Foster collaboration in a distance learning environment

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As a Kindergarten to Grade 6 literacy coach, there is nothing I love more than seeing students deeply engaged in collaboration. From the excitement on the faces of kindergarten children as they turn and whisper their thoughts in a think tank, to the quick discussion of sixth graders about where to place vocabulary words based on their nuances of meaning. My school’s classrooms are usually full of authentic and lively student interactions.

Student collaboration is essential. Reading with a partner enhances fluency. Sharing manipulatives to tell a story enhances language development and reading comprehension. There are many benefits to being able to share the pen with one another, communicate clearly, and solve problems as a team.

Students need collaborative work more than ever. Social distancing takes a toll on student learning, especially when students work in groups. But how to integrate collaborative learning in a virtual environment this year?

I virtually met teachers in the United States this summer to support them in implementing a literacy program that we use at my school that calls for genuine collaborative work and rich student discourse. During these meetings, I found some ideas to bring the collaboration into a virtual space.

Implement routines

As at the start of any school year, set up class routines for collaborative work during distance learning. Explicitly state expectations, routines and procedures. Talk about digital standards and practices, such as how to raise a hand or attract attention in an online course and how to appropriately use the chat feature of a digital platform.

Just as you would have an expectations checklist stuck to your classroom wall, post your expectations on a shared site within the Digital Platform. Give constant praise as students learn the routines and reorient them as needed. Allow students time to reflect on the routines, as learning to participate and collaborate is just as important as learning the content.

Make learning useful

Collaborative learning must be targeted. As in the traditional classroom, teachers need to establish why they are using a particular group or partnership approach during teaching time. This will focus the activity and give teachers a perspective to choose a collaborative strategy.

When students can’t be together in person, have them record video chats on tools like Flipgrid or Padlet. Have students watch and respond to their classmates by posting their own short video or writing a response to create a linking comment chain. Feel free to give students, especially younger ones, any prompts or sentence beginnings to help them build rich and meaningful conversations, at least at the start.

Make learning authentic

As adults, we work together to achieve a goal or converse to learn from each other, and we want to provide that same experience to our students.

This can mean taking collaboration out of the virtual classroom space and engaging in collaborative experiences with family, friends, or community members. Consider this question we ask kindergarten students: “How has life in America changed over time? They can contact caregivers or family members and ask them questions about their experiences at school and at home. If a student has no one to talk to, the teacher can share their experiences through recorded clips or a Zoom call. Stakeholders such as administrators or members of the PTA can also share their experiences.

Provide fundamental feedback

Keep an eye on the flow of collaborative work and give tips to students to point it in the right direction. This tends to happen naturally in a classroom environment, but will require virtually additional work. Provide regular praise and corrective comments on procedures and collaboration. Use class time to reflect on the e-learning process, noting what students like and dislike.

If students engage in peer editing using a shared online platform, teacher input is needed for this to be useful. If student feedback isn’t particularly strong, use it as a formative assessment. Use your next class session to model an appropriate response and introduce a heading or sentence beginnings.

Edit activities for virtual learning

Many in-person activities that educators are already using in their classrooms have the potential to be moved to a remote environment with a little creativity. One example of an activity that I thought about converting to a virtual experience involves Chalk Talks.

In a face-to-face activity, students get together in groups and answer questions about a book displayed in the classroom. With my fourth graders, I used I love this dog by Sharon Creech. Students collectively answered questions on topics such as how the main character has changed over time and the difference between literal and figurative text. In addition to answering teachers’ questions, students should weigh in on comments from other groups.

Virtually, a teacher could place students in multiple configurations. First, each student would work independently to answer a question. Then the students would come together in small groups in online workshops and agree on an answer. Then the students would all come together as a whole group, giving the “expert” groups a chance to share. Finally, the students returned to the study rooms and reflected on the different answers.

Younger people can also collaborate virtually. During an in-person kindergarten lesson, students may have worked together to identify the genre of a set of books. Then, the pupils would have justified their choice by placing it on a graphic organizer.

To do this activity virtually, the teacher could record and share a video on the characteristics of different genres, then students could meet in small groups in online chat rooms to discuss their thoughts. Finally, students can drag and drop the titles into the categories on Seesaw. Remember that younger students should practice routines such as speaking one at a time and using phrases such as “I agree with Katy because …”.

I know educators are nervous about the days and weeks ahead, but I also know they are thinking a lot about how to teach effectively and creatively in an online environment. By focusing on the needs of the students, including the need to work collaboratively, I am confident that we can provide excellent education.

Katy tarasi is an elementary-level literacy coach in the Avonworth School District near Pittsburgh, Pa., and a member of the English Language Arts team at Great Minds’ Wit & Wisdom. As such, Katy provides professional development and coaching to educators in the United States. She can be contacted by email.

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