Taren Villecco can usually teach a mini-lesson and tell right away "by reading the classroom" which of her students need more help.
"Within a 15-minute time period, I could reach half my class," says Villecco, who teaches 5th grade at Ryan Elementary School in Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. She would know if some students needed more individual or small group explanation, and "the teaching and learning cycle would just keep continuing."
Now, she said, she delivers her lessons to a "computer that can't speak back" and she has to "just wait for students to respond." Providing feedback on their assignments in this remote environment can take roughly eight hours, because it's important to get it "just right."
"If I don’t give feedback that is valuable and motivating," she said, "they are not going to keep trying for me."
A 'feedback mindset'
In the absence of grading — which, like BVSD, many districts are not doing at all or are only doing on a partial basis — feedback on the work students are completing has become the primary exchange between teachers and students.
“That ‘feedback’ mindset could positively guide the decisions that schools need to make regarding end of year reporting and grades,” reads a recent newsletter from the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, which works with schools implementing competency- and performance-based assessments. “Like other rituals of learning this year, we should shift our practice more toward a student-centered and personalized lens for reporting and amplify the relationships in the classroom.”
In a video to families earlier this month, Matt Hayes, deputy superintendent of academics for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, emphasized feedback as the primary form of assessment at this time.
“Teachers will assign work to students and then provide meaningful feedback on those assignments that are turned in,” he said. “Teachers will maintain anecdotal records of the assignments that will can be used at a later date to either assign a grade or determine a pass/fail status based on further guidance from our state Board of Education.”
Feedback on student work is also one aspect of districts’ distance learning plans the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington is tracking as part of a periodically updated database.
According to the data, based on publicly available information from 101 districts and charter management organizations, 13 districts were providing no feedback on students’ work, 10 were providing partial feedback — perhaps just at certain levels — and the rest were giving feedback on all work turned in.
But some districts are just getting started with official remote learning, so the picture is continually shifting. And in the Fresno Unified School District in California, for example, expectations for feedback to students weren’t spelled out as part of an official plan or agreement with the union.
“That is part of teaching,” said Manuel Bonilla, president of the Fresno Teachers Association. “It wasn’t something that we felt we had to put in a [memorandum of understanding].”
FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson said the “comparative analysis” emerging over how districts are handling remote learning is a growing challenge. A high-poverty district, FUSD has made sure all students have a laptop or a tablet, but in-person classes are canceled for the remainder of the year. A neighboring, lower-poverty district, however, plans to re-open, creating a perception it isn’t “throwing in the towel,” Nelson said.
While the crisis has forced the district to implement a 1:1 plan, he added, “We’ve never missed interaction more than we do right now.”
‘Evidence of learning’
Experts say for feedback to be effective — meaning it gives students something to act on and doesn’t discourage them — it needs to be specific, as immediate as possible and presented in a way that shows them how close they are to hitting the target.
“It’s about shifting the feedback to be descriptive of where a student has shown evidence of learning,” said Noelle Nelson, the executive director of teaching and learning for Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa.
As a standards-based grading district, Nelson said teachers have “clear proficiency scales” they can use to show students in a straightforward way what they have and haven’t mastered. “Teachers who aren’t standards-based have a hard time giving specific feedback to kids,” she added.
In Vance County Schools in North Carolina, teachers are also expected to provide feedback on all student work, “even if it’s just a thumbs up,” explained Casey Jackson, who teaches 3rd grade math at Aycock Elementary School, but also serves as a multi-classroom teacher as part of the Opportunity Culture model.
When students take online quizzes, they immediately see what they missed and what they answered correctly, she said. She also provides written feedback in Google Classroom.
“The students enjoy getting the feedback,” she added. “What has made me the most proud, is that students are taking more ownership of their learning. Students are emailing me with praise for their own work and even for assistance in areas they are struggling.”
Without a grade at the top of an assignment, students “are far more likely to read through the work to see what their teacher said to them,” added David Wells, principal of Travis Elementary in the Mineral Wells Independent School District in Texas.
At the same time, there are still teachers just trying to get in touch with students who haven’t or don’t regularly participate in online class sessions. Before focusing on schoolwork, teachers have worked toward “baseline engagement” and making contact with students “so we know they are in a safe place,” said Chris Brecht, the school and network leadership coordinator for BVSD.
The district has also created “home learning support teams” to determine the barriers that might be keeping students from participating in online learning. And in FUSD, some interactions with students are as much “welfare checks” as they are a time to talk about academics, Bob Nelson said, because of concerns over domestic violence or child maltreatment.
Feedback to students also depends on the extent to which students are expected to complete schoolwork. Noelle Nelson noted that in DMPS, tuning into remote learning is still voluntary for students, which “changes the entire conversation because you are engaging with students who are opting in to engage.”
For Villecco, even students who participate in the virtual classroom are not always in school mode. She recently had a student who played with her stuffed animals during the whole lesson. She added for a student to "take feedback and do something about it is a skill that has to be taught."
In FUSD, the fourth quarter is being used as a way for students to raise their current grades if they wish, which means much of the feedback teachers are giving is being directed to students in more “well-resourced” families who are “leaning in” to take advantage of that opportunity, Bob Nelson said.
Today, two months after our school closed, I've finally been able to get in touch with the last student with whom I had not been able to locate. He's okay.— Larry Ferlazzo (@Larryferlazzo) April 25, 2020
Working toward ‘sensible schedules’
For many teachers, this is the first time they’ve ever provided any online instruction. And what used to occur with ease in the classroom now requires another scheduled phone or Zoom call in a day full of them.
“The task is daunting, when a teacher has 85 students to go through and provide written feedback on each assignment,” said Wells at Travis Elementary. “However, it is so necessary when you think about student/parent engagement during this shift in learning practice. My teachers are spending large amounts of time on the phone, Zoom meetings, emailing students right now — all in the name of maintaining engagement and providing feedback.”
“As the chief educational provider in a community, a public school will not lay down and say we are dealt a bad hand."
Principal, Travis Elementary, Mineral Wells Independent School District in Texas
For some teachers, the workload is “almost like a [parent-]teacher conference weekly” if the family is motivated to raise a grade during this time, FUSD’s Nelson said.
Ellen Hume-Howard, executive director of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, said regular “office hours” and video chats are among the common methods teachers are using to answer students’ questions or provide one-on-one guidance.
Students also indicate classrooms with structure “give them a better sense of where they are as learners,” she said. “This is true for schools following sensible schedules where there is an expectation for participation, but a lot of flexibility in completing the work.”
Whatever methods teachers use to communicate with families, it’s also important to be consistent, Jackson said, adding she uses Flipgrid to exchange videos with students and get a better sense of their “well-being.”
“If things are consistent, then parents and students are less likely to give up,” she said. “I am also learning that students love the video interactions. They tell me they are lonely, so any video interactions give them the change to socialize and strengthen their communication skills.”
District and school leaders say they recognize when school resumes in the fall, teaching may still be a combination of in-person and remote instruction.
“Teachers [and] schools are adapting, and they are doing it at crazy-fast rates in order to make sure their students are successful,” Wells said. “As the chief educational provider in a community, a public school will not lay down and say we are dealt a bad hand. A public school will take the hand we are dealt and completely revamp all practices, communication and strategies to reach our community.”