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What Is and Is Not Working as Educators Transition to Online Learning

(This is the fifth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

 

The new question of the week is:

How can we best support students when we teach online?

In Part One, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contributed their experiences.

In Part Two,  Amy Roediger, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler shared their reflections.

In Part Three, Matthew Johnson, Joseph Jones, T.J. Vari, Deb Blaz, and Cindi Rigsbee offered their ideas.

In Part Four, Nick Fotopoulos, Helen Vassiliou, Cornelia Okraski,  and Sam Olbes discussed specifically how they were teaching their ELL classes online.

Today, Maurice McDavid, Holly Spinelli, Ashley Wallace, and Kristen Koppers talk about what they've been trying to do with their classes.

On a personal level, I'm having the first video conferences with my classes today.  I think/hope many will participate, but can't be sure. I believe that many are craving connection, but we'll see.  I'll be asking these three questions:

* How are you and your family doing?

* How are YOU feeling?

* What do you need?

Wish us luck!

 

Chromebooks to the rescue

Maurice McDavid earned his bachelor's degree in elementary education with a minor in history and Spanish. He has taught middle school history, English, and Spanish, as well as high school geography. He was dean of students for three years and is now in his first year as assistant principal at a bilingual elementary school;

Across the nation, schools are dealing with the challenges of finding ways to make sure that the time at home during the coronavirus outbreak is not wasted. In my district, an e-learning plan was put together over the two weeks prior to the governor of Illinois calling school off. With very little notice, the staff of our district has done an amazing job putting together learning opportunities for our students K-12. Below is my summary of things that have been excellent and some things that have been less successful.

What is working:

Three things that are working incredibly well are: Google Classroom and slides as a presentation mode, lessons that allow students to investigate their interests, and lessons that ask for collaboration.

My district is one-to-one with Chromebooks. This gives the teachers and students access to Google Classroom. This platform allows teachers to post links, share Google Docs, and receive work all in one location. Students then know to come to the Classroom for announcements and assignments. They can also use this space to communicate with the teacher and with one another.

Because students are working independently, the lessons are able to be designed with individual choice based on interest more readily. One example is that while learning about plants, 4th grade students were given the option to research the type of plant they wanted to learn more about. Another example of this has been writing lessons that have asked students to use a particular style of writing to talk about their experience during this week of e-learning.

Once these writings and research have been completed, teachers have asked students to share it with another friend via email or on the Classroom. Students have exchanged information back and forth and added to one another's learning. A final example of collaboration is the use of video programs like Flipgram. One 5th grade teacher has used this program to run his morning meeting. The teacher posts a check-in question, and then the students record videos on the website. This is done in a secure way where only the teacher and other students in the class can view those videos. Much of what we are seeing is the way that technology is intended to be used in the classroom. Hopefully, teachers will bring these lesson strategies and designs back with them when we return to our classrooms.

What is not working:

Some of the things that are not working as well are also challenges in other communities. They are: a lack of resources including internet and devices, providing services to our students who need them, and family communication with the difficult to reach.

There are students in our district who do not have a device provided and families that do not have internet. Our district is only one-to-one for students in 3rd grade and above. This creates a group of students who need to have paper assignments provided to them. Our primary teachers have done a tremendous job of getting that work together, but it does limit the amount of creative work that can be done and instead asks our younger students to work on worksheets that may not be developmentally appropriate for their ages. Where students without internet might normally be able to go to a restaurant or the library to gain access to Wi-Fi, most of these facilities are also shut down in our community.

The second area of concern is in offering the services that our students depend on in order to learn and grow academically, socially emotionally, and in other ways. We have students who, due to a specific learning disability or social-emotional challenges, receive services from people in our building. These services, such as social work, speech, and work modification are best done in a face-to-face setting. In our district, these people are working diligently to serve their specific caseload by providing activities that can be done at home. Our social worker has offered opportunities to our entire school building, offering ways to deal with anxiety and boredom. However, we know that these students are best served through person-to-person contact where sounds can be heard and empathy can be seen.

One last area that has been a source of concern is communication with all families. We have families for whom a phone number has changed or an email that we have is now outdated. This creates issues with the moving of information. Another area related to this has been language barriers. Without having the staff in our building, our home-school liaisons who help with interpreting are not there to support our monolingual secretary staff. In difficult and confusing times like this, clear communication is key. Unfortunately, it has not been possible for every family.

So what have we learned?

This situation has allowed us to learn some things about our education system and community. One thing I have most certainly taken note of with four elementary-aged children in my home is that young people very easily adapt to new situations. I voted on Tuesday, and there were high schoolers volunteering to run the election. I asked how they were handling the e-learning, and they answered, very nonchalantly, that they were doing fine with it. Another thing that we have learned is that in times of crisis, societal inequities tend to truly surface. But I can say that our community has promptly responded to those inequities, offering all types of services and help to our community members who need it most. Our school district has served over 1,000 kids a day with meals provided by the district. Finally, we have learned that the questions about whether or not one-to-one devices are worth the investment now have an answer. It is worth it, and this experience has shown us new ways to engage with the devices. I look forward to returning to school with more knowledge and experience.

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Distance Learning Week 1: Complete

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 of New York, and as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Orange County Community College:

Teaching in the midst of a global pandemic is overwhelming. Educators are tasked with transferring our classrooms to digital platforms in a matter of days, while balancing personal responsibilities. The current educational landscape literally changes by the hour. People are curious to know, "What has teaching really been like?" There is no one-size-fits-all response. I'm a week in, and this is my experience.

I teach in a public high school in Westchester County. Last week, students were required to stay home. Staff and educators reported to our buildings for updates, academic and social-emotional support for the community, instructional expectations, and self-directed professional learning. Thankfully, my district leaders' expectations are realistic. They acknowledge that pedagogical approaches differ. Administrators relied on educators' professional knowledge and expertise to lead, share, and model our work. The result: some of the best in-house professional development I've experienced. Educators led technology workshops and shared best practices and materials. We have and continue to work together to help each other, our students, and our school community. This sentiment echoes across various educational social-media groups; we are collaborating and supporting one another around the globe. It's powerful and inspiring!

I am fortunate to work in a district where few students experience issues with technological access. I recognize this privilege and I understand that this is not every educators' reality. Prior to the digital instruction shift, I used an online platform as a "home base" for communication beyond the classroom; my students knew where to look when distance learning began on Wednesday. Mostly, I posted messages of comfort and support. I gave my students small assignments with flexible deadlines. These include: writing prompts and questions related to topics and texts we've covered in class, videos and TED talks that ask students to consider alternate readings and perspectives on issues of justice and equity in the texts we've covered, and journal prompts to help students process their new daily experiences. On Day 1, I anxiously sat by my computer for six hours; I am accustomed to immediate, face-to-face interactions. Asynchronous learning, while something I have done with small groups or special circumstances, is not my typical method of instruction. Four students reached out with questions. The rest of the day was quiet.

On Day 2, I woke up to several completed assignments and a few kind messages from colleagues and students. I wondered about those from whom I have not yet heard. Questions of equity and access flooded my mind: Are they OK? Do they have access to everything? Should I call home?  Later, a colleague shared a tutorial for an "analytics" feature, which allows page administrators to view participants' access. Admittedly, I grimaced. Who am I to "track" students' access? What if they live in a household where technology and access are limited?  It felt Orwellian, but I worried about my students. I centered their well-being and put aside my initial aversion to the tech feature. Later in the evening, I clicked the "analytics" button. The results were affirming. Almost every student accessed the page and assignments, however, they did so from late afternoon to well past midnight.

I have to remember to trust my students' abilities to know how learning works for them, which includes a schedule that best fits their current situations. I needed to let go of "the school day" as I was trained to know it. Students want to learn. Educators want to teach. We need to be patient with ourselves and each other. This adjustment will take time. Nothing can or will ever replace in-person interactions with our students, but we need to trust that we're all in this together. I am hopeful that we'll all do our best to engage with learning in ways that make the most sense for us as our new realities unfold.

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Slowing down and making a plan

Ashley Wallace is a 7th grade humanities and theater-arts middle school teacher in Oakland, Calif., animal lover and craft woman extraordinaire—she lives with her cat, two dogs, wife, and daughter:

It was 10:18 a.m. when we heard the news about the closure. I know this because I immediately texted my wife to tell her it was happening. I'd been feeling a sense of dread all week, even going so far to check the book closet the previous day to see what potential novel I could send home with students. Being prepared was always at the forefront of my mind. I personally didn't feel prepared and I was scared. Yet, the moment I found out, I went into survival mode. "It's only three weeks," I told myself. Jumping online during my morning prep, I found the novel I wanted to teach, formatted it, printed, and made photocopies for all of our 7th graders. Thankfully, I had a completed unit study for the novel and I printed that as well. Each class I passed out the info, had them take out their phones, and pull up or download Google Classroom to make sure they knew how to access our class from their phones. All day I felt a sense of panic as more questions came up: What do we do for the students who don't have computers or internet access? How will they get food and eat? How do we connect with them virtually? How do we inform families?

Now it's the fourth day, and the feelings I had that last day of school? Still there, but life IS working! Each day I wake up, care for my own kinder child, and while teaching her, I teach my 7th graders. We've made Google Classroom a success, we're reading a book together, and discussions are happening. Each day I get on Zoom, and they come and go if they have questions, and it's wonderful to have this new schedule with them. Inside our Google Classroom, I post the "Daily Agenda" with a list that needs to be completed: They watch CNN 10 Student News with Carl Azuz, respond to it by filling out a Google Doc that has a row for each student to type in, listen to a video of me reading selected chapters from our novel (Tuck Everlasting), and then complete a discussion question about the reading on that post. In the workbooks I gave them before school closed (they can access it online as well), they complete a "bell ringer" each day and right now are summarizing the chapters we read. Starting next week, we'll be discussing the characters and analyzing more of the idea of living forever. We had a scheduled a Zoom meeting yesterday to discuss the book so far, and next week, we will do another.

It's an intimate connection when you see inside someone's home and interact with their four-legged family members (and the human ones, too). I always feel like my students are my family, and now—it's like we've always been here in this virtual place. My students and I are still figuring it out. Not everyone has access or is participating, but I'm so proud of them. They are taking charge of their education and they are thriving and continuing to learn, as much as they can in this new virtual world.

I feel that this has been successful because I slowed down and I made a plan (I'm a, "she has lists for her lists" kind of person). I told myself that I would get through it day by day the first week, then get feedback from the kids and make changes for the next week. I am in constant contact with my grade team, as well as the rest of my school team. I try to interact with other teachers online and see what they are doing as well. Keeping myself busy also helps to push down the anxiety and stress that I'm feeling.

Not only am I proud of the kids, I'm proud of my school and all who work for the Oakland Unified school district. We have gotten the word out about meal distributions and closing information to all our families in a multitude of languages. There is still work to be done, but we are focused on continuing the progress we have made so far.

We're teachers, we persevere, and we overcome—we #getitdone! I'm focusing on the here and now. I'm focusing on this historical time in which we are living and the fact that our lives still need to go on, and so does the education of our kids. Finally, I'm taking time to laugh at all these "home-school" memes of parents lovin' on teachers and wanting to up our salaries. Don't worry parents, we're all in this together, you're doing just fine. 

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9/11 & Covid-19

Kristen Koppers is a national-board-certified teacher. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from Western Michigan University, a master of arts in English and a master of arts in educational administration from Governors State University. She is a high school public education English teacher. Her book Differentiated Instruction in the Teaching Profession was released in July 2019:

I've been a teacher for 18 years from working as a substitute teacher to earning my master's in English with a teaching certificate. I cannot say that the current pandemic was my first national disaster as a teacher. However, it is the first where society is beside itself as it affects us all instead of one city or one state. We never know what type of disasters may affect our daily lives or how we need to react to them in a logical way.

In September of 2001, I was heading to the school where I was a student-teacher. To me, the day was normal (well, as normal as any other day could be). It wasn't until I received a phone call from my brother on my way to school where he told me that a plane just flew into the World Trade Center in New York. He was unsure if it was real or some kind of theatrical work. As I was on the phone with him, a second plane hit the World Trade Center. No one knew what was going on or what was happening.

This was my first national disaster where I spoke with students about current news. My cooperating teacher and I discussed how to handle the events that just took place. With cellphones not being accessible as they are now, students were limited to coverage in schools. Because there was no definite explanation of why two planes flew into the WTC, it was difficult to discuss this with students.

Ultimately, our discussion did take place as I was able to look at the faces of my freshmen while hooking up a TV so the students could get an account of what was happening in our country.

Almost two decades later, another national disaster became a part of history with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, with the resources we have now, everyone, including students, are accessing the information almost immediately. I realized that students need to be aware of current events whether the information is not as accurate as it could be at this time. On Monday, we watched the news instead of focusing on the novel, as using authentic learning in schools is rarely utilized. Students were off their phones, using their computers for research, and asking thought-provoking questions: "How is this different from the flu?" "Is this a conspiracy of the government?" "How all of a sudden did the outbreak take over our lives?" They wanted answers; unfortunately, I didn't have the responses they wanted. Since we just ended our research unit, students utilized those skills to learn more about Covid-19.

During the time we are home, I created a blended-learning-type set of work to help students learn what they need to learn along with the skills. I've set up a time to be online with students to create a classlike situation for those who want to participate, including parents and guardians. Despite the current situation we are in, the learning doesn't stop if we don't stop teaching.

I am a secondary education English teacher in the state of Illinois whose school, like many around the country, has been closed for deep cleaning to protect students and staff. Going from a standard classroom situation to complete online learning really gives an indication of how serious it is to be protected. Many are unaware of the importance of this disease in its effects on others. Despite all this, teaching from home is even more difficult than many thought, as we do not have the resources at home as we would have in school. During an online video session to help students understand the novel we are reading, I realized that not having a whiteboard to use while teaching became one of the resources I needed. Students logged into Google Hangout with a link that was created for one of the courses. Students logged in to where we can communicate with each other. They were able to ask questions, recite passages from the novel, and even talk with each other. They needed more of a connection with each other virtually instead of chatting online. I held two virtual video sessions for my classes. Instead of fielding 140 emails with any concerns about the reading, this online session was able to decrease the number of students who needed that extra help or felt confused. I was available online in order to continue to help my students be successful in all areas.

Additionally, students use Google Classroom for all their assignments and resources they need while schools are on hiatus. During the elearning days, a weekly agenda helps students focus on what objectives and goals need to be met for the week. They are able to access resources, use internal links to connect to assignments, and connect with other students in their class to continue working in a virtual-classroom situation.

When they left Monday, they still had unanswered questions about what will happen in the next two weeks or so. I didn't have the answers for them, but I did teach them how to search for the answers they wanted. The biggest question from my classes was: Why toilet paper? I looked at them and said, "That's a question we will never be able to answer."

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Thanks to Maurice, Holly, Ashley, and Kristen 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 [email protected]. 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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Six in a day or two ...

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