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Connecting with Students Virtually

One of the biggest downsides of online learning, in my personal opinion, is the loss of community and the severely diminished level of engagement that comes from no longer having a physical classroom. Regardless of our content area or our students’ age group, there is something about being in the same physical learning space that conjures up a special type of magic. Personalities emerge, connections are made, and peer interactions are lively when in the comfort of the classroom. Try as we might, much of the magic is lost in the virtual realm. For many teachers, our students are known only to us as faceless black boxes on Zoommany of whom we’ve never actually met in person. Students may be connected in the literal sense, but they are often understandably disconnected when it comes to engagement, interest, and intrinsic motivation. With such little to go on, many teachers find themselves scraping the bottom of the barrel for tips and tricks as to how to truly reach students over Zoom. In the same way that we engage students and build a rapport in the classroom, teachers should start small and recognize that a little bit goes a long way in terms of building connections with students.

 

Celebrate milestones

Although we are not physically in the same room, or even the same building for learning, teachers can take simple steps to make students feel welcomed, acknowledged, and appreciated during online class sessions. 

  • One simple detail that I make sure to use every single day is to acknowledge students’ birthdays on the opening slide at the start of each week. Since my opening Google slide format stays the same throughout the yearit’s just the agenda and objectives that changeI can easily update the birthday announcement in less than a minute when prepping for the week ahead. By checking Synergy/gradebook, I am able to quickly see which students are celebrating a birthday that week, add their name to the “Welcome” slide, and wish them a happy birthday at the start of class as they enter the Zoom session. This is a small but simple way to acknowledge a student’s special day. It may also be the first or only mention of their birthday, so I like to make a big deal out of it, even if we’re not in the classroom together.
  • If I’m lacking a good warm-up question for the day, or if students are coming back from a long weekend or holiday break, I use the activator/warm-up opportunity to check in on what students have been up to. I keep the options for response casual and conversational to prompt full participation. Some students will prefer to speak out loud to the whole group about their weekend plans; others prefer to respond privately using the chat function. As I’m taking attendance, I’ll make quick notes about soccer games, volleyball tournaments, siblings visiting from college, etc., so that I’m able to follow up with students about things other than their English assignments. Again, a little bit of personalized attention helps students to feel more comfortable in the virtual space. These small conversations add up over time, helping to build a positive rapport and encourage participation and open dialogue.
  • When I’m providing feedback on written assignments, I use those comments as an additional opportunity to connect with students, not only about their writing skills, but about the content of their writing as well. For instance, I may compliment a student who has shown growth in her sentence structure or vocabulary since her last essay. I may also ask follow-up questions in the comments. For instance, since many of my seniors are writing about their plans for next year, I use my essay feedback as an opportunity to prompt them for more detail. I’ll make a point to ask the following questions, especially when students submit personal narratives:
    • What was the number one factor for choosing that school?
    • Do you know anyone else attending the same college?
    • What was your first impression of the campus?
    • What are you most nervous about after graduation?
    • What is one thing you hope to do before leaving for school?
    • How have your goals/career aspirations changed over time?

Perspective is Reality

Attitude is everything—especially during these trying times. Students of all ages are undoubtedly impacted by not only their own daily stresses, but also by the stress that the adults in their lives are currently managing. The sponges that they are, even young, elementary-aged children are picking up on the fact that mom, dad, and other adults around them are coping with greater levels of stress and concern these days. They may not know exactly what is going on in the world right now, but they are certainly aware that something is “off.” The uncertainty of the school year alone is disconcerting for kids, but parents can help. Just as we adults may exude tension or worry, we can also work to put out a contagiously positive attitude.

 

Self-care and words of affirmation 

One way that adults can help to foster a positive attitude is to model and encourage self-care and positive self-talk. These affirmations can be especially beneficial during times of high stress, conflict, or tumult. Teach children these reminders and explain them as deliberate attitude adjustments to use when they feel themselves going into a negative headspace. 

 

Examples of positive self-talk and affirmations might include:

  • Because I’m smart, I am capable of making my own decisions.
  • My attitude is something that I can 100% control, even when other things are out of my control.
  • I am allowed to take a moment to calm down when I need it.
  • No one is perfect; everyone in the world has flaws.
  • My differences make me unique.
  • I am allowed to make mistakes—everyone does.
  • My failures don’t mean that I’m a failure.
  • I will give it all my effort and that will be good enough.
  • I will choose to lift others up today.
  • My parents are proud of me, even if I mess up sometimes.
  • Worrying will not solve problems, but creativity can.
  • People who really love me will accept me for exactly who I am.
  • I know what is best for me.
  • I have a lot to offer and my ideas are worth sharing.

 

Teaching kids about how to use self-talk to build themselves up gives them a foundation for strong self-esteem. These helpful mantras also help children to remember what is important in moments of stress or struggle—a positive belief system can make all the difference in a chaotic moment.

 

Set a purpose for the day

Another great way to change a child’s negative perspective is to intentionally articulate what positive things today will bring. Parents can use these conversations as a beautiful way to start the day. Setting expectations for a worthwhile day, especially when children are feeling down and out, can act as a positivity springboard for the whole day. 

 

Phrases could include:

  • Today I’m going to try my best to accomplish _________.
  • I plan to challenge myself by _________.
  • One thing that I’m really looking forward to today is _________.
  • I hope to have learned more about _________ by the end of today.
  • I’m most looking forward to seeing/talking to _________ today.
  • Steps that I’ll take today to reach a larger goal include _________.
  • I’m going to help someone out today by _________.

Virtual Writing Instruction: Part II

In addition to providing cross-curricular writing opportunities, arranging activities that encourage peer feedback, and building in time for formative writing assessment, educators can also capitalize on one highly underrated teaching strategy: student choice. When at all possible, I try to provide my students with latitude for their written responses and essays. Of course, with a curriculum to follow, grade books to align, and cohorts that prefer to plan in “lock-step,” this is much easier said than done. Therefore, I make a concerted effort to plan for student choice when designing the writing tasks, as well as the instructional lessons leading up to those tasks.  

 

Below are several methods for implementing student choice while providing writing instruction:

  • Set up a NoRedInk classroom for students to join, explore, and practice various aspects of sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, etc. The platform is set up for self-directed, student-driven, asynchronous work. Therefore, the activity options in NoRedInk can provide students with interventions, scaffolds, and supports, as well as enrichment and rigor for those working ahead of the group. 
  • NoRedInk allows students to choose from grammatical, sentence-level practices, standardized English prompts, and guided essay support. They can also participate in peer or self-review, depending on their level of comfort with collaborative feedback.
  • One of my favorite warm-up activities is to provide students with several gifs on a Google slide. I try to choose gifs that relate to students and their interests, such as The Weeknd’s Superbowl Halftime performance or the latest State Farm commercial. They get to choose the gif they’d like to caption. Then they must incorporate a sentence structure or grammatical concept that we’ve recently discussed in class somewhere in their caption. Not only do students get to pick the gif they want to caption, but they also get the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of subordinating conjunctions, for example. Like an exit or entry ticket, teachers can quickly sift through the gif response to make sure that clauses are punctuated correctly and that students are understanding the purpose of the dependent clause in relation to the independent clause.
  • For writing instruction involving essay revision, teacher feedback, or peer edits, ask students to consider which section or paragraph of their essay they’d like to really rework or revise. Teachers can then use strategic grouping to organize students into groups with peers who are looking to revise the same portion of their essays. This streamlines teacher feedback, allows students to view one another’s work, and opens up the learning space for discourse around different writing techniques and components. 
  • I might organize small groups as follows:
    • Group 1 should be students who would like support/guidance with the thesis statement.
    • Group 2 should include students who need help finding appropriate quotes from the text or texts.
    • Group 3 should consist of students who need support with a concluding paragraph and/or transitions between paragraphs.
    • Group 4 should be for students who need help with elaborating on their analysis or further developing their own explanations. 

 

Student choice with writing samples/models:

  • Providing teacher models at the beginning of a new writing task is another beneficial strategy for incorporating student choice. Depending on the writing task, teachers should find (or create) a few various examples of the final essay or product for students to read and review. 
  • These samples can also include student essays from previous years. Provide students with options and require them to read, review, and assess at least one of the sample essays. This activity serves several purposesit allows students to see how others have approached the essay prompt, either successfully or unsuccessfully, depending on the samples you collect. It also shows teachers if students truly understand the criteria for success after viewing a teacher model or student sample.
  • If students review a mediocre or poor essay model as “great” or “topnotch work,” then teachers immediately see that they have missed the mark on fully explaining the task and the learning goals attached. Conversely, if students are unable to articulate why the model essay was unsuccessful or sound, then they truly do not know how to approach the task successfully either.

Social Emotional Learning Skills by Grade Level: Part III

By the time students reach middle school, the basic foundational skills for social-emotional intelligence are in place. Preteens and teenagers are now ready to face greater obstacles and challenges, especially with regard to peer relationships, stress, and self-motivation. To meet new benchmarks, students in middle and high school must learn to deal with more significant academic struggles, greater peer influences, ever-changing teenage social dynamics, and their own personal growth and development at the same time.  

 

SEL Middle School Benchmarks SEL High School Benchmarks
Students should begin to recognize circumstances and situations that cause extra or unnecessary stress; they should begin to adopt strategies to help with motivation, stress management, and task completion.  High schoolers should begin to understand how expressing one’s own emotions/feelings can have both positive and negative impacts on others. For example, as young adults, they need to know that positivity begets positivity, especially when emotions are running high.
Middle schoolers should begin to recognize the benefits of strong self-advocacy skills and how to best utilize the resources and supports that are at their disposal. For instance, if schools offer afterschool homework help, students who know that they struggle to complete assignments on their own should take initiative by signing up for the club/program and making a point to attend. High schoolers will have developed the ability to multitask by this point. However, more than multitasking, HS students should be able to shift back and forth between various tasks and under wavering conditions or circumstances. For instance, if completing a chapter review for English, a high schooler may need to answer a phone call or walk the dog to then return to the chapter questions later. Perhaps they need to maintain focus on several different homework assignments while working from a bustling coffee shop.  
Since learning to set goals in elementary school, middle schoolers should now be equipped to assess the validity of their goals so that they may make more informed, realistic, and specific goals moving forward. They should also be able to determine why they were able to reach success or not, i.e., What helped them to reach their goal? If they didn’t reach it, then why not? What prohibited them from finding success?   Students in high school should be able to capitalize on their strengths and think creatively when facing a challenge. This ability connects with problem-solving skills and ingenuity. We can’t all be great at everything, but in what way can we use our personal/individual strengths to make challenging tasks easier? This is key for college and career readiness.
By middle school, students should not only be able to recognize other people’s emotions, feelings, or perspectives, but they should be able to surmise why they feel or think that way. In this sense, they’re activating the ability to take another’s perspective that they learned in elementary school, then further expanding on that by making inferences.  High schoolers should be thinking about setting goals for the future after graduation. College is not the “end all be all.” But if college isn’t their plan, then what is? Young adults need to recognize how important it is to find a path, take steps to follow that path, and evaluate their progress, preferences, and goals as they go. If they want to take a gap year, what do they hope to accomplish during that year? If they are going to study abroad, how will they decide on a program and pay for it? What skill set do they plan to use for supplementary income while in or out of college?
Preteens not only recognize cultural differences, but they should begin to acknowledge how certain cultural differences can result in some peers being ostracized or bullied. They should then be able to begin to find ways to combat or address the bullying and/or to make others feel included and recognized.  High schoolers should be capable of showing respect for those with opposing or differing viewpoints, even if the opposing side is argumentative, dismissive, rude, etc. It is important to maintain a level of self-control even when others are not. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t mean they are wrong or right in their convictions.
Middle schoolers should be well-aware of group dynamics and what it takes to ensure the success of the group. This includes assigning roles, taking responsibility, sharing the workload, cooperating with others, etc. As young adults soon to be out on their own in the adult world, it is critical that high schoolers recognize how we must all be concerned about the well-being of all people; we may all be different races, but we’re all part of the human race. Therefore, we can positively contribute to our communities by advocating for human rights. 
Students in the middle school grades should be aware of negative peer pressure, what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They should also be able to come up with ways to combat negative peer pressure in non confrontational ways and under various circumstances. High schoolers should be able to assess their ability to actively listen and explain how active listening helps with conflict resolution. They should also be able to demonstrate leadership abilities within group contexts without dominating or overtaking the goal of the group.
Preteens should be considering their decision-making in terms of others. Before making an important decision, they should consider not only how they will benefit from their choice, but how it could impact others as well.  Young adults should be prepared to demonstrate knowledge of social norms and appropriate behaviors between and among various cultural groups. They should recognize certain expectations and norms when interacting with authority figures, children, elders, etc.

Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom

Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to themsomething that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers.

 

How to organize PBL for remote learning

  • “Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them during this pandemic. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:
    • What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
    • What needs are not being met now that we are working and learning from home?
    • How has your daily routine changed since the pandemic?
    • What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?
  • After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.
  • Help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.
  • Utilize haptic engagement or handson learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of handson, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis. 

Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.

Gaming in the Classroom to Boost Engagement, Part I

Creating engaging lessons and activities for learning is no easy task. With today’s technology, the Gen Z group has access to the most realistic and stimulating gaming graphics, digital art programs, and communication platforms. Their familiarity and use of technology is practically innate. Therefore, it is no wonder that holding students’ attention in the classroom has become more and more of a challengecompared to the allure of the glowing screens, our books and assignments do not hold a candle to their preferred methods of entertainment. So, one way for educators to look at it is: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

 

Ideas for the English/history/world languages classroom

  • Take a page from the NCAA and create a March Madness-inspired bracket to lure your students into the current novel, play, or works of poetry. This can work in several different ways. Teachers can have students rank their favorite texts, readings, or chapters from the unit. Then use Google forms to see which work progresses to the next round based on class votes. Students can also make predictions about which characters will come out on top at the end of a tragedy, conflict, or quest. This type of bracket works especially well during a Shakespeare unit and/or when teaching students about various battles during The Civil War, WWI, WWII, etc. The key for engagement is to hype up the bracket to get students investedconsider an Elite Eight winner, Final Four winner, Championship winner with school-related prizes. Teachers should also think about either creating a giant visual bracket on the classroom wall or a website for digital class brackets.
  • For tech-savvy social studies students, challenge them to create a digital recreation or simulation of specific historical events. For example, instead of making a typical timeline, students might choose to show Germany’s progression across Europe with a visual map simulating territory takeover. Similarly, using video programming, students can act out various historical events and arrange or splice the clips with background music, captions, historical photographs, or Google Slides. With these projects, they’re putting their technology expertise to great use while demonstrating their knowledge of the event and/or time period.
  • Students are all about their social media presence right now, so how about utilizing those platforms to demonstrate their knowledge of a major historical figure, author, or literary character. There are hundreds of websites available for classroom use involving fake instagram templates, Tiktok videos, and pretend Linkedin pages. While these aren’t exactly games, the use of such platforms can be equally engaging for students. Some ideas include creating a Spotify playlist for a specific character or historical figure. Songs should represent key quotes or important aspects of the person’s life. Recently, a student of mine did a fabulous “Desdemona’s Breakup” playlist using Spotify to write an alternate ending for Shakespeare’s Othello. I’ve also found that mock-dating profile templates can be a great, creative option for students to demonstrate their understanding of a character. Teacherspayteachers.com offers a free “Fiction Mingle” template for this exact purpose!

Another engaging activity stems from the ever-popular escape rooms. Students with experience using gaming simulation and other digital animation programs can create and share virtual escape rooms with other students as a way to review foreign language terms and vocabulary. There are numerous websites, apps, and even options for using Google Forms to create digital escape rooms for the classroom. Teachers can create various levels of escape rooms to challenge students based on skill set, level of difficulty, and individual or collaborative groups.

Teacher Tips: Keeping Students Engaged in Virtual Math Class

As an avid reader, writer, and English teacher, nothing used to scare me more than the possibility of having to cover an absent colleague’s math class. Like a fish out of water, my literacy-geared mind simply cannot adapt to the math world. Now that we educators have moved into the virtual realm of instruction, at least for the time being, I am even more in awe of how my math teacher counterparts are able to reach their students when it comes to such complex skills. It goes without saying that, for students like myself who find math to be difficult to begin with, they must be finding online math instruction to be even more difficult. Another critical piece of this perplexing puzzle is this: how on earth are teachers now adapting to make online math instruction engaging?  

 

Real World Connections

Just as we would in the physical classroom, in order to boost engagement for a lesson or concept, teachers should try their best to connect the activity or information to students’ real-world problems. Enough with the “train leaving the station at a certain time” word problems and examples. Students will inevitably zone out when the material is not relevant or familiar. Instead, use what you know about your students to incorporate their interests into your math lesson, then connect the content to a problem that they might actually need to solve at some point. Making the concepts less arbitrary by showing students how to use these math skills in the real world will take engagement to a new level.

  • To teach measurements, perimeter, area, etc., have students make a plan for rearranging their room by actually measuring out their bedrooms and bedroom furniture. 
    • Visual learners can sketch a “floor plan” for where they could realistically move their bed, dresser, desk, etc.
    • Kinesthetic learners may want to build a diorama or 3D representation of their bedroom arrangement proposal using everyday materials around the house like cardboard, straws, tape, sticky notes, etc.
  • Teach percentages and healthy eating by demonstrating how much sugar is in some of your students’ favorite candies and treats. Poll students in advance and do a little research about how many grams of sugar are in some of their favorite candy bars. 
    • Then challenge students to represent those grams in tablespoons so that they can visually see how much sugar they are ingesting. 
    • Extend the activity by discussing how much of their daily recommended sugar intake is “eaten up” by choosing that candy bar. Ask students to figure out how much of a healthier treat, like grapes, they could eat in place of the candy barthey’ll be amazed at the comparison.
  • Teach concepts involving time by having students actually time themselves doing everyday tasks, like walking to the park, making their bed, brushing their teeth, etc. 
    • Then incorporate multiplication skills to see how many minutes students spend brushing their teeth in a year, for example. 
    • You can surprise them even more by asking them to track screen time for a week and then finding out the average time they might be spending in front of their phones per year.

 

Celebrate (and Learn from) the Errors

Students don’t often spend time reviewing math errors to gain a substantial understanding. Instead, they’re correcting mistakes for additional credit, or overlooking the missteps altogether. Teachers can boost engagement by capitalizing on students’ errors in non-judgmental ways.

  • Teachers may want to try a practice called “the best mistake” in which they use anonymous student samples to analyze where a math problem went wrong. 
    • This activity encourages students to take on another’s perspective, reread and review material, and look critically at different mathematical functions and properties.
    • This activity also helps to remove the stress around math quizzes and word problems by making light of errors and demonstrating how they happen to everyonewe all make mistakes sometimes. The key is to use those mistakes and improve in the future.
  • Teachers can also increase engagement by letting students be the experts and intentionally making an error in a math problem.
    • Tell students in advance that a step or number is incorrect. Ask students to discuss and collaborate in groups in order to spot the teacher’s error.
    • Remember, kids always love being able to correct the teacher—even if the error is intentional.

Virtual Writing Instruction: Part I

Across school districts, students’ grades, scores, and standardized test results indicate a widespread drop in foundational skills, some of the more critical skills affiliated with academic writing. Writing is not just an English-specific necessity. The ability to construct cohesive, clear, organized thoughts in written form is essential for all aspects of college and career readiness. As educators, we must prioritize these foundational writing skills to ensure that, even in the midst of virtual or hybrid learning, students are still being set up for success.

 

Daily cross-curricular opportunities

Writing is one of those skills that is strengthened by repetition and practice. Exposure to different styles of writing and opportunities to compose different written forms helps students to recognize the importance of writing in all subject areas. Therefore, teachers should provide opportunities for students to practice composing various genres and for different purposes. These do not necessarily have to be long, involved essay prompts; teachers can use these ideas as warm-ups, exit tickets, lesson activators, etc.

 

For example, science teachers might ask students to write and submit lab reports, compose directions for science experiments, or draft project proposals for a final project. History, civics, or social studies teachers should consider prompts that require students to compare and contrast two or more cultures, time periods, land forms, or branches of government. Math teachers can help students with procedural or sequential writing skills by asking them to compose an error analysis for any questions that they missed on a quiz or assessment. For a task such as this, students are subconsciously learning the skills necessary to craft written work that follows a problem-solution or cause-effect format. The key here is to demonstrate that writing skills, even short practices, lend themselves to all content areas, not just English.

 

Peer review

Peer review sessions are extremely beneficial, especially during virtual learning where students do not have day-to-day interactions with their peers. Dissecting someone else’s work can be a very enlightening practice for young writers. It allows them to see how another student interpreted and approached the same task in relation to their own response. Viewing another’s writing also sheds light on different writing styles, provides ideas for varying sentence structure, and demonstrates how others interpreted a text or quote. In evaluating another’s writing, students begin to grasp, not only how their own writing measures up, but how an instructor might evaluate a written response. It forces students to consider the prompt, the rubric, and the overall objectives with regard to their final composition. Peer review sessions also prompt student discourse, which, during these trying times, can help stimulate social skills, collaboration, and motivation. 

 

Formative feedback

By embedding formative feedback into weekly writing instruction, educators send the important message to students that writing is a fluid process—students are not expected to craft perfect writing on their first, or even second attempt. One of my most beneficial practices to help students with essay writing is to formatively assess the introductory paragraph first, before students continue on with their entire essay. By pumping the breaks and providing specific feedback on each student’s intro paragraph, I am able to accomplish several things at once. 

 

First, looking at the intro paragraph gives me an inside view of the foundation of their essay; I’m able to see students’ interpretation of hook statement, bridge statement leading into their thesis, and the final thesis statement, around which the entire essay will be framed. If students’ introductory paragraphs are a mess in any one of these categories, I can quickly provide necessary feedback and scaffolds for them to revise and reset before they have gone too far down the wrong path. Looking at the intro paragraph also shows me whether students actually understand the writing prompt or not. If multiple students seem to be off track or missing the mark, I can easily intervene and provide supports, interventions, and reteaching to ensure that everyone understands the prompt and how to approach it.

 

In part two of Virtual Writing Instruction, we’ll explore the impact of providing student choice, creating the necessary scaffolding for struggling writers, using virtual sessions to instruct using teacher models, and building online portfolios for student writing.

Transparency and Parent Communication

Schools being closed is certainly not ideal. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to look at the positive. It’s time to look for the silver linings in the Covid cloud we’ve been enduring for nearly a year now. One of those silver linings might actually involve the virtual learning model into which educators, students, and families have been unwillingly thrust. You see, online learning essentially lends itself to consistency, open communication, and transparency between parents and teachers. If utilized correctly, parents can use virtual learning platforms as a front row seat to everything that their child is reading, learning, and creating.

Invite Parents into the Virtual World
Whether teachers are using Canvas, Google Classroom, or any of the other instructional platforms available right now, parents should be encouraged to join as participants or viewers. Many schools made this information available at the start of the school year; however, not all parents were aware of the advantages that this form of “virtual classroom participation” would give them and their children. Educators should consider some of the following measures:

  • Send out a mass email to parents and guardians about joining the virtual classroom if anyone has yet to do so.
  • Be sure to make class codes, course numbers, and Zoom login information visible on your course home page; you can also include this information in the mass email to parents.
  • Post “parent-friendly” announcements to your course homepage to ensure that parents see these important notifications directly at the top when they login to check grades, review assignments, etc.
  • For students with chronic absenteeism, reach out to parents via email and/or phone about their child’s absences in case they are unaware of the missed classes.
  • Use the Canvas “grades” page to send mass emails to specific students and their “observers,” i.e. parents, when they have missed an important assignment deadline. This function allows teachers to email anyone who hasn’t submitted the assignment all at once without showing other recipients.
  • When interims or the end of the marking period is approaching, post a message to all students and “observers” about final steps and tasks for successfully rounding out the marking period.
  • Set up a parent page in Canvas for each course where parents can find important course information, class or weekly calendars, teacher contact info, Zoom logins, office hours, and FAQs.
  • Use Screencastify to create how-to tutorials for parents. These videos could include information on how to check grades, how to see if assignments have been submitted, how to view teacher feedback on written tasks, how to use Kami, etc.
  • Push out a parent survey using Google forms to obtain vital information about how e-learning is going at home. Ask questions like, How much hands-on homework support do you provide to your child on the average night? Does your child have access to his/her own computer for learning? Is there an older sibling or parent in the home during the average instructional day to provide tech support? Are there technology issues at home? Where does your child do most of his/her classwork? How many children are in the home participating in virtual learning at the same time? On average, how much sleep is your child getting on the typical school night? How much time is spent on homework over the weekend? What frustrations are you seeing with regard to virtual learning/instruction? Do you have easy access to your child’s grades, course materials, school resources, etc.? What steps could I take to provide more transparency/clarity to parents about our class? If your child needs more instructional support, do you know where/how to obtain those resources?
  • Finally, teachers should create engaging assignments that encourage discourse within the family. These family-centered prompts require students to bring their parents into the assignment for support and guidance, which allows parents to see firsthand what you’re teaching. For instance, ask students to interview a member of their household for a formative assessment on sentence structure. Have students write a personal essay about how they got their name, including direct quotes from their parents or guardians. Have students create a “family album” on Google slides including photos and fun facts about siblings, pets, parents, grandparents, etc.

Helping Students Combat Zoom Fatigue

Zoom fatigue is an unfortunate yet all too familiar side effect of our current educational circumstances. Depending on grade level, students are logged into a video conferencing platform for classes up to six hours a day. Yet those six hours of class are just the beginning. That time doesn’t account for the additional screen time necessary to complete homework assignments, read and respond to emails, and review online course content. 

 

It is no wonder that students are experiencing high levels of burnout and exhaustion these days. Even more concerning is the domino effect that Zoom fatigue may be havingschool districts across the nation are reporting troublesome spikes in spotty attendance, prolonged absences, disengagement, lack of communication, and, of course, a noticeable drop in grades. Virtual learning is our present reality, and we have yet to know what the foreseeable future of this school year will look like. However, there are ways in which parents and teachers can assist now with Zoom fatigue.

 

  • Teachers should deliberately frame the lesson, as they typically would in the brick-and-mortar setting, but consider adding time estimates for each task. Having an idea of how long each topic, assignment, or activity will take helps students establish expectations and prioritize their mental stamina.
  • Beginning with an engaging, yet relevant, icebreaker goes a long way with student buy-in from the get go. If possible, incorporate movement into the opener. For example, ask students to take 30 seconds to find an object around them that represents an important memory. This allows students to get up and move. It also builds classroom community and allows students to share out about a personal anecdote. 
  • Establish “No Screen” blocks of time throughout the day and stick to them. Meal times and times in between classes and office hours should be strictly considered “screen free” times. This is the same idea behind brain breaks and movement breaks, which allow for a necessary mental reset for young learners. Teachers have limited time with face-to-face online instruction; however, it is crucial that students are getting small breaks during those instructional hours as well. Something as brief as a 5minute gap of time for students to walk away from the computer, grab a snack, or stretch can revitalize heavy eyes and foggy minds.
  • Encourage students to utilize office hours efficiently to reduce screen time during those non-instructional days. Office hours are certainly necessary. However, teachers can help reduce screen use by streamlining the process for office hours. For instance, tell students to login with specific questions in mind relating to the assignment or project. Keep the office hour fluid, meaning that, once students have asked their questions or gotten clarification, remind them that it’s okay to exit the Zoom early. If they have a quick question, consider an email instead of waiting to login for office hours.
  • Incorporate prerecorded asynchronous videos, demonstrations, presentations, etc. Of course, students need live instruction, but breaking up the session with these components can greatly help with Zoom fatigue. Incorporating small asynchronous components can also help make the lesson move quicker since students are working at their own pace.
  • If teachers have finished the lesson with a few minutes in the session to spare, don’t fill that time with extra instruction or busy work. It is okay to end the session and give students a bit more of a break between classes. Of course, offer to stay on Zoom until time has expired in case anyone has a question, but often, students prefer to logout early as a nice little treat.

Close all other unnecessary tabs while in a Zoom class. This may seem obvious, but many students use Zoom classes for multitaskingmeaning that they have countless tabs open, documents and assignments for other classes underway, and a cell phone within reach. All of these things only work against their ability to focus, thus creating more fatigue. As difficult as it may be, remind children to stay engaged with the class and task at hand, i.e., no multitasking unless it is related to that class in particular. Put the cell phone away, as well, since this is just one more screen that’ll distract them during class.