Virtual Learning: Survive or Thrive?
Reflections from a Veteran and a Student Teacher
By: Amy Pacifico and Kelsey Weidmann
Virtual learning: once unfamiliar territory, now our reality. Teaching remotely and in a hybrid setting this year has been both challenging and amazing. The playing field was leveled for everyone, as veteran teachers, student teachers, and students navigated this “new world.” Many of our students have passionately shared that this year has been their favorite yet — shocking comments that made us feel proud. We didn’t merely survive, we thrived!
It is not a surprise that this new teaching model forced things to change, and in an environment where the focus has often been on learning loss,* we would like to focus on the gains. Here is what partner-team veteran teacher Amy Pacifico and student teacher Kelsey Weidmann have learned from teaching this past year.
More than ever, organization is key. Since we want the students to take responsibility for their learning, we make it as easy as possible for them to find what they need. Our Google Classroom is separated into sections and assignments and materials are always on the move. Helping slides that include anchor charts and modeling examples are always posted in “Today’s Learning.” Students always know where to go for help with daily assignments. “Today’s Afternoon Independent Work” houses their homework assignments. Once the day or unit is done, those things get re-categorized into “Archived Lessons,” “Reading Resources” or “Writing Resources.” Our newest section, entitled “Work Being Graded” lets students know what work will be returned next. Another significant transformation was creating digital notebooks on Google Slides so students could keep all of their work for an entire unit in one place. In ELA, a virtual bookroom granted students access to books at all times!
Be concise and precise
Technical difficulties and distractions are inevitable, so in order to keep students on track we’ve learned to keep things short and sweet. Whether it’s giving directions for a breakout room discussion or introducing a new topic, speaking in short, clear segments helps students stay focused. Talking too much has never been a good thing because it causes confusion and boredom. This year we have learned to speak less and make our words count.
Keep ’em moving
Similar to the previous point, we’ve observed that the longer we hold students in one spot, the faster they become disengaged. Therefore, we plan interactive opening activities, speak for no more than 7 minutes to model a skill, pop them into a breakout room to practice, and then return to the whole class for a discussion. Students know exactly what to do in each time block. These short intervals keep students engaged and busy!
Communicate in new ways
Early on, we learned to get over kids not turning on their cameras. We were a guest in their house, so privacy needed to be respected. While we encouraged “cameras on,” we realized that many students were participating in other ways such as in the Zoom chat box. on Google Docs, Google Slides, Pear Deck, and Padlet. In class, we would have been walking around giving verbal feedback to students. With some of these other tools, we could leave recorded and written comments that they could refer back to.
Personalize learning with Bitmojis
Our students love to tease us about our Bitmoji use and claim that we have “Bitmoji-itis,” but incorporating them thoughtfully does add to the lesson. The variety in Bitmoji speech bubbles, facial expressions, and body language enables us to visually prompt students to focus on the task. Plus, we can all use a laugh!
Avoid the “teacher Island”: collaborate!
Even though technology has made it easier than ever to connect with colleagues across schools, Zoom fatigue has made it very tempting to skip yet another meeting. Even chatting with co-workers in person can be daunting after a tiring day. However, perseverance paid off. Sharing ideas and talking through successes and failures during lunchtime or in formal workshops has been essential in conceptualizing unit plans, designing materials, and troubleshooting issues. For example, after listening to our struggles with organizing book clubs, a colleague suggested we try Jamboard. Just like that, our problem was solved.
Incorporate student input
Students can help us reflect on our teaching. If you are wondering if a lesson went well or if the content was relevant, ask the students! A weekly Google Form “check-in” allowed students to let us know how things were going for them. We would ask about the resources we used, what went well, what was difficult or simply how they were feeling. This gave us feedback on how we were doing and what we could do to improve. We also used these weekly forms for shout-outs. Students could compliment each other for the work done during the week and give a “shout out” to their classmates.
Rethink and adjust
Every time we had a new lesson, we teachers sifted through old materials and asked ourselves how they could be updated for this year. Plus, our students proved themselves to be leaders just as much as we are. They offered feedback, solutions to problems, and didn’t hesitate to share their screens to explain skills to their peers and new ideas to us. We really became a team!
Building relationships and having fun with each other allowed us to thrive in a remote learning setting. Putting all of our brains together — the veterans, the student teachers, and the students — proved that education is truly a team effort. Most importantly, we always made time for fun while getting our work done! When all of the students eventually return in person we don’t want to go back to the “same old.” Our students have proven they can take responsibility for their learning, even in a sometimes challenging environment. We teachers need to humble ourselves, hand over the reins, and let students soar. As one of our students put it: “The best part about this year was all of the funny jokes and laughs we have had throughout all of our classes and the special bond we have beyond each other.” This year was the perfect time to innovate and thrive — together!
Amy Pacifico earned her Masters in Education from Walden University. She has been teaching at Kelly Elementary School in West Orange for 31 years.
Kelsey Weidmann earned her Masters in Elementary Education K-6 this year from Drew University. She completed her student teaching under Amy Pacifico’s mentorship during the 2020–2021 school year.
*For more information on learning gains please see this video from a recent Educator Collaborative gathering. Our colleague Dr. Keri Orange-Jonesgave the keynote about 20 minutes in on learning loss and how we can reframe that to focus on learning gains.