The Art of Teaching During COVID-19

Level Up Your Distance Learning Game

Peg Maddocks, PhD, Executive Director, NapaLearns
Published on October 6, 2020

Like many school districts across the country, Napa County was caught off-guard with the sudden closure of schools this spring. Distance learning was unplanned, which led to uneven execution, and unsuccessful learning experiences for many students. 

We discovered that most teachers were unprepared to replace their in-person, front-of-the-classroom teaching styles with a virtual Zoom room on two levels: First, coming up to speed with technologies like Zoom and other tools that were necessary to deliver their lessons — the delivering mechanisms, if you will. And second, learning how to use those technologies to provide the social-emotional support needed for students to engage and learn. The latter is where classrooms become more interactive, relevant, and motivating for students, resulting in higher student achievement. 

Taking a Step Back

As a result, this summer we found ourselves asking: 

  • What did we learn from what happened in the spring? What went well and what could have been better?
  • How could we design routines and norms to help teachers get ready for back to school?
  • How should we reimagine classrooms and teaching practices that create emotional connections with kids and parents?

To answer these questions, NapaLearns teamed up with the Napa County Office of Education and LearnShift — a group of teacher volunteers who earned their master’s degrees through the NapaLearns Fellows program — and hosted a 3-day conference called “Level Up Your Distance Learning Game.”  More than 130 teachers in Napa County attended and participated in sessions on how to devise lessons that built clarity, community, and engagement.

Learning and Engagement Strategies

The primary goal of the conference was to equip teachers with the key tools and approaches they need to forge a connection with their students. It focused more on learning strategies and how to increase student engagement, and less on the curriculum-based tools that the districts provided to their teachers. 

To do that, the teachers leading the conference relied on the CASELS social emotional learning methodology. Social emotional learning provides students with the agency they need to engage in their own learning and helps them feel they are part of the classroom so they show up and participate. 

Typically, by the time teachers are in their third year of teaching, they have developed a style of their own that defines how they interact with their students and how students interact with them. For many teachers, moving to a distance learning paradigm felt like starting their teaching careers all over again.

We took a step back and addressed what is at the heart of teaching. We explored strategies on how to take what teachers normally do when they start the school year to build a class community and transfer that to a digital environment. We provided ways to measure student understanding and how to break students into online groups that facilitate interaction. 

There’s a human element to teaching and our goal was to bring that humanity to the art of teaching online. 

Hands-On Workshops

In addition to learning and engagement strategies, participating teachers were able to create their own unique content. They built a classroom website to provide their students and parents a one-stop shop for learning what’s happening in the classroom. They also created their own bitmoji’s or avatars to form fun links with their students and they recorded their own welcome back videos to greet their students who could in turn share them with their parents. 

Teachers were excited about getting organized and putting joy into their online lessons, making them more active and integrated. They started moving to a more blended learning environment — using video, reading on-screen, and using their creativity to become storytellers — that allows personalization and builds online relationships with their students. 

Teachers started the journey of recreating their style.

An Investment in Our Teachers

Distance learning is happening throughout Napa County. This conference was a way for teachers to invest in themselves and redefine their teaching practices to fit the times we are in.

Our hope is they will adopt this new way of teaching and learning, and that they will be proud of what they’re doing in their classrooms. We plan to continue these kinds of professional development opportunities so teachers can continue to grow in their practice and confidence.