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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Six Weeks Into Remote Teaching & Still Learning ...

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 01, 2020 13 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The question for this new series is:

Many schools have been teaching online for three or four weeks by now. What did you do at the start that you’re continuing to do because it’s working? What did you do at the start that you had to change and why? And what weren’t you doing at the beginning that you’re doing now and why?

Ashley McCall, Dr. Elvis Epps, Claudia Leon, and Lorie Barber “kicked off” the series in Part One.

In Part Two, Bill Ivey, Jessica Cabeen, Nick Fotopoulos, and David Sherrin shared their reflections.

Today, Holly Spinelli, Helen Vassiliou, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler write about their experiences.

I’m adding this post to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

A “student-centered model”

Holly Spinelli is an an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English, who began her career as an English teacher and student-rights activist in New York City public schools and continues this work in a public high school in the Hudson Valley, New York, and as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Orange County Community College:

Distance learning is a new experience for most educators and students alike. Thankfully, it’s an experience I haven’t faced alone. The support that teachers across the country give to one another is remarkable. For the past six weeks, I have been teaching over 100 high school students online, and though we seem to have found a descent rhythm, I must be prepared to adapt to any changes that arise. I started this journey by reaching out to my colleagues and joining online educator groups. These communities continue to positively shape my students’ and my current learning experiences. The professional folks with whom I interact share best practices to help one another transition from traditional classroom settings to online learning spaces. We’ve exchanged assignment modifications and “do-no-harm” assessment practices to support all students at all learning levels. We all have students’ and each other’s health and best interests at heart.

When the distance learning began, I knew I was, in some ways, expected to continue to educate students, but how? I questioned whether my online pedagogical approaches would be fair, equitable, and culturally responsive to students’ needs. My students’ health and well-being were, are, and always will be my greatest concern. At first, students expressed that they wanted actual material from our class. They wanted to keep learning. I wondered, should I continue to teach the material or do I focus on their well-being? Then I thought, why not both? I opened an optional discussion post for students to stay connected with their classmates and to share anything they wish. I’ve had students post creative videos, journal writing, recipes, movie reviews, playlists, and details about positive ways to pass the time while safely practicing social distancing. These discussion boards continue to be a source of joy and inspiration for us all.

In terms of more traditional academics, I tried to mimic our classroom routine to offer students a familiar educational experience. I posted daily low-stakes assignments, such as writing a two- to three- sentence response to a question about their daily lives and journaling about an item in their home that “tells a story,” like the plant for Mama in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. I thought trickling the assignments would be easy to manage and far less stressful than posting everything at once; I was wrong. I failed to realize that when many teachers posted new assignments each day, students were flooded with new work and electronic notifications. After the first full week, students and teachers were overwhelmed. I read through reflections and saw one student write, “I’m so stressed ... I feel like I’m drowning.” Once I read that response, I did what I should have done from the start: ask the students what works best for them. Amidst my own worry and panic, I forgot to do what matters most: confer with my students about what they need and then plan educational experiences that meet those needs. Once I did, students explained that they preferred a weekly post with all assignments listed. Looking back, this approach makes sense. The assignment process is now streamlined and manageable. The “deadlines” remain flexible. I’ve been doing this for the past five weeks, and many students remain actively engaged, because they enjoy the structure and the flexibility to work at a pace that makes sense for their current reality.

I appreciate my students’ honesty. Their voices and their needs were always the center of my physical classroom, and I recognize that I will continue this practice while distance learning, however, it needs to be different. At first, I approached the student-centered model the way I did when we were all in the classroom: Take small pieces of information and distribute them in small parts. Now, I recognize that doing so in the digital platform can become information overload. I began the distance-learning process with my students’ needs in mind, and I continue to do so as we take this journey together. I need to remember that with my colleagues’ support, and with my students’ input, we will make it through this together.

The importance of communication

Helen Vassiliou is an ESL specialist in West Chester, Ohio, who works with amazing language-learners and their families:

After five weeks of remote teaching, one thing has not changed—keeping clear and constant communication with families and students as a priority for success. I have always had very strong relationships with parents and students. Using tech tools such as Remind, and Talking Points, helps families and students receive real-time information from school and ask questions. Using communication apps has been working since the beginning of remote learning, and I will continue to use them. I am able to help parents problem solve as well as give students a way to communicate when they need clarification on assignments or need help navigating their learning platform. Many times, students just want to do a check-in to make sure you are still there for them. So much of what we do is built on relationships and trust, and students still need to communicate with us to make this transition easier for them.

At the start of remote learning, I gave students choices of assignments to complete each week. Students are being successful working at their own pace. Giving students a choice to how they show their learning has been more successful than holding them to stricter requirements. Students are writing their own books, conducting their own research to share, and making comics instead of essay writing. I continue to use activities we have always done in class and tech tools students are familiar with so that students feel successful working independently.

At the start of remote learning, I focused on giving students lots of work to complete for fourth quarter. I was worried they were missing out on content. As we got further along in remote learning, it was apparent that students were overwhelmed and frustrated. Instead of thinking about what work students missed, I focused on what students could continue to do and what they could be creating.

At the beginning of remote learning, I was concerned about getting students connected and getting them devices for access to school and learning. I was checking to see if they logged on every day. I am now more concerned with the face to face. I am doing more Zoom calls to keep students connected to me and each other. I am asking parents to join us to either share something with the students or teach them something new. On “Teach Me Tuesday,” kids are sharing something new they learned how to do on their own. One student shared his recipe for making hamburgers while another student showed us how to do the Moon Walk.

This shift for me was less about academics and more about the learning of new skills and ideas they are acquiring during this time of isolation. This week, a group of teachers and I did a reader’s theater for the students to watch to introduce them to plays. Next week, our Zoom session will be a live play with each student as a participant. I have started to move away from the “work” part of learning and more of the keeping our classroom community alive and my students feeling connected to each other. I am much more concerned with the mental health now and their endurance as we continue for five more weeks of remote learning. I am having to be more creative in my lessons, dusting off the guitar, for example, and playing students a song to sing together. I am worried about their stamina with remote learning, but I am confident that if we remain in communication with each other and connected, that we will be successful in lifting each other up to finish the school year strong.

Life in an online 2nd grade classroom

Michael Silverstone is a veteran 2nd grade teacher, who teaches at Wellan Montessori School near Boston, and with Debbie Zacarian is co-author of: Teaching to Empower: Taking Action to Foster Student Agency, Self-Confidence, and Collaboration (ASCD):

From the beginning, the need to connect with my students guided my sense of how to present myself as a teacher on screen. Here were my inner directions:

* Make a consistent spot in your house into a television studio; always use the same backdrop.

* Keep the background simple, homey, and uncluttered.

* Put the class pet, Cosmo the Gecko, his terrarium, and a student drawing on the white wall behind you with a plant and a bookcase.

* Dress up as you would for school.

* Make sure the window light is from the side or coming at you, don’t be behind it, or it will put you in darkness while the window itself is in proper illumination.

* Talk to the glowing green dot. Put an arrow with the words “look here” next to the dot to remind you you’re talking to it with a smile icon to remind you to smile at the beginning and the end.

* Talk to the child you remember. Just be together so they can feel the familiarity of their teachers’ regard. Talk right through the screen like this is just another time you are together at school

Some things we changed as we went along.

Something our team quickly realized was that with children, it was tricky to conduct an online conference with a full class of 25 and do the same kind of fluent give and take that we were used to in our classroom Morning Meeting without offering some additional structure. We had much better success when we:

* Asked everyone to start on mute and called on children whose hands were raised or called on them from a list.

* Had students prepare in advance for designated sharing time.

* Accepted the fact that large tele-meetings are not comfortable for every child and offer to provide them with small-group lessons and one-on-one tutorials so that they can get other ways to get what they need that feel more natural to them.

And what weren’t you doing at the beginning that you’re doing now and why?

After a few weeks, we changed from a midweek student-progress meeting check-in to a “study hall” instead. This virtual study hall is an opportunity for the students to approximate what it would be like to come to us for help in “real life.” Plus, there is the added bonus that sharing this time with a large group gives children the social-skills opportunity to practice waiting their turn while getting perspective from hearing what other people are working on.

“Right now is a time to hold our student’s hands”

Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English and science teacher at Fulton Middle School in Michigan and can be followed on Twitter @jeremybballer and found at his website jeremyhyler40.com:

In my school district, a large population of our students have internet access. So, we have been teaching remotely now for almost three weeks. Since the beginning, I have tried to roll things out slowly to the students. I have tried to emulate as if my students were sticking their toes in the water. Every other day, I have scheduled an announcement to go out on Google Classroom that is our joke of the day. There are always a few students that respond, and it generates a pleasant conversation that is nonacademic-related. In addition, I have been assigning one 20-30-minute assignment on Mondays and one 20-30-minute assignment on Wednesdays as well. I give my students until the end of the week to complete both assignments, and this seems to be working quite well for most students.

Besides the routines that are working, there are also some areas that have needed change and improvement. In the beginning, we have had our office hours slotted for two hours during the day, every day of the week. We have now changed them to just one hour a day due to low student turnout, and they have settled nicely into somewhat of a routine. With this change, we are freeing up more time for us as teachers to develop quality content to push out to our students throughout the week.

Now, with our remote feet wet and all of us pretty well plunged into the waters of Google Classroom, I have learned to manage my own time better by scheduling assignments and announcements to go out the night before. I am also finding myself creating short videos for students to help them stay positive and stay on task. Right now is a time to hold our students’ hands more than we might during a typical school day or week. They need us to be more compassionate and graceful. I have really tried to be more empathetic toward each of my students’ situations at home and just take one day at a time.

Thanks to Holly, Helen, Michael, and Jeremy for their contributions!

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