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School 2.0: tips from the pros

Teacher, student from alternative school offer online learning advice

As K-12 districts roll out their Continuity of Learning Plans this week, and students across Kent ISD and beyond make the transition to online learning as a primary means for most, those who have been doing it for a while have some advice.

Unity High School has been around since 1994 for students in grades 9-12, and became an online school in 2010. Though nearly all lessons take place online, Unity students were required before the mandated school shutdown to be in school five days a week.

Sue Sweet is in her 11th year as Unity’s on-site teacher. Now, she said, given the age group of her students and their propensity to sleep later — and thus be more alert and ready to learn, she pointed out — she calls herself a “second-shift teacher” to her 23 students.

For the first couple weeks not going to school, “I think a lot of them had been kind of holding out working on materials, waiting to see when we would go back,” Sweet said.

Advice for Parents 

Not sure how to help your child learn at home? Here are some tips:
• Establish a time and place for studying, with the student’s buy-in, to provide structure and consistency 
• Take an interest in your child’s work, and monitor it to be sure it’s done with integrity
• Emphasize taking notes, which helps imprint information into the brain 
• Let your child take breaks and walk around, rather than staring at a screen for hours on end 
• If the online study material provides for turning text into speech, use it — hearing helps capture the student’s attention 

Source: Sue Sweet, Lowell Unity High School teacher 

Now that the extended shutdown has become a permanent switch through the end of the school year to distance learning, “that threw my students into a tizzy, the ones who knew they would have to keep working to earn their diploma. I have told them, ‘You need to get online, you need to get started.’

“I’ve told them, ‘This is what you have been telling me you want, to work when you want and how you want. There you go, now you have it.’ A couple did respond to me with, basically, ‘Yeah, ouch.’”

Sue Sweet, teacher at Unity High School with husband, Jeff, and son, Jared, a senior at Lowell High School

Now, she said, her first goal is what she would recommend to students just starting out and the parents who find themselves in a new role: “Set up a game plan, taking units in chunks. You are like a coach when you tell them, ‘Let’s set this goal, work to reach that, and then we will go to the next one.’

Related story: Business as usualMySchool@Kent students have been working online for years…

Top 5 Tips

Katie DeYoung knows about setting goals. She is a senior at Unity and in her second year at the alternative school. She lives on her own and is still working at a local sit-down restaurant — albeit taking phone orders, packaging them up and delivering them outside to customers in waiting vehicles.

Here are Sweet’s Top 5 pieces of advice — with Katie’s wisdom added — to new online learners and those who manage the household where they will do that learning:

  1. “Just like with any schoolwork, you need to designate a place and a time to log in, to give structure and consistency,” Sweet said. And she understands a crucial something else must come first: “You have to have the child’s buy-in. The child has to have ownership. So besides learning what they are learning in their classes, this experience is an excellent chance to develop those life skills.”

    What Katie likes most about learning online is that she can do it at her own pace. “The biggest thing is that it’s not handed to you,” she said. “You have to take your education into your own hands, be an adult, and get it done.”

  2. Monitor your child as they go through their courses, Sweet says: “You want to know what they are learning and show an interest, and you want to ensure integrity.” She acknowledges the potential for Googling answers. “As parents, you need to proctor that what they are doing is honest, and that they know that’s the expectation. We want to raise honest, trustworthy, responsible adults.

    “There’s no perfect system. There’s never been a perfect system. This isn’t going to be perfect.”

    For Katie, who plans to attend Grand Rapids Community College in the fall and pursue a career in child protective services, earning a diploma through hard work and determination is paramount. “You can choose to look up the answers online, but that’s not going to benefit you,” she said.

  3. Emphasize note-taking. This is one Katie said Sweet “has really harped into my head.” Said Sweet: “They can go through the material as fast or as slow as they need and want to. Encourage them to write stuff down as they are doing it. Even if they already know it, the more sensory modalities they use, the greater chance that information has of attaching itself to the brain.”
  4. Take breaks. “Do not expect your child to sit in front of a computer for an hour straight, let alone four. They didn’t do it when they were at school, and they are not going to do it now. They need to get up and move around. The research is there; movement is important at any age. And then return.”

    Katie said “not being scared to step away was one of the biggest lessons for me” in online learning. “It gets hard looking at an assignment for hours and not getting it. That’s one of the benefits of online school, is you can’t do that in a traditional classroom.”

  5. If the online material allows for turning text into speech — where text is pasted into a program and out it comes from your computer speakers as spoken word — Sweet says use it. There are free programs available, and “if you are listening to it, your attention is going to be captured. That multisensory component is important.”

Most Important Piece 

Sweet, who said she has given input to district administrators on the transition and aspects of online learning, understands the undertaking is enormous for districts, staff, families and students. “If I was teaching U.S. history to 120-plus students and had to switch over — wow.”

Sweet has long stressed the need for the face-to-face element to maximize success. “I can tell them to call me, text me, do FaceTime with me when they need to, but bottom line is, they’re at home.”

‘You are like a coach when you tell them, ‘Let’s set this goal, work to reach that, and then we will go to the next one.’

— Sue Sweet, Lowell Unity High School teacher

What would she say to those overwhelmed by the task ahead? “I feel for them,” Sweet said before becoming teary herself. “As adults, these are  such unprecedented moments. We’re trying to adjust and be an example, and now we have this (learning at home) on top of that.”

The bottom line, she said, is parents should do what they can. “Do the basics: read to your child. Keep a journal of emotions, so you’re not only helping with the mental health piece, but you are also practicing writing. As a parent, loving your child and showing them that in the end we are going to get through this, is the most important piece.”

And the bottom line for students: “It is going to be new to everybody,” said Forest Hills Eastern High senior Olivia Laux. Her challenges with Type 1 diabetes prompted a switch two years ago to MySchool@Kent, a hybrid online high school program of Kent ISD. The program has now gone entirely online.

“It’s new to you, to your fellow students, and to the teachers,” Olivis said. “There is going to be an adjustment (for everyone). Just remember, this is way better than having to repeat half a year.”

Joanne Bailey-Boorsma contributed to this report


Read this SNN article for more online learning myth-busters from Unity students and teacher Sue Sweet.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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