Let’s all face the fact that we were not expecting the school year to end the way it will this year. Now that we’re months into a brand new online learning situation, maybe you’re starting to feel like you’ve got things under control, or maybe you’re just counting down the days until we log out for the summer. There is still so much good to be done and so many wonderful elementary school moments to be had. I’m no expert (never taught an online class in my life before March!) but 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):
–Getting yourself on a schedule. Understandably, this can feel really difficult given the magnanimity of the situation. And if you have family members at home, this is probably even harder when you start balancing their needs with your work schedule (trust me, I get it). Try drafting up a schedule based on what your district is requiring. Write in meeting times, “office hours” if you have them, when plans are due, a lunch break, etc. Don’t be afraid to write in breaks! Have a start time and an end time. When there’s a flow to your day and you can sense what needs to be done, it really is such a big help for productivity. Obviously, it’s not always possible to stick with the schedule, but it at least gives you a frame.
–Being open minded and willing. I’m sure you had tons of great spring projects and activities planned for your class, right? This is the best part of the year…when the class just sort of “clicks” and you can do more complicated activities and the learning is just oozing everywhere. No one wants to miss that!! But you also have to remember that you’re teaching the same kids, and they’re probably more ready than EVER for those learning opportunities. Your class is still there, they’re just going to be doing online learning instead of being in the classroom. Yes, many of your activities are going to need to change (No chicks this year! No classroom flower garden!) – don’t be mad that you need to create new activities. This is a time to get creative and come up with new ways to have your students learn.
–Giving some grace. Obviously, we don’t expect kindergarten or young elementary students to be able to just log in and navigate a day’s or week’s worth of online lessons. Parents/siblings/helpers need to be involved. Those helpers have so much on their plates. We don’t know what they’re dealing with in terms of their own jobs, health, and just trying to keep their households sane. Whether the kids complete every assignment on time or rarely log in at all, we all need to just breathe and realize that if it doesn’t get done now, caring teachers will be ready to catch them up when schools open up again. Give them some grace and just be a positive presence for them.
-Expecting parents to jump on board right away. As we know, parents/guardians have a lot on their plates. If you send out directions and don’t get a response, hounding them every day probably isn’t going to help. They’re getting your emails. Maybe give them some space, or if you suspect it’s technology that’s the issue, send a note offering your help whenever they’re ready. No one wants to feel bombarded.
-Expecting full participation. Clearly, this isn’t your regular classroom! I personally hate feeling like I’m not in control. But you have to let it go. Go into the online learning situation knowing that you’re likely not going to hear from everyone every day. I know I was surprised when my normally very vocal families were sort of “missing” from my online classroom. It may not be a lack of effort – again, we just don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes and it’s not always our place to ask.
–Trying to be available at all hours of the day. I’ve tried…accidentally. I’ve never had a work-from-home job and this was a rough adjustment for me. School e-mails pop up on my phone all day and night and it’s really hard to ignore. I love the idea of just taking care of it so I don’t have to go back to it the next morning. It’s innocent but in the long run, if you don’t set some time frames for yourself, you’re going to burn out.
-Comparing yourself to other teachers. In the classroom we always say “shut the door and teach” – i.e. Don’t worry about what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. Do what works for you. Same thing goes in online learning. Get inspiration where you can, but don’t make your classroom into something that doesn’t work for you.
Keeping it fun
Your goal at school is to teach while also making it fun, right? That can still happen in online learning! I’ve had some success with some little ideas:
–Using pets. If you have a pet, give them a cameo in your online classroom. I always get a spike in engagement when I post a picture of my dog. So easy! The kids love him! Try a picture of an open read aloud next to your pet (he clearly loves books), or with some props that match your content (maybe some gardening tools next to a pet who “loves to garden”). Just a little dose of silliness to keep it light-hearted and happy.
–Virtual field trips. In a regular school year, I can take one field trip in the fall. I always wish I could do another one in the spring, which got me thinking…” Are there any field trips near me that my students would love?” So many locations are offering virtual field trips. You can find virtual tours at zoos, museums, historic sites, you name it, literally anywhere in the world. I like to keep it local and do field trips near me so the class has a connection to the locations.
Keeping students engaged
When young children look at an online classroom, it’s probably not all that engaging. You can liven up your space pretty easily to add a little hook here and there.
-Post a video now and then. Just a quick “Hi! Check out this plant blooming in my yard, what are you noticing in your neighborhood today? I miss everyone!” goes a long way. It really helps reinforce your classroom bonds and keeps everyone engaged.
-Record a read aloud. Even if these are already part of your weekly or daily lessons, it’s fun to have a read aloud pop up on your feed. You can do one on your own or try having a friend/relative/teacher record one for you as a mystery reader. It takes minimal effort and it’s always well received.
When your students can see you staying positive just like you do in class, and when you can still make learning fun (while realizing that parents are trying to tackle it all at home), you’ll be able to ease kids’ and parents’ transitions into this wild new style of learning. This is easy for almost no one. We’re all in it together. It’s temporary and we can all get through it – you’ve got this!
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.
This new land of virtual school thrust me head first into the fire that awaits me next school year: a hybrid position split evenly between classroom teaching and teacher support. I cannot pretend to be an expert in virtual school, but I can share some wisdom from the front lines.