15 Lessons from 15 Days of Virtual Teaching
The past month has been quite eventful to say the least. Our school district began teacher workdays on August 6th. We collaborated. We planned. We shared ideas with our colleagues as we prepared to enter the unknown. So many uncertainties. So many questions. Unfortunately, we did not have many answers. I immediately adapted to an "expect the unexpected" mindset and I have successfully completed our third week of virtual teaching and learning. Below I share 15 lessons I have learned from this experience in hopes that it helps another teacher prepare.
(Disclaimer: I am a third grade teacher of 18 scholars in North Carolina. I am currently teaching virtually from my home. We teach live from 8:30 AM- 3:30 PM. Some of these tips may not be applicable to your specific class.)
Remember, Maslow BEFORE Blooms. Take time to get to know the kids that come to your live lessons. The group that I am currently teaching was in the same second grade class together. They all knew each other, however, they did not know me. We spent our first week of school playing virtual games and icebreakers. Do not try to begin teaching content before you create space for children to get to know you and each other.
Take breaks. Lots of breaks. Depending on the depth of our lesson, I give 5-10 minute breaks every 30 minutes. During our breaks, I encourage students to step away from looking at the screen to literally give their brains a break. I share my screen with a timer and music. During some breaks I mute everyone (including myself) and we turn our cameras off to step away. Some choose to go grab a snack or something to drink. Some close their eyes for a bit. Some turn on music and dance. Some step outside for some fresh air. Some snuggle with their parents and/or pets. We also have breaks where students are all unmuted and have the chance to talk to their peers. All of these strategies were discussed during our first week of school as my kids explored what kinds of techniques help them relax. When the timer goes off, I invite students to return to their seats to continue our lesson. We often share what we did during our breaks to give others ideas of what to try.
Use the chat. Whew. Between the background noise and spotty internet connections, the chat feature will be your best bet to interact with some of your kids. And let's face it, some children are not comfortable on camera. Help them make a Bitmoji or change their profile picture. I have found that turning off cameras increases the bandwidth for them to talk using their microphone tool. Some kids have difficulty following the interactions if you have the feature set for "Everyone" instead of "Host Only." During our lessons and depending on the topic I select the "to Host Only" option. This allows for more students to participate. As students answer I may read their responses with some sort of positive feedback. It is heartwarming to see their reactions. The best aspect of this approach is that students are not open to possible embarrassment of getting something wrong. I simply type back to them with feedback that will help them correct their work.
Use multiple devices and/or screens. Right now I am able to login to our Zoom with my personal iPad to monitor breakout rooms. (see pictures below for my setup) I literally roll back and forth between groups to answer any questions as students collaborate. I also have a teaching assistant who pushes in to our Zoom each day and she has a group.
Don't Abandon Call & Response. Once you get you "Mute/Unmute" finger moving quickly this will be very helpful. In the class room call and response techniques are helpful for engagement. Same goes for virtual learning! Of course, everyone will not be in sync, but it makes for a good laugh afterwards.
Use hand signals. Another great non-verbal technique. Create your own community hand signals to meet the needs of your scholars. However, if your hand signals are for students to assess their learning and open the door for possible embarrassment, give them to option to jump back to the chat.
Contact parents weekly. The first week I sent multiple emails each day. I always thank parents for their patience and flexibility. There was just so much information that we needed to push out and I wanted to make sure that parents were well aware. We hosted a virtual open house and technology pick so I was able to answer plenty of questions. However, with every step we took forward as a school to prepare, more and more concerns popped up. Again expect the unexpected. Anywho, after the first week of chaos and tech trouble shooting, I think I am down to two email blasts to parents per week. In my weekly emails I include a student schedule along with a weekly assignment outline. It is a simple table labeled Monday-Friday including the asynchronous assignments for each subject area. I also include help guides/passwords for Canvas and our class links to Zoom, Google Classroom and EPIC.
Remember, LESS is MORE. You do not need to have every single app to be an effective teacher. You also do not need to try to fit every single aspect of brick and mortar instruction into a virtual learning model. Our district is using Canvas, which I just learned how to do a month ago. That being said, make it simple, easy, and accessible for students and parents. My homepage has a button for each subject area, enrichment websites, and parent information. Each subject area has the same table from the weekly email to parents, except everything is hyperlinked to the assignments/modules in Canvas! Eventually, our students will transition to 90-minute whole group synchronous instruction and 120-minutes of asynchronous instruction (while I pull small groups). Every day they walk me through how to find their assignments for each subject as we are preparing to release them for the asynchronous instruction. My live instruction core lessons last about 20 minutes and I give students time to submit their assignments while on Zoom. I also unmute them during this time to give us the independent work classroom "feel."
Host office hours for students and their families. Provide time for students and parents to ask clarifying question and address any concerns. Most of my office hour time was used for technology support and helping parents with passwords and/or walking them through Canvas. Be patient. Be real. Be genuine.
Set and keep boundaries. I have a student who is my timekeeper. When the timer goes off he puts it in front of his camera and we take our break. We honor that time because we set that intention of taking breaks every 30 minutes. Give yourself the same grace. If the load is becoming too heavy, reach out to a colleague for support or bring your concerns to an administrator.
Continue to take anecdotal notes. I keep a chart of my kids' names beside my computer and take notes of my "noticings" during the day. This can be fun facts like dog names, interests or even reminders for addressing their social-emotional needs. I also have my guidance counselor's number if a child is in danger. Daily beginning of the day/end of the day check-ins are also a great way to plan for morning meetings and read alouds.
Thank students for being present. In an effort to cultivate a strong virtual classroom community, children need to know that their presence matters. They need validation. I greet every student by name as they enter our space in the morning and thank them for coming. I thank them for their hard work and perseverance. Acknowledge their hard work, even when things do not go as a planned. Again, expect the unexpected. Be genuine. Kids know when you're being fake and they do not care what you know until they know you care.
Share your screen when giving directions. I think many teachers are realizing how confusing directions can be at this point. I have taught my students how to open multiple tabs and minimize Zoom for directions. Some prefer to watch me do the work then they try it. Some prefer to do it with me step-by-step. And yes, even after you show and tell them what to do multiple times, someone will ask you to repeat yourself. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. If they are still having trouble, have them share their screen and then you will be able to direct them. This will help other children and trust me, it will get better.
Allow children and their families to see you as a human. Yesterday, my dog went crazy when our doorbell rang. I simply muted myself and the kids kept on working. After he finished barking I was able to pick him up and snuggle a bit. I have also had my 19-month old daughter in my lap or arms while teaching. This helps your students see you as a real person instead of a "teacher." You do not need to be the perfect anything.
Check your bias and beliefs about certain families from certain demographics. Children and their families are facing unimaginable circumstances right now. Give them and yourself grace, patience and flexibility. Celebrate all victories, big or small.
Again, expect the unexpected. Take lots of deep breaths. You've got this.