As districts have moved to distance learning amid fears of the spread of COVID-19, it has been a learning experience for all — even in schools like ours that have had a 1:1 computer initiative for years.
Jersey Community High School is located in a small rural district in southwest Illinois, about 45 miles from St. Louis. We’re the only high school in the county and serve about 1,000 students in grades 8-12. When we launched a 1:1 initiative with Chromebooks several years ago, students quickly embraced the daily use of computers and educational technology.
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Now, as we complete our third week of remote learning, I have seen this experience bring both challenges and opportunities. Here are a few strategies we have implemented to make the shift to distance learning, along with a few lessons learned along the way.
Determine who has access to technology and plan accordingly.
In our district, we found out on a Friday that our schools would shut down the following Tuesday, which meant we had the weekend to prepare. More importantly, we had that Monday with students so we could gather information from them and tell them what to expect in the coming weeks. Having that one day with them was incredibly helpful.
While our students are used to using technology daily in school, more than one-third of our families do not have dependable internet access at home. So, on that Monday before schools closed, we gauged which students would be able to complete assignments online with their Chromebooks and which wouldn’t. Because students in all five of my English classes said they would be able to access the internet in one way or another, I knew I could continue to use the online resources we regularly used. In classes where some students said they did not have internet access at home, teachers now create packets that students pick up and drop off each week in the school’s main office.
Focus on quality, not quantity.
At the high school level, the time allotted for remote learning is now 20 to 25 minutes per class (dual credit courses receive more time). At first, many of us struggled with how to teach lessons we’d normally cover in a 48-minute period in half the time. To help, our district has encouraged a “less is more” approach. The goal is to break down the content into manageable chunks for students. Sometimes that means taking a lesson that we would have done in a day or two and stretching it out to a week. Other times it means choosing only the most important elements of a lesson and skipping the rest. We are also focusing more on review than on introducing an array of new topics.
Choose resources carefully and don’t try to reinvent the wheel during the shift to distance learning.
In the English department, we are continuing to use the curriculum resources that we know work instead of trying to create new, tech-savvy lessons or sampling every product that arrives in our email inbox. Continuing with our normal routine during our shift to distance learning also helps students feel more normal, which is important.
For example, in my English courses, I use an adaptive writing curriculum called NoRedInk. We started with a free version and then upgraded to the premium version in 2016. In the classroom, we use it as a daily bell ringer during the first five to 10 minutes of every English class, and I am following a similar albeit scaled-down model for distance learning. On Monday, I give a diagnostic that focuses on a specific skill, and then examine the data. If my class scores below the 80th percentile on any topic, I pull up a lesson in the curriculum and students complete practice exercises Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. On Friday, we have a quiz to measure their growth.
I have also continued to use the NoRedInk writing platform features such as Quick Writes, where students respond to a prompt and I choose the length and areas for them to focus on. In addition, I take texts from other online resources and ask students to write about it in Quick Writes. This helps keep them in the habit of writing within our time constraints.
Hold students accountable.
Five ways to support the shift to distance learning
During the first two weeks of our shift to distance learning, we were not allowed to count students’ work toward their grades. The number of students who didn’t complete their work — because it wouldn’t hurt their grade — was mind-boggling. In the third week of remote learning we went back to grading, and the district has done a wonderful job communicating with parents about revisions to our grading policy for the fourth quarter and spring semester. Even so, it was difficult to rein students back in after those first two weeks.
As a result of this experience, I see how critical it is to help students understand the importance of educating themselves. It is also essential to help them understand how to be their own advocate and ask for help when they need it, whether it’s sending me an email or a quick video.
Communicate with parents often.
In my 23 years of teaching, I have always been a big communicator, and it’s no different with distance learning. I believe that one of the good things to come out of this experience is that it is forcing us to communicate with parents more and in a clear, concise manner.
Since moving to distance learning, I have become better at updating parents about their child’s progress. In our district, we use the Message Center in the Skyward student information system to communicate with parents. In the past, I would use the system to share my weekly lesson plans with parents. Now, I am also using it to alert parents if their child is failing an assignment or didn’t turn it in that week, and I plan to continue to do this when we’re back on campus.
Throughout this transition, our district administrators have been very supportive, and parents say they feel like the district is doing everything it can to help them and their children through this difficult time. Our community, like so many across the country, has come together and we are doing everything we can to help each other get through this.
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