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Lessons Learned from a Semester of Remote Learning

During the spring of 2020, schools have faced unprecedented challenges. The coronavirus forced abrupt closures of more than 98% of schools nationwide starting in early or mid-March. As a result, most students in the U.S. have been away from their teachers, peers, and physical classrooms for most of a semester.

How has the sudden shift to remote learning impacted students, teachers, and parents? What have teachers and school leaders learned in the process? We talked to teachers and administrators at Thinking Maps schools across the country to find out how the shift to remote learning is going at their schools. They have generously shared their insights and tips with us.

What We’ve Learned About Remote Learning

“Anytime you are thrust into a position like this, there is always hesitation, reluctance, fear, and lots of questions,” says LaTanya Greene, Principal of Parkway Elementary School in St. Lucie County, FL. “You have to get your bearings straight.”

One of the most difficult aspects of this spring was how little warning most school leaders, teachers, and families had before schools shut down. The luckiest had anywhere from a few days to a week to prepare distance learning plans, make sure students took home everything they would need, and make arrangements to distribute technology and learning packets. Many others found out on a Friday that they would not be coming back to school on Monday—or even learned over a weekend after everyone was already home.

Ordinarily, a shift of this magnitude would take months or years to prepare for. But teachers and administrators rose to the challenge with creativity, humor, grace, and determination. Here’s what we’ve learned from our Thinking Maps teachers and administrators.

Social and emotional issues come first.

As hard as the transition has been for teachers, this spring has been even harder for many of our students. Students at home are missing peers, teachers, and daily routines. Many of them are struggling with social isolation and mental health issues. Families are stressed, too, with some parents facing unemployment and financial uncertainty, and others working long hours at essential jobs or trying to balance working from home and helping their children with school.

Trinette Atri is a Gifted and Talented teacher and coach at Providence Spring Elementary in Charlotte, NC. She explains, “Half of being a teacher is building an emotional connection with students. I can’t teach you if I can’t reach you first. This has really reinforced the importance of that connection. I don’t know what kind of trauma kids may be experiencing because of this. There are kids who are having a really hard time right now and families who are really struggling. Our kids may come back to us a little broken.”

Melissa Mooney, a 5th-grade teacher at Providence Spring, says many of her students are coping with anxiety and depression. “Building the relationships is so important right now. We have to have empathy for kids and their situation above all else. They need more social-emotional learning and more ways to cope than we have been able to give them.”

Many teachers are finding creative ways to build that connection in a virtual environment. Some teachers are allowing time during whole-class Zoom or Google Hangout sessions for students to connect with each other to socialize or just get silly. They may start a session with a game or an ice breaker question designed to just get kids talking. Other teachers may start the class with a virtual show-and-tell or invite students to come and just hang out online over lunch. One teacher invited all of her students to bake brownies together, with each student baking at home.

Teachers and administrators are also spending a lot of time reaching out to students and families one by one, through individual video sessions, phone calls, or even drive-by home visits. Teachers and principals have dropped off books, technology, and learning packets to students’ homes or just stopped by to honk and wave. These methods have been especially important to try to get students and families who have not been successfully connecting to online learning reconnected to the school community.

You have to solve the access problem.

Access to technology and the internet has been a barrier to maintaining that connection for many families. Schools who already had classroom 1:1 laptop or tablet programs had a leg up here; many simply sent students home with their devices on the last day they were in the building. Most other districts were able to provide devices for students who did not already have a computer or tablet at home.

Getting families online was a bigger challenge for some districts, especially in rural and urban areas with a high percentage of families living in poverty. While internet providers offered free access to families with children at home in some areas, time limits and restrictions (such as the requirement that families not have an existing unpaid balance on their account) locked many families out of these programs. As a result, some districts resorted to creating mobile hot spots in neighborhoods. Columbus Public Schools worked with community partners to establish 1,600 mobile hot spots in high-need neighborhoods. Other districts have made print learning packets available for pickup at the school office or through free lunch pickup programs.

Keep it simple and stay flexible.

One of the biggest lessons learned? Keep it simple. Many teachers and administrators report that they first tried to do too much. Trying to maintain a pace and schedule similar to the classroom proved to be overwhelming for teachers, students, and families. Many schools limited the amount of time students were expected to work on schoolwork at home, with limits appropriate for each grade level. Other schools experimented with different kinds of schedules, such as a block schedule where students only worked on two or three subjects each day. Teachers and school leaders also realized they needed to offer more flexibility in the amount of time students were given to complete assignments.

Shannon Beutler, a 2nd-grade teacher at Baldy View Elementary in Upland, CA, says, “We learned to keep it simple, especially with things we assigned for kids to do independently, so kids and parents aren’t overwhelmed. You don’t know what families are going through or what kind of help they are able to give.” At her school, they offered students consistent times each week where they could work on lessons together on Zoom and get help from teachers. Teachers in her grade level worked in teams, so one could focus on teaching the lesson, and the other could focus on monitoring student participation on Zoom.

The pared-down virtual schedule forced teachers and curriculum leaders to really focus on the essentials of what students need to learn. In many schools, teachers were instructed to just try to help kids move towards mastery on material they had been exposed to prior to the shift to virtual learning, and not to introduce new material or learning strategies. Other schools were trying to keep students moving forward, but mostly with reduced expectations.

Engagement is harder online…but not impossible.

Most teachers found that it takes a lot more work to keep students engaged and motivated in a virtual environment. Megan Uribe, a 4th-grade teacher at Granite Point Elementary in Bakersfield, CA, says, “I wanted to have Zoom sessions that kids would want to attend. I planned activities that I knew would be enjoyable for them.” One of those activities was a read-aloud; she and her students read Bridge to Terabithia together over Zoom this semester. She says it’s something she always wanted to find more time for in the physical classroom.

Donna Tobey, the Head of Lower School at NSU University School in Broward County, Florida, says, “We pride ourselves on trying to personalize learning as much as we can and keeping things engaging. Working remotely, in some ways that has been harder and in some ways easier. Teachers are finding really creative ways to keep kids engaged and finding new ways to do things. The opportunities are there.” A virtual field trip with the local fire department, in which students got to chat with firefighters and see equipment up close through the firefighters’ iPads, was a hit.

Trinette Atri found new ways to translate her favorite project, a unit on the music and history of the musical Hamilton, into a digital space. She created a giant slide deck with embedded links to song videos, vocabulary, history lessons, and activities. While she misses the energy and excitement of discovering the music together in the classroom, she says students enjoyed the online videos and activities.

Heather Bolitho, the Assistant Principal at Parkway Elementary, says their teachers have been very creative in finding ways to engage students. Fun activities like “PJ Day” and “Bring a Stuffed Animal Day” brought students to the virtual classroom. One teacher took a pie in the face on-screen when her students completed an academic challenge. Heather says, “They had fun with it and got kids involved. Especially kids who might not come for the academics alone, they came for the fun and the connection.”

Performance monitoring and accountability have been challenging.

Many teachers expressed concern about helping students meet learning standards in a virtual environment. For this semester, getting a majority of kids connected and engaging them with some meaningful educational activities was as much as could be expected for most schools. But if schools have to begin this way again in the fall, most educators are concerned that this approach won’t be enough.

While a select few students are actually doing better in the online environment—leaping ahead while working on self-paced online lessons and activities—teachers expect to see large learning gaps for most students when they start the next school year. This semester has largely been about trying to help students stay in place rather than move them forward, so students are missing out on many of the standards that would normally be taught in the latter half of the second semester. Students who have not been connected at all—about 20-30% in many schools, and closer to 50% in some—will be even further behind. (Read more: The Coronavirus Achievement Gap.)

Megan Uribe worries that a lack of accountability has allowed many students to slide this semester. She explains, “We let families know early on that learning packets would not be graded, because we didn’t want to add stress to families at this time. But that meant that many students who could have completed the work took advantage of the grading policy and just didn’t do it. If we have to do this again in the fall, we will have to have more accountability.”

Many teachers also noted that it was harder to monitor engagement and understanding when working virtually. Teachers couldn’t always tell when students were on task during virtual lessons and when they were distracted by siblings, pets, or the television in the background. Teachers also had to find creative ways to check for understanding, such as asking students to respond to questions by holding up one, two, or three fingers in the video or inviting them to ask and answer questions in the chatbox.

Several teachers noted how valuable Thinking Maps have been during distance learning. The Maps provide an authentic way to monitor student understanding and thinking. Some teachers have students take notes in Map form in pencil-and-paper during online lessons and hold them up on video. Others assign Maps as homework, either through Map Builder (part of the Thinking Maps Learning Community, or TMLC) or in Google Slides. Some students even scanned pencil-and-paper Maps to send by email. Shannon Beutler says, “Thinking Maps definitely helped them, especially with writing. Because the Maps are familiar to them, it’s something they can do successfully at home, even my English Learners whose parents can’t really help them. Parents say their children stay more focused during the lessons when they are using the Maps.”

Self-care is vital.

Most teachers and administrators reported they have been working more hours than ever. Workloads were especially onerous early in the process, as educators struggled to translate everything they had been doing in the building into a virtual format. Teachers spent many hours on one-to-one intervention, parent calls, and video conferences, and attempts to track down students who were not connected to the learning environment, on top of creating and delivering virtual lessons and managing student assignments.

Many teachers shared the same stressors as other working parents now working from home—balancing the needs of their own children with the demands of the job. These trials gave them plenty of empathy for the plights of other parents trying to keep children on track with learning while also keeping up with their own work from home.

In this high-stress environment, it’s vital for educators to take care of their own social and emotional needs. Melissa Mooney says, “I wish I’d known up front how hard this was going to be. You’re going to get tired of virtual teaching, you’re going to get frustrated. But you realize everyone is doing their best. You have to give everyone a lot of grace, including families, teammates, kids, and spouses!”

TMLC users: look for our “Teacher Stress” toolkit in the Navigator in July!

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