By Larissa Rector
I am no stranger to technology, and I already had plenty of experience using Zoom for various school-wide meetings. However, when I learned that I would finish the remainder of the school year by creating virtual classes for my sixth-grade ELA students, I worried that I would not be able to adequately create an online learning environment that not only addressed the state standards, but created a culture where students felt safe and free to think for themselves—one that invited students to learn and discover meaning through books, ideas, and tasks . . . completely . . . 100% . . . virtually.
That is no small task when you are talking about keeping 85 middle school students engaged through a computer screen, but one that I tackled head on. That is what educators do: We dive right in and face challenges, always acting in the best interest of our students.
The Switch to Online Learning
Instead of going back to the drawing board, I decided to use the online platform my students were already familiar with: Google Classroom. This is where it began to get tricky. Before the switch to online learning, my students were already familiar with their assignments being listed on our class page each day. They knew how to access the various documents that I would attach for the lessons being taught and how to maneuver through different pages on a site. However, it was one thing keeping students interested and engaged in person; doing it online was a complete game changer.
Giving the Classroom Back
To create an online learning experience that would keep my students active and engaged, I decided to reach out to each child individually. I asked questions such as:
- What has your online learning experience been like so far?
- How does it compare with your experience as a student in a physical classroom?
- What would you change about our online learning?
- What do you want to see more/less of?
The answers to these questions made me realize that what the students needed most was support and understanding. They needed to feel comfortable getting on our Zoom meetings each day. They wanted to be actively involved with me, as well as their classmates. I began to realize that this new online platform that I was creating was not just about continuing to meet the standards that I was expected to teach. In all actuality, it was not even a fraction of what I needed to be establishing for my students. They wanted a say in the process.
So, essentially, I gave the classroom back to the students. I established a framework for the content I would continue to teach and let the students decide which activities they wanted to do during our time together. Collaboratively, we found several sites that allowed the students to play games for the skills we were learning that stimulated cooperation and/or competition among them as they worked toward achieving their classroom goals. All our assessments came from online quizzes and were comprised of a compilation of the literacy standards we covered each week. Together we had created an online learning environment that fit the needs and voices of all the students.
Whether we are teaching in a school building or through a virtual classroom, the underlying goal is the same: student success. Our role as educators is to encourage students to have a say in their own learning. We want them to exercise problem-solving and decision-making skills in order to achieve their individual goals. I believe that each student is capable of excellence, and with the right guidance and support, they will develop the avenues needed to succeed in school, as well as find happiness and a place of belonging in our society. To be able to help students discover and cultivate these educational and vocational potentialities, we have to ask. We have to listen. We have to give our students a voice.
Each individual child brings something unique to the table. They each have deeply ingrained social habits, identities, dispositions, and learning behaviors—all of which contribute to their academic success. We as educators need to start embracing these differences, as well as each child’s culture and experiences, in order to offer them the best educational opportunities. A student’s voice inspires and empowers them to begin taking ownership over their own education. Learning does not start with the teacher. It begins with the student. And even in a virtual world, learning comes from the inside out.
Ms. Rector is currently a Grade 6 English teacher at Prescott South Middle School in Cookeville, TN. Her teaching experience is distinguished by more than 13 years of service across different grade levels. Her passion is creating a positive classroom culture that increases student learning.
Tips for developing online learning: Establish a homepage, such as Google Classroom. Develop a routine and stick to it. Make sure students are given breaks during class time. Create activities, like experiments or games that will keep children engaged.