What Helps Students Thrive The Most In Virtual Learning?

I’m glad that I sent out this tweet the other day as it kept me accountable for what I think is an important blog post and a valuable topic of conversation.

We now know that almost all of us in Ontario are teaching virtually for the next few weeks of school. There are different thoughts on if this was a good or a bad decision by Doug Ford, but this post is not to address that debate. Now that this is official, I think it’s important to figure out ways to make the last few weeks of school the best that they can be for us, for our kids, and for their families. The other day, in between meeting times, my teaching partner, Paula, and I reflected on our observations since we’ve gone online. Which students seem to thrive the most in this environment? How might we support other students and families to increase their success in this environment? The post below is a reflection of our thinking. It might not be perfect. It might not be complete. But we hope that it’s a start to further conversations around virtual learning.

Independence is key. Yes, Paula and I teach kindergarten, and many of our students need some support with the MS Teams platform. Since we’ve been online a few times this year though, the majority of kids can now mute and unmute with ease, which are the key things that they need to be able to do to participate in our meeting times. We know that almost all of our parents are nearby, which we appreciate for when students need tech support and even just for joining the correct meeting. But when we look closely at the children that are thriving online, it often seems to be those students that are contributing the most to conversations. Not necessarily even the academic-focused ones, although that is a part of it. We also start our day with small talk. The length of time might vary, but as we’ve discussed recently, these social interactions bring so much joy to all of us. Are they truly what kids need right now?

We think about these conversations, for when we look back on them, it was often the children that were there alone — that had to listen to what others were sharing and make their own connections — who participated the most. This took me back to 21 years ago, when I was in the Faculty of Education. I remember one of my evaluations, when my professor told me, “Try to avoid repeating what children say to each other as part of a full class conversation. When you do so, children often focus on just listening to the adult instead of to each other.” This resonated with me, and while I’m far from perfect in avoiding these types of conversations, I try hard to get kids to listen to each other, even if it means suggesting to them that they ask other children to repeat what they just said.

What might all of this mean for the next few weeks of school?

If your children are not participating independently in these kinds of conversations, consider ways that they might be able to do so. This might require some scaffolding.

  • Some children might benefit from caregivers sitting nearby, but with encouragement to listen to the discussion. Maybe the children could at first share their ideas with their caregivers before unmuting and sharing even just a single idea with the class. Slowly, the caregivers could walk away from the class meeting and the children could share directly with the class.
  • Some children might benefit from suggestions by the educators or caregivers to listen to the discussion on their own and think of one idea to share. They could unmute and share accordingly. One idea could lead to many others, especially if met with positive feedback after sharing.
  • Some children might benefit from suggestions by the educators or caregivers to listen to the discussion and draw or write down some of their thinking. They could hold their work up to share with others or share it privately with the educators. Over time, communicating in this non-verbal way might extend to communicating verbally.

We’ve noticed that as children independently engage in these conversations that they also become more invested in the class and more interested in staying and joining along with other meetings. They see the social benefits of these meetings as well as the academic benefits.

Small groups make a difference. We do have one full class meeting to start our day, and it’s a long one. We found that so many children were staying way past the hour that we’ve extend it to 1 1/2 hours. Sometimes we still go over as kids want to stay and talk. We thought of a point that Terry Whitmell made in one of her blog posts about remote kindergarten — we wish that we could remember which one now. She was talking about her grandson, and him wanting to join the meeting early. For some kids, having this 1:1 connection time with educators is valuable. Maybe they want to share a longer story or a special surprise, and the focused time to talk can make a difference. With this in mind, every day, one of us always joins the first meeting 15 minutes before the start time. Often we’re in there alone, but sometimes, children join to talk. Some parents appreciate the ability to login early so that they can support another child at home or start on their own work. Whatever works. These 15 minutes become the small group time in a longer meeting time, and some kids really thrive with this.

The same holds true for the children that stay past 10:30. This is their opportunity to share a longer story, receive more specific feedback, or showcase a finished piece of work that they want to talk about for more time. It’s often those kids who connect with us in this smaller group or 1:1 way that are eager to join the most number of meetings.

We’ve also created some small group meeting times, which include a read aloud, movement option, and breakout room playdates. The smaller groups get kids talking more — with us and with each other — and allow us to be more targeted in our instruction. With breakout rooms, we can always make a larger group into a smaller one, and we’ve done so recently for some shared writing. Remote learning continues to be a work-in-progress for us as well as for our kids and families.

Reduce distractions. Just like in the classroom, less is truly more. If children are surrounded by lots of toys and noise, it’s easy for them to float from one option to another one. We realize that space can be at a premium in many households.

  • Some children have found that earphones block out excess noise.
  • Some children find a contained space to work. Last year, a child joined online meetings from a cardboard box, and it worked perfectly for him.
  • Some children gather just a small amount of materials for each meeting time, be it paper and drawing/writing materials, LEGO, or blocks. If kids know where other materials are located, they can always go and get them if/when they need them. For some children, you could also scaffold this by telling them that they need to use these materials first and share something that they did, and then they can go and get their special stickers, action figures, or favourite dolls. As they get more involved in the discussions, they might find that they want/need the other items a lot less than they thought.

One option might not work for everyone, and some children need different options at different times of the day. If kids are also involved in, or even responsible for, setting up their learning spaces, they often get more creative with the materials as they’ve thought about how they want to use them.

Don’t worry about imperfection. As I blogged about recently, Paula and I are not concerned if children join upside down, walking around, or flopped out on the ground.

  • They can join eating snacks.
  • They can join having lunch.
  • They can join with a drink.

We just want them to join the meetings. It’s often these snacks, drinks, and movement options that seem to make many kids feel more comfortable and calm, which is exactly what we want. This is when children often tend to get more involved in the learning.

We’re not concerned at all if kids say something off topic, repeat an idea already shared, or unmute without a hand up first. If students are contributing then we can try to redirect or extend the conversation. It’s perfect to be imperfect.

Seeing and hearing kids help a lot. We realize that there are a lot of different thoughts around video cameras off vs. on, and microphones unmuted vs. muted. We’ll never force children to share or to turn on their cameras, even though we might try to invite them to do so. Over the last couple of months, we’ve noticed that if we can’t see or hear children, it’s harder to engage them. It’s harder to redirect and/or extend the play. We don’t even have to see the child. Even if we can just see what they are doing, then we can work with this.

For many kids though, especially at this young age, there’s a lot to be said for a smile or a wave. It’s like the socially distant hug, and it might be the connection that they need as much as we do. I think about this conversation that happened online earlier in the week before we knew if we were going back or not. I was at school for the day, which prompted this discussion.

Those that are most successful online, seem to be getting involved the most. Does this involvement start with a microphone and/or camera on?

Routine is essential. While we’re both teaching at home right now, we’re not trying to do so while supporting young children online. We feel for all caregivers that are juggling their own work with virtual school, and honestly cannot thank them enough for all of their support. Each week, at the bottom of our overview plans, we add this note.

We’ll always welcome children whenever they can come and for as long as they can come. On Thursday though, there was an interesting conversation in our morning meeting time, which made us realize just how beneficial routine can be.

As kids started to work, one child unmuted and asked, “Is it playtime now? Do we go in the breakout rooms?” Before Paula or I could respond, another child unmuted and said, “No, that’s the third meeting. The first one is the full group meeting, the second one is the yoga story and read aloud, and the third one is the breakout rooms.”

Not only was this child right, but he knows the routine so well because he attends multiple meetings and tends to go to the same ones each day. Kids thrive on routine. While we’ll always make small schedule changes based on parental feedback and our observations throughout the week, we try to stick with a consistent routine to reduce stress for kids. Attending all three meetings might not be best for your child or your home routine, but what could work? Are there consistent times when your child could come? We wonder if this might help reduce parental and child stress.

Parents, students, educators, and administrators, what additional ideas might you add to this list? Is there anything that you would change? Why? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe by sharing what’s worked well, we can all have the best possible end to this very different school year.

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