These Are Trying Times!

The last time I posted on this blog was in February, before the novel coronavirus became a global pandemic, shutting down schools, businesses, and other institutions worldwide.  Here in upstate New York, My students and I have been engaged with remote learning since mid March and schools are closed in our state through at least the end of April, as of this writing.  A lot of teachers have been graciously sharing resources for remote learning on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, among other outlets.  In this post I will share a few things that have been helpful along the way:

Daily Screencast Videos via Canvas Studio
My school uses Canvas as a learning management system, which has a built in video creator, which includes the ability to screencast.  If you use an LMS that does not have a built in video creator and you want to do a screencast, Screencast-O-Matic is a great one.  I create the content for my screencasts in good old PowerPoint.  Google Slides or another slideshow creator would also work well.  Do I speak 90%+ in French in these videos like I strive for in class every day?  No, sadly, I don't.  This has been one of my biggest struggles in the switch to remote learning.  Not being able to negotiate meaning through gestures and other modalities as well as check for understanding face to face, I've had to rely more on the use of English to ensure student comprehension.  It's not ideal, but unfortunately the classroom experience cannot be entirely replicated in an online setting.  I allow students to leave comments on the video in case they have questions, and sometimes a student will leave some positive feedback saying something was helpful or that they appreciated the video.  I think doing a video every day is nice because it gets students seeing the language every day (ideally, but of course students are free to watch the videos all at once if they choose to).  I also really enjoy making them.  I sort of feel like I'm back in the classroom with my students when I'm recording them!  I will say that I consider myself pretty tech-savvy, so creating these slideshows and videos doesn't take too long.  Don't feel badly if you don't have the time to create a video per day.  Shoot for one a week if you can!  There are plenty of other resources you can share with your students to get them connecting with the language.  Here are some of the things I've done in the videos:
--Reviewed vocabulary or grammar - Ok, so it probably isn't as exciting or engaging as when I do it in class, but I find being able to talk with accompanying text and images onscreen is more useful for students than just reading it.

--Read "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" by Eric Carle in French.  You can find a French version of it here on YouTube.  What I did was, before I began reading it, I told the students I was going to pause after I said each sentence so that students could repeat it at home.  Then I translated the sentence into English.  Afterwards I asked students to leave a comment stating their favorite color in French.  Also, I am extremely disappointed that I left all my children's French books at school!  I did not have the foresight to think that I'd need them, and I would love to read more stories to them!  Luckily there are a lot of resources online, such as this one.
--Taught this two part Impressionism lesson with an optional self-grading quiz at the end asking them to identify the painter of various impressionist paintings (their only choices were Monet, Renoir and Degas, the three painters I focused on in the lesson).
--Took students on a tour of the Musée d'Orsay and Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, pausing at paintings done by the artists they learned about in the Impressionism lesson and asking them to identify the painter before revealing the answer.  I then linked them to the sites so they could explore them on their own.
--Asked students to answer a question or finish a sentence in French in the comments.  This is a really easy, quick way to get student participation and check for understanding.
--Played "Pictionary."  Basically, I put an image on the screen depicting an action in French, and I asked the students to pause the video, jot down their answer, and then press play again to see if they got it right.  I do this in class all the time, so I figured, why not have them do it at home?
--Read a version of this story about SpongeBob that I wrote.  Normally I do a pretty funny SpongeBob voice (when I say "funny," it's definitely the kind where students are laughing AT me as opposed to WITH me, but hey, at least they are laughing!), but I didn't do it in my video for fear that without the ability to read my lips, it might hinder comprehension.

Taking students on a tour of the Musée d'Orsay

Self-Grading Quizzes with Feedback
Right now I'm treating quizzes like assignments, but I like self-grading quizzes for remote learning because they give the student immediate feedback.  Obviously, they are somewhat limiting in what you can expect of students, which is why they aren't the only kind of quiz I use.  I do my quizzes in Canvas, but there are a number of different platforms for creating self-grading quizzes with feedback such as Google Forms or Socrative.  I keep them short (usually 5 questions), and if a student selects the wrong answer, I leave a comment explaining why that answer is wrong.  In Canvas, you can allow students to retake the quiz, so I have enabled this option for remote learning, with the hopes that students will retake the quiz until they get a perfect score.

Kahoot, Gimkit, and Quizizz Challenges
Like many of you, I frequently play Gimkit, Quizizz and Kahoot in class with my students.  How silly was I that I didn't realize you could assign these games to students to play at home!  If I didn't realize this, I'm thinking that there may be some of you who didn't realize this either.  In Gimkit, you click "Assignments" on the lefthand side, then "New Assignment" to make a challenge, and it gives you a link to provide to students.  In Kahoot, you click "Challenge" next to the Kahoot that you want to use.    For Kahoot, the free version is limited to 100 students, I believe.  If you're like me and have more than 100 students, you'll need to upgrade to the paid version.  Get this though:  right now it's free to educators doing remote learning due to COVID-19, so I didn't have to pay a penny for it.  In Quizizz, you go to the quiz you want to use and click "Assign HW."  For all three of these platforms, you can instruct students to enter their first name and class period so you can actually count it in your grade book.  I did this at first, but going forward, I am making these types of activities optional in an effort to cut down on required assignments and not overwhelm students.

Encouraging Independent Learning
Even before we made the switch to remote learning, I encourage students to develop independent learning habits outside the classroom, as I sure many of you do to.  I even sometimes assign independent learning assignments (you can read about this here, but it's an earlier version of what I currently do), where students have to pick an activity and have a parent sign off that they did it.  Now that students have more unstructured time than usual, I'm continuing to encourage this, and have provided a list to remind them of the various ways they can practice the language outside the classroom.  Some of these activities include using Duolingo, watching a movie or TV show in French or with French subtitles, finding some French music on YouTube, communicating with a friend or family member who knows French, going on and creating a wishlist of items they'd like (this is great because the photos aid in comprehension a lot and most of them are familiar with the format of the American version of the site), and putting Siri or another voice assistant into French and trying to talk to it.

Keeping Connected with Pen Pals
My students were so looking forward to receiving their second letter from their pen pals in France (you can read more about how I do my pen pal project here), but unfortunately, the school in France had already shut down before the letters could be sent.  Not having an easy way to exchange the letters digitally, the teacher in France and I decided to compile a document with a couple of sentences from each student (one in French, one in English) stating what they are doing these days and what they are looking forward to.  Students can go through the document and find the sentences that their pen pal wrote.  It's not as exciting as receiving a letter, but it's a way to keep them connected in the meantime.

Google Voice
I have been using Google Voice (along with email) to keep in touch with families.  Google Voice is very easy to set up, and the main benefit is that you can call parents from your personal cell phone without revealing your phone number.  Of course this can be accomplished by blocking your number, but many people won't pick up the phone when there's no number, and then you can't provide a callback number.  The number Google Voice assigns you is local, so the person picking up will see that it is a local call.  Another benefit of Google Voice is the "do not disturb" setting.  If you don't want to receive calls from parents during evenings and weekends, you can elect to have incoming calls sent straight to voicemail.  It's nice because you can still receive phone calls from friends and family that know your real number while you have your Google Voice set to do not disturb.  I will say that the app seems a little glitchy (it seems like a lot of people I called went straight to voicemail, but maybe that's a coincidence), but overall, it works well for what I need it to accomplish.  I usually try to use phone calls as the first point of contact with a parent, unless they've emailed me before and I know they are comfortable using email to communicate, so it's great not to lose that capability just because I'm not physically at school next to my school phone.  I've called so many parents, mostly to check in because they hadn't completed any assignments and I wanted to see if they needed any help, and I found that there was some of confusion from students about what was required and how to access it.  With every teacher doing things just a little bit differently, it's understandable that some confusion might arise.  That's why communication is so important!  By the way, Google Voice is a great way to have students do a speaking task.  Just have them call your Google Voice number, state their name, and leave a message in French!  Make sure you have do not disturb turned on or your phone will be ringing off the hook!  You would probably want to do this on a different Google Voice number than the one you use to contact parents because it could get confusing trying to juggle student voicemails and parent phone calls.

Having Some Fun!
Since most of the world has had to switch to remote learning, schools have been taking to social media to share messages of positivity and support to students and families.  Our school is no different.  Here are some photos of me that were shared with students and families via social media:

This was featured in a slideshow of teachers in our building reading, to promote literacy.

This was featured in a slideshow showing photos of staff members in our building holding up signs with words of encouragement.

So, what has worked for you in this age of remote learning?  In what ways are you connecting with students digitally?

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