Distance Learning: Reflecting on Pandemic Priorities
By Courtney Knowlton
Back in mid-March my principal sent an email entitled, “Emergency Staff Meeting at 3:15 pm.” It was a jarring phrase to read in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. The purpose was to let us know that students would be off the following Friday and Monday, so we could prepare ten days worth of plans for distance learning. Little did we know that Thursday would be the last time this school year that the students gathered at the front doors of our school and we would need distance learning plans for much, much longer than ten days.
That Friday I sat in a classroom with my colleagues to develop a preliminary plan, and for the last four weeks we have taught our students from a screen. One of the most challenging parts of designing this online learning experience was sifting through the bombardment of resources. I received over 40 emails touting “virtual offerings” and “free access due to school closures.” The distance learning paradox is that I seem to have an unlimited supply of free resources, but I have a much more limited amount of time to interact with my students on a weekly basis. It felt overwhelming at first, but I discovered a process that helped to make the best of these challenging times.
When visualizing how to reach students virtually, it helped me to brainstorm a list of priorities. Here is my list so far:
- I want to show students that I care using whatever means necessary, whether we connect by video chat, phone, or mail.
- I want to develop something that my students can depend on, since they are dealing with so much change.
- I want to incorporate elements that my students are familiar with to give them a sense of comfort.
- I want to give students choice during a time that they may feel that so much is out of their control.
- I want to use technology to my benefit to give students more one-on-one time and specific feedback.
- I want to find ways for students to interact with each other.
- I want to assess students with high expectations, but also with flexibility and understanding knowing they have different levels of accessibility and different home situations.
- I want to remember to think about my own health and wellness and try to maintain a work life balance.
Throughout March and the beginning of April I have tried to keep these priorities in mind when creating my Google Classroom. So far, I would say I have been most successful with 1, 2, and 5, and honestly 4, 6, and 8 have been quite a struggle. For me, it was an act of inquiry. I would try something, see how my students responded, and adapt accordingly.
Regarding connecting to students, I learned most of them could be reached using the announcement page on my Google Classroom or via messaging their parents on Class Dojo. Thankfully my school was able to give out Chromebooks and once all the students had access to the technology, the best way to explain how to use it was by inviting them to a video chat and sharing my screen with them. Then, I could model how to navigate the site. I learned to be patient. At first hardly any students attended the chat, but over the weeks more and more logged in. Video chats were also a great way to bring a little fun into our situation. For example, we did one to sing happy birthday to a student, and I found an old party hat and bright pink noise maker in my basement that made the students laugh.
To create something the students could depend on, I consistently provided information for them and their parents on our Google Classroom. At the beginning of the week I posted a grid organized by day number with a numbered list of work. Then, within the assignments tab, I titled each assignment using the format: Week #, Day #, Description. When the students clicked on the assignment they found two resources. The first was a video that I made using Screencastify. Each video showed my computer screen, while I explained the directions for the assignment. The other resource was their own copy of a Google Doc that I created for them to submit their thinking. Sometimes after checking the students’ work, I realized my weekly plan needed to be tweaked. If this happened, I would add CHANGE IN PLANS to the assignment title. Even though the work was different week to week, I found that keeping these elements consistent helped to minimize the amount of questions I was receiving for how to complete it.
Over the next few weeks, I will continue to look for guidance with my priorities. Attending Zoom meetings with my professional communities has made me feel more grounded and better equipped to handle teaching from home. In some ways this shift to distance learning has made me feel more alone, but in other ways it has given me new ways to connect with others on a global level.
Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts
The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What digital programs are you using? What lessons have you tried out? What routines and expectations are you establishing? How are you finding a balance?
Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.