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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

What Is & Isn’t Working for Teachers & Students This Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 21, 2020 14 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What has worked and what has not worked for students and you during the first month of the school year?

We’re early in the school year, and it’s a good time to pause and reflect on what’s been working for those of us in the classroom—whether it’s a virtual or physical one.

Here is my quick list of what’s going well and what isn’t in our full-time distance learning environment:


Having “leadership teams” in each class of students who have a responsibiity to encourage participation in breakout rooms, answer questions in the chat that I miss, being the first to participate in full- class discussions. They use a weekly self-assessment form, and we meet briefly once each week.

Emphasizing doing collaborative projects. “Relatedness"—work is bringing students in contact with others they like or respect—is an important part of creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation. Creating group presentations, and then sharing some in the small groups and a few with the entire class, is definitely enhancing student participation.

Being very flexible on deadlines and grading, and offering “fresh starts/new beginnings” to students who had initial challenges getting used to distance learning, have been effective stratgies for increasing engagement.

Not Working

Individual meetings are the key to developing relationships, but my initial ambitious goal of doing 20 each week was wildly unrealistic. I’m lucky if I can fit in having four or five short individual video conversations with students during that time frame.

I have run into a similar challenge with my goals of calling students’ parents/guardians. During “normal” times, I make a lot of positive calls home, usually in the presence of the student. These days, however, the planning and teaching workload, combined with having to make calls to track students down who are not attending class, just take up too much time.

Speaking of time, there is just not enough of it. Though I’m reaching the point where I don’t have to spend entire weekends preparing lessons (I’m almost down to just using my entire Saturday), I’m still not sure how much of it I can sustain for the next eight months. I’ve heard from many other teachers that they, too, question the sustainability of all of our schedules.

Now, it’s time to hear from today’s guests: Mary Beth Nicklaus, Joe Raygor, and Dr. Sheila Wilson share their reflections from the first few weeks of school.

“Crisis mode”

Mary Beth Nicklaus is a literacy specialist and 6th grade virtual teacher this year for Wisconsin Rapids public schools in Wisconsin. She also contributes to MiddleWeb:

Those of us teaching 100 percent virtual this fall find ourselves in a precarious position. We hear how last spring was much less virtual learning than it was “crisis” learning. After months of remote teaching, we would like to think that we are watching the “crisis” part get smaller and further away in our rearview mirror. During the last few weeks, however, I’ve noticed that many of our students are still operating in “crisis” mode. Maybe we all are. They need time to get their virtual learning mind in order as much as we teachers do. They need support. They need consistency. So here are four major areas that can make or break virtual learning:

Enlisting parents: We need to get parents on our team. Do make phone calls and ask specific questions about how things are going for students, if you suspect difficulties. Offer virtual parent meetings. Gauge student participation in virtual classes and compare it with online assignment performance. Don’t assume that if you send out emails as check-ins and you are hearing nothing back, that no news is good news. Parents can get overwhelmed, too.

Virtual teaching environment: What contributes to focus? Do have a dedicated room with a consistent background for your online classes. Going remote in a school-based classroom is even better if you can swing it. If you have to teach from home, make sure you are set up differently from how you were last spring. Don’t be haphazard about this. It is no longer acceptable to be teaching in the middle of the kitchen (or your closet for that matter) with family life going on in the background. Students notice when you are suddenly virtual from the computer in your daughter’s pink and purple bedroom or that your black and white cat just ran up and stuck his face in the camera. Use your surroundings to help students stay focused.

Your Platform: Zoom or Google Meet? Do make your choice and stay consistent. Google Meet now has the advantage of being able to generate a set meet link that will stay on top of the Google Classroom page permanently. This makes it easy to schedule virtual classes or meetings. It’s also easier to pop in and out—more so than with Zoom. Zoom currently has more options in presentation mode. There are annotation options and a spotlight for your cursor, which is great for reading with students. You can also light yourself and your room with multiple filters. Zoom also has virtual backgrounds. Don’t switch back and forth between the platforms. Choose the platform (if your district allows you to) and stick with it. This will make things easier for you, and it will supply your students with the consistency they sorely need at this time.

Good Equipment and Connection: This is important. Do consider the strengths and limitations of your Wi-Fi and equipment when you are working remotely. Use headphones with a microphone as opposed to relying on the computer microphone and speaker. Students can hear you better, and you can hear them better. Do turn on video ahead of time and gauge what students are seeing. Remember, unlike Zoom, students in Google Meet can silently slip into class without you knowing it if you miss the “coming into the room” tone. And yes, they can see you using the screen as a mirror to put on your lipstick. (True story) Adjust your camera accordingly. Don’t ignore lighting. The light should be coming from in front of you. If your face is in a shadow, use a flexible ring light to put the light where it needs to be. If you are using Zoom, you may be able to use the new video options to help with lighting.

Above all else, do go easy on yourself and your teaching. Take breaks and inform parents that the kids need to take breaks, too. Focus on the good work the students are doing and the good that you are doing as their teacher.

Rural challenges

Joe Raygor is in his fourth year of teaching at Saint Croix Falls Elementary School (Wisconsin):

What’s working?

Brain Breaks

Between the pent-up anxiousness of the unknown and cloth constantly pulling on our faces, brain breaks have worked in a positive way. My classroom is next to a grassy area that I utilize daily to get outside and take a break. I see other teachers utilizing the space as well and have heard similar feedback. Tools like clipboards, sidewalk chalk, whiteboard, and erasers have come through huge for the students and me. Games like “Simon Says” are allowing students to run around while staying at social-distance standards. We’ve also modified flash cards to have more spacing so we can still drill math fact fluency while getting a break from the masks.

Learning New Computer Skills

When I was in the 3rd and 4th grades, I remember the extent of our multimedia exposure was learning about Microsoft Word document and how to print. That was cutting edge for the time. We even had to make sure we had enough floppy discs in case we did multiple PowerPoint presentations during the year. My students have shown me this year that young children are capable of amazing things on technology. Their ceiling is much higher than I even expected. Working with primarily 3rd and 4th graders, I’ve learned they can email a teacher, create and share a Google Doc, use Google slides, and access all of our distance learning platforms easily. They’re experts in accessing Google meet invitations and troubleshooting what’s going wrong. These new skills have broadened my approach and made me excited for the future to come.

Kids Desire to Learn

Teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the belief in my mind that young students have a natural desire to learn. My students showed up the first day all wearing masks or gaiters that they had picked out prior to coming to school. They didn’t complain about them and did their job! They showed more grit and toughness in their pursuit of learning than most of the adults I run into at the gas station. Their desire to learn is something as educators we shouldn’t take for granted, and it should provide us with motivation to do our job at the best of our ability.

Having High Standards

Before COVID, students in my school district were held to extremely high standards. We’re consistently a high-achieving school and we pride ourselves on high-quality work. With the chaos of the unknown and the annoying masks students are trying to reach these standards again. Having virtual learning last spring compounded by the summer slide for some, we’ve had to work to get caught up. The students have shown engagement and almost an appreciation of these standards. Our school district staff and students refuse to punt this year and “just get through it.” We’re pushing to get 1 percent better every single day, and those high standards have been working.

What isn’t working?

Offering School Masks

My school district was super thoughtful when Gov. Evers issued the mask-mandate extension. Our administration organized getting each child five masks for the week with color-coordinated days printed on each one. Our PLC leaders even volunteered to get the laundry together to custodians and take care of the cleaning end for the students. I went through how the mask exchange would go in my head hundreds of times before school started, trying to make it as smooth as possible. Turns out, individuality won out, and the kids didn’t want them! They stuck with their masks that most of them picked out over the summer.

Strict Schedules

Teaching during this pandemic has showed strict schedules simply don’t work. There was an increased amount of fatigue coming into this school year due to compounded summer slide issues as well as the masks. The masks can be frustrating over long periods of times, so the students need breaks here and there that strict schedules don’t work. Don’t get me wrong, we still teach math in the morning during our block and reading in the afternoon block, but due to the pandemic, a new increase of flexibility has been critical for the students to work more efficiently. I think I’m learning more this year than ever how to read my students’ body language and eyes because of the lack of facial expressions.

Internet Problems in Rural Areas

As we become more and more dependent on technology, there’s still a problem in areas in my school district communities that simply don’t have high-speed internet capabilities. This creates a huge equity problem if we ever get shut down because of the interdependence of the internet.

Making adjustments

Dr. Sheila Wilson is a native New Orleanian. She currently works as a 5th grade teacher in Virginia. In addition to instructional leadership, she serves to improve the capacity of students, teachers, and families. She is passionate about amplifying instruction, school leadership, and equity. Dr. Wilson is the owner and self-proclaimed learning architect of her company AmplifyED Educational Consulting:

This school year has the distinction of being the most unique one that educators have experienced in their lifetime. Navigating the start of the 2020-21 school year virtually has leveled the playing field and has placed veteran teachers shoulder to shoulder with novice teachers with regard to delivery of instruction and student engagement. It has been a definite learning curve for everyone involved, placing school leaders, administrators, teachers, parents, and students in uncharted territory.

As a veteran teacher, I immersed myself in all things to advance my remote instruction prowess. I collaborated with colleagues, sought professional development, and even crafted my own version of the “recommended” expectations for online learning. I felt really good about my plan for dominating the virtual learning world! However, it wasn’t until the first weeks of school that I had a clearer picture of what was realistic for my students. For example, to expect them to sit engaged, erect, and directly facing the camera was wishful thinking for a full instructional day. Yes, I was ready, but I quickly realized that there was major tweaking necessary.

One of the first things I observed was that a couple of students had their cameras off initially even though the stated and taught expectation was that all cameras would be on during online instruction. I asked these students to privately chat with me if they weren’t able to turn their cameras on because I wanted to understand their position. Not knowing anything about my new students or their home life, I felt it insensitive to require that they share their most private space if they weren’t comfortable. Homing in on what I know, I believe the foundation to every thriving classroom is authentic relationships. And that’s where I knew my strength would be in setting up an engaging and respectful virtual classroom culture.

While there are many negative aspects of virtual learning (excessive screen time, the uncontrolled learning environment, and tech glitches), the major benefit that I gleaned is that you can learn so much more about a student because they are literally in their own home. Therefore, I provided opportunities that I couldn’t in the face-to-face setting.

I began to craft experiences, nonacademic but so much more powerful, to learn who my students were. For example, I had them share an item at home that had special meaning to them and explain why. This helped us learn about each other and find common interests. Also, I built in brain breaks and opportunities for creative thought and movement which brought life to my students. I also welcomed their families into our online community. If I saw a sibling or parent in the background, I asked to meet them to connect them to me and our classroom community. By addressing the social/emotional needs of students, I was able to learn more about their interests, meet their families ... and pets all via Zoom.

As it turns out, the time spent fostering relationships has been instrumental in creating a safe space for the two previously mentioned students and now they have their cameras on every day. That was HUGE for me! This adjustment has also helped to create connections with parents who know me, who will be engaged, and will (hopefully) be partners in their child’s learning. Virtual learning may be new territory, but making adjustments to suit the best interests of each student is what every great teacher does to ensure that each student is seen, valued, and has every opportunity to be successful.

Thanks to Mary Beth, Joe, and Dr. Wilson 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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