Making School Work at Home: Local Advice on Adjusting to Remote Learning

Congrats families! We made it a full week into Montclair Public School’s program in Remote Learning! Breakfasts and lunches are being provided for students who qualify, Chromebooks and hotspots have been distributed to families who needed tech support, and teachers and students are settling into learning routines and smoothing out wrinkles. It’s not easy for teachers to adjust curriculum plans to remote learning and what feels like a moving target of expectations and needs, and it’s not easy for students of any age – or their families – to figure out how to help make learning work. Patience with each other and ourselves will be key in helping the Montclair school community find successful outcomes this spring.

Plans in each household will look different. While early elementary students will thrive with shorter activities and lots of physical movement, playtime, and breaks, older students can work on assignments closer to their regular schedule. Of course, with any plan for remote learning, families need to move ahead with what works for their circumstances and the personalities and needs of each child. Nothing is set in stone, and flexing, bending, adjusting, and applying patience is to be expected. For students who feel that the workload expectation is too much or too difficult, families are encouraged to contact their teachers via email during the school day. NB: Teachers of older grades sometimes have to balance well over 100 students with daily lessons, so give some time for responses as well. Likewise, if a family is sharing one or two devices for work and school, gently remind teachers that some assignments may need extensions or additional flexibility.

Each teacher and family is figuring out what is doable and how to balance learning with work and basic physical and emotional needs. Some of the challenges are universal: disruption to routines, anxieties regarding news and health, separation from friends and sometimes family. Montclair’s teachers, with their own families and lives, are right there with the rest of us. Next to these very real stressors, adjusting to remote learning strategies lags behind in importance. All this makes the learning curve for all of us huge. To make adjustment a little easier, however, it may help to hear from locals who have successful experience with that adjustment in both work and virtual classrooms.

Emily Archer, a longtime Online Berkeley College Professor, sees a silver lining for some middle and high school students, including a sense of control in this time of flux. “This may be a blessing in disguise for many students that do not like getting up early! If it works well in the home, parents can let older students decide when they complete their school-work for the day. Let students discover the best times of the day that they are focused, can stay in the “zone,” and build a schedule around those times, even if it heads into the evening or night. Let the morning be for hobbies, exercising, chores, socializing, etc. This also offers them a sense of autonomy.”

Tracy Odell, VP of Content at FinanceBuzz, and  Beth Calamia Scheckel, Associate Director of Global Initiatives at NJIT and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University, are Montclair parents and both have experience with making remote work and learning a success. We’ve asked them a few questions that families are wondering, and hopefully Tracy and Beth’s answers can help families figure out what is best for them.

How can students used to in-person class time make it feel more social to work on projects and classwork?

  • Tracy: Some of us work better in the presence of others. It might be that we’re social beings who are happiest when around others or we might need the accountability of knowing others are watching. Students who fall into either camp can try doing virtual study halls. Simply open up a video chat with friends and leave it open while you work. After you all say hello, mute your audio, but keep the video on so you can all work independently, but not alone.
  • Beth: Facetime or call a friend during breaks and lunch and/or go outside to avoid just switching to another online activity. Also, take advantage of teachers’ video classes, even if they are optional. Even with glitches, it will feel more like a class community.

What are some common pitfalls students might encounter as we adjust to the remote-learning model? 

  • Tracy: In the workplace, one of the issues I see remote workers have most often is time management. Creating a time-blocked schedule helps. Take your day and chunk it up into big blocks of time. Include the time you’ll work, but also build in time to get outside (in your backyard for now!) and connect with friends. Google calendar is an easy way to set up time blocks (set them up as recurring meetings/appointments), and you’ll get alerts when it’s time to switch tasks.
  • Beth: Even tech-savvy kids can have problems adjusting to online work. It’s not just about how to use the program or platform but, for example, if the teacher is having a video class they have to remember that they still have to take notes, not have their phones out, etc. They don’t necessarily have to sit at a desk, but they should place themselves in a location and position that’s conducive to learning (not lying on the sofa). If kids thrive on structure it will be difficult for them to manage schedules on their own. For example, if you tell them to work on ELA and then walk away, you might want to check on them after 30 minutes or so to help them stay on track.

How can students who have trouble focusing be successful? 

  • Tracy: Each morning, before you dive into work, write yourself a to-do list based on what you need to accomplish that day. If you find yourself drifting off, go back to the list to center yourself. Be sure to include even small tasks you want to accomplish on your list. Some research shows your brain gets a hit of dopamine every time you check something off your list — those check marks can actually make you feel good and want to do more!
  • Beth: Many of us can’t keep an eye on our children throughout their “school” day for many reasons. So, children are often left to focus on their own. After a week, we might realize we need to check Google classroom with our children twice a day. Keep an updated list of what is due on what day and when live video classes will occur, or when they will be available to watch. Collaboratively working on a schedule with your child that includes half-hour blocks to allow for flexibility or longer work sessions, depending on their needs or abilities. Schedule in time to get up and move around, even if it’s just to go up and down the stairs a few times. Staring at a screen without physical activity is not good for focusing!

How can students help teachers as they learn to hold virtual classrooms and chats successfully?

  • Tracy: Learn to use the mute button. Everyone but the speaker should be muted when you’re in a video call, otherwise there will be constant interruptions. Only you should hear your dog barking, not the whole virtual class!
  • Beth: Remind your child that our teachers are new to this, too, and they might be hosting more students in their virtual classrooms than in their real classrooms. Students can give teachers a break as they learn how to manage. Being respectful and keeping speaking up when they have class-related questions will help the teachers and themselves!

Adults! Are you working from home and having trouble settling in? A quick search will yield scores of advice, but we especially like what Karen Walrond of Chookooloonks has to say about the topic.

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