Insights from the field: Teachers react to virtual instruction

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and millions of U.S. students learn virtually this fall, teachers from across the country share their candid thoughts.

In Kentucky, elementary teacher Jennifer Wates has found success utilizing a variety of free digital tools.

Helpful digital resources

At our school, we have been using Pioneer Valley leveled book assessment to help us get a literary starting point for each of our students. It quickly assesses their sight word knowledge, then suggests a leveled text for them to start on. If they are successful with that leveled text, it will then ask comprehension questions. Once completed, you have just the right reading level for your student. There’s also webinars on how to assess and teach guided reading through distance learning.

Raz-Kids is another resource where students can listen to a book, read on their own, and/or complete a short quiz on the reading. Students can record themselves reading the book and send it to the teacher, providing an easy way to keep a running record during distance learning. Students can also add notes to the text and write in a word journal as they read.

Storyline Online and Scholastic Story are great places for read-alouds, or to inspire writing, while Splash Learn, Toy Theater, and Khan Academy are perfect places to practice math. 

And, don’t forget to build in breaks. Go Noodle is excellent for brain breaks, and allows kids to get up and move around, while Online-Coloring is a nice way for kids to relax.

—Jennifer Wates, elementary school teacher, Louisville, Ky.

Despite an influx of digital resources, many teachers have acknowledged the reality of teaching online. In Georgia, middle school teacher Porcia describes the limitations of learning in a virtual space.

A tough transition

As an educator, I’m not fond of Universal Remote Learning (URL). To sit in front of a computer and attempt to make teaching interesting is misleading. I feel that learning is at its best when it’s face-to-face, when the teacher and student (or small group) can sit one-on-one for personalized reinforcement or instruction; where “praise” is quickly available.

I don’t welcome returning during this pandemic, but I do feel there are more negatives to URL than positives.

—Porcia, middle school French and History teacher, Fulton County Ga.

There are some unique ways to connect in a virtual environment, however. In Tennessee, high school teacher Bethany Daniels offers up practices that have helped her classes come together while remaining apart.

Fostering connection

The all-virtual school environment can be cruel and heartless. There is little to no space for the community that the teacher and students once created inside the four walls of a classroom. Thus, as I spend my days sitting in front of a computer, speaking into the endless void of black boxes, I strive each day to engage my students with music, conversations, and laughter. At the beginning of Zoom class, we open with a fun or meaningful question such as, “Roses and Thorns,” or, “What’s a small moment that brings you joy?” Other times, it’s, “Favorite candy?” or, “Morning or night person?” It’s these conversations that allow me to begin building an image of each student, despite never having met them in person or, occasionally, not even knowing what they look like. Listening to the comments of their peers, classes begin to create connections in small ways. It’s worth every minute of our limited live-class time.

My students requested music, and I quickly understood why. The ‘silence’ in a classroom is filled with the scratching of pencils, the intangible buzz of ideas, and ambient school-sounds. But the silence on a Zoom call? It’s bleak and anxiety-inducing. So, after surveying each class, we created the class playlists that now fill our meetings with the sounds they love.

The laughter is what really does it, though. I’ve been laughing at myself since day one, but the students’ funny comments, stories, and interactions with one another generate sparks of life within the black boxes. Our Zoom classes will never be quite as good as the real thing, but building a strong, supportive community continues to be highest on my list of priorities as we learn how to connect in a virtual world.

—Bethany Daniels, high school English teacher, Nashville, Tenn.

What are your thoughts about virtual (or hybrid) instruction during the pandemic? Do you have any helpful digital resources or tips? Comment below to share your ideas with the field.