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If It’s Magic… Promising online strategies for the virtual academy

If It's Magic... Promising online strategies for the virtual academy

by Eileen Wedegartner

Effective online engagement practices

Since the shutdown in March, much of the discussion around remote learning has been a narrative of failure. I have been supporting teachers who are engaged in remote instruction, and I have observed a different story. I have seen the transition from in-class to remote not as a desperate failed experiment. What I have seen and participated in is an ongoing transformative adaptation that has required teachers and students to gain new skills and adapt old skills to a new model.

Not everything that teachers tried worked. It was the proverbial baptism by fire. But teachers are remarkably good at dodging flames, from the first day in their own classrooms. Nothing prepares a person for this trial by conflagration. There are failures in lesson-planning, flaws in delivery of content, lapses of classroom management. Reflective teachers take note of these painful events and file them away as practices to avoid. Failure is a good teacher. But no one would stay in the classroom if they only focused on failures. Savvy teachers log what works and stash those little gems in the bag of magic tricks that every veteran teacher keeps close by.

Those little tricks add up. As the bag gets heavier, its owner develops into a classroom magus who maneuvers through challenges tiny and epic, skirting small and large eruptions with the nimbleness of a gymnast or a dancer. An eyewitness account of the events of this spring reveals some practices best consigned to the dustbin, but also discovers promising practices that can enrich teaching and learning in the future.

As I ponder the question “What worked?” one particular teacher comes to mind. Here are some of her strategies:

    1. She met online with her group of students at a fixed time four times each week. It was consistent. It’s a simple idea, but consistency helps students keep to a routine.
    2. She always took the first few minutes to do a check-in. “How are you?” “What’s going on?” She engaged with her students about their lives, not just their schoolwork.
    3. She contacted students if they were not “in class.” She contacted overwhelmed parents to see if they were OK and asked how she could help them manage their children’s attendance in class.
    4. She was liberal with her praise of student efforts, but restrained and targeted in her redirection of unconstructive behavior.
    5. She helped them make gains. Their gains were measurable, so they received timely feedback on their progress toward the learning goals.
    6. If a specific student needed extra support, she carved out 20 minutes a week to work individually with that student.
    7. She specifically allocated time to prepare students for transition by introducing them to the special education liaison they would have in the fall and giving them time to ask questions.
    8. She checked in with parents in midsummer to field any questions about the upcoming fall semester and provided resources for those interested.

If it’s magic, this is the kind that never fails. Its secret practices are thought and reflection and a strong knowledge of what makes teaching and learning work. The students in this teacher’s class knew they would be held responsible for being in class. They knew she would praise their efforts and applaud their growth. They felt valued—the key to every heart (cf Stevie Wonder).

Effective online practices are not alien to face-to-face teaching and learning. At the beginning of the remote experience, there were certainly challenges. Teachers, parents and students had to work together to decide where to put the “meeting link” and to grapple with other technical issues. They will continue to tweak the process to make it smoother.

Students under the command of my featured teacher will continue to make gains both academically and emotionally. Perhaps her most important lesson of the shutdown was that great teaching transcends the physical classroom and lives as vibrantly in the virtual academy.

by Eileen Wedegartner, JFYNet Learning Specialist

Additional posts authored by Eileen Wedegartner can be found here.

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