Friday, 12 June 2020

Getting Real Results in Virtual Summer School

This year, summer schools and reading camps have morphed into virtual learning sessions. With just a few short weeks to make an impact, summer programs present a unique set of conditions for teachers. Learning at a distance adds even more factors that need to be considered when implementing a summer program virtually. Effective online instruction that is engaging for students, easy to access and simple to use can make all of the difference, especially when time is in short supply.

Here are a few tips on getting results in (virtual) summer school: 
  1. Set clear daily or weekly goals: Most summer schools and camps are 2-4 weeks in length, so there’s very little time to waste. Tell students what they will be learning each week and why. Communicate how their progress will be monitored (frequency, metrics, feedback) and what milestones are going to be measured by you each week. 

  2. Do something different: Many students stopped “regular” school back in March and have been distance learning for a while. Finding a program that is different from what they’ve been doing will stimulate new interest for students. Engaging students with multimedia content, lessons that can be completed in short periods, and high-interest topics will go a long way to keeping students focused and on task.

  3. Make students accountable: Part of the weekly evaluation is getting students to self-monitor and evaluate their performance. In BrightFish Reading, for example, students use the “story tracker" to check their scores in different skill areas and monitor their growth. Teachers can also assign weekly progress sheets where students rate their work and record reflections. Simple tracking mechanisms like leader boards (shown below) and visible progress bars motivate students to achieve their goals. 

  4. Let them know you’re watching: In short summer school sessions, it’s important to closely monitor how much time students are working and what’s getting done. Real-time metrics for time on task and progress are essential. Once you set the weekly or daily goals, give students specific feedback on their progress data. Offer clear direction about what is going well and any changes you expect to see before the week’s end.

  5. Reward and celebrate: Motivating students to keep up the pace can be challenging from a distance. Here are a few ideas to try with your classes: 
    • Celebrate the weekly top scorer for time on task, lessons completed, scores, etc.
    • Use weekly video calls to acknowledge top scorers and most-improved students.
    • Keep a tally of points and give extra credit for achieving milestones in different categories.
    • Write a note to the student’s parents and send PDF certificates for completed work.
    • Create weekly prizes, such as coupons to use in local bookstores, food stores or online.
    • Hold a raffle for a mystery prize at the end of the session that only top scorers can enter.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: Reports and self-help tools are great, but the only “easy button” is having a live person on the other end of the phone, chat or email to be your virtual teaching assistant.
Get BrightFish Reading for summer school:

Friday, 8 May 2020

We Can Do This: Five Ways to Keep the Momentum Going

Motivating students to keep up the pace is a huge challenge at this time of year – especially from a distance. With many districts approaching the end of their traditional school calendar, the momentum for learning from home is grinding to a halt. This downshift is especially discouraging for teachers working with students who struggle to read at grade level. They worry that their kids will lose too much ground and have little time to make it up again.

Motivation is the spark that inspires students to keep going. Teachers can re-ignite it by encouraging students to take ownership of their learning. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of Top 5 strategies from the BrightFish teaching community to keep the momentum going:

1. Use Student-Centered Tools: Online programs that provide self-paced instruction put students in control of their own learning. Teachers can take on the role of coaches, using data to remediate and redirect students with support and resources. For example:
  • Mastery-based instruction that takes students through an individual learning path.
  • High-interest content in different genres and multimedia formats engages students in their learning.
  • Feedback and rewards that are part of the instruction help to encourage and motivate students to keep working.

2. Plan for Individual Needs: Identify your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and plan for individual needs with different motivational strategies. Here are some examples:
  • Learned helplessness and dependence: students who wait for teacher direction and praise. Providing regular feedback by looking at their data helps to keep these students on task.
  • Risk-averse: students are worried about failing and avoid stress through withdrawal. Programs that celebrate success at each step of the way can be combined with encouragement from teachers that the student is on the right path. 

3. Connect and Share: Encourage students to try these new ways of interacting and learning.
  • Create a forum for students to share their new experiences through reading logs.
  • Moderate an online chat with the class. Teachers are using BrightFish story topics for discussions in science, biology, biography and literary fiction.

4. Encourage Self-Monitoring: Students need to be encouraged to take risks and learn that a certain amount of failure is part of learning.
  • Ask students to evaluate their performance. In BrightFish Reading, they can track their results in each story unit and use the "story tracker" to record their observations and errors.
  • Schedule data chats with students who are struggling in a skill area, such as vocabulary. Ask them to identify where they are making errors and why.
  • Anxious students in particular need reassurance that they can learn. Set clear expectations and have students document the strategies and tools they can use to improve.

5. Reward and Recognize: Acknowledge your students’ progress and provide specific incentives.
  • Praise students one-on-one (or in front of the class) in video meetings.
  • Award extra points for achieving goals. In BrightFish Reading, you can add points for students to use in the online Games Store.
  • Send parents/guardians the weekly certificates for their children with a personalized note of congratulations.
  • Create mystery e-prizes with different contents each week. Create a shortlist of students and place their names in a draw based on qualifying criteria (such as the highest time on task or activity scores.) At the end of each week, draw a winner and post the results on a shared forum.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Closing the Distance-Learning Gap

Shifting to fulltime distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis has been an unexpected shock for even the most prepared schools. Moving from a controlled and structured school environment to supporting learners at home has created a whole new set of conditions for teachers and students alike.

As the publishers of BrightFish Reading, we made the decision early on to offer our online instructional program at no charge during the closures. That was the easy part. The avalanche of requests that followed made things significantly more complicated as we rushed to get hundreds of new schools set up in a matter of days – and in some cases, hours. While I won’t go into the gory details of the myriad devices, browsers and Wi-Fi issues we’ve encountered in these past few weeks, there are a few interesting themes that have emerged so far.

Here are some of our “lessons learned” from the brave new world of virtual education:   

1.       You really can have too many enrollment options: Getting teachers and students set up for online programs is relatively straightforward in a typical school environment. We provide several class rostering options – Clever, ClassLink, Google Classroom  and offer import tools for enrolling students directly in the BrightFish platform. In the rush to get going, many teachers chose multiple methods, resulting in duplicate classrooms and general confusion. All of this was fairly easy to straighten out but left us with a major action item to rethink the whole sign-up process. (When things settle down we’ll get to it.) 

2.       Email is good but live chat is better: Since teachers and students are working from remote locations, there is no school office number to call to provide support. Usually we have only an email address for teachers and no contact information for students. Live chat has been a major tool in getting teachers and students the help they need in the moment. Email is OK for follow-up, but there’s nothing like having an interactive conversation to answer questions and troubleshoot tech and setup issues. Our live chat traffic has increased 10-fold and most issues can be resolved in a matter of minutes. It was an important tool before the closures and absolutely critical in this environment.  

3.       Expectations matter: If anyone ever questioned the role of teachers in online learning, the experience of the past few weeks underlines how critical teachers are to the process. Video conferencing, messaging, email, phone – teachers are finding creative ways to provide instruction and guidance to their students. We can see the impact in the data. Teachers who have been rigorous in setting clear expectations, monitoring students’ work and providing regular feedback are seeing really high usage rates and continued improvement in scores for their BrightFish Reading activities. Many students are getting higher time on task and we’re seeing spikes in weekend and evening usage.

4.       Screen time is irrelevant: Many of our teachers are reporting parents saying “Johnny and Janie have been on the computer for 2 hours this week.” Yet our usage reports show only 30 minutes of work in BrightFish Reading. There’s nothing wrong with the data – just that we report on time on task (TOT) based on completed work. TOT is a really useful productivity measure when you’re teaching students remotely. It doesn’t matter how long they have been logged into their device or staring at their computer screen. Measures that capture completed work, such as time on task, help teachers see exactly how focused and productive their students are in whatever program they are using. In distance learning, access to data showing time spent on completed work is an important tool for teachers to monitor their remote learners.
5.        Self-paced learning gives students control: One of the benefits of self-paced learning programs is that they put the student at the center. The role of the teacher is to guide, monitor and remediate. Students gain more control over their own learning – and more responsibility for using the available tools to track and improve their performance. In a virtual learning environment, teachers can review their students' data and provide personalized feedback and remediation based on individual areas of weakness.    

6.       Motivation is possible from a distance: Teachers are finding new ways to be present for students, whether it’s using video conference tools or just checking in daily to provide support. Online tools can also be effective in keeping students motivated while learning remotely. A few tools that teachers have been using in BrightFish Reading include creating reward cards that can be redeemed for extra credit and topping up points for achieving personal best scores. We’ve posted ideas in our Virtual Learning Center and we’re sharing tips from BrightFish teachers.

Visit our Virtual Learning Center here.