About Whitney Kaulbach

I teach High school and middle school students World History, AP World History, Reading Instruction, and Literacy Specialist.

I was sitting in my apartment in the Dominican Republic for the third “hurricane day” in a row. School was still closed and we faced a full week of closure. Working to establish a distance learning culture our school sent a broadcast to parents and teachers; an expectation for students to utilize the online platform in lieu of a makeup day.  Like students everywhere, some complied and some did not, which gave me an opportunity to review how I balance the set up of distance learning with the productivity. Students will react with defiance towards assignments without value but appreciate the opportunity for authentic learning. Keeping this in mind I did my best to set up and review lessons that could be replicated by others.

My first step in Emergency Preparedness was to look at my posted assignments in the gradebook. Review of two ongoing assignments with due dates made me see that a few students had already been working on this. I made a decision to offer new assignments that would fulfill a component of the work that needed completion. In this manner, students who were engaged would be acknowledged for their progress and students who did not engage wouldn’t necessarily fall further behind. I was aware of the possibility that some students might be without power or experiencing flooding or worse during this hurricane. School could be an impossibility.

I used two systems for communicating with our school community. Any program that sends a broadcast is a basic need for schools today. I was able to post announcements through my Remind texting application and through my Moodle platform which broadcasts through school email. I posted a message explaining how I would make assignments inactive in Powerschool in order to track progress. Grades would be updated with tags: missing, checked or an actual point value. Since parents can see grades, they too would know if a grade progressed or stayed the same.

Explaining the actual assignments without creating busy work was difficult to pull off. Engaging students in online classes on a random emergency day off was difficult in that neither students or teachers were familiar with the systemic way in which all educators could communicate a simple, routine range of assignments that were engaging. Knowing that I could create an assignment that students either couldn’t or wouldn’t access or understand meant consideration of the value of the learning outcome. It had to be something that could act as an incentive with a positive impact on the overall grade.  I decided to offer options. I linked students to the ALA site on Banned Book Week. Students who chose to promote a recommended action by the ALA could receive points towards completion of their reading logs. Learning to add a twibbon to their Facebook or Twitter, “I stand for the right to read,” as a banner on their profile image must have been engaging as several students took up this opportunity. I made a video of myself reading a poem. It was terrible. Instead, I found an engaging celebrity reading of that poem and a print copy on the Poetry Foundation page. I created a 4 question google form. I wanted to avoid the temptation of students who would share and post the same answer to a question so I designed open ended questions. Poetry is a perfect medium for students delivering a variety of answers especially if you post a statement: this poem reminds me of this song ________. This assignment incentive worked; of the 34 students in this course I received 27 posted answers.

Explaining the actual assignments without creating busy work is difficult to pull off. Click To Tweet

Google docs work well for tracking engagement. Prior to our unexpected hurricane day, students were required to start a document in class that had a source cited, notes and an outline for their essay. I insist that all students leave their writing in a shared folder. I periodically will add documents to their folders or check for development. Over the course of several hours I developed an efficient method for meticulously reviewing 85 folders. I made a record of each student and on each writing piece I left at least one comment as a suggestion for editing. If a student did resolve the edit I would know. Google docs sends that message to my email. This eliminates the need to once again search through each student file. It allows me the opportunity to quickly review the edit and transfer that progress as a point value to their grade in Powerschool.

Back in the classroom  and the return to normalcy was also a diplomatic balance. I needed to acknowledge that some students worked to support the distance learning model while I had to question why others did not. I set up a quick socratic dialogue with hopes for honest anwers: Who enjoyed their day off? Who slept in? What did you watch on Netflix? So, since we can determine that no one lost power, why didn’t you engage in online learning or communications?  My last question was: what can you now do to make up for that?

Many students reliably assigned themselves to enrichment or extra homework when they are vested in the responsibility of learning. Another motivation tool is the ability to make inactive grades active. The sudden notification of a grade does draw the attention of parents too. I’m long past my hurricane days  and I have recovered the routines and itinerary without much disturbance or overwhelming loads of work. And I think I’m ready for the next emergency. Hopefully.

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