As a former middle school teacher, literacy specialist, and instructional coordinator, the first days of middle school leave me with vivid memories. The entire school staff worked together to prepare for their students to return to school. The floors were pristine, the classrooms were set up, and the whole staff met students at their doors. We were ready.
In recent weeks, school districts have faced drastic changes. Educators are entrenched in the monumental task of shifting to 100% remote learning models. We are in a whole new version of the “first days of school.” Almost no one was ready.
I originally set out to write a post about how streamlining language, scoring, and practice can lift the mental load for students, increase engagement, and make learning content more accessible for all. I set out to suggest ideas for applying the brick and mortar experiences to the new remote one. But in order to provide helpful guidance, I first needed to better understand the state of remote learning for various stakeholders.
I started by going to teachers, students, and parents to hear their experiences from first few weeks of remote learning. As a result, my original blog idea will best served in two parts: 1) understanding the current state of remote middle schools, then 2) suggestions for implementing common language, scoring, and instructional activities in a remote learning environment.
Interviewing Students & Parents
First, I wanted to know what the initial weeks of remote learning were like for those most directly impacted: students and their families. I communicated with three middle school students and their parents, all from different states.
First was Quinn, from Maryland. Quinn’s school set an expectation, right off the bat, that they should spend 20-30 minutes per subject each day on a flexible schedule. They are using an online platform where teachers post assignments daily or weekly. The platform also provides a messaging system for students and teachers. Teachers host daily office hours so that students can log in to ask questions and receive help. Quinn commented, “I like that I get more sleep, do it on my own time, and take breaks, if needed.”
Matthew, from Pennsylvania, just finished the first week of remote learning. On the first day of remote school, Matthew’s father was able to take the day off to help him and his sister. Matthew’s mother had to go into work and said her family’s text strand was active all day. This added to her stress of not being home, but she added, “It’s a learning curve for all. We’ll get through.” Matthew reported that the only hiccup was that teachers posted assignments in different places. But overall, Matthew liked the first week. I asked about the workload. He said, “It only took a few hours to do it all, and I get to eat whenever I want.”
Linus’ school began remote learning with the lighter expectation that Math, Science, and ELA teachers alternate sending an assignment each week. In addition to the assignments, Linus submits a summary of reading daily and a recording for orchestra weekly, both suggested and not required. Linus finishes the assignments rather quickly so time is spent each day shooting basketball, exercising, and partaking in some online gaming with friends. The school has promised a more comprehensive schedule beginning this week.
Although these interviews painted three different scenarios, I know they aren’t representing the reality that many students and families currently live in. Importantly, the families I spoke to all have internet access, their children either have school devices or their own, and their experiences have been relatively smooth. The parents are either working from home or were able to take time to be at home with their children during the transition.
This is not the case for all families. Right now, many parents are essential workers who can’t be at home. Most parents are also working from home and trying to meet the demands of work and their children’s schoolwork. Not all families have home computers and many rely on phones or hotspots to access the internet. Some of our high school students are extending their own working hours to support their families during this crisis. The scenarios are countless.
To better understand how schools are working to alleviate some of the challenges their students and families face, I went to educators.
Having been a teacher and instructional coordinator myself, I have talked to all of my educator friends in recent weeks, asking lots of questions. No matter who I’ve spoken to, every person reports that their district is focusing on student needs first: communication, connection, food resources, devices and access, and alternative learning materials where needed. Of course, they are. That’s what districts do every day.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll highlight two teachers: Ann Grey, an EL teacher from rural Virginia, and Chris, a seventh grade science teacher from a suburban area of Pennsylvania. While Ann Grey and Chris’ overall experiences differ, both shared that their districts prioritized common needs first: helping families with meals, holding up pick-ups for devices and print materials, and allowing teachers time to get their remote classrooms set up.
Chris’ entire school district, which spans 54 square miles, is running on a two-hour delay schedule. Teachers in Chris’ district start at 8 a.m., and students are expected to log in by 10 a.m. Teachers are with their students in a live session for about 30 minutes before students “move” to their next class. Chris teaches 140 seventh graders each day and collaborates with two other teachers who have similar numbers. My first reaction to the two-hour delay schedule was to say it must make keeping up with tracking attendance and managing instruction for 140 students more manageable. Chris agreed that for the most part, it did. He added that while most of his students are following the schedule, there are still some who are staying up too late, sleeping all day, and reaching out to him later in the evening. He recognizes that he can’t control home schedules and focuses on showing up for them when they need him.
Chris traditionally runs a flipped classroom so they have had a relatively smooth transition into their remote learning world. They have their platforms and processes established and were up and running rather quickly. He mentioned some of the platforms are having issues carrying the load of all of the new traffic, but otherwise, they are off to a solid start.
Ann Grey is a half-time instructional coach and half-time EL teacher. Her ten middle school students include both seventh and eighth graders, some of whom she’s taught for multiple years and some whose families arrived in the country more recently. What was most heartening to hear was that her directive during these first weeks was to focus on making connections with her students while the district worked to get resources and devices out.
Ann Grey’s students do not have devices at home or access to the internet. They often rely on a single phone to find assignments online. In fact, there are enough families that do not have access that the district is working with internet providers directly to see what can be done to help.
Ann Grey has pulled back on the curriculum and has instead spent most of the transition time reaching out to each student via phone or email. Of her ten middle schoolers, she’s reached six of them. She’s helping them find basic necessities, locating food resources for their families, and providing emotional support. She is teaching her students and their families the words and language that they hear in the media, ensuring that they fully understand what they hear and see. She has lessons prepared for the times when she does connect with her students. Ann Grey told me that often her students don’t want to keep chatting, but they also don’t want to hang up. They’re looking to stay connected and looking to learn. She is posting pre-recorded videos on the district website in hopes that the students who she hasn’t been able to reach will see them.
Ann Grey’s district will be implementing a more comprehensive schedule after their spring break. By slowing down the release of a structured schedule, leadership has allowed teachers to stay connected to students. It’s allowed families to settle into their new reality of having their children learn at home and allowed schools to level the playing field with technology and access.
The Importance of Connection & Readiness
After communicating with students, parents, and teachers, I am convinced that efforts to establish consistency with language and practice are just as important, if not more, in remote learning environments. However, two things paramount to success are connection and readiness. For schools to tackle such a challenge, whether it be a new initiative or an effort to maintain what was in place in their buildings, teachers need time to connect with all of their students and the timing of rollout must be right. For most, it’s not quite time yet.
In Part II of this blog, I’ll share the ideas previously planned with considerations for implementing in remote learning environments. But before that post comes out, I have one more group to talk to: administrators. Stay tuned!
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