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Setting the Stage for a School Year Online

The digital classroom doesn’t have to be a replica of the traditional classroom. Try these tips for different online instruction.

July 24, 2020
Elementary school teacher conducting a reading lesson through distance learning
RyanJLane / iStock

The pandemic has forced many schools to shift solely to remote online instruction, but the transition doesn’t mean teachers should try to precisely mirror the in-person classroom experience digitally, says Melanie Kitchen, an instructional technology and staff development coordinator in New York state. In Jennifer Gonzalez’s “9 Ways Online Teaching Should Be Different From Face-to-Face" for Cult of Pedagogy, Kitchen recommends ways educators can reframe and rethink online instruction so it differs from the traditional schooling experience while still meeting student learning goals.

Get Off to a Good Start

Though there may be a desire to jump into content at the start of the new school year, teachers should spend time laying the groundwork for class norms and expectations for the online setting instead—just like they would in their regular classroom. 

First, Kitchen advises teachers to ensure all students are comfortable with the digital tools they will be using in remote learning, which may require some practice as a class. Take some time to incorporate social and emotional activities, Kitchen says, because camaraderie will develop a strong classroom community that will keep students more engaged in their learning.

When it comes to parents, she recommends picking a main digital platform for communication (email, text, or LMS) at the start of the year and sending weekly updates through it. Communication tools may need to be tweaked, however, depending on families’ resources at home. "When parents know where and when to look for information from you, they’ll do a better job of keeping up with it and following through on their end," Kitchen advises.

To avoid feeling overloaded by parent messages, set boundaries early in the school year about when and how parents should communicate with you. Providing tutorials on technology or troubleshooting strategies if you aren’t available can also help ensure parents adhere to these boundaries, Kitchen says. 

Working with Colleagues

When it comes to interacting with colleagues remotely, Kitchen recommends continuing to schedule regular staff meetings, but making sure to incorporate emotional health and well-being check-ins during the gathering so everyone feels supported and heard. 

Outside of formal meetings, it can be valuable to establish small teacher groups to share experiences, challenges, and strategies for remote learning—this is a new reality for everyone so collaboration is key. Regular communication and planning during meetings with other teachers can also help reduce redundancy and maximize teachers’ time, Kitchen says. 

Rethink Your Curriculum

Many staple classroom lessons and activities will not easily adapt to remote learning, so it will be necessary to spend time thinking about ways to reformat your curriculum to fit new needs, according to Kitchen.

Given the time constraints of online teaching, think about what material is absolutely critical for students to know by asking yourself questions like, “What knowledge and skills do students need to have before they move to the next grade level or the next class?” Additionally, teachers should determine what material is better suited to synchronous, or face-to-face, instruction online, and what can be done asynchronously that “students can access at any time.”

Kitchen suggests small, breakout group work allows students to collaborate and build relationships with peers. Activities in these clusters she calls "campfire groups" should be active and engaging, so she recommends the jigsaw method or discussion groups. Keep asynchronous instruction focused on video lectures and readings, she says.

Clear and Consistent Directions

Assignment instructions are always valuable, but in the online context, they become even more crucial, Kitchen says. “Because you are not in the same room with students, your instructions have to work a lot harder than they do in a brick-and-mortar setting,” she says.

Like communication with parents, instructions for students need to be located in a central place and posted in a consistent way. Kitchen suggests "dogfooding" lessons, or trying out the assignment yourself first to identify shortcomings or omissions before giving it to students. She also advises presenting directions in different forms— video and written—so students can choose what works best for them. 

Evaluating Student Learning

Assessment should shift during distance learning, says Kitchen, who encourages placing an emphasis on frequent, formative feedback rather than grades.

When a more formal assessment is necessary, consider asking students to create something like a podcast, video, or artwork instead of taking an online test or quiz, which may lead to cheating. Summative assessments not only are hard to cheat on, but they require students to integrate and reflect on the knowledge they’ve gained from multiple lessons.

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