Setting ‘Reasonable’ Goals, Expectations and Routines for Remote Learning

It has been over a month since most U.S. schools closed their doors. But what many hoped would be a temporary transition to remote learning has morphed into something more permanent, as many districts have announced they will not reopen for the rest of this academic year.

The hasty rollout of new plans, and piecemeal changes to them, have flustered teachers and parents alike. “It’s really hard to have a routine with changing expectations week by week,” said Angela Estrella, an instructional coach at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. “What seemed reasonable two weeks ago now does not seem so reasonable today.”

In a time of flux and uncertainty, what does it mean to set reasonable goals, expectations and routines for remote instruction? And what does “reasonable” even mean? These questions were in the spotlight during the latest installment in our EdSurge-ISTE webinar series.

“I definitely worry about some of my teachers and the level of burnout they’re feeling,” said Stacey Roshan, a math teacher and director of innovation and educational technology at Bullis School in Potomac, Md. “Teachers are so generous with their time and their effort, and want to be there for their kids constantly. But we don’t have that same level of interaction right now.”

Plan Changes With Community Feedback

As plans change, Estrella advises, “get feedback from students and families as you’re thinking about how you move forward… The big thing is responding to the needs of your local community.”

That kind of input has helped shape evolving plans at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., where Kerry Gallagher serves as the assistant principal for teaching and learning. Initially, the school started with a completely asynchronous model where students completed school work on their own time. Live virtual office hours with teachers were optional.

“We did this because we knew this was going to be a transition—not just for the students but also their families, and that they would need some time to adjust,” said Gallagher.

Since then, school officials surveyed parents, teachers and students to find what was working, and what needed to be adjusted. “The feedback we got from our community is that they’re really craving more synchronous, face-to-face time,” she adds. Gallagher said the plan for the rest of the school year is to “provide more of a hybrid model” that mixes both asynchronous and real-time classes.

Roshan had a different experience at Bullis, where school leaders thought the closures would be temporary. “Initially, we went from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., trying to recreate the normal school day online. But instead of class to class, we were going from one Google Meet to another,” she said.

After school closures in Maryland were extended, Bullis officials surveyed families and decided to “move to a four-day-a-week model so that on Fridays, everybody—teachers and students—can have a day to rest and reflect,” said Roshan.

Establishing New Norms and Habits

Guidelines for online, synchronous learning will look different depending on the resources and supports available in different school communities.

At St. John’s, a private, all-boys school, Gallagher’s colleagues recommend that each class meet at least once a week synchronously, for a minimum of 30 minutes but not exceeding 50 minutes. Teachers should notify students by Monday morning if they will be expected to attend any virtual class happening that week, so that the pupils can plan their schedules in advance.

During class, teachers should engage in learning activities with their students, such as working through a homework problem in a collaborative manner. “In other words, we don’t want teachers to be lecturing and just expecting students to be sitting in front of a screen and taking notes,” Gallagher adds.

But teachers need help. Many are attempting to transfer their classroom practices online, observes Roshan, and that’s not going to work. “One of the most difficult things right now is helping teachers develop a synchronous or asynchronous lesson that is made for an online setting,” in a way “that isn’t just getting on Google Meet and doing what I would do normally with my kids in the classroom.”

Establishing instructional routines remotely is even more difficult when students’ home environments may be radically different. Some may have siblings and parents to care for. Others may not have basic food support or what they need to get online.

“Right now there are so many other things we have to consider, and there’s so much we don’t know about what’s really going on at home,” said Roshan. While many teachers are assigning less work, some of her students—particularly in her AP calculus class—are doing extra and optional work. “Striking a nice balance has been hard, because there is no knowing” what each student needs, she adds.

Amid the challenges and frustrations, accomplishments and wins—big or small—can be easily overlooked, said Estrella. But that should be a part of any new routine. In her coaching sessions with teachers, Estrella shared that it’s natural for them to vent. “But with things being so heavy, there’s still a need for celebrations of things that are going well.” she said.

At St. John’s Prep, Gallagher’s colleagues made a flash mob-style dance video over Zoom to help bring some much needed levity to the situation.

Is It Reasonable to Give Grades?

Concerns over the quality of remote instruction, coupled with the reality that not all families have adequate access to devices and internet access, have led some districts to drop letter grades in favor of a pass/fail system. Public schools in Massachusetts, where Gallagher’s daughters attend school, have gone in this direction.

However, St. John’s officials have decided to stick with letter grades. A key part of that decision, according to Gallagher, is that teachers have been prepared and have been “superheroes” in adjusting to remote instruction. Another reason is that students there often count on the fourth quarter to make up their overall GPA.

“With that in mind, we are asking teachers to accept late work as much as possible. We are also asking teachers to change up the assessment types, so that students aren’t just answering questions and problems in worksheets,” Gallagher adds.

At Bullis, a private school, school officials are continuing to issue grades, but they are measuring different kinds of achievements at the moment, said Roshan. “Most of us right now are grading effort rather than mastery, and I think it’s O.K… We are in such a terribly difficult situation right now…”

“At our school, we are taking a do-no-harm approach,” Roshan added. Students who are struggling with remote learning can keep the grades they earned earlier in the school year (but do no worse). They can also make up any essential work at a later time at their teachers’ choosing. “What’s key right now is flexibility.”

When it comes to homework, “giving feedback might be the most important part right now,” Roshan emphasized. “And so if you would have assigned 10 problems before, scale it back a bit so that you can give them the feedback. Because if you’re assigning work but getting behind on grading, it’s not really helping anybody. The most important thing is to make students feel like they are being heard.”

Estrella noted that while high-performing, motivated students may have every reason to persist in their studies, it is not likely the case for those for whom academics is not the highest priority at the moment.

“I want us to think about the role that grades served in the system we had before COVID-19, and [recognize] that we are currently not in that system,” said Estrella. “We want to be careful that we’re not imposing that system now.”

“When we talk about grades,” she continued, “what we will be graded on is the wellness of our school communities. And this is something that we’re all going to have to look at. Those are the grades that are going to count—the wellness of our students, families, educators and all the staff.”

This is a recap of the conversation. To hear the rest, listen to the episode in the player on this page. You can also find the EdSurge Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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