How do you create an engaging environment during online learning? How do you make sure students are getting the support and learning they need, despite a potential lack of resources and access?
These are just some of the questions teachers are grappling with, as tens of thousands of schools across the country have closed their doors in the wake of a widespread coronavirus outbreak, with many considering a pivot to online learning. To help, several educators have launched virtual professional learning communities to share resources, ask questions, and give advice.
Many school districts have provided some professional development for teachers before turning to remote instruction. But the situation has changed so rapidly that teachers may not feel prepared. And some districts that are considering online learning don’t have much prior experience, or resources in places to make the transition seamless. There are also equity issues to consider—not all students have access to devices or Wi-Fi.
Twitter and other sites have been filling in the gap, with many educators offering webinars or resource compilations for their peers across the country. For instance, teachers are using the hashtag #virtualschool on Twitter to share resources. There’s also a Facebook group, with more than 84,000 members, called Educator Temporary School Closure for Online Learning.
More than 1,000 teachers have signed up for a virtual PLC hosted by Mike Flynn, the director of math programs in the professional and graduate education division at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. Flynn has experience teaching hybrid classes that are both in-person and online, and also supports school districts with remote instruction.
“I recognize that in these times when people have to make quick decisions, teachers weren’t always given the support they need,” he said.
Flynn held a free training session for teachers wondering how to make the transition to online learning last week, will host another one on Tuesday, and plans to hold a few more. He’s also created a Google Drive, called “Online Teaching Support Group,” with resources divided by grade level, support videos, and sample interactive tasks. His hope is that as teachers become experienced with online learning, they’ll add what worked for them in the drive.
So far, he said, the biggest question from teachers has been: How do I make these virtual classes engaging for kids?
“What makes good online instruction is really just good instruction,” Flynn said. “Learning is social. You allow people to participate, to talk with one another, talk with the teacher.”
For example, teachers can use the chat function on their video conferencing tool to pose questions to students, or can create breakout rooms where students can talk individually to each other.
Teachers of older grades, he said, are worried about accountability and whether to keep assigning grades remotely. Many are uncertain about whether state asssessments will continue as planned. (U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued guidance last week that said the education department might grant areas heavily affected by the virus waivers from state testing requirements.)
And teachers of early grades are unsure how to help their young students connect and sustain work independently, Flynn said, especially given screen-time concerns.
“How do you do reading instruction when they might not even have access to leveled readers at home?” he said. “There’s a lot of worry around, how much am I going to lose in terms of momentum and the amount of learning that’s happened so far?”
To help with that, Jennifer Serravallo, a literacy consultant and the author of several professional books, including The Reading Strategies Book, has started a series of posts on Facebook with ideas for teachers working remotely. For example, she suggests that teachers assign 30 minutes of reading a day, record a video of them reading out loud or teaching a mini lesson, and then set up a conference schedule to video chat or call a handful of students at a time.
“This can be a time for you to check in with them on their personal goal, hear about what they’ve been reading, listen to them read aloud, give them feedback, and possibly offer a new strategy,” Serravallo wrote.
Teachers have been commenting on the posts with their own suggestions and questions.
Still, “we’re not going to replicate what happens in the classroom,” Flynn said. “This is a crisis, and everyone’s pivoting very quickly.”
Teachers are putting a lot of pressure on themselves to deliver perfect lessons, he said, but they should practice self-forgiveness. The most important thing is to put students at ease—whether that’s giving opportunities to let older students interact with their classmates or recording the typical morning song for younger students. (For more on how teachers are talking to their students who are afraid of the virus and its outbreak, see this Education Week story.)
“If people just look at this as a good way to maintain some normalcy for people who are panicked right now, when we eventually transition [back] into the classroom, which we all will, it will be easier to do so,” Flynn said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.