by Greg Cunningham
How teachers and students are making the virtual classroom work
“It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.”
With this soothing mantra we began the first ever season of the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League during which all tournaments would be held online with students performing from home using video cameras. We quickly found that each tournament takes much more preparation than in-person tournaments, and nothing about them is easy. But something is preferable to nothing; and when students, coaches and league administrators work together, we know that even if the tournaments are not perfect, they provide an outlet for students to improve their public speaking skills and to craft and share their messages.
The same mantra applies to online learning platforms in use this academic year in our high schools. Online classes are not perfect, but they provide opportunities for students to learn, gain important skills on which to build, and demonstrate mastery as it is achieved.
No education platform is perfect, and no platform reaches all students 100% of the time. But it is important to note that for many high school students and teachers, online education is working and may even be providing unique opportunities for students to learn and share ideas.
Rachel Silva teaches English at Durfee High School in Fall River. In a JFYNet podcast Ms. Silva noted that her students using Google Classroom “… don’t have to respond to me as they would face to face. They’re so used to texting. I have been having some really great conversations with them through Google Classroom, even just leaving messages back and forth to each other.”
Research has shown that students, whether in a classroom or learning from home, need personal interaction with a teacher to help them succeed. This essential element is critical when school is in session for in-person learning at Kingsman Academy in Washington, D.C. Every day, students spend some time meeting with teachers in small groups to discuss issues that may not be academic in nature but have an impact on their ability to control their own access to their education. This connection with a teacher every day has been essential to student success and has continued during online sessions while the school works remotely. Kingsman has documented that students who have access to these personal sessions are more likely to attend online classes as well.
Having a teacher to connect with is only part of the success equation. What and how they learn is key to building skills, and motivating students to complete lessons can be a challenge. Rosaline Ngole, a Special Education teacher at Kingsman, uses multiple methods to reach students. “I use a variety of instructional strategies,” she explains. “For example, during whole group learning, students read in turns highlighting important and relevant information in the text. I ask questions to find out if they understand what they are reading. They explain the passage in their own words. Next, I explain what each paragraph is talking about and use culturally relevant examples to reinforce understanding of themes, messages, and concepts. Additionally, I use a process of elimination when answering reading comprehension questions.”
Modeling reading passages is one proven method to help students comprehend information but holding students accountable for assigned work is also essential to Ms. Ngole. “They navigate to [JFYNet software] to work independently. I often ask every couple of minutes if any students need help or want to share their screens. While they’re working, I log in to double check if they are actually doing the work. If not, I call them out.” Just as in the classroom, Ms. Ngole stays on top of her students to ensure that they are on task.
Group communication is often not enough for her students, so Ms. Ngole has one-on-one time scheduled each day so she can give students the support they need. Communication with parents to provide updates on students’ performance also helps keep students motived. Some students at Kingsman Academy are completing 15 to 20 math tasks per week, well above average among other schools. The strategies used by Kingsman’s teachers to monitor and motivate their students are clearly having a strong impact, keeping most students on track and allowing some to find more success online than they had achieved previously in the classroom.
Overall, students at Kingsman are averaging over 5 hours of instructional time each week. Some students, working independently, accumulate 12 or more hours each week of instructional time. This is not just time sitting in front of the computer, but time spent fully engaged in academic activities using JFYNet software. And this JFYNet math class is only one of their classes.
Back at East Boston High School, English teacher Carolyn Norton is also finding a high level of success among her students. “I have kids monitor their Lexile growth from September onward,” she explains. “I stress not going up and down the mountain and have a visual for this. They know they need to get 75% or higher each time. And I give them bonus points for Lexile growth which I add to their term grades.” (Lexile scores measure reading skills.)
Setting specific goals so that students are aware of the teacher’s expectations is essential. Even students at the highest skill levels will often complete only as much work as they are required to. Teachers need to remember not only to hold their students accountable for assignments, but first to ensure that students are fully aware of what is expected. Open communication between teachers, students and parents is essential for student success in the best of times. When teachers and students are working online in remote or hybrid models, regular communication becomes even more important.
Teachers are incredibly resourceful, but they need help from support staff, administrators, parents and others in order to assure student success. Ms. Norton credits JFY Learning Specialist Cathie Maglio for her coordination efforts and relentless support. Cathie provides “round the clock assistance” to Ms. Norton and helps her students stay on task and progress steadily toward achieving grade skill levels.
Even though many students are finding success online, both teachers and students miss the daily social buzz of the school building. As Ms. Silva notes, “I found it really interesting to read a whole bunch of students admitting, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss school.’ They just miss the interaction with people. Thankfully, the technology is helping keep that communication going. If we didn’t have that it would be a lot worse for both students and teachers.”
Online education is not perfect. But as many teachers and students have attested, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.
Greg Cunningham is a Learning Specialist for JFYNet and the President of the Massachusetts Speech and Debate League.
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