When Prime Minister Netanyahu announced in March that schools would be closed and the nation would move to distance learning, I — like the rest of the country and much of the world — knew that teachers, administrators, parents, and students would have a big challenge to face. How do you take an entire educational system with little to no experience in online education and make such an enormous shift? Not to mention doing it in crisis mode!
I am a parent, student, and teacher — so I knew I would be facing this new virtual reality from multiple perspectives. Luckily, having had years of prior experience working in a virtual learning environment, I knew what to do. I successfully shifted my middle school English classes from a face-to-face to an online learning environment. Seeing as online learning is here to stay in one form or another, I’d like to share some tips to help teachers, parents, administrators, and students to manage online learning more effectively.
- Use — but don’t abuse — Zoom. Zoom is a powerful communication tool. It is not, however, a replacement for face-to-face classroom learning. Students — and especially children — should not be forced to stare at Zoom screens for hours every day. This is educationally counterproductive. Also, not all students have equal access to devices. Teachers and school administrators should minimize Zoom use to several minutes — as opposed to several hours — at a time. Personally, this year, I required students to attend a Zoom class with me for 15-20 minutes each week, and in small groups. I did no frontal teaching on Zoom. Instead, I reviewed instructions for the weekly assignments, answered questions, and used most of the time to hear students speak. Every student was required to participate. If their audio didn’t work, I required them to write in the chat. I met with no more than 10 students at a time, so I could focus on and interact with each student. Use Zoom. Don’t abuse it.
- Set a routine. Try to have a basic structure. For example, assign the work for the week on Mondays. Meet the students on Zoom on Tuesdays. Tell students that homework assignments are due on Sundays. Choose one or two communication tools and stick to them. Personally, I like Google Classroom. I use WhatsApp to send reminders. “Hey everyone, remember to check our google classroom for this week’s assignments!” Try to stick to your routines as much as possible so that students and parents know what to expect.
- Get students offline. Excessive screen time is not only terribly unhealthy, but it’s also an equity issue. Not every child has access to a computer, many families share devices, and not everyone has good Internet connection. Instead of assigning lots of online work, go back to the basics. If your students have textbooks, tell them to read them! Assign work from them! Tell the students to take a picture of their work and send it to you. Want to get more creative? Send the kids outside, watch an animal for a few minutes, and then write a descriptive essay. Or, tell students to describe a room in their home, or their dream place to visit. Have them interview a family member about a certain subject. The options are endless, but get those kids offline!
- Make videos for frontal teaching. Instead of investing your time in fancy Zoom presentations, to which the students may or may not listen, why not record a video of yourself? It can be fun — I used my kitchen to teach about descriptive adjectives. The advantages are that students can watch your video at a time that’s good for them and at the pace that is good for them. They can listen as many times as they want, until they master the idea or skill. Give students a brief assignment to complete after your video so that you can check their understanding. Oh — and here’s a tip — before you invest too much time making your own video, check online — there may be videos out there that you can use! Why reinvent the wheel? Just make sure to honor copyright laws.
- Communicate, communicate, and then communicate. We’re in crisis mode, and instructions can get confusing for kids and parents alike. This is especially true when you are dealing with multiple children and multiple classes. Keep messages simple, and post them in a few places (personally I use Google Classroom and a class WhatsApp group). Send reminders often — “Remember, your English homework is due on Wednesday. I can’t wait to read it!” On the day after the work is due, note who didn’t turn in work — and then communicate. Reach out to the student. Reach out to the parents. Reach out to the homeroom teacher or counselor. Do everything you can to catch that student before he or she falls. How will you find the time? Well…remember, you aren’t planning long, fancy Zoom sessions anymore…so instead, invest your time in communication.
- Follow the rule of 24/72. Don’t let more than 72 hours go by without communicating with your class in some way. This communication might come in the form of a Zoom check-in, but it also can be a simple WhatsApp message reminding them to finish their homework or wishing them a good weekend. Don’t let more than 24 hours go by without responding to a student who has reached out to you or submitted work. You don’t need to grade it within 24 hours, but you do need to say, “Hey Sara, I got your work. I can’t wait to read it. Have a great day.”
- Give individual feedback. Tell each student what they did right. Tell them how they can improve. Allow students to re-submit work to improve their grade. Or give them extra credit for responding to your feedback. Choose carefully how you will respond so that you have time to reach everyone. Here in Israel, there are over 35 students in many classes. On some assignments, you might choose to send your student a quick voice message like this, “Hi Noa! I loved your descriptive essay. You choose really high level adjectives, and it sounds like you really love your pet bird. I want you to remember your subject-verb agreement. Put that magic S on verbs after he/she/it. Go ahead and fix that and send it to me again to improve your grade.” On other assignments, you might choose to use a more formal rubric and give detailed written feedback. However you choose to do it, make sure you provide some sort of personal feedback on every assignment.
- Save everything. It sounds obvious, but it’s so important. Save students’ work. Save conversations and interactions with parents and counselors. Follow your school’s systems of how to save work and communication. If your school doesn’t have a system, make one.
- Less is more. Be sensitive. We are living through a global pandemic. Everyone is overwhelmed. Please don’t give students too much work. They are balancing your class with countless other classes. Everyone — teachers and students alike — are trying to adjust to online learning. I try to give my students only one or two assignments per week. If your school allows for two weekly hours of English time, aim to give about an hour of work. You can always add optional assignments for kids who want more.
- Love your students. Let’s face it, we don’t like all of our students all the time. But we must work to love them. Fake it ’til you make it if you have to. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Reach out to them. Wish them a happy day. Ask how they are doing. Recognize that life can be hard for them. Many students are watching younger siblings, stuck at home alone, coping with sick family members, or in some sad cases dealing with very difficult home situations. Be your students’ advocate. Do all you can to make them feel good and productive in their learning.
Let’s face it — during these crazy times, we all need a boost. We all need someone who believes in us. Let’s believe in our students. Let’s believe that online education can work. Let’s believe that this is an opportunity to develop relationships with students and parents that we might not otherwise be able to do in large, crowded, face-to-face classrooms. Let’s hold our students accountable and also be flexible and kind, understanding that we are all in this together, trying to provide the best learning opportunities in the strangest of times.