Two New Jersey schools are experiencing success amid the challenges of remote learning. As we look ahead to Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 21, we want to shine a light on Newmark K-8 and Newmark High School, state-approved independent schools serving students with special needs.
“For the students who attend Newmark, the larger public environments weren’t necessarily the right environment for them. They might have needed a smaller class size, or maybe they needed other services like speech and occupational therapy and counseling,” explained Regina Peter, Executive Director of Newmark School and Newmark High School.
As a community, they are committed to improving learning outcomes for all. Students with autism spectrum disorders, disabilities related to anxiety and attention issues, and other developmental disabilities attend the schools tuition free.
Striving to deliver personalized learning, Newmark has a 1:1 student-to-device ratio. Last year, they shifted to using Microsoft resources, including Windows 10 devices, across grades.
Supporting remote learning
As was the case for many others, the transition to distance learning was unexpected and one that needed to take place quickly. “On Friday, we realized we would have to close. On Monday, we were teaching classes online,” said Shannon Mastrogiovanni, eighth-grade Special Education Teacher for Language Arts and Science.
Regina says she and her team have worked to ensure the students retain structure to their day during remote learning. “Our big thing was keeping our kids in a routine, so whatever they went to at 9 AM two weeks ago is the same class they’re going to at 9 AM now,” she said.
Microsoft Teams is Newmark’s digital platform for remote learning, and teachers are using OneNote for Education embedded in Teams for assignments. Students were using those tools before the Newmark schools closed in March, which helped with the transition.
Regina says she appreciates that students still have access to the accessibility and learning tools that are built into Office 365. For example, students are using Immersive Reader, the learning tool that improves the readability of content by allowing students to create more space between words, change the text size, use a different background color, and more.
Newmark educators say students are also using the Dictate feature (speech to text) embedded in Office 365 resources. “Dictate has been very helpful. When taking notes in class, many students will use dictate rather than typing,” says Shannon.
Regina added, “Students naturally gravitated to the dictate feature, and for those who may not type as fast or need more time processing what they want to say, it’s been very helpful.”
She added that teachers are using Microsoft Forms to administer weekly vocabulary assessments, and students have been using Immersive Reader enabled in Forms to demonstrate their learning. “On average, I am noticing much higher scores on their vocabulary assessments compared to when they were taking them traditionally with pen and paper in the classroom,” Shannon said.
Connecting as a community
Students often rely on the support from one another while in the classroom, so finding new ways to connect is more important than ever. “There’s nothing like human connection,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can and staying connected to kids because we see them, and they can see us.” Regina says leveraging Teams to keep the students connected to one another and teachers through live meetings has been critical.
Since the transition to distance learning, students have been collaborating in small groups over Teams, as well as receiving whole-class instruction. Recently, Shannon had three groups of students meeting at the same time. “I assigned different students to those meetings and they were working on a certain task and I was going in and out of the meetings, checking up on them, just like I was doing in the classroom,” she explained.
“For students who might have learning issues, we really try to, like Shannon talked about, break down into those small groups because some of that might be an attentional issue,” added Regina.
Staying organized while working remotely
Shannon says the digital student workbooks in OneNote also have been helpful. “Because of OneNote, we didn’t have to scramble getting notebooks sent home,” she said. “My students can log into their OneNote right now and see everything they’ve worked on since September, which is really valuable. For students in our school who have a lot of executive functioning skills that they need to work on, specifically organization and time management, having everything in one place has been really great for them.”
Shannon says she likes that Teams serves as a centralized hub of information with embedded resources for students. “It’s not, ‘Okay, here’s your assignment, now let’s go to this website and…this website and do this.’ It’s, ‘Here’s your assignment and right here on your main channel are all the resources that you would need,’” she said.
Advice for others
Shannon’s advice to educators a little further behind in the delivery of remote instruction is to try new things and treat mistakes as learning opportunities. “With being remote and having to overcome these obstacles that none of us ever thought that we’d have to overcome, the comradery and the bonding that is occurring is pretty phenomenal,” she said.
Regina agreed and suggested that educators devote time to practices that are helpful to students’ well-being as well as their academic success. “We do a mindfulness moment every morning in all of our classes. That’s been a part of our school community for three years,” she said, adding that it was coming especially in handy now.
During times of such uncertainty, one thing that’s for sure is that you’re not alone. Join the Microsoft Remote Learning Community for the opportunity to exchange ideas with other educators and get support from Microsoft Education experts. We look forward to hearing from and connecting with you!