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Keeping the Good Stuff - Strategies for Translating Virtual Instruction into Buildings

Vaccines might still be as rare as a ticket to Hamilton, but they are in sight, putting a larger return to in-person learning on the horizon. Looking back on our virtual learning time, what do we want to hold onto? For the past several months, teachers all over the country have had widely disparate experiences when it comes to the spaces in which we teach. Some of us have been working remotely the entire time, while others have taught in hybrid models or in rarer cases, fully in-person. No matter what our experiences, the importance of skillfully integrating new techniques into instruction has become an increasingly higher priority. Evidence of strong virtual instruction might be the gold standard right now, but what place do some of our newer practices hold in the world once we’re all back in school buildings? The truth is, many of the skills that we’ve been honing at a distance over the past 10 months translate perfectly into in-person instruction. Here are a few that we might want to keep in our arsenals as we face students in physical spaces.

Putting Relationships First

Getting to know kids has always been an integral part of being a successful teacher, but having to acquaint ourselves with classes from far away has made building relationships an even greater art form. More than ever before, we realize that if our students know we care about them, they are more likely to work with us, whether that translates to turning on cameras or turning on their attention. In the past, we may have defined engagement by who seemed to be listening to us, but that needs to change. Student engagement might not be visible for students who process internally rather than verbally, and we can adjust how we define who is invested in our classes. For example, instead of constantly rewarding the more verbal students in class with extra attention and even more whole-group discussion, vary processing methods on a continuous basis. Students should have a chance to share their ideas in a variety of ways, such as writing down what they have learned in brief snippets, talking to a partner, or demonstrating a concept through a creative activity. Instead of discussing an article, students might jot down their ideas and post them on a board (real or electronic) and then react to one another. If we want to talk about a math problem, students could put their answers up on the wall and look at what they see to analyze how others approached the task. In other words, maintaining strong relationships with students relies on providing all students with equal opportunity to express their own engagement in a way that makes sense to them.

Creativity and Ingenuity           

A few weeks ago, I watched a teacher in a virtual class do a vocabulary lesson. Each time a word came on screen, students had to pick an object from their home, hold it up, and use it in a sentence that incorporated the word. In such an environment, it was hard for students not to engage. From a teaching standpoint, when our brains are faced with new challenges, effective teachers rise to the occasion by finding ways to pivot. Sometimes, overly prescriptive curricula can feel like a significant barrier to creativity, but we can make more decisions about how to present content than we let ourselves believe. While we may have to do a specific problem set or reading comprehension snippet on a given day, choosing how to approach a task is in our wheelhouse. Making learning inductive is part of that creative process. If our goal is to see whether a student can spell a weekly list of words, we can go off the beaten path a little by letting them have some fun and giving them a menu of activities to try, such as writing the words in rainbow colors or jumping up and down while they spell them. If we challenge ourselves consistently to approach content in different ways, our students are more likely to respond with enthusiasm.

Quick Formative Assessment           

Kahoot, Desmos, Nearpod, Peardeck, Flipgrid, do we count the ways that we’ve learned to check in with students in such a short period of time? Whether we use the results for information about what students learned, for ideas about how to create small groups, for correcting confusion or for providing helpful feedback, we can continue to use these handy technological tools to provide quick, engaging formative assessments. The key to being effective with these tools is to make sure that we follow up with what we learn about students from the results, and not just to present them as games or activities. For example, if we conduct an online poll to ask a question about a concept, we need to analyze the answers and think about the implications for our next steps with instruction. Otherwise, we are just killing time with a cute activity rather than assessing what students know and are able to do.

Flexibility and Adaptability           

If we happen to have gotten too comfortable with what we were teaching before things got real last March, all of that disappeared when we had to change how we operated, and quickly. Can we be as open to challenging the status quo when we are not in the midst of a national crisis? For example, if students are assigned a personal reflection on an assignment in writing and one of them asks to record her reflection on audio, will we be able to consider that with the same openness we did when everyone beamed in virtually? Most teachers acknowledge that they have been more willing to accept work in different formats over the past year, and it is worth considering whether that is an approach to maintain. Sometimes we ask for work in specific ways for a particular academic reason, but if our standards can be met in other ways, perhaps it is time to consider being more responsive to student requests for the benefit of their own learning styles.           

Even though a lot of what we’ve done since last March was a reactive response to sudden change, we should hold onto more than we think. Our jobs do not get easier, but we get better at doing them. That constant challenge is part of the pull for those of us who have chosen education as our work, and embracing what we do (even when it gets messy) is part of who we are. As much as we might want to forget the discomfort of teaching outside a physical classroom, keeping a firm grasp on what we’ve learned during this time will guide us forward as we navigate a return to more traditional instruction.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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