Remote learning is the new normal, now what?

April 6, 2020 |

By Courtney Dickinson

Seemingly overnight, schools everywhere have transitioned to a remote educational model for the foreseeable future as we enter a period of extended social distancing. For school leaders and families who are trying to adapt to the new normal, I am sharing what we at Acera School are seeing and figuring out – as teachers, administrators, and parents – in this remote learning experiment.

Empowering teachers works: Teachers are devoted and creative. They know their particular students like no curriculum or norms can ever know them. Schools should free teachers to invent a daily agenda, activities and assignments, and an accountability plan. For example, middle school teachers at Acera are asking students to read editorials and write responses, and inviting kids to do a family interview on Storycore. Elementary teachers are launching small video-chat literature book club groups which mirror their in-school differentiated instruction book groups. Acera parents are telling us that having a daily schedule at home reduces students’ anxiety, and that a plan provided by a trusted teacher is making weekdays easier than weekends. Teachers need to be given the green light, today, to use free Gmail and Zoom accounts to get started, and then refine as they go. This is infinitely better than getting mired down in district-wide processes as students and families wait. 

Have a daily call or video chat as a class: Set a standing time when kids can connect with each other and a primary teacher, ideally at the start of every day. Even in homes without a computing device for the child, parents are likely able let their child use their phone for a 15-30 minute morning meeting call. This is vital to feel part of a school community, hear and see their teacher and classmates, and get direction for their day. Here’s how we know this works: At Acera, our youngest group of students is in a classroom without their own chromebooks or laptops, and they are still developing their technical skills. During our first week of distance learning, this group was given a customized book of activities, but did not hold a class meeting at the start of each day. The result? Students felt dysregulated by the loss of schedule; some weren’t even getting out of bed. In week two, after launching morning, literacy group and math video meetings, parents reported a dramatic uptick in their child’s overall wellbeing. The teacher invented ways to make this work.  Even if class meetings do not include a mini lesson, they create a sense of connection and community that is essential at this moment in time in our world.  

Give kids a daily schedule to follow. Kids really do need structure, and they get tired in the afternoons. Following a schedule that echos their school day is a relief for both kids and parents. Having this published to them each day, at the start of the day, gives reference points everyone can fall back on. Kids are at their freshest in the morning, so we are focusing more academic learning in writing, reading and math at that time. We also encourage our students to take breaks for snack and lunch times that mirror when these take place at school, and remind them to go outside or do a dance video before starting afternoon projects. Afternoons are for more creative and hands-on projects that students choose from a list of options which are valuable and suitable for home, like working on an independent project, choosing an activity offered on a “project choice list” sent by their teacher, or reading/listening to a book. Giving choices honors students interests, hence tapping authentic curiosity and focus.  

Offer project-based learning on topics that matter to students: There are many ways to weave creativity, making, and problem solving into home-based activities that build math and science skills. Evidence shows that hands-on learning “sticks” more than “book work.” Right now at Acera, we are refining our remote learning model to launch afternoon electives that will be led by a specific teacher around an interdisciplinary project, with planned learning objectives in science and/or social studies content as well as a plan for growth of students’ thinking capacities. 

Keep student (and parent) wellbeing and mental health at the forefront. Feelings of isolation are real. There are small yet powerful ways kids can stay connected and learn how to have agency over maintaining friendships and connection in spite of extended social distancing. Lunch “chats,”  remote Dungeons & Dragons clubs, and an online classroom board where students can comment on each others’ projects are all ways kids can stay engaged in the world beyond their homes, while learning at the same time. At Acera, one teacher has created a series of daily “connection challenges” that she sends via video link to her students as a way to help them take action to avoid feelings of isolation.  Parents benefit from guidance as the “coaches” of their child’s remote education. We have provided a guide to parents on bringing a “growth mindset” into their home, using inquiry learning tactics to facilitate students’ initiative and creativity, and coping with challenging behaviors.  

We know that school should be in person, but we need to be at home amid this public health crisis. Kids can’t just wait for the world, though. The risks of anxiety and depression are real. Enabling kids to stay connected to their school communities is doable, and schools can just say “yes” to teachers to let them start and try and test and improve ways to reach and engage their students. Let’s start, fail, iterate, and try again. Let’s push to innovate and free our teachers, specialists and counselors to do their best to navigate, connect, invent and reach their students.  

Courtney Dickinson is founder and director of Acera: The Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership. Acera’s free downloadable remote learning lessons for K-12 schools can be found online at www.aceraschool.org/remote-learning.