Emily Parrelli is a middle school teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, who has been working with her colleagues to develop an online teaching curriculum that will keep students engaged and maintain their classroom community. They want to do their best to continue the level of interaction online that they had in the classroom, and to ensure that students will continue to have meaningful interactions with one another and their teacher.
A typical day of online learning consists of daily assignments—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—with a brain break in between. These assignments are started by students at staggered times throughout the day, enabling the teacher to remain better engaged with everyone. To help maintain their community, the school has also created “table groups,” small groups of students who meet online to work together on activities. At the end of the day, each student submits a daily reflection, giving the teacher an opportunity to respond individually to each student about their learning experience.
One challenge of online teaching is not being able to monitor activities during the school day. Middle school students are at a stage where they are developing more autonomy, creating the need for a balance between independence and supervision. Another challenge is getting students to buy in to the online learning. The district expects students to be accountable and manage their assignments. At the same time, the school is taking steps for those students who may struggle with this, including sending a letter home to all parents explaining how the online learning experience works and spelling out specific expectations for students and parents. One of the requests is for parents to assist as needed in monitoring their child’s participation in online learning tasks. In addition, the letter includes teacher contact information to encourage open lines of communication.
Emily feels fortunate that she and her students have the resources to take on this new challenge. Emily’s role as a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher has helped her prepare for this quick transition to online learning. Working as a consulting teacher includes teaching and taking online professional development courses that involve interacting with partners or small groups. That experience with an online model of learning made her more knowledgeable and better equipped to engage her middle school students in online learning. In addition, they were fortunate that their school already had some digitally based learning and that they live in an area where nearly all households have Internet access and a computer.
At a time like this, Emily notes, it is important for teachers to be a strong presence for their students and to send messages of encouragement and hope. Also, it’s okay to tell students that we don’t know what to expect, but that by maintaining community and taking steps to stay healthy, we will work through this. Emily recalls that she was a middle school student when 9/11 occurred, another time of great upheaval and uncertainty. With encouragement, hope, and a sustained community, she and her classmates successfully carried on. She is confident that her students will do the same.