Sometimes change occurs so quickly that it makes our heads spin. As I embarked upon the task of supporting several schools with an overnight transition from life on campus, to life online the prospect of the enormity and speed of the change was tremendous. My mind raced with thoughts of student engagement, instructional quality, ongoing assessments, and technological obstacles. Our semblance of normalcy was shifting, and we needed to respond expediently in a manner that sustained our students, families, and teachers.
A week has passed since Fusion Academies across the country have transitioned from culturally rich, academically robust, brick and mortar campuses to a virtual instructional platform. Despite the swiftness of the changes we have experienced, I am struck by the potency and vigor of the lessons learned over these past several days.
Virtual instruction is different from online learning.
Initially, I pondered student attentiveness and engagement while attending classes online. Would they feel connected to their teachers? Would they feel supported as learners? Would they be engaged in the content in a way that would promote exploratory learning and vigorous discussion? I have discovered that the answers to all of those questions are a resounding yes! The key is that there is an immense difference between virtual instruction and online learning. Online learning suggests a self-driven, asynchronous approach to navigating content, in which the student is solely responsible for navigating the course independently. Alternatively, virtual instruction involves a live teacher who provides instruction in real time, thus allowing for discussion, clarification and pivoting from the original lesson plan to best meet the needs of the learner. Virtual instruction is a partnership between a teacher and student; a journey through a course that allows for exploring content in a way that is aligned to individual learning styles and personal interests. What I have observed first-hand this week is that virtual instruction is fluid and dynamic, and it promotes the same high level of engagement that I regularly observe in our schools.
Campus culture transcends platforms.
At Fusion Academy, our culture is paramount to the work that we do. I wondered how we would be able to ensure that our fun and progressive school culture was able to surpass the classroom walls, and transfer to our new virtual community. My concerns were quickly eradicated when I observed how rapidly our school leaders and teachers embraced our very basic cultural tenets, and simply put, made it their priority to ‘make it fun.’ They recognized that in a time of uncertainty paired with the substantial change our students were facing, making it fun was critical to ensuring students feel safe and cared about. Within hours, our teams had planned pet hangouts so students could introduce their pets via their computer cameras, lunchtime dance parties, yoga and meditation sessions, and even a virtual talent show. There have been theme days where students and teachers were invited to wear crazy hats or dress as their favorite historical character. In less than a week, our cherished school culture has evolved and shifted to our new learning platform.
We are all a little camera shy!
In some instances, the first few sessions were a little awkward for both our students and teachers. We discovered that being on camera can make people somewhat nervous. Our teachers implemented some impressive strategies to help break the ice. For instance, if the camera was creating anxiety for students, teachers suggested leaving it off for the first portion of the class until everyone was feeling more comfortable. We also taught reluctant students that they could minimize their own video feed, so they didn’t have to view themselves throughout the entire class. In some cases, our incredible teachers helped relieve the nervousness about being on camera by dialing up the silliness; cue the unicorn and hot dog costumes, and use of the greenscreen feature to teach from a beach or a battlefield. A little laughter certainly helped to put everyone at ease.
Routine is vital.
As educators we are cognizant of the importance of structure and routine, and in times of uncertainty stability helps ease anxiety for our students. We have approached our virtual instruction with this in mind. Teachers have maintained their classroom routines and have helped our students to build new structure into their days. We have encouraged our students to identify times for stretch breaks, socializing online with peers and exercise. We are helping them to recognize that while our experiences this week are vastly different than last week, we can all benefit from building predictable routines and normalcy into our days.
The educational community puts learning first.
I was overwhelmed with gratitude when I observed our professional learning community of outstanding educators at Fusion reaching out to their colleagues across the country to strategize, share resources, reflect and support. I was also humbled to see the national educational community at-large providing access to resources and online services such as EVERFI, BrainPOP, Lumosity, PowerMyLearning Connect, PBS Learning Media, TedED and Khan Academy, just to name a few. Designing engaging meaningful instruction is a commitment and partnership for teachers at Fusion, as well as our educational partners nationwide.
Parents are supportive and grateful.
This remarkable shift in learning platforms has been transformational for the parents of our students. We are thankful for the feedback they have provided about how their children are adjusting to the new virtual experience. The support and guidance they are providing regarding the academic, social and emotional needs of their children during these uncertain times has been invaluable. Above all, the expressions of gratitude from parents has been awe-inspiring and motivating. They have communicated appreciation that their children are engaged and thriving, despite being homebound. They have conveyed that they are thankful that we are promoting normalcy during a period that is far from normal. They have expressed that they are relieved that through a virtual learning experience we have been able to bring peace and help their children continue to thrive.
We certainly did not predict the need to shift from traditional classrooms to virtual classrooms overnight, but our educational community has done so with calm and grace driven by their commitment to our students. While these are unthinkable and difficult days, the uncertainty and adversity have been mitigated by the love and dedication of teachers devoted to mentoring their students regardless of the platform.