For many students and their families, learning at home can be strange and overwhelming.
Instead of seeing students in person, Polk County Public Schools teachers are using online lessons as well as paper-based instructional materials to keep students learning while schools remain closed in response to the coronavirus.
Although learning at home is new for most of the district’s students, more than 200 students already learn from a distance as full-time students of Polk Virtual. In addition, thousands of other PCPS students were already taking courses on a part-time basis through Polk Virtual, which gives students the opportunity to take their classes online and fulfill their K-12 educational requirements.
Robin Knitt, who has taught Spanish and driver’s education for Polk Virtual, said she sympathizes with parents adjusting to a sudden shift in their children’s educational setting.
“At-home learning can be a challenge for everyone,” Knitt said. “Understand that there will be a learning curve period in the beginning – for you and for your child.”
Keep in mind that even teachers are adapting to this change, she said.
“This is new and challenging for most students, parents and teachers,” said Knitt. “Patience is key! Students might need more explanation than normal. However, with time they will get more efficient at this new way of learning.”
Knitt and other Polk Virtual teachers shared some of their top tips for successful distance learning. Here is their advice:
Stay in Touch With Teachers
Parents and students must stay in regular contact with their teachers. It’s going to be different. You might need to use phone calls, texts, emails, video conferences, or some other method of communication — but you must stay in touch.
If a student doesn’t understand a lesson or assignment, reach out and ask for help. Ask specific questions so the teacher can pinpoint how to help.
“As a virtual teacher, I have found that communication is the number one key to success,” said Patchia Radford, who has been a Polk Virtual teacher for three years and currently teaches fourth- and fifth-graders. “Online education can be just as effective as traditional education if the teacher, student and parent are willing to foster an atmosphere of community. Everyone must work together and collaborate. Good, consistent communication makes that possible.”
Stick to a Schedule
Setting a schedule will help students manage their time wisely, and stay on pace with their classwork and assignments. It can be easy to procrastinate, but a schedule will help students stay on task. The schedule should have time for classwork, assignments and breaks.
Laura Williamson began working part-time with Polk Virtual in 2010, then became a full-time virtual teacher in 2017. She recommends that a student’s schedule include getting up at a specific time each day. She cautioned against students sleeping in late.
“I’m not saying they need to wake up at the crack of dawn,” Williamson said.
But going to bed early and getting up early is a good habit, she said. Students will have a consistent number of hours within their schedule. If they complete their work early, they will have more free time for other activities.
Students don’t sit in front of a computer all day when they go to school. They move to different classes, socialize with friends, visit the media center, and participate in recess or physical education.
Regular breaks throughout the day are just as important when learning from home.
“One of the many advantages of virtual school is the opportunity to take a break anytime one is needed,” said Larry Mohler, who has been a full-time Polk Virtual teacher for nine years and teaches economics, U.S. government, U.S. History and law studies.
“Stand up and exercise frequently. Do something fun between lessons,” he said.
Knitt agreed that breaks are essential, and she recommends putting them into a student’s schedule.
“Plan ahead how long the break will be,” she said. “Don’t exceed the time; remember you need to get back to work. You can use these breaks to snack so you don’t mindlessly snack during your working times. You can use this time to check social media and stay connected with others. You can walk around, do jumping jacks, whatever movement you enjoy. If the sun is shining, step outside for a few minutes and absorb all that great vitamin D.”
Space for Success
Virtual teachers agree that it’s important to have a designated, orderly space for learning with supplies handy. But this location can vary: Some students are bothered by distractions and need somewhere quiet to focus; others might appreciate some white noise or low-level music.
“Studies show we learn well with very low baroque classical music in the background – even if that isn’t your preferred music choice,” said Knitt. “Maybe you concentrate better when you are extremely comfortable, or perhaps that makes you too relaxed to keep working.”
Finding just the right space might take some experimentation, but it’s worth the effort.
Parental Involvement and Encouragement
Virtual teachers suggest parents take a few moments throughout the day to ask children what they’re working on and explain it. This will help reinforce what they are learning and keep them focused. Don’t wait until the end of the day to ask what they learned. Instead, ask them what they’re learning.
Parents can also find ways to encourage and reward students for being consistent in their work, sticking to their schedule and completing assignments.
Knitt also recommended that parents communicate with other parents, and share their insights and ideas.