Guest Post: 5 Structures for Virtual School

by Tan Huynh

This post was originally published on Tan Huynh’s fantastic blog, Empowering ELLs. We’ve reposted here with his permission.

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Due to the increase of schools and districts offering distance learning or virtual school in response to the COVID19 outbreak, I wanted to share how my school is structuring online learning for students.  This is not an article directly related to working with language learners, but the suggestions can be applied to working language learners.

There are numerous ways to structure online learning, and I would like to share how we have structured it within our international, private school context.  Readers of this article will find it helpful if they are also offering a one-to-one program. These structures work for us because all of our students have internet access at home.  You will have to adapt it to your school context if students do not have internet access outside of school.

We have been offering virtual school since February 3rd, and we did not have time to prepare students or families on how to navigate virtual learning.  We are entering our 7th week of virtual learning, and these structures have been the ones that have been the most successful for us.

The key is to remember that a virtual school is built on the same blocks that support a physical school .  The how of virtual school looks different, but the why must remain the same. For us, that means:

  • prioritizing curriculum planning
  • investing in relationships with students, colleagues, and families
  • intentionally integrating technology when appropriate

You will see these three foundational blocks in the five structures I share in this article.

Create a Week-at-a-Glance document

I suggest creating a document that houses all the work students are supposed to do for the entire week.  We did not do this initially as we thought virtual schooling was going to be just a two-week experience. Both students, teachers, and families were drowning in the flood of links and documents.

We then created a Week-at-a-Glance document to house all of the assignments for the week.  Where applicable, we embedded links to videos, assignments, and other documents. Both students and families appreciated this document as it provided a big picture of the week.  Students and families could design their day and week by anchoring to this document.

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An actual example of a Week-at-a-Glance document from one of my co-teachers.

Host office hours

In my grade, we have blocked off 9 AM to 11 AM as teacher office hours.  We scheduled our online conferences with students with Google Meet. The teachers in my grade used this time to:

  • Model instruction
  • Teach content
  • Gauge student wellness
  • Host book clubs
  • Provide small group or individual tutoring

Because the office hours are at a consistent time, students became used to this time and families appreciated it structured the day for students.  They could plan for activities with their children after 11 AM.

I encourage you to have small-group meetings of five to eight students for 20 to 30 minutes.  Larger groups mean less engagement by students. Just like how they hide from participating during in-person school, a whole-class virtual meeting provides an enticing opportunity to disappear.  The short duration keeps the meetings engaging.

Most of the time, these meetings are scheduled and assigned. At other times, we give students a time frame, and they can self-select appointment times.

The key to virtual learning is not losing the personal element of an in-person classroom.  With frequent and weekly online conferences, students retain some semblance of a learning community that makes school so special.

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One day of virtual school for Tan that includes times with students and team members.

Collaborate with colleagues 

No other time in my teaching career has collaborating with colleagues been so essential to students, families, and our collective well-being. We have made it a point to block 1 PM to 2 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays to collaborate.  We use this time to divide the work, share strategies, and support each other. One of the key deliverables from these meetings is a completed Week-at-a-Glance document for the following week.

At these meetings, the language specialist can provide strategies that would work for language learners or team with another colleague to make virtual learning more accessible for language learners.

For the past six weeks, we have been coming to school and have been maintaining regular school working hours.  As of March 17, we have been directed to facilitate virtual learning off-site. We will continue to collaborate but now virtually on Zoom. As we go to virtual teacher collaboration, the Week-at-a-Glance document will structure our online collaboration.

Leverage Technology

We could offer instruction without technology as it has provided means to teach content and facilitate student engagement. These are my most used programs to facilitate virtual learning:

  • Screencastify: Create a slide deck or a document used to teach a lesson.  Record yourself narrating the slides or document. Send the video to students.
  • Edpuzzle: Embed comprehension questions or audio notes in a video recording.  As students watch the video, the embedded question or audio note will appear and either play your message or ask them to answer a question.  On the dashboard, you can check students’ responses if you have embedded a question. 
  • Google Suite: We are using many of the products such as Google Docs, Slides, Google Drawing, and From to demonstrate their understanding and for us to share content.
  • Non-Google Suite creation apps:
    • Book Creator – users can publish their writing electronically
    • Flipgrid – users can record video responses
    • Buncee – users can create a presentation and infographics
    • Adobe Spark – users can create animated videos, graphics, web pages

Because I work in Vietnam, we cannot use Talking Points, but if I was in the U.S. or Canada and my school moved to distance learning, I would then use Talking Points to communicate with families.  Talking Points allows teachers to

  • send free SMS messages to families in English.
  • Families receive these messages in their home language.
  • Families respond to the teacher by texting in their home language.
  • The teacher receives the translated SMS message in English.

Their program allows you to communicate in 100+ languages! THAT’S AMAZING!

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Send physical work home 

Every two weeks, we send physical packets of work home.  Families come to school and pick up the packets for their children.  This might be an option for schools where teachers are still allowed to come to school to work.  Additionally, this method might help families who do not have internet access at home. The contents of the packet can also align with the assignments on the Week-at-a-Glance document.

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My school organizes library book pick-up to keep students engaged in reading.

We are creating the plane as we’re flying, but I hope the lessons we have gleaned from our seven weeks of virtual learning can be of service to you and your district. If you have suggestions or ideas, please share them with me on Twitter @TanELLClassroom.

May you, your family, and your school family stay safe and healthy in these demanding times. You’re not alone! I’m right there with you!

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