Notes from a first-time distance learning teacher

When I learned my school would be closing due to the coronavirus pandemic, I became a new teacher all over again. I had to quickly figure out how I would teach from a distance, something I had never done before. 

How would I keep 26 kindergartners connected to each other and engaged in learning? 

I then thought even deeper about my student population. How could I continue to support my students who learn and think differently?  

Right away, I met with my co-teacher to start planning. We decided to use Zoom for reaching our students online. (Zoom is lifting the 40-minute time limit on free Basic accounts for schools affected by COVID-19.) We practiced using Zoom to determine how we could best support our students. After figuring out what we could do online, we drafted a teaching schedule and dove right in. 

It’s only been two weeks, but here are my takeaways from this experience so far. 

1. Continue to communicate with families.

I contacted families any way I could — through email, text, and phone calls. I let them know this was all new for me. I stressed that we were embarking on this new journey together. I found myself frequently saying “I don’t know” and that I would do my best to find out. My students’ families appreciated this honesty. They were grateful that I was going to continue working with my students — even if that meant in a new and different way. 

2. Make a schedule.  

After talking with families to learn more about their home schedules during this new normal, I made a daily schedule for my class. It includes when we meet online as a class, when I am busy attending my school’s team meetings, and when I need time for self-care.

So far, I meet with my whole class online for two hours each school day, with two built-in breaks. I record each online session in case any students have to miss it. During the sessions, I teach the whole class. But I also use parallel teaching and small groups in break-out “rooms” to differentiate instruction. I’m able to do this because my co-teacher and our paraprofessionals are online as well. In these small groups, I provide targeted instruction, just as I did in my physical classroom. 

3. Start with what you had planned. 

The lesson planning for distance learning can seem daunting. How can you teach in different modalities, check for understanding, assess learning, and create an engaging experience for all students? You won’t be able to do it all in every lesson. But you’ll find that a lot of your practices translate to online learning

For example, I knew that my phonics lessons were a favorite for many of my students. I took my existing phonics PowerPoints and turned them into student workbooks that I emailed home. I used pictures, sound boxes, and other visual prompts in the workbooks. The workbooks support students who benefit from visual supports. They help all students to follow along with me as I present online. I can also use the workbooks to check for understanding. 

4. Adapt your best practices.

Just because I’m teaching at a distance doesn’t mean I need to abandon my best practices. For example, I love incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into my daily practice. I still keep the principles of UDL in mind as I plan my online teaching. But I’ve had to think differently about how I provide choice and allow for flexibility in a distance learning environment. 

I also keep my students’ IEP goals in the forefront as I plan. I create my whole group lessons and modify them based on IEP goals and data that I collected during the year. I think of ways I can work with small groups in the online environment. 

For example, this past week I developed a lesson on comprehension. The goal of the lesson was for students to do a retell after a read-aloud. When I wrote the plan, I made sure to identify the small groups that would be in break-out rooms. I planned scaffolded questions that would help students move toward mastery of the objective. This is the same type of planning I would have done while in my physical classroom. The main difference is now the small groups are virtual. 

5. Try something new.

To continue working on social skills, I hosted some virtual show-and-tells. I met with two students at a time. They practiced how to ask and answer questions, a skill that we’ve been working on in language arts. 

After these sessions, I also tried some one-on-one lessons. For example, I used my students’ reading goals to provide individual guided reading lessons. These one-on-one lessons can be challenging to schedule, but they’re worth it. 

One positive aspect of these virtual meetings is that many times, families are nearby in the background. They’re able to see their kids’ strengths and challenges, and what support strategies we used in real-time.   

To be honest, none of this has been easy. As I embark on week three of distance teaching, I don’t feel as scared. I am nowhere near perfect, but I feel more confident in my ability to teach online. I see each day as an opportunity to learn and to get to know my students in a different way.

While this pandemic is not ideal, the positive is that it has brought me, my co-teachers, and my families even closer. That’s what it’s all about — community, love, perseverance, and support. 

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