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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 01-03 news > Alumna shares elementary remote teaching experience, resources

Alumna shares elementary remote teaching experience, resources

Rachel Mountz is a 2011 graduate of the Penn State College of Education, with a degree in elementary and early childhood education. She teaches in a rural, Title I school in Colorado, and is sharing her story of moving to remote teaching of her fourth-grade class with the hope that her story and the resources she's using may help others in similar situations.

'**Editor's note: Rachel Mountz is a 2011 graduate of the Penn State College of Education, with a degree in elementary and early childhood education. She teaches in a rural, Title I school in Colorado, and is sharing her story of moving to remote teaching of her fourth-grade class with the hope that her story and the resources she's using may help others in similar situations.

***

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Penn State College of Education alumna Rachel Mountz and her “teaching assistant,” Sydney, are delivering classroom instruction remotely to her fourth-grade students during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo: Andy Colwell)
It’s year nine for me as an educator, and I’m teaching fourth grade. I work in a large county in Colorado, in a Title 1 school. Our families are supportive of the school, the teachers, and their children’s education, but we know that there are families who do not have internet access. Many students receive free or reduced lunch.

This school year was going pretty much as expected. In February and early March, we were preparing simultaneously for student-led conferences and the upcoming standardized testing. When the kids entered the classroom each morning, sometimes they talked about COVID-19, but more often than not they were just getting ready for a day of learning. 

On Thursday, March 12, our principal called an emergency meeting after dismissal. We assumed it was about health and safety precautions for COVID-19, and the entire staff gathered in the Coaching Corner as soon as all of the students left for the day.

The principal’s news was more than we expected. She was in meetings all day to discuss initial plans for an undetermined date when our school buildings would need to close, and shared this important information with us. 

“It’s really a matter of ‘when’ schools will close, not ‘if,’” she said. “We just don’t know when that will be; it could be in a couple of weeks or it could be not until May.” 

She shared some “next steps” for us to start thinking about: which online platform will we use to communicate with our students, how we can start putting systems in place for students to take devices home, and which families may need assistance to access the internet.

We all left school with a little more on our minds, and I started to think about what I can do with my students so that we will be prepared when the closure begins.

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After one week of remote teaching, Rachel Mountz’s school went on spring break. She is using the time to plan her remote lessons for when learning resumes next week. (Photo: Andy Colwell)
Three hours later, our superintendent sent an email telling us that school buildings would be closed effective Monday, March 16. Teachers were given that day to prepare, and families were able to access school buildings to get resources for their children. Online instruction started Tuesday, March 17.

On Friday, March 13, the entire school was abuzz preparing for the sudden change of remote teaching and learning. Homeroom teachers made sure each student’s device was accounted for, set up more rigorous procedures for using Google Classroom or Seesaw as our main platforms for instruction, and reassured students that we will still be here for them, even if it is just through technology. The physical education teacher paused her instruction to help make sure students were able to log in to the websites they’ll need to use, and the office communicated throughout the day with families. One grandmother came into the school so that the principal could show her how to use her phone as an internet hotspot. Teachers were grateful as we started to see the community make efforts to provide free meals for families to pick up.

After the whirlwind of preparations for virtual learning, and the first week of helping students and families transition to this completely new approach, I found myself reflecting on how it all went. Many of my students continue to impress me with their ability to adapt, and with their intrinsic motivation to keep learning. I struggle with the fact that I know I can teach more when I’m in the classroom with my students, and with the fact that there are a few students who I still haven’t heard from, although emails from their parents have assured me that they’re safe.

Moving forward, I have no idea how long this “new normal” will last, but I’m looking at how I can continue to connect with my students and different opportunities I can offer them now, that I wouldn’t be able to provide in the classroom.

Below are things my school and I are doing, and resources we’re using, to best reach and teach our students.

How can I switch to remote teaching on such short notice?

  • Stick with what you know. 
    • We were already a Google Apps for Education in school, so the students were familiar with the basics of it. 
    • When we tried having students navigate new sites we hadn’t used before, we found more confusion and frustration among students, even when we thought that giving directions with screenshots would help.
  • If using a new website, give students the exact link they can click to get to a video tutorial or an article to read.
  • Keep it simple. Set a routine, and don’t ask students to navigate to too many different places in one day.
  • Teamwork. My teammate and I are planning everything together and splitting responsibilities for creating videos and compiling resources.

How can families who don’t have reliable internet or enough devices at home be successful?

  • There are many options for families to access the internet during this time. Here are three we’ve suggested to our students:
    • Do you have a cell phone that has personal hotspot capabilities?
    • Do you have an Xfinity hotspot near your home?
    • Do you qualify for Comcast’s Internet Essentials - Affordable Internet for Home program?
  • If you’re a 1:1 school, let students bring devices home. 
  • The online workload I give my students is 2-3 hours a day, so devices can be shared among family members. 

We provided a recommended daily schedule for students that can allow devices to be shared as needed.

How can I keep in touch with my students and their parents?

While it’s important to share general information with families through group emails, make sure to also check in with families individually. 

  • Email parents (group emails to share information, individual to check on students)
  • Use a text service that you already have in place, such as Remind
  • Call parents as you see fit
  • Google Chat and Google Meet to help students one-on-one

How do I choose external resources to use?

It’s wonderful that there are so many education websites now offering their services for free. Remember to stick with what you know, and try new sites one at a time. I’m using:

The website Amazing Educational Resources has a comprehensive list of companies offering free subscriptions for school closures.

How can I deliver lessons online?

Modify your expectations. You’ll need to start slow, and keep a little extra patience for yourself and your students.

  • Daily Assignments Slideshow 
    • This is the most helpful system I’ve put in place to help students understand what to do and take responsibility for their learning. I modify this slideshow each day and post it on our Google Classroom for each student to have a copy that they can edit. Each slide details a separate assignment, with links provided as needed. When they are done with each assignment, they can move the owl clipart to the “finished” box at the bottom.
  • Week 1 - Don’t teach any new lessons. Make your goal to keep students in a learning mindset, and get comfortable with the full implementation of virtual learning. Have students: 
    • Read daily and keep a response log
    • Practice math facts daily and keep a log
    • Journal write about their day, or continue a fun writing assignment from class
    • Continue work you started in class that they can easily continue online
  • Week 2 and beyond - Start teaching new material, balance lessons and new material with assignments
    • Create your own video lessons or send students links to online tutorials (such as LearnZillion videos.)
  • Comment on their work when you can
    • This holds students accountable and shows them you’re still there for them
  • Keep grades updated
    • Modify your expectations and approach to grading, but keep it up to show students that the work they’re doing counts.

By Rachel Mountz (March 2020)