Implementing Distance Learning: Some Advice Given to St. Louis Area Beginning Teachers by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Implementing Distance Learning: Some Advice Given to St. Louis Area Beginning Teachers


Dr. Sam Bommarito

As many of my readers know, I am a long-time member of the ILA. I am currently Chairman (used to be called President) of the state chapter. I am proud to say that our membership is quite active in providing folks in our state needed literacy services. One example of this is last week’s BTAP (Beginning Teachers Assistance Program) for St. Louis Area beginning teachers.  This program has been held twice a year for a number of years. Dr. Betty Porter Walls a long time ILA member, and an MLA board member has overseen carrying out BTAP for St. Louis Public Schools. Many of the presenters at this event are also ILA members who donate their services and expertise. This is just one of many examples of the Missouri Literacy Association’s literacy work around our state. See our website for details

This past weekend I did a one-hour BTAP session about distance learning. Here is some of the advice I gave to the beginning teachers:

1. If possible, get a doc camera and learn how to use it.  One low-cost option is to get software that turns your smartphone into a doc camera. I use EpcoCamPro. (in January I was made aware of another app that does that )

These are two of several software programs that can turn a smartphone into a webcam.  You can then use a stand such as the one below to hold your phone:

BTW- I found one teacher on-line reporting she created a stack of textbooks and sandwiched her I-phone in near the top of the stack. That meant her smartphone doc cam holder was completely free. One can also buy and use a regular doc cam. I’ve blogged about this before LINK.

2. A second piece of advice I gave to them was to learn about all the different forms of phonics and to include phonics instruction as part of their daily routines in the early grades. They should also remember to include other forms of word work in the later grades. I gave them a link to download this ILA Literacy Leadership Brief which explains the various approaches to phonics:

I talked to the teachers about how I use my distance learning tools. I push into 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms using Zoom. The school that I volunteer in for two full days a week has a blended program. Most students come face to face. A few of the school’s students get all of their classes through virtual learning. I help with both.  

One of the things I do is to push into a full class using Zoom.  I make extensive use of my doc camera when doing this. For instance, the school’s spelling program teaches students to put together words using letter sounds, basically using synthetic phonics.  I can review that with them live.  I can also show making and breaking activities where students learn to create words using onset rhyme. That is a form of analytic phonics.

Notice how my finger appears in the live shot as I move the magnetic letter. I can also write things on the white board in real time.

At my school I use many of Dr. Tim Rasinski’s materials, such as word ladders and activities around prefixes, suffixes, and roots. All this fits into the category of using orthographic information as part of their word work. Here are two sheets from Dr. Rasinski from veteran’s day. I let the teachers attending my session know that if they follow Dr. Rasinski on twitter (@timrasinski), he gives away samples of his activity sheets three times a week. That is where I got these Veteran’s Day activities.

3.  I recommended to them was to include more student talk and less teacher talk in all their distance learning lessons. Recommending this practice is based both on the ideas of Burkins and Yaris and is also a recurring theme in many current resource books about distance learning.

I let them know that all these resource books are readily available through any of the many services that sell books online. In my own work I have found Ziemke’s book exceptionally useful and I plan to let parents of my students know about the new distance learning playbook for parents.

In the spirit of “practicing what I preach”, I used the parts of my presentation dealing with comprehension to model how to teach comprehension strategies through a gradual release model. There is a considerable amount of research indicating that teaching comprehension this way can and does raise reading scores. Duke, Pressley, and Pearson all have found this to be the case.

One thing I had the teachers do is to write a “show don’t tell” paragraph. Here is the slide I used for that.

This activity develops the ability of the student to draw inferences. An important nuance in all this is that when done the way I am about to describe, most of the teaching time is spent letting students TALK about how THEY USED the strategy.  In this case, they did that by sharing their “show don’t tell” paragraphs. One of the crucial things teachers can do in their distance learning lessons is to learn how to use the breakout rooms in Zoom. The break out rooms give students a place to go to and explain how they used the particular strategy that helped them understand their particular reading. I also talked to the beginning teachers about criticism Patrick Shanahan leveled at the way teachers teach strategies. Too often they model a strategy and then tell the student to use it whether they need to use it or not.  They also continue to teach and model the strategy even after it is apparent that the students know how to use it and use it as needed. I explained how I react to this criticism. Some weeks I model a new strategy as I did in this lesson. However, in many other weeks I do not model new strategies. Instead, in those weeks, I provide time where I ask students to explain what strategies, if any, they used to understand that week’s reading. In order to have such discussions in distance learning it is critical that teachers learn how to use the breakout room feature in Zoom. Included in that is learning how to visit different groups to help promote discussions and scaffold students into independent thinking about the various strategies. Here is the slide I used to give teachers a place where they could go and learn about features like breakout rooms. The link sends them to the Zoom help link. There they can search for information about how to use all the various features in Zoom, including the breakout room feature.

So, I have given you some of the highlights I gave to the beginning teachers last week. I also let them know that over the Christmas break I plan to add a page to my blog with overviews of what can be found on websites of various literacy leaders and links to those websites. I hope to include Burkins, Shanahan, Rasinski and others. Next week is Christmas. I will have a special Christmas present for all of you. We are trying to have the newest edition of our state’s literacy journal, The Missouri Reader, ready for you then.  After the New Year I am lining up video interviews of many literacy leaders to tell you about their approaches to literacy. I’m including folks from the United States and I’ve even arranged to interview two different educators from Australia who have some very interesting things to report.

So, until next time- Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the guy tries to have less teacher talk and more student talk is his distance learning lessons).

Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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