How to Model Literacy Instruction Remotely

Though the tools and classrooms might look different, educational goals remain the same.

Whether or not they can be present in a physical classroom, assistant principals have a job to do. And when it comes to literacy, that job is nearly identical to what it was before the pandemic. “The spirit of the task is the same,” says Byonka Gregory, assistant principal at Walker Mill Middle School in Capitol Heights, Maryland. “You just have to do it a different way.”

Before the nationwide school shutdowns in March, she says, district APs worked to create a culture of learning in the brick-and-mortar setting. Gregory helped teachers “unpack” the curriculum and engaged colleagues to determine which instructional strategies worked best.

“For me, the goal was to set expectations for what literacy looks like,” Gregory says. “It was a matter of setting expectations and using coaching to see how these expectations translated from collaborative planning to delivery of instruction.”

A Sudden Shift

While the district was able to issue Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to every student who needed them promptly, the abrupt shift to virtual learning made instructional leadership a challenge. “Time is so hard to find,” Gregory says. “It’s hard to have a conversation [and] give immediate feedback.”

Most of the interpersonal cues that can inform coaching are missing in the remote realm, she adds. “One of the biggest differences is the ability to read a room—it’s hard when you have 27 little boxes on your screen. But the goals are the same: creating a culture of learning, providing professional development, and having consistent, collaborative planning.”

APs now offer teachers feedback via email, increasing the likelihood of being misunderstood. “You can read an email 101 different ways depending on how you choose to perceive the tone, and that makes a difference whether you are delivering good news or bad news,” Gregory says.

Tech for Teaching

The district retooled its literacy curriculum over summer to offer continuity, reviewing fourth-quarter concepts in the first quarter of the current school year. It “hits the same benchmarks, but integrates more e-tools for teachers to use to reach [students] virtually,” Gregory says. Apps such as Zoom, Google Meet, Jamboard, and Pear Deck “really help us keep kids engaged.”

A few veteran teachers were initially less comfortable with remote technologies than younger colleagues. But distance learning ultimately helped them recalibrate literacy instruction to benefit students. “People love to be ‘the sage on the stage,’” Gregory says. “Going virtual has given a lot of the teachers new tools to create student-centered classrooms.”

Weekly professional development sessions now include demonstrations of new apps and other resources teachers can use to support their virtual classrooms. Gregory also uses tech tools to go on virtual “learning walks” that encourage collaborative planning, helping teachers calibrate the curriculum using the tools they choose.

“Students are still getting the same level of literacy instruction, because we haven’t changed our strategy,” she says. “We can do different activities, but the end of the road has to be the same. We all have to be in the same spot at 3 o’clock.”

Ian P. Murphy is senior editor of NAESP’s Principal magazine.

Make the Virtual Real

Gregory shared several tips for making virtual learning more effective:

  • Lead through collaboration. Connect teachers with resources as their conduit to coaching, IT, and additional support, and make yourself a part of online instruction. “It not only gives you an idea of what areas to focus on, but the kids enjoy seeing you on it, as well.”
  • Put planning on a schedule. “We know that every second and third Tuesday, we are going to meet, and what we’re [going to be] talking about. Be flexible but maintain your expectations.”
  • Make the virtual classroom fun. “Teaching is serious work, but we can take the ‘serious’ out of it.” Something as simple as a new Zoom background can help keep kids engaged; aquarium and beach scenes are teacher favorites. “The kids love it.”
  • Check on more than the curriculum. Don’t feel you need to constantly drill down on official business; keep some of your check-ins casual: “Nothing to do with attendance, students, instruction, parents—just ‘How are you doing?’”