I think it goes without saying, but 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year for teachers. With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the world last winter, educators everywhere were forced to adjust to a different way of teaching to ensure their students were able to continue learning. While there were certainly many speed bumps and roadblocks along the way, teachers displayed resilience and persevered into the relatively uncharted waters of distance learning. This was a particularly steep learning curve for most teachers as this form of instruction wasn't that prevalent in our education system - especially at the elementary level.
Looking back on my experience, I feel very blessed to be a part of the Connected Educator program within my division, as the shift to distance learning (while not ideal) was a relatively smooth transition. Teaching in a one-to-one environment allowed me to utilize a plethora of learning tools that - while great in my situation - would be much more difficult without a class set of devices. As a result, when we shifted to online learning, my students were already familiar with the majority of tools we would be utilizing, so the learning curve for new tools was relatively low. Here are a few of the tools that I found to be the most beneficial during my time delivering instruction online, that could be utilized within a face-to-face class as well:
When it came to communicating with my students, email was still one way that many of them choose to communicate with me as it was something that they were familiar with before shifting to distance learning. However, one tool that I found very helpful for student communication was Microsoft Teams. While I was hesitant to use this tool in the past, Microsoft certainly did its part in beefing up this once inferior program, to one that I felt confident in using with my students and recommending to other educators. The built-in chat function in Teams had been the primary way (outside of email) that my students and I were able to communicate regarding questions about their supplemental learning. Typically if a student had a question about an assignment, they sent me a quick message and I was able to provide an answer far quicker than before. I also found that students responded far quicker than they would through email because many of them already using the app to complete their learning - rather than having to use a separate app to respond to emails. Unfortunately, this feature was short-lived as my division decided to block it as a result of some inappropriate use from students at other schools. While this was disappointing for me at the time, I was very happy to hear that it has now been turned back on and can be utilized once again by teachers and students.
When it came to face-to-face (well kind of) interaction - something that was sorely missed during those long months at home - my students and I utilized the video chat function in Teams. This was probably the biggest reason that I had for using Teams as it allowed my students and I to meet multiple times per week and talk with one another. While the structure of the meetings started as a way to review the expectations each week, check-in with students and teach the odd lesson, these Teams meetings evolved into fun and engaging ways to connect. Throughout our time in supplementary learning, we used Teams video chats for Quizizz and Kahoot games, BINGO, SINGO, Scavenger Hunts, Mini Mystery Skypes and so much more. I am so grateful for my experience using Teams as it allowed my students and I to connect in fun and engaging ways that may not have been possible otherwise.
Out of all the tools I utilized last year, OneNote has probably been the one that I'm the most familiar with as I have been using it regularly within the classroom for the past five years. For anyone who is not familiar with OneNote, it is essentially a digital binder for your students, where they can take notes, complete work and view assessment feedback. Personally, I utilized OneNote a lot for housing written content and assignments as they were easily distributed to students and curated in the different sections of their OneNote. Students also could complete the assignments right in the OneNote app using the typing tool or draw tool if they had a stylus or a mouse. As Math was one of the main subjects taught during supplemental learning, OneNote became the primary tool I used to provide students with their assignments. Below you can see two examples of how students have used this tool to complete and submit their work:
Speaking of Math, this was also a relatively seamless transition into distance learning as my students and I were already utilizing a Flipped Learning approach in our regular classroom. With Flipped Math being the norm in my class before Covid-19 hit, I was very fortunate, as all of my lessons for Grade 8 Math had already been recorded and posted on my Flipped Math Website. This enabled me to continue teaching in a flipped environment - albeit without the same amount of one-on-one time we would have had in a physical classroom. With the lessons already recorded online using Explain Everything or PowerPoint, I would typically assign two videos for students to watch each week, along with an accompanying assignment for them to work on in their OneNote.
Below is a sample of what a typical Flipped Math lesson would look like:
Flipgrid & Kidblog
While OneNote was very useful for students to share their learning with me, it did have its limitations for sharing with others. The collaboration space within OneNote definitely could serve this purpose, but I found other tools such as Flipgrid and Kidblog to be far superior options. I really enjoyed using Flipgrid during Distance Learning as it allowed students to connect through conversation instead of written expression. Students had the opportunity to talk about their learning and then comment on their classmate's videos to begin a conversation.
I also continued using Kidblog as a means for students to share their written work with the class - which came in handy as we finished up our Book Clubs at the end of April. Kidblog is definitely one of my favourite tools to use as it allows my students to create engaging and interactive writing pieces that include videos, images and sometimes audio recordings. While most of the tools I've discussed today were free for me to use, I should warn you that this tool does come with a yearly subscription of 75 USD. However, with the purchase of one subscription, you can make multiple classrooms which could drastically reduce the cost if shared amongst several rooms in your school. If you would like to get a better idea of what a Kidblog post would look like, feel free to check out a student sample from my classroom blog from last year.
While (fingers crossed) I have not been required to shift to distance learning so far this year - I do feel that if it happened again - the transition would be relatively seamless for my students and I. So far this year we have utilized all the tools mentioned above on a daily or weekly basis within the classroom - which has allowed my students to become quite comfortable with these technology tools. If we were to shift online, I feel that my students would be able to continue using these tools on their own at home and be successful. While I am in no way hoping to test this theory out any time soon, I do recognize that there is a very real possibility of this occurring - especially with the uptick of cases in our province. If this does occur, I feel confident that my students and I will be able to draw on the learning experiences from last winter/spring as well as the preparation we have done so far this year to successfully transition to distance learning.