By Kathryn Nieves, a special education teacher at Sparta Middle School in New Jersey
When my school district called me on a Thursday evening, I did not have to answer to know what the message said. I knew it meant we were going into remote learning. As a special education teacher, I worried about IEPs, accommodations, modifications, and, in short, just supporting the emotional needs of my students. Although my students have 1:1 Chromebook devices and experience using them, I knew we still faced many obstacles. The following are tips for supporting all learners that I have discovered throughout my journey (so far) in this uncharted area of education.
Stick with the technology they know first
As an advocate of educational technology and a Google Trainer, I’m the first person to dive into using a new tool. Even though I was getting almost hourly updates from different edtech companies offering free accounts or trials, I knew this was not the time for me to try out all these tools with my students. For the first few weeks, I kept it consistent. I used tools where my students had a level of comfort and familiarity. Since moving into a fully online platform was new for them, I did not want to add more novelty to the pile until they felt more comfortable.
Give explicit, step-by-step directions
When I’m posting assignments online, I try to be as specific as possible. Since I’m not in the classroom to give directions, I have found that step-by-step directions are helpful. My Google Classroom assignments have a list of steps that break down the requirements into smaller parts to help support students. Students can use these directions as a checklist to help them know where to go next. I accompany these steps with a screencast of me walking through the process. I am a fan of using Loom because the videos require no processing time. Between the detailed written directions and corresponding video directions, students have a higher level of support when completing a task.
Offer technology support to families
For many families, this experience is the first time they are being exposed to the technology tools their students are using in the classroom. I know that some parents have had difficulty supporting their children because they are unsure of how to use the program. I have used Iorad as a tool to help parents. Iorad is a tutorial builder. It works like a screencast, but instead of recording a video, you simply activate the extension and click through the steps of using a tool or completing a task. In the end, a step-by-step tutorial is created with automatically generated captions and audio files, as well as screencasts. I have been trying to create a bank of tutorials for the tools we use most often, including accessibility features on devices.
Provide digital social connections
With social distancing requirements, students often miss opportunities to connect with people outside of their house. In the first week, I realized that what my students wanted the most was to talk and have “face-to-face” experiences. For each of my daily directions, I make sure to embed the video into the screencast so students can see me as I talk through each of the steps. Also, setting up appointment slots through Google Calendar has allowed students to sign up voluntarily for video teacher conferences, where they can get academic support, ask questions, or just have a place to talk. To break up the monotony of text-based feedback, I use the Google Docs add-on, Kaizena, to give verbal feedback. I record myself leaving comments on student work and they can play it as they review their work. Providing opportunities for peer-to-peer discussion are also important. FlipGrid is a great way for students to talk and share on an asynchronous basis. I have a “Daily Update” grid running, where students can share things going on in their daily life, if they choose, and reply to their classmates.
It’s important to ensure that the digital content you are providing to your students is accessible for all learners. Provide closed captioning or a transcript for recorded lessons. If your video is from YouTube, these two accessibility features are already built into every uploaded video. Give alternate text to images, so anyone with a screen reader can have access to the multimedia elements in an assignment. I shared resources with my families of the accessibility features built-into the devices their child was using. Since all devices are equipped with some variation of these features, I tried to send home a list of the tools and how to activate them to help both my students and their families. Then, the student can take advantage of text-to-speech, speech-to-text, or the various other accessibility tools already installed in their device.
Moving into my fourth week on this uncertain journey, my biggest takeaway is to be flexible. Our lives, as well as the lives of our students, can change at any moment. If we can stay flexible and willing to make adjustments based on the academic and emotional needs of our classes, then we will be able to successfully provide them with a level of support.
Kathryn “Katie” Nieves is a special education teacher at Sparta Middle School in New Jersey. She is a Google Certified Educator and Trainer. She received her B.A. from Centenary University in 2015. In 2019, she graduated from New Jersey City University with an M.A. in Educational Technology.