In my first blog about Middle School Remote Learning, I shared a glimpse into the early weeks of the remote learning world of middle school students, families, and educators in both rural and urban environments. Although experiences differed, every discussion I had pointed me to the same conclusion: consistency is still key for middle school student success. Consistency contributes to lifting the mental load, increasing engagement, and making learning content more accessible for all students. But how can we provide consistency in such an uncertain landscape? Where can we focus our attention first? Here are a few suggestions.
Consistency in Remote Learning Guidelines
First, district or building administrators can set and communicate the high-level guidelines and expectations for staff and families around how remote learning will be structured. These shared parameters are a key ingredient for consistency in all other areas—from communication to communication methods to how assignments are structured. In smaller districts, it may be a district-wide initiative, whereas in larger districts, leaders may grant more autonomy to schools. There is no one-size-fits-all, but whether it’s district or school administrators laying the foundation, it is a great first step.
Consistency in Systems & Communications
Next, there is the matter of routine communication. The most common feedback I received from families and educators was around confusion with systems, communication, and locations of assignments. In a brick and mortar environment, those practices have been in place for the entire year–if not multiple years. This practice was not originally part of the plan for this post, but it is absolutely essential for streamlining remote learning experiences. This is one of the most important areas to provide consistency, if there isn’t a consistent practice already in place.
To provide that consistent communication, most schools start the day with a morning announcement, morning message, or homeroom of some virtual form. Every school also has, at the very least, school-issued email. A daily email would suffice as the first step in establishing consistency. If the school wants to use a learning management system (LMS) to send this daily update, that works, too. But every day should start the same way.
This morning message should point students and parents to where they will find their assignments and include links to any other portal or sources in use. Doing so requires coordination and collaboration across teams and/or grade levels. This initial communication should also be consistent across the entire school or, as appropriate, the entire district. By creating a system through which students and parents know where to start the day every day, they’ll no longer spend time keeping track of who sends an email, who shares a Google Doc, or who uses a portal or LMS.
School faculty may be using different portals right now, like Google Classroom, an LMS, or some other portal. This is perfectly fine. The effort should focus not on a grand overhaul of systems right now. In the long term, districts and schools may want to select one portal or LMS for all faculty to use. When that time comes, it will be important to involve the faculty, those interacting with the systems most, in the evaluation and selection process. For now, start with consistent communication at a predictable time with predictable content using a consistent platform—a central hub from which to rely on information and find consolidated links to additional resources.
Consistency in Assignments: Posting and Storing
As mentioned, the (consistently delivered) morning message would provide a central hub from which all other resources are linked. The organization of those individual resources, and understanding how they all fit together, is also extremely important. In remote learning, students no longer have instant support from their teachers and peers around finding answers to their questions, juggling resources, or managing their work. For this reason, assignments should be consistently shared and stored where students can readily access them.
As students create their own documents as products of assignments, they should know where to store them within the greater hierarchy of school, grade level, then class folders. Many middle schoolers still need help with this type of organization, and supporting them with structured storage is a perfect example of lifting the mental load. If we take the guesswork out of sharing and storing, students are allowed to focus on the actual digital literacies they are developing and showcase their learning.
Consistency in Daily Practices
Once districts and students settle into their new remote learning environments, building administrators can begin taking a closer look at language and practices that can be streamlined across all remote classrooms. How can building administrators kick off such an initiative? Go to their team! New initiatives that focus on remote learning needs are not one-size-fits all. Procuring initiatives from within the “building” may increase buy-in and motivation among staff.
The faculty can come together after the first months of remote learning and start by listing what is going well and what is not going so well. The list of what is going well should be examined closely and many questions should be asked: Why is this going well? Are there key stakeholders contributing to the success? Should we make any changes to improve? What do we need to do to keep it going well?
The natural next step in the process would be to look at the list of things that are not going so well with remote learning. The administrators and teachers should talk through each point briefly to ensure full understanding. From there, either as a whole group or in smaller groups, the list should be prioritized with the most critical needs first and the least critical last. This way, district and site leaders can see exactly what should be left alone, what can be tweaked slightly, or what might need a concerted effort toward dramatic change. There is also great value in that initiatives are staff-driven. Schools will always have initiatives that are driven by the district so caution should be taken when selecting their building initiatives.
It will be likely that there are more items on the list than what can be tackled in one school year, which is why prioritization is important. The prioritized list can become the source for improvement initiatives within the school and can be led by the teacher-led teams. It will be up to the entire staff to come to a decision on how many initiatives they can take on within one school year. Once the initiatives and teams are decided and initiative team leads identified, the teams can begin planning.
The value in this reflective and planning process is that district and building administrators can further provide consistency to students; across the school, daily practices are developed and refined based on collective experience. Overtime, these transition into a reliable and structured remote learning environment that reduces the mental load for students and foster engagement. By working collaboratively, we can expedite that work in order to provide the best learning experiences for students—whether onsite or remote.
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