Starting Virtual: A Teacher’s Perspective
by Margaret Goldberg – teacher, literacy coach, education advocate
Instructional time lost last spring weighed heavily on my conscience. I kept thinking, “This was students’ one chance at [kindergarten, first grade, second grade….] and they got cheated.” I had been leading a grant-funded project devoted to improving reading instruction in the primary grades of fifteen schools in Oakland Unified, and I’d been out of the classroom for seven years. I always knew I’d go back to teaching, and the more I thought about this school year and the accelerated gains students would need to make, the more I knew I needed to commit myself to my own class of first-graders.
Of course, when I imagined “going back to the classroom” I never imagined it would mean staying at home, teaching via Zoom. There are so many things that I miss – welcoming students into my classroom, gathering together on the rug for a read aloud, helping students play and learn together – but I’ve also discovered new bright spots.
In the first few weeks, I held virtual home visits, meeting each student and his or her family, which gave me a glimpse into their lives and their homes in a way I’d never had before. There were also more professional development opportunities than ever before, so I learned about new ways to use technology to support my instruction. Because my time for synchronous learning is so limited, I’ve had to think deeply about how I need to spend it and why. I’ve had to reevaluate every single thing I’ve taught, every strategy I’ve employed, and every material I’ve used. The lessons I’ve learned in this first month of school will serve me well even when we go back to in-person learning.
Now that I’ve connected with the family of each student, I’m working in partnership with them to ensure their child gets the most from distance learning. This is a difficult time for families, even the most advantaged are struggling, but I’m fortunate to be working in a community that expresses, regularly, a commitment to make the best of things.
So how do we do that? How do we make the best of what is, by all accounts, a terribly difficult time? Below is a list of things I wish every one of my students could have because I see how they allow students to make the most of distance learning.
- Define a workspace. Help your child create a workspace. It can be as traditional as a desk, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a corner of a table, an area on the floor defined by a rug. Support your child in keeping the space tidy and their materials organized.
- Hold a schedule. The day is highly regimented at school, with nearly every minute between the start and end of the day accounted for. Establishing routines at home (regular times to wake up, get dressed, check the online classroom for announcements, etc.) reduces the uncertainty and anxiety children experience, allowing them to focus on their learning. The more that basic procedures can be done on “auto-pilot” the more bandwidth kids have for learning.
- Scaffold children towards independence. Teach them how to do the parts of their new routine. Setting up technology, organizing Inboxes, marking off To Do Lists; these are all life skills, and there’s never been a better time for kids to learn them. There’s a whole lot students need to learn and understand in order to participate in distance learning. Children are building a set of competencies – some of them perhaps not the ones we were expecting – but they are skills with lasting value.
- Be forgiving. No one ever imagined that we’d be in this situation so everyone is woefully underprepared. You will need to, repeatedly, forgive your child–and yourself– for forgetting things or for acting stir-crazy. And you’ll have countless opportunities to practice forgiving the technology (and the people on the other side of it) when difficulties arise. These, too, are life skills.
Inevitably, there will be times when Zoom is not working, assignments are overdue in Google Classroom, and someone has forgotten a password, but these are all opportunities to model resilience, to laugh at the comedy of errors, and to remind ourselves of what really matters, that our kids are safe and loved, and that we believe in their capacity to learn. If we can create confident, independent, and compassionate children during this challenging time, just imagine what they’ll be able to do on the other side of it.
About the Author:
Margaret is currently a first grade teacher at a Title 1 school in Oakland Unified. She previously served the district in a variety of roles including Early Literacy Lead, site-based literacy coaching, and reading intervention. Her work leading a grant-funded project to align reading instruction with reading research was featured in the APM Reports documentary At a Loss for Words. She is the co-founder of The Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Her writing is published on The Right to Read Project blog (https://righttoreadproject.com/) and on Reading Rockets (https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/right-to-read).