Teacher Spotlight: Samantha Vega, Martin Middle School, 6th Grade ELA

Written by Jack McGavick

Ms. Vega was brave enough and kind enough to let me attend her synchronous 6th grade English class just eight days into this unprecedented school year. What I saw was a safe, welcoming, supportive, and deftly-facilitated online environment.

Here are three specific ‘teacher moves’ Ms. Vega uses every day that may translate well to your classroom:

1) Greeting Activity

Ms. Vega’s daily greeting activity is in the form of a “Which one are you?” meme. Kids pick one of 9 images that represents them in that moment. Ms. Vega asks students to write the number of the image in the chat, along with a sentence explaining why they feel that way. She provides bilingual stems on the slide with the image choices, and she positively reinforces every chat as it appears.

Why it works:

  • There’s a low barrier to entry. Every student was able to quickly choose an image to represent them and write the number of the image in the chat. For students who did not meet the expectation of writing a full sentence explaining their connection to the image, Ms. Vega still praised them for participating and then asked them to elaborate.
  • It helps her read the room. A majority of students chose image #2 to represent their feelings, which allowed Ms. Vega to acknowledge their fatigue and offer verbal motivation to push through.
  • It’s fun. While many of us, myself included, don’t really ‘get’ memes, kids definitely do. And they love speaking that language.

2) Chunking & Checking In

Ms. Vega found that many of her incoming 6th graders need lots of support with navigating BLEND & Google Drive, which are her most frequently-used apps for learning. Her solution has been to break the process down with ‘chunking & checking in’ via Zoom chat. Ms. Vega shares her screen and demonstrates where to go next. Then, she asks the students to do the same, and she gives them a word to type in the chat to show that they have gotten their screen to look like hers. When I observed, the word was done, but she says she changes it up sometimes to keep kids on their toes, like asking them to type cat when they make it to the correct page.

Why it works:

  • Students get the help they need. Kids, like adults, all have different comfort levels with navigating online spaces. These check-ins via Zoom chat let Ms. Vega know who is on the same page with her, and they create opportunities to ask for help. As kids start signaling that they are ready to move on, it prompts those who are having trouble to speak up and get help.
  • This reveals your “tech experts.” When I was observing, certain students were consistently ready to move on fastest, and they began sharing tips for other students via chat (i.e. “Look for the Wednesday button!”). These students can become peer-to-peer tech support moving forward.

3) Individual Breakout Rooms for Independent Work

Ms. Vega uses the “individual breakout room” method for independent work. When class transitions to an independent task, she creates enough breakout rooms for every participant PLUS ~5 extra rooms (because some kids may show up late). She sets it to “Manually Assign” participants, and then she uses her Zoom chat check-ins to determine when a student is ready to head to their breakout room to work. Kids who have not signaled via chat that they are ready to begin are held in the main room until Ms. Vega is able to confirm that they have navigated to the right place in BLEND and that they understand what they need to do.

Once students reach their breakout rooms, she has them use the “Ask for Help” button. This prompts her to visit their room and confer with them one-on-one. In these conference situations, she finds it most fruitful to have a student share their screen with her so she can see how their work is progressing. (*This requires that you adjust the screen sharing permissions mid-meeting if you have disabled screen sharing in your Zoom account settings.)

Why it works:

  • Individual breakouts are a distraction-free work environment. As you know by now, only one conversation can happen in your main Zoom room at a time, so any question/conference/clarification becomes a public event that dominates everyone’s audio. In a private breakout room, Ms. Vega can confer with students without distracting everyone and taking them off task. Oh, and students can’t distract each other via chat, either.
  • It allows for differentiation & personalization. Every student can get the specific support they need in their own breakout room. Students who finish before the breakout time is up return to the main room to receive an extra activity for fast finishers. Ms. Vega also encourages students to take care of personal needs, such as restroom, water, etc. during breakout time, so that whole-class instruction isn’t interrupted.

I hope that these techniques have sparked some new ideas or have confirmed the great work you are already doing to help students be successful during this wacky start to the school year! Many thanks to Samantha Vega for letting me be a fly on the wall. Please schedule some time with your campus’s Tech Design Coach and have them come observe your remote instruction highlights, lowlights, and everything in between!

Oh, and here are some slides that Ms. Vega recycles and adapts for each day. Feel free to make your own copy.

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