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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: Connecting with Students Online with Jennifer Serravallo

Connecting with Students Online with Jennifer Serravallo

When you think of the logistics of shifting our teaching from in person to online, you likely have had hundreds of questions that all start with, how? Author Jennifer Serravallo has mapped out the answers to that question and many more like it. She’s taken this complicated topic and produced the new book Connecting with Students Online. Over the summer she surveyed the now 90,000 members of her Facebook Group which helped inform her thinking.

Learn More About Connecting With Students Online

Connecting with Students Online, a resource for K-8 teacher’s needs right now. We should also note, Jen will be donating a portion of the proceeds from books sales to organizations supporting children directly affected by COVID-19. In today's episode, Jen talks about effective strategies for making this challenging time a little easier for teachers, students, and caregivers.


Below is a transcript of this episode.


Brett: So Jen, as we talk, we're in September, the school year has started. It's a very different time right now in the fall, as it was in the spring. As you sort of look at the experiences that teachers are having and you're having yourself, what are your overall observations for where we are right now in this moment?

Jen: Well, I feel like the term distance learning or remote instruction or online instruction has gotten more varied, what teachers are experiencing. There seems to be a wide range of what's happening. I feel a shift toward more synchronous instruction. Teachers expected to be online with kids for a longer portion of the day where I think in the spring, it was a lot more asynchronous instruction, where kids were working on assignments on their own. I also think that the added challenge of the hybrid model, or some places it's called high flex model, where there's some kids in front of you in person and some online, poses an additional challenge on top of the already challenging scenario of doing online instruction well. I did some polling in the late summer in anticipation of trying to support teachers this year.

I have this Facebook group and there's 91,000 people in that group now and so I just did a quick poll in there asking people what they wanted the most help with. And overwhelmingly it was engaging kids, leading small groups online, and working with kids one-on-one online. And separately, I also pulled parents asking them about their experiences in the spring and what their observations were and what they found engaged their kids the best. And interestingly, they said small group instruction and one-on-one instruction. Which of course you know is true, but it's always great when the data backs up what you know. That guiding practice, really supporting kids, being meaningful, individual goals, being able to assess and respond right there in the moment. All those things we know about conferring and small group work are things that teachers want to know how to do well and also that parents were saying work best for their kids.

Brett: I think something that came out of the spring as we were thinking about the fall is teachers who maybe don't have as much experience with technology, what would your advice be for those teachers who just have less experience with technology?

Jen: I don't think that the answer to doing online instruction perfectly, if there is such a thing, is knowing all the tech tools. In fact, I think it's about knowing a few that you can use over and over and over again. I remember early on, and I even made this mistake myself, early on, schools were closed mid-March and I wanted to try to start helping teachers online. And so my first thought was, I'm going to interview Kristen Zimky and Katie Mutaras and I'm going to get them to talk about tech tools, because this is what people need, right? And so I had them as a guest on my Facebook page and their advice was "No, it's not about the tech tools. It's about keeping things simple and thinking about why you're doing what you're doing, knowing a few tools, and using them really well."

So I find, for example, that I can do almost everything I want to do using Zoom. I can connect in small groups and one-on-one, I could do whole class with breakouts. I know how to take attendance without taking any time. I could just download a roster. I know all these different things on Zoom. That's what I'm comfortable with. And I know there's parameters in certain districts who are saying you can and can't use certain tools. But my advice is get to know one. Get to know one video conferencing platform, get to know all the things it can do, and see how much you can do with just that one.

And get to know one way to store all the stuff, whether it's making a class website or using some kind of LMS system. Just get to know one, it doesn't have to be you're using Google and you're using Canvas and you're using ... Because the more you use, the more overwhelming it is for the teacher. And also honestly, the more overwhelming it is for the parents and for the kids, because it's just more passwords to remember and more log-ins and more clicks. And so simple, simple, simple is best.

Brett: And in that spirit, you also talk about how crucial it is to maintain relationships through a screen and how difficult that is. Can you talk a little bit about your thinking on how do we maintain our relationships right now with students and caregivers?

Jen: And I think that was one of the biggest challenges coming back into this school year. A lot of teachers said, "In the spring I knew my kids and so shifting to online, I'd already built that relationship." And there was a lot of nerves around, "Oh, well, in the beginning of the year, I don't know them. How will I build relationships?" And I think teachers have really found ways to do that. Teachers have found ways to make connections with kids. Whether it's asking them about their identity and having them do an identity web or asking surveys and getting to know them better, finding ways to celebrate things and class meetings or morning circles. It's about using kids' names, recognizing who they are, saying their name correctly.

A lot of the things we know to do in an in-person class translates as well to online and I really, really see a huge difference when it's in small group or one-on-one instruction. I think the teachers that have taken time to meet with kids one-on-one, even though it's video conferencing, you just build a relationship in a different way than when it's on a grid of 25 different kids in a whole class video conference. So, really getting online with kids one-on-one or getting online with kids in a very small group and finding out about their interests, what they do outside of school, what kinds of books they're interested in reading, what they're most looking forward to this year. Whatever it is, asking them questions about themselves and building that connection.

And then another benefit some have found to this whole home learning is that you're welcoming kids into your home and you're welcomed into their homes. And so you can have them walk over with their laptop to their pet dog and greet the class or ask them to go grab their favorite book off their bookshelf or whatever it is that you're bringing their home into the classroom in a way that wasn't possible before.

Brett: In that sense, caregivers are certainly more present now than probably they normally are in the day to day classroom aspect of things. You have two really good call outs I like a lot in the book that I want to ask you more about. One is office hours for family. Can you talk a little bit about your thinking there?

Jen: I think this was a really common practice actually in the spring and I think it was a really positive and helpful practice, is to have a set amount of time when children or/and their caregivers can reach out to ask for additional help. So, it's student initiated or caregiver initiated time. I think it helps protect the teacher's time so that the teacher is not overwhelmed with a million emails. There's a certain time of day when you can come ask me questions. And it also shows family that I'm here to help. Please reach out to me. You can get extra conferences, extra small group lessons in during that time. And different teachers have run it in different ways.

Some have one set time during the school day when people can reach out. I know this one teacher who works with middle school and most of the parents or caregivers in that school community are essential workers and aren't available during school hours. And so this particular teacher decided to split his day. And so he stops his day early, takes a long afternoon break, and then it has an hour of office hours later at night when caregivers can also reach out. So, I think what that shows is that that's a teacher who's learned about the family routines, learned about the different households, has taken the time to say, "How can I help you?" And has tried to negotiate, and still protected his time and still protected his family time, but it negotiated how to make it possible, how to make it work with his school community.

Brett: I want to come back to a thought you just expressed about boundaries. But before I do that, I want to also come back to this thing about families, of how do we help our families and the caregivers know what to do when things get frustrating?

Jen: I just had a moment today where my second grader, probably wouldn't like if I'm telling this story, but was working on some math manipulative site and had to do 10 frames sorting and her computer, the window crashed, and she lost all of her work and there were tears and she was really upset and I'm like, "Oh, I got to use my own strategy."
I think it's really important to recognize that there's going to be times where there's frustrations because the tech isn't working how you want it to. Teachers get frustrated, rightly so, with the technology, internet connections. It seems to be different every day in my house. I don't know why. And then there's also just the challenge of when you're learning, you're also hopefully working at your edge, you're working at a point that's a little harder than what you could do completely on your own with no help.

So, things can get frustrating and different kids will take things in different ways. And so one of the ways I suggest that teachers partner with caregivers is to offer some strategies to kids to calm down, to recognize how they're feeling, to ground themselves in their surroundings. So, I think there's a lot of ways to do that. These are all things I've learned from cognitive behavioral therapists or from various blogs or from educators who are trauma informed educators. Things like doing grounding exercises where you look around the room, you can go by a rainbow, look for something red, look for something orange, yellow. Or you could go by number. Look for one of something, two of something, three of something. Or you can go by senses and it really helps just bring you back to your body and refocus you and then you can address whatever challenge it is that you're trying to deal with.

Or certain breathing exercises, there's square breathing, or there's breathing the birthday cake and blow out the candles. So, there's different ways, very kid-friendly ways, to try to teach them to calm and recenter and refocus. And I think for a lot of caregivers, they might be seeing their kids in this challenging state, in this frustrated state. And it may be a little unfamiliar because that's not always how families are interacting with each other. Now they're.

I was trying to teach their kids new things or see them in this learning setting and they might be noticing behaviors that are different than what they usually experience with them. So, I think it's important to share with families that this is likely to happen. Nothing's wrong with your kid if it does. Here's ways to work on it and to really partner with caregivers. I think it's a mistake to tell them to get out of the way. I think it's going to be better for everybody involved if you really bring them in. You don't want parents shouting answers over kids' shoulders [crosstalk 00:10:36] helping them to keep an eye on what's happening and partner with them as much as possible.

I did a little research into schools that are online schools by design, and these exists. They've existed. They've existed for kids who are traveling the world performing and can't attend an in-person brick and mortar school. They're there for people who maybe have a particular social emotional needs or are being bullied at school and need an online option. So, these exist in the world and there's educators that have been doing online school for a long time and there's schools that are set up this way. And they know some certain things. Many of these online schools require an at home person to be on that end to make everything go smoothly.

And it doesn't really have to be a caregiver, but I thought that was really interesting, this idea that it's necessary that there's somebody on the student's end, for everything from the website keeps closing, the password's not working, that kind of stuff. But also to manage emotions, to upload work. We're going to try to get the kids to be as independent as they can, but it's probably a bit of an on-ramp and there's going to be a learning curve along the way and I think partnering with families or caregivers, or whoever's working with kids. In my community, we had some kids in YMCA run facilities right now. So it's not even only parents and caregivers in the home. It's also kids that are in facilities more for childcare support who are working with adults there. So whoever the adult, whoever the grownup is that's helping the kid, there needs to be a partnering with the teacher. I had a lot to say about that, I guess

Brett: That's good. Another challenge that teachers have been experiencing since the spring are just overwhelmingly long days. 15, 16 hour days, trying to fit it all in, trying to get everything done, trying to do it all that they're trying to do. How can we approach our time across the day and the week, but with also boundaries in mind?

Jen: Yeah. I think that's really, really important to protect yourself and to not burn out. This job of shifting your in-person classroom, something that teachers trained to do, that they know well, that they're comfortable with, and to say, "Okay, now move everything online." In the spring, it was very sudden without a lot of warning and not a lot of practice or support upfront. Understandably so in the middle of a pandemic, it was a surprise, right?

And then over the summer, what I noticed was a lot of districts spending time not focusing on online instruction, but rather on how do we get kids physically back into the building? I know in my district, for example, that was the majority of what the summer was spent on and at the last minute realized, "Oh, we can't make it work. We don't have the air filtration systems and we don't have the PPE and the hand sanitizer's sold out everywhere. We just can't do it." So, now here we are again, shifting quickly to online instruction.

Everything takes more time online. It takes longer to plan your lessons because you're in many cases building slide decks, rather than just writing on a chart in front of the kids. It takes longer to do a lesson. So, if I'm in a small group with kids, it usually takes longer because everything from kids sound cuts out and you have to ask them to repeat themselves to the transition into breakout rooms, if you're going to use breakout rooms, takes a few seconds and "Oh, you forgot your pencil. Go get it." The kinds of things you can control in the classroom, it's much harder or impossible to control in an online setting.

And so teachers found I'm just spending so much time, so much more time, and my advice is that we have to do less so that we can keep our time manageable so that we don't burn out and we can maintain a high quality of less. So, when I'm looking at curriculum, it means in a unit that may have originally been designed to address four key standards or four main goals, I'm going to do this unit now, but streamline it just to the two most essential. Or when I'm working with readers, rather than maybe them having their own individual goals separate, maybe I'm going to make it the same as the class goals so that I can more easily pull small groups, more quickly pull small groups. It means that the texts I select, I'm not going to pick a chapter book that my read aloud and then a different short text as my mentor texts for writing, I'm going to pick one short text, a short story, a poem, an article, a picture book, and I'm going to make that text do all the work.

It's going to be my read aloud, it's going to be my mentor texts, and we're going to keep coming back to that same text so I save time. So, I have lots of tips for really streamlining, pairing back, without losing quality. In fact, my goal is to have high quality, but still teachers to maintain them their own ability to balance work life, their wellness, together with their job demands. And also for kids not to get overwhelmed and for caregivers not to get overwhelmed. That's the other weird thing is that while it takes more time to deliver a lesson, it takes more time to get through things online. The day feels so much longer when it's ... Even if you have a three hour online school day, it feels like 10, right?

Brett: Yeah.

Jen: We've experienced this ... It's a real thing, Zoom fatigue. It's tiring in a very different way. So, I think we have to just really rethink how we're using the time and put some parameters around a student's day, how much time they're on the screen, a teacher's day, how much time they're prepping. And I have lots of tips for that.

Brett: I want to come back to the Zoom fatigue in a second, but I also want to mention that you also cover in curriculum, it's not just reading. You cover writing as well. I wanted to ask you about one of the suggestions you have in the book about mapping out daily writing lessons with process and strategies. How do you map out those lessons? What's something you can just talk to about mapping out those writing lessons?

Jen: Yeah. So, I have a step-by-step way to take existing unit and revise it or to create one from scratch and the steps start with identifying goals and figuring out what mentor texts you're going to be using, then doing some of it yourself so that you get a demonstration text and a little bit of experience with the content. And then I like to map out writing according to process.

So, I'll spend three days maybe collecting ideas and two days choosing and playing around with the ideas, maybe meeting with partners, a few days working on drafting, a few days on revision. And so I map out process wise and budget my time that way. And then I go back and I add specific strategies. Strategies that either came from my own practice, from examining the mentor text, or if you have something like the writing strategies book, or other professional texts with strategies, plugging the strategies in there. And of course, as you go, you might revise your unit, but that's in general how I get the shape of the unit down. And it's a very quick way to plan a unit at a glance. Again, I think it's all about time-saving, simplicity, and clarity, and focus. So you can go back and add in, make modifications, make revisions as you go and as kids respond.

Brett: You mentioned a minute ago the Zoom fatigue, which I think is probably one of the most written about things this year and it's real. And it feels as though that Zoom fatigue, or whatever program you're using, comes from this performative expectation because both student and teacher need to be on camera all day, every day, for just long periods of time.
How do we balance out, where there might be some expectations in some districts that students have to be seen online, they have to stay on camera, some schools have cameras on attendance policies. How do we balance that out with student independence?

Jen: I really disagree with this camera on required at all times policy. I think that there are lots of trauma-informed educators who have written about this even better than I have that say why it's so challenging. First of all, to see yourself. Do we stare at a mirror all day? And depending on a lot of factors with a student, they may not want to be seeing themselves. It may be off-putting, it may be challenging for them to be looking at themselves all day, to feel like I need to perform. Like I have to have a certain facial expression, that my hair needs to be on point. I don't how many of you have even been to a barber or a hair salon, not to mention, right? Just being really self-conscious.

And then there's the inviting people into your home thing. And maybe you don't want to ... Of course, you can change your background on some programs, but not on all. Maybe you don't want people to see into your home. I personally make weird faces when I'm concentrating. I don't want people seeing all that. [inaudible 00:19:22] learn in the classroom, we're not always like staring at everybody else while we're working. There's just a lot of reasons why it might not be right for certain kids. And so I'd really love to challenge districts to re-imagine or re-consider that policy and look for other ways to engage kids or to check in that kids are working.

So, everything from opening up the chat box and allowing kids or offering kids regular opportunities to stop and jot in the chat box, helps you know how they're taking in the content. It's something I do when I'm teaching online. I teach teachers online. I have for more than a decade. I've done webinars and online courses. In many cases I've got very large audiences where I can't see everyone's face, nor do I need to, and so we open up the chat box or I post a link to a Google form and I have everyone go and write their responses to something in a Google form, and then I quickly share the results with a screen share.
I know if people are participating or not, I know if they're with me. They don't even have a camera on to let me know that. Giving kids options. You can meet me online. You can have your camera on, you can have it off. Or if you don't want to join the group, here's the recording. Or here's an alternate assignment that you can do.

I've mentioned a lot in the book, the universal design for learning and there are ideas around making curriculum and the work that we're asking kids to do accessible to all, and I think we have to understand different modalities in terms of how kids are going to be working best and be flexible as much as possible, offer kids different ways to show what they know as much as possible. And I just think that the camera on at all times policy is not ... Not only is it camera on in some places, it's camera on staring at the screen the whole time. So maybe it's even being a little more flexible. Your cameras can be off, or you can look down at your hands, play with Play-Doh, doodle. You don't have to be staring at the screen the whole time. I would just really like districts to consider that policy of having cameras on at all times and if that's really best for kids.

I think probably some children wouldn't mind having it on all the time. But I think there's a lot of kids for a lot of reasons, everything from feeling self-conscious, to feeling like they don't want people seeing into their homes, to something's going on, they have to run to the bathroom and they'd rather just turn the camera off, so it's not distracting others. There's lots and lots of reasons why they might want to turn their camera off. And I think the more that we can provide options for kids, which we know to do in the classroom too, we don't expect all kids to show their learning in the exact same way all the time.

So, with an online instruction, we can say, you can leave your camera off and you can join a small group where it's camera optional and you could record the audio only, for example. Or you could use video on something like Flipgrid, or you can send me a video recording where the kids have a chance to rerecord if they don't like how it turned out, for example. Or offering kids to submit their work in writing. Either by handwriting it, taking a photo and uploading it, or typing into a document, opening up the chat box, using some of the polling tools, or inserting a Google form into the chat box where kids can enter in responses and then you can show the responses live as kids are there. There's lots of ways to keep kids interacting and engaging without requiring that everyone can see them.

I also think can be distracting to everybody when all the cameras are on. There's a lot going on in every single little square and you don't always know as the teacher, are they even looking at me? Are their eyes on me? Actually, when I'm leading a workshops, we actually tell the people to turn their cameras off for that reason so that they can focus on the slides and focus on me and I engage them in other ways and check for understanding and respond to them and keep it interactive in other ways. So, I would love to see districts reconsider that camera policy for a lot of reasons.

Brett: Jen, one of the big things that you really focus on in this book is the logistics of moving our structures of teaching to online teaching from the classroom. Can you just talk a little bit about what's involved in that going from in-person to online?

Jen: Yeah. So, I have a lot of ideas for how to make a lot of the structures that we know work in the classroom work online as well. They work because they're highly engaging. They work because they allow teachers to be responsive, to assess, to monitor progress. They work because we're targeting specifically what kids need. So, things like small group instruction, book clubs, partnerships, conferences, read aloud, interactive read aloud where you invite kids to respond and discuss with one another. Even mini lessons, ways to make it possible for you to check in and see how well kids understood what they learned in that short lesson. So, I have a lot of ideas for how to move that online, whether you're on live with kids or you're not. So, the terminology is synchronous or asynchronous. So, whether you're live with them or they're doing the work on their own and then participating.

So, I'll give just one example. Let's say we want to make time for book clubs. Book clubs are a great idea during this time. It builds teacher to student connection and then also builds student to student connection. Highly engaging, keeping things social, kids can read books on their own, either physical paper books, or they can access books on sites like Epic or Libby or Capstone or whatever you happen to have access to. And then we have options for how they can converse. So, one option for conversing is we set up a video conference, like a Google meet or a Zoom call, and the kids get on with their teacher. And the teacher is watching and listening to the book club and supporting them with their conversation. Giving them tips, let's say, for asking better questions that yield more rich conversation, or making sure that there's a balance of kids that are speaking or things like that.

Or let's say we can't get everyone on line at the same time, the schedules don't sync up, then another option is that we record videos and pass them back and forth. So you can do that. It's really simple through email. You can post videos on a set of Google slides where kids can go through and click through and watch the different videos. Or you can use a platform like Flipgrid where one person posts a video and others responds. That's like an asynchronous book club conversation. You could also do a written conversation.

So, Smokey Daniels, I remember reading in one of his books, he talks about this idea of a written conversation and in the classroom, it might be that we have a big piece of chart paper with an idea that goes in the center or a student takes a post-it note out of their book and places it in the center and then everyone writes around that idea. Drawing a line, writing an idea, circling it, drawing a line from that and moving on.

You can do this online too. You could do it with a Google slide where kids can type in each a different color, or it's like a texting conversation, right? Where kids can go back and forth and build on their own thinking. Each of these has different strengths. I think the ability to stop and think before you write something might be really good for kids to allow them time to process. So, there's benefit to this too. Of course, the live conversation has benefit, and it really kids to connect and be social. And they actually really love passing the videos back and forth or using Flipgrid too. So, those are just three ways to take one thing we do in class into an online environment. And you can switch it up. It doesn't have to be the same for everybody. It doesn't have to be the same for every club. They're just options and tools in the tool belt.

Brett: One of the tools in that tool belt that you give us is you model a lot of what you're talking about in the book through some videos that come with the book. Can you just talk a little bit about, you've got different age ranges that you tried to cover for us in the videos, can you just walk us through a little bit about what we can see in those videos?

Jen: Yeah. So, I have a kindergarten through eighth grade. I have videos of one-on-one conversations, some different mini lessons. I have welcome videos. I have how to tech videos, book clubs, strategy lessons. And I really try to show how it looks to go ... How do you take this online and in the book, give you an explanation for how all this goes.

Learn More About Connecting With Students Online

jenniferserravalloJennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann professional books, The Writing Strategies BookTeaching Reading in Small Groups; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest books are Understanding Texts & Readers, and A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences.

In Spring 2019, Jen’s new Complete Comprehension: Fiction and Complete Comprehension: Nonfiction were released. These assessment and teaching resources expands upon the comprehension skill progressions from Understanding Texts & Readers and offer hundreds more strategies like those in The Reading Strategies Book.

Additionally, Jen is the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes, where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.

Learn more about Jen and her work at https://www.heinemann.com/jenniferserravallo/, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Jennifer Serravallo, Jennifer Serravallo Podcasts, Distance Learning, Covid_19, Remote Learning, Connecting with Students Online, covid, Remote Teaching

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