4 Tips for Transitioning to Distance Learning: A District and School-Wide Perspective
When visitors step inside Lone Star Middle School, they notice a palpable enthusiasm for learning. Part of Nampa School District in Nampa, Idaho, the school fosters a remarkable culture of collaboration among educators and a dedication to powerful teaching and learning with technology. It’s a testament to the districtwide Nampa Personalized Learning (NPL) initiative, and one of the reasons Digital Promise and HP designated Lone Star Middle School as an HP Spotlight School in 2019.
Fast forward to spring 2020, when, like many schools across the country, Lone Star Middle School transitioned into distance learning within a matter of days. With its first month of distance learning behind it, we offer four insights from teachers, school leadership and district leadership on making the transition equitable and supportive for staff, students and families.
1. Prioritize equity
As part of the NPL initiative, students were already accustomed to taking devices home (Lone Star Middle School is in its second year of a 1:1 device program) but the district needed to ensure internet access for all of its 14,000 students. “Nampa School District decided from the beginning that we needed to plan for providing access and ensure that we are reaching all our students on a daily basis, with particular attention to our most at-risk and marginalized populations,” says Chad Longley, Nampa Personalized Learning Administrator at Nampa School District.
I think students are realizing right now, this is a real-life example of using all of those growth mindset skills that they’ve worked on this year and really putting them into practice.Cindy SnyderHP Spotlight School: Lone Star Middle School
To do this, Nampa School District set up Wi-Fi ranges on school campuses for walk-up and drive-up internet access. The district is also providing hotspots to families and working with community partners to set up additional Wi-Fi sites throughout Nampa. Internet access is paired with a bilingual help desk for students and parents who need technical support. Teachers have also ensured that students have flexibility to complete their work offline through tools like Microsoft Word and OneNote.
Recognizing that students cannot learn if they do not feel physically and emotionally safe, Nampa School District is also meeting students’ basic needs. The district repurposed school buses to serve as meal delivery vehicles for students, and leverages the support of district social workers and community family resource centers to support students’ wellbeing and ensure they have housing, clothing and food.
2. Treat the transition to distance learning as if it’s the beginning of the school year
Drew Williams, a technology coach and seventh grade teacher at Lone Star Middle School, suggests that the transition to distance learning is similar to the first few weeks of school. “Kids are learning how to be students again, and they're learning how to be students in a digital environment,” she says. To acclimate students, she suggests teachers create clear expectations by balancing the rigor of learning content with the rigor of learning how to navigate new digital environments.
I've wanted to guide teachers towards how they can start distance learning in a manageable way. Creating a single site for them with a streamlined set of tools has helped keep that messaging simple for teachers.Drew WilliamsVisual aid Drew Williams created to support teachers and students.
Special education teacher Cindy Snyder adds that students may work at a different pace than they would in the classroom: “I've noticed that things that would normally take 45 minutes in a classroom might take longer at home because we don't have the same routines and structures we have at school. So [it’s important to] be flexible and work with parents to figure out what's the best curriculum or content for your students to be doing at this time.”
3. Provide consistent, clear and supportive communication to staff, students and families
Nampa School District consistently reaches out to staff, students and families. The district runs a website to address parents’ and families’ questions, and Superintendent Paula Kellerer sends a weekly email to parents sharing updates and celebrations of learning and successes. At Lone Star Middle School, Principal Greg Hedeiman reaches out to teachers at least once every other day, while Williams offers virtual office hours to teachers for coaching. Teachers offer virtual office hours to students as they maintain regular communication with families. “We noticed a lot of students taking advantage of virtual office hours, which indicates to us that students seek interaction with their teachers and with their fellow students,” Williams says.
To support teachers, Williams maintains an online hub with need-to-know information, including “T.O.O.L.S.,” an acronym created by her colleague to help teachers remember the basic tools they should use with students: Microsoft Teams, Outlook and OneNote, as well as Loom and the student portal for curriculum. “As a coach, I've tried to not bombard my staff with emails or with huge lists of tools. I've wanted to guide teachers towards how they can start distance learning in a manageable way. Creating a single site for them with a streamlined set of tools has helped keep that messaging simple for teachers,” Williams says.Visual aid Drew Williams created to support teachers and students.
4. Reinforce the importance of growth mindset
Both Williams and Snyder agree that distance learning encourages students to take ownership of their learning in new ways. Although physically separated, students are learning to ask for help and problem-solve with their peers. “It was super powerful for me to see, as a teacher, that it wasn't all going to necessarily come from me. It was students helping each other,” Williams says.
These circumstances offer teachers the opportunity to stress the importance of a growth mindset. “We talk about growth mindset probably every day in our classroom, if not multiple times a week,” says Snyder. “I think students are realizing right now, this is a real-life example of using all of those growth mindset skills that they’ve worked on this year and really putting them into practice. I think students will look back on this and realize, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do hard things,’ or, ‘I can try things that I don't necessarily know how to do in the moment.’”
Learn more about how Lone Star Middle School is managing the transition to distance learning in the webinar Distance Learning in a Crisis, presented by Digital Promise and HP as part of the Reinvent the Classroom initiative.
HP Spotlight Schools are part of the Reinvent the Classroom initiative, a collaboration between Digital Promise, HP, Microsoft, and Intel. Learn more about Lone Star Middle School on their HP Spotlight School profile.