School Leader’s Notebook: How We’re Making Remote Learning Easier and More Engaging for Our Families — and Why We’re Making It All Free for Other Educators Nationwide

Alex Madyta teaches a Kindergarten lesson on tally marks. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Khan-Fraser)

For many educators, we are in the process of navigating one of the biggest challenges anyone has ever asked of us.

As a country, teachers, schools and districts are experimenting with how to keep students learning while they are forced to be at home during the COVID-19 public health crisis.

At Uncommon Schools, we created a remote-learning platform that we believe will keep K-8 students learning until we are able to get back into classrooms. And we have made it free and open to the public.

Our high schools were able to launch their remote learning program right away and provide a combination of pre-recorded and live instructional lessons. But for K-8, the challenge is how to keep little ones engaged and learning.

The K-8 platform we launched this week features video lessons taped by master Uncommon teachers who have had the highest student achievement results. So you’ll see Rafael Acosta teaching a Common Core-aligned writing lesson about poetry. In 2019, 100 percent of Mr. Acosta’s students were proficient on the New Jersey state literacy exam.

Here’s where we are being strategic about teacher time during the pandemic: Mr. Acosta will be the only fourth-grade literacy teacher recording lessons for that grade group. Given the size of Uncommon Schools, Mr. Acosta’s lesson will be watched by all 1,500 of our fourth-graders this week enrolled in an Uncommon School in New York and New Jersey. (In our Massachusetts school, our youngest students are in fifth grade.)

That saves 300 other fourth-grade teachers for the important work of supporting individual students and doing what they do best day in and day out in their classrooms. In small groups via Zoom, or individually by phone, our classroom teachers are ready to reteach as necessary to help every student master the concepts they need to be successful.

We opted to record all lessons to meet the needs of different households, some of whom might have children who are sharing devices or otherwise would have trouble adhering to the pressure of being ready for a live lesson. This also gives teachers who are filming themselves an opportunity to practice and receive feedback so that students get the very best lesson possible.

As a network, we worked on ensuring that all of our K-8 students had devices to work on, but we designed our platform so that it is as low-tech as possible on the student side. Our lessons are designed so that a student can look at them on a computer, tablet or cell phone. Our early data indicates that about 40 percent of viewers watched on a mobile phone. Students can submit their work via email, text or any other way that works for them.

Finally, we made our platform open to the public, because we’re all navigating this new normal of remote learning together. It’s not perfect, but we wanted to make sure we share with other public schools, educators and any families who need additional resources to ensure that students are actively engaged in high-quality learning.

And although we are still learning as we go, we’re excited that on our first day, we had 43,000 unique page views from visitors in 44 states and 17 countries.

To be sure, we know that we won’t be able to cover all the material that our students would have learned this year, and that’s why we’ve already started to adjust our next year’s curriculum, because we know our students will have a lot of catching up to do. But we are used to meeting students where they are.

Juliana Worrell is Chief Schools Officer, K-8, Uncommon Schools, a charter school network serving 20,000 students across New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

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