Friday, March 27, 2020

Setting Up an Easy Virtual Classroom | Distance Learning Series #3

This post is third in a series on distance learning. You can find the other installments here: 
Connecting with Students During Distance Learning
5 Teacher Tips to Save Your Sanity During Distance Learning

Setting Up an Easy Virtual Classroom | Apples to Applique
This has been a crazy whirlwind of a ride, learning how to shift mid-year from a traditional school setting to distance learning. There has been so much for me to learn as a teacher, and I know it has only just begun!

There are many platforms available out there to use for distance learning. Since I teach first grade, my goal was to make my virtual classroom easy for both my parents and students to navigate. Some options that work well for older students just weren't a great option for 6- and 7-year-olds.

The best option that I came across to meet my needs was a Google Site. It is free and user-friendly. I love that I can quickly and easily insert resources right from my Google Drive, embed videos from other websites, and add features like Google Forms so that students can check in with me. (No, this post is not sponsored by Google 😉 ). I've heard great things about Google Classroom, too, but, unfortunately, I was not able to try it out, as my district does not give students email access in 1st grade.

The thing I like about having a class website is that everything is in one location. This was important to me so that I would not overwhelm my parents. I'm sure they are overwhelmed enough right now! From that one location, I either embed or link everything the students need for the week, including any videos or printables, and even assignments from specials teachers! I directly link to the platform I am using for students to submit assignments, so parents don't have to remember anything more than just the one site.

I added tabs and pages, and was able to quickly and easily hyperlink to other pages on my site to help parents find what they are looking for. Nowadays, most parents are comfortable with navigating websites, so having a one-stop place for them to go helps ease their mind as they learn how to "homeschool". Even better, it can be accessed on their phones, tablets, etc. so they can check things on the go.

You can make your site as simple or complicated as you want. If I were using Google Sites for other purposes, I would probably bemoan the lack of customization features, but for these purposes, it's perfect! Everything is pretty much drag and drop, which is just what I needed. No messing with html, no finicky settings to worry about messing up. In just a few hours, I made a professional-looking website that I could push out to kids and parents, where they can access everything they need to do their schoolwork at home. It's super easy to edit, too, when I need to change plans for the next week.

Now that I've got it set up and ready to go, I feel like I can breathe a sigh of relief and focus on what's really important: helping my kids to keep learning these next couple of months!

Stay tuned for more distance learning tips, and hang in there!
Keep teaching with heart and passion!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

5 Teacher Tips to Save Your Sanity During Distance Learning | Distance Learning Series #2

This post is second in a series on distance learning. If you missed the first installment, all about connecting with students, check it out here!
Shifting mid-year from traditional schooling to distance learning is certainly not something we ever thought we would have to prepare for as educators. There are so many questions and unknowns as we enter these uncharted waters!

I served on the Continuous Learning Task Force for my district as we figured out how to move forward for the remainder of this school year. Here are the five main things I took away.

1. Less is More
I have been repeating this often to myself over the last week or so; it's becoming my new mantra. "Less is more." Focus on the "meat" of your lessons and standards, and don't worry about the fluff. What is it absolutely essential for kids to know by the end of the year? What will they need to master before entering the next grade level? Focus on those things.

2. Keep it Simple
Don't try to learn every new platform and program. I know that I have been inundated with emails and advertisements from every education platform and website, all touting why they're the best for at-home learning, or how they are offering free subscriptions right now. Some of them sound amazing! It is tempting to try to learn and do them all. I appreciate these companies stepping up and helping teachers and parents, but it is all overwhelming. I am going to continue using platforms and programs that I have already been using, and with which my students and their parents are already familiar. We are already having too much new stuff thrown at us; we don't need to add in one more thing to figure out and adjust to.

3. Be Flexible
Some people are having a hard time wrapping their minds around this new approach to teaching, and are thinking they need to have a strict classroom schedule with live lessons at set times. That's just not realistic. Many teachers have young children at home who are going to run screaming through the room during a live lesson, or who will need to be online completing their own assignments. Many students will still be at daycare during the day and will need to complete assignments in the evening, or complete several days worth of assignments in one day. One of the beautiful things about distance learning is that it can be worked around family schedules. Give yourself--and your students--a lot of grace. Everyone is doing the best they can.

4. Be Available
While being flexible, it is important that you are available to your students and parents. Distance learning is not "set it and forget it". You cannot upload assignments for the week and then enjoy a week of "paid vacation". Students and parents will have questions and need assistance. Students will miss you and want to connect with you. You might choose to schedule some live videos or lessons so that you can connect with students, but make sure to record them and upload them to your chosen platform so that all students can access them later.
Many districts are recommending set office hours. This can be difficult to achieve for those of us who have littles at home, but make sure you are checking your email, messages, etc. multiple times a day and responding promptly. You are still their teacher, and you still have an obligation to give them a quality education.

5. Set Boundaries
Being available does not mean that you are obligated to respond to parent emails and phone calls at 10:00 pm or on weekends. If you choose to do that because it works for you and your schedule, great! Just remember that you are not constantly on-call, and it is okay to set aside personal time when you are not available. If you need to schedule a set lunch and planning time during the day in order to ensure you don't get burnt out, do it. Whatever works for you, just don't forget to take care of yourself. You can't pour from an empty cup.

Stay tuned for more tips on distance learning, and remember to breathe. We will get through this together! Even in the midst of the unknown, keep teaching with heart and passion!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Connecting with Students During Distance Learning | Distance Learning Series #1

8 Creative Ways to Connect with Students During Distance Learning | Apples to Applique

This is such a crazy time for the world of education! Having heard of some school closings around the country, I was prepared to possibly not see my kids for a few weeks as I sent them home for spring break. When, just a few days into spring break, I received word that our governor had shut down schools in our state for the rest of the year, I was devastated. I wasn't ready to say goodbye forever! Those kids are my babies, and the two months I thought I had left had already felt too short. This abrupt end was too much.

I grieved for a bit, and now, I am ready to move forward. They are still my students, and I will still teach them. Of course, we are working on changing our approach so that our students can still receive an education while we are all under quarantine. It will look different, it will feel different, and we may not like the change, but we will all get through it together.

I am going to be publishing a series of posts on distance learning, including activities for parents to do at home, as well as tips for teachers. This seemed like the best topic to start with, as first and foremost, kids should feel loved! Kids always, always need to feel loved, but even more so in times like these. Things are scary and uncertain right now; even little ones can pick up on these feelings from the adults in their lives. We need to do our part to be a stabilizing force, and to make sure the kids know there are grown ups in their lives who love them and are thinking of them.

Fostering relationships with students is vital to a solid education in the best of times, but it is going to take a lot more effort in this kind of setting. Here are some fun ideas to help you connect to your students in spite of the distance.

1. Send them a card
Kids LOVE getting mail! Sending each of your kids a sweet little note to say you're thinking of them will make their day.

8 Creative Ways to Connect with Students During Distance Learning | Apples to Applique

Of course, cards and postage can get expensive, and if you don't have any on hand you may not want (or be able) to go to the store right now. E-cards are a fantastic option! Several sites offer a few free e-cards; I found some adorable ones at Kisseo (this post isn't sponsored by them or anything; I just did a search and liked what I found there).

2. Make them a personalized word search or crossword puzzle
I just made one of these for my class using their names and uploaded it to my ClassDojo page, and they were so excited! I'm going to make one for each of them individually with their own interests and message it to them.

8 Creative Ways to Connect with Students During Distance Learning | Apples to Applique

There are many sites out there that will generate word search puzzles. My favorite one so far is The Word Search, because it is easy to use and lets you set the difficulty (such as if you want words to go backward or diagonal). You can download and save it to be printed, or it gives you a hyperlink where the kids can go to play it online. The great part about playing it online is that after the kids solve the puzzle, they can click "play again" and it will rearrange the words. The puzzles are public, though, before they are deleted after 30-60 days, so don't use any identifying information like kids' last names.

3. Audio record a personalized message and send them a QR code to hear it
You could record a message to your whole class, to individual students, or both! Do you know how much fun the kids would have scanning the QR code and hearing you talk to them?
The easiest way I have found to do this is to record the audio using an app on my phone or computer, and then upload the file to Google Drive. (You automatically have access to Google Drive if you have a Gmail account, which is free to set up!) Then you click on your audio file in Google Drive, and click "get sharable link". Highlight and copy the link that shows up, and paste it into a QR generator, such as QR Stuff. It will generate the QR code, and you can save it as an image and send it in an email or upload it to your digital classroom. You could also just send the link without the QR code, if the kids don't have access to tablets.

4. Record yourself reading a story to your kids
Get your webcam up and running, and read some of your favorite stories to your kids. Upload the video to YouTube. You can set it as "unlisted" so that only people with the link can watch it, and then send the link to your students. Many platforms also allow you to upload a video there, as well.

8 Creative Ways to Connect with Students During Distance Learning | Apples to Applique

Ask the students for suggestions on other books to read--they would love to hear you read some of their favorites!

5. Record yourself singing, rapping, dancing, using puppets, telling jokes, being silly...anything that feels like you!
You are the magic in your classroom, and that magic could easily get lost in a digital setting. Do whatever makes you feel in your element, and record it! This could be lesson related, or it could just be you connecting with your kids; both have value. Upload the video just as you did for your read aloud in #4.

6. Create a digital scavenger hunt
These are so much fun, and can be as easy or complicated as you want. You could create one in Google Forms, use an app like GooseChase, or just type up a list and post it in your classroom platform.

8 Creative Ways to Connect with Students During Distance Learning | Apples to Applique
GooseChase has lots of pre-made scavenger hunts you can customize!

Yes, this could be used as a fun way to complete assignments, but you could also just use it as a way to build connections with students, with no set academic purpose. See who can come up with the most creative answers to simple questions like "Find something prickly", or "Take a picture of something falling". The sky is the limit!

7. Have a virtual talent show
If your kids all have access to tablets or laptops, have them all record a short video of something they are good at and share it with the class. Kids always love showing off their mad skills!

8. Have virtual contests
Tablets and laptops are also required for this one, but you could have contests like "Best Music Video", "Best Commercial for Macaroni and Cheese", "Best Dance Moves". The kids could upload their entries to your class platform and enjoy connecting with one another.

I would love to hear any other ideas you have for continuing to build solid relationships with students while teaching virtually.
Stay tuned for more posts about distance learning; we'll make the most of this together!

Keep teaching with heart and passion!