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Distance Learning for Exceptional Learners

How would I deliver meaningful instruction to students who relied upon individualized education plans, differentiation and additional assistance?

Kate Kaufman | @thinkaloud812
August 7,  2020
Perspectives

On March 16, 2020, my world and the world of my students moved online. As a Specialized Learning Disabled teacher, I worried for my already marginalized students, most of whom were already three to six grade levels behind. Although we had been running Google Classroom in our class during the academic year, we had no idea the challenges that we would encounter for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Access to the internet, lack of reliable devices, communication difficulties, disconnected phone numbers, food insecurity, parents losing jobs, lack of social emotional learning platforms and learning loss were just some of the things we would encounter over the next three months. How would I deliver meaningful instruction to students who relied upon individualized education plans, differentiation and additional assistance? We had an uphill battle in front of us.

In the process of attempting to provide meaningful distance learning for my students and family communication, I learned many things. I hope these lessons can help inform your 2020-2021 academic years and provide insights to guide you to academic and social emotional learning milestones.

Office Hours

I set up office hours almost immediately. Setting clear expectations of when students could contact me for help was very important, both so students had clear boundaries and guidelines, and also for my organization and sanity. One thing I noticed about teaching from home is that expectations from my school in terms of deadlines and contact logs did not change. It was challenging to meet deadlines from home. If I didn’t have office hours, getting administrative tasks done and “attending” staff meetings, department meetings and professional learning communities would have been impossible.

It was challenging to meet deadlines from home. If I didn’t have office hours, getting administrative tasks done and “attending” staff meetings, department meetings and professional learning communities would have been impossible.
It was challenging to meet deadlines from home. If I didn’t have office hours, getting administrative tasks done and “attending” staff meetings, department meetings and professional learning communities would have been impossible.

G-Suite

Finding an online platform that worked for my students and me was essential. For our group, that platform was Google. The Google Suite for Education is relatively straightforward. It is easy to learn, and educators can become Google Certified online through a series of self-guided lessons. There is an inexpensive certification test at the end of each training level. Google Classroom is a fantastic place to put assignments, have online forums and set up virtual class meetings/lessons. I met with each class multiple times a week through Google Meets, and those times were consistent, making expectations for communication clear. Gmail is a simple and effective email platform. I suspect many readers are already familiar with the Google Suite, and I cannot emphasize enough the usage of these tools.

Curriculum

When choosing curriculum for distance learning, be sure to discuss options with your school team, administrators, students and parents. Read the reviews, research the company and ensure the content is research-based. Below are a few programs that have worked for me during distance education and in the classroom.

Read Theory

There are several online platforms that provide free reading instruction in English. One is Read Theory (https://readtheory.org/). Read Theory is an online, free, self-guided platform that adapts to students as they move through reading comprehension passages. Additionally, it allows for teacher monitoring and guidance.

Moby Max

The key to this program is that it has individualized, self-guided lessons in all subjects. Moby Max is in 83% of K-12 U.S. schools in some capacity (https://www.mobymax.com/about-us). When students are set up, they can independently access curriculum at their own pace. It is differentiated. Moby Max (https://www.mobymax.com/) provides “rewards” for students in the form of games, incentivizing them to complete lessons accurately for achievement.

iReady

The iReady platform (https://www.curriculumassociates.com/products/i-ready) provides a diagnostic assessment as well as an individualized learning path for each student. It is criterion-based and aligns with instructional standards and practice. iReady provides K-8 lessons in reading and math. It is user-friendly, personalized and allows for teachers to monitor progress and growth.

Multimedia Curriculum

Video: What worked really well for my students was relying on multimedia curriculum. We used a lot of video lessons. I presented students with a few questions. We then watched short videos together. Students answered questions based on the video component, using prior knowledge as well as newly acquired information. Sometimes we watched the video multiple times. Students were challenged to type responses in some cases, either in their own Google Doc or using Google Classroom. We had robust discussions. I was able to get to know my students even better, asking simple questions or more complex questions, based on each student’s level. Having a list of questions at a variety of different levels proved helpful. I cannot emphasize enough the power and effectiveness of using video, especially for science and social studies curriculum.

Music: Music is a tool I used frequently in the physical classroom. Going forward, I recommend using it online as well. I suggest using music for the start and end of the day. However, it can also be used as a comprehension activity. Students were challenged to think about what the lyrics meant and how the song made them feel. I played songs several times through, asking students to complete an activity noting what they heard, think and feel the first time we listened. The second time, I played a video with the lyrics. Students wrote what they saw, heard and thought. After two listens, I asked students to share their thoughts. I played the song one last time, stopping to help students interpret lyrics and giving the true meaning to the song (based on the writer’s explanation). Students absolutely love this activity. It is a wonderful and different way to access comprehension skills. Songs can also be from different cultures, giving students insight on global perspectives and issues.

Building Community

Parents as Partners: Building community in distance learning is critical. Because students were home, we relied a lot on parents to get students set up, handle tech issues, access content and help with required work. I used various methods to work with parents – texting apps, emails and phone calls. Emailing parents who spoke different languages is very helpful. Using various methods to help parents help their students access content, engage in curriculum and attend online Meets helped me meet the needs of parents.

Building community in distance learning is critical. Because students were home, we relied a lot on parents to get students set up, handle tech issues, access content and help with required work.
Building community in distance learning is critical. Because students were home, we relied a lot on parents to get students set up, handle tech issues, access content and help with required work.

Utilizing Teaching Assistants: Other partners in the classroom are teaching assistants. In the event that you are lucky enough to have assistants, I suggest assigning them to certain students for some activities. Assistants can also hold office hours and host breakout rooms in Google Meets, a feature that is coming to the platform this fall. Teaching assistants can work one-on-one or with small groups. They are an incredible asset and can significantly increase content accessibility for students.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL): SEL is a key component of providing an excellent distance learning experience. Providing SEL can be as easy as asking students how they are feeling, what they are looking forward to or something they are worried about. With many parents experiencing job loss and worried about the effects of COVID-19, my students were acutely aware of stress. Many of my kiddos were also stressed. Checking in with students is so important as teachers provide so much support in the classroom. Other ideas include introducing short meditative moments, breathwork, homework that involves students getting outside (going for a walk or riding a bike) introducing restorative circles online or spending time each week to pose questions and answers to students. Discussions or lessons on distance learning dos and don’ts, cyberbullying and appropriate digital citizenship need to happen for trust to be built. Learning will not occur if this trust is not built and maintained.

Virtually, teachers will have to ask a lot of questions to assess information about students and their day-to-day routines and home lives. If needed, teachers should connect students to school counselors or social workers if teachers feel additional assessments or resources. At my school, that process involved a phone call or email to a student’s counselor. Check with your supervising administrator if you feel a student or family needs additional support to determine the proper channels at your school.

Diversity: Teaching from a multicultural lens is going to be more important than ever this year. Providing pedagogy and perspectives from a variety of cultures is possible online, and it is going to be critical to employ to meet students where they are. Providing a variety of perspectives, activities, response types and methods of demonstrating knowledge is key. Presenting material that embraces all nationalities, backgrounds and learning styles will help students ease back into teaching and learning. An example of presenting different backgrounds is teaching more about the breadth of Black history or doing an activity with students asking them to reflect on their family culture and how they can leverage this to improve educational outcomes.

Our students, families and communities want and deserve the highest quality distance education.
Our students, families and communities want and deserve the highest quality distance education.

Conclusion

There is no doubt we will face new and unique challenges this year. By relying on proven methods, organization, planning and reflective teaching, teachers and students can be successful in the digital classroom. Our students, families and communities want and deserve the highest quality distance education.

Kate Kaufman was a Special Education Teacher in the Clark County School District for seven years, serving as a Specialized Learning Disabled Teacher for the last two. She is now working with first and second year Special Education teachers for an education nonprofit and as an intern for Tri-Strategies, a government relations firm. She lives with her boyfriend and their tuxedo cat, Puma Thurman, in Las Vegas, NV.

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