Teaching Beyond Walls: Creative Ideas for Remote Instruction 

September 4th, 2020

I recently attended a virtual conference that was attended by educators in a variety of roles from across the country. In many of the sessions, attendees were asked to candidly share how they are feeling about the coming year. I can summarize those responses into a handful of answers: anxious, overwhelmed, unsure. Although those feelings were applied to a number of scenarios, one of the common themes was around how to deliver high-quality instruction in remote or hybrid environments.

As a former fourth classroom instructor, I can understand this trepidation. Educators are still having to do a lot of the same things as before: creating high-quality lessons; planning remediation, intervention, and differentiation activities; selecting assignments to continue learning and skill development. However, for educators starting the year in remote environments, they’re also doing that work without many of the supports that provide efficiencies and consistencies that they’re used to—for instance, having a dedicated physical classroom and familiar teaching tools optimized for onsite instruction. It takes time, energy, and creativity to translate instruction into remote environments, of which they have significantly less control. It’s a marathon of patience, adjusting, and leaning into discomfort.

However, remote instruction also presents some opportunities for creative instruction practices that aren’t really feasible in onsite environments. In some ways, remote learning not only helps overcome some of the barriers that naturally occur in a brick-and-mortar learning setting. It offers the chance to collaborate differently and alleviate some of the burdens on teachers that were manageable in predictable onsite environments but are less feasible in a remote environment. In doing so, we may also have the opportunity to create learning environments that provide more of the supports that students need—simply by making the most of the flexibility remote learning provides.

 

Rethinking co-teaching

In traditional onsite environments, most educators are responsible for preparing lessons, delivering instruction, collecting data, and devising the right next instructional and assessment steps—every day, often for multiple subjects. Even in the context of a structured and more predictable onsite environment, this is no small feat. But in the context of remote environments, instructional minutes are typically limited, technology barriers are still being navigated, and an increased level of coordination is required for each lesson. It can be extremely hard to navigate the simple delivery of lessons, much less adding back in the best practices we used in the classroom, such as using formative processes to check understanding and feed learning forward. Not only do we need to plan our lessons, but translate those lessons and instructional plans into a remote environment. This process takes additional time and mental energy, all while learning processes that are new to us. 

But without classroom walls, we can connect teachers and cohorts to work collaboratively on instruction in ways that aren’t possible in onsite settings. Instead of having each individual teacher plan their own lessons—including formative checks on learning, remediation and differentiation plans, as well as assignments—planning could be shared across teacher teams. In this way, educators are planning a reduced number of lessons per week, and that restored time can be spent connecting with individual students, providing small group interventions, offering support to parents and families, and collaborating with colleagues around student needs.

For educators who teach multiple subjects—especially in primary levels—it might also be possible to alternate subjects by various weeks. For instance, one teacher might be responsible for a week’s worth of math lessons, and then the next week switch to science or social students.

Furthermore, if a single teacher leads whole group instruction for multiple classes, it means that the other teachers are available to then provide supports.

Increasing formative assessment processes and timely, aligned supports

If we structure core instruction as described above, not only does it help teachers acclimate to delivering instruction in remote environments—but extremely importantly—it also means that additional teachers are available to provide supports. After whole group instruction, educators can engage in a quick formative check on learning to help determine what to do next—such as with Illuminate DnAwith increased resources to accommodate what the formative data reveals to be needed. 

Educators can divide up students into small groups for remediation or differentiation, each led by a different teacher or a specialist or interventionist.  Not only are students getting more individualized attention, but they’re also getting it with more immediacy. In this way, instructional and intervention resources across the district can be shared in ways that haven’t been possible before.

Increasing differentiated remote instruction across subjects

Similarly, we can also provide an increased level of differentiated instruction and support for a wider variety of subjects. Leveled teaching is something we know to be important to learning, but it’s also something that’s harder to accomplish in subjects with fewer teachers per grade level. By working collaboratively, perhaps even across buildings, subjects such as science, social students, and advanced mathematics can be augmented with differentiated instruction and remediation that simply isn’t feasible when a single educator is working alone in a physical environment.

Leveraging project-based learning (PBL) 

Whether or not you’ve been using PBL in the past, remote learning may be a good opportunity to give it a try for a number of reasons. First, depending on how the lesson is structured, a group project can restore the social component of onsite instruction, or an individual project can provide a screen-time break through a lesson that involves building, creating, and manipulating. Second, PBL creates a rich learning environment that can increase engagement and motivation while honoring student voice and choice. It can also be a great opportunity to incorporate 21st century skills, like critical thinking and creativity—curriculum that can sometimes fall by the wayside in onsite environments, even when teachers want to incorporate them. 

Third, many PBL assignments can be supported by smaller instructional lessons—meaning that they are conducive to the reduced number of instructional minutes often allowed by remote learning. The preparation load is also thereby lessened on teachers, meaning that time is freed up for checking in with groups and individual students to support metacognition throughout the project and conduct the essential (but time sometimes intensive) personal and individual check-ins with their remote learners. 

Finally, PBL assignments are often structured as performance tasks, or assignments that require a rubric to grade. As explored in a previous blog, these types of learning activities are less conducive to online cheating and can accommodate a number of standards as compared to other forms of online assignments and assessments. It also supports thematic units that can incorporate multiple subject areas for interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

There are copious free resources available online to help educators dig into project-based learning in their remote learning environments for those who are interested in exploring this option further. Care should be taken to ensure that learning opportunities are equitably accessible to students, and barriers to equitable learning opportunities should be communicated to building and district leaders.

Collaborating as a team during remote instruction

One of the biggest challenges to PLCs has been found to be a stable settinga space to meet and discuss data without getting kicked out of the meeting space for another group and without members getting pulled out for another meeting. In a remote environment, we are not only able to meet without the confines of a finite number of rooms in the building, but we can also transition to meetings more readily. With online data management and collaboration tools such as eduCLIMBER, teams are able to quickly access all necessarily data and begin their meeting instantly, whether they’re working remotely or onsite.

In some cases, educators who support colleagues across multiple buildings have found that they are able to better support their teams in remote environments, simply because they do not need to commute across town to meet with various groups. And this means we stand to provide more timely supports—both to students and to teachers—simply because we’re able to collaborate together more effectively. 

Undeniably, this year will be different. But different doesn’t have to be bad. Different can be accepting and motivating—even if it is challenging and uncertain. And if “different” is an opportunity to help educators work and collaborate more effectively, to reduce unfeasible workloads, and to increase effective student supports, I would venture to say that we have the opportunity to make “different” even mean “better.”

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Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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