It goes without saying that the 2020-2021 school year has been a year like no other. Before I met with students’ parents this Friday for our first Parent Teacher Conferences, I wanted to create several virtual activities that 1) students were motivated to complete, 2) could be accessible throughout the year no matter whether students are at home or at school, 3) maintained skills students’ likely would not practice AS MUCH during distance learning.
What sort of skills are most at risk of being lost? From what I’ve seen so far, opportunities for speaking, listening, and writing have been hardest hit by the transition online. Many children have much less need to practice handwriting due to the abundance of assignments on computers and tablets. Similarly, students have much fewer opportunities to participate in discussions or storytelling. To address present speaking and listening standards, teachers like myself can use Zoom Breakout rooms to foster discussion with older students, or can implement speaking and listening opportunities while blended learning students eat lunch (we love telling stories popcorn-style or listening and summarizing books or scripture). BUT, as the effects of less in person class time begin to snowball (especially for at risk students), I’ve had to devote more class time to addressing student misunderstandings in math or literacy, instead of in person instruction focused on maintaining students’ writing and handwriting.
Monthly Creative Writing Challenge
In September and October, students showed me without a doubt that with sufficient support, they could produce creative writing pieces even at home. After nearly a month of mini-lessons, digital activities, and rubrics, students were able to draft and publish personal narratives that were relatively comparable to what one might see in other academic years.
At the same time, as I reviewed my 3rd and 4th graders narratives, I noticed some regression in students’ fine motor skills and ability to spell basic sight words (for some children, as basic as “the”). While about one-third of students are struggling to complete assignments, about two-thirds have the ability to practice these important skills. What now?
With a little tinkering, I got permission from my co-teachers to introduce an OPTIONAL Monthly Creating Writing Challenge to students! By using monthly Lakeshore Writing prompt calendars, students have the option to practice writing for about 20 minutes a day (thereby not penalizing students who are already struggling with work completion for a variety of reasons). If students submit evidence (pictures of writing in their notebooks) to answer at least 3 prompts, I plan to send them a learning game to play from AbcYA as a reward. I hope to increase the number of writing prompts by 2 each month to keep students on their toes!
“Strengthbuilders” Intervention Games
Online learning games (like those of AbcYA) have been my secret weapon this past month. As my third graders memorize their multiplication facts or even differentiate between synonyms and antonyms, I’ve been able to bribe my students to complete their assignments with precision in exchange for links to free games online that address the same standards as I’m teaching. For the sake of balance, I combine the use of online games with hands-on puzzles, stamps, or tactile methods when students are in the classroom.
But I’ve found an even better way to use online learning games, one that does not increase the number of learning platforms my co-teacher or I have to monitor! At the beginning of our school year, students at my school took an online standardized test called Scantron over Zoom, with yours truly proctoring. While it’s hard to ascertain the true validity of home results, data is better than no data. Being the spreadsheet nerd that I am, I cajoled my Vice Principal into helping me download large data sets of my 3rd and 4th grade student performance in different literacy and math domains.
Once I had organized the information, I color-coded it (blue = high, green = medium, and orange = low) that so that it would be more user friendly.
Finally, the information was ready to use!
And it’s best use? Intervention! On this Intervention activity I named “Strengthbuilders”, I organized a variety of learning games by subdomain in math or reading. After labeling each students’ activity with the exact subject of games they need to practice, I encouraged students and their parents to use these games to counteract boredom when finishing their assignments early, long weekends, or holiday breaks. My hope is that by providing this tool, students will have tools to keep practicing and reviewing math and literacy skills at their own pace, and regardless of their environment.
Enrichment: Inquiry Projects
Approximately one third of my fourth graders scored above (or nearly above) grade level for both their math and literacy Scantron assessments. Overall, these students contribute to discussions and complete their assignments with few difficulties. As I provide tools to support my struggling learners, I also need to ensure that this group of high-achieving students is challenged.
Thanks to the research students’ did earlier this month for a project on Black Catholic Saint Candidates, students are already familiar with using online search tools. In this Inquiry Project, students will pick a topic and a question to explore over 3 weeks, THEN spend the fourth week developing a powerpoint presentation, a poster, or a paper to explain their findings. I will check in with them for 30 minutes as a group each Friday, and provide feedback weekly to prompt or clarify any details they’ve found. If students successfully complete this first month of Independent Inquiry in December, I’m hoping to move them to Partner Inquiry and Whole Group Inquiry later this year. For now? I’m just asking students to propose a topic, a research question, and two details they’d like to explore, so that they can start the project in earnest before the Thanksgiving holiday break.
Overall, I’m excited to monitor and tweak these 3 projects, especially as I get more feedback from parents. During conferences, conversations with parents led to several new ideas, like creating a rubric for evaluating the validity/moral value of online search content, or collaborating with our school counselors to create a weekly 30-60 minute purely social Zoom call. Be on the lookout for updates regarding these suggestions in the next several weeks! May we find unexpected treasure in the process of designing strong digital learning opportunities for our kids!