My district has wrapped up our school year after doing distance learning for a full three months. Although the abrupt shift from teaching in person to teaching online initially entailed a STEEP learning curve, by the end of the year I feel like I got my sea legs under me enough to reflect on what worked… and what didn’t. Here are a few of the important best practices I learned about distance learning through trial and error.
- Backwards planning is still important online. Being able to lay out a consistent (and therefore predictable) unit calendar at the top of a unit is huge for students AND families — albeit a ton of work on the teacher end (the week I planned my last two six-week units of the year, I was putting in ten-hour days and not doing much else… phew). Plus, here in Massachusetts, DESE released guidance on prerequisite standards for students to move on to the next grade — so backwards planning means we ensured students left us having learned essential skills.
- Asynchronous teaching is more accessible for more learners and should be prioritized. This isn’t groundbreaking, but given the pressure in some schools for teachers to provide a significant amount of live online instruction, it bears repeating. Kids may find it challenging to log on and access live instruction at a particular time each week for any number of totally legitimate reasons. A few that came up among my students: they were providing childcare for younger siblings; they were working to help support their family; they were sick; they were struggling with their mental health. If synchronous teaching is your only or even primary way of delivering instruction, it could raise real concerns about equity and access, depending on your population. Tools like Screencastify or Loom make providing asynchronous instruction free and easy. With that said,…
- Synchronous teaching does allow for some continued sense of community. It’s not the same, of course. Teaching on Zoom often involves lag, the oft-repeated “can you hear me?” over a bad wifi connection, and painfully long wait times. But it was still a highlight of the week to see my kids’ faces or hear their voices. Ultimately I think providing the bulk of instruction asynchronously and supplementing it with real-time check-ins was the right balance to strike.
- Teachers must be flexible with due dates. This one was a challenge on the teacher side of things, as it meant being willing to constantly go back and check students’ progress on previous assignments. But all the reasons listed above under asynchronous teaching still apply here, too. Given all the upheaval in their home lives right now, many students needed this flexibility in order to be successful. “Accountability” mattered less than just continual engagement and effort.
- Chunked deadlines (with concrete work to turn in) help students stay on track and make it easy to check on student progress. This was one of the areas where I learned the most from when I first started teaching online. For our first online unit (which we had all of one day to plan) for juniors, we launched a three-week reading and research project that was due in its entirety at the end of the three week period. We quickly realized (within the first week) that students needed additional guidance about how to break the project up and posted suggested checkpoints — but still, nothing for students to “turn in” till the end. Consequently a lot of our students struggled to pace themselves. Eight weeks later, my juniors wrote a short essay, which we required that they write — and turn in — one paragraph at a time.
- Some students NEED one-on-one or small group check-ins. The abrupt transition to distance learning was especially hard for some of my students, like those on IEPs or with social emotional challenges, who receive high levels of support when regular school is in session. Reaching out to these kiddos proactively is key. Often during these meetings we just said hi, chatted a little, discussed feedback on earlier work, and created a work plan for the week. But I found that these brief check-ins kept students engaged and working when otherwise they might’ve dropped off the map.
- Grading (with rubrics) on Google Classroom is a lifesaver! This is one distance learning practice that I WILL be taking back to physical school with me (whenever that might be). Prior to moving school online, when it came to grading I had mostly just used Google Classroom as a way to collect student work. Then I’d print it all out, staple it to my pre-printed rubrics, and write feedback on both by hand. So time (and paper) consuming! And during distance learning, obviously not possible. So instead, during this time I was forced to upload my rubrics right to Google Classroom, using a combination of the rubric, suggesting mode, and private comments to offer my students feedback. And I gotta say… I didn’t hate it. It saved me a ton of time and allowed me to have a lasting record of my feedback (which otherwise students often prematurely lose or toss). If you’ve never used Google Classroom for grading, check out this video for a helpful overview.
- Teachers need a schedule, too. This was a realization I came to about three weeks in as I randomly tackled different tasks every day. After working under a rigid schedule ordered by bells when everything took place at a designated time, I struggled to organize my time at home in a useful way. Finally I thought about what tasks I needed to accomplish each week and slotted them into a balanced weekly calendar (with satisfying checkboxes!). This saved my productivity and more importantly, my sanity.
All told, I’m proud of how quickly (and, we hope, effectively) my fellow educators and I rose to the unprecedented challenge of distance learning this year. Given the uncertainty about what the 2020-2021 school year will look like, I expect to carry these lessons forward into the future.