The “Sink or Swim” of Online Learning and What it Taught Me as an Educator

When we reflect on 2020 as educators, we will remember it as the year that took us out of our comfort zones and forced us into a completely new way of running our classes. We were all thrown into this new reality without ample time to get ready, to receive training, to make detailed plans or ease ourselves into implementing them.  Suddenly we found ourselves in the world of blended learning without the classroom component.  This “sink or swim” reality posed challenges but also provided for great professional development and meaningful collaboration, often across continents.  The changes implemented this year will forever change our work, even after we go back to a “brick and mortar” setting so it is important to reflect on those first few weeks and remember the lessons we learned.

This will, of course, be slightly different for every teacher as our individual challenges are always rooted in our specific realities.  What I learned is very much the product of my current teaching reality.  I am a 3rd grade teacher at a small international school in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo.  International schools are usually filled with relatively privileged children.  Everyone in my class has an iPad, laptop, or both. Access to the internet is reliable enough for me to run my classes online without any interruptions. As an international school we are not burdened with district regulations which provided greater flexibility in choosing our platforms.  The parent involvement in my class is minimal – some parents do not speak English, some work long hours, and others simply believe that it is the school’s responsibility to teach.  Despite their privilege, frequent international moves mean many expatriate families do not have libraries of children’s books to arts and crafts supplies at home.  I have to take all that into consideration when I do my weekly planning.  

One Platform, Clear Instructions

I quickly learned the importance of using one platform to disseminate all important information – for me that is Google Classroom.  My school made the decision early on to follow the regular school schedule during online instruction since the children were familiar with it and we could still hold semi-synchronous specials classes.  

I had to set up a brand new classroom and do it quickly. To facilitate this process for  the children, I began posting a video morning message on our Google Classroom stream every day, greeting the children with my most cheerful “Good morning Third Grade!” before listing expectations for the day and making important announcements.  I use Screencastify to record it, which allows me to demonstrate where materials are in the classroom while I talk.  A written version is included so the children can follow along.  As my screencasting skills developed, my morning messages got shorter, more focused and much more visual. To prevent the morning message from getting buried, I blocked the chat on the Stream, so only I can post there. 

My Google Classroom is organized by topic.  Each assignment is labeled in the same way, with day of the week, date and title of the assignment.

The routine of one platform, its clear and simple organization, and the consistency of my morning messages ensures the students know how to start their day and are able to work independently with minimal help from their parents. 

Establishing my presence and creating community

I can’t overemphasize the importance of creating a strong sense community.  Though nothing can replace being in one room together, building slowly while we got used to the new technology was surprisingly effective.  During the first two weeks, if we used Zoom, we did it to socialize and chat.  Even though we were socializing we were learning how to use ZOOM effectively.  If assignments were not turned in but a child was present, interacting with me and a submission was attempted, I did not mind.  Nobody was expected to swim – not even me.  It was enough that we all tried the water together.  To make that work it is important that the children believe you are with them, just like at the regular school.  

To move the class forward through the day I started a class chat on Google Hangouts where we discuss school related topics and where I announce when the next “class” begins.  At the same time, I answer individual questions on individual Hangouts chats.  It is also through individual Hangouts chat that the children send their evidence of work (photos and videos).  I know it sounds obvious, but it’s as important to stay “in” your class on line as it is in real life.  If the school is in session, I am there – checking on the children, asking and answering questions, constantly monitoring work, checking on them if I suspect they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  If someone needs help, I work in groups or one-on-one through Google Meet.  I actually feel I am giving each child more uninterrupted, focused attention than in a regular classroom.  Online learning lends itself beautifully to differentiation. 

In addition to children who are present and active, I have a few students  who choose to work asynchronously for various reasons, and that’s ok.  I still encourage those who made that choice to join our ZOOM meetings as I want them to stay part of our community as much as possible and I still schedule individual check in sessions with them.  The schedule for ZOOM meetings is sent out every Monday so if they choose to participate, they can plan accordingly. 

Curate, Don’t Dump

Avoid the cognitive overload!  From something as small as renaming downloaded files to how many sites you use – you should be a curator. 

When schools first went to online learning, we were bombarded with a multitude of resources, thrown at us from every direction.  It was easy to become overwhelmed.  Thanks to Jennifer Gonzales who, in episode 88 of Cult of Pedagogy explains the difference between curating and dumping, I really took the selection of resources seriously, slowly and with curation in mind.

Once I chose my main platform I began to carefully screen and compare tech tools.  Many of those have the same capabilities and I needed to be selective in picking the ones that are relevant to my context and not use two or three tools to accomplish the same task. I introduced each tool gradually.  By week 4, in addition to navigating Google Classroom comfortably, we were using IXL, Reading A to Z, GenerationGenius (for science), Kahoot (for quick formative assessments), quizlet and quizizz (to learn facts and vocabulary), Padlet (to share learning and make interactive birthday cards for classmates), google slides (for collaborative projects) and EdPuzzle for comprehension.  None of that happened overnight.  It was a very gradual process – there was a lot to learn on Google Classroom and it was my goal not to overwhelm my students by introducing too many tools at once.

Less is More

I have heard this term many times before, but now I think I finally know what it means. Rushing through the curriculum will only stress you and the children out. Instead, focus on a few standards they need to master and, if time permits, add those that would be nice to master.  Use your time wisely – everything in the online world takes a bit longer than you expect.  And don’t get distracted by features.  If you don’t need it, leave it aside.  

To ZOOM or not to ZOOM?

Using ZOOM for synchronous learning with younger kids can sometimes be very frustrating.  They are all so happy to see you and to see each other that it is challenging to maintain order without relying too heavily on the glorious “mute all” button (why don’t we have this in our real classrooms?).  However, with a few ground rules, it can be a great tool to enrich your instruction. 

After using ZOOM for social interactions for the first two weeks, I now use it for instruction but only for tasks I can fully control, such as to explain new concepts and to conduct listening/reading comprehension sessions in English, science or social studies.  All those sessions are relatively short – up to 30 minutes maximum – and VERY STRUCTURED.  Students are always muted on entry.  After my short introduction, I take questions.  Students all know how to raise their hands and I unmute only the child who is speaking.  They are all blocked from unmuting themselves.  They know how to share their screen and how to annotate.  After the session is over, I send them out to do some follow up work. 

Recently, I began hosting mystery guests every week.  That is a huge advantage of online learning – you can invite anyone from anywhere in the world into your classroom. It sparks curiosity and makes learning memorable. 

Keep an Open Mind and Be Ready to Adjust

Although I focused on building community during the first few weeks, I want to emphasize the importance of continuing to do so – building community is an ongoing process.  It is important to occasionally allow the children to learn what they want to learn, to pick their activities of choice.  Using the Choice Board weekly opens up great possibilities.  You will be amazed what fabulous writing you will get if children are asked to explain something they enjoy but you know nothing about, such as how to play Roblox.

I often listen to comments during our social time and build those into activities.  If a child shows a baby photo of herself on our classroom chat, I may create a padlet, encouraging the children to post their photos with no names and turn it into a guessing game, who is who.  Later this activity may develop into a comparative writing project.

Differentiation at Its Best

Over the last five weeks I found out things about my students that I would not have known otherwise.  Getting to know them better is an unexpected by-product of this new reality.  Sure, some kids that were causing problems in class found a way to cause the same problems online, but overall, I feel the technology allows me to give my students the personal attention many craved but could not get in a regular classroom.

I am able to give constant feedback and teach my students the value of it. I use formative assessments every day.  As a neophyte operating in this world of technology I’ve also had the opportunity to see the amazing technology skills of kids who do not thrive in a regular classroom. One of my students figured out how to attach photos to Google assignments and how to annotate shared screens in ZOOM, innovations that wowed her classmates and brought her more firmly into the community. 

Including Parents

Even though my class parents are very hands off, there was a high level of uncertainty about how this online learning was going to work when we began.  I outlined the process and my expectations in an initial email, keeping parents informed and reassured.  They needed to know that there would be routines in place and that their children would be engaged.  A week into the learning I followed up with an update.  I let the parents know learning was going smoothly, students were present (sometimes at 7:30 even though school starts at 8), settled into their routines and often giving each other support.  I also solicited parents comments and reflections about how the online learning was going from their perspective since we were all learning together. Occasionally, I might write an individual message to a parent if there is a concern or if a child amazed me by their performance.  Including parents is very valuable – it can reassure the teacher that the children are engaged and that their social emotional needs are being met. 

Including Assistants

One of my biggest challenges in the process of establishing routines was how to use my assistant.  The end-state is still not clear, we are making it up as we go.  There are many questions, such as should the schools provide internet access to assistants?  Internet access in Congo is pricey and it was not a requirement for being employed, but now it has become essential.  Is it reasonable to expect the assistants who typically cannot afford to have a computer at home to cover that cost?  These challenges aside, if you are lucky enough to have an assistant, you need to decide what tasks can be shared.  In all honesty, during the first two weeks I was so preoccupied with “not sinking” myself that I could not even think about including anyone else in this process.  When things settled, I gained more clarity on how I could use my assistant.  Here are some tasks she is now able to perform: 

  • One on one guided reading sessions
  • Marking some of the work students’ turned in
  • Following up on assignments that were not submitted
  • Participating in ZOOM meeting

We as teachers have learned a lot and it is important to take a bit extra time to make sure our assistants are learning with us.  This is a great mentoring opportunity – let’s not leave our assistants behind.  

Things Have Changed for Good, But Not for the Worse

In her book, Blended Learning in Action: A Practical Guide towards Sustainable Change, Caitlin Tucker advocates for blended learning as the learning of the future.  Indeed, this model gives educators more flexibility and more opportunities for differentiation in delivering the curriculum and it prepares students better for the 21st century.  Maybe it is not such a bad thing that we were all forced to learn and implemented online learning.  I admit that there are aspects of online learning that I enjoy, such as being able to give individual attention and the level playing field the technology offers children whose voices are sometimes drowned out in the classroom.  It will be easier to make all learning blended upon return to the brick-and-mortar classroom, but I suspect we will have even more learning to do as we bring our new discoveries into them.

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