Finding the Magic in Virtual Learning: One District Shares their Keys to Success

December 18, 2020
The Future of Ed Tech

If there’s one thing Lisa Rowbotham believes, it’s that effective teachers create magic when they ignite a student’s passion for learning. In this episode of Opportunity Thrives, we focus on education innovation in New Jersey. We have the pleasure of chatting with Lisa who is the Secondary ELA Supervisor for Passaic Public Schools, and she also runs the AVID program for the district.

Throughout the episode Lisa shares their district's strategies for implementing successful remote learning opportunities for their students. She shares the district’s expansive professional development and support for teachers, how they’re engaging students who are learning from a distance, and enlisting parents as partners in the learning process. 

Whether you are a remote learning pro, or you are still trying to work out a few challenges in your district, you will most definitely gain a few insights from this episode. Lisa shares helpful strategies that other education leaders and teachers can implement within their district right away. Listen to the full episode:


Flexible, but open to change

One of the priorities the administrators at Passaic Public Schools considered from the beginning was how to be flexible and open to change for the benefit of their families. But they also wanted to ensure there was still an opportunity to deliver quality instruction. This meant prioritizing the right technology that would meet the needs of educators and students to ensure everyone could be successful.  


Equity of access

As many districts have shared on the podcast, equity of access was also a priority for Passaic Public Schools. They wanted to have instruction that was similar or as close as possible to their brick-and-mortar instruction, using their novel-based curriculum. That meant it was imperative for the district to find eBooks that would be accessible to their students and curriculum that would support the pacing guides that educators needed.


Fostering Relationships

It’s easy to build and foster relationships with in-person instruction. But it’s a different story when you have to do it remotely. The district’s educators committed to dedicating time at the beginning of the school year that made a big impact on building their relationships with students. They spent time really getting to know their students, understanding their situations, how they’re feeling, and fostering a relationship with them. Knowing that students have been isolated and have had minimal contact with their peers, educators have also built-in time for them to connect with their peers virtually.  


Professional Development and Training for Students and Families

They recognize that many of the digital tools and strategies are new, so the district spent a lot of time offering professional development for teachers. They also developed digital, interactive notebooks for students. Lisa knew they were asking their educators to bring the magic into their digital classes, so she promised them they would have the resources they needed to do that. She considered it her personal responsibility, as well as the district’s, to provide them with everything they needed to create that magic.


A Typical Week of Virtual Learning

Passaic School District follows a block schedule, or two periods of instruction through a gradual release model. Each teacher begins their lessons with an SEL question, a wellness check-in, or a moment of cheer as some teachers have called it. This welcomes their students back into their classroom.

From here they transition into instruction modeling and sharing their learning targets and criteria for success. Once the teacher models the task, they invite students to practice together.

Teachers assign the task that students are expected to perform. These tasks could be asynchronous or synchronous tasks online. Embedded within the schedule is what they call reconnect time at the end of class. This provides opportunities for students to reconnect with their instructor about the tasks they just completed, what was modeled, or their homework assignment, and the teachers are ready, willing and available to support them.


Enlisting parents as partners in the learning process

Parents are engaged and involved in their student’s school work like never before. That means they have a different expectation of communication. The district created how to guides for parents to navigate the digital learning platform their student uses, so they are comfortable helping their child.

They also implemented a parent support program where teachers are available twice/week for two hours. Lisa shared that they view parents as their team members in the classroom, and she believes the more aligned they are, the more they will be able to cultivate and benefit those relationships, and ultimately, drive student succeed.


Silver Linings

There has never been more respect and administration for our profession and our educators. It is incredibly challenging to completely redesign what you do as a profession in a matter of months. The educators at Passaic have been able to do that successfully. Lisa is seeing their students display not only resiliency, but they are also taking ownership of their learning. They are navigating all of this in such an amazing way, being proactive, asking questions, and seeking help when they need it.

She believes the classroom is one place they can offer them a safe haven and consistency in life where they have an opportunity to see their classmates, exchange a smile, and have a brief conversation – a little slice of normalcy.

With everything that has happened, this has given everyone—teachers, students, and parents—time for reflection. Our life has slowed down a little. Now we are seeing opportunities for introspection or the chance to chart your life and think about the positives. Now they include that in their instruction, and they are considering the needs of the whole child. Students are being more reflective, thinking about their futures and how precious these moments are to connect.

To listen to the full podcast, visit:


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