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Lessons Learned about Literacy in the Online Classroom (May 2020)

As we look towards the uncertain future and try to navigate COVID-19's effect on how we offer education to our nation's children, one burning question is stuck in my mind: How can I maintain a comprehensive, responsive, balanced literacy experience for my students through an online classroom?


In this post, I will share some things I've learned about online literacy and online learning. I have been planning and facilitating online classrooms for grades K-8 for the last 7 weeks (a collaboration between Centro Hispano and UT Knoxville ESL student teachers). As soon as school was out, we were online. I have also been an online ESL teacher for many years with VIPKid. Of course, I can also speak to the experience of my attempts to engaging my classroom students online. My hope is to provide readers with some anecdotal information that may inspire, warn, assist, and motivate while we plan for new methods of schooling that appear to be coming. By no means do I have ANY IDEA how I would facilitate ELA in a completely online environment, but these points are some things I learned from teaching online that need to be kept in mind.

1. You CAN facilitate an Interactive Read Aloud in a virtual class meeting.

You have to be mindful of how to hook and maintain your learners' attention, but I saw so much learning that reflected a typical in-class IRA experience while online. Be aware that reading stamina is even more fragile online than it is in-person, so you must be mindful of the amount of text you plan to read, especially in the beginning of your students' online learning experience.

2. Screen share the book instead of holding it up.

As much as we all love to hold book and show it to our learners, the best way to share a book online is to have a screen share of the book (be it through a virtual reader such as the kindle online reader, or a muted YouTube read-aloud video). This way, students can see the clearest image of the book and its text. Note: many students take their virtual classes on phones or tablets, so even a screen-shared book may be too small for them to read successfully. Zooming in on sections of text often helps to eliminate this barrier.


3. Discussion and questioning works differently online.

When dealing with the distance and difference in every learner's environment, the distractions they are prone to have around them, the lag and latency of the network and connection, the quality of their device screen and speakers, the extra noise from someone who unmuted themselves, the wait time (oh my, the wait time)....discussion looks VERY different online. The most successful model I saw was teacher-student-teacher-student-etc. dialogue in which the teacher provided prompts and elicited student responses, provided feedback, and encouraged students to consider the responses of others and build from them.


4. When teaching a group of students online, co-teaching is a life saver.

On the topic of discussion ands online logistics, we all know that teachers are master multitaskers and jugglers. However, we found that having multiple adults in an online classroom was a game changer for how smoothly things could go. While one teacher led the activity, the other monitored all student video feeds, helped to mute and unmute students that were called on, monitored the chat, addressed attention or behavior issues, and provided tech support when needed. Teachers switched roles throughout the lesson, which also provided an additional factor of engagement for the students. If this is a possibility, I recommend teaching with a friend!


5. Don't forget WRITING in the online classroom!

In the classroom, writing is something that we can engage our students in, provide real time feedback, monitor to make sure they are staying productive, conference, etc. At first, our student teachers stayed away from writing, because it did not organically make its way into the plans of what they thought they could do online. We found many mediums, however, that allowed students to engage in writing almost as effectively as they could in-class while ONLINE with their teacher:


- writing on whiteboards and showing responses

- writing on paper, and showing and/or reading responses

- writing in the chat box (for short responses)

- writing via dictation while teacher types on screen

- writing via typing in a Google Doc or other online document (only possible if student is on computer and/or is tech-savvy enough to navigate tabs and make this happen)


A few of these forms (paper, Google Doc, etc.) were also used for writing that would occur outside of the online class meeting time, in the form of projects, learning tasks, or homework.


6. If it does not happen when you're online together, it does not happen.

This is an extremely variable factor. In my experience overall, I see a strong pattern that learners just don't complete asynchronous activities on their own time, even if they are highly responsible in attending online meetings. Think of how many of your students don't do their homework. Now, ask them to do classwork at home. You get the idea. Unless they're under a sturdy requirement to participate (from either the government or their parents) and have the motivation to follow through, your offline activities are likely not going to get done. This is problematic if you are trying to have them engage in some parts of your overall literacy instructional plan outside of the online meetings together.


7. Strongest response for offline activities came from online tie-in and buy-in.

The most asynchronous work I've seen completed generally came when A) the activity was primed and initiated while learners were WITH the teacher online and were then instructed to carry over into the offline work, or B) the teacher made it known that there will be some sort of follow-up or continuation that requires the offline work to be done. Of those two, A was the stronger factor than B, and B left some students a little behind when that continuation came in the next meeting and they hadn't done their work offline.


8. Take the attention span you're used to in-class and divide in half. That's what you may be working with (especially with primary students).

Just as you would do in class, be ready to switch, switch, switch gears and take your learners through whatever small, manageable chunks of content you wish. Students in grades 3+ were able to sustain reading and writing activity longer (after practicing and developing the ability to do so online), but still were most effective and engaged when the chunks were kept small.


9. Don't forget classroom culture.

You don't hang up posters, teach growth mindset, facilitate restorative circles, encourage supportive talk, and hold your learners to high expectations just for fun do you?? Your classroom culture work, especially the things that make your classroom a literacy-rich environment that spawns a love of reading STILL need to shine through when you move your class online. You still have the ability to speak what you want to speak to your students, and you have some ability to show what you want to show in your environment and on your screen. Physically, your learners are in their homes instead of in your classroom. Your classroom culture effort has to pull them in so that mentally they are in your classroom instead of their homes. This requires some translation from in-class practices to online, and it is one of the more difficult things I am trying to navigate myself.


10. Plan, teach, reflect, repeat.

"We're just going to have to be flexible. That's a teacher superpower anyway isn't it, being flexible?" - Wil Turner, 2020

I share that quote half in humor, half in all seriousness. If you and your team were collaborative, supportive planners before the switch to online learning, you are in a great spot. If you were more of a lone wolf or were set in your ways, online teaching is going to be a hard wake up call. Every day, every lesson, every activity, and every student demands extremely thorough and intentional planning, preparation, facilitation, and reflection, even more so than they require in-class. A big part of the "online learning learning curve" is acknowledging that this is NEW for both students AND you, and really pushing yourself out of your comfort zone regarding what is possible and feasible in the online environment. It will NOT look like your in-class experience, and I don't think any school district could expect it to. Rather, the expectation should be that we are doing are very best to stay on top of best practices, plan and prepare collaboratively, facilitate the best online learning that we can with the tools that we have, and continuously ask ourselves how we can improve the experience for our students.


Of all the online teaching I've had the joy of doing through other mediums and the things I've learned from them, getting the students from my classroom online on a voluntary basis was impossible. This is the case for many, if not most, teachers in my school and area. Some contributing factors are 1) high poverty, 2) technology availability / stability, 3) student and parent attitude towards school, and 4) district-wide barriers towards the approach to online learning. Of the students I have been able to get online, most come infrequently (maybe one or two check-ins a week). Multiple students were unable to utilize Microsoft Teams (our district's required video chat client) due to technical requirements and difficulties. Discussion boards have been effective, but I definitely need to teach kids how to use them next school year when I have a chance. Online learning programs that they were already familiar with, such as iReady, Prodigy, Freckle, Education Galaxy, etc. are utilized infrequently, and offer usage reports that allow me to see how much they've used them (not much) and how they are performing. All in all, I would love to compare this unsuccessful transition to online support with a hugely successful online fall or spring semester with appropriate support, guidance, and requirement from the school district. Whether we go totally virtual, or have virtual learning as a hybrid stand-by for the next extended closure, I can't wait to see how well we can do for our kids.


I hope you have found something useful in this post! In the chaos of confusion, I did not want to forget that the needs of my students (especially their literacy needs) are one of the most fragile and important things that I could focus on. If we transition to online learning in part or in whole, I want to ensure that I can be equally confident in my ELA instruction online as I would like to have been in-class. If you have any experiences or stories to share about online literacy learning, please share!


EDIT: You know how we tell families how important it is to read with their kids at least 20 minutes per day? I feel like that's increasingly important. What is a way you can inspire that sort of independent reading in the online classroom environment? Here's a couple of my ideas:


- "Reader's Cafe", which is a virtual meeting where the teacher plays bossa nova jazz or soothing classical piano music, and the students just sit and read. At the beginning, the teacher can praise what the students are reading, etc. 20 or 30 minutes later, the Cafe is over and the kids have done their daily reading!

- Readers Response Journals to provide students a medium through which they respond to what they are reading.

- Many cities and districts have summer reading initiatives with rewards and prizes, using reading logs and other forms of check-in. Maybe something like that could help kids stay on top of independent reading at home?

- Then of course, there is the issue of access to books. Do you have online services you could use, such as Epic Books, Big Universe, Read Works, etc? Is there a way to get physical books to kids if they don't have any? Can you send or drop off books? Do you do the Scholastic virtual book fairs? You could continue doing those orders as well, and have books go straight to students' homes!

- Help students identify a reading nook in their home, if there isn't a place they've claimed for this already. It can be anywhere. Bed, couch, corner, floor, closet, under the stairs, on the porch, on the swing....have them identify a place that will be their reading place.

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