How We Did It: 5 Strategies That Worked For Us

A teacher’s perspective on what coronavirus has meant for her and her students.

GUEST COLUMN | by Monica Contreras

When school closures were first announced, it took a while for it to sink in what exactly that meant for me and my students. One thing became apparent immediately: the threat of coronavirus would significantly change the way we deliver instruction. As quickly as possible, we would have to learn how to get meaningful material to our students virtually.

Initially, the challenge was daunting. We needed to get comfortable with new technology, marshal our resources, and perhaps most critically, make sure we had the right mindset to get the job done.

Two weeks in, I can say that I think we’ve made the transition to virtual learning pretty smoothly. How? Below are five reasons my school was able to move into hyper drive and keep our students learning while we adjusted to the challenges at hand.

“One thing is undeniable. Everyone is learning right now: teachers, students, administrators, and parents. We’ll learn as we go… and as we do, we’ll keep tweaking our plan…”

While we’re a long way from perfection, I feel confident that we’ll be able to maintain a high level of instruction and engagement no matter how long our schools are closed. I wanted to share what has been working in the early stages for us in the hopes that you’ll be able use some of these strategies as well.

Our District had a contingency plan.

I teach third grade at McKitrick Elementary in the Hillsborough County School District in Lutz, Florida. I feel very fortunate to be part of HCPS, especially because our superintendent had an eLearning Contingency Plan (ECP) in place that could be activated rapidly. The plan is intended to “reduce the disruption for our students by providing alternative, online assignments to extend learning during a school closure.” It’s focused on delivering content and ensuring access to mobile devices and the internet. It was designed to maximize communication among teachers, between teachers and their students, and between teachers and parents. Having the ECP in place reassured us all that we could keep our students learning once schools closed.

We had a basic edtech infrastructure in place.

E-learning cannot take place without access to educational technology. Fortunately, in our district, we had a basic edtech infrastructure in place before the emergency occurred. Our students already had access to Clever and Edsby, our primary platforms for accessing digital programs and communication. Edsby allows teachers to update and track instruction, assignments, and tests. For elementary grades, it is the primary way students and teachers keep the lines of instruction open.  Inside Clever, students can access their programs such as MobyMax, iReady, CODE, Office 365, MyOn, and so much more. Since school closed, our District Tech Team has hosted countless online trainings on additional tools like Flipgrid, Nearpod, and Zoom. Teachers are learning quickly and adjusting instruction.

We were already successfully using edtech solutions to improve student learning.

One personal saving grace was that, while many schools rushed to sign up for online learning programs, my school had already had relationships with e-solutions providers like MobyMax, iReady, Khan Academy, and PowerMyLearning Connect. That has made the transition to e-Learning almost seamless. Teachers just extended lessons they’d already been doing in the classroom to those online programs. Students are working in programs that they’re already familiar with from using them in the classroom.

We understood the roles parents could and couldn’t play.

We understand that at the elementary level, edtech and remote learning can impose a heavy burden on parents, and that those parents need guidance. Using a solution like MobyMax spares parents the need to become teachers. Students just sign in, and the tech teaches them along the way, minimizing the student’s need to get help from Mom or Dad.

That said, we did provide parents with an outline of activities that students can do in each subject, along with tips for exercise, brain breaks, and “unplugged” choices. We included scheduling options with lunch and snack breaks and allowed flexibility to juggle computer time in a household where there might be only one device that several kids share.

We’re making it fun for students.

Gamification of curriculum could be a “make or break” factor in the success of online learning during these school closures. We know from experience that encouraging students to view problem-solving as a game is highly motivating. That’s why, right out of the gate, we set up a contest to inspire our students to address their key skill areas in MobyMax.   In just one week, we’re seeing 877 out of 1047 students participating!!! Besides the contest, students are encouraged to play games on MobyMax, since they earn that game time by working hard on their lessons.

We have always tried to organize “brain breaks” in the classroom. Integrating them into the online school day makes sense, too. That’s why our online curriculum also includes “unplugged” activities in Math and Science, like “follow a recipe or cook a meal or bake a dessert. Pay close attention to the fractions listed.” Or, we’ll urge students to try a paper-folding challenge see if they can devise a way to defy gravity. Go Noodle and science videos from Mystery Science ask students to ponder questions like “Why do we have hiccups?” and “Why is the sky blue?”.

In addition, we’ve included audiobooks read by celebrities and virtual field trips to the San Diego Zoo, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the National History Museum.

Creativity Time Ideas ask students to take a CODE break to draw or paint, and share it with the class. Or, students can build something in Maker Space Activities; create a new board game they can ask their family to play; or sing, play, or make a musical instrument. Links are provided so they can download the GarageBand App and have some fun with music.

The Biggest Challenge Going Forward

While I feel good about getting our e-learning launched, the biggest challenge going forward may be to ensure that all students have equal online access. Our school district has been loaning existing devices to students who need them at home and may purchase additional devices if needed to reach every student. The sooner this happens, the better.

It’s also important to understand the burden being placed on teachers. Many teachers are also parents. In addition to teaching their classroom students, they now have to navigate online learning with their own children beside them. The stress of doing so probably can’t be overestimated. The upside is that many of the new instruction strategies we are learning may positively transform how we teach once we return to the classroom.

One thing is undeniable. Everyone is learning right now: teachers, students, administrators, and parents. We’ll learn as we go… and as we do, we’ll keep tweaking our plan to ensure that every child gets to continue his or her education through these very trying and historic times.

Monica Contreras teaches third grade at McKitrick Elementary in the Hillsborough County School District in Lutz, Florida. Follow her @MCMckitrick

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