete their work.

Meghan Mayer

Middle School Language Arts Teacher

Brookside Middle School, Sarasota, Fla.

Sending my students and their families an agenda at the start of each week was critical. It not only kept me on target, but it helped the parents and their learners to plan out the week accordingly. Also setting a Zoom schedule, sticking to it, and creating an objective for the Zoom became an important piece for student engagement. If the students knew we would be working on a particular task, such as a Kahoot! game, they were much more likely to participate.

 

In many cases, parents and guardians have had to play a more direct role in supporting their child’s education while schools and students are engaged in distance learning. How can educators help parents succeed as co-facilitators for students’ learning at home?

Meghan Mayer

Communication is key, but it’s not always easy. I found that a lot of parents were much quicker to respond to a text versus an email, and especially versus a phone call. Once we open the lines of communication using the channel the parents most prefer, it makes everything a lot easier. They were more likely to ask for help or clarification once we had already established an open line of communication.

We can also help parents by educating them on the different resources we provide. Just sending a link isn’t always enough. Parents have enough on their plates, so we shouldn’t expect them to research a resource if we can provide the background information needed.

Carrie Claypool

Educators can help parents succeed as co-facilitators by communicating through email and through Google Classroom. Educators must be cognizant that each student’s home environment is different, and may not always be equally conducive to learning. Educators must be flexible, understanding, and open-minded throughout this entire process.

Cynthia Chapman

I feel the one way educators can help parents succeed as a co-facilitator for their students learning at home is to keep the lines of communication open. Offer multiple ways for parents to contact you and have parents choose which one meets their needs. Not every parent likes emailing. Some prefer communicating via Seesaw, Remind, and other tools because they only have school-related information about their child and don’t get mixed up in their personal email. Allow parents to call you if that works for them. Our school voicemail also is connected to our email and as I receive a message, I can listen to the voicemail even if I am working from home that day and call the parent back to help.

Another way for educators to assist parents is to offer a copy of their weekly agenda. This gives parents an opportunity to see upcoming assignments and prepare if they need to check out a video or look over the work that may be posted already. Speaking of videos, that would be one of my favorite ways to assist parents. Many parents reach out to YouTube videos and Google to help them reteach a lesson to their child in the evening when they are doing homework, so why not make that video they use be one of ourselves? Students and parents will hear exactly the way you explain a concept and that way there is a connection between your lesson and the video they are watching. I know in my videos I give those quick tips that I also share in class and then all of us are on the same page. Why not also include an infographic with a visual model of concepts and processes? 

Finally, I feel the most important thing to highlight is to have patience. As educators we already feel the stress of planning for online learning so I can only imagine what parents are feeling. Let your families know their feelings are valid and that you are there to support them. If their child is having meltdowns or refusing to work, sometimes the best thing is to tell the parent it is okay to pack it all up and start again the next day. Struggling with a child who is frustrated then causes frustration throughout the home, and especially now, home needs to be a safe place. Let them know it’s okay and just to email you that their child was struggling and as the teacher I would follow up with the child and parent the next day.

 

Education has changed dramatically due to COVID-19 school closures, including the rise in online learning, cancellation of standardized tests, changes to grading standards, and more. What is one notable change you want to see stay and why?

Amanda Kipnis

Getting rid of standardized tests that only stress out students and teachers alike is great. Virtual meetings that increase efficiency by putting everything in an email are wonderful (and long overdue). But the most important change I’ve seen that I pray continues is a universal emphasis on social-emotional learning (SEL). 

Dr. Ernie Mendes says it best in his book Empty The Cup Before You Fill It Up. His theory is that we need to create mental and emotional space for learning. Brilliant. Why, then, do SEL lessons become an afterthought for Friday afternoons? Why do SEL lessons get replaced by makeup and supplemental reading/math lessons? My guess is that emotional intelligence isn’t on the state tests, and therefore, not a priority. Some people still consider social and emotional skills instruction as frivolous and “extra.” The crazy thing is, explicit SEL instruction not only fosters a safe learning environment, it increases positive behaviors, and enhances students’ ability to succeed in school (and in life). Seems like something we’d all want for our students. Yet it took a global pandemic to push SEL to the forefront of our discussions. In districts everywhere students’ and parents’ emotional needs are being considered. Even teachers are being asked how we’re feeling! In 15 years of teaching, I’m not sure I’ve ever truly reflected on how I’m feeling. Which is crazy, because we all know we have to put our mask on first, before we can help the child next to us.

Carrie Claypool

Working together as a collaborative team is something I hope will continue once everything normalizes. Teacher teams have really come together to share ideas and resources. We are sharing best practices now, more than ever before. We are learning from one another and creating memorable learning experiences.

Cynthia Chapman

One change I would like to see stay is the ability for students to have access to devices daily, even at home, and an upgraded internet that is affordable for all families. So many of our families, and especially now with more layoffs every day, have not had internet access due to financial constraints or their location. Many do not have personal laptops or computers and rely on school issued devices. If we wish students to become more proficient with technology skills, they need to have the tools. How many times have we assigned work to students without taking into account they may not have the right access? I feel it is important as a country, we need to ensure that all students have access. I am proud to say my district has stepped up to the challenge and is supporting all of our students. Our students have iPads in the lower grades and Macs in the upper grades. Having these tools, I then have students who can contact me during their homework time and I can Zoom with them and help as needed. This is in addition to the time we are together via Zoom throughout the day.

As teachers, we then need to make sure we are using this internet and computer platform for more than just having students regurgitating information back at us and changing paper worksheets to digital worksheets. We are beyond that! We need to take this opportunity to teach students how to communicate and learn using the digital tools in front of them. We need to be creative in our approaches and when we don’t know how to do something, reach out for help via the district professional development, online webinars, and coworkers who can facilitate the learning. If the training or professional development you are receiving is not meeting your needs, let those in change know what you need from them. For those in charge, listen to what your teachers need. Asking their opinion about something so important and can be eye opening. Teachers are investing their outside time and energy into meeting their students’ needs and the PD needs to do the same for them. It cannot be fluff anymore. Students don’t need or want fluff and neither do teachers.

Meghan Mayer

There are several changes I would love to see, starting with the amount of testing. I believe the standardized tests are important, but our children are tested far too much. I also love the concurrent model to a certain extent. I think back to a lot of situations where having a digital platform that matched what I was doing in person would have been extremely helpful. I have always had several students each year who struggle with attendance, and it’s never easy to get them caught up, especially when they are already behind. Moving forward, even when things go back to normal, I think having an online classroom needs to remain a priority.

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