Remote learning in the pandemic – teacher fails and lessons learned

When the pandemic hit, I had no clue we’d be shifting to remote learning. I also had no clue I’d be trying to teach my own children at home.

I taught high school in Metro Nashville Public Schools. One the Wednesday before Spring Break we received a call out instructing us to stay home Thursday or Friday. Then toward the end of Spring Break, we were to take two more weeks off.

That ended the school year.

My three girls, ages 11 (twins) and 9, go to school in the district where my ex-wife lives. They shut down as well. The ex works in health care (insurance) and was continuing working, so the kids came to me for the duration.

Homeschooling

Each week, their school distributed learning packets that contained a lessons for all subjects. Similarly I was required to provide lessons for my students.

I organized the girls’ lessons, reviewed all the material and sat down with them to work away.

By the end of the first week, there were tears. Screams. Fits. Items thrown. Threats. Those were just my reactions. Remote learning as daddy was not very fun.

I teach my kids all the time. It is organic. They know a tad bit about water history from keeping the pool’s water balance. There’s a hedgehog in the back property and they’ve learned much observing him through binoculars. They can identify birds. They know the steps to changing a tire.

I taught them much, but academically, we struggled.

Remote learning and endorsements

I hold endorsements in English, U.S. and World History, U.S. Government and Civics, and in Digital Art. I’m a professionally licensed teacher with a master’s degree in education. I’m an experienced teacher with strong evaluations. And yet, teaching the girls was TOUGH.

Remote Learning
My furry teaching assistant prepares here “attention getter” for another round of remote learning.

I think they did finish the pandemic portion of the school year improved in English (ELA). Not sure about social studies, which I’ll explain in a bit. Science, who knows. And math, I think there were two reasons they didn’t really grow.

Reason 2, I’m going to discuss in a little bit. Reason one is that I’m not strong in math. I struggled with it in school. I struggle to help my children with math homework, and when it came to working with my children, I felt fairly worthless in the math department.

However, I observed a few things, I evaluated my self and others, and I gleaned a few nuggets of advice if you have to teach remotely.

Remote teaching tips

Connections in remote learning are vital. My youngest daughter’s fourth grade teacher posted a Flipgrid video every day. She encouraged my daughter’s class to do the same. That video time – watching her friends’ videos and recording responses, was an absolute joy for my then-fourth grader. When we talk about Social-Emotional Learning, this was huge. Also, the teacher going over what the students should work on that day was a big help to me teaching at home. Let the kids see you and see each other. More frequently is better than less. It means a lot to them.

Have your technology in order. This means knowing how to use it and knowing it works properly. A Zoom was scheduled for my twins on a weekly basis. The first couple were a nightmare. Too many kids. The teacher wasn’t familiar with the technology and the zoom time really wasn’t very well planned. Kids were, virtually, running amuck. It was a remote learning classroom management fail. It frustrated my twins who were anxious and excited to see their friends and teachers. They were sorely disappointed the first two or three weeks when the Zoom didn’t come off as expected.

Plan and test. Test and plan. During the Zoom, the teacher wanted to play Kahoots! with the children. Great idea. Fun idea. And she did a very good job of varying the rounds up between subjects as well as some topics that were just plain old fun. The problem is instructions were not sent out ahead of time. So when it came time to play, she suggested the kids just do a split screen. No explanation of how. Some advanced notice, including instructions, would have enabled me to teach my children how to split the screen or even have an additional device available. Also, once the games got going, it took a couple weeks for the procedures to get straightened out. It became clear that the idea of Kahoots! on Zoom was good, but it wasn’t tested to see how it would actually work.

Don’t skimp on rigor. My twins had an ELA lesson five days a week. It involved a reading, some questions about the reading, and writing with a writing prompt. It was a meaty daily assignment that took the twins 30-40 minutes per day to complete. There were times when the assignment from social studies or science was to watch a three or four minute video, with no questions to answer. Math eventually became to simply answer five questions a day from the TCAP practice test. The rigor disappeared. And guess what happens when kids get bored at home? The same thing that happens when they’re bored at school. And let me be honest. As a parent, it was difficult to see the point in setting aside several hours each day for learning when the assignment, for the week, was to watch a Brainpop video with no associated questions.

Work and accountability

Don’t skimp on the work. As the pandemic raged and the schools remained closed, assignments dwindled. They went from instructional videos, games and worksheets to “answer four or five TCAP practice questions a day.” They went from three reading/viewing/writing assignments per week to simply watching one video per week. Only one subject – ELA – kept up the pace right up to the end. My youngest’s fourth-grade teacher kept the pace also right up to the end, but for my three children, far more teachers than not started phoning it in as time went on.

Accountability. This is not a teacher issue. My children’s work did not count toward any grade. I knew they needed the work to minimize the gap that would be caused by being out of school for four months, but there was no accountability. I saw this with my students too. I’m putting up assignments so that one or two students out of about 200 can complete them. Why? No grades! Only feedback. There was no accountability as to a student the assignment did not matter. Districts, not teachers and schools, must wrestle with this issue.

The gap

Be the bridge. The bridge part is simple. For several months, my children were not allowed to even visit friends. The Zooms and Flipgrids were an important bridge that allowed them to see and talk with their friends on a regular basis. I can’t emphasize the importance of that.

Be the leader. I’ve written before about the leadership challenge of the classroom, and remote learning in a pandemic intensifies the leadership challenge immensely. Additionally, I learned first-hand teaching your own children is very hard, even if you are a teacher, so if you are in a remote learning situation the students aren’t the only ones who need your best. The parents do too.

I’m a firm believer in this notion. Remote learning is difficult, but if we do the very things that good teachers do – plan, prepare, engage, have fun, assess, provide feedback – students will not suffer academically or socially from a pandemic. It requires some new learning, some new approaches, and some new processes, but it can be done.

And most important, don’t forget those two words I threw in there. Teaching is fun! So have fun damn it!

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