I’ve been reflecting on the events of the past few weeks, a still-fresh alternate reality in which I’d wake up in the morning with one plan and have it changed 16 times by the time I went to bed. Nothing was certain. Everything was up for debate. Facts were fleeting, and common sense was desperately trying to keep up with action.
And then: After weeks of thinking it couldn’t possibly actually happen, we had to make a mad dash to adapt our entire instructional approach to remote learning. It got real. Fast.
Looking back, I recognize that there was a distinct difference in how teachers felt about this. For teachers of older students—intermediate, middle, and high school—there was a sort of shifting of priorities and then a “Well, let’s do this” sort of movement. Everyone got to work. Older students had an existing Learning Management System (LMS) in place, so their teachers simply beefed up their folders and enhanced student access to resources. Intermediate students were invited to Google Classroom, and teachers did a superb job crash-coursing themselves into an LMS that worked for them. Voila. Up and running.
Ah, but. Not so easy for teachers of the five-year-olds. Teachers in primary grades struggled. So much of their work is done eyeball-to-eyeball, person-to-person, face-to-face. Talking and questioning. Discussion. Listening and reacting. Voice and cadence. Dancing and moving. Spending half a day talking about a text and what it really means. Modeling, managing, and solving friendship issues. Working on teamwork and kindness and patience—oh my goodness, the patience.
In most primary classrooms, instruction and direction simply can’t be given in written form, for many reasons—our youngest learners are still trying to identify letters and patterns, and are sometimes years away from reading written directions in a 12-point font. There are also complications of English language learners, developmentally delayed learners, differentiation, intervention needs, and enrichment needs. In one class, a student might be reading chapter books while across the table another student is taking an hour to get a sentence down on paper and another hour to explain what it says. Teachers can manage these differences beautifully in person, in the classroom, but the whole system falls apart when we’re all doing this from our living room.
But guess what? Turns out it can be done. I’ve seen it. There are countless examples of ways primary teachers are reaching out to their students and leaping across barriers of age, language, ability, and engagement. Here are a few of the strategies they’ve used to make it happen.
I remember when creating, editing, and sending a video to someone else took a Herculean effort on my part—multiple days, complicated equipment, technology knowledge, and, many times, an outside person to show me how to even get started. Not so anymore. I can do it in mere minutes now. And so can teachers. Anyone can! Really! Our youngest students, home and missing the structure of school, can be active participants as their teachers do what teachers do best—throw out a hook, engage the student, ask questions, encourage independent thinking, and let them loose to do some problem solving.
Yesterday I watched a teacher’s self-movie as she was taking an early morning walk in the rain. She filmed herself navigating a disgusting, worm-laden path. “Worms! Worms! Everywhere worms!” she squealed to the camera. “Can you believe how many worms I’m seeing? Remember the book we read last month? About worms and how they care for the earth? Go outside, kids, and see if you can find some worms! Think about what the worms do for us and how they make our earth better.”
Another teacher sent a video of a gushing, pounding waterfall born out of a night’s monstrous rainstorm. “Look at this, guys,” she said to the camera. “My goodness! How did this happen? Did you hear the thunderstorm last night? How is this waterfall connected with last night’s storm? Think about that and let’s talk more about it later!”
In the early days of planning remote learning, primary teachers asked me, multiple times, for guidelines. “What is expected of us?” “What should we be doing?” “How do we know if we’re doing this right?” I gave them all the same simple answer: “Just connect with your students.”
“Yep. That’s the expectation,” I responded. I knew they’d take it from there, and they did. They did it thoughtfully, varying their approaches to match different students’ needs. They called, they wrote, they sent video, they established dialogue. They made sure their students knew they were there, thinking about them and considering ways to challenge them with new ideas and concepts. As explained above, video was a huge component of making connections. Once teachers got over the cringing that comes with sticking a camera in one’s own face, highlighting wrinkles and sun spots, they let their personalities explode.
They giggled, they teased, they squinted and provided dramatic pauses. Their expressions were just as real and relatable as in person—or, at least, close. It was delightful, and it was real. Their dogs walked across the screen, and their cats napped on the windowsills. Their children squealed in the background, and spouses wandered about. There were unwashed coffee cups and disheveled hair and true, inviting, genuine smiles. Kids adored it.
“How can I possibly meet the needs of all my students when I’m sitting at the kitchen table?” teachers moaned. I responded to this with a question of my own. Over and over, I asked teachers, “What do you know about your students?” Well, that’s easy, they said. They knew a lot, they said. They knew which students had a parent at home to help and which students would be lucky to get a decent meal. They knew who had a learning device at home and who didn’t. They knew which students could easily read and understand written directions and which students would need auditory support. They knew which students were working on holding a pencil and which students could color an entire intricate kaleidoscope. They knew their students.
“If you know these things, you know how to differentiate,” I told them. “Remote learning isn’t standardized. It’s as dynamic and tricky and challenging as classroom learning, and requires you to start at the beginning with what you know about each learner.”
Years ago, I did dialogue calendars with my students. They wrote something to me each day, and I responded as quickly as I could keep up. Sometimes it was just a sentence or two, sometimes it was more. Both my students and I loved the back-and-forth conversation, but there was a hitch—time. I literally couldn’t write as fast as I needed for it to be efficient and worthwhile. Typing, though, allows teachers to respond more quickly. Using whatever technology format works for students, teachers can dialogue with them using the written word, and it can go on for a long time. Each time a very young student writes to his teacher, even if it’s a word or two, that student is expanding his confidence and capabilities with written expression. Some teachers are doing this by text, some by email, some with photographs of a student’s work sent by the parent to the teacher.
I’ve come to believe that remote learning can be effective for primary students if we use these strategies and, of course, if we abandon any attempt at standardization and rote learning. We might need to intensify our connections to our students and their parents, and we might need to make ourselves vulnerable behind a camera.