3 keys to building a community during distance learning

A charter school leader shares her system's best practices for engaging students, teachers, and parents
Ann Buxton is the director of intervention with Inspire Charter Schools in California.

At Inspire Charter Schools, we had to make changes to our curriculum when we made the transition to a 100% virtual learning environment due to COVID-19, but they were nowhere near the drastic changes other schools had to make. Over the years, we had gradually built and improved upon a support system for our educators and families to make the virtual portion of our blended learning seamless. It’s the key to allowing students to continue their learning in a quality, stable way. Here are three ways we provide active support to both families and educators to push forward a virtual education.

Finding the right tech

I truly believe educators can adapt any curriculum to a virtual setting. Most reading programs have a virtual component — you just might have to step outside your comfort zone. Even veteran educators may need to buddy up with someone and practice teaching with each other before facing a live class. As educators practice, they will discover what tech tools are missing in order for them to teach reading effectively.

One of my educators had a student sign up for her math class. No one told us that the student was legally blind. When we learned that he couldn’t see the screen, we prepped all the notes and sent them to a translator to have them transcribe them into Braille. Even though he couldn’t see the screen, he could listen to all of the classes and study his notes like anyone else. A lot of this adaptation requires out-of-the-box thinking. It just took us a couple weeks to implement a process that would alter this student’s academic experience.

Troubleshooting through data

The lack of face-to-face interaction can make it challenging for educators to see which students are not understanding a topic, especially if they don’t turn their cameras on, or maybe don’t speak up as much over a video conference. To compensate, we really try and boost engagement in other ways. We analyze data from Reading Horizons Discovery to get a good idea of who is staying engaged and understanding the content, and who is not. From there, we can help that student one-on-one to see how we can help them get back on track.

If an educator or parent feels that a student is struggling even just a little bit, we have them log on to Reading Horizons. Parents have been really receptive to it. They can use the print or online edition, and students can work independently or with their family to troubleshoot their reading.

Last year, one of my students entered the seventh grade reading at a fifth-grade level. He worked on his reading using the program diligently for about an hour a day, and by April, he was at a ninth-grade reading level.

Keeping parents and educators connected

These days, every answer seems to sprout five more questions. My educators and parents want information, so to create a strong backbone of support, we hold virtual office hours where parents can pop into Zoom and ask questions about the logistics of the school year or even about their student’s projects. We pushed out a calendar to all the families that organized office hours for each educator at different times. Even if parents miss the office hours for their child’s teacher, they are free to hop into any other educator’s office hours and get the same answers to their questions. Virtual office hours allow parents to feel supported and validated—and they can even jump in with their students to get one-on-one instruction on specific areas of reading and other subjects they need help with.

To make light of our situation a little bit while continuing to foster that feeling of connection, we’ve been using one of Zoom’s virtual backgrounds, an outdoor park, to hold virtual picnics where educators and parents can meet. Families just want to participate. They’re nervous about everything right now, and I feel like that energy can be released if we keep our modes of communication as open as they can be.

Ann Buxton is the director of intervention with Inspire Charter Schools in California. You can reach her at ann.buxton@cabrillopointacademy.org.

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