A Year in the Life: Instruction during Remote Learning

We are releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them.

Because so much of remote learning happens individually—a student working on a computer, a teacher speaking to a screen—capturing common themes on the subject can be a difficult undertaking. There are as many stories of remote learning as there are participants in it. But after listening to students, parents, teachers, and staff who have taken part in remote learning in Somerville Public Schools over the past year, a number of themes have emerged that bring a broader story into focus—and point toward ways forward for the education system, in Somerville and beyond.

Our efforts to dig into Somerville’s experience have two main aims: first, to get a better understanding of what has happened over the past year during the period of remote learning; second, to figure out what can be distilled from this experience to better support student learning in the future. It is important to note that our aim is not to reexamine any decisions made about remote learning, whether to justify, condemn, validate, or criticize those decisions. Certainly, we recognize that remote learning is not an optimal modality for most students—particularly young children, students with disabilities, multilingual learners, and other high-risk populations—and we do not highlight remote learning in order to extol it as a model that should be replicated in the future. Rather, we take the past year as a starting point for our investigation and seek to advance a deeper understanding of where the education system should go from here. In order to do so, however, we must first share some context on Somerville’s transition to remote learning.


Somerville’s Remote Learning Context

As in other schools and districts statewide, the switch to remote learning happened abruptly in Somerville. Schools closed on March 12th, first for two days of deep cleaning, then for two weeks, and then for the remainder of the school year. The district’s focus during this period was to meet the basic needs of students and families, expand access to tools and services that could support at-home learning, and check in on how students (and teachers) were coping with the transition. For many students and families, this was a period of limited contact with teachers, especially teachers who were themselves challenged in working with the necessary technology. Even for students who had access to devices and understood their use, shifting schedules, new learning platforms, and a profusion of meeting links often led to confusion and disconnection. The results from a parent survey administered in June and July 2020 highlighted some of the challenges: for instance, 70% of families said helping their child during remote learning was stressful, and 29% said the most difficult thing was keeping track of their student’s meetings, assignments, and passwords (only slightly lower than the 31% who pointed to the challenge of balancing work responsibilities with remote learning).

The district’s reopening plan, approved by the School Committee on August 17, laid out two options for parents to choose for the start of the school year. In the Full Remote Learning Model, families could opt to participate in fully asynchronous learning through a district-licensed learning management system. In the Phased Hybrid Learning Model, students would start the year fully remote in classes led by Somerville educators and gradually transition to in-person learning as health and safety conditions allowed (and subject to union agreements).

The first students in the Phased Hybrid model were brought back into school buildings on February 1, 2021, as part of a voluntary pilot for selected high-need special education populations. Additional populations of students in high-need programs were brought back on March 18, pre-K/Kindergarten students followed the next week, and older students (up to grade 8) gradually returned with hybrid schedules during the rest of March and April (for more, see the district’s schedule of phases). As students returned to school buildings in increasingly large numbers, district-implemented safety measures (such as required weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and staff) have focused on ensuring that schools can remain open for the foreseeable future. Beginning on Monday, April 26, all students in grades preK-8 who opted for in-person instruction have returned to fully in-person learning, although most high school students continue to learn remotely for the time being.

Somerville’s approach, particularly in contrast with surrounding districts that transitioned students to hybrid or in-person learning earlier in the year, has provoked substantial backlash from some local parents, many of whom cite a lack of trust in district decision-making as a factor driving them away from Somerville Public Schools in the future. At the same time, approximately 15% of families (with a total of 488 preK-8 students) have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the remainder of the school year rather than return to school buildings this month. District leaders responsible for planning remote learning services for these students note that this seems to be especially prevalent among immigrant families, particularly those sharing living spaces with multiple generations and concerned about the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to elderly relatives.

Nevertheless, as remote learning comes to an end this week for most preK-8 students, this dispatch will highlight our findings from conversations with a range of stakeholders connected to Somerville Public Schools. To gather information, we reviewed a variety of relevant documents (e.g., remote learning plans, professional development schedules, student reflections), developed targeted interview and focus group questions for various stakeholders, and conducted a series of virtual interviews and focus groups over the course of several weeks. These included interviews with seven district leaders, three focus groups that brought together a total of ten teachers, and a focus group with five students. We spoke with two out-of-school-time partners and three parents to gather additional context, and we collected 44 responses to a parent survey available in English and Spanish (which was conducted in lieu of a focus group in order to collect a broader range of responses). After completing our data collection, we analyzed the responses to identify common themes, highlighted below.

We zeroed in on three topics highlighted in the Rennie Center’s Back-to-School Blueprint Supporting Remote Learning action guide and grounded in research on the core elements of remote learning: relationships, instruction, and technology. Each section examines a set of core themes and notes a few areas that schools and districts may want to explore as they look to a future beyond remote learning. Read on below to learn more about instruction. Or check our our posts on relationships and technology.


Teaching and Learning: Curriculum/Content Creation

During remote learning, instructional materials had to be designed and delivered in new ways. Last spring, district leaders saw many teachers putting tremendous time and energy into creating content, rather than engaging with students and families. In an attempt to ease this burden, Somerville’s instructional coaches stepped in to help develop standards-aligned curriculum materials. Over the course of the summer and throughout the school year, coaches produced slides for daily ELA and math lessons in grades K-8. These slides covered core grade-level content and included embedded opportunities for student practice and assessment. Outside of K-8, there were also other efforts to curate and share instructional materials; for instance, preK teachers collaborated to put together curriculum-aligned slide decks and recorded themselves presenting the materials in order to build learner’s understanding and independence. And through its Catalyst project, Citizen Schools worked with a cohort of nine teachers to offer standards-aligned science projects.

Educators and district staff also worked diligently to ensure that students had the necessary materials to engage with the curriculum. Along with distributing devices and internet connections (as described in the “Technology” section), staff assembled and mailed out around 1,000 paper packets to students and families last spring, ensuring that students had something to work on while they waited to get online. Teams of paraprofessionals also put together and sent out hundreds of learning kits to more than 500 students from preK, Head Start, and (in some cases) Kindergarten. These kits aimed to help families create learning spaces at home, and included items such as math manipulatives (dice, counters, etc.) and scissors and paper strips to support motor skill development.

In order to engage students and promote culturally and linguistically relevant learning amid the pandemic, one effective strategy was developing curriculum materials with real-world relevance. For the Summer Program for English Language Learners (SPELL) last year, educators built a curriculum for grades 2-12 focused on essential workers. It incorporated weekly units on health workers, supermarket workers, and other professions, with embedded practice to build language and reading skills. During the summer program, guests also came in representing different groups of workers. For the multilingual students in the program, many of whom come from immigrant families with essential workers in the home, this curriculum allowed students to elevate their personal experiences and connect it with a broader social justice lens, all while building language skills.

Teaching and Learning: Instruction and Pedagogy

Despite the availability of curriculum materials, delivering content was a consistent challenge for teachers, particularly differentiating to meet the needs of individual students. Teachers can’t walk around a virtual classroom to check for understanding, and while teachers agreed that the district-produced slides were helpful, they were also geared toward students on grade-level rather than those performing above or below that level. Keeping students engaged who finished their work early (or struggled to complete it) was a particular challenge noted by parents as well as teachers, even amid the larger struggle to help students stay on task. Multiple teachers shared stories of students who were sleeping, playing video games, fetching groceries, or otherwise occupied while off-camera; meanwhile, students admitted that it was hard to stay focused on the content with so many distractions (as one put it, “In person, I can’t take my phone out in the middle of class”). Limited peer connections and a lack of clarity on due dates and expectations were also factors cited by students to explain their disengagement from material.

Teachers found exercising their craft in new ways during remote learning to be exhausting, mentally draining, and less fulfilling than in-person instruction. Managing a Zoom classroom, recording attendance and engagement, monitoring the chat, accessing materials, and presenting content forced teachers to quickly hone their skills at multitasking (one noted, “I got really good at becoming an octopus, having multiple arms doing different things”). Yet along with becoming more skilled multitaskers, teachers noted that remote learning forced them to be clearer with their directions, to break material down into bite-sized chunks, and to think creatively about how to work with students.

Even with all the challenges inherent in remote instruction, teachers and students did experience some bright spots during the year. For example, two reading teachers piloted a sequence of lessons for small-group reading interventions last spring that demonstrated positive results. Based on these results, reading teachers, coaches, and district leaders created additional resources, shared videos of their practices, and gradually rolled them out to additional schools and students. Over the summer, this model of intervention was used twice a week with 140 students; the number grew to approximately 400 students starting in the fall. Preliminary results on diagnostic assessments indicate that participating students have made strong progress in foundational reading skills.

Other teachers found they could leverage technology in new ways to engage learners. One middle school ELA teacher built on students’ interest in role play and dramatic readings by having them produce and record an online “radio play.” Students also used online tools to produce slide shows and portfolios of their learning, while teachers used new apps and tools to monitor students’ progress on assignments (such as having students work on shared Google Docs). Another teacher noted that he was able to bring in a wealth of content from around the globe to share with students, such as virtual productions from theater companies forced to cancel in-person performances. Incorporating music and video clips helped ease students into learning for the day and “made the screen more inviting,” especially for learners with sensory issues.

Moving forward:

     -  As a district, continue to make available high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials, enabling educators to focus their planning on how to support individual student needs rather than content creation.

     -  Connect curriculum to real life (particularly life amid the pandemic), building on examples like the SPELL essential workers curriculum.

     -  Leverage the power of technology in targeted ways to ensure students maintain the digital skills they have built over the past year. This includes incorporating opportunities for digital content creation (portfolios, presentations, etc.) that allow students to share their thinking with teachers and each other.

     -  Reflect on effective remote teaching practices (e.g., giving directions, using visual cues such as thumbs up) and integrate these into daily planning and execution of in-person lessons.


Progress Monitoring and Assessment

Just as remote learning made it more difficult for teachers to check students’ understanding during classes, it also complicated the process of monitoring and assessing students’ progress overall. Particularly last spring, students reported receiving limited feedback on their work, which was graded on completion rather than content. Even into this school year, they still felt that due dates and expectations were less clear than in the past, which made it harder to stay accountable to teachers and keep their grades up. A number of parents reported that they received information on their students’ progress only through brief parent conferences and report cards (where a profusion of “N/A” marks fed into fears about students missing out on critical content). Additionally, as one district leader acknowledged, more individual conversations with students or families would have been a rich source of data on areas of success and challenges, but they had limited bandwidth for this sort of time-intensive outreach.

Students’ previous academic track record did not reliably predict how they would perform academically during remote learning. Some students with strong academic records found their grades slipping as their interest in remote classes flagged. As one high school junior shared, “I really used to care about my grades and stuff, and I’ve noticed over this school year, basically, my grades are really, really bad…. I feel like my teachers this year don’t know who I am, so in the back of their head they’re probably thinking, okay, this is just a student that doesn’t want to do her work, but I feel like the teachers that actually do know me are constantly calling me, like, hey, what’s going on?” A district leader also described how hard it was to predict which kids would excel and which would struggle (while indicating certain groups of students for whom remote learning has really worked, including kids who have been bullied and those who have been subject to discipline in the past).

Despite the difficulties of understanding student progress, diagnostic testing points to areas for cautious optimism (such as early-grade phonics) and areas of concern (such as oral language development, grade 3-5 writing, and grade 6-8 math). Looking to the future, more one-on-one testing will be needed to accurately assess students’ unfinished learning and areas in need of acceleration—without over-testing students or sidelining the critical work of reestablishing personal connections. Teachers also emphasized the importance of noting and celebrating growth in areas that are not (and cannot be) tested. For instance, teachers pointed out how students have built resilience and a growth mindset in the face of obstacles. As a behavior specialist working with students on the autism spectrum described, she has seen her students adapt to new routines she never thought would be possible, from mask-wearing to handwashing to weekly COVID tests. While acknowledging that “there’s time they can’t make up” from the past year, she added, “They’ve adapted in other ways beyond expectations.”

Moving forward:

     -  Refrain from over-testing students upon the return to school, when there is a critical need to focus on reestablishing relationships with students. Be sure to offer positive reinforcement about areas of growth rather than solely negative messaging around “learning loss.”

     -  Plan and maintain a schedule for diagnostic testing through the spring and into the fall to identify common challenges across students and determine strategies for addressing those (e.g., through high-dosage tutoring or summer enrichment).

     -  Share feedback on students’ diagnostic results and ongoing progress with families through learning management systems and other forms of communication as appropriate. Alongside updates, offer context to establish shared expectations for student learning and highlight action steps that families can take to address areas in need of further growth and development.

     -  Engage students in holistic forms of self-assessment unconnected to progress reports or grades, including through reflective activities, learning inventories, and individual portfolios.


Learning Schedules and Structures

Certainly in the spring, but even into the start of the school year last fall, establishing a regular schedule for learning posed substantial challenges. Negotiations between the district and the teachers union led to a common set of expectations for school day start and end times and synchronous/asynchronous requirements that varied by grade band. Within these parameters, though, schools had wide discretion for setting their own schedules, with principals responsible for approving schedules at the start of the year (and again at the start of hybrid learning). Some teachers noted that it would have been helpful to receive exemplars or models of how to arrange a sample schedule; for educators working across multiple classrooms (or multiple schools, in the case of specialists), the task was even more of a puzzle. Some parents, meanwhile, expressed confusion, frustration, or anger about the length of time their students were learning compared with those in other classes, indicating that guidelines may not have always been clear or universally applied.

Once the schedule was set, though, some students expressed appreciation for the flexibility it offered. Later start times (and the lack of travel time) allowed them to get more sleep, while breaks between classes offered more time for stretching and moving around (and getting snacks) during the day. At Somerville High School, the schedule adjustment was even more significant: rather than having seven classes per day, students had a block of three longer classes each day, with the block rotating weekly (so, students had three classes each day during Week A and three different classes each day during Week B). Several students shared that having fewer classes made it easier to juggle homework and out-of-school responsibilities. Beyond student perspectives, teachers also appreciated having more time on Wednesday early release days to collaborate with their peers, plan, and complete any necessary paperwork.

Moving forward:

     -  Examine scheduling practices that seemed to have a positive effect on student learning and look for ways to adapt those practices in an in-person setting. For instance, seek feedback from students and families on the value of departmentalizing elementary grades or looping students from year to year with the same teacher.

     -  Work with teachers, union leaders, and the community to consider options for shifting high school schedules in ways that allow for more sustained engagement in each subject, such as through fewer, longer classes.

     -  Work with teachers, union leaders, and the community to consider options for offering early release days on a regular schedule (weekly, biweekly, etc.). Use this time to build and sustain structures that promote teacher collaboration and student enrichment.

     -  Incorporate flexible blocks of time within the schedule for student choice/”WIN” (“what I need”) time, during which students can explore areas of interest and get connected to necessary supports.


Student Voice and Ownership

Alongside the challenges of getting and staying motivated to learn, a common theme across all grade levels, preK to grade 12, was how remote learning has increased learner independence—and the implications this has for future instruction. For preK students, teachers have sought to provide opportunities for students to engage more deeply in areas of interest during small-group meetings and longer choice periods. As a district leader noted, “There’s value in sharing materials but also in being able to make a choice and stay with it.” At the other end of the spectrum, high school students shared how they’ve improved their time management skills and their ability to work independently, which will help them in college. Several students said they would miss having the flexibility to plan their own days when returning to school. Given the universality of this theme, it will be more important than ever for teachers to incorporate opportunities for student voice and choice at every grade level in the future. For example, students can reflect on what they have learned about how they learn, then connect these reflections to a discussion about preparing for college and career. 

Looking back over the past year, how can we use all that this remote learning experience offered to better support students in the future? While many readers may relate to one parent who commented, “It is a memory that I hope fades into the back of my mind,” for teachers, school leaders, and district officials charged with bringing students back to school after a disrupted year, it is critical to figure out what can be learned from the past year to build a stronger education system long-term. The ideas described above can serve as starting points for conversations on how to build/rebuild relationships, offer relevant and engaging instruction, and leverage the power of technology in new ways, in Somerville and beyond.

Stay tuned next month for the next edition of our “Year in the Life” series, when we will dig into community-school connections.