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A Beginner’s Toolkit for Teaching Remotely

As the world has suddenly been sent into self-isolation, many schools are trying to figure out what to do next. Some are opting for extended Spring Break, while others are trying to figure out ways to continue learning from home. This pandemic and subsequent shut down of social interaction has shed light on some major issues when it comes to connectivity in our students’ homes. Those with internet may have limited access to a device as well as there may only be one smartphone that a family has access to.

Knowing all of those underlying issues exist in many of your schools, there are many schools moving forward with the idea of “remote learning” or eLearning. For a classroom teacher that has been trained in the day-to-day operation of being in a physical classroom, a virtual classroom presents many different opportunities and challenges besides the lack of access mentioned above. As you might imagine, teaching the exact same way you would in a face-to-face environment is a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I’m offering up this beginner’s toolkit as a start for a teacher just now getting started. I’m not focusing on a grade level or subject area with this guide, but rather a set of tools, resources, questions, and ideas you’ll want to have in your virtual toolkit.

Consistent Communication

I’m starting with this before we dive into content and strategies. All of the other stuff is just noise if you don’t have a consistent method of communication with parents and students. Email is probably the most basic and universally accepted but could be cumbersome if you are teaching multiple subjects and students each day. Having apps that act as text messages like Bloomz and remind could also work.

As a way to streamline communication, many districts use Learning Management System (LMS) tools like Canvas, Schoology, Seesaw or Google Classroom as way to communicate and distribute work to students. If you are in a school district that does not have an LMS tool in place, I’d highly recommend either Google Classroom or Seesaw as a simple way to set up a remote classroom for your students.

Here are some tutorials you could use to get those set up:

Seesaw for Home Learning (Video)

Quick Start Guide to Google Classroom (Website)

No matter what you do or what tool you use, be sure to be consistent. Whether you are sending out the weekly work every Monday at 9am or checking in daily, be sure you are consistent and available for support. Which brings me to my next tip

Support Your Learners

Many students are confused, stressed, or excited by the prospect of being out of school for an extended period of time. Their parents are also under a lot of stress during this time and may have lost work or are struggling to work remotely while being self-quarantined with their entire family. Life and learning at home will look very different for each of your students depending on their situation and you no longer have the consistency provided in a single classroom environment. Just like communication, I listed this section prior to getting into content and strategies because supporting your students is much more important than turning in a digital worksheet. If you do nothing else during this time away than consistently communicate and support your students with periodic check-ins, know that you will have helped with their social-emotional well-being if nothing else.

Sending short videos saying hello, leaving a voice mail, or even sending a letter to their home can be a way to check in and make them aware that you care about them and their well-being during this turbulent time.

Virtual Office Hours

As part of those check in with students, some teachers have set up “virtual office hours”.  These can be in the form of brief 1-on-1 chats with students or possibly checking in with the whole group during your regularly scheduled class time. Many companies have stepped up to the plate and offered up free services for video conferencing for schools. Business video conferencing companies like Zoom and Webex are offering free versions or expanded basic versions for all schools. For Zoom you have to fill out this brief school information form and for Webex you can just download the app to get started. One thing to be cautious of is that many of the business versions of online video chat software are not COPPA-compliant (meaning kids under 13 shouldn’t use them.

For those of you teaching younger students, you could use a tool like Google Hangouts Meet (if you are GSuite school) or Microsoft Teams (if you are an Office 365 school). If these options aren’t available to you, here’s a list of kid-friendly video chat apps you might consider as well.

A couple of notes of advice from video chat experts:

  1. Keep the chats short. This isn’t the time for an hour long lecture. Figure on about 15-20 minutes of time to share any information you might normally do in a one-hour class.
  2. Have a script or set of questions to keep things on point. This can be as simple as asking students how they are doing to more academic questions.

Content Delivery and Retrieval

I saved this until later in this post as I know it’s probably the first thing many teachers are thinking about but also the most complex to deal with based on many of the items above. Before I list a few ideas, I have noticed that depending on the state you are in, academic work may or may not be counted on for a grade. You’ll want to follow whatever guidelines your school or district provides when it comes to grading. That said, many families are hoping or some direction and ideas when it comes to at-home learning. The two most common approaches when it comes to delivering content and work for students are these:

  1. Synchronous method: Teachers and students gather virtually in an online space during the time of their actual class period. So if you have Pre-AP Algebra from 9:30-10:20 normally, that’s when students would log in to work with the teacher. While this most resembles the actual school day, it’s also wrought with issues like students not being able to get connected, tech issues, or what to do when a student is “absent” and misses the virtual session. Recording these in Google Hangout Meet might be one option for later viewing, but just know the backend issues that can arise when doing this the first few times.
  2. Asynchronous method: This has by far been the most popular method for remote learning. Much like online university classes, assignments are handed out daily or weekly for students to complete. Teachers can record themselves using Screencastify for PCs, Quicktime for Mac, and the built-in screen recorder for iPad or iPhone. Then these videos can be uploaded and distributed via your communication method of choice (see item #1) along with any other materials you want to attach.

Collection of materials can be tricky without an LMS. Without a full-blown LMS you could ask students to gather their work in a folder or even in a virtual folder in Google Drive. One clever idea that was shared with me from a teacher in Illinois was using an ePortfolio system like Bulb for students to document their learning. Using Bulb, students of all ages can document their learning in a series of collections. Check out this 3rd grade and high school example for ideas.

Another tool that I’ve always loved for digital learning is Nearpod. This morning they released this Google Doc with a rough schedule of what a day of at-home learning might look like. What I love about their approach is that they focus a lot on building those SEL skills like meditation for middle school kids or goal-setting for elementary students. They even have lessons in Spanish! Ideally your school would have a Nearpod account, but if not, they do offer a limited set of tools or free.

Using FlipGrid is a great way to have a virtual, asynchronous class discussion around a multitude of topics. From virtual book clubs to selecting and sharing a variety of topics in their Disco Library, this web-based tool can work on any device and allows students an opportunity to see each other more often, even if it is not face-to-face.

Also, having a running Google Doc shared with your students could work in terms of sending them ideas or a daily to-do list much like the one Nearpod shared above. Collection becomes a little trickier without Google Classroom, but having Google folders set up to “turn in” work could be a work around.

I am working on a list of resources for teachers that are more based on grade levels and ages, but as this post is just a beginner’s guide, I’m just sharing the above tools that could be used regardless of age and subject.

The Power of Reflection

“We do not learn from experience….we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

Reflection is a powerful ally to learning. One thing I always struggled with until late in my teaching career was allowing kids the time to reflect on what they had learned and accomplished. Reflection coupled with goal-setting can help with productivity as well as a student’s confidence to achieve a goal. One of the best examples of this that could totally be done at home is the design and building of a Rube Goldberg machine. Using available utensils and tools, the student creates a device with multiple moving parts and then predicts how successful it will be and how many attempts it might take. (here’s one example by a young man named Audri)

Taking time to reflect on their day and the process of what they are learning would be a great use of time at home. Reflections can be done in a physical journal, in a Google doc, on a FlipGrid, using a tool like Book Creator, or captured in a Bulb ePortfolio. No matter what subject or age you teach, try and encourage your students to document and reflect on what life is like in this crazy new normal.

I hope that the above areas help you get started on your journey as a teacher who works remotely. Remember to take care of yourself too during this time away and take time to reflect, share, and breathe. I’ll be sharing more tools and resources in a separate post.

If your school or district needs help, I’m available for virtual consulting. Click here if you’d like more information or need some assistance in your school or district.

 

 

How Prepared is Your School for a Long-Term Pandemic?

It’s been interesting to watch the world react to the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the “Coronavirus”. In the age of social media and instant notifications on our mobile devices, it’s made this pandemic seem like the worst on record when in fact, it’s not even close. That said, as with any disaster or pandemic, there comes an increased awareness to how schools and districts respond to it. Many schools are on alert, creating plans and awaiting guidance. While others, like this school in Seattle, are shutting down as a precaution.

Last week I posted the question of how schools prepared for a long-term closure using Facebook, Twitter, and group texts as ways to crowd-source responses.  Those responses varied from “packets, we’ll just give them lots of packets” to “we’ll use Google Classroom to hand out assignments.”  Neither of these responses are inherently good or bad, but it does open the door to a slew of questions schools and districts need to be asking themselves when it comes to continuing the learning even when the building is closed to students.

This post is a cumulation of those responses crowd-sourced from school administrators across the globe. As every district is different, it’s impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach to long-term closure. However, I do hope these questions can help guide you as you see what kind of plan you have in place should the unfortunate happen. Being from Texas, I know that weather can cause long-term closure as well (see Hurricane Harvey). For the purposes of the following questions, I’m going to assume that it’s a pandemic and that it’s affecting the entire community and surrounding districts. I will also post some ideas and solutions that were shared with me in the hopes of sparking an idea for your school or community.

1. How will you deliver learning to your students?

I purposefully put “learning” instead of “content” as too often times we default to what we know. Learning online looks a lot different than learning in a physical classroom. Some mentioned using LMS platforms like Schoology or Google Classroom to deliver the learning to their students but this assumes that A) they have devices and B) they have internet access (see next question). Also, most of the responses pertained to students in grades 6 and up. Some had some measures for 3-5 students while most had no plans for online learning when it came to K-2 students.

Ideas/Solutions: As mentioned, using LMS platforms seemed to be the most common response to this question, with Google Classroom being mentioned the most. Sometimes these can be online assignments, digital worksheets, or journal prompts. Some mentioned using live chats, YouTube, and Google Hangouts as a way to supplement the learning, including having “office hours” where teachers take 10-15 minutes to check in virtually with each of their students. A couple of districts mentioned their teachers creating lessons on Nearpod and using the “student-paced” option to send work home as it tracks their answers and allows them to upload work. Andrew Wallace from South Portland Maine Schools shared another creative solution. In his district, they send home a “one page cheat sheet” with passwords and usernames for online resources like Newsela, Tumble Books, Overdrive, and BrainPop (which already has a new lesson on the CoronaVirus – see below) In Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, Kyle Berger deploys a Classlink portal for all teachers, parents and students to access resources. Of course, this all still assumes that all kids have devices and internet at home which leads me to my second question.

2. How many of your students DO NOT have online access at home and how do you deliver learning to them?

This is a question many schools may already know the answer to. Online survey tools like Survey Monkey and Bright Bytes can help collect this data (ironically, you have to be online to take the survey) or you could collect this information during school registration. Regardless of how you collect it, you’ll likely have a percentage of students without access that you’ll have to plan for.

Ideas/Solutions: There were a WIDE variety of ideas and solutions for this question. Bonnie Blan from Southwest Christian School was able to leverage discounted internet access for families in need using Kajeet and the BroadbandNow initiative. Others mentioned giving out hotspots as it would be likely that students wouldn’t be able to go to places like McDonald’s or Starbucks during a quarantine (although some adults might risk it for coffee :). With either of these solutions, you would need to set these up well before disaster strikes, but I like that schools are solving this issue regardless. In general, the responses from educators seemed to indicate that you should be prepared to have some analog mixed with digital. Writing in journals and reading are easy enough for ELA, but having prompts for writing helps. Some schools mentioned having students check out extra books out of the library just in case.

3. How prepared are staff and what is their role?

Like Jennifer mentioned, setting up a bunch of brand new tools during a stressful time like a long-term closure wouldn’t be wise. Staff will be worried about their own families as well as their students. Anything that is implemented would either need to be put in place before hand or easily deliverable to a teacher’s existing curriculum and instruction. While not ideal, this could mean just sending home paper or digital worksheets, but even that can be a challenge.

Ideas/Solutions: Having a plan in place with deliverables to staff would be a smart thing to create and have on hand regardless of a global pandemic. These can range from having some one-page step-sets that show teachers how to deliver a variety of content on your LMS of choice to an internal website with a range of ideas for online learning. Schools can leverage tools like Microsoft Teams as a way to collaborate or have conversations or create Padlet walls that students can post ideas on. Any and all solutions should be web-based, device agnostic and able to work on a smartphone as that may be the only online access they have.

One bit of advice from Jennifer Pearson, a Tech Coordinator who works at the International School of Nanshan Shenzhen in China – “There should be a plan. The plan should be consistent and NOT introduce a bunch of new techy tools.”

4. Are these days recognized by your state or country as actual instructional days?

As you might imagine, each state and country has different rules around this. Here in Texas, we count instructional days based on the actual amount of minutes our students are physically in school. While there might be exemptions made, currently those days won’t count and schools would presumably have to extend the school year to make up for the loss of days and weeks while shut down which would likely push through the end of June. While I think learning should still continue even if your state or country doesn’t recognize it officially, this brings about many other questions, including contract lengths of your professional teaching staff.

Ideas/Solutions: Some states, like Illinois, recognizes a handful of “eLearning Days” that can often times come about due to poor weather. These days are counted as official instructional days and were recognized by the state, which means no make-up days at the end of the year. Phil Hintz from Gurnee D56 in the Chicago area was a part of a handful of districts that ran the pilot for eLearning days starting in 2016. While not a solution for weeks of closure, the framework they built was around giving students windows of time to complete assignments and using Title 1 funds to get those without access Kajeet Hotspots. Here’s a video of his school’s experience with eLearning day.

5. What role do other “non-classroom” professionals play?

In an average school building there are many professional, salaried staff working along side the classroom teachers. Some of these teach special area subjects like art, music and PE. Others include counselors, nurses, and campus administration. While the majority of the interaction of students will come from the teacher in an eLearning concept, these staff still have a role to play.

Ideas/Solutions: Principals are the go to source for school-to-home communication. They should be posting updates regularly to both parents but also to staff and help identify families that might not have online access at home. They also have to set expectations for teaching staff in making sure online instruction is consistent. Special area teachers should continue to serve students and provide instruction whether it be having students post a video of them doing push-ups on a FlipGrid or capture their art and reflect using a digital portfolio tool like Bulb. Counselors and nurses can provide support to families in need either through one-on-one at home visits or through online video chat tools.

6. What about itinerant and paraprofessional staff?

Those professional staff on salary can rest easy knowing that they are still getting their paycheck every month, even if the school is closed. Sure they may have to work some extra days, but they aren’t clocking in to work an hourly job. Custodians, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers and teacher aides don’t have that luxury. For them, a shut down could be a devastating hit to them financially if they aren’t working.

Ideas/Solutions: There are still roles for many of these staff to play even if the building is closed, but they may be very different compared to the normal school day. Custodial staff should do a deep cleaning of the building and prepare it for the eventual return of students. Admin assistants can help connect teachers with students and vice versa as they have access to parent contact information. Cafeteria workers can help provide and deliver meals to those families in need. Teacher aides can use tools like Google Hangouts to meet with those students they serve and check in or assist on the work that they have to do at home. In some cases, while human contact in masse is to be avoided, they can also make one-on-one home visits like the counselors and nurses. While the building may be closed, there is still plenty of work to be done and these staff are vital to keeping things running efficiently as well as helping our students with special needs.

In summary, there is a LOT to consider before shutting a school down for a few days or even a few weeks. The questions above are just the tip of the iceberg, but they come from a multitude of librarians, teachers, and administrators across the world that genuinely care about keeping the progress of learning happening despite the closure of a physical building.

What plans does your school or district have in place? Please post your ideas and solutions in the comments section below. If I’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that we all are better when we work and collaborate on ideas together.