Heading into spring break, we had a great flow going in my classroom and a good blend of hands-on activities and technology. One of the things I love about the spring semester is that the students hit their stride. They know what to do in the classroom, our routines, and each other.
This year, we went into spring break knowing that we’d have an extra week off because of COVID-19, but we quickly learned that it would be even longer. Like teachers across the country, we had to figure out what we were doing—fast.
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With summer school, we’re now facing a new challenge: how can we help students who have fallen behind or are struggling in this new distance learning environment? I believe we can help students thrive by leaning on the lessons we all had to learn in a hurry over the last couple months.
1. Lean on your team.
The first couple weeks after schools closed were crazy. I jumped into countless trainings and had long days of meetings and collaboration with the three other second-grade teachers and my student teacher. It’s always a challenge to make sure team members are all on the same page, but in a new situation, having each other to lean on and learn from is both helpful and reassuring.
2. Continue to provide individual attention.
Sitting in the classroom and leaning over a student’s shoulder is a lot different than seeing a face through a screen. Figuring out how to provide the individual attention online that we dole out so naturally in the classroom has been tricky, but it’s so important that it’s worth a little extra work and creativity.
Before we push any assignments out, our English as a second language teacher looks each assignment over and modifies them for some students we’ve grouped together because they might need some extra support. She may add a word bank or even just some more specific directions for these students. For students who receive extra reading support, we’ve arranged one-on-one meetings with reading teachers or special education teachers through WebEx.
But right now, even students who did well in the classroom may be struggling. A mother of one of these students recently asked me, “Hey, do you think we need a math tutor?” In the classroom, it was always easy enough to check in with this student and get her on the right track during small group instruction, but online it’s harder for me to see where she was struggling.
In this case, I didn’t think a tutor was necessary, but I encouraged her daughter to spend more time on Freckle, a differentiation platform we’d been using in the classroom to help me see just where the gaps were. As we move into summer, I’m looking forward to encouraging all my students to take advantage of Freckle and Renaissance’s other summer learning resources, which offer an array of different reading and math resources.
3. Offer some grace.
When we’re all in the classroom, we have an opportunity to hold students accountable if they aren’t keeping up with their work. With distance learning, that’s much more challenging. It’s nice if their parents—like the mother who was asking if her daughter needs a tutor—can take a role in holding them accountable, but so many of them are struggling with working from home themselves, or other challenges.
Now is not the time to draw a hard line about late assignments. I try to give my students as much extra time and grace as I can. I still reach out to parents every few days, usually in an email. I don’t want to put any more stress on anyone, but rather provide support, so I focus on messages like, “Hey, I’d love to see your child hand in some assignments this week,” or “I’d love to see where your child is at,” or even simply, “How can I help you?”
4. Give students something to put their hands on.
Before we even knew that distance learning would be extended beyond the first week, I put together some packets of hands-on things to drop off at my students’ homes. I wanted them to have some hands-on learning opportunities even if they couldn’t be in the classroom.
More recently, we had a big pick-up day at the school. We packed up everything in their desks and their other belongings that were left in the building. Working with the rest of the second-grade team, we put together materials for some theme days that we’d normally have at the end of the year. Theme days incorporate reading, writing, math, and more, so we had plenty of activities that incorporated both distance learning and hands-on activities through the packets.
5. Be flexible about how students show their learning.
Ensuring that I’m meeting the needs of students on individualized education programs has really pushed me to be flexible, and I think it’s important to extend that flexibility to all students right now as much as possible.
Seesaw allows me to record my voice so I can read directions or add icons to directions that tell students they need to click on something. Building that kind of flexibility into my end of the teaching process is helpful, but just as important is giving students options. I’ll let them record video of themselves or hand write assignments and turn in pictures of them instead of typing them out, for example. As long as they’re doing the work and trying their best, I don’t care what format it comes to me in. I may not get the full paragraph I would have received in the classroom, but they’re working on the same skills and we’re all making the best of an unusual situation.
6. Save some grace for yourself.
The most eye-opening thing about this whole experience has been how supportive the families I get to work with are. They’ve shown me plenty of grace throughout, even if it’s just being patient with me when I need to take my little one to the bathroom during a WebEx.
When this first happened, I felt guilty as a teacher. I felt like I was letting my students down, letting their families down. But their appreciation and the reassurance that they understand we’re doing our best let me take a step back and understand that I’m not in control of this. It’s hard to let go of all the lessons and activities we were looking forward to exploring at the end of the school year, but we must keep working and finding ways to keep these kids engaged.
Using summer to get an early read on the fall
Our summer school will be a three-week session of distance learning, which we hope to follow with a second three-week session that will be in person. No one really knows what that is going to look like yet, but I think it’s a good opportunity to get an early read on how things will go in the fall when it’s—hopefully—time to go back to the classroom.
But even if we must hold the entire summer school online, we’ll make the best of it with teamwork, flexibility, and lots of grace for one another.