By: Matt Parsons and Melanie Solano
This summer marked my 5th year as an ESY (Extended School Year) teacher for Lower Merion School District through Easterseals of Southeastern PA. I have worked with students in the program from grades K to 12, and while I mostly work with students in their own homes, in past years I have meet with kids at local camps, equestrian farms, libraries, churches, and even cafes. All work is provided by the child’s special education teacher and I track data for each goal highlighted in the child’s IEP. I LOVE this program and the all of the students I have worked with throughout the years. I normally have a new group of kids each summer, but I have met with some students multiple years in a row. Every family I have met has been warm, inviting, and grateful for my summer help.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this summer was the first time I completed my tutoring sessions online. At first I worried that I would have trouble connecting with each student in a virtual format, but each child’s personality was still able to shine through. I had one student who bonded with me over our shared love of guinea pigs. At the final session, she showed me her pigs, and I held up all three of mine. I had another student who was very into technology. Each session he had a different virtual background waiting for me to see. I learned a lot of new Zoom features by working with this child!
I struggled to figure out how to teach over Zoom, using the scanned paper and pencil tasks that had been left by the students’ teachers. I ended up using the “Snipping Tool” to “cut” the daily tasks we would be completing together. I then pasted each activity into a Google Slides presentation. I made a new set of Google Slides for each session, and started each presentation with the objectives for the day. I locked each task so that it could not be moved, and then added text boxes on top of the task so that the student could type the answer. We also used the line feature for matching activities and the scribble tool for multiple choice questions. Students were able to work in Google Slides with me during the session, which made our time much more fun and interactive. When it was time to send materials back to the teachers in August, I was able to include a document of Slide links, instead of scanned pictures or individual materials. What I thought was going to be a more difficult summer of adjusting to teaching online, actually ended up being much calmer and organized than I could have planned. I am excited to return to my regular position of teaching second grade, where my district will be fully virtual until at least October 2.
This was my first summer taking part in the Easterseals program for ESY, working with high school students in writing. After several years as a professional writing tutor for a couple of universities in the area, I took the chance to broaden my experience by working with students at a different grade level. Online tutoring, as a result of the pandemic, is a mixed bag: on the one hand, I’ve done totally virtual tutoring in the past, so the transition was smooth for me. I point that out because, conversely, students were still adjusting to the shift from in person learning to using computers from home, logging on to school and tutoring. The readiness of distractions, coupled with the separation from a dedicated learning space, made for difficulty early on. As the first couple of weeks went by, students started to adjust to this new situation. We established routines and had clearly defined expectations for each session we met for.
This year, everyone needed to adjust to these new circumstances: teachers, parents, and students. ESY was no exception, as families were forced to cancel vacations, children had to stay inside away from friends, and both present and future were uncertain (and remain so). While ESY may not have been most students’ first choice on how to spend this new summer vacation, I believe it did help to bring some sense of normalcy to their lives. No matter what else may have been going on, there was at least the knowledge that “I’m going to be doing writing work later this week.” While keeping skills sharp during summer break, ESY gave the chance for routine, which is important for anyone during times like these. I feel great knowing that working with Easterseals helped provide not only learning, but structure for these students.
Our Takeaways to Remember for Online Learning:
1) Keep an open mind: While virtual teaching is different from the in-person learning we are used to, it has many positives. Students can interact with coursework in new ways and show off their computer skills. There is still time to bond with each student, so look for their interests and help foster connections with those.
2) Keep to a routine: Students thrive from routine and structure. If possible, use the same link for each session and meet at the same time each day. Structure your activities in the same format such as: warm-up, mini lesson, practice, fun review game. Students will know what to expect and will feel more confident participating.
3) Be organized: In an online format activities and lessons need to be easily accessible and ready to go to maximize time-on-task with students. Consider placing your lesson into a format like Google Slides or Google Docs that students can complete with you. If students are not completing tasks on the screen, these formats can still be used for organization when you share your screen. Use easy to use fonts and do not overload each slide with excessive pictures or colors. Keep student interest by alternating text with videos, games, and other activities.
4) Set expectations: Telling the students the objectives of the lesson upfront will help them stay on task as the lesson moves forward. When working with students with IEPs, tell them which goal you are working towards and why. Students are often much more motivated to complete tasks if they know what they are working towards. Some students are also competitive and want to beat their own scores when they notice a pattern in assessments and have a set goal. Celebrate their victories when they move closer to their goals or surpass them. Consider graphing their progress each week to add an extra element (and some math!) to the process.
5) Be flexible: Everyone is adjusting to new territory this year and many students are going through more than we know. Try to be patient and encouraging with students by allowing them to keep their videos turned off, allowing time for snacks, and factoring in some movement breaks. Sometimes allowing for something this simple can keep the student working hard throughout the session.
Matt Parsons is a professional writing tutor and adjunct professor at two local universities. Melanie Solano works as a second grade teacher and the LMS Curriculum Coordinator for Springfield School District in Delaware County. They both love teaching and helping students meet their goals.