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Together Apart: Fostering Collaboration in a Remote Learning Environment

By Katy Tarasi
 | Aug 25, 2020

Student at computerAs a literacy coach for grades K–6, there is nothing I love more than seeing students deeply engaged in collaboration. From the excitement on the faces of kindergartners as they turn and whisper their thoughts in a think-pair-share to the quick-paced discussion of sixth graders determining where to place vocabulary words according to their shades of meaning, the classrooms in my school are typically full of authentic and lively student interactions.

Student collaboration is critical. Partner reading builds fluency. Sharing manipulatives to retell a story strengthens language development and reading comprehension. The ability to share the pen with another, communicate clearly, and problem solve in teams has so many benefits.

Students need collaborative work now more than ever. Social distancing is taking its toll on student learning, particularly the kind that comes when students work in groups. But how do we bring collaborative learning into a virtual setting this year?

I’ve been meeting with teachers around the United States virtually this summer to support them with the implementation of a literacy curriculum that we use at my school, which calls for authentic collaborative work and rich student discourse. In the course of these meetings, I’ve come up with a few ideas for bringing collaboration into a virtual space.

Set up routines

Just like at the start of any school year, set up class routines for collaborative work during remote learning. Explicitly state expectations, routines, and procedures. Talk about digital norms and practices, such as how to raise a hand or get attention during an online class and how to appropriately use the chat function of a digital platform.

Just as you’d have a checklist of expectations taped to the wall of your classroom, post your expectations on a shared site within the digital platform. Give consistent praise as students are learning the routines and redirect as needed. Allow time for student reflection on routines because learning how to participate and collaborate is just as important as learning the content.

Make the learning purposeful

Collaborative learning should be purposeful. Just like in the traditional classroom, teachers should establish why they’re using a particular group-based or partner approach during instructional time. This will focus the activity and give teachers a lens for choosing a collaborative strategy.

When students can’t be together in person, have them record video conversations on tools like Flipgrid or Padlet. Require students to watch and respond to classmates by posting their own short video or writing a response to create a chain of linking comments. Don’t shy away from giving students—especially younger students—prompts or sentence starters to help them build rich and meaningful conversations, at least initially.

Make the learning authentic

As adults, we work together to achieve a goal or converse to learn about one another, and we want to provide this same experience for 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 kindergartners: “How has life in America changed over time?” They can reach out to caregivers or family members and ask them questions about their experiences in school and at home. If a student doesn’t have anyone available to talk to, the teacher can share experiences through recorded clips or a Zoom call. Stakeholders such as administrators or PTA members can share experiences, too.

Provide fundamental feedback

Keep an eye on how collaborative work is going and give students guidance to steer it in the right direction. That tends to happen naturally in a classroom environment but will take extra work virtually. Provide praise and corrective feedback regularly on both procedures and collaboration. Use class time to reflect on the process of virtual learning, noting what students like and dislike.

If students are engaging in peer editing using a shared online platform, teacher feedback is necessary for it to be purposeful. If student feedback isn’t particularly robust, use this as a formative assessment. Use your next class session to model an appropriate response and introduce a rubric or sentence starters.

Modify activities for virtual learning

Many in-person activities that educators already use in their classroom have the potential to be moved into a remote environment with a bit of creativity. An example of an activity I’ve been thinking about converting to a virtual experience involves Chalk Talks.

As an in-person activity, students meet in groups and answer questions about a book that is posted in the classroom. With my fourth graders, I have used Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. Students responded collectively to questions around topics such as how the main character changed over time and the difference between literal versus figurative text. In addition to responding to teacher questions, students have to weigh in on other groups’ comments.

Virtually, a teacher could place the students in several configurations. First, each student would work independently to answer a question. Next, students would meet in small groups in online breakout rooms and agree on one answer. Then, students would all come together in a whole group, giving “expert” groups a chance to share out. Finally, students would go back to breakout rooms and reflect on the different answers.

Younger students can also collaborate virtually. During an in-person kindergarten lesson, students might have worked together to identify the genre of a set of books. Then the students 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 about the traits of different genres, and then students could come together in small groups in online breakout rooms to discuss their thoughts. Finally, students could drag-and-drop the titles in categories on Seesaw. Remember that younger students need to practice routines like speaking one at a time and using sentence frames such as “I agree with Katy because….”

I know educators are feeling nervous about the days and weeks ahead, but I also know they are putting a lot of thought into how to teach effectively and creatively in an online environment. By focusing on students’ needs, including the need to work collaboratively, I’m confident we can deliver great instruction.

Katy Tarasi is an elementary literacy coach in the Avonworth School District near Pittsburgh, PA, and a fellow with the Great Minds’ Wit & Wisdom English Language Arts team. In that capacity, Katy delivers professional development and coaching to educators around the United States. She can be reached via email.

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