First Person

Ask an Expert: Making the most of online learning

EdNews Parent expert Ann Morrison offers tips on how to help your child make progress in a virtual classroom.

Q. My teenager is taking a couple of classes online this semester to supplement the classes he is taking at school. At first we thought it would be a great idea because he has a job and it allows him more flexibility. The trouble is that he is falling behind in his online classes. We talk to him about it and he tells us that he will “take care of it,” but when we check his grades, it turns out he hasn’t. We are worried he won’t pass these classes. What do we do?

A. Several implicit characteristics of online learning contribute to making it easier for students to fall behind.

Denver Public Schools’ students work in a computer lab in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

First, put a student in front of a computer and, at some point, they will end up on Facebook or some other site that is more interesting than their math or English class.

It takes motivation and self-regulation to attend to challenging work for extended periods. These skills are strengths for some students, but not for all.

Second, where face-to-face classes allow for socially-constructed learning through interaction with peers in real time, student interaction with peers in the virtual classroom comes through discussion boards.

Often, a teacher will pose a question on the discussion board for students to respond to. Depending on the time frame of the course, one student may respond to the question and another may not log in for days or weeks.

Although the activity is intended to foster discussion, unless all of the students are on the assignment at the same time the discussion ends up being more of a string of responses to the question without interaction between the students. Learning from peers is an important part of classroom learning that is largely missing in online classes.

A student may have a question that requires an answer before proceeding. The teacher and resources provided by the course are just two sources of information. Other high-quality sources of information are available on the Internet and in books. Finding and using these sources can take some initiative and problem-solving which, again, are strengths for some students but not for all.

Last, while online teachers can provide information to students, they cannot watch and listen for student learning and adjust instruction accordingly. In the face-to-face environment, a teacher can look at student faces and listen to their discussion to gauge whether students are learning. If a class needs clarification or re-teaching, the teacher can check student understanding and provide guidance in that moment.

If a student misunderstands content in an online class, the teacher may only become aware of it when grading the student’s assignments.

So what is a parent to do?

Here are some tips that could help:

• Decide how involved you will be. First, decide whether you need or want to have control of the situation or if you want to encourage your child to take control of the situation himself. This decision is fundamental in how you proceed in supporting your child in completing online classes successfully. Your approach need not be completely hands-off or hands-on. Your child may be more motivated by one class than another, requiring differing levels of adult involvement and supervision.

Consistent study time. Elements that add structure to an online course are test and assignment due dates, a consistent daily schedule that includes time for coursework and breaks, a work environment that lends itself to studying, and an adult who checks progress at least once a day.

Assignment calendar. Managing studying and assignments independently can be overwhelming and frustrating. The answer to managing assignments is an assignment calendar. Many course management systems have due dates for each assignment. Some students take online classes to accommodate athletic, work or travel schedules, however. In this case, the assignment calendar needs to accommodate those parts of the student’s life.

Divide up the work. In order to make an assignment calendar for your child, take the number of assignments your child needs to complete before the end of the course and divide by the number of days they will be working on it. Adjust the workload to group more small assignments on one day and leave tests or larger assignments as the only task for other days. Keep the assignment calendar somewhere conspicuous in your home and let your child cross off units, tests or assignments as they are completed.

Use a planner. If you want to encourage your student to take more responsibility for their success, provide them with the tools they need, ask them to make a master schedule and then show it to you. A calendar or planner they like is a good tool. Take a trip to the office supply store and let them pick out their own planner to increase their buy-in for using it.

Same time, every day. Most parents, teachers and administrators of online learning will say that it is essential for a student to work on their online courses at a consistent time every day. Making consistent progress is much more difficult when a child’s schedule doesn’t allow for consistent work time.

Create a good work environment. Creating a work environment that lends itself to studying is important. Students who are easily distracted will benefit from low room lighting and a desk lamp to direct attention to the course materials and computer and away from visual distractions in the environment. Many students will insist that they study best on their beds or in their bedrooms. If they make progress working in the environment they say works for them, then great. If they do not show success working where they want to, then the environment needs to be changed.

Check your child’s progress. It is important for a parent to check their child’s progress regularly. If you are taking more control of your child’s progress, then be clear about consequences for not staying on schedule and be prepared to follow through. Alternately, consequences for lack of follow-through must be paired with rewards for strong follow-through. In order to decide on appropriate rewards and consequences, consider what is important to your child. Make rewards and consequences proportional.

Parents who are leaning toward encouraging their child to take more responsibility for themselves should still check progress regularly. Be sure your child knows the natural consequences for lack of progress and then be prepared to let them fail. The lessons learned from natural consequences can sometimes be the best lessons of all.

Let us know if this helps.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.