Online Learning During the Pandemic

Online Learning During the Pandemic

For almost 30 years I have been working in and around schools.

I have served in every role as an educator - from a teacher’s assistant to substitute to the classroom teacher to instructional coach to state and school district administrator. I have been working as an education and systems consultant for the last 4 years, delivering keynote speeches and speaking at school assemblies, as well as providing training on racial equity.

On March 1, my assistant received the first message from a conference organizer with a cancellation. By March 6, every event on my calendar had disappeared through June...and then through August.

We have two children in college. We would not be eating out or buying new shoes anytime soon.

And then everything in Washington state shut down - no schools, no movies, no gyms, no church.

For years, I refused to do anything online. My greatest gift as a teacher of both children and adults was my ability to read a room, to respond effectively to body language.

And then COVID19 hit, and I was stuck at home with nothing else but an iPad, an iPhone, an old tablet...and almost 10,000 followers on social media.

Maybe I could use my social media platforms to do what I loved to do best, what I was made to do - TEACH!

On March 9, I went to LIVE on Facebook. I began each morning with a read-aloud for small children (English Monday and Wednesday; Spanish Tuesday and Thursday; French or Dutch Friday). After read-aloud came an hour-long class for educators on racial equity. Then a class for children (upper elementary to high school) called “Becoming a Change-Agent”. Facebook LIVE was all I knew, but a college student reached out to suggest I transition to Zoom, with the recommendation that I would be able to make better connections with students.

We began our Zoom classes the last week of March (while continuing to go LIVE each day on Facebook). What I thought would last a couple of months went for 83 weekdays in a row. We continued to meet together until June 30, weeks after the official school year ended. We met through the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. We met through Phase 4 and then Phase 3 of our state’s COVID19 response.

My decision to go online for free was a bit terrifying, but that decision has paid off in so many ways. As I deliver professional development for educators before school starts, I can speak not about what I have read about virtual learning environments but what I have actually learned and practiced in my own “classroom”.

I have put together some suggestions for others who are teaching or leading buildings or parenting children with the hope that my learning can help all of us show up more effectively and responsibly for the children in our COVID19 reality:

  1. Spend the first 3 - 4 weeks of school just getting to know who your students are - what they enjoy doing when not in school, their favorite band or artist, what worked for them last spring, what didn’t, what “success” looks like for them, how they most enjoy learning (listening, reading, watching, doing).
  2. Take your best lessons from your classroom and realize you can only talk into a screen about 25% of the time you were able to talk from the front of the room during a regular class period. Break lessons into smaller chunks. Check-in often with students and give them a variety of ways to respond and share their learning (speaking, typing into the chat, sharing an email later).
  3. Schedule movement and interactive activities or bathroom/water/snack break about every 5 - 15 minutes (depending upon the age of the students). Play the students’ favorite music during breaks or as you are exiting class each day.
  4. Give students the option to turn on their cameras...or not. Students should also be allowed to play with filters or add special backgrounds. Remember, when students’ cameras are on, you are in their homes, their special, private spaces. Their homes may have different rules and norms, which are theirs, not yours (and not to be judged by you).
  5. Show grace for yourself and for students. When they don’t show up, don’t assume it is because they don’t want to. Cameras and microphones break or don’t always work. You may have to repeat directions several times. In fact, when there are directions you want students to follow or information you want them to remember, make sure it is presented on the screen and even available later in a published format. If a student doesn’t show up for a couple of days, reach out in every way you know possible to let them know NOT that you expect to see them tomorrow but that you MISS them.
  6. Listen to your students. Invite feedback on a regular basis to learn what is working well and what you can improve. Don’t take criticism personally. See every critique as an opportunity to grow. See every instructional failure as a chance to practice and model a growth mindset.

We are entering a season of education that we have never experienced before.

This is hard...for everyone - teachers, parents, students, administrators, employers.

For those of you who have been teaching for more than 10 years, don’t allow your pride to get in the way. Ask for help from those who are more tech-savvy. Ask for help from your children. Prepare yourself to fail and get back up and fail again. Be ready to trash an idea and try something new. Realize, your students are scared as well. They want this to work as much as you do. They will have as much grace for you as you extend to them.

As much as I wish we could avoid the physical and emotional pain of this pandemic, I also believe this season in K-12 education can and should make us better.

Check out my TEDx Talks: