Every morning for the last several months, LeShawnda Morris, a seventh grade English teacher on Chicago’s West Side, greets her students with music, and a check-in question: ‘How are you feeling?’
Among the many techniques she uses to keep her students engaged during remote learning, she says none are more meaningful than the simple act of giving them a space to share their feelings each day.
“To let them know that you care about them as people, and definitely keeping the relationships first, is the most important thing,” said Morris, who teaches at LEARN Middle, a charter school.
School officials at LEARN Middle, one of seven campuses managed by the LEARN Charter School Network, haven’t announced a return to in-person school yet. In the meantime, Morris is constantly communicating with students even outside their virtual class. She said student attendance has been high all year.
After nearly a year of remote learning, Morris and other teachers say focusing on the well-being of students is one of several practical solutions to get the most out of remote learning work. Other recommendations include making online learning interactive, getting creative with experiential learning and focusing more on providing quality instruction, according to WBEZ interviews with teachers, parents and advocates.
These recommendations come as Chicago Public Schools and other school districts are moving to a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning, with CPS reopening its elementary school classrooms on Monday. But with the tight focus on the return to in-person learning by CPS, many parents say improving remote learning has been neglected — even though at least 68% of elementary students will remain remote now and most hybrid students will be at home three days a week. Elementary students can choose to switch to remote learning again starting in mid-April.
“Remote learning is here to stay for a while,” said Kristen Brody, a CPS parent who spoke at a recent online panel organized by Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group. “We need to plan for the long term and we need to have something in place for our families and our students.”
CPS officials say remote learning is as good as it can get. Despite that, attendance among the most vulnerable CPS students is extremely low.
“Our focus has to be on engaging our students throughout the day and it’s very difficult to do that in a remote environment,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said at a press conference recently. “But I want to be clear. I think we have a strong system. But it’s not a replacement for in-person instruction.”
But after months of remote instruction, parents and advocates, including Morris, say there are a number of practical solutions all schools could use to make remote learning better.
Less screen time, more hands-on projects
CPS parents and advocates say for starters, district officials should give schools more flexibility and bring in more hands-on projects.
“Allow schools to create schedules that aren’t bound by their bell schedule and really fit what their students and their communities need,” Brody said.
Under the new reopening plan, elementary students learning remotely will have 2.5 hours a day of real-time instruction and 3.5 hours of independent learning each remote learning day. This applies to full-time remote students or hybrid students who are remote three days a week. On Wednesdays, all students will have real time instruction and independent learning for three hours each.
Parents say that’s too much for young children. This year, parents say students have been overwhelmed sitting in front of the computer for hours.
“My children were in the house like if they worked a full-time job,” said Joseph Williams, a parent of five CPS students. “They were so overwhelmed and I am thinking to myself, why isn’t CPS reaching out to parents and saying, ‘hey maybe we should cut some time down,’ like start figuring out what’s happening with us.”
But Jackson has said she won’t reduce class time. The only changes to remote learning coming involve adding more technology, according to the new school reopening agreement between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union.
Parents also suggest bringing in more hands-on projects and paper packets so students can also learn offline.
“I purchased flash cards, a lot of flash cards,” said Jazmine Cerda, a CPS parent who says her daughter needs more hands-on materials to help her understand lessons. “I purchased workbooks for her, I purchased math books for her … She does double digits additions and that’s not because of remote learning, that’s because I have gone out of my way to provide her with the materials that CPS is not providing.”
Beyond that, other suggestions from parents include not just more computers, but good tech support, better internet access and more social emotional support for students. That all requires investing in more resources.
Morris, the seventh grade English teacher at LEARN Middle, said having students read from their own textbooks at home helps. LEARN school officials say they’ve been giving out textbooks, and using several online applications to keep students and parents engaged. Morris also said she works closely with her school’s attendance team to reach out to students who are falling behind.
Quality vs. quantity
Teachers are also taking a “less is more” approach — focusing more on the quality of instruction rather than the quantity.
They also say it helps to give students a say in the learning process, whether they are in a hybrid or a remote learning model.
“I think first of all what some of our teachers have found to be really successful is really pulling students into figuring out what it is that they want to learn,” said Karen Calloway, principal at Kenwood Academy High School on the South Side. “Giving them an opportunity to have student choice and agency around their own learning.”
CPS high school students are learning remotely for now. District officials also want to bring them back for in-person learning before the end of the year.
According to a recent report by the education advocacy group, Advance Illinois, there’s been a significant increase in the quantity of school work since the start of remote learning, but the rigor is lower.
The group held focus groups last fall with more than 120 students, parents and school employees from public schools across the state. While students said remote instruction improved since last spring, instruction is now more teacher-centered and includes less interaction, discussion, and experiential learning. As a result, they said the schoolwork is easier and more focused on recall rather than on critical thinking.
Students who are struggling also should have access to in-person learning hubs, Calloway and other CPS parents said. Some students often come into her school building to work with staff. Sometimes, all they need is to have material printed out instead of seeing it on the screen, she said.
Teachers at other non-CPS schools agree more quality instruction is key.
“Our first instinct is this panic, kind-of-makeup-for-the-lost-time approach that educators might feel pressured to take, but really it’s self defeating,” said Claire Bansberg, a teacher at Attea Middle school in suburban Glenview. Her school has been teaching in a hybrid model for most of the school year. “You are ultimately going to lose the students if you are working at the surface level to cover more content.”
Bansberg, like Morris and Calloway, also agrees that connecting with students and paying attention to their social emotional needs is essential.
“My priority is to reestablish that sense of community and belonging in the classroom,” Bansberg said.
Not only is it the right thing to do for students, she said, but it also helps lay the groundwork for improved academics.
“Community building efforts take time when we need to jump into curriculum, but it’s time well spent,” she said.
Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter@WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.