Reflecting on spring: 5 lessons learned to maximize K–3 fall instruction

How fitting that our last day of in-person learning was Friday the 13th. I’m the vice principal at St. Barnabas Elementary School in the Bronx. That day in March I was refilling hand sanitizer when our week-long closure was announced. Like many of us, we scrambled, tossing teacher’s editions into bags and packing as many manipulatives as we could carry, all while lugging chart paper over our shoulders just in case. We didn’t know what was needed, so it all seemed logical to take.

As teachers do, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Learning was going to continue. The comfort of the four walls of our classrooms transitioned to a virtual background boasting our school logo. We were excited and ready for Day 1 of virtual instruction. What is it they say about the best-laid plans?

Awry is an understatement of how things went. Our first day and week were a struggle and shattered our confidence as educators. We thought we knew what to do. But we really had no idea what we didn’t know. Plans A and B were scrapped seemingly overnight to make room for what would become Plans C through Z. Our instructional design had to be a living document in order to effectively support and meet the needs of our students, their families, and ourselves.

The idea of “can” versus “can’t” popped up casually in a faculty meeting early into our stay-at-home order, which spiraled—in the best sense of the word—into a growth-mindset mantra present in every conversation thereafter. We do our best to approach every new challenge by saying, “I want to/I usually do [blank]. How can we make that happen virtually?” versus “I can’t do that because we’re virtual.” It took a little stumbling to learn to pause, step back, and affirm, “Wait. We are teachers. We know how to teach.” With this new habit we were able to reimagine the possibilities rather than reinvent our every day. We started with what we knew, then adapted to the virtual space.

Our first day and week [online] were a struggle and shattered our confidence as educators. […] The idea of ‘can’ versus ‘can’t’ popped up casually in a faculty meeting [and] spiraled […] into a growth-mindset mantra present in every conversation thereafter.

We’re all moving into fall instruction bracing for even more unknowns yet prepared with the experience we’ve gained along the way. Here are five lessons we learned about teaching early learners this spring that will guide our new school year. We hope they will help you face whatever comes next, too.

1. Lean into your usual management techniques

A new space presents challenges, but management doesn’t have to be one of them! Before school closures, if you were on a field trip, at school assembly, or walking back from recess with your class, chances are you would have used the same techniques as when your students were sitting in their spots in the classroom. Why? Because students were familiar with them and sure to quickly respond.

When shifting to a virtual environment, stick with what you know! Your go-to phrases (like “Eyes on me in 5-4-3-2-1”) and lingo (like “Hands on top. That means stop.”) are part of you. These will translate well because you will use them with innate confidence. The consistency in language will allow your new group of students to quickly adapt and acclimate to your online classroom, making your eventual return to in-person learning as smooth as possible. Bonus if there are school-wide routines and procedures you can use. These are embedded in the community and easily recognized by parents and students alike.

As you prepare, take a moment and try to be realistic about what can and should carry over from the physical classroom to your virtual space. If students were in front of you right now, what can you hear yourself saying without hesitation, on autopilot? Say those things in your online classroom. Also acknowledge that some pieces of in-person management may not carry over as well. For example, this may be the year to keep the color chart in storage, or save the elaborate hand-clap call and response for a later date.

Tip: Use positive narration. Positive narration is a three-piece cycle that sets students up for success while calling attention to positive behaviors. Here’s how to do it: State your direction. Identify two students who did the task right away. Identify one student who needs to complete the task. For example: “Take out your pencil. John has his pencil out. Destiny has her pencil out. Sam, take out your pencil.”

2. Schedule online and offline tasks

Instructional time is sacred. Every minute your students are with you pushes them one step closer to their goals. For those of us used to the four walls of a classroom, the remote space creates some hiccups in the usual flow of our day, and we find ourselves frustrated with how to make the most of our teacher-student time together. Adapt and adjust rather than reinvent! Your classroom has a balance of independent and collaborative work, so your virtual space will, too.

Take the lesson components and structure you’ve already mapped out, and be deliberate about when they can or should be completed. Decide when it’s critical for you to be with students and which items students can complete on their own. Where will your presence and guidance have the largest impact on student understanding? A good rule of thumb: if you could say, “Finish this for homework” as the bell rings, it’s an offline task.

For those used to an “I do, we do, you do” structure, your online, live instruction will likely live in the “I do, we do” realm. You will introduce a new topic, engage in a classroom discussion, and have a back-and-forth review together. This online interaction is necessary for student learning and will lead to independent work that will be tackled offline. Completing practice problems, taking a quiz or test, or writing a journal entry can all be done later without you.

Your classroom has a balance of independent and collaborative work, so your virtual space will, too. […] Decide when it’s critical for you to be with students and which items students can complete on their own.

Tip: Try the 70/30 technique. This means 70% of work is for student focus and 30% is for teacher focus. Students do 70% of the lifting, activities, and work. You’re there as a facilitator and always-present guide, and you’re hands on 30% of the time.

3. Keep it moving

Raise your hand if you love when a PowerPoint presentation is read to you word for word. No takers? Your students are the same! It’s tricky to stare at a screen for an extended period, especially for younger learners and particularly when the teacher is droning on. To maximize student engagement, keep your lesson in motion with frequent transitions.

When looking at your plan for each piece of your day, think to yourself, “How long would this typically take in my classroom?” Then cut that number of minutes in half. Take your 10-minute read aloud and make it five minutes. Use your online time to check for understanding often and ask questions, instead. Then move to the next piece of your work for the day.

Rather than competing with the distractions around your students at home, become the most interesting thing in the room. How might you make this happen? Keep in mind that everything you’ve ever tossed up on the SMART Board can be shown through the screen-sharing feature on your video software. Try to supplement a lecture with a short video clip. Or open a class discussion or debate to hear more voices, while also giving yours a rest. The smiles, wide eyes, and oohs and ahs will make it all worth it!

Tip: Set a timer. Hold yourself and your students accountable by stating, “We’ll do this activity for X minutes,” and set the timer. Once the timer rings, move on to the next thing. Everyone will be anxious and excited to move forward. They may also engage more quickly knowing their time is limited.

4. Make use of the space

Learning in the classroom isn’t all sitting, so why should virtual leave you stuck in one spot? Moving around can help stimulate blood flow, motor development, and oxygen flow, among other things. This can impact a student’s cognition and positively impact classroom performance. (It can give you a jolt of energy, too.) Honestly, a little movement also makes learning more interesting and exciting.

Yes, most virtual classroom spaces require a camera and being seen on video. But you can still stand up from your chair and take a step back. Try even two steps back. Your students can still see you on screen! This opens a world of possibility for you to stand up, move around, dance, whatever works for you and your kids. Continue with your usual brain breaks, practice skip counting as you hop around, have your celebratory dance party when someone reaches a new reading level… The sky’s the limit. Well, possibly.

If you take the plunge, prep your students (and their families) in advance. Some questions to consider:

  • How much space is necessary horizontally? Vertically?
  • What sorts of directions might be necessary to ensure safe and happy participation?
  • Does the space need to be completely clear of distractions?

Tip: Play charades. Keep your students on their toes, literally and figuratively, as they play a game of charades to demonstrate understanding. Your next vocabulary review, history reenactment, or reading lesson won’t ever be the same!

5. Communicate

You are the teacher and lead learner of your classroom. By default, you’re also now leading a much larger team of “at-home teachers,” aka, your students’ family members. To best support all of those taking charge of learning—from the dining room table to the basement to the couch—communicate what needs to happen to be successful. When in doubt, share it out!

Let your students, their families, and your school leaders know what is happening in your classroom and your plan of action for learning. We’re all used to setting expectations during the first days of school, and the same applies now. Be upfront about expectations in the virtual world, your schedule, and the plan for online versus offline work. If you ever ask yourself, “Would they want to know this?” the answer is always, “Yes!”

[V]irtual instruction will become second nature. You will surprise yourself and grow as an educator.

Start with your usual channels for communication. If an email distribution list is your preferred style, go for it. Reminder messages, Google Classroom, and Zoom meetings work nicely as well! What if every method of communication isn’t working but you really need to connect? Pick up the phone!

It’s okay to be painfully specific and overly detailed in your instructions. Step-by-step guides and visuals are a welcome complement for those new to or needing a refresher with e-learning platforms. If no one knows what to do, when it is due, or how to do it, it won’t get done.

Tip: Share a weekly calendar of events. Publish activities, due dates, and reminders all in one spot. This can be easily referenced and helps keep the week on track. Yours included! There are some handy free calendar options online.

Ready or not, here they come!

Did every single minute of every single class you taught before COVID-19 go perfectly? Absolutely not. Acknowledge and accept that remote learning will also have its share of unexpected surprises. You’ve prepped, planned, and stressed to ensure everything gets executed with ease this fall. Let yourself enjoy the successes now. Yes, even in uncharted waters, there will be victories. These moments will begin to collect and virtual instruction will become second nature. You will surprise yourself and grow as an educator.

Every single student on your screen is looking to you for support, guidance, and instruction. They’re showing up for you and looking for you to show up for them. Take a breath. Remember your reason for pushing forward each and every day. Be gentle and kind to yourself. Know that you’re much stronger than you think you are—and you’ll only get stronger. We’re all rooting for you!

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