The pandemic has highlighted a problem we all knew about before, but too frequently had not solved: that of the “education gap.” This refers to the disparity of opportunities and achievement between districts that serve children from advantaged communities, where needed resources are provided and numbers of disadvantaged children tends to be lower, and those that serve disadvantaged communities, where needed resources are often not provided, and numbers of disadvantaged children tends to be higher. We have all come to realize, if we weren’t already aware, that schools provide much more than classrooms, textbooks, and teachers. They provide meals and support support services that children need. Now that schools have been fully or partially closed, those essential services have been curtailed or absented, negatively impacting students, particularly in disadvantaged populations.
One of these curtailed or absented services is access to the internet, including connection and hardware access. It seems ludicrous that schools would continue to rely on virtual classrooms to carry on the education of our children while at the same time thousands of children lack access to the internet and/or a computer with which to enter a virtual classroom. This is not a new problem, just one of those that has been made worse by school closures. The lack of accessibility to technology has been there all along, but as long as children were in school, teachers could get around the problem with hardcopy alternatives.
I remember one day, I was at lunch with other teachers. The discussion that day was the fact that the internet was down, and teachers were in a minor panic, not knowing how to teach without being able to project their computer screen to the class or to print handouts. Then I amazed them. I said this had not been a problem for me. I had simply passed out lined paper to my classes, and had them write down what I normally would have passed out them all printed. They copied questions from the board, then wrote their responses. I was amused by the number of complaints I got about having to write out the questions. I also did more writing than usual, putting music on the board I would normally have projected or printed and handed out. I taught smaller chunks of music than usual, and repeated more so the students would have the opportunity to memorize what they otherwise would have been able to read. The results were not at all less than normal, and in some cases were better. The strength of this was that it forced students into a kind of learning in which they relied more on thinking skills, and less on technology doing some of the thinking for them.
With information so readily available on computers, we sometimes forget the value of memorization and of methodically and consciously going through all the steps of learning including writing down, journaling, and reflecting, to aid in problem solving. Technology isn’t bad, and because of it there have been many wonderful advances in learning, and many opportunities for students that would be unavailable without it. But in the process of embracing technology, we have at times replaced some of the critical thinking skills we say we value with shortcuts to learning that technology affords us.
Now, with schools closed and children forced to learn at home, relying on internet solutions is not tenable. Too many children lack access to the needed technology, so we must rethink how to proceed as schools remain closed, or close again in response to rising infection rates. One common practice in physical classrooms is small groups. Students have assigned work they can do independently in collaborative small groups, or alone, while the teacher works with one of the small groups.
Now imagine how this could work with students at home. A hardcopy unit packet is mailed to students. They can use the conference call feature on their residential telephone, either landline or mobile, to conference call with 2-4 other students and work on their assigned work from the unit packet. At a specified time, they participate in a conference call with the teacher, using the same conference calling capabilities of their home phone. The teacher moves from one conference call to the next, just as they would move from one small group to the next in a physical classroom. Oral assessments can also be done during one of these small group conference calls. Written work, including summative assessments, can be mailed back to the teacher at the school campus using a provided postage paid envelope. Many families that do not have internet access do have a home phone, so many more can be included in virtual learning than with an internet reliant plan. If more than one child is in the same class, or the parent wants to attend the class with their child, the speaker phone feature can be turned on. Such a learning strategy is a realistic blending of technology and old school methodology, better meeting the need of students who cannot participate in internet based virtual classrooms.
Another adjustment we need to make is in the area of communicating objectives and expectations to students. With the teacher physically present in a classroom, students have constant and immediate access to feedback from the teacher. Working at home, this is not the case because the teacher cannot immediately see the students’ work, or answer questions that come up. This is particularly true in the “low-tech” solution I described above.
So signposts are need to be built into the unit packet and reinforced during the conference calls. Students need to know what to look for in their work that tells them they are proceeding well and are on the right track. Small formative assessments that the students can do independently are the best way to help students get the most out of their learning. For example, after a student has finished a page on area for a Math class, the packet could contain something like this: “Before you go on to the next page, suppose you can’t find a table cloth and want to cover your table for a birthday party. You have lots of placemats, and each one is 11 inches by 16 inches. Measure the length and width of your table, then calculate how many of your placements it will take to completely cover the entire table top.” If the student can do this, fine. If not, they should review the packet, or ask their teacher on the next conference call.
For music, the student may have written a melody for an assignment. The melody was to have two, four-measure phrases, the first phrase ending on the dominant tone and the second phrase ending on the tonic tone. “Before you go on to the next page, call a friend who is in this class with you, and have them sing or play their melody, then tell them if their first phrase ended on the dominant tone and if their last note was the tonic tone. Then sing or play your melody for them, and have them tell you the same things.” (Of course, you will have had to teach them during conference calls to be able to audiate tonic and dominant tones in a melody.) This kind of teaching and learning puts the right amount of resposibility for learning on students, and improves the overall quality of instruction. In fact, whenever physical schools fully reconvene, we will be able to take what we have learned to better reach our students remotely, and improve education overall by bringing those methods into the physical classroom.