Not sure what to expect in this coming school year? Will your school district begin the year with in-person classroom instruction? Or will your district start the year with remote learning? Or will instruction be a combination of both? If you are grappling with these questions, you are not alone.

In the western North Carolina school district where we teach, we are preparing for several possible teaching scenarios. But regardless of how your district will provide instruction this fall, teachers need a strong academic scaffold to build upon.

Related content: What the pandemic has revealed about digital equity

In a two-part series of articles, we are going to offer some ways to create the foundation your students need for success. In this first article, let’s look at 5 ways to begin to build a strong academic scaffold for your remote learning environment.

1) Create a strong meaningful and emotional connection with your students. Having a connection with students is the foundation of any classroom community and it’s where teachers naturally begin their year; however, in a remote teaching environment powered by digital resources, this step must be strategic. In an in-person scenario, this time would have been accomplished by getting to know your games, team building activities, and simply spending time together the first week of school. How do you transfer this imperative time when you are not face-to-face, without just turning those important activities to digital form?

Consider these steps:

A. Taking time before the academic session begins, meet with students individually in a 10 minute Zoom/Google Meet to learn about them (prepare 3 questions to ask them and give them time to ask you 1). This task will help you gain insight into the student and allow them to see your human side, the side that shows them you are their biggest supporter. As students answer the questions, keep a record of their responses for later use. Questions to consider: What is one thing that you did this summer that was fun? What would you like to be when you grow up? Where is your favorite place to eat? These questions are lite, fun, and easy to answer.

B. Next, send a handwritten note after the Zoom/Google Meet reinforcing your conversation from the meeting. This shows you listened to them, you connected with them and you are excited they are coming to class. A real response to your Zoom/Google Meet will be more impactful than a form printed postcard.

C. You are now ready for the first meeting together as a class. The goal of this whole class Zoom/Google Meet is to have students connect again with you and with their new classmates in small groups. Before coming to this meeting have students draw or gather the following: favorite food, pet (one you have or wish you had), and a favorite activity. Model appropriate digital verbal interaction with your responses to these questions first, then disperse them into breakout groups to share with each other. Be clear with your directions to the groups and set a time limit to bring them back to the whole class.

D. The second whole group meeting together will focus on sharing another piece about ourselves, the educator, and will be several days of interaction with classmates. Begin the meeting by sharing a place you would like to visit (near or far) using a picture or video clip. Having selected and shown the class a 2-minute video about Machu Picchu from a Discovery Education Experience, engage the class in a game of 3 truths and 1 lie about the location. End the class meeting by assigning the students the task of choosing a place they would like to visit (it can be a place they would love to go now, local theme park, or a place they know they will have to save up for as an adult, like Bora Bora). They must find a picture of the place they would like to visit and email it to you (depending on student age and skill level they could put their name on the photo before returning to you). Put all the pictures into a slideshow to prepare for the next meeting.

E. The third-class meeting will focus on sharing a few of the slides of places your students would like to visit. Share a few while modeling drawing conclusions and use of deductive reasoning to determine possible locations. Send the entire slide show to students, between that meeting and the next have students explore the pictures and choose 2-3 to use their detective skills to determine the location.

F. The fourth meeting’s purpose has two parts with the first circling back and sharing in a whole group reasoning skill with the photos. The second part of this time together is to assign partners for the next session. The partners exchange their pictures from a place they would like to visit. Each student is responsible for working with their partner’s picture. Using the image, he/she will research and write 1 truth and 1 lie about the place. Wondering why you are requiring students to write about their partner’s place and not their own? When coming back to share the listening becomes active, not passive. The student is interested in learning from the partner about the place he/she chose. In addition, the other student learned about a place he/she did not think about visiting. When assigning the 1 truth and 1 lie, this is where you as a teacher can determine what you are looking for in their statements. If you a science teacher, focus the statements on plants and animals of the location. If you are a math teacher, numbers must be in each statement. If you are a social studies teacher, the statements are about the culture of the location.

Don’t forget: Understand that this approach takes time as it requires educators to share ourselves with students individually and the whole group. In addition, if your school system will be operating in a remote environment for quite some time, activities like these will need to occur on a regular basis.

2) Create a short set of routines and expectations that are clear and concise for students to follow. We do this already during in-person instruction, modeling anything from how to use a glue stick to how to organize a binder. When starting remote instruction, you need to post pictures of your examples, make videos of how to take notes/turn in work, or even create step-by-step guides for success that students can refer to throughout the academic period. Creating this set of routines sets the standard for turning in work during remote learning: how you want it labeled, the time frame for acceptable turn in, which assignments are for academic grades, and which assignments are for formative assessment. Don’t forget: When teaching routines, use content/material that is highly engaging and not new learning. The new learning is the routine you want them to master.

5 ways to build a strong academic scaffold for 2020-2021: Part 1

3) Design a “how to” section. In conjunction with the routines and expectations it is imperative to have a section inside of your digital platform, separate from your academic sections, that houses videos or screenshots of “how to”. This can be anything from a work sample to uploading a video or accessing a website that isn’t in their single sign on. The purpose of this is for you, the academic leader in the class, to decrease your emails/feedback sessions that are non-academic. Digital instruction is by no means simple, it takes time to create lessons, time to grade work and time to give feedback that must be precise. You will save time by creating a “how to” section.

Don’t forget: Part of digital learning requires skills that help to gain access to the curriculum. For example, how to locate information on a website or how to upload a file to Google Classroom. By providing a section of these skills specific to your classroom needs, you are giving students confidence to complete a task successfully and freeing up your time to teach your content and provide feedback.

4) Choose 2-3 digital instructional tools. When instructing students at the start of the digital school year, choose 2-3 digital instructional tools and stay with those. The purpose of this is to make sure all students are accessing the material easily, feel comfortable inside the educational platform and have success navigating its facets. As an educator, you are getting a new class of learners, you are comfortable with your digital platform, but are they? Make them feel successful and move in and out of these chosen platforms for the first 6 weeks of school. Maintaining a comfort level in the beginning will allow you to instruct students on a deeper level and get more academic gain from them. For example: you may choose IXL which is student driven, Discovery Education Experience, which houses digital media and can be student or teacher driven and Scholastic News, which is teacher driven. Once students maintain success inside of these platforms you introduce others.

Don’t forget: Taking a slow roll approach provides students time to become successful and will build their capacity and enjoyment of learning.

5) Allow choice. We are not in control of the world around us and this is unsettling. By offering choices for activities inside of academics you address the deep need for students to be able to control just a small part of their lives. As an educator, we don’t know what is going on in each home environment, but by creating choice opportunities, we can let students feel success in their academic environment. This may look like challenges, cross curricular activities, project based learning, or even games. Don’t forget: We all crave being in the drivers’ seat and will need to share that with students. By providing multiple avenues with different modalities to learning, students can drive their car on the path of their choice, with everyone ending at the same finish line.

Look for part two in this series in the coming weeks.

About the Author:

Jennifer Tatum and Emily Fagan teach and work together in North Carolina public schools. They continue their growth with the resource Discovery Education. You can find them attending Discovery Education’s Summer Institutes, presenting at local and state conferences, and daily in their classroom changing how they use digital media.


Add your opinion to the discussion.