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Making Connections and Building Engagement

Whether students are going to school 100% virtually or participating in a hybrid model, one thing is for certain—the need for building community, making personal connections, and boosting engagement is more important than ever before. Education certainly looks different right now, and many teachers would argue that distance learning is just not cutting it academically or socially for our students. Regardless of how and when schools will resume in-person learning, teachers have to get creative in the meantime to ensure that students’ needs are met on a holistic level. We cannot solely focus on providing virtual instruction during these trying times.

Journaling
It is difficult to connect to students through a camera lens. It’s even more difficult to build relationships with learners you’ve perhaps never met in person or if you haven’t even heard their voices. It can be just as uncomfortable, if not moreso, for students to engage with a new, unfamiliar adult over the computer during live instruction. To ease the unfamiliarity, some teachers are turning to a tried and true writer’s workshop activity—journal time. Journaling as a warm-up activity lends itself especially well to an English course, but other content areas can capitalize on journal writing as well.

Teachers should consider starting with open-ended prompts that allow students to express themselves on a personal level. To encourage students to write freely, explain to them that their journal responses will not be evaluated or read by peers. They should understand that journaling is purely intended to share experiences and spur conversation. This also prompts students to speak candidly so that you can begin to get to know them on a more personal level—this is essential since we are no longer teaching in person. Keep the prompts light and provide options to start the routine. I always like to ask my high schoolers to tell me what their favorite and/or least favorite thing about being a teenager is. These responses give really good insight into students’ lives and what they may be dealing with outside of school. I also like to keep these samples and refer back to them later in the school year to show students how much growth they’ve shown in their personal writing.

Identity Collage
Creating an identity collage is another useful and engaging way to get students to share a little more about themselves in a visual art form. Ask students to create a Google slide as a self-portrait. They can use an actual photo of themselves or get artistic and sketch or draw themselves. Once they’ve added the photo, which shows the world how they appear on the outside, ask students to cover half of their face on the slide with images, words/phrases, or other symbols that represent their underlying or deeper identity. Encourage them to think about what their peers might not know about them just by looking at them. Once students have submitted their slides, teachers can combine all of the dual external/internal self-portraits into a class “yearbook” of sorts. This way, even though we aren’t physically learning in the same space, students can get to know a little bit more about their peers on a more personal level.

“All emotions” Playlist
Music tends to be a topic or area of discussion that spurs great participation, no matter your student’s age or grade level. Music is also something that can unify groups of people on an emotional level, since people often view music as therapeutic. If studying language, history, psychology, or perhaps music, kids will greatly appreciate this engaging project. Ask students to compile a list of go-to songs that they would play as clear representations of a mood or emotion. For instance, what is your go-to song to listen to when you’re frustrated, or melancholy, or excited, or feeling silly? Students will then make a playlist of their 3-5 songs and briefly explain how the song helps to alleviate their frustration or sadness. They’ll need to answer questions like, What about this one song excites you or makes you laugh? What about this song helps you to release anger/frustration? What line or lyric from this song resonates with you when you’re feeling sad?

Get Spontaneous on Zoom
Zooming all day can become draining, to say the least. Shake things up for kids by utilizing short breaks that serve a specific purpose and keep kids engaged and wanting to come back to the discussion. For example, if giving students a quick 5-minute break during your Zoom class, challenge them to come back to the session holding something orange. Ask them to come back with a hat on. Prompt them to grab their pet or favorite stuffed animal when rejoining the session. Tell them to grab their favorite snack or something that they absolutely can’t live without. Take it a step further and ask students to bring a family heirloom or or family photo to the next Zoom class so students can pair-share in breakout rooms as a family-based show and tell.

STEM/STEAM Activities for Distance Learning

STEM and STEAM Day is observed in the month of November. STEM is the acronym assigned to an approach to learning that utilizes science, technology, engineering, and math skills as gateways to inquiry-based learning. STEAM is STEM + the arts. One of the wonderful aspects of a STEM/STEAM educational approach is the fact that, using a child’s personal interests combined with hands-on activities, learners simultaneously develop critical skills, such as problem-solving, collaborative teamwork, creativity, cooperative communication, and critical thinking/analysis. Virtual learning doesn’t have to mean that STEM/STEAM activities are left by the wayside. Although many schools address STEM/STEAM learning through extra curricular activities and clubs within the school, educators and parents can still integrate STEM-related activities to motivate young learners at home.

Simulated Oil Spill
This activity allows students to see real-world implications of pollution in the oceans by using a few household ingredients. Parents and educators can examine the cause/effect relationships and frontload the activity at the same time by providing images of oil spills. Prompt students to think about how an oil spill impacts not only the immediate area, but also everywhere else. Spur discussion by showing videos of the clean-up process; then tell them that they will be simulating this process with their own “oil spills.”

In a shallow dish or pan filled with water, prompt kids to “spill” some vegetable or olive oil into the pan. Then, dip feathers into the oil spill to simulate the impact on wildlife, specifically birds. Ask children to use materials such as sponges, spoons, coffee filters, etc., to remove as much of the oil as they can from the water.

The project encourages kids to put on their “problem-solving hats” by brainstorming how to minimize the impact on the environment when oil gets into our oceans. This activity also requires children to hypothesize by asking questions like, How much of the oil do you think you can remove with a spoon? Do you think a sponge will work better? Can a paper towel help to remove any of the oil? Do you think you’ll be able to fully clean the feathers? What do you think we use oil for on a daily basis? Discuss the importance of taking precautions to avoid oil spills and how we can help protect our environment by relying on less oil.

Rube Goldberg Machine
Covid-19 quarantine times have certainly brought out the creative bug in many of us, so how about putting an educational spin on your in-home challenges? Rube Goldberg machines are great for keeping kids’ hands busy while teaching them about chain reactions, cause and effect, and how to utilize certain mechanisms to accomplish a goal. The great thing about this activity is that you can do it anywhere and use practically anything around the house.

Begin by asking children what type of task they wish to accomplish with their machine. Perhaps you want to unroll the toilet paper, propel a racecar from inside to outside, move a dog treat from the table onto the floor, etc. Extend the activity by asking children to sketch or draw their proposed machine. Help them consider the most useful materials for achieving this goal and how the order of operations is also a considerable facet of this “invention.” You can even turn it into a challenge—who can come up with the most complex or involved Rube Goldberg machine?

Color Fun
A great way to blend math and art is to utilize paint or food coloring! Depending on age, some students may benefit from simply looking at how primary colors can combine to create secondary colors. Have kids make predictions about what might happen when a drop of red is added to blue food coloring. How many drops of red would it take to change the color from dark indigo to magenta? How can you make lime green or light orange? Provide children with small paper cups and Q-tips for blending—then, watch them go!

For older learners, use this same basic activity to discuss proportions and/or ratios. By bringing math into the color blending, students get to see how ratios of a certain component can greatly change the overall product or outcome.

Paper Airplane Origami
Finally, making paper planes may seem old-school, but the educational value can stretch from symmetry and fine motor control, to aerodynamics and properties of physics. Using computer printer paper or construction paper, model how to make a basic paper airplane. Discuss the importance of a nice, solid crease and how to ensure that the wings of the plane are symmetrical. Ask children to make predictions about how far their first plane will fly; perhaps raise the stakes and turn this into a competition! Continue making various planes using different folding techniques and talk about how certain properties can create a more aerodynamic design. Show photos of real airplanes and draw comparisons between those and the paper forms.

Executive Functioning and Distance Learning: Part II

Distance learning has been hard on everyone, but even more so for families dealing with the challenges associated with executive dysfunction. In part one, we discussed the basic background of executive functioning skills, the effects of having executive dysfunction, and the way in which educators can implement strategies even during hybrid or distance learning. Now it is time to look at executive dysfunction from the parent perspective. What does it look like at home, outside of the classroom or separate from academic tasks? What are some strategies and methods parents can implement at home to help children who struggle with executive functioning?

 

Executive dysfunction in the everyday

Deficits in executive functioning are sometimes more subtle when children are at home or not engaged in a learning task. This is why executive dysfunction is easier to spot from an educational or clinical perspective. For parents, it may seem like your child is constantly interrupting you or trying to talk over others. This might not indicate a lack of manners. It could, in fact, be associated with a lack of executive functioning skills. Impulse control, thinking before acting, and processing someone else’s words before responding are all skills attributed to executive functioning.

 

Similarly, if you notice that your child has difficulty retaining one or two instructions at a time, or if she cannot follow directions that she has just heard or read, then she may be experiencing some form of executive dysfunction. What seems like a disregard for rules or instructions could actually be an attentive issue and/or an issue involving working memory, both of which are associated with executive functioning.

 

A child may also struggle with following processes, even after repetition or reminders. Furthermore, metacognitive skills, such as learning how to study, learning how to take notes, and knowing how to synthesize new information with prior knowledge, can also be a struggle for children with executive dysfunction. However, there are methods that parents can use at home to help strengthen these necessary skills.

 

Strategies to use at home

Model certain processes for your child and provide him with visual reminders. For example, if you are encouraging your middle schooler to start doing his/her own laundry, help him/her through the process by doing it together the first few times. Talk and walk them through the steps very specifically and consider using labeled and categorized sorting bins to remind them to separate whites from darks. Put a sticker or little post-in note in the laundry room as a reference for how to set the machine for certain loads. Use specific, ordered language when walking them through the process, such as “first, next, finally or last.” Any process, whether it’s laundry, getting ready for bed, or getting dressed in the morning should be modeled, specific, and consistent.

 

The level of support that you need to provide to your child with the above-mentioned processes should be tapered over time. You may need to actually do the laundry while they watch, initially. Then, slowly withdraw your level of support as they get comfortable completing the task independently. 

 

When your child makes a mistake, use it as a teachable moment. Without scolding, talk through their thought process—or lack thereof—and ask them specifically how they could have gone about things differently. Consider providing your own example of a time you did something similar and how you fixed the problem. Children with executive dysfunction should see that everyone struggles and faces challenges, but that growth involves using those errors as learning experiences. Ask metacognitive questions like: What made you do that? What did you think was going to happen? Why did you react that way? How could you have done it or reacted differently? What did you learn or realize from this? Give him time to process and ponder these questions.

Inject some fun into the challenge of developing or strengthening executive functioning by incorporating age-appropriate games, activities, or challenges. Matching games are great for developing working memory. Other card games help children practice impulse control, rule following, strategizing, organizing, and quick-response. Parents can also use music to help foster executive functioning skills. Use songs that have repetitive sections or songs that can be sung in rounds to practice coordination on a more complex level. Singing in rounds also prompts children to practice listening and using working memory. I Spy and word searches help children work on selective attention and practice reducing visual distractions.

Executive Functioning & Distance Learning: Part I

As educators and mental health professionals, helping students manage their executive functioning is a critical aspect of building the foundation for academic, social, and emotional success. For neuroatypical students, particularly those with ASD and ADHD, addressing executive functioning skills within the classroom setting is already challenging enough. However, with current hybrid models and distance learning, these students are struggling even more to adapt. 

 

Background info for educators 

Executive functioning is often thought of as the “management center of the brain” or the control center of thinking. Our executive functioning assists with many different cognitive skills, which is why it not only impacts students academically, but also socially, emotionally, and physically. Some skills associated with executive functioning include: attentiveness, self-monitoring and regulating, emotional/impulse control, organizational skills, ability to prioritize, perspective taking, and planning/chunking larger tasks into smaller pieces. Many of these skills help us to perform tasks throughout our entire lives. Therefore, executive dysfunction can have a lifelong impact on students beyond their capabilities in the classroom.  

 

What does executive dysfunction look like?

Difficulties concerning executive functioning vary from person to person and also differ in severity. Common examples of ways in which students exhibit executive dysfunction include:

  • Avoiding tasks or struggling to initiate an assignment 
  • Procrastinating; trouble with managing time
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks or steps in a process
  • Misplacing things
  • Struggling to put thoughts on paper; difficulty explaining oneself
  • Difficulty transitioning between tasks or moving from one activity to another
  • May struggle to follow directions or to complete steps in chronological order
  • May exhibit a preoccupation with a small detail of the task; i.e. missing the big picture
  • Difficulty with working memory; they may forget what they heard or read
  • May struggle when schedules, rules, procedures, or expectations change; i.e. exhibit a level of inflexibility when they’ve become used to a certain routine

 

Providing assistance with these struggles in the classroom is much easier; educators are physically there in person to alleviate issues and help students to troubleshoot their individual challenges. In the classroom, we have the ability to personally connect with students and provide them with necessary supports and accommodations, like check-ins, checklists, organizers, etc. Now, with distance learning, students with executive dysfunctions are not necessarily getting the same level of support and attention. We can fix this, however, with a little creativityand a lot of patience!

 

Strategies for teachers during distance learning  

Here are a few tips for supporting students with executive functioning issues:

  • Assess: Take inventory of your students’ needs and tendencies. I began the school year by asking every student which part of the writing process he/she hates the most. Do they struggle to begin writing? Drafting? Organizing a cohesive argument/essay? Revising? Getting thoughts down on paper? For students who said that they find it difficult to get started, I provided several supports.

 

  • Model: Firstly, every writing task that I ask students to do, I also complete and spend one class period reading my draft and discussing my writing process. Seeing an example of what the final task should look like is beneficial for all students, but especially those who struggle to initiate writing and to see the big picture. During this “modeled writing session,” I ask students to tell me what they notice about the sample. Their answers provide me with insight into how they interpret the assignment, which allows me to see who really needs greater scaffolds and who does not. 

 

  • Specify: Secondly, when students disclose that getting ideas onto paper is their greatest challenge, I provide them with very specific, thoroughly broken down organizers with sentence starters. This removes the “getting started” barrier and gives them a jumpstart to initiate the task with some momentum. 

 

  • Organize: Finally, for my students who struggle to piece together their writing (organize and revise), I find it helpful to color-coordinate the different aspects of the essay or paragraph. For example, I may highlight students’ thesis statements in red, transition words in blue, evidence/quotes in green, and analysis in orange. When reading through a student’s draft, I can easily direct them to certain sections with specific instructions to add more orange, for instance. This tells them immediately that their paper is lacking sufficient analysis. It also tells them where that analysis or orange should be placed so that the guesswork is gone.

 

  • Check-in: Another best practice that we regularly use in the classroom is to chunk larger assignments and include check-ins throughout the project or essay. With distance learning, I’ve found that breakout rooms in Zoom allow for me to specifically check in with each student during a writing work session. The platform allows students to share their screen with me 1:1 so that I can check their progress individually. This practice also allows me to see who is far behind in terms of completion. The check-ins prompt students to set small goals while working, but they also allow enough time for me to intervene if a task looks like it’s falling to the wayside.

Parents as Advocates: Tackling Dyslexia

October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month—31 days dedicated to building community awareness about learning disabilities in an effort to provide supports for all children. As important as awareness is, however, parents whose children suffer from dyslexia are plenty aware of the struggles their children face on a day-to-day basis. That is why another “A” word can be even more powerful for families—advocacy.

 

No one knows your child better than you do. Keep this in mind when advocating for your child’s needs. In parents’ efforts not to come across as a “helicopter parent,” they sometimes assume it is in their child’s best interest to follow the expert’s lead, avoid making waves, and be passively agreeable. They do not want to be the bulldog. These fears are common, but that doesn’t make them true.

 

You are your child’s greatest advocate, and here’s how to accomplish that:

 

  • Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, our nation’s special education law, children and their parents or guardians are guaranteed certain protections and rights. Once identified as having a qualifying disability, schools are legally required to provide special education services to your child. Also under IDEA, the law provides parents with something called procedural safeguards, which are put in place so that parents are aware of and have a voice in every aspect of their child’s special education evaluation and IEP process. As part of the process, the school must provide you with documentation and explanation of your rights—STUDY UP ON THESE DOCUMENTS. It is commonplace for IEP meetings to move quickly, with a “sign here if you don’t have any questions” style of rapid wrap-up. It is your job to closely review these documents and to seek clarification before signing anything.
  • Another best practice for advocacy that goes hand in hand with knowing your child’s legal rights is to stay organized. Keep a binder of all necessary documentation regarding your child’s diagnosis and any other evaluative documents that you accumulate as you work through the process. Items such as test results, doctor’s notes and recommendations, educator’s observations, report cards, writing samples, and any data concerning your child’s academic skills should be kept for future reference. The binder keeps essential documents organized and acts as a paper trail of progress and correspondence among your child’s team.
  • It is also essential for parents to be fully prepared for special education meetings. Because of this, the binder’s benefits are two-fold: paper trail and parent playbook [or however you want to define the two benefits]. Of all members of your child’s academic team, you are the person that knows him best, so your seat at the table matters most. Advocating for your child means preparing questions ahead of time and speaking up if they aren’t answered clearly. Meetings tend to move quickly, so request an additional meeting if you haven’t gotten clear answers. Do not assume that the team will automatically clarify for you, so be prepared to ask follow-up questions if needed.
  • The binder is also a great resource for you to use for note taking during IEP or 504 meetings. Not only will you have your own notes to refer back to after the meeting, but the process of taking notes shows that you are actively listening and invested in your child’s special education services. When parents demonstrate this level of involvement and support, it’s the child who benefits.
  • Another helpful advocacy move is to email a summary of the main discussion points that you took away from the meeting afterwards. This keeps everyone on the same page regarding the decisions that were discussed and allows you to share your own perception of how the meeting went. If anything is unclear, your email will start that conversation and provide clarification. In that email, ask about a follow-up meeting so that dates can be arranged and any other necessary steps can be taken.
  • Speak to teachers about your expectations, your child’s expectations, and the school’s expectations. This will prevent any miscommunication and unfortunate surprises. When setting expectations for your child’s success, it is important to be honest, positive, and realistic about the growth that you’d like to see. It will be difficult, but as much as possible, remain unemotional and unbiased about the feedback that you get from your child’s teachers and other professionals—cool heads prevail.

High Leverage Practices for Special Education: Collaborative Methods at Home

In part one, we discussed the four different categories of high leverage practices (HLP) and how educators utilize these practices to drive instruction and learning. Whether in a physical classroom or not, the goal of HLPs is to ensure that young learners are engaged, supported, and challenged. Now that we’re all in the throes of virtual learning, where much of our schooling is happening at home, it’s helpful for families to be able to adopt and modify various high leverage practices for their own use.

 

Collaboration is key, especially since much of the learning is currently happening outside of the classroom. Students are no longer experiencing a fully monitored, structured school day, which makes collaboration and open communication all that much more important.

 

  • Goal statement: Since the aim of collaborative HLPs is to ensure that all members of the child’s support system are on the same page, working towards the same goals, parents should use a goal statement as a starting point when reaching out to teachers. Whether in person, on the phone, or via email, parents should make a point to advocate for their child’s learning goals and reiterate them as needed to provide teachers with reminders about where they’d like their child’s learning to be headed.
  • Check-in: Yes, students receiving special education services already have formal documentation concerning learning goals, but it never hurts to remind the team of those goals along the way. Teachers can easily become overwhelmed throughout the quarter with IEPs, 504s, and numerous other learning plans for individual students. And while teachers are legally obligated to offer modifications and accommodations, the learning goals may receive less attention. This is why parents should make a point to check in regularly with their child’s teachers to ensure that everyone is aware of and working towards the child’s learning goals.
  • Reevaluation: These check-ins also allow for data updates, recent observations, and discussions about reevaluating or resetting goals if necessary. Be sure to ask for quantifiable updates, such as Lexile level, Map scores, attendance and participation, writing samples, etc.
  • Point person: To simplify the task of reaching out, especially with middle or high school students who have multiple teachers, parents can plan to send a weekly or biweekly email to their child’s counselor or special education case manager. This person will act as the point of contact and will be sure to disseminate all vital information to the teachers, while keeping you in the loop about all of the replies.
  • Student accountability: Bring your child into the collaborative effort by asking him to help track his own progress towards the goals set at the beginning of the year or quarter. It’s much more probable for a student to strive for success when he’s been part of the goal setting process. Involving your child in these discussions ensures that he’s taking ownership and feels invested in the effort he’s putting forth.
  • Positive reinforcementConsider small benchmarks or checkpoints along the way and make a point to acknowledge when goals are achieved. No matter your child’s age, kids benefit from positive reinforcement and thrive on recognition for a job well done.
  • Open communication: Another high leverage form of helpful collaboration is to connect your child’s teachers with any other “key player” on your child’s educational team. Teachers must have parental permission to correspond with pediatricians, therapists, psychologists, tutors, and even older siblings regarding a student. Therefore, if you want certain professionals to cooperate, you must first provide permission and then facilitate that correspondence. Remember, it takes a village, but you have to put all of the villagers in contact with one another, first.
  • Support groups: Another collaborative HLP that parents can modify for use at home is to facilitate a small virtual study group or neighborhood support group for certain ages, subjects, or classes. Reach out to neighbors about how their child is fairing with virtual learning. Ask if they are using any specific programs, tools, or methods that they find particularly helpful. During these times, many parents are finding that distance or virtual learning is all about trial and error. So why not collaborate with other parents in your neighborhood to help carry the load?

Zoom Differentiation and Accommodations

Virtual learning certainly has its challenges, especially when it comes to differentiating in the virtual classroom. For students with special education accommodations, teachers will need to get creative in order to account for every student’s unique needs and optimize learning opportunities. Thankfully, there are strategies and methods for providing special education accommodations in Zoom—we just need to think outside the box and modify what each accommodation looks like in the virtual realm.

Zoom Chat: Since we are no longer physically in the classroom, proximity, prompting, and cueing accommodations pose a bit of a challenge for instructors. Yet, nothing has changed in terms of the student’s needs. In fact, students who struggle to focus and/or stay on task may need the prompting and proximity accommodations even more now that they are sitting in front of a screen. Online learning does not allow for physical proximity; however, teachers can utilize the chat function to maximize student engagement and provide an alternative form of proximity, prompting, and cueing.

  • Reaching out: The Zoom chat can be used to individually reach out to specific students with prompting accommodations to spur participation and to rephrase a question when necessary.
  • Clarifying: The chat also allows teachers to check for understanding by providing a platform for asking clarifying questions, follow-up questions, etc.
  • Advocating: Teachers should remind students of their chatting capabilities so that students with accommodations can advocate for themselves and speak up when they need assistance.
  • Tracking: The chat also acts as a data tracker; teachers can modify their settings in Zoom so that chats are saved. This allows for teachers to review correspondence with students and share questions and check-ins with parents. Teachers can also use saved chats to track the number of times a student initiates a task, asks clarifying questions, responds to polls or exit responses, etc.
  • Reminding: Teachers can use the Zoom chat as a method for reminding students of their extended time or reduced workload accommodations as well. This allows teachers to discreetly remind a certain student that his due date is extended without drawing attention to the student’s accommodations in front of the whole class. **Just be certain that, when chatting with specific students about these accommodations, you have selected the student’s name from the dropdown so that the chat remains a private, 1:1 conversation.

Breakout Rooms: The grouping function in Zoom can also be beneficial when ensuring certain special education accommodations are offered. Teachers have the option to manually assign groups, which means that students with special education services can be grouped with a para educator or with other students who have the same accommodations.

  • Variance: Teachers should try to avoid always grouping special education students together, however, as to avoid drawing attention to certain small groups or stigmatizing students who need additional support.
  • Oversight: Teachers can randomly assign groups using the “automatic” option when creating breakout rooms. Then, while students work, the “host” can pop in and out of groups to act as a “check-in” for students with that accommodation.
  • Mobility: Teachers can also move the para educator from group to group during breakout room sessions so that every student receives supports throughout the collaborative activity.
  • Discretion: Breakout rooms also offer opportunities for differentiation. Teachers can modify assignments and link adapted materials in the chat to send to specific breakout rooms. From the chat link, students can click on the shared Google doc to access the modified material. This function can provide students with resources such as word banks, sentence starters, outlines, graphic organizers, glossaries, etc. The key is that each student who receives these accommodations will have access in a discreet manner and can choose to use the materials as needed.

Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers, Part II

In part one, we shared the many ways in which breakout rooms during a Zoom class session can be helpful. Logistically speaking, small groups allow for more intimate collaboration among students and provide a more manageable platform for discussion. Now we want to explore additional ideas that show how to use breakout rooms for various instructional benefits. Below are creative ways for educators to utilize breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

Accountability techniques: Feedback that I have already been receiving from several students involves the lack of full participation, even during small group activities in breakout rooms. As is typical in the brick and mortar classroom as well, some students feel as though they are carrying the entire team and shouldering the workload themselves. Here’s how to account for this issue in breakout rooms:

 

  • Create a Google document with directions, prompts, discussion questions, and anything else you would like students to collaborate on in groups.
  • Specify different text boxes or spaces on the document where different groups should respond. (Breakout rooms are numbered, so you can keep it simple by designating response spaces for group 1, group 2, group 3, etc.)
  • Share the link to the Google document in the Zoom chat prior to arranging breakout groups. **Make sure that participants with the link have editing access; this is manageable in your shared settings**
  • Ask students to open the document to ensure that everyone has access before opening breakout rooms.
  • Once in breakout rooms, students will need to discuss cooperatively, but respond individually on the Google doc. This allows teachers to track participants and identify if anyone has not contributed to their group’s notes on the Google document.

 

Listening practices: It is easy for us to zoom out (pun intended, sorry!) while participating in hours of Zoom classes every day. To spur engagement and meaningful conversations, teachers can use breakout rooms to set up 1:1 student interviews or chat sessions:

 

  • Review expectations and procedures for breakout room groups.
  • Introduce “accountable talk” stems of sentence starters for younger learners so that their conversations stay on track.
  • Assign interview questions on a shared Google document (as explained above) and ask students to “report back” with new information about his or her peer.
  • Remind students that they may paraphrase their partner’s information, so long as they are still accurately relaying what their partner said. This allows time for students to truly listen to one another.
  • This activity can be used for ice breakers or getting to know you activities, perspective taking, peer reviews, etc.

 

Reviewing class material: Another way to utilize breakout rooms is for important class review sessions or to debrief a whole group discussion or lesson:

 

  • Share a class Google document, as mentioned above, that includes key topics or important takeaways from the day or week’s lesson.
  • In breakout rooms, students should use the time to ask questions of the group about anything that they are confused about. This could include vocabulary/terms, questions about an assigned text, clarification on a certain topic, etc. The point is to use this time as an open forum to seek clarity and ask questions.
  • While discussing, prompt students to capture the questions and any possible answers/responses on the shared Google document.
  • The document will act as a free-flowing study guide, which students can access after class.
  • This document also allows teachers to address unclear concepts, lingering questions, and any material that they’d like to reteach before moving forward.

Virtual Learning: Remind, Reassure, Reset

The struggle is real for kids right now, regardless of how academically inclined they have felt in past school years. Learning is hard. Full stop. However, virtual learning has its own learning curve in addition to the actual learning going on right now! Is your head spinning yet? Yeah, theirs are, too. Social media is helping to shed light on the issues that virtual learning is causing in homes across the country, with numerous videos demonstrating just how emotionally taxing this “new normal” has become.

However, kids need to know that this isn’t normal. Elementary-aged kids sitting in front of computer screens all day isn’t normal. Missing “school” due to connectivity issues isn’t normal. Clicking a button to virtually raise your hand icon isn’t normal. Having to rejoin class 10+ times each day because of platform glitches isn’t normal. Most importantly, NONE of this is their fault. Yet, utterly frustrated sobbing children are becoming more and more defeated every day. What’s a parent to do? Remind, reassure, and reset.

  • Remind your child that many, many aspects of virtual learning will be inherently beyond their control. These little beings are not tech wizards, and they shouldn’t be made to feel incompetent because of this.
  • Remind your child that error messages, blank downloads, broken links, etc., are not their responsibility as young learners.
  • Remind your child that every other student is also struggling. Their peers may be more comfortable with certain aspects of virtual learning; it may come more naturally to others. However, no one is innately equipped to thrive in this virtual world—it takes time.
  • Remind your child that the teachers are new to this, too. Their teachers would love to be back in the classroom interacting and exploring with them. They, too, are frustrated with the technology and expectations put on them.
  • Reassure your child that it will not always be like this—learning will return to normal. They will rejoin the brick and mortar classrooms and have a greater appreciation for in-person schooling like never before!
  • Reassure them that their teachers are on their side—that they are always rooting for student success and trying to shoulder the technology burdens whenever possible.
  • Reassure children that all of these challenges, while insanely frustrating, are helping them to become resilient. That with each unique difficulty, they’re learning patience, problem solving skills, grit/determination, creativity, and responsibility.
  • Reset the vibe in the room when things get emotional. IT IS OKAY (and necessary) to take a break and step away from the screen! Help your child reset when emotions run high:
    • Close the computer
    • Eat a snack
    • Run around the block
    • Jump on the trampoline (even a mini trampoline inside)
    • Juggle the soccer ball
    • Color in a coloring book
    • Snuggle with the family pet
    • Stretch on the floor
    • Blast some music for an out-of-control dance party—whatever you need to do to encourage a “mindset reset” when the tears start flowing.
  • Reset the negative self-talk. If you hear your child verbally beating herself up over her perceived shortcomings with virtual learning—don’t let it go unnoticed. Help her reset by reminding her of all of her strengths and talents. Tell her explicitly that any new difficulty or misstep does not negate these strengths and prior successes.

Breakout Room Benefits for Teachers Pt. I

This new normal that we are all trying our best to become acquainted with has us dodging curveballs left and right. Teachers are especially frazzled right now. Think about it—seasoned educators have been tasked with completely modifying every known skill set on a dime, with little to no training, all while under the community’s microscope. For a field that tends to attract Type A personalities, all of these hurdles have undoubtedly been overwhelming for professionals who pride themselves on being proactive and prepared.

 

While the move to full-time virtual learning involves a plethora of suggested technology for educators, the sheer amount of platforms and resources can be daunting. One saving grace I’ve found while “Zooming” through the first two weeks of the 2020-2021 school year is the breakout room function during Zoom classes. What is essentially an automatic “small groupinator” at the click of the mouse actually proves to be a life saver for many different reasons. Read on for strategies and methods for utilizing breakout rooms in Zoom.

 

  • Attendance Check: Taking attendance, a seemingly routine daily task, is not so simple anymore. Between the constant Zoom doorbell, the screen sharing, and switching back and forth between countless open tabs, attendance is often the last task a teacher is focused on during class. However, the use of breakout rooms during Zoom meetings makes attendance much more manageable. While groups are meeting, discussing, collaborating, etc., teachers are able to scroll through each group’s participants and check off for attendance on a physical roster. This has been such a time saver, especially since Zoom participants are alphabetized by first name, while our grade books are alphabetized by last name.
  • Student Discourse: Breakout rooms are also beneficial for spurring student discourse. My first week of virtual instruction was beyond painful due to the lack of participation. Virtual learning is awkward for many reasons—it’s new and unfamiliar, students are videotaped, technology glitches occur regularly, it involves a look inside everyone’s personal living spaces…the list goes on and on. However, once I put my students into breakout rooms for discussions, the small group aspect allowed students to share willingly without the pressure of 30+ people staring.
  • Time to Think: The small group aspect also allows students to have some wait time before speaking; they are able to process and gather thoughts without feeling rushed or pressured.
  • Collaboration: Virtual small groups also encourage collaborative efforts. Before entering breakout rooms, I review participant expectations and guidelines so that everyone is on the same page. Group members are responsible for contributing, listening, summarizing, and sharing. Group members are also presented with accountable talk sentence stems to help spur productive discussions.
  • Participation: Sometimes, students are tasked with summarizing their group’s discussion individually as an assignment for participation. This way, teachers can ensure that even the more quiet or reluctant students were able to get something out of their classmates’ discussion groups.
  • Random Grouping: The breakout room feature allows teachers to group randomly or strategically. This means that students have opportunities to work with different peers each time. It also means that teachers can thoughtfully group students based on academic or personal needs.
  • Special Needs: With a special educator or para educator on the Zoom call, teachers can purposefully pair students who might require extra guidance or support with an additional adult in the breakout group.