Amid coronavirus, educators learn to differentiate, add choice with tech

Rachel Williams is not sure how her classroom will look this fall, but she knows one thing that will continue — her use of video.

She started filming short clips as students transitioned to learning from home as a way to help differentiate the way she teaches math to her 7th-graders at Plaza Park International Prep Academy in Evansville, Indiana.

Williams said the pandemic created “an explosion of learning” for her around technology. She began recording herself explaining daily assignments and topics, sending the clips to students who had questions and even embedding them into Google Slides. She shared the videos with other teachers, as well.

Even if school is able to resume in-person this fall, the videos will be coming back to the classroom with her.

If a student needs help, there is only one of me,” she told Education Dive. “If a student can watch a video, I can still hold a small group for another set of students. So I can work with kids on different things.”

Online tools swiftly replaced in-person learning when schools closed across much of the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic in March. But while digital materials help educators reach students, they also opened the door to another avenue for differentiating lessons that many teachers had not expected.

Online sites and programs that could be tailored to each student’s progress found their way into math classes and literacy programs. Educators say they’ll be using many of these this fall, too  whether schools are online-only, in-person or a hybrid of the two.

Video enables educators to differentiate math

While Williams loves making and using videos with her students, she also had a few other online tools she leaned on during remote instruction, including an Instagram page and a class website built through Weebly. But videos were a key way to keep tabs on her students’ progress.

The videos are short  none are longer than 10 minutes  and Williams often uses them to walk students through daily assignments, annotating math problems, for example, in a virtual parallel to how she may have introduced work on a chalkboard in front of a classroom.

She found the videos so effective, she’s planning to beef up her video-making skills this summer.

“I want to make videos so it’s not just the teacher who sits there and talks,” she said. “And I’m interested in green screens, how to change the backdrop to make it more engaging for students.”

As a math teacher at Lackawanna Trail High School in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, Claire Signorello also used online tools to differentiate the work she assigned to her students. Her favorites included online math platform Prodigy, as well as EDpuzzle, which not only allowed her to assigned individual work to students, but also let them set their own pace.

EDpuzzle does have a video component, allowing teachers to embed questions or their own voice-over into an existing video  one found on YouTube or even one they create  and check in on the answers from students. And Signorello found EDpuzzle very effective, a tool she turned to more often as the school year wound down.

“Kids can follow along … and when a question pops up, they can rewind and watch it again,” she told Education Dive. “That’s a great form of differentiation.”

Audiobooks expand access as libraries close

As school sites closed, so too did access to all physical resources  particularly reading material. School and even public libraries were often not available to students, hindering access to books. That wasn’t necessarily the case with audiobooks, a format Julia Torresa teacher librarian for five middle and high schools on the Montbello Campus with Denver Public Schools in Colorado, championed long before the impact of COVID-19.

Torres suggests audiobooks are not only a solid way to remotely mirror the traditional classroom read-aloud, they also have a significant role in the classroom and should be as present in school libraries as physical books. To her, audiobooks expand literacy and access for all learners, whether they’re sitting in a school building or their home.

“I’m just trying to meet my students where they are and build their confidence,” she told Education Dive. “We need to make the learning fit them.”

Kimberly Lopes, a 3rd grade teacher at Memorial Elementary School in Upton, Massachusetts, also looks for read-aloud opportunities for her students, wherever they’re learning. As her elementary students switched over to distance learning, Lopes began to lean on Epic, a digital book database with thousands of titles and leveled reading options. While Epic is free to use in classrooms, parents typically pay for a subscription to use the service at home for their children. That fee was waived during shutdowns, said Lopes.

Lopes particularly liked that students could choose to have the text read aloud to them, and that she could watch the progress they were making even with material they were self-selecting.

“Kids could choose their own [books], which would make it more engaging, and they could find books that were more accessible for them,” she said. “Having that choice would make them want to finish the assignment.”

Lopes knows building in choice leads to more excited learners, and the platform provided a wider variety of books than she could buy for her own classroom library, she said. She plans to continue using it when school starts up again.

These past several months have shown her how hard her students worked and the difficulties that they faced daily in their own lives. Giving students some control over their education, whether that’s a choice in what to read, or even a choice in how they engage with material, is something she will continue to offer — in whatever format she meets with her students this fall.

“I focused on building relationships, engaging with families and being flexible,” she said. “So if this wasn’t working for you, I said I will fix it. And I meant it.”

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