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The Little Things Teachers Do Every Day Are Actually Big Things: How to Retain Them During Virtual Learning

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As a special education teacher and a mom of two middle-schoolers with dyslexia, I am feeling like the phrase “falling through the cracks” is woefully inadequate when it comes to virtual learning for students with disabilities. Virtual learning presents so many challenges for students and teachers alike.

This year more than ever, I’ve seen how all of the little things that teachers do in the classroom add up to so much. Those include engaging in a brief interaction when a student enters the classroom, redirecting a student’s attention during an activity, or reminding students as they walk out the door to turn in classwork they didn’t finish that day.

Virtual learning demands that students do more with less support. We need to find ways to get back those missing moments that are the key to many students’ success.

Fortunately, there are simple steps teachers can take to set students up for success with virtual learning by trying to recreate those in-person interactions in a remote-learning setting.

  1. Intentional Invitations for Support
    Official office hours are a great opportunity for students to reach out and access support from home. But think about how many students—when given an in-person opportunity to ask questions in class—are too self-conscious to raise their hands. Now consider how intimidating it is to be struggling at home, needing help and having to seek it by signing in to virtual office hours, where many students could be waiting. Especially when students aren’t attending school in person, an opportunity for that one-on-one or small-group support can be essential.

    Instead of putting all the responsibility on the student to show up, we teachers can reach out and invite the student to come to office hours this week. This invitation might be a message typed privately to the student during class, sent through the learning management system (LMS), or a personal invitation if the student is actually in school on some days.
  2. Ask Questions
    During an average day in my classroom, I always asked a million questions of my students. They might include:
        - “Did you turn in your math work? That is the third one you are missing.”   
        - “Where is your first draft from writing, I didn’t see it in your folder?”
        - “Whose paper is this? It doesn’t have a name on it.”

    Now, imagine students who struggle with organization, are easily distracted, and are trying to participate in class and complete assignments at home. They have lost all those little prompts that helped them keep things together in the past.

    Identifying ways to provide students with small reminders and supports in a virtual setting is key. Many teachers open their online classes with the day’s to-do list and reminders. But as students log in, turn cameras on and off, and visually and auditorily try to process everything going on, this may not be enough for those who would have needed an extra reminder even in person.

    It’s helpful to think of ways to provide personal reminders to students who need help staying organized. Again, personal emails or messages can help.

  3. Organization
    In my classroom, we had an organization system for everything. Students could check off steps in an activity as they completed them. They tracked their progress through the writing process on another checklist. I also had some students use a checklist discreetly tucked away in a folder or locker to help them remember what they needed for homework.

    What resources are you providing virtually to help students stay organized? Posting clear due dates and organizing assignments in the LMS so students have an easy way to see what is turned in, due soon, or missing is key for students and the parents supporting them. Providing checklists that break down larger assignments can also help you and your students keep track of progress.

  4. Engagement
    Student engagement has always been at the forefront of quality instruction. My motto is, “The person doing the talking is doing the thinking.” When you consider your virtual instruction, who is doing the talking? Virtual learning pushes teachers harder than we have ever been pushed before to find new ways to get students to play an active role in their own learning.

    Features like breakout rooms, poll questions, and chat responses are embedded in many online meeting platforms. Helpful digital resources are available such as Nearpod, Jam Boards, Go Formative, or Pear Deck. These help students actively engage with content, and many allow teachers to see and respond to students’ work in real time.

  5. Responding
    My daughter once told me that she wished what she said in class mattered as much as what she wrote on assignments. This was a pivotal moment for me as a special education teacher. She explained that, with her disability, she takes the response she is thinking of for a question, simplifies it to words that are easy to spell, and then simplifies it further as she writes her response and encounters unanticipated spelling challenges.

    Now, picture your students going through this process as you ask them to do all their work online. There is much less time to hear a student explain their thinking live, so much more is riding on the written assignments they turn in. How are you finding the balance in allowing your students multiple modalities to show you what they know?

    The upside to virtual learning is that there actually are many ways for students to demonstrate what they know. They can use the cameras that allow them to join virtual class meetings to also create videos and recordings as they explain their thinking about a math problem or read a passage and summarize it. Speech-to-text apps provide an alternative to typing for students who are not proficient typists or communicate better verbally. Given enough wait time, students can even use speech-to-text to craft a response to a question in class, and then cut and paste it into a class meeting chat if needed.

  6. Teachers Are Heroes
    These are trying times to be a teacher. We are being asked to teach the content while managing virtual meetings, converting activities for digital learning, uploading assignments to online platforms, connecting with students, and doing all the paperwork that has always made teaching a challenge.

    These are the big parts of teaching, but the little things teachers do everyday are the glue that keeps everything else together. Try not to let the little things fall through the cracks; they can make or break this year for many of our students.

Posted:  15 December, 2020
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Author: LauraMarie Coleman

LauraMarie Coleman (@Teach2Abilities) taught special and alternative education students in grades K–10 in New York schools for 16 years. She now works for Great Minds, supporting teachers and schools...

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