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Starting Virtual School Off on the Right Foot

March 4, 2020


Insights from a Middle School Teacher at Saigon South International School

As we head into our fifth week of Virtual School in Vietnam, I think back to the day it was announced that students would not be returning to campus due to the ​COVID-19 Coronavirus​. This was late on a Sunday evening, but the next day, teachers came to campus as usual. By the end of that Monday, our middle school had our Virtual School platform up and running. The credit for such a successful start goes to the organization and communication of our principal, as well as the willingness of our unified staff to tackle the challenge together. We were fortunate to have positive support and clear direction from Day 1.

There are quite a few structures and strategies that have helped us be successful. The uniformity across our middle school at Saigon South International School has helped create stability and positive experiences for our students and staff. For those of you just getting started, I’d like to share some of the approaches that have worked well for us:

Preparation

–For those of you who have not started Virtual School, make sure students take home their notebooks/books every day. You likely won’t know in advance if your school will close. Likewise, as a teacher, take your needed items home each day. We’re allowed on campus to work, but in some countries, no one is allowed on campus.

–Determine if there can be a pick-up location for students or parents to get materials, books, or other items they may need from the classroom. For our school, this is outside of our security and health checkpoints, not in our secure campus grounds.

Pacing

–Realize that you can’t keep to the same lesson pace as you would in the classroom. It’s okay to have lessons that extend over two classes. It’s okay to change pacing to fit your students’ digital capabilities and digital access. It’s okay to have check-in days to make sure students are ready to move on to the next teaching point. As professionals, we are always modifying for our students’ needs and if pacing has to adjust, we have to tell ourselves that it’s okay!

–Give estimated times for completing each part of a lesson. Having these as guidelines will help students with understanding expectations and help them with time management. It also helps teachers plan better. ​We don’t really know how long it will take kids in their home environment – and we can’t see how long it is taking them. This allows us to figure out what adjustments need to be made.

Simplicity

–Definitely keep it simple. Estimate that students can do about 1/2 of what they can do in class for the time given. Some students may need more time, or 1-1 instruction through video conferencing.

–Give clear, simple, numbered directions for each assignment. Remember that not all of our students speak English as a first language, and even for those that do, simple, short directions are best. For example:

1. Open this ​slideshow​.
2. Find the document called: “5. Narrative Ideas” in your Google Drive.
3. As you read the slides, complete the matching sections in your document.
4. When you are finished, submit your document through PowerSchool Learning. 5. Due Date: 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 10th.

Formatting

–Keep your format for delivery the same for each lesson. For my own Virtual Classroom lessons, I have slideshows for each lesson which are uploaded to PowerSchool Learning, our school’s online learning platform. I’ve found that keeping my slideshow presentation for each lesson and creating a matching document in their Google Drive is easiest for my students. The slideshow often includes a video of me teaching as one of the slides.

–Start a numbering system in their Google Drives. I suggest your first virtual assignment being called: 1. (And whatever it’s name is). You’ll thank yourself later when you’re going through 10+ documents for 100+ kids!

—-Have all class lesson directions delivered in the same format for all subjects. Unify the layouts of pages where students will find information for each class. This was managed by our IT director and administration. On our first day, every teacher immediately created a “Virtual School” page that every student would land on when they went to any PowerSchool Learning class. This page has identical layouts for all subjects, making it easier for students to find what they need.

Consistency in Times

–Consistent timing across a division is important. At our middle school, all teachers post their lessons at the same time each day. This time is between 7:30-8:00 a.m. All assignments are due at the same time as well (9:00 p.m. to allow students to help younger siblings at home during the day.) This allows for students, whether in or out of country, to access information at the same time each day, as well as only having one time to remember for submission deadlines.

–We’ve encouraged our students to stay on a school schedule, and to check in with their classroom teacher at the beginning of each class block. We know how important it can be to have routines in an abnormal situation, for both physical and emotional well-being. The feedback we have received is that having a routine as close to regular school as possible is helping our students to view this experience as Virtual School, rather than, “having a lot of homework.”

–Students are asked to check in for the first 20 minutes of each block via Google Meet. I go over the new lesson, answer questions, and clarify directions. More often than not, students

are desiring interaction. They love to see their classmates online, and even though it isn’t the same, seeing their faces virtually always makes my day better as well! After the first 20 minutes, anyone can stay and work via video conference with me.

Structures for Feedback

–The structures we have in place for feedback have been incredibly helpful. Our administrator sends weekly surveys to students and we use these to monitor who we can reach out to on a regular basis. We track responses week-by-week to see change over time, to determine how our students are feeling about their learning, and to see where we can improve. We know that our students have academic needs and socio-emotional needs, and our feedback systems focus on both. If your school has an advisory system, I’d encourage you to capitalize on advisory teachers’ relationships with students as you ask students for feedback.

Structures for Tracking and Helping Students

–Our administration also has systems in place for monitoring which students need help, tracking missing assignments, and setting up “case managers” for students who need extra support. These have worked very well. From using the analytics of PowerSchool Learning, to keeping track of contact with every student in Google Sheets, we can see the history of personal outreach to each student in our middle school.

–All of our teachers and staff reach out to individual students each day by video chats or phone calls, but we are also case managers for students who are struggling. We reach out to these students more frequently. For the three students I help, I talk with them 3-5 times a week. We set up plans for learning together, and I cheer them on as they finish assignments. I also encourage them to join their class chats with other teachers. The more contact we have with our students, the better it is for all of us!

Keeping Up the Fun!

–We’ve kept up what makes middle school fun for our students, too. House Leagues are still happening, our latest trivia being, “Which Teacher Sang That Song?” A weekly video on Mondays is sent out for House Leagues, with jokes, wigs, funny hats, and point results all included.

–Videos are loved by our students! We are sending weekly fun videos on Fridays to the students from our entire MS staff. So far we’ve had TikTok challenges, “SSIS Without You,” and a video montage that included Marz, the science classroom lizard. Our principal is the positive force behind these videos, and they are a huge hit.

–Our librarian has set up a system for daily library book check-outs. She has even wrapped up books as “blind dates” for students to enjoy, and there were a plethora of pink and red-wrapped books on Valentine’s Day! Students could pick them up in a delivery area outside of school grounds from 9-3, and they are disinfected upon return. Our Book Bingo reading challenge continues as well.

–In my own classroom, we are going to have a “Battle of the Memes” next week with student-generated memes connected to their analysis of Greek literature. I also have a joke ready for my class each day when they log on for our Virtual Class. When students finish all of their assignments, I’ve been known to dance on our video chats.

Wellness

–Wellness for our staff is highly encouraged and supported. People care for each other at SSIS. We invite each other to go off campus and eat lunch. We get each other out of the classroom to take walks outside. Our P.E. department organizes daily activities to get us moving. Our Sunshine Committee provides healthy snacks and smoothie vouchers at a nearby cafe. We meet at the coffee pot, and we take breaks as needed. We listen, cheer each other on, and understand that this is tough and that we are there for each other.

–As a staff, we recognize that some days are great and we’re super productive, and other days it’s hard to even open up another student folder to give feedback. These are the times when we reach out to the teacher next door for perspective (and perhaps some chocolate). Lots of grace for others and for ourselves is encouraged.

Finally, I have to say that the support and clear direction from my administrators has been fantastic. Our middle school leadership team is strong and unified. They are a critical connection between administration and teachers, as we are not allowed to have large-group gatherings. I am very fortunate to have such a positive and supportive school in an uncertain time.

While we all eagerly await for the day our students can return (I have promised to throw paper confetti and dance, much to the delight of my students), we know that the structures we have in place are working, and we are modifying all the time to improve them. While we may only see our students through a screen for the unforeseen future, I’d like to think that our relationships with them are even stronger, as we face this unique situation together. I wish the same for you and your students as well.

Erin Johnson is a Language Arts and Digital Literacy teacher at Saigon South International School. Along with her husband, she taught in China, Indonesia, South Korea, and the U.S. prior to coming to Vietnam. Erin is involved in leading students in Global Issues Network Club and believes that Service Learning should be a foundational component of a K-12 curriculum. Her interests include curriculum development, strategy board games, reading, and coffee. You can connect with her at ejohnson@ssis.edu.vn