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Distance learning while respecting students' home lives 

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As a high school math teacher, my mantra has always been that my students need to respect and value the time that they spend in my classroom. In return, I do the same for the time they spend at home. 

For many of my students who work outside jobs to help support their families or live in crowded homes, school is a welcome escape and a place where they can focus. Accordingly, I have maximized our use of class time and minimized the amount of work they needed to do at home.

The forced distance learning due to the COVID-19 school closures has redefined the line between home and school. In the near term, and possibly into next school year, school work must take place at home. It’s our job as educators to figure out the best way to both reach and teach our students while continuing to respect their personal home lives. 

Here are some strategies I’m using -- or plan to use -- to adapt to this new teaching and learning environment.

Flexibility

Conversations with my students over the past few weeks has given me a much better understanding of their challenges outside of school. Many of my students have to supervise their younger siblings during the day because their parents are first responders. Some students can’t start their school work until the evenings when it’s their turn to use the laptop. I have adjusted my instruction to make it readily available to them asynchronously, so they can access it when it works for them.

Distance learning drills

Previously, my colleagues and I felt that Chromebooks were a distraction for students and that it was difficult to monitor whether they were using them responsibly. Fast forward to now and Chromebooks have become an indispensable learning tool. 

I plan to conduct “distance-learning drills” in the fall. Even when we’re all gathered in the classroom once again, these drills will help train us to maximize our digital learning environment. I will design them so students get practice using the technology tools and learn various ways to self-advocate.

Diversifying tools

Soon after we pivoted to online learning, I tried unsuccessfully to teach my students using a basic video conferencing tool. Then I remembered Numerade, a free tool I had come across a few months earlier, that features a library of step-by-step video solutions to problem sets in commonly used STEM textbooks. When I dug into it further, I discovered it also offers a free “Office Hours” feature that lets me create, share and store instructional videos and link to additional resources and materials.

I have since incorporated this tool with Google Classroom. Each day, I post a slide clarifying the focus of the day’s lesson plan, a link to confirm attendance, a link to my online course videos on Numerade, plus a partial answer key to help students self-assess their work.

Assessment and reflection

Distance learning can lead to communication breakdowns. Conduct a systematic review of what’s working and what isn’t. I have applied the “Plan, Do, Study, Act” improvement cycle to my practice. This approach helps me see what’s currently in place and where there are breakdowns. I can then formulate a new routine that will fix the issues.

Focus on engagement 

Even though we’re recording high rates of attendance, my colleagues and I recently discussed the fact that attendance is not necessarily the same as participation. One teacher introduced us to a video game option we could use on Desmos, a math tool we use to extend student learning and as a way to invite students to engage in the lesson more readily. 

Inspired by this example, I plan to start offering students various “hooks” to pique their interest and give them a reason to not just attend class, but also to participate more fully. Likewise, I will continue offering options to students in terms of how they can practice and solidify new skills. By giving them choice just as I would in class, I hope to continue to narrow the engagement gap.

As a reflective practitioner, this experience of distance learning has me refining my practice in my sleep. The struggle to support my students’ acquisition of new math knowledge while respecting their home lives is real when their homes are also their schools. It is my hope that, in collaboration with my local and extended educational communities, I will be able to apply lessons learned from this new experience and develop structures and routines that will provide inviting and meaningful digital-based learning opportunities for all my students.

Monique Rousselle Maynard teaches math at West Warwick High School in Rhode Island including honors pre-Calculus, Geometry, and several sections of ninth grade Algebra 1. Monique has engaged with Improvement Science and rapid cycles of PDSA with the Better Math Teaching Network since 2017. She uses Numerade in her teaching strategy. Connect with Monique on Twitter @MoniqueRM86.

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