By Lindsay Clare Matsumura and Dena Zook-Howell

Institute for Learning and LRDC

In many districts, teachers have worked hard to incorporate Accountable Talk® practices that enable rich classroom discussions. In the COVID-19 pandemic, inequities in resources available to students have been further exacerbated. Often student learning is interrupted by inequitable access to computers and to the internet. Burdens on teachers and other educators also are extreme. Teachers are contending with their own hardships in addition to teaching online for the first time with little training. It can feel like rigorous and interactive conversations are no longer an option. It is possible, however, to engage students in the kinds of rigorous and interactive discussions online that are foundational to student learning. Coaches, even while practicing social distancing, have an important role to play in assisting teachers to continue, rather than abandon, this important pedagogy. Here we describe some things that we are learning from our ongoing research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center on how coaches can support teachers remotely to engage students in rigorous and interactive online discussions.

What is different about coaching in a pandemic?

Coaching teachers remotely during a pandemic is similar to face-to-face coaching in its focus on student thinking, rigorous content, and cultivation of an inquiry stance toward instruction. Overlaid on top of these, however, is a new role for coaches to support teachers to use features of online platforms to achieve particular learning goals and establish positive online communities. Compounding these knowledge demands is the very real uncertainty that teachers themselves are experiencing in this pandemic. Uncertainty and anxiety provide a weak springboard for learning and responding to teachers emotionally in this new environment is a larger part of the coaching context than it was previously. In the following sections, we discuss specific ways coaches can support teachers to move their discussions online.

⁘ Helping teachers reestablish their classroom learning community.

Even though teachers may have established a strong learning community in their face-to-face instruction, it is likely they will need to reestablish their learning community in the new online environment. Teachers may find, for example, that students who jump in right away during in-person discussions are reluctant to participate in online conversations (and vice versa). Encouraging teachers to take the time to promote the same climate and norms online is essential. This is not a step backwards but instead a path forward to creating the necessary conditions for optimizing online instruction.

Coaches can assist teachers to think imaginatively about options that develop a new sense of community.

Coaches can assist teachers to think imaginatively about options that develop a new sense of community. These should begin with non-academic, low-risk interactions that build toward the academic, robust interactions that support student learning. A sample sequence might begin with each student showing a pet or a favorite toy/hobby to the group. The next interaction could require students to share or upload a picture or description of their favorite place in their home to read or relax, and then, in turn, explain to the group why they chose that place. The idea is to reintroduce students to each other, strengthen a home and school connection, and allow students to get used to the platform before launching into rigorous academic content.

Certain features of online discussion platforms also can be useful to support a low-risk way for students to gain entry into online discussions. This can be especially important for students who are developing their English language skills or for other reasons may feel shy to participate. For example, the polling feature on many platforms can be a useful way to start a discussion or keep students engaged throughout a discussions in the same way that turn and talk can be useful for students to try out their ideas with a peer before speaking with a whole group. We describe this further in the next section.

Establishing powerful and clear online learning routines.

Clear and consistently applied routines that scaffold students’ engagement with complex content are critical to effective classroom discussions, and this is especially the case for online class discussions. An important job of coaches is to help teachers think through what their learning routines will be to achieve particular purposes and goals in discussions, and then connect these routines to features and functions of learning technologies and platforms. Online learners can very easily get lost and confused. Teachers must be far more explicit when giving directions to students online than when teaching face to face (which is all the more reason to develop routines and stick with them). Coaches can assist teachers by helping them develop and trouble shoot directions for participating in different activities. This can help ensure that students’ energy is spent learning and not figuring out what they are supposed to be doing. Fortunately, technologies have advanced to the level that powerful routines for in-person instruction can be translated to an online environment.

⁘ Learning new technologies to support student learning. 

The ability to put online student-centered learning routines into play is dependent on teachers’ familiarity with technology (e.g., discussion platforms such as Microsoft teams). For many teachers, however, the demands entailed in learning new technologies and discussion platforms are overwhelming. The need for differentiated assistance from coaches includes understanding and responding to the range of comfort levels and knowledge of technologies/platforms that provide current instructional options. Coaches can differentiate tech support in a number of ways, such as the following:

  • Modeling a classroom online discussion. One way coaches can support teachers is to engage a group of teachers in a discussion (e.g., a model lesson), showing them ways that features can be used to meet particular learning goals (e.g., small group breakout rooms in place of “turn and talks” or a polling feature or chat box to gather individual student thinking for all to see.).
  • Creating a safe place to experiment. Coaches also can act as students in practice meetings so that teachers can “try on” various teacher moves through the features of the platform, or convene a group of teachers to take turns conducting a mock discussion and using the features.
  • Co-teaching. If teachers feel unsure about conducting online discussions, coaches can co-teach with teachers, acting as a co-host to assist with technology, if that is necessary (e.g., moving students in and out of breakout sessions, switching to a whiteboard or document reader, etc.).
  • Cultivate peer mentoring. Coaches need not have all the tech wisdom. Coaches can also assist teachers to share their knowledge and support mentor/learner partnerships between teachers via conference calls or video meetings. This is a time to cultivate peer mentoring and “think partners,” and coaches are uniquely positioned to know the strengths and needs of the individual teachers and grade levels, and harness the potential for new kinds of professional learning communities.

⁘ Planning lessons for teachers.

Ordinarily, coaches support teachers to plan for class discussions. In a pandemic, however, coaches can ease the stress teachers may be feeling by creating model lessons for class discussions to support individual teachers or groups of teachers. In planning for an online lesson, it is important to consider how particular features of an online platform might be used to further particular learning goals. For example, what kinds of questions might be more productively taken up in whole group discussion or small group breakout sessions? Students can sometimes get antsy sitting in online discussions—what kinds of activities (e.g., polls, responding to teacher questions in the chat feature, doing a stop and jot on sticky notes to share onscreen) might be useful for helping students stay engaged in the discussion?

⁘ Choosing texts.

Something to consider in lesson planning is that students may miss multiple days of school. It might be a good idea to plan around short texts that contain sufficient grist to support a rich online discussion but would not pose a barrier to students reengaging in discussions after several absences. Another consideration is that students are likely to feel more disconnected from school when attending online than when they are attending in person, in addition to grappling with challenges and hardships. We always want students to read engaging texts. But now more than ever is a time to think about texts that will pique student interest and get them thinking, but not require extensive scaffolding to wade through the language. Notably, if groups of teachers want to use the lessons, as described earlier, coaches could engage the teachers in a run through of the lesson with the teachers providing instruction around the platform use throughout.

⁘ Reestablishing a positive professional collaboration. 

In the same way that teachers need to reestablish their classroom learning community when they move to an online format, it is important that coaches work to reestablish their professional learning communities with teachers when coaching remotely. Now more than ever, the balance of content for initial coaching conversations, if not all coaching conversations, will require much more time upfront supporting the social emotional aspect of professional collaboration. Teachers, like many other Americans, are stressed, anxious, lonely, fearful for loved ones, and/or may be experiencing financial distress. Many of their students are also facing significant hardships. Listening to teachers speak to their own experience and concerns is important for both supporting teachers emotionally and helping coaches gauge the kinds of options to pursue together, based on each teacher’s interest and readiness to try new things—one new thing or many new things. Some teachers might feel ready to learn all of the ins and outs of a platform; other teachers might want to move a little slower if they are feeling overwhelmed.

⁘ Reestablishing a positive professional collaboration. 

Although the sense of co-accountability and collaborative problem solving may already be a foundation for your coach-teacher relationships, it is incumbent upon coaches to reframe an inquiry stance in light of this moment. Reminding teachers that we, as a national and global educational community, are all learning together right now, positions discussions to lean into tests of small change. Cultivating an inquiry stance about technology options and which factors seem to be supporting or impeding student learning is critical. Additionally, focusing on student engagement, which is easier to assess and address in-person, requires a critical stance.

Adopting an inquiry stance also can help draw teachers’ (and coaches’) attention to some of the potential affordances of online instruction—for now and for later. Many teachers are reporting that some students participate more in this online environment and some participate less. By studying student engagement, coaches can support teachers to notice aspects of online instruction that support the majority of students as well as specific students. Again, approaching this as an inquiry allows actual study to occur. It may well be that some students will be most supported with a part of their day online, even when instruction becomes in-person again.


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Tagged with: Academic Rigor, Accountable Talk® Discussions, ELA, Equitable Instruction, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Coaching, Online Instruction, Principles of Learning, Reading / Comprehension