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Distance Learning is the new Bike Riding

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

I remember, a spring day much like today, I learned to ride my bike. Taking off the training wheels, left me feeling unsteady. Somehow, the uneasiness pushed me forward, and eventually all of the teetering and balancing paid off. With lots of practice and my dad’s help—and patience—I found the freedom of the open road.

The last three weeks of teaching remind me of when my training wheels came off. I have been trying to find a balance between home life and work life while learning best practices of distance learning through virtual meetings.

With this new teaching format, I wanted to get my students feedback and see how things were going on their side of the computer screen. After one week, I asked them the following questions:

  1. What assignment, activity, or aspect of English distance learning have you enjoyed the most? Why?
  2. What assignment, activity, or aspect of English distance learning can I improve? How?
  3. What is your preferred method of communication with me: Canvas assignment comments, Canvas discussion boards, email, Teams messenger, Teams phone call? Why?
  4. What about distance learning has been the biggest hurdle?
  5. What about English distance learning has been easy and/or have you enjoyed?
  6. What about distance learning surprised you?
  7. Is there anything else I should know?

I choose one specific area of feedback to focus on—preferred method of communication—because so much of our class depends on one-on-one and small-group conferencing.

Although I tried giving feedback on assignments in our learning management system (LMS), my students shared that it was difficult for them to find the feedback and respond to me. The first week ‘conferences’ ended up being mainly one-sided. Although email was a viable option, my students and I receive so many emails throughout the day that it would be difficult to keep track of so much mail. However, they liked how email made it easier to have a ‘conversation.’

I was not sure what to do with their feedback. I knew Microsoft Teams was an option for virtual meetings, but the chat feature would not provide the one-on-one interaction my students and I needed. While walking one beautiful day, I came up with the following idea: create one-on-one discussion boards.

In school, I use discussion boards for whole-class sharing and small-group publication, but I never used them for one-on-one conferencing. If you have a discussion board feature in your LMS, check to see if you can create something similar. Instead of creating groups with multiple students, I created a discussion board with only one student in it. The discussion board essentially works like text messages, offering a place for students to chat with me during our class period and throughout the week. There is a reply button that we both use to keep the conversation going. We meet virtually on the discussion board, and I can provide differentiated instruction. I have answered questions, clarified directions, offered feedback, and suggested books. The discussion board is the closest thing to re-creating our one-on-one conferences. And, they are working! During a second round of feedback, students shared that they like being able to talk to me without the entire class seeing what they said. Their answers also confirmed that they like the discussion boards because they offer live feedback from me and are easy to find and reply to. All in all, these discussion boards have become a reliable, ongoing source of communication.

For next week, I am working on re-creating students’ small-group and table-group conversations through Microsoft Teams. Students are filling out surveys that ask them whether they would like to have a small-group chat about their writing piece or book or have time to share with their table group. I hope this new tool helps students collaborate and receive additional feedback.

Many days I feel like a first year teacher again. So many aspects of distance learning are brand new. In theory they work, but I have to figure out what works best for my students and for me. Getting their feedback on conferencing and discussion boards helped me to find a sense of certainty amid the unknown.

I am trying to embrace the unsteadiness of distance learning like the first time I rode my bike without training wheels. Through it all, I keep reminding myself to experiment and breathe. Chatting with my students, reading their writing pieces, and talking about books has brought me joy during a crazy time. I owe this happiness to my students’ honesty and the one-on-one discussion boards. I hope you are finding the right technological tools for you and your students.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

PAWLP would like to hear from you! What digital programs are you using? What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What is bringing you joy? What technological tools are you using?

Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like more information.