Lessons learned…

Results of the current remote/hybrid classroom experiment are starting to surface. Since the combined use of remote and face-to-face instruction is such a new development – it is neither blended nor fully online – we have very few examples of effective methods and strategies to use for reference. However, after several weeks of experiments with these new learning models we are starting to see an abundance of stories, some expressing frustrations with Teaching in-person and virtual students at once? It’s an instructional nightmare, some educators say. Unfortunately, these attempts at trying to maintain our traditional forms of teaching in such unique circumstances may be both unrealistic and unsustainable. It may be time to take a breath and reflect. In Finding Focus, Rachelle Dene Poth provides some good guiding questions that get at the kind of reflection we should all be engaging in…

  • What can I create now that will benefit students regardless of where learning takes place?
  • How can I design more active learning experiences for use in or out of the classroom?
  • What are some tools/strategies that will help me to understand student progress and also how they are doing?
  • What did I experience last year or what feedback did I receive that I can use to plan better for this new year?

In addition to reflective practice, it is the unique strengths of online learning that may help get us through the year…

Embrace flexibility

Flexibility is one of the great benefits (and equalizers) when learning moves online. When teaching face-to-face we tend to think in terms of getting content delivered in 55 minute blocks of time. In online learning, this dynamic is upended. Instead, time becomes variable and the focus tends to shift naturally to the needs of individual learners. Once this happens, content mastery (learning) comes to the forefront because we no longer need to work within restricted amounts of time – the needs and strengths of the learner drive the teaching. Obviously, this is an ideal outcome, and not always realistic. Regardless of the extent, it is a transformation nonetheless. When students attend online, their needs (and not the needs of the institution) tend to drive more of the decision-making. What might this look like in practice? 

  • Rather than focusing on daily task completion, focus on content mastery in variable time increments. In practice, you might schedule a week’s worth of activities that students can complete at their own pace, providing regularly scheduled support. 
  • Move as much content into asynchronous delivery as possible. Record daily lessons and use face-to-face time for targeted interventions, small group work, or hands-on activities. Even younger students can manage recorded lessons. Build in pauses for independent work. Check out what that might look like in methods for teaching elementary students online.

Personalize instruction

In What Teaching Online Classes Taught Me About Remote Learning Susan Shapiro shares how her classes unexpectedly turned very “personal” once she shifted to remote teaching. The shift to a more personalized approach is a natural tendency when the classroom moves online. It just seems to be much easier to focus on small groups or individual students online, but also because connections inherent in a face-to-face classroom need to be made more intentional at a distance. And it isn’t only more personalized in the sense of getting to know your students better on a “personal” level – it can also encompass personalized forms of instruction such as differentiation, which can also be easier to facilitate online because of the flexibility inherent in the delivery method. If you are wondering where to start, consider how you might provide remediation and enrichment activities for students who need additional support or for those who master the material more quickly. You can build from there. Make sure you provide supports in a variety of ways –  through direct instruction or the creation of supplemental materials for example. This doesn’t have to be complicated or involve the use of complicated technologies. You might… 

  • Set regular virtual office hours. Office hours provide a scheduled set amount of time for your students to have direct access to you for one-on-one attention. 
  • Provide optional learning labs or record quick tutorials. The trick here is to provide  opportunities for just in time learning for your students, especially when you are teaching a particularly difficult concept. 
  • Use choice boards (learning menus, hyperdocs, playlists). Choice boards extend learning through differentiation while still addressing the content area standards and objectives. Check out this Edutopia article on Teaching a Class with Big Ability Differences to learn more and to locate some examples. You might also be interested in How HyperDocs can Transform Your Teaching
  • Design or use existing Internet scavenger hunts and virtual field trips or supplement your lessons with questioning strategies and guides that direct your students to resources that will help them better understand the subject matter, tap into their natural curiosity about a topic, or provide opportunities to practice skills. Check out a couple of simple Scavenger Hunt activities.

Balance work and home life

Time management is a common challenge when teaching online because of the increased flexibility and differentiated student (and family) support. This has been identified in the research as a high priority issue for online teachers, especially those who are new to it. With the shift to remote instruction and teachers who are working from home with their own children to supervise, the challenge is even greater. Teaching online takes a lot of preparation and planning, not just for lesson delivery, but for learning how to use the technology tools as well. Teachers must be given the resources, including time, to manage the changes necessary to be successful. In practice you can… 

  • Request additional support from your school or district. Online schools that have been in existence for two decades have created entire infrastures around supporting students and teachers, including support for attendance, remediation, interventions, special needs, curriculum design, and technology support. 
  • Streamline your lessons. Get to the heart of what matters most – is it worksheet completion or is it the learning process and outcomes? Provide the supports that allow students to take the best path to get there and make yourself available when needed. Check out Frickin’ Packets for some practical ways to cull busy-work from your instruction. Adapting Rigorous Work to Remote Learning provides some guidance with the use of the DOK (Depth of Knowledge) framework. 
  • Create an “on call” group of colleagues (similar to doctors) who alternate “off hours” support. Teachers cannot be expected to maintain 24/7 availability.   
  • Plan due dates so that they don’t fall on days that require you to respond on a weekend. For example, mid week due dates allow students time to work on the weekends but also time for you to respond first thing Monday morning (or even Sunday evenings if unanswered emails keep you up at night).

Accept your changing role

The transition to online teaching can seem unsettling because there is a genuine shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” These concepts may seem cliched, but it is a natural transition that occurs when the teacher is no longer in the center of the classroom and is a fear I hear frequently from teachers in my classes. But this shift does not mean you have lost power; it means that your power is more distributed and targeted. In practice this shift requires…

  • A greater focus on relationship building, communication and lots of feedback. This means developing and maintaining easily accessible and consistent communication and feedback loops. Examples include weekly or biweekly announcements, parent newsletters, regular phone calls to touch base, and built-in formative assessments. Tech tools like EdPuzzle, VideoAnt, and NearPod can help with the latter. Although I’m an advocate for teacher created video, Khan Academy has an extensive tracking system that can be useful and time-saving. 
  • Finding what works best for you and your students. Because this is such a unique time, the basic rules of online learning don’t always apply. In this case it may be best to maintain some of your traditional classroom rituals. Regular story time or show and tell through live lessons, science demonstrations delivered live, and the use of familiar instructional strategies will give kids a much needed sense of normality. 

Plan for technology disruption

There is a common misconception that kids, because they have grown up with ubiquitous access to technology, somehow have an innate ability to use that technology in instructionally appropriate ways. First, not all kids have ubiquitous access, and second, they do not necessarily have the skills we think they do. In fact, research does not support constructs such as “digital natives” or the “net generation.” Just as with any new skill, kids need coaching and scaffolding in the proper use of technology for learning. That means teachers need to be properly trained in its use as well. The same can also be said for the ability of our students (and adults) to critically evaluate content they find on the Internet. This is a skill that must be taught, reinforced and taught again, through structured and supervised instruction. What does this look like in practice? 

  • District resources should be re-allocated to acquire technology support for students and teachers, such as help lines, tutorials and guides.   
  • Use existing resources to support your efforts. Commonsense Media has an abundance of content including complete lesson plans for all grade levels on Digital Citizenship
  • Avoid cognitive overload… never introduce new content AND a new technology at the same time. Scaffold learning by first introducing the technology with content that is already known and then introduce the new content. 
  • Always have a Plan B… technology fails all the time so it should not come as a surprise. First is to avoid panic, on all sides. Make sure students are aware of their options if technology does fail. If you are intentional about this, you and your students won’t let simple technology issues disrupt the learning process. 

Supervise from afar

Teaching online requires a new skill set and one that most of us aren’t familiar with because we’ve always had easy access to our students in the face-to-face classroom. You’ll need to rethink your rules and classroom expectations to adapt to this new learning environment. For one, they’ll need to be adapted for more flexibility – perhaps allowing some late work but flagging students for a phone call after a set number of infractions. In fact, regular phone calls may now be your “new normal.” You’ll also need to be explicit about how and when students or parents should reach out to you. In practice this means…

  • The very first communication should be for information gathering. You’ll want to know how to provide support that will result in a successful outcome; if students have a designated study space, how much support you can expect from parents, identified strengths and weaknesses in the learning process, and other relevant academic, social or development issues or interests. 
  • You’ll want to follow-up in the semester to see how things are going and to revise any misconceptions that may have developed. 
  • You’ll want to report on student progress from time-to-time, or better yet provide a space that parents can visit to see for themselves how their child is progressing. 
  • You’ll want to check student activity in the LMS (if you use one). LMS’s are a great resource for everything and should be the central hub for all activity so that it can be easily monitored.  

This guide for Best Practices in Remote Learning has a lot of useful information. And this  Remote Learning Guide, located with many other resources on Melanie Kitchen’s Curator of Creative Curiosity blog, provides guidance on the practical steps you can take to ensure that you understand the conditions that support learning in online classrooms. In particular, notice the focus on 1) building relationships, 2) establishing routines and rituals, and 3) ensuring that all students are receiving the support they need. Other helpful resources include: 


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