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Next Gen Navigator

Remote Learning: What I Thought I Knew, and What I Learned

By Randie Johnson

Posted on 2020-07-30

I began the 2019–2020 school year with a focus on helping my students learn to trust one another as well as me. We discussed how difficult it can be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, as I explained how crucial vulnerability is to have productive discourse in the science classroom. To truly engage in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), students must learn to collaborate and share their thoughts and ideas. By using whiteboards, various groupings, and student and teacher talk moves (examples include partner talk, and “add on” or “say more”), my students truly excelled at sharing their thoughts and ideas to collaboratively formulate questions arising from phenomena, then building their knowledge together to answer those questions. Then virtually overnight, our classroom culture was upended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we quickly were switched to remote learning. 

As my team met together, we questioned our ability to continue to encourage sensemaking and collaboration remotely. While it may have been easy to revert to our old ways of funneling information to our students (like assigning reading in textbooks and questions to answer), we chose to continue to focus on phenomena-driven instruction with sensemaking at the forefront. We wanted our students to continue to be challenged while learning remotely. We quickly began to adapt our phenomena-driven units and lessons to a remote online learning platform.

Using Google sites, we created a website for our unit that had a page for each lesson. Each unit began with a phenomenon, such as Giant Sequoia trees, and our big question: “Where does the mass of these giant trees come from?” Padlet gave our students a platform to not only share models of where they thought the mass came from, but also to ask questions. Padlet also allowed us to see what prior knowledge our students had to drive future lessons. Through Google Meet sessions, I was able to meet with groups of students to reach a consensus about what we knew, develop a class model, and compile a list of questions that we needed to answer.

Students’ questions then guided daily lessons. Each lesson began with a focus question, an activity to explore and develop their understanding, then the submission of the assignment. Having a submission for each lesson allowed me to formatively assess what students understood and where they needed more support. Teacher-developed support videos and weekly scheduled Google Meets were provided so students could further discuss and build their understanding.

While the organization of our units and lessons encouraged our students to continue sensemaking, it also discouraged some. I learned that the support my students received through rich conversation within our classroom was vital to their motivation and success. Once again, I searched for tools to allow my students to have that rich discourse. We began using Jamboard as well as Google Questions within Google Classroom to encourage students to comment on one another’s thoughts and questions. Again, some success! Students enjoyed the repositionable notes in Jamboard and the ability to work collaboratively, but were frustrated by other aspects, such as the drawing tool. 

To re-engage those students I’d lost, I created a parent e-mail with an overview of what the students had learned and questions parents could ask their students to emulate our rich school conversations in the home environment.  The response from parents was very enthusiastic. At the same time, NSTA began publishing Daily Dos, which validated the need to create a stronger bridge between school and home. 

As a team, we also incorporated Skype a Scientist sessions for the entire grade level. Student response to these events was amazing! As these items were added, I began to realize just how much my students thrive on discourse and social interaction. Without the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and arrive at a consensus with their peers, students became reluctant to share and submit their work. I learned that if remote learning continues, breakout sessions between student groups and instructor-supported groups will need to be incorporated to facilitate discourse and sensemaking.   

Throughout remote learning, I was reminded of the importance of a home-school connection, especially for our struggling learners. No matter where learning happens, connecting students to students is crucial to students’ success.  Parental support and consistent communication are also essential for their students’ success. 

So what will I focus on as we begin an uncertain school year? Creating multiple opportunities for discourse among small and large groups of students. Creating an ongoing avenue for parents to be aware of what their students are learning and actively engage in conversation with their students. Looking for additional resources to enrich the curriculum and connect to the outside world. While remote learning was challenging, it created an opportunity to view my classroom through a new lens and truly understand what needed to be fixed or incorporated to create an environment where all students can be successful.


Randie Johnson
Randie Johnson is a middle school teacher at Glenn Westlake Middle School in Lombard, Illinois. Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Indiana University and earned her master’s degree in Teaching and Learning from DePaul University. She has eight years of teaching experience, with a nine-year leave in the middle to stay home with her three children. She has focused on creating a truly three-dimensional learning environment centering on student discourse and sensemaking. Johnson received NSTA’s Robert E. Yager Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award in 2020 and is eager to carry on his legacy by making science accessible to all learners. When not in the classroom, Johnson enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her family.

Note: This article is featured in the July 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

NGSS Teaching Strategies Three-Dimensional Learning Middle School

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