Roundtable: What’s Working in Remote Instruction

In this latest ‘School’s Out’ roundtable, a superintendent, parent and two teachers evaluate three months of distance learning — and what went right
Amy Hornbeck, master teacher

NJ Spotlight and NJTV News last week co-hosted the fourth of their “School’s Out” virtual roundtables on the educational impact and insights of the past three months of remote instruction. Founding editor and education writer John Mooney moderated the hour-long conversation between a superintendent, two teachers and a PTA president, as they talked about what has been successful during this period and how can it inform New Jersey schools for when they reopen.

The roundtable opened with asking each panelist for one example of what has worked. The following are edited excerpts of the discussion. This link will take you to the complete roundtable; this one, to previous “School’s Out” roundtables. 

Q: Give us one example of what has worked.

Alix Hayes, parent of two primary-schoolers; PTA president, Ocean Township Elementary School: I do think that particularly in our district, we have with virtual learning really ushered in bringing these kids into 21st century learning styles, and we’re making them 21st century learners. And I wouldn’t say that they absolutely weren’t before. But I feel like there’s no going back now. And I think the teachers are becoming 21st century teachers.

And this is, of course, only helping our kids. My daughter does know how to read in second grade, but in order to reinforce these reading skills, teachers are going clearly way beyond the worksheets. And while our district did have a decent online component in the curriculum and in the classrooms, it’s remarkable to me to see the teachers assigning Flip Grids, seeing their kids on Zoom, having SeeSaw and Pebble — all these platforms that they might have used a little bit or didn’t use at all. And now they’re suddenly incorporating them into their lessons.

Chantel Wooten, 6th grade English language-arts teacher, Joyce Kilmer School, Trenton: So I have three sixth-grade classes at Joyce Kilmer School. With those three, at the beginning, I floundered around just like every other educator in New Jersey or across the country. But I had to ask myself, how am I going to finish how I started? That’s something that we say in our school all the time. Finish the way you start. So I came up with four things that I held onto: consistency, flexibility, creativity and making it fun and innovative. And those four things have really stuck with me.

Q: Tell us about how you have created “class captains.”

Wooten: Yes. So that came in with the creativity piece. The class captains. So I had these students who were on every Google Meet that I created. They just kept coming to each class. I’m like, you know, you’re going to be a class captain. So the class captain’s duties were simply they had to be the communicators. They were in charge of communication with the other students, getting the other students involved and keeping them abreast of what we were doing in class.

Q: To our superintendent, what is a strategy from your perspective in overseeing a large district, that has proven effective?

Charles Sampson, superintendent, Freehold Regional High School District, Monmouth County: Grading is a complex phenomenon in schools to begin with, and our approach was grounded in a really simple tenet, and that was to do no harm to students.

And so we exercise extreme flexibility with our students. I think one of the things that remote learning has opened some folks’ eyes to is a much more empathetic approach to grading, understanding that students land on our shores with very different experiences, very different support at home.

As you know, when Yale goes to a pass/fail structure, I think a high school is probably OK with doing something along those lines and getting away with it. For us, it wasn’t pass/fail but pass/incomplete. And then those eventual grades, we bottomed all students out at a D. We didn’t want any student failing in the remote environment.

Q: And at the other end of the age range, what about in the early childhood years of preschool and kindergarten?

Amy Hornbeck, pre-K teacher, Beverly City School, Beverly City: When we first started, because of the different situations our parents were dealing with, we were trying to offer as much choice as possible. But a lot of times choice gets overwhelming. There’s just too much. And parents were becoming overwhelmed. There are so many platforms, especially if they had multiple children in the household. So one of the things that we did early on, in preschool and kindergarten, was work across grade levels. And most of our older grades were using Google Classroom, so we wanted to use something that integrated with that software.

At our grade level, we created a website that was curated by the whole grade level so that they could put really high-quality content up there. And it could be one-stop shopping for parents. So they didn’t have to be clicking to a million websites. They could go to one place. One of the wonderful things about YouTube is you can look at your analytics, and those videos for parents were some of the most-viewed. And when we surveyed our parents, they asked for us to make even more.

Q: Any technology recommendations?

Sampson: We were fortunate. About six years ago, we went to Google Classroom as a district and really began the training process for our entire staff at that time. And from what I’ve seen across the state, districts that had really invested in one particular platform made that pivot much more quickly and efficiently than districts that had been on multiple platforms.

Wooten: Our district also went to Google Classroom years back, and it has proven to be just phenomenal. I love Google Classroom. They have this platform on here called Jamboard. The cool thing about Jamboard is that each student has their own whiteboard. So they’re all in control of their own board. And I’m in control of my board. And this is where the creativity comes in. I allow a little chaos. A captain would teach a lesson. And then we all just chime in on our own board. And then we do a gallery walk with each looking at each board and see what the student has put up.

Q: We have a question from the audience about how much direct instruction happens in your schools, whether it’s taped or live. What’s the right mix?

Hornbeck: We did a mix of it in Beverly in the early grades. A lot of it was taped because we had families at all different hours able to access that instruction. You know, when someone could actually be with the younger child, because they are able to get on the computer and do all this by themselves. So we did a lot of taped instruction, but we also had multiple times a week live instruction as well. And people would join that as their schedules allowed. Chantel (Wooten) mentioned earlier about being consistent, knowing when those lessons were going to happen were really important. So that if you missed one, you knew when the next one was going to occur.

Sampson: We went very early on to pretty much completely asynchronous, where we mandated that our teachers had to have all the assignments posted and ready to roll by 8:15 every morning. But we did not lock into particular times at the start of the week. We then sort of morphed into utilizing Google Meets to assist students who were really struggling.

I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t focus on some of the difficulties that really existed. And those gaps widened very, very quickly in this pandemic. And so we had students who were affected directly by COVID. We had students that didn’t have devices at home. We loaned out approximately 500 Chromebooks. And then we had moms and dads who lost their jobs and were home or were home working virtually unexpectedly and put a strain on the Wi-Fi and such. And so we wanted to provide as much flexibility as possible to our diverse communities.

Q: What’s effective in reaching the students who may be really struggling?

Sampson: What has been effective is requiring multiple faculty and staff members to be responsible for individual students and developing a system and a structure of tracking students who were struggling through this environment and making sure that there were multiple adults along the way that were responsible to check in, to talk to mom and dad, to talk to the student about what was going on, and to keep that sort of real-time data for the fall as well.

Wooten: In the normal world, so to speak, I would have been at a house by now. What I’ve done instead was I’ve talked to grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, extended families outside of their homes and tried to reach them. And I just asked for their phone number, so I actually can speak to them directly.

Q: What about grading and assessment strategies?

Hornbeck: It is challenging. For kindergarten, where children are doing some writing, there are some work products that they are able to upload into a portfolio. The teachers can comment on it, provide feedback and that’s been really successful. It’s a little different in preschool. We’re asking them to do more things like send us videos of the children playing, doing different things, maybe building something, taking a nature walk and finding certain objects that show signs of spring. So a lot of photos, a lot of videos, but also some work products, too. You know, maybe they’ve engaged, and we have very developmentally appropriate fine motor exercises and they might do those and take a picture and upload it. They all have their own portfolios that they’re able to upload the information to.

Q: What do parents think of more flexible grading?

Hayes: We’re definitely learning more about these assessments. I think since we’ve become virtual learners, I feel like I’m a little bit more in tune to these actual assessments, because I now can go online and check out our portal that I never had. I do like how we are getting more, at least in our district. We are finding more about some of these assessments from the teachers because they’re just talking to us more or because we now have more access to look it up.

Sampson: There’s two really good outcomes here. One, we’ve had some really rich conversations about the competition aspect of grades where parents would literally call sometimes and say, “my child works hard, why are these other students getting an A?” Letting go of some of that has been a phenomenal pause and breath for us.

And the other piece of this is everything has been laid bare in this environment, so parents have a much stronger grasp of what is actually occurring in the classroom or what is not. Teachers are communicating in a much more open and vulnerable way with parents and students in this environment.

Q: What about classroom management in remote instruction?

Wooten: Well, my classroom management style really didn’t change much from being in person to remote learning. I still am able to give them the look. I’m still able to, say, “Hey, excuse me, let’s be fair.” The only thing that I’m really not able to do is send them to a buddy teacher. However, I use the creativity of saying, “Hey, go get something to eat, get something to drink, come back to us, we’ll give you a moment.” So I’m able to do that. Classroom management is about behavior issues. They’re going to appear. They’re middle schoolers. They like to talk to social butterflies, like I was. So you just manage. Do what you do.

Q: How about final thoughts to share and to remember for next fall?

Hornbeck: I really feel like with everything that’s happened, we really are partnering with parents and giving them a lot more tools. Before this had started, we used a ClassDojo (a communications app) to talk to parents, but now we were just talking to parents constantly and that communication is really positive. So I hope that that continues.

Sampson: We took a pause in the middle of a pandemic. And we have to have the courage to continue to move forward and maintain some of the changes that we’ve made by necessity during this time.

Our kids are probably more adaptable than we are, and I think we have to be honest about some of the structures and the expectations that we’re putting on our teenagers in 2020. You know, we can take a step off this hamster wheel for the sake of our children.

Wooten: We are experiencing two pandemics, a health pandemic and a racial pandemic. I’m hoping that educators across the country, across the world, just teach the whole child, not just concentrate on a content area or a skills or assessment, just be able to really open up and teach the whole child.

Hayes: I do really hope there is not any or not much going back. I think for any teachers who had any resistance to some technology beforehand, I mean, there is just full steam ahead. I’m hoping that teachers have learned all this new technology, and new and innovative ways to bring that into their classrooms. Just one small example is that I hope our district maybe even mandates just assigning homework online. We never had that until virtual classroom. I think that’ll be huge.