The chaos of last spring’s mass closures and remote learning experiment left many educators wondering what learning and instruction would look like when the new school year began. Initially, we shared the same worries as our teacher peers. What would be the safest learning platform? Would we be able to shift our in-person instructional practices to an online format? And, if yes, would students even show up? Would students learn?
Then the school year got underway and within just a few short weeks in the virtual classroom, we educators were seeing positive outcomes from our new models of teaching. We are now halfway through the year and the excellent results continue.
Students are learning. And growing. And succeeding.
Attendance has been consistent. In a pool of 167 students in six content classes, we average about six absences per week. Many days we have 100% attendance. Students are showing up and doing the work.
Families have expressed appreciation for teachers’ work. On the weekend after the first week of school, several parents and students sent emails and messages — even a Starbucks gift card! — thanking their teachers for their efforts to make online learning feasible.
Best of all, students are engaging. This can be the toughest part of online instruction, especially in a foreign-language class. Students often feel apprehensive about their language skills and can be reluctant to participate. Our students struggle with this but they’re finding their way past those barriers.
How? It’s not magic. Here’s what we’re doing.
This is key. We have been relentless about nurturing relationships, from the beginning. For instance, on the first day of school, we surveyed our students about their interests then used those data to ask follow-up questions and connect. We posted uplifting notes on our virtual learning platform, thanking students for their hard work and encouraging them to reward themselves over the weekend by doing something that makes them happy. Establishing relationships early in the semester helped solidify communication between us and students and their families. It’s also gone a long way toward building trust, which will be key to us keeping things on track and successful.
Focusing on routine
We start each day with a mental health check-in — “Cómo estás?” — in Spanish. Sometimes we pose the question to individual students and other times we have the students ask each other, in a round-robin style. This routine meets an interpersonal communication instructional goal and helps students — especially those who feel awkward about their command of the language — relax and settle into the learning.
Letting students do what makes them comfortable
Some students are shy about talking in front of their peers. We let them turn off cameras or use the chat option. Eliminating the “all eyes on them” factors helps alleviate students’ stress. As they become more comfortable, we encourage them to turn cameras back on or speak aloud in class.
Setting a minimum participation requirement
In dialogue circles, every student is required to participate at least once in discussion. We have discovered that students are more proactive about sharing when they can control how and when they speak in class. Not only are students participating more, their use of the target language has increased significantly in comparison to years past.
All of us — teachers, students and families — were apprehensive about what the 2020-2021 school year would bring. Virtual learning has had its challenges, as we knew it would, but it’s also had big wins. Increased attendance, participation and engagement in all classes. Improved student-teacher relationships. Greater appreciation from parents and families. And more students feeling safe taking risks and stepping out of their comfort zones.
We still have half the year to go but we are energized for it. And optimistic about what lies ahead. Perhaps the changes we are experiencing now will help us rethink best practices for teaching and learning and create better, richer educational experiences for future generations.
Victoria Case and Anne Bryant are middle-school teaching colleagues, Spanish educators, and graduate school peers in Kate Cassada’s Leading and Supervising Instruction class in the Educational Leadership program at the University of Richmond. This post is a result of professional reflection on unanticipated wins in COVID-related instruction. All live and work in the Richmond, Virginia, metro region.
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