(This is the first post in a multipart series.)
The new question of the week is:
How can we best support students when we teach online?
It’s a crazy time.
Like many other teachers, I’m trying to figure how to navigate this new world of teaching my students when they’re not in my physical classroom.
This series will share reflections from educators embarking on similar journeys.
Please let me know if you would like to contribute your own commentaries by emailing me at email@example.com.
Today, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contribute their experiences.
You might also find The “Best Of The Best” Resources To Support Teachers Dealing With School Closures to be a useful resource.
Questions to consider when planning remote learning
David Sherrin is the father (and temporary educator) of three young children, a social studies teacher at Scarsdale High School, author of Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, and recipient of the 2014 Robert H Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice. He maintains the teaching website JADE Learning. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org:
Here in Westchester, New York, our nerve-wracking early encounter with coronavirus has also meant an unexpected head start on remote learning. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned in this arena as it seems to be one of the best ways I can contribute to the larger cause.
Before I do so, however, I want to advise teachers to temper their expectations about what and how much can be achieved. Fewer students will complete assignments, many will be without devices, and the pace needs to be slower. Despite the very high stakes, we will make mistakes and need to accept that. My first major blunder was to come out of the gate too fast, overloading my students with too much work all at once figuring they were idle and bored at home. However, they need time to figure out how to juggle the systems, too. Without being able to read their faces in real time, we need ways to open up other lines of communication about workload. Thankfully, a number of students reached out to me pretty early on, and I was able to make the necessary adjustments to spread out and reduce the assignments. We also need to reach out to them (and parents) for feedback.
When beginning to plan for remote learning, there are a number of questions individual educators like me need to consider:
- What resources and platforms can my district provide to support synchronous and/or asynchronous learning?
- What can my students access?
- What new technological tools ought I (learn to use) and incorporate?
- How can I modify my current curriculum and lessons for remote learning?
- What ready-to-use online units and lessons out there are remote and learning friendly?
- How should we assess our students?
I will focus on the last four questions, since the first two are mostly out of the hands of the classroom teacher and very dependent on local contexts. It is extremely helpful to have a standard online platform for distributing information. I’m thrilled that I finally moved over to Google Classroom this year, which has helped to streamline many of the tools I mention below.
There are a number of excellent technological tools that did not exist a decade ago, which I’m using to transform face-to-face activities into virtual ones. I’m generally a later adapter of technology and prefer learning to be rich in-person experiences. Now we have no choice so we must all adapt. For example, as an assignment, I copy readings into a Google Doc and ask students to comment directly on them, thereby creating a text-on-text conversation. I have started using Google Questions to post discussion prompts.
Screencastify has been an essential tool, and easy to learn and use, to record voice-over recordings onto my Google Slides. I also use it to video brief 3-5 minute daily greetings and instructions that are more personal than text and easily transfer into Google Classroom.
Like many districts and workplaces, we are now using Zoom for live classes, which meet for 25 minutes (instead of 50) twice a week. As my principal, Ken Bonamo, has wisely pointed out, the purpose of these meetings are as much for maintaining community and a sense of togetherness and support as for actual instruction.
This is also a time to try something new and to look for resources that function as well or almost as well in the remote-learning environment as they do in person. Rather than assigning only readings, throw in a podcast like Backstory, a song to listen to, or a YouTube video as a source for students to analyze. Just today, I had students listen to a declassified White House recording of Lyndon Johnson discussing the 1964 Brazil coup.
You may even consider taking a risk and embarking on a whole new unit that is ready for use. For high school world history, the World History Project is an excellent free online curriculum created by historians. It has superb sources, activities, and assessments for an entire two-year curriculum. Maybe you base an entire unit off of the materials on Seventeen Moments in Russian History, the C3 Teachers Inquiries, or George Mason University’s site on the French Revolution. This is the moment to give something new a shot! For those who are teaching the Holocaust, try my own brainchild: my Virtual Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has ready-to-go background texts, primary sources, images, videos, discussion questions, audio guides (for struggling readers), and assessment suggestions. If you give it a go, shoot me a note and let me know what works (or doesn’t).
Lastly, we need to think carefully about assessment. The main goal of this educational moment needs to be to ensure the continued deep learning for our students. Throw out the old quizzes and tests and move toward richer assessments that will strengthen their skills and understanding and serve as learning experiences in their own right.
If you feel that you need to do a quiz or test, I recommend a collaborative one through something like Google Forms in which students can work with 1-2 others and utilize their notes and any online resource. We can’t prevent cheating for the assessment so, instead, encourage collaboration - like in real life. This is a way to transform a traditional assessment into a rich and engaging learning experience for them and to maintain accountability.
More importantly, here are some ideas for formats in which students can produce sophisticated historical arguments at home: essays, paintings, poems, podcasts, films, video testimonials, perspective pieces, film reviews, newspaper articles, and websites. This is a time in which kids, bound at home, need a chance to engage in meaningful work and to express themselves intellectually and creatively so as to add some sparks of joy to their own lives and to our world. These are powerful formats for them to demonstrate what they know and can do, and they provide badly needed artistic outlets in a moment of great constraint and anxiety.
Good luck, and if any of this helped, let me know!
Community in the time of corona
Lorie Barber is a 5th grade teacher and book lover who lives and works in the westurn suburbs of Chicago:
As teachers, we remember massive events as “where were yous,” as in, “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” or, “Where were you when 9/11 happened?” Our students are in that place now: a time where—years in the future—they’ll ask, “What did you do during the coronavirus pandemic?” As adults, they’ll tell stories of their time at home, of their time socially distanced from their peers and teachers. What do you want them to remember?
I wanted my kids to remember that we’re a community. I am privileged to work in a district where 5th grade students have 1:1 Chromebooks. When the district let us know that the Google Meet restriction for students had been eased, I jumped at the opportunity to have a virtual class meeting with my students. I posted the link to our Google Classroom page, and the link was only available to the kids through their school Google accounts.
As with most experiences I’ve had throughout the pandemic, the response was not what I expected. The kids NEEDED to see each other, me, OUR COMMUNITY. I had told the kids I’d send a link at 10:00 a.m., but by 9:45, I was getting “where’s the link?” messages on Classroom from several of them. They couldn’t wait!
Within minutes of me sending the link, almost everyone got on. And everyone shared. They shared their animals, their siblings, their parents. We even met Petey, the parakeet belonging to one of my students. Petey sat on my student’s shoulder and was adorably chatty. He’s now a member of our classroom community. Students shared their hopes, their fears, their goods. One good, “No one in my family has the coronavirus.” They’re so aware. They shared their gratitude for their families and for the structure we’re maintaining for them in lieu of a classroom.
A heartwarming takeaway? They want to hear their teacher. I’ve been posting (approved) authors reading stories for #classroombookaday on our classroom Seesaw. During the meeting, one student said, “Mrs. Barber, I’m used to your voice and how you read. Can you post more of the books with you reading them?” I immediately read Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together. I will dig deeper and find publisher-approved picture books to read aloud to the kids, both live and in video. To that end, I am so grateful to the book-publishing companies that have opened their licensing restrictions so teachers have options.
My students had lots and lots of questions. They wanted to know when things would be rescheduled. “Will we have our peaceful protest?” “Are we still doing our Walk for Water?” Hard to answer when we don’t have the answers. It’s hard to be the teacher and admit you don’t have the answers. It’s hard to tell your students you don’t know, when the next words out of your mouth are usually, “but that’s a great thing to research!” This time won’t be researchable until it’s over. Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and it was written across the faces of my 10- and 11-year-olds.
Finally, as we wrapped up a class meeting that ended up being over an hour, the kids asked if we could meet every week. They named it “Facetime Fridays.” I’m honored to take the time and do this with them. My connection with them, and those which they were making with each other, made my heart so happy. It also made me realize both how much I miss them and how lucky I am to work in a district that affords us the luxury of technology so we can continue to be a community in the time of the coronavirus.
This was, in fact, the MOST important takeaway from my experience: the EQUITY issue. Every state should be ensuring that *all* students have both Chromebooks and internet access. This isn’t just an academic issue. It’s social/emotional. Kids NEED connection and structure. Packets aren’t feasible long term. Having a phone and data are NOT the way. Learning & connecting are not feasible on tiny screens, and non-Wi-Fi data are expensive. States *must* learn from this so all kids can participate, just like they do in the classroom.
And in case you didn’t think parents were watching, I got some really special feedback after our meeting. Here are a few notes from parents:
“Hello, it was so comforting to hear you and all the kids on google meets this morning. What a great way to stay connected!”
“I just wanted to say thank you for holding your class meeting today. The kids getting to see your face and each other... What a gift and so needed! Thank you! I hope more teachers do things like this.”
”... thank you so much for that class meeting! I think they all loved “seeing” you and each other.”
Kids need this connection. Families need this connection. Classroom communities need this connection. States need to put education first and make these connections available to every student in this country.
Online Learning - Ganbare! We are all in this together
Janelle Henderson recently made the switch from working in higher education to teaching middle school. She is currently teaching 6th grade social studies at Hilliard Tharp School in Ohio as a long-term substitute.
I am no stranger to diving headfirst into different worlds. After graduating from college, I packed two suitcases and moved to Japan to teach English in a Japanese middle school.
While I was there, I learned about the concept of ganbare which does not have a direct translation into English. Often shouted at sporting events or whispered by students before exams, ganbare can mean something as simple as “good luck,” but it also implies “do your best” and “hang in there” even when things are tough.
Twenty years later, the Japanese spirit of ganbare still lives with me, and it is something I will be tapping into as I try to connect with my colleagues and students virtually.
On Feb. 18, I began teaching in a long-term sub assignment in Hilliard, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Joining a class in the middle of the school year is easier said than done as I struggled to learn students’ names, familiarize myself with the school software, and learn from my colleagues. Then just last week, on Thursday, March 12, our governor, Mike DeWine, made the announcement to close all Ohio schools, and our district would transition to eLearning beginning March 18.
Time to Ganbare!
While eLearning may be new and scary for some, I am embracing the chance to deliver content and connect with my students in new, fun, and meaningful ways. All of our students have iPads, and we utilize Canvas software. Right now, we are studying about the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and I have set up learning modules with instructions for each day; however, I am trying to go beyond activities like “read this passage and then answer questions about it.” While still following state and district standards, I have created several new activities that I hope will keep students engaged and motivated during this time.
- Artifact Friday: I like to think that I am training the next generation of social scientists (Thanks Mr. Snyder!). As a result of my international travels and grandparents who lived through the Depression, I have a wide collection of somewhat random items just sitting in my basement. On Friday, I plan to show these items via video, and my students will answer a series of questions via the discussion board tool or flipgrid about where they think the item is from, what it is, and how it was used. The following Monday, I will follow up with a video of me telling them about the artifact. My hope is that after a week or two of this, students will want to share videos of their own artifacts!
- Living History: Before school let out, we had multiple conversations about COVID-19 and tried to sort out fact from fiction. Although my 6th graders may be too young to understand it now, I told them repeatedly that we are living through a once-in-a-lifetime event. Their job right now is to be historians who document what they see going on around them. In this way, people in the future can learn about our lives during this pandemic. For example: What did they do today? What did they notice that was different from yesterday? What did they learn in the news that surprised them? I want them to keep these notes for themselves beyond my class, so I am asking them to make their notes “old school” by writing down on paper if possible. I will ask them to upload a picture of their notes to Canvas, and I am hoping to encourage participation by promising to mail (yes, something SNAIL MAIL and not just from Amazon!) some goodies to those who show outstanding thought and work. I will also share pictures of my own gratitude journal so they know that Mrs. Henderson is keeping notes, too. :)
- Games and simulations. Unfortunately, a couple of the lessons I had previously planned are difficult to carry out online, but I plan to use technology to liven up content. For kids who are able to jump online at the same time, we can use meeting rooms from Zoom to play games through Quizlet Live, Kahoot, and Gimkit. When we are learning about Hammurabi’s Code, I will don a black robe and gavel for my intro video, complete with music from The People’s Court, as we talk about the laws that Hammurabi created. When we are learning about King Tut’s life and mysterious death, I will stage a murder scene in my living room.
- #CatCameos. Let’s be real. Elearning and quarantining is stressful and uncertain for all of us. To help liven the mood from time to time, I plan to share pictures of my two furbabies (Cleo and Zorro) and will encourage my students to do the same, either of their own pets or random animal memes they find on TikTok. No, my cats do not know how to Renegade, but if I am able to teach them while teaching from home, I will definitely post a video!
Looking ahead over the next few weeks (or months?), I know that there will be challenges, but I am excited to explore new ways to provide engaging content to my students—just in a virtual way. As I get to know them more, we will both be growing together; I am still polishing my video-editing skills just as my students are adjusting to eLearning. I have already seen their talents and creativity and I am certain they will be successful. Working together, we will ganbare and do our best!
Student mental health
Cathleen Beachboard teaches middle school English in Fauquier County, Va., and is the author of the book 10 Keys to Student Empowerment: Unlocking the Hero in Each Child:
I just started remote teaching 6th and 8th grade English using Blackboard Collaborate. Blackboard has a call-in number for students who do not have internet to join the chat. This could be done using Google Voice and use Google Hangouts if a teacher does not use Blackboard. (Google allows you to create a free phone number using Google Voice.) I teach three one-hour classes a day. I put the call-in students into the chatroom. In this live chat, I do the oddest teaching of my life.
We start our virtual class by talking about a success or something they are thankful for. A lot of the students have anxiety, and by keeping things positive, it helps them get ready to learn. The kids who chose to share out do, and then I ask them if they have anything they need. I have to rely on reading poems/stories/information out loud (I teach English). At the moment, I end class with a raspy voice daily. I am going to start downloading some of the authors reading their own stories to play during this section. We then collaborate with questions/ideas/and responses. Students say their name to raise their hand, and I answer them.
I then can have the students get into breakout groups in Collaborate where I put them in a separate room where they can only hear their “partner.” Next, they work on coming up with an answer to a deep comprehension question. I then can come back together whole group with a button in Collaborate to allow each group a turn to “share out.”
We typically end class with a type of Socratic seminar where I ask questions and students respond. We are going to start reading The Diary of Anne Frank soon. I am going to bite the bullet and mail home the book to the students without internet. It will probably cost me a bit, but it’s only 21 kids out of 89.
The craziest part of all this? This chat is OPTIONAL. None of this is for a grade and will not be counted for anything. The kids and families know this, too. It is not part of class, and they are on a “break” from school per the governor. I called every parent and let them know that this is my attempt to anchor my students in this storm. To be honest, I’m not that concerned if they learn the material. I just want to check in on them daily and make sure they are OK. My bigger goal is to help their mental health and anxiety during this crazy time.
Thanks to David, Lorie, Janelle, and Cathleen for their contributions!
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