Originally published in CenterEd on November 1, 2013
Get moving — or laughing — to get learning
While Cady Looper can’t actually see and physically interact with her students, she still does her part to inject a bit of motion into the potentially sedentary world of online learning. “Say you’re working on a story about frogs, and you say ‘Okay, let’s get our frog eyes on’ or ‘Get your frog ears on and let’s hop around like frogs!’ Well, that’s adding movement. Whether or not they’re actually doing it, who knows? But it’s still getting them involved, they’re laughing at me because I’m being crazy, and you’re getting them involved in that lesson.”
To reward and motivate the kinds of learning behaviors she wants to see, Looper sends out encouraging emails and calls students and/or their parents to let them know she’s pleased with their progress. She also gives prizes and plays a variety of learning games (Design Question 5, Element 25) with students to keep them engaged.
Creating a collaborative culture among far-flung colleagues
Looper acknowledges that her way of “doing” school has the potential to be isolating and lonely: sitting alone in front of a computer and interacting with pixels on a screen for six hours or more every day is not for the faint of heart. Fortunately for her, she has a vibrant community of fellow online teachers that she can go to for support, inspiration, and camaraderie.
Even though they are scattered all over Oklahoma, Looper’s colleagues “meet” every week through email, video conference, and online chat rooms. They also make it a point to get together in person every quarter for professional development opportunities.
“We talk all the time, whereas in a brick-and-mortar setting you’re in separate classrooms and see each other maybe at lunchtime, recess, that kind of stuff,” Looper says. “I talk throughout the day with my colleagues, especially my teammate in the 4th grade level. We have PLCs every week and we can ask questions through instant messenger and get answers pretty quickly.”
Putting the pieces together for success
Implementing the Marzano evaluation model in their school has led Looper and her colleagues to rethink how they measure student engagement and learning. “The big focus for us last year was being able to tell if the students were understanding what we were teaching, so that we could weave that into building a better learning environment for our students,” she recalls.
A useful tool for building that environment has been Marzano’s learning goals and scales. Looper says her students initially struggled with the 4-3-2-1 rubrics, not understanding that it was okay to be less than perfect at the beginning of a unit, because the goal was to show progress toward mastery.
“Of course they all say, ‘I’m a 4’ because that’s the highest you can be, but I tell them ‘I want you to be honest, because a 3 is where you should be as a 4th grader, so if you’re a 4 that means you’re out of this world, in the atmosphere, way out in the solar system,’” Looper says with a laugh.
“When they really understand that, they back off and say ‘Okay, I’m more of a 2’ and they can pinpoint the exact thing they need to work for. They like that, but at first they do have a hard time.”
At this, Looper smiles and says with satisfaction, “At the end they’re like, ‘Now I’m a 3, I’m a 3! I understand!’ And yes, you can see those ‘aha’ moments on the computer.”
Food for thought: It’s a technological jungle out there, even when you’re not a teacher at a virtual school. What strategies have you found for enlisting technology as a partner?