When Niagara University announced that all instruction would shift to an online format in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the staff at the university’s Family Literacy Center experienced a collective moment of astonishment, said Dr. Kathleen McGrath, director of the FLC. Then, they immediately began to consider how to continue to serve both the students of the College of Education and the families in the community whose children receive individualized reading instruction through the FLC.
Addressing the question of how to translate face-to-face, clinical-level reading instruction to an online format took considerable effort, Dr. McGrath admitted. The graduate education candidates had to navigate shifting to remote course instruction, while also moving remedial reading instruction online and familiarizing themselves with myriad online platforms and software to do so.
The FLC also had to consider the needs of their young students and their families, and whether they had access to technology and were familiar with different technological platforms.
“All of this took an incredible amount of flexibility, passion for helping young children, and a determination to make this work,” Dr. McGrath said. “And work it did!”
To ensure that families had the school supplies and technological devices to actually do online reading instruction, Dr. McGrath put together “care packages” and hand-delivered them to any family who needed one. iPads, which were purchased through the generosity of gifts to the FLC, were also loaned out to any family who lacked a device.
“The deliveries were heartwarming,” Dr. McGrath said. “Every family was so incredibly grateful.”
Once the families were equipped with what they needed, the FLC began delivering flexible, workable instruction that was doable for both graduate students and families. This included synchronous instruction, during which parents often sat side-by-side with their children to participate in the lessons; and asynchronous instruction, which enabled children to work independently at times that fit their families’ schedules.
One positive that has come out of this experience, Dr. McGrath noted, is the use of a Canvas discussion board where students shared their instructional sessions so their classmates could take ideas and learn from one another. While the FLC’s students had talked about their lessons during large-group debriefing sessions, they never actually shared them on a discussion board. Dr. McGrath said that the experience was so valuable, she will continue to include this in her courses, whether they return to the classroom or remain online.
While the students faced daunting challenges during this unprecedented time, they also gained skills and life lessons that otherwise might not have been obtained in a “regular” classroom setting. Dr. McGrath shared the story of one student who initially was so intimidated by the idea of shifting her work to an online platform that she considered taking an incomplete for the course with the intent to finish the fieldwork when schools were back in session. With Dr. McGrath’s encouragement, “tons of support, and lots of love,” the student tentatively tried her first lesson, which was delivered synchronously through Zoom. It went so well that the student’s confidence “soared,” and she learned the importance of being flexible and having faith in herself.
Now, at the end of the semester, the FLC is looking back and reflecting on all that was accomplished: the triumphs, the frustrations, the successes, the (very few) failures, Dr. McGrath said.
“During our final class debriefing, someone said, ‘Dr. McGrath, we really did make lemonade out of lemons!’” Dr. McGrath said. “I couldn’t agree more—yes, there were challenges, but we all rose to the occasion.”