Over the past year, virtual learning has undoubtably brought on challenges for both teachers and students. But as we prepare to re-enter the classroom in September there’s one thing I know for sure – there’s no turning back from the empowering changes technology has brought to our students and teaching practices.
When we first transitioned to remote learning in 2020, Microsoft Teams quickly became the centre of our learning community. In the year and a half since then, Teams has acted as a hub for the intermediate division at St. John Catholic High School and made it possible for our teachers and students to stay connected throughout the ups and downs of the pandemic.
Engaging our students
For our students, Teams has become more than a portal to access the virtual classroom. Over the past year and a half, they’ve used Teams to adapt their student-led clubs to a virtual environment, creating opportunities to maintain and build social connections among their peers. From painting club to Minecraft club, our Teams meeting rooms were always full before and after class time. Early on, our students got together to co-write a Members’ Code of Conduct with a focus on inclusion and collaboration, and to share tips for customizing the Teams environment for group discussions, meeting updates, and sharing work. By the end of the 2021 school year, all our original clubs were still going strong.
Student-led clubs give our kids the opportunity to develop organization and leadership skills while having fun. Teams made it possible to keep these clubs going in a virtual setting and provided a safe place for our students to connect and enjoy time with friends while building these foundational skills. It was amazing to see students step-up as facilitators, surveying members for activity ideas, moderating discussions, and writing weekly announcements.
As a testament to the value of this experience, I received a message this summer from a student who wanted to let me know they’ve been busy planning a new Teams-based club to launch September.
Empowering our teachers
For our teachers, Teams made it possible to share the load of transitioning to an entirely new teaching environment. While many of our teachers were experienced Teams users, this was the first time we’d used it to organize our co-planning sessions in an entirely virtual setting. Through our “Teachers Team” we developed student projects and lesson plans together, we held weekly meetings, collaborated on documents, and shared learnings through discussion posts.
Teams also made it less stressful to teach in a virtual setting. During weekly all-division classes, our teachers would take turns leading sessions on their area of expertise. I led a project on learning to code by programming a step-counter with the Micro:bit and Makecode, while others taught students about data analysis in Excel, the Sustainable Development Goals, and other diverse topics. We also brought in experts from around the world during these weekly periods. We used Flipgrid to take virtual field trips to places like the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and California State Parks. For all these sessions, we not only brought together our entire division, but classrooms from schools in our surrounding community who many not have otherwise had these opportunities.
This experience put teachers in the role of virtual learner, just as much as it did our students. Having the Teams environment as our home-base made it easier for our teachers to learn from each other, and to document all the knowledge we’ve gained over the past year and a half. Without question, it elevated our teaching practices while making the transition to virtual learning more engaging for our students. Not only that, but it increased connections between teachers and students in a way that made the overall experience feel less isolating and more empowering.
Planning for the fall
Using Teams over the past year and a half has helped our students develop new superpowers. In combination with other Office365 Apps, like OneNote and Flipgrid, and embedded accessibility tools, such as Immersive Reader and Dictate, Teams made the virtual classroom accessible to everyone. Through this seamless experience, our students gained the confidence to see themselves as true learners. For many of them, this was the first time they’d engaged this deeply with the classroom.
As teachers, we have a once-in-a-career opportunity to help our students build on this momentum. When we return to the classroom in the fall, our division intends to maintain Teams as our hub for connection and learning. I’m looking forward to seeing the new ways my colleagues and our students continue to adapt Teams to their ever-evolving classroom experience.
About the author
Sandra Theobald (OCT), St. John High School – Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario
MIE Expert – Learn more about Microsoft Educator Programs