Last week was the end of the 2021-2020 school year for thousands of Colorado students. This school year ended like no year ever before due to efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. School buildings closed and in-person classes moved to remote learning in a matter of weeks and in some case days. This has been a difficult time for everyone.
- Teachers had to rapidly shift to online teaching, learn new platforms, and work to engage students in an entirely new way for most.
- Students found themselves at home, behind a screen and missing their classmates. Other students struggled because they tragically lack a device or internet access limited their learning for the rest of the year.
- Parents found themselves in the role of online learning coach, trying to support learning from home in an entirely different way. Many times, parents were doing this while trying to complete their own work from home or while struggling with new unemployment or underemployment.
- Districts rushed to support everyone, drop off meals, provide laptops for families that need them and some deployed school buses with Wi-Fi hotspots.
These are unprecedented times and I find myself looking for the bright spots and lessons learned from 2019-2020. Our Colorado Ninth Grade Success Network which launched last year provides me the privilege to partner with seven school administrators and more than 100 educators in advancing a proven approach to ensure all 9th grade students finish their “make-or-break year” of high school on-track. This is critically important work because on-track 9th graders are 4x more likely to graduate than their off-track peers.
I caught up with three of our partner schools and checked in about how online learning went for them and asked about some of the key takeaways they found for their work though this time. We will be releasing their responses as blog posts over the next week. Up first is Hannah Doran, Learning Facilitator with Arvada High School.
What are the most common challenges students and families are voicing?
When I asked students what the most challenging thing about virtual learning has been, I was expecting them to say something about not understanding content or having trouble communicating with teachers. The overwhelming response that I have gotten is that motivation- finding it and keeping it- has been the biggest challenge. Students have said that a big part of school for them is the personal interaction, and that Zoom meetings and discussion boards just haven’t been able to replicate in-person exchanges with staff or peers.
Families are voicing that while they are telling their students to work, and explaining the importance of finishing the school year strong, they are at a loss with how to actually help. Even if they can work with the content, they are unfamiliar with the technology. Many families have felt frustrated by wanting to do more and not knowing how. This is especially true when there are multiple children in the home who each have different learning expectations and technologies utilized. A lot of times, this has meant that older students are helping the younger ones with schoolwork in addition to their own classwork that has been assigned to them.
What activities have been successful in reaching students who didn’t initially engage in distance learning, but you were able to find them and re-engage them?
Calling and talking with families to better understand their situation was the first step in getting students to engage. The second step was getting a direct line of communication to the student. While we had Google Chats/Hangouts and email from the very beginning, for a lot of students, this still proved to be a barrier to communication because this wasn’t how they were used to communicating with school staff. By getting cell phone numbers of students so that we could call them directly and walk them through how to easily contact teachers, we were able to scaffold with things they were familiar with (talking on the phone) to help them feel more comfortable about reaching out online. I had one student who hadn’t engaged in a few days. After talking with his mom, I called his cell phone number and we had a great conversation about how he was feeling frustrated and that this wasn’t how he learned. We walked through all the ways he could contact teachers and even practiced using Google Meets (“Ms, I’m not going to turn my camera on, my hair looks bad”). I still text him every week to check in and he has continued to engage. He still doesn’t like this style of learning, but he is getting through it.
What has been successful in supporting participation of students who were failing courses and/or were chronically absent prior to school closure?
A big part of our strategy has been to focus on standards and to see how we can assess competency of those standards. Teachers have been specific about what students who were failing courses need to focus on and prioritize. We have also made sure to give students time once we have helped them identify what they need to do. Many of our students are still transitioning from being dependent learners to independent learners. Virtual learning has a lot of independent learning requirements, so we have found that helping students with setting up structure and direction on what to specifically work on has been helpful. Most of the time the students can academically do the work. We have found that often they are struggling with working a little on this task and a little on that task and never actually fully completing and turning in assignments. Remember that in a lot of cases, less is more. Taking a gauge weekly on how long students are spending on the tasks we are assigning has been eye-opening and has allowed us to change as the needs of our students have changed.
If distance learning continues next year or re-starts with a second wave of the pandemic, what advice do you have to ensure that our most at-risk students are engaged in school? What have we learned from the past two months?
Relationships are still incredibly important; find ways to continue to build these. It may be a weekly call/text. It may be dropping off some study snacks at the house and waving from the street. It may be Google Meet/Zoom grade checks where you start off asking how life is going. For students who already struggle with engaging in in-person learning, the shift to online has been rough. These are not necessarily students who come to school for the content, they come for the connection. Finding ways to still have those connections is important to keeping these students going.