Lessons from the Spring: Tips to Inform Future Distance Learning

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Three months ago, without any real warning and dramatic shifts in their own personal circumstances, educators around the country figured out how to translate the physical classroom to the virtual environment with no prior knowledge or training. Through hard work, dedication, and a commitment to student learning, teachers have found ways to challenge, foster growth, and connect with our children from afar.

Throughout this time, this virtual education has evolved and matured as educators, students, and families have gained more experience, discovered what works through trial and error, and expanded their skills. As we collectively welcome summer, the educational community can pause and reflect on lessons learned. And though we do not know what the fall will bring, we can share these lessons with one another to inform practices for any future distance learning.

For Schools:

  • School-wide Approach: It is essential to take a whole-school approach when developing distance learning schedules and plans. Many families have multiple children of varying ages and balancing several individual plans on various platforms with different logins and unique work requirements are cumbersome and leads to unnecessary frustration. Utilizing system-wide approaches to distance learning eases learning for students and their families. Further, universal systems make it easier to access teaching and learning from art, music, library, and physical education teachers.
  • Building Community: Building a sense of community in many ways is more important than ever as families are isolated at home. Use video morning announcements to add a piece of normalcy and connectedness to each day. Have teachers and staff members share virtual bedtime stories to add a sense of warmth and shared experiences. Encourage families to submit pictures of home learning that schools can turn into a video or collage. These provide common points of reference for students when they come together on video conference conversations and instill within students that they are all in this together.
  • Guidance to Parents: Teachers have built their professional expertise and knowledge over years in teacher preparation courses and through practical experience in classrooms. Schools and districts must acknowledge that parents and caregivers do not have this background knowledge and experience. Beyond coaching parents on how to facilitate the logistics of distance learning, it is essential to provide families with guidance on developmentally appropriate expectations and strategies. Schools might share tips on the importance of taking breaks while learning and offer ways to implement those strategies at home. They might guide parents to break up lessons into more accessible sections or add an element of fun by allowing children to utilize different tools, markers, or paper to increase engagement.
  • Flexible Access to Instruction and Materials: Teaching and materials should be available asynchronously to meet varying family circumstances of time and schedule. Having instructional videos and learning materials available at any time allows students and their families time to reread, rewatch, and review. The speed of live learning on video conferencing is too fast for some students. Providing a chance for students to pause and go back to review alleviates frustration.
  • Share School Supplies & Manipulatives with Families: Schools are filled with specialty tools and resources that are fundamental to student learning, many of which are not common in households. They have book rooms filled with leveled readers, math manipulatives that help children visualize mathematical concepts, dry erase boards and markers that facilitate easy feedback for teachers and novelty in learning, libraries filled with diverse selection of high-quality books, and countless other supplies that increase engagement and make learning happen. When schools must shut their doors, in addition to distributing devices, districts and schools should find processes to distribute these other important supplies. A lack of doing so risks amplifying inequities as many families are unable to curate a selection of learning tools on demand.

For Classrooms:

  • Virtual Classroom Culture: With the beginning of any new school year, teachers must work with their students to develop rules and routines and establish the overall culture of the classroom community. Starting a school year virtually requires even more attention to these details. Teachers must work to create community by helping students get to know one another through virtual team building games and conversations. Using the circumstance of students being at home, teachers can facilitate team building in meaningful ways not possible in a classroom. Students might bring their pet to Zoom, showcase a favorite toy, or chat from their favorite place in the home. And teachers should prepare explicit lessons about the rules of their new virtual classroom–from when to use the mute button to the best way to get feedback on their work.
  • Small-Group Videoconferencing: Whole-class videoconferencing is a valuable tool for building connections and community. However, that dynamic can feel overwhelming for some children and is not always the best platform for two-way conversations and learning. Teachers might consider balancing whole group conversations with a small group or even 1:1 conversations. These provide a more accessible opportunity for students to participate in a learning conversation and build camaraderie within a group.
  • Partner with Parents: In a physical classroom, teachers are regularly receiving feedback, formally and informally, about students’ academic understanding and their social-emotional response to the learning. And with that information, teachers make instructional decisions and pivot their teaching to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs. In distance learning, we must entrust parents and caregivers with that role. Teachers must ask for feedback and create a virtual open-door policy for any and all questions and concerns. And when parents articulate that their child has had enough (on a particular assignment, day, or week), or that they need a break from videoconferencing, teachers should respect that feedback and use it to inform their lesson planning.
  • Special Considerations For Young Learners: For our youngest learners who are used to hands-on manipulatives and highly engaging instruction and educational experiences, the migration to distance learning is particularly challenging. Teachers should find ways to replicate the style of teaching and learning that we know works best with young students. Use video conferencing to share learning songs, create lessons that incorporate items and objects from the home environment, and make sure that each videoconference is short and has a clear, directed purpose to respect young children’s attention spans.

Looking to the Fall

All of these successes in navigating this unprecedented year of social distance and virtual learning would not have occurred without the remarkable work of both educators and parents. Through daily effort, extraordinary patience, inspiring resourcefulness, constant resiliency, nuanced discernment, and most of all, intentional, open presence in students’ days, the nation’s children are successfully completing a school year unlike any other. Educators should proudly acknowledge this journey, the challenges overcome, the successes achieved, and appreciate the astonishing efforts and remarkable strength of our school communities.

As districts and schools across the nation prepare for many potential learning structures in the fall, we must remember to utilize what we have learned. We must continue to do what is working well, shift practices that are ineffective, and most importantly, build on the capacity that has been developed through hard work and effort from teachers, parents, and students.

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Erin Gohl

Erin Gohl is a Getting Smart columnist, and an independent writer focusing on issues of equity, engagement, and technology in educational policy and practice

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