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What Teachers Recommend for Virtual Schooling in the Fall

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Learning the Hard Way

There is little doubt that we're embarking on new educational ground in this country. While some children will soon be back in school entirely, plenty of others will continue learning entirely remotely or through a blended approach — partially at home and partially back in a school building. If bringing kids home to be safely taught in the spring was a testing ground, we're all getting ready for the real deal when school starts up again this fall. We talked to teachers and other education experts to find out the tips and products they recommend for a successful school year in a world rocked by a pandemic.

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A Positive Attitude

This was voiced by many teachers as one of the most important tools to have this school year. "We all need to be positive, particularly in front of our students. Students pick up on doubt or lack of buy-in from adults so easily and respond in turn by tuning out. They can quickly become disengaged with learning," says Cindy Hemming, a parenting blogger at Living for the Sunshine and elementary school teacher. "No matter what your personal feelings and (valid) frustrations about virtual education are, do not share them with your children. Put on a happy face, and let your kids know you'll all be making the best of things. Children will take your lead."

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An Organized, Dedicated Space

Learning from home can be "a blessing and a curse for students," says James Patrick, head of growth for Numerade, which works with thousands of high school and college instructors who have shared their insights with his company. "A conscious effort must be made to develop a space at home for students that is deliberately set up for class time. This requires creating an environment that is quiet, well lit, has a desk, and most importantly, is isolated and distraction-free." Jessica Robinson of The Speaking Polymath recommends going a step further: "Try to decorate the study space in a manner which is motivating for children. For example, they can paste pictures of their achievements ... (or) paste pictures of their kids' role models around their study space."

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Robinson notes that a good pair of noise-canceling headphones can "reduce the amount of noise that reaches the ears. As a result, children can focus on studies without getting distracted by noise from TV, family members, and other sources. Further, such gadgets and gizmos attract kids towards them in a magnetic manner. So, this gadget can attract kids to study just for the sake of using it." These Cowin headphones are a popular model bought by Cheapism readers. If wireless works better, a number of models in Cheapism's "13 Perfectly Good Wireless Earbuds Way Cheaper Than AirPods" are both affordable and noise-canceling.

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A Planned Routine

Parents and their children, says Cristina Hudgins Davis, a high school English teacher in Tupelo, Mississippi, should all sit down as a family and plan easy, simple routines. "Everyone should write down their needs and their concerns, then help each other plan routines and implement them." As those plans start to play out once school starts, she adds, "be encouraging and be honest if something is not working so you can change it. We will all have trial and error this year. I plan to give myself and my students grace, as well as ask my students and their parents to give me grace."

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This is an item that Meredith Essalat, principal of a K-8 school in San Francisco and author of “The Overly Honest Teacher,” highly recommends families add to their organizational and planning arsenal. "A whiteboard for to-do lists and a calendar to keep track of when assignments are due are huge assets in helping your children stay on track," she says. "The physical act of writing down dates and tasks to be completed, seeing them laid out in order, and being able to cross them off when done are terrific tools in developing a system of time management and accountability."

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Open Communication

Parents should keep the lines of communication with their schools and districts open as much as possible, says Jenn Breisacher, CEO of Student-Centered World, a company that is helping teachers make the switch to blended learning. "We are obviously living through a very difficult time and even the best-laid plans can be thrown by the wayside at a moment's notice. We need to be flexible, but 100% understand what requirements are at any given time," she notes. "This could be in regards to actual schoolwork, participation, timing, safety precautions, etc. The most important part to remember is that if everyone is on the same page and it is apparent that something in place is not working, it is much easier to adapt and find an alternative."

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Essalat also recommends that parents and children work together on a system for keeping track of assignments. "Keeping track of assignments, whether incomplete or turn-in ready, is a crucial organizational skill. Colored folders, with pockets, and labeled with each subject is an easy, hassle-free system for building an organizing routine for your child. For optimal organization, build in a nighttime routine of distributing homework by subject and by level of completion into each folder."

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A Consistent Schedule

Every child, says Teri Shepard, Rosetta Stone's Homeschool expert, "has a natural window for learning. That may depend on their age, attentiveness, what is happening in the home. For instance, when my children were younger, we could easily schedule blocks of time for learning earlier in the morning. As they became teens, later in the evening and even into night hours worked better with their schedules. Seek these times out. They will be more willing to receive instruction during these times. Education does not have to happen 9-5."

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With the increased use of technology inherent in virtual learning, Essalat recommends that parents invest in a pair of these for their children if possible. "The fall is going to rely on an increase in the use of technology. Blue light blocking glasses can help protect your child's eyes and reduce the fatigue that often comes with online learning."

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Peer Connections

Experts recommend that you make sure your child is connecting with their friends and other students whenever possible. "Life is not a single-player game and neither is learning," says Numerade's Patrick. "From the comradery that develops when students struggle through topics together to the empathetic learning that comes from teaching materials to peers that are struggling, a holistic approach to education must lean heavily on social interactions. Without it, learning stalls, students run the risk of failing to develop the soft-skills of human interaction, and depression can rear its ugly head." If these interactions are not initiated by teachers, he adds, "students and parents need to organize themselves to carry on the tradition of study groups in a virtual setting."

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Passion Projects

Kourtney Ferrua, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the McMinnville, Oregon school district, recommends that parents try to incorporate passion projects into their child's education, especially if their district or school isn't already doing so. "Under normal circumstances, we know that relationships, student engagement, and content that connects to student interests leverage better outcomes for kids," she says. "In this new learning environment, we need to be intentional about getting to know our students, understanding their interests, and align learning to things that will motivate them. Recognizing that curiosity fosters self-motivated learning, we can leverage student interest and passion to help kids own their own learning and stay engaged in learning remotely."

 

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For parents who can afford a larger expense, a simple Kindle is a great investment, says Robinson, because it involves a distraction-free reading experience compared to smartphones or other devices that are loaded with games and apps. "It is specifically designed for reading purposes and no distractions can disturb them," she says. "Further, Kindle always ensures maximum reading comfort for kids by minimizing eye strain."

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Educator Engagement

Remote learning, Patrick notes, can "transform education into a one-way street. Whereas in a classroom setting, lectures occur in conjunction with teacher-led Socratic-style discussions, at-home lessons are largely limited to an instructor talking at the class." Because of this, he says, parents must encourage their children to initiate conversations with instructors when possible. "This comes in the form of using email or other online platforms to ask questions directly to teachers." For more introverted students, these tactics might act in their favor. "The sudden normalization of this sort of interaction has actually improved their participation and understanding," Patrick adds.

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A Daily Check-In

Jen Manly, a Maryland-based high school and college-level computer science teacher who's also taught middle school, says that "the best thing parents can do to support their students through distance learning is implement systems that empower student ownership and agency, while also giving both students and parents the structure to be able to communicate about their learning." One way to do this, she notes, is through a simple daily check-in with three things on the agenda: What they've worked on since the last time they met with their parent; what they're planning to work on for the day or the next day if the meeting is in the afternoon; and what obstacles are in their way.

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To help keep kids motivated, stock up on a few small things to reward hard work and effort. "They don't have to be over-the-top prizes, either: mini-erasers, Starburst, stickers," Essalat notes. "This strategy can be used in distance learning — showing up to every Zoom class on-time, every day; completing all blended learning assignments; cleaning up their study space at the end of each day — or, as a motivator for grades earned, chores completed, academic goals met."

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Educational Supplements

Patrick's final tip requires more parental involvement, for sure, but it's one he says is important. "A single educator limited to synchronous classes online will always fall short of that same educator's capacity to teach IRL (in real life). The only way to combat this shortcoming is to plug additional outlets for learning into a student's educational resources toolkit." Sites like Numerade, he notes, have aggregated learning material, tools, and lessons that help students "take their education into their own hands and seek expanded information and clarification beyond the resources provided by their school."

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Organizational Ingenuity

While investing in a few organizational products can be helpful, keep in mind that you don't have to spend a ton of money and might even have a few things lying around the house that can help. For instance, get a study area ready using "Mason jars for pens and pencils and a cookie sheet (with edges) for housing paper, Post-it notes, and index cards," Essalat recommends. "Use leftover toilet paper rolls to contain cords and charging cables to reduce entanglement."

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When All Else Fails ...

Remember that positive attitude recommended by many experts? It's not always possible to just put on a happy face — even in the best of times, of course, and these are not those. Kirt Page, a Myanmar-based college professor, says that if a positive attitude isn't always attainable, at least shoot for something above dejection. "I would say that the No. 1 thing I would recommend is developing equanimity. Realizing that 'this too shall pass.'"

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