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During COVID-19 students are at home learning. Two experienced educators share advice for teachers and parents to be student-centered and nurturing.

Recently I joined a former colleague and fellow educator, Pat Keeney, for a webinar discussing how educators can best be nurturing students and parents through — what is for so many — a new world of home learning in the time of COVID-19. 

What was so refreshing about this session is that Pat is both a creative and pragmatic educator and his own children were home learners as teens. He fully appreciates the opportunities and potential pains of this experience but believes that if educators grant themselves and their families some freedom to reshape how they do things and the flexibility to learn and adapt as they go, this can be a surprisingly transformative time for all involved. 

A few highlights from our conversation follow.

Seize the opportunity to support independent home learning

Now more than ever, educators will be most successful with students if they “meet them where they are.” The range of home situations in which students find themselves means that no two will bring the same mindset and personal reality to their remote learning experience each day.  Engaging all students effectively will inevitably be a challenge, but an empathetic, student-centered approach promoting student empowerment will most likely win the day.  

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Encourage students to make some decisions about what will work best for them; this helps them develop personal agency.  
    • Parents and educators should encourage students to set their own schedules within some agreed parameters, of course. As long as they are meeting requirements and getting sufficient sleep, let students figure out the hours that work best for them.  This helps them develop time management skills.  
    • Let them carve out their own workspace — perhaps even with a standing desk— and remind them that it’s important to be able to save that workspace for “school.”  Let them know you appreciate the need to walk away from their academic responsibilities after each day.  
  • Encourage students to advocate for themselves. 
    • Ask them to reach out to you if something is not working for them. Meeting them where they are means appreciating that they do not all have wifi access from their homes, so you may need to connect with them via phone or email and provide them academic materials through the mail, a la correspondence courses of old.
  • Target the lowest common denominator on technological solutions to minimize the chance you are creating an insurmountable hurdle. 

Over-communicating to students and their parents that you are there for them and are able to be flexible whatever their situation may be will reduce their anxiety, elicit trust and facilitate as much engagement as they are able to give.  

Try effective student-centered classroom strategies in the online space

The need to be deliberate about using engaging instructional practices increases the likelihood students will not drift away from the online classroom. We know that our students are highly social and the isolation associated with social distancing practices is really taking a toll on them.  Why not make their online learning experience less isolating? Make your “classroom” the bright spot in their day and bring best practices into the online space. 

Pat talked quite a bit about the power of feedback, reflection and collaboration as three student-centered practices that are both highly engaging and highly effective, far more so than a lecture format.  Specifically:

  • Feedback — Provide small group instances of teacher:student feedback or structured peer:peer feedback on a wide range of assignments or tasks; students are hungry for this type of engagement and guidance or reinforcement of their learning. Small group feedback may even be easier to provide and more impactful in an online setting than in a busy classroom. 
  • Reflection — Regardless of the academic subject, consider having students keep a journal or write about how they solved something. Even when students do something wrong, they learn so much and make major positive strides by writing about their process and sharing when possible.  
  • Collaboration — Finally, look for every opportunity to convert teacher-centered delivery into project-based activities requiring students to engage and create solutions with one another. Flip your online classroom into a set of collaborative breakout rooms that you can visit.  

While some of these practices may be totally new to educators, now is the perfect time to experiment and learn a new process in partnership with our students.  

Invite and coach parents to be partners in home learning

Children may attempt to draw a hard line to keep parents out of their home learning business. The rules of the road on engagement are ever-evolving, sometimes smooth and sometimes quite bumpy. 

Here are tried and true tips for parents:

  • Be persistent in asking your children open-ended questions to understand how they are doing and what they are doing. As minimal and incoherent as the answers may be, children really do want to know their parents care. Parents should not stop trying to engage through questions. 
  • Listen well, avoid judgment and convey empathy and acceptance. The manner in which a parent listens often has a greater impact on the child than the actual content that is discussed. 

These tips for parents reflect the same approach educators can take to keep up the chain of communication with their students, especially for those students who seem to have disappeared. Recognize that students have their own learning and communication styles, which parents should try to reflect. Ultimately, they need to know they are not alone and they need to know their team of educators will never give up on them.

It is through our collective experience as caring educators that we will advance the practice of home learning. An open mind and a willingness to keep experimenting, tweaking and evolving our practice will model for our students the resilience and optimism that help students learn to deal with whatever comes their way. Indeed, this is the kind of nurturing that reaps long-term benefits for us all. 

Patricia Gagnon

Patricia Gagnon is chief experience officer at Intellispark. Patricia is a passionate educator and innovator. As an educator, she is ever-focused on what sparks a student’s drive to learn and be successful. As an innovator, she works to develop solutions that transform the experience of users — in this case, students, parents, and the vast array of education professionals who support them.