What I Learned During Distance Learning

This past March, while planning a life science unit, I was baffled by the unique plants of the chaparral. How could I help students understand and model that some of these remarkable plants require fire, smoke, and extreme heat to clear the overgrowth or even kickstart germination? But then, COVID-19 hit. Nobody predicted the effects it would have on schools. Our world changed faster than toilet paper flying from the shelves. Normalcy took off with the toilet paper, taking with it any comfort, safety, and confidence I had in delivering instruction. I’ve slipped, tripped, and stumbled my way through an ever-changing model of distance learning for ten year--er, I mean weeks now. As the dust settles--and I know there is still a mountain of dust ahead of us-- I’m noticing that there are certain things I’m learning that will undoubtedly make me a better teacher in the future. What will teaching look like next year? Take out your crystal ball and let us all know. Regardless of the form teaching takes next year, I’m taking what I’ve learned by being thrown into the fire, and I’m making my craft better. I’m growing. Hey--I guess I’ve figured out how to model those well-adapted plants of the chaparral after all. I’ve curated a list of some of those things I’ve learned. I tried to include a few fundamentals of distance learning, some quick tips that might help if you have to do distance learning, and some truths I’ve learned through this trying time. I hope this can be a help. 1. Connection is key If you’re delivering online instruction, you and your students need a reliable wi-fi connection. However, that’s not at all the connection I’m referring to here. In fact, some students don’t have access to wi-fi, yet we still need to connect. Figure out a way to connect one-on-one with every student. Personally, I use Zoom because I’m fortunate enough that all of my students have access to technology. Zoom is great because I get to see their faces. But if some students didn’t have access to technology, I imagine I’d make phone calls, use FaceTime, or even break out the stationery and just write letters--might even do it with a quill pen by candlelight just for fun.

The students won’t remember every lesson you taught them during this pandemic (or pre-pandemic either)--no matter how amazing it was (and I’m sure it was amazing!). But Maya Angelou was on to something when she said, “[they] will never forget how you made them feel.” They’ll know and remember if you cared. Those one-on-one talks where you laughed together, talked about how scary this situation was, or even just helped with an assignment are going to help maintain those connections that you created before this whole thing started. 2. Offer grace often I don’t mean to burst any bubbles, but you’re probably not going to get every assignment back from every student. And those assignments you are getting back, might not be up to the same standard you’re used to seeing from students. It’s not about perfection. As distance learning becomes a more prominent method of instruction (I can’t imagine going back to school in Fall), I am understanding that feedback is even more important than it was before (see tip #4). If they made an effort on an assignment, I’m giving students full credit. If they didn’t turn something in, I’m not giving zeros. Instead, I simply ask them about it the next time we connect in a one-on-one setting. I’m not coming at them in an accusatory “gotcha” tone, but in a what-type-of-support-can-I-offer tone. Oh, there’s another bubble. Mind if I burst it? No matter how clear and explicit you make your directions, some students are still not going to understand them, and even better, will comment with a phrase that some teachers welcome like nails on a chalkboard, “I don’t get it.” But, is this any different than in class? In my physical classroom, I had the same issue. Here I was, a real-life person, flesh and bones, standing in front of them delivering personalized directions, and yet I still had students who were confused on some assignments. So why in the world would I think it’d be any different when I’m trying to deliver my instructions through an 11.6-inch screen with crummy speakers and glitchy internet? Getting frustrated by emails from parents and students asking for clarification didn’t help me--or the students. Extending grace and giving the clarification needed--even if I was just repeating what I had already said--did help the students--and me. Lastly on the subject of offering grace, don’t forget yourself. Offer grace to yourself often. This situation is not normal. This is a pandemic--sounds a lot like pandemonium and that’s what it is. Your lessons won’t be perfect--accept that. Your assignments won’t feel like enough--they are. You’ll feel like you can do more--maybe you can, but what you are already doing is great, too. Now, on to the quick tips for implementation. 3. Have a Hub Personally, I love Google Classroom as my hub, but I know there are many other platforms out there. Use whatever you and your students are comfortable with. This hub is where I store all assignments (and a checklist of said assignments with detailed video instructions via Google Slides), give and receive feedback, and make announcements. Not only does it make it easier for me as a teacher, but it makes it easier for the students (**bonus tip: make a personal Gmail account that you can add to your classroom as a student so you can always see the student portal side of Google Classroom).

I have separate Google Classrooms for each of the content areas--however, I had set that up before the pandemic. If I hadn’t done that, I’d consider having just one Google Classroom and organizing the assignments by week. Google Classroom allows you to set up “topics” in the classwork tab. I create a topic for each week and store the work for that week in the topic. It’s been a huge help in keeping things organized. When creating assignments, I attach a doc or slides to the assignment, and then the magic happens! Google makes a copy for each student that I can view (and edit) as the kids are working on the assignment. So even if they don’t “turn it in” I can see their progress and give them feedback.

Hey, speaking of feedback... 4. Give Feedback...and Get Feedback The other incredibly useful thing about Google Classroom is the ability to comment and “work on'' a student’s assignment right alongside the student. I use two tools that have been absolute GAME CHANGERS! (It’s a big deal if I capitalize the whole word because that is not a craft move I use lightly). When I first started Google Classroom, I left feedback by typing comments. But it didn’t feel like a real conversation, and trying to type it all out would take so long, I ended up truncat--(see what I did there?). Then, I discovered using Screencastify (https://www.screencastify.com) to leave video comments. I could share my screen in the video and have the students work open on my screen. Then I can go through the work, annotate, and talk about the great things they did and things they can still work on. When I’m done with the video, I can leave a link to it in the comment box. However, not long after, I discovered Mote (https://www.justmote.me). It’s very similar, but it only leaves audio notes. So while I can’t share my screen with Mote, using Google’s add comment feature, I can highlight a specific part of the work and my audio comment will be attached to that part. The beauty of Mote is that it automatically leaves a link to the audio as the comment and it transcribes your words! It uploads the comment much faster than leaving a Screencastify video. I still use both tools because there are some times that it’s easier to leave a video tutorial of how to do something and other times an audio comment will suffice.

One other thing I do that proves to be beneficial is soliciting feedback from families. Every two weeks I send out a Google Form with a survey to find out how things have been going. From these surveys, I am able to make structural changes that benefit families. The only reason this works is that I am open to feedback and change. I have never done distance learning. I am not an expert by any means. I planned to the best of my ability and designed a model that I thought was flawless (spoiler alert: it wasn’t!). But I have no way of seeing what it looks like from a student’s or parent’s perspective. I am not always aware of the challenges and difficulties they might encounter. I value their voices. I need their feedback. Our program has benefited greatly from it. All of us are smarter than any one of us (I think it was Ken Blanchard who said something along those lines). 5. Less is More When I first started planning for distance learning, I naively tried to transfer everything I did in a physical classroom to an online version. It’s not the same. At all. Assignments take longer to understand and complete, students’ work habits are different, and the amount of support students receive varies. For all these reasons, I decided I needed to prioritize. I wanted to make sure my kids read every day and understood some key math concepts. Anything on top of that was gravy on the cake--no, that can’t be right, but you know what I mean. I also made sure to communicate these priorities with the parents. I hope you’re sitting down for this next piece of news. Don’t say I didn’t warn you...students aren’t going to want to do every assignment we give them. Easy now...breathe, breathe...I know, shocking, right? In a perfect world, parents would be able to reason with the students and get them to see the importance of completing all assignments. But, it’s not a perfect world, is it? Have you heard about the pandemic? If parents know what “battles” to fight, or at least which assignments to emphasize, hopefully, they can have less contentious parent/teacher relationships with their children. Assigning less also helps me focus as a teacher. That feedback I spoke of earlier is vital, but it is also time-consuming. The more assignments I give, the more feedback I need to give. Sometimes we have to come to terms with the fact that there are only so many hours in a day. Less is more not only logistically, academically, but also for our mental health. When we first started distance learning, I vaguely wondered why it wasn’t called distance education or even distance teaching. Now I know why. Hopefully, the students aren’t the only ones learning.

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