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Teaching Opinion

‘We Do the Best We Can': Lessons From Six Weeks of Remote Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 28, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series.)

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?

Most K-12 educators have been doing remote teaching for between three and six weeks by now, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all learned a whole lot in that short period of time.

This four-part series will highlight the commentaries of educators as they reflect on what exactly they have learned and how it might inform them moving forward.

Following this series, I’ll be posting another one sharing the thoughts of students as they reflect on their own experiences during this time of crisis.

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

Ashley McCall, Dr. Elvis Epps, Claudia Leon, and Lorie Barber “kick off” the series today...

8 lessons for the “long haul”

Ashley McCall is a 3rd grade bilingual ELA teacher at Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago.

When schools closed Tuesday, March 17th, and our remote-learning journey began, everyone’s thoughts and emotions were somehow both at a standstill and moving a hundred miles per hour. During the first week, I asked my collaborating teacher and our teaching residents how families were feeling. We heard:

Families are feeling overwhelmed, out of control, bonded with one another, and eager to get back.

Families are hanging in there, worried about keeping their kids busy and learning, not wanting them to miss out.

That day, I felt encouraged about our willingness to try new things, stick with what was working, and leverage and strengthen our relationships with families. I have had many other feelings since that day—some significantly less positive. But each day brings new challenges and successes alike.

When we first thought the school closure would last approximately two weeks, our team created packets of work for students that reviewed content we were already working on. We took advantage of a 30-day free trial from Kidblog to post virtual mini-lessons and lead a whole-group book club. ... Now that we know we are in it for the (really) long haul, here is what we’re keeping and changing: (in no particular order):

  1. Weekly family check-ins (at a minimum) → Almost daily check-ins: We want families to feel seen, heard, and supported without overwhelming them. We send brief text messages to remind them of their child’s schedule and major updates.

  2. Post videos/lessons as able → Consistent weekly schedule: Now that we’re “settled into” remote learning, we can provide families with a schedule for the week that includes both optional and “mandatory” (read: specifically assigned) virtual lessons for reading and math, whole-class morning meeting, and recess. We include updates about arts opportunities as we get them.

  3. Text/Call me whenever! → Re-establishing boundaries: During the first week of remote learning, I felt an immense amount of pressure to respond to every text, call, and email as soon as I could because I told myself families and students were counting on me to make their lives less difficult. I overwhelmed myself and felt the negative impact on my body and mind immediately. Now, I have a more clearly outlined schedule for myself. I support my school community as best as I can but not at the expense of my health and sanity.

  4. Try anything and everything → Less is more, duh: Ugh, pressure. We have our platforms, they are working, and we are sticking with them. We use Zoom for live lessons (no, students are not required to turn on their cameras—some like the virtual backgrounds!). We post one new lesson for math, reading, and writing on our Kidblog page daily. Students are also following along with an online science unit. They are also using Khan and Compass Learning.

  5. Phone call explanations → Visual Support: New tech is challenging for everyone. When we find solutions to problems families are having, we create explanatory infographics and/or videos to help walk them through step by step.

  6. Content connections → + Maintaining social-emotional development and support: Now that all students have devices, we are able to facilitate more activities that we know are good for whole-child development. My hourlong virtual sessions are structured as follows: 10-15 min morning meeting, 30-40 min of content (vocabulary, read-aloud, instructional video, support with independent practice, etc.) and 5-10 min closing circle.

  7. One lesson for everyone → Better planning for diverse learners and ELLs: Even though we created different-leveled packets back in March, our separation meant we couldn’t support students the way we were used to. Live lessons allow us to work with students in different small groups at the same time. I also host an ELL-specific discussion group twice a week. I’ve used Brain Pop ELL videos and others to kick off our discussion/activities Then we discuss the day’s topic while meeting specific language demands.

  8. Both, And: Everything we are doing online is available to students in paper copy, and families call us with students on speaker phone so we can support them. Some days are better than others. We do the best we can and keep it moving.

I don’t know if, come June, this will feel normal. We all have varying comfort levels with this new world. We hope the inequitable systems, mindsets, and habits that should have been torn down long ago are left behind. We hope it gets smoother and better. In the words of my collaborating teacher Lindsay Singer, “If anyone can do it, we can. And I truly believe that.”

“Communication, communication, communication”

Dr. Elvis Epps is the principal of Lake Worth Community High School in the school district of Palm Beach, Fla.

School closure is one factor that many of us thought would never happen. Learning that all schools must shut down by order of the governor came as a surprise. Like many of you, I had been watching and listening to the daily updates from our local school district, our state department, and the White House COVID-19 Task Force. I knew something big was going to happen but did not anticipate school closure would happen this quickly. We were not ready for the shutdown when it occurred on March 13, 2020. However, we knew we had to develop plans to get our school back on track before resuming in two weeks.

Transitioning to Distance Learning

Time was not on my side, but I knew I needed to develop a transitional plan to help my teachers prepare to teach from a remote setting. Next, my leadership team and I had created a plan to help our students transition to distance learning. The first phase was twofold.

  • Develop a system to train teachers to use Google Classroom with their students, and,
  • Create a plan to help my students to use Google Classroom.

Before starting this process, two constraints were identified. The first constraint focused on the teachers. What stressors or roadblocks might teachers face in preparing to teach remotely? The second constraint focused solely on the students. What challenges will students face transitioning from a brick and mortar setting to learning in their home?

Addressing these two constraints set the foundation for our next moves.

The leadership team and I identified teachers who were Google Certified. We asked them to assist in providing workshops within their departments to all teachers who were not familiar with Google Classrooms. They agreed to conduct the workshops, and the training began immediately. As for the students, we emailed electronic surveys to them to gain an understanding of what they needed to get started. We also had the opportunity to speak to them when they arrived on campus to get a Chromebook. Many of them indicated they were scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, and sad. Some of them said they would miss seeing their teachers every day.

What did you do at the start that you continue to do because it’s working?

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. If there was ever a time to keep your faculty, staff, and community abreast of the changes, you must communicate every day. Communication is vital with your faculty, students, and community members because it will ease their fear of the unknown. Send email updates daily. The updates should not be too wordy. Keep them short, clear, concise, and factual. Your community members and faculty will appreciate the fact that you are keeping them up to date on what their next moves are.

The next thing to consider is utilizing the strengths of your administrators and staff members to take on various tasks during the transition. Many of my teachers were trained and certified to use Google Classroom and other learning programs. Allow your team to know what your plans are for moving forward, then ask if any of them can take on that particular task. This step was critical because we had less than two weeks before resuming school digitally. Training on Google Classroom strategies will continue for all teachers for the remainder of this school year.

What did you do at the start that you had to change and why?

Meeting with teachers in a virtual faculty was overwhelming. I prefer to meet with them during their virtual department meetings and office hours. Doing so allows me the time to interact with a smaller group and to address their questions, concerns, and recommendations promptly. Virtual faculty meetings are not gone, but I prefer to interact with my faculty in a small-group setting.

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

Before school closure, I visited classrooms every day. I also attended the department and professional learning community (PLC) meetings. I needed to be more visible now that we are teaching online. I asked each of my assistant principals and all teachers to send Google Hangout Meets invitations to me. Once received, I added the sessions to my Google Calendar. Now, I can visit my classrooms, department-chair meetings, students’ grade-level meetings, and speak to teachers during their office hours.

Transitioning was an easy task. It took the help of my assistant principals, instructional coaches, department leaders, and teachers to make this work. There is no way we could have achieved the level of success without everyone doing their part.

On the road to success

Claudia Leon is a middle school ENL (English as a New Language) and ELA (English/Language Arts) teacher whose teaching delivery was forever changed when she discovered how to incorporate visuals in every aspect of her teaching:

Next week begins Week #7 of teaching online for my school district. When I first realized I would be teaching my 6th and 7th grade English-language learners from the comfort of my warm kitchen and comfy pajamas, I thought to myself “OK, I got this.” I am moderately tech-savvy, so creating Google Slides, videos, EdPuzzles, etc, didn’t worry me much. Also, I had a very good relationship with my students, and each student was required to fill out a short tech survey that asked: 1) Do you have a device at home that you can use? 2) Do you have Wi-Fi? So I knew my audience well ... so I thought.

In the beginning of the quarantine, I quickly found out that some of my students must have been too embarrassed to tell me on their survey that they share one device with three siblings. Or that they use their parent’s data to complete HW on their Chromebook. Or they have to go to an uncle’s house to use their Wi-Fi. Not knowing this at the beginning of the quarantine caused my students to lose a lot of teaching time. I wish I had given parents the tech survey in addition to my students. And the only way I found this out was by being in constant contact with families.

I follow up with them whenever I notice work is starting to decline or if work isn’t being done. This alerts me to the many changes that my families face. Just because my student had a laptop and Wi-Fi for weeks 1-3, doesn’t mean that student will have a laptop and Wi-Fi for weeks 4 - end of this quarantine. Parents can lose jobs, landlords can turn off their tenants Wi-Fi, or parents can’t afford to keep paying the cable/internet bill. I will continue to engage with my families throughout the quarantine.

I have changed several things that I did at the start of online teaching. First, I had to stop thinking that I had my newcomer students’ full attention to watch my 15-minute video on “How to Write and Answer Questions,” and base my entire week’s lesson on that video. No wonder no one did the assignment! I failed to consider the attention span of a tween, doing work at home, sometimes home alone, or with chattering siblings all around! While chunking was a common theme during my in-person lessons in my classroom, I didn’t realize that chunking would have to be chunked even more for online teaching.

As with my realization about chunking and attention span, I also had to magnify the compassion and empathy I have always felt for my ELLs. For example, in the classroom, I would always be mindful of designing projects that required outside materials, such as poster board, markers, etc. Whatever my students needed to complete the project would be supplied by me. However, two weeks ago, in hopes of being creative and lighthearted (while still practicing our English), I designed an art project that would only require items from outside/one’s backyard. “Anyone can grab some twigs, pebbles, leaves from the outside. Equity achieved,” I thought to myself. Oh no! Thank goodness I shared my idea with one of my ENL colleagues, and she quickly, and gently, told me that not all kids have a backyard. Not all kids live near a safe street that encourages exploration. OK, back to the drawing board. I redesigned the lesson and asked kids to create a small sculpture or art work with anything they had around the house. (Just ask a parent/guardian first!)

So my three big lessons from the early weeks of online teaching are 1) reduce your chunking even more, 2) magnify my compassion/empathy, and 3) have constant contact with families. I realize there will be some students who continue to have “Missing Work” next to their names because they don’t have consistent Wi-Fi or they just cannot get themselves to do the work (family issues, work issues, etc) but at least now I am on the road toward designing an online experience for my ELLs that will help them feel successful and empowered.

Remote learning long term is not sustainable

Lorie Barber is a 5th grade teacher and book lover who lives and works in the western suburbs of Chicago:

A few weeks ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out, I shared my thoughts on teaching during what the state of Illinois was calling an “Act of God.” Those of us on the ground knew this was neither short term, nor sustainable; but administrators and superintendents are beholden to their state boards of education. These two schools of thought can be at odds, especially in this time when, let’s be honest, none of us really knows what we’re doing or how what we’re doing is affecting our students. To that end, is there anything that is working?

Yes. Community is working. The words of my governor, “leading with empathy,” are working. My district was on spring break throughout the last week of March. I asked my students if they wanted to communicate over break, and the answer was a resounding “Yes!” I hosted a spring break virtual class party: a Google Meet that was simply a space for them to connect. They chatted for over an hour, talked about what games they played, exchanged usernames to connect on apps, and shared what they were doing with their families. Further, the students were adamant about continuing our class meetings, every week, three days a week. They continue to need—and want—to see each other.

Reaching out to parents is working. Their kids need help, often one-on-one. A lot of parents are frustrated with remote learning, and rightly so. They’re working, trying to find work, sick, caring for a sick loved one, grieving, or are simply overwhelmed. When I reach out to see how I can help their child, it has been received with gratitude and grace, which I try to return tenfold. Using a communication tool with a translation feature has been a blessing, as I can reach out to ALL FAMILIES regardless of language. I’ve communicated in Spanish, Albanian, and Lithuanian, and I think it helps my families feel “seen” and valued.

Less is working. Less “this is due.” Less “daily assignments.” Less “focus on standards.” Less work, more empathy. In our grade, this looks like one skill over a few weeks. Some practice with feedback from teachers. NO GRADES. Kids are losing loved ones, parents are losing jobs, and everyone is struggling. Again, “leading with empathy” is working.

Individuality is working. If a student can’t, he doesn’t have to. If a student is struggling, I chat and pull back on her work. Just like in school, but not. I’ve increased one-on-one support and have engaged specialists as well, so kids who need support get it even when we’re not in school. Again: equity. Not equal. Equity is everyone getting what they need to succeed—and that’s different for everyone. It’s hard. It’s different. But it’s doable.

Here’s what’s not working: remote learning long term. This is not sustainable in its current form. As my colleague Tricia Ebarvia, teacher and co-founder of the #DisruptTexts movement, so eloquently put it, "... the most important thing missing is the co-construction of knowledge that happens when we gather, when we create meaning together [through] intentional, caring discourse. Students didn’t just lose a teacher standing in the room. They lost the teacher sitting next to them, the teachers they had in each other. Recreating and rebuilding those learning relationships is everything right now.” This is extremely difficult to do over screens, and, once again, highlights the equity issue for kids who are unable to login for myriad reasons. Systemic change with a focus on equity and empathy needs to take place right now. For the kids.

Thanks to Ashley, Elvis, Claudia, and Lorie for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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