By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Nothing is going according to plan.
Across the world, the swift transition from in-person to online education as a result of COVID-19 has created anxiety, uncertainty, grief, and a host of complex challenges for educators. Whether the transition caught us by surprise or we saw it coming, we have all faced unexpected obstacles in the wake of this crisis. But if we can begin to see some of our professional obstacles as opportunities, we can begin to forge new pathways that will carry us forward, even when the current crisis is behind us.
Designing curriculum is hard enough, but designing a remote learning curriculum in the middle of a global pandemic is completely overwhelming. Curriculum design is often customized to the features of a time-bound, classroom-based experience, to which at-home learning bears little resemblance. Can we translate the qualities of in-person learning to diverse groups of students who will have different entry points to learning and varying levels of access? Can we provide rigorous instruction to students when exams are canceled? Can we continue with the curricular units we had planned at the beginning of the school year, even if they aren’t aligned with at-home learning?
Within each of these curriculum challenges is an opportunity that can be unlocked with one word — how. Rather than “can we...", let’s try “how can we...in high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech ways?”
By asking how, we can focus not on obstacles, but action steps. This shift in our thinking can act as a catalyst to reexamining our goals, methods, and design for learning. In this moment, we have the opportunity to reimagine our curriculum for maximum engagement, intellectual curiosity, and cultural relevance. In-person learning is constrained by quantities of time: attendance, punctuality, and class periods, to name a few. Because at-home learning doesn’t exist within the same parameters, it presents an opportunity for educators to design curriculum that will engage students in learning at their own pace.
At the same time, at-home learning lacks the immediate presence of a classroom teacher who can answer questions at a moment’s notice, or a classmate to consult. As a result, at-home curriculum must be more explicit than its in-person counterpart. In person, a teacher may typically make oral announcements, or take loose notes on the board. To engage students in an intellectually rigorous at-home learning experience, teachers will likely need to be more detailed, more explicit, and provide more models, examples, and visuals in order for students to deepen their understanding.
As teachers articulate the nuances of content for an at-home learning experience, we have a new opportunity to develop robust materials and resources that will serve students’ needs, even when in-person learning resumes. For teachers, this type of deep reflection and planning is a unique professional learning experience that deepens our own understanding of our content and methodology.
For at-home learning, teachers may want to consider structuring weeklong assignments in the form of mini-projects or inquiry investigations that will allow students to vary the time spent on them each day. Some may want to break up their learning into daily chunks, while others will be able to dive deeply into the experience for a longer period of time. The ultimate goal is not the precise number of minutes students spend on the activity, but rather how they are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills related to the objectives. It doesn’t matter if they complete the task in 5-minute or 45-minute increments, or across 3-4 hours in one sitting — what matters is what they learn.
Connecting to students
In-person teaching is dependent upon a teacher’s presentation skills, and their rapport with students. At-home learning requires a completely different approach, as teachers are not physically with their students. This can be very disorienting for teachers who find their energy and satisfaction from being around kids and seeing their students’ eyes light up during an a-ha! moment. Being separated from their students can leave teachers feeling isolated, disconnected, and wondering if anything they’re doing is working.
Distance learning requires us to consider all of the ways in which we can deliver content without being in the same room at the same time. Our first task is to acknowledge that our go-to model of instruction may not be possible at this time. But while distance learning is different, it doesn’t need to diminish the teaching or the learning experience. We want to start by asking questions: How do we design an opening activity to draw students into their learning? How do we deliver our mini-lesson on a new topic or concept? How do we provide students with meaningful tasks and provide feedback in a timely manner?
One option includes synchronous video calls, where students log on at a specific time and engage with their class virtually. The benefits here are that teachers can present their lesson, engage students in peer-to-peer discussions, and answer questions in real time. However, this approach assumes all students have access to technology, and are able to engage at the same time without interruption. This isn’t always the case — and when students can’t engage online, it creates major concerns around equity and access. It’s for this reason that many educators see asynchronous learning as a promising practice. Using simple technology to create instructional videos, screencast presentations, or even audio recordings, teachers can present their lesson one time and distribute it 100+ times to their students in low- and no-tech ways.
One of the benefits of recorded lessons (even when we aren’t teaching through a pandemic) is that students can re-watch the lesson as many times as needed in order to understand the information. This is a critical support for students who have learning disabilities, or are learning English as a second language. Being able to pause, go back, and re-watch the lesson can bolster students’ confidence, increase their comprehension, and clarify their questions. After the lesson is designed and delivered, teachers can shift their focus from delivering instruction to providing personal support, feedback, and task modifications for students at all levels. This might look like holding office hours, offering weekly check-ins with students, email correspondence, or phone calls with students or caregivers who don’t have access to technology. Using these strategies, distance learning can be expertly differentiated, highly personalized, and deeply relational.
In a time that feels topsy turvy, we have to be honest: nothing is going according to plan. This fact is scary, disappointing, and de-centering, and can produce a considerable amount of anxiety. Whether we’re novice teachers or veterans, school leaders or policymakers, we are educating in a time that requires us to find new opportunities for offering meaningful, relevant, and academically engaging learning experiences to our students. Being open to these opportunities will serve us well, even when we’ve safely returned to our classrooms.