If you’d have told me in January 2020 that just a few short months later, I’d be saying farewell to teaching my students physically, I’d have thought you were crazy. But that was early 2020, and as January progressed to February and March, the COVID-19 situation escalated far faster than I could have imagined. School closings were becoming a hotter topic than the latest movie. All my students could ask about was what was going to happen to their friends and their time at school. My elementary school students enjoy school for the most part. They love their classmates, the fun field trips, their teachers, and the projects they get to be part of in school. The thought of leaving and not coming back was something many didn’t like or understand. Who could blame them? The teaching staff barely understood what was going on.
Unfortunately, sooner than we all liked, school closings were announced. In a heartbeat, we went from lesson planning for the week ahead, to cranking out worksheets, homework assignments, YouTube lessons, and impromptu chats with parents regarding how to help their child stay on track during this unprecedented “emergency homeschooling” situation. Teaching friends from all grade levels wondered aloud as to how we were going to help our students stay current when, as time progressed, we realized we probably wouldn’t see them again until the end of the school year, if that.
How do you work with students who are living through an unprecedented reality that has flipped their world upside down? Answer: Through trial and error, the best of intentions, dedication, and a LOT of creativity.
What Works When Teaching From Afar?
No teacher signed up for the ‘19-‘20 school year thinking their year would get cut drastically short. Each of us had planned to teach the full gamut of the mathematics curriculum, science, English, and social studies. Field trips were planned, events were organized, assemblies were prepared. So, when those things got taken away physically, most educators scrambled to see if we could prepare those things digitally.
Giving students a digital trip to the zoo, aquarium, beach, or science center is certainly not as exciting as going to those places in person. However, it does help students maintain some semblance of normalcy when they still interact with the trips they were so looking forward to.
Planning digital fieldtrips has become a lifeline for many of the fun activities planned for the rest of the year. For science, I can “send” my kids to the Seattle Aquarium. Animal units can be supplemented through virtual fieldtrips to the zoo and numerous farms around the United States. There are multiple opportunities for my students’ enrichment, despite the fact that we can’t meet in person and physically visit a location on our planned list of fieldtrips.
For a fun twist to keep parents engaged for our virtual trips, I’ve toyed with the idea of messaging them all with cell phone permission slips. Even though the students aren’t physically going anywhere, cell phone permission slips can help parents stay apprised of fun activities that I’d like their children to complete. It also helps parents get involved in the process.
What Doesn’t Work When Teaching from a Distance?
I consider myself a realist. As much as I would love to imagine my students reading their workbooks, completing homework assignments on pages 25 and 26, and taking a test of their own free will, I know that’s not going to happen for most. My extra-eager students might take on the task of self-teaching or at least badgering their beleaguered parents into helping them through unit 5 in their science books. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) However, for most students, they’re not going to be nearly as eager to dive into their schoolwork. So, I know it wouldn’t prove very useful were I to send out regular work assignments, loads of pages to read, and online tests for units I haven’t taught. For right now, with my students, many regular school activities just aren’t going to happen for quite a while.
How Do You Keep Kids Engaged Online?
Helping your students stay engaged during a time of national crisis is a challenge. What they need, almost more than anything, is you, their teacher. They need to know that even though you can’t be there in person, you’re still there for them. Kids of all ages need to see that their teacher, who has rooted for them and cheered them on for half a school year, is still rooting and cheering.
One of the best ways I’ve found to help my students stay plugged in and engaged is by doing all I can to let them know I still care, I’m always available, and I still want them to learn. Using communication tools like Skype and Zoom have become lifesavers. Not only can the entire class come together if available, but I can be there, too. I can read stories, talk about assignments, teach lessons, and help my students stay on track. I can spend one-on-one time with individuals who are struggling or those who want an extra challenge. At a minimum, I can see each one of them and remind them that I’m not going anywhere.
Technology allows me to teach my kids by live chatting, Face-Timing, and keeping their parents up to date with the latest assignments and work I’d like their children to complete. They can email me their homework, pictures of special projects, or ask a question, and I can instantly respond. While these methods are certainly not ideal, nor are they what I want to be using, they’re all we have right now.
I’ll be honest, some of my students are hard to reach; others won’t do their homework during a “normal” year. Others need specialized IEP help that I simply can’t provide. I know I’m not going to be able to perfectly teach every bit of the curriculum when my students have had their lives turned upside down. What I can do, however, is teach them as well as technology allows, keep in touch with them as much as possible, and help “school” keep on moving forward.
One of the most valuable lessons that I learned was these students with both mild and significant disabilities were no different than my other students. They thrive when real learning takes place. They enjoy the intrinsic value of education. Overwhelmingly, they need significant experiences outside of the walls of the classroom just like every other school-aged child.
One of the major concerns in the world of education right now is how to engage students in the new normal of remote learning. In over eight years of teaching, I have never experienced anything like what we are facing today.
After stepping back from all the craziness during a slow-paced spring break, I’ve had some time to think about how I’m going to try to make the last quarter of school a really positive online learning experience.
So, here’s what I’ve whittled it down to (for me, a kindergarten teacher with a fairly large class)…