Keep it Simple: A Q&A with Rebecca Kockler about Distance Learning for Parents, Districts and States

Across the country, districts and states are taking a variety of approaches to their sudden transition to distance learning. We sat down with Rebecca Kockler, former Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content for the Louisiana Department of Education, to learn more about her recommendations for parents, districts and states in the short term and as they look forward to the fall. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What advice do you have for PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS who are home with children, especially if their school is unable to provide much support? 

This is a time to let kids explore their interests. Make sure they have some dedicated time every day for reading, writing and math, but be flexible. If you’re working from home and have less time, focus on setting your child up with resources and then let them explore on their own. If you have a bit more time, you can do a structured writing prompt and give them feedback on their writing or you can ask detailed questions about what they are reading, which requires that you know the material yourself. Have your children access new material that interests them every day, which matches closely what they do in school anyway. These strategies allow a parent to engage as much or as little as they are able to given their work schedules and the other pressures in front of them right now. 

My recommendations are: 

  • For reading, make sure they can access books at home that are high-quality, published materials. Younger children should be getting through a couple of books a day. If they are older they should be getting through a longer novel or text per week. Check out ebooks online from your local library or CommonLit for quality authentic materials.
  • For math, get your child set up with a math program that will be mostly self-led. Zearn is great for students K-5, Great Minds Knowledge on the Go has free daily video lessons in math for K-12 and Khan Academy can be helpful for secondary. Those are  free and you can set up a teacher account to monitor your child’s progress.
  • For science and history, try to find the best resources for whatever your child is interested in and then let them explore.  Consider NASA, Library of Congress, or Smithsonian. Amplify also has lots of materials in science and they are releasing more each week. They also have teacher facing videos that parents can watch.
  • It’s a great time for students to pick a language that they’re interested in and practice using many of the free resources available like Duolingo or Babbel.

I would also take some of the pressure off. Parents should not feel that their children are going to be dramatically behind their peers if they don’t have the time to do the structured stuff. Make sure kids are reading, doing math and writing something, every day. Whatever you can do, it’s okay!

What advice do you have for DISTRICTS to support students, parents and teachers right now?  

First, get clear on one key decision: Are you facilitating daily lessons with kids via a daily video recording or live on a Zoom call – or not? If you are doing that, make sure to stay with the curricula you have. This is a hard time and everyone is already navigating many other changes, so use the materials your teachers and students are already familiar with to facilitate virtual learning. 

If you are not doing that, do not send a full lesson plan home to parents to manage. Parents have not been trained, many are still working or are trying to facilitate different kids with different learning. Parents are overwhelmed and kids are confused. It’s too much! Instead, pare back and simplify. I would send daily reading, writing and math guidance with simple protocols (including the resources) that parents can easily facilitate. For example: reading from CommonLit or other resources where kids can access good books along with some quick writing prompts or questions that parents can ask the kids if they have time. Include other resources for social studies and science that are simple and optional (see above for some samples). 

The next tiering question is: Do your kids have computers and wifi or not?  If your students do not have computers or regular wifi, you can do printed packets. In the packets, I would include short texts with easy prompt questions for parents to facilitate and daily math practice exercises. To get the materials to parents, you can order through Staples and have them shipped directly to the student’s home, have packets available at school food pick ups, or use existing bus routes for food delivery to deliver packets to students. 

What do you see as the roles of STATE education agencies and leaders in supporting districts right now?

State agencies should be vetting quality resources, providing guidance and signaling simple solutions to everyone. The state agencies also should be moving very fast to help districts interpret federal guidelines–new ones are coming down every week and that’s going to continue. States need to be fast in interpreting those for districts so districts are making smart decisions. States should be putting out guidance for new funding opportunities and illuminating new flexibility in federal regulations. And not just what it means for districts, but what decisions can districts make as a result of these changes? 

One thing states should not do now is try to make a change with core instructional materials. Do not make a curriculum change right now unless it’s moving to an online version of the curricula in place or using a simple online tool, because it’s going to be confusing to teachers and students.  Right now is the time for using what you have in a smart and simple way.

Once the next few weeks of immediate needs and triage are behind us, what advice do you have for DISTRICTS and STATES to start thinking about SY 2020-2021?  

This experience is highlighting how important it is to have coherent instructional materials in place, district-wide. When teachers are making individual decisions day-to-day without working from a strong set of materials, it’s hard for teachers to manage through disruptions, it’s hard for parents to keep up, and it’s hard for the district or the state to know if kids are getting good support. If I were a district leader who did not have high quality instructional materials in place in reading and math, I would definitely be making plans to start next school year with a high-quality, coherent set of instructional materials at least in math and ELA, accompanied by a full virtual learning plan. 

It is possible that we will have rolling school closures next year or some sort of regular disruption. We need to be ready for students to miss a couple of weeks or a month at a time and then resume learning back at school. Having a coherent curriculum ensures that there’s a plan for the whole year. It will also make it much easier for families if you pick one with good materials for students to learn from online or over videoconferencing. I would also talk to your vendors to have a virtual/online training plan for teachers for back to school in case we cannot be in person. Getting that set now, means that you can proceed no matter what happens. 

The second thing is to get some quick, diagnostic assessments in place so teachers can get a sense of how differently kids are coming in compared for previous years. You’re not going to have state test data from this spring. Some schools might be inclined to over-remediate and keep kids off grade-level content for too long. It’s possible that our kids won’t come back in the fall dramatically behind. The end of the school year can often be a time of review and test preparation and end of school events. Making the assumption that we need to do too much remediation and spend too much time at the beginning of next school year in remedial content is a huge risk. 

In math, I would work with the instructional materials vendor to make sure you’re getting some of their recommendations on how to adjust the curriculum. In reading above grade 2, I would not assume you need to do dramatic amounts of remediation. Instead, it’s the same sort of check we always do: What vocabulary do they need? What background knowledge do they need for this text? Now, in K-2, that’s a little bit different because of the foundations of reading. You might need to separate out the difference between reading comprehension versus reading foundations and pull in lessons from first grade to the beginning of second grade. But in general, let’s not be inclined to over remediate and keep kids behind for too long. 

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