Getting to 100% student engagement in distance learning

Photo: Mills Teacher ScholarsPhoto: Mills Teacher ScholarsJessie WelcomerJune 22, 2020As we all speculate on what schools will look like in 2020-21, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: distance learning will continue to be at least part of our reality.
This new medium of learning failed to include a large percentage of students in its first few months. How can we change this for next year? What strategies can teachers and leaders employ in order to engage all students in distance learning?
I am a third-grade teacher in a public school near Richmond, CA, where 90% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, nearly half are English learners, and many families are grappling with the health and economic challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past two months I have researched, created and collaborated with colleagues on a winding journey towards my goal of 100% student engagement in distance learning.
As the school year comes to an end, I can now celebrate that all of my 22 students engaged in distance learning daily. Along the way, I have learned many things about what students and families need from me in this uncertain and unusual time.
While recognizing that every community may be experiencing this pandemic differently, I have compiled my learning into some tips that may be helpful to educators seeking to reach all of their students in this time of distance learning.
Partner with students, families and colleagues
Family and teacher communication is foundational to supporting student learning — and more essential than ever in distance learning. I plan to begin the new school year by meeting virtually with each student and their family, listening to their needs and daily routines, collaborating on student learning goals and making a communication plan together.
I have found that some students spend the school day with parents, while others may be in the care of an older sibling, grandparent, or friend. Teachers’ ability to get in touch with each student’s primary caregiver during the school day is critical to building and sustaining student engagement.
Teachers are adapting to this new form of education at a rapid pace, and collaborating with one another benefits all of us. My school has partnered with Mills Teacher Scholars in order to facilitate rich collaboration during both in person and distance learning. Through my conversations with colleagues I have worked through challenges, shared my strategies and learned from the successes of others.
Engaging and social lesson plans
All children need unstructured social time with friends, both for their emotional well-being and to support their engagement in school. Before my daily lesson, I offer open social time for my class on Zoom. This supports their social and emotional needs while simultaneously incentivizing on-time attendance. Using this method, I have 100% attendance most days for my remote lessons.
Over the months, I have experimented with many technologies in order to make my lessons as interactive as possible. Students lose interest in lessons more rapidly when online than in person, so I have found that keeping lessons dynamic with the use of multimedia, screen-sharing and breakout rooms supports engagement and motivation in students.
Students and families send me photos of their art and science projects and I regularly post them on our ClassDojo. This public honoring of their work is both motivating and an expression of care.
Be clear, caring and flexible
Before rolling out new procedures, I created tutorial videos in both Spanish and English to walk families through each component of a typical agenda. I also send weekly updates and reminders to families to keep the communication alive.
In this deeply challenging time for families, flexibility from teachers and schools is not only compassionate, it is essential to making remote learning work. Apart from a one-hour live lesson in the morning, I don’t have a set schedule for students or a time the assignments are due.
I offer time guidelines but leave it up to families when they want their child to be doing the work. I also offer “must do” assignments that consist of our core learning and “may do” assignments for families who want more ideas to engage their students in learning.
I know some students need more hands-on support, and so I offer daily office hours via Zoom as well as small group time after whole-group lessons.
As we head into a new school year, let’s remember to partner with our students, families and colleagues in order to establish a caring classroom community, even if it’s from a distance. I believe that with attention to social and emotional needs and creative planning, we can engage all of our students in successful distance learning.
Jessie Welcomer is a 3rd grade teacher at Montalvin Manor K-8, a Title I public school in San Pablo, California. She and her colleagues partner with Mills Teacher Scholars to support their professional learning and collaboration.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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