As the world has suddenly been sent into self-isolation, many schools are trying to figure out what to do next. Some are opting for extended Spring Break, while others are trying to figure out ways to continue learning from home. This pandemic and subsequent shut down of social interaction has shed light on some major issues when it comes to connectivity in our students’ homes. Those with internet may have limited access to a device as well as there may only be one smartphone that a family has access to.
Knowing all of those underlying issues exist in many of your schools, there are many schools moving forward with the idea of “remote learning” or eLearning. For a classroom teacher that has been trained in the day-to-day operation of being in a physical classroom, a virtual classroom presents many different opportunities and challenges besides the lack of access mentioned above. As you might imagine, teaching the exact same way you would in a face-to-face environment is a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I’m offering up this beginner’s toolkit as a start for a teacher just now getting started. I’m not focusing on a grade level or subject area with this guide, but rather a set of tools, resources, questions, and ideas you’ll want to have in your virtual toolkit.
I’m starting with this before we dive into content and strategies. All of the other stuff is just noise if you don’t have a consistent method of communication with parents and students. Email is probably the most basic and universally accepted but could be cumbersome if you are teaching multiple subjects and students each day. Having apps that act as text messages like Bloomz and remind could also work.
As a way to streamline communication, many districts use Learning Management System (LMS) tools like Canvas, Schoology, Seesaw or Google Classroom as way to communicate and distribute work to students. If you are in a school district that does not have an LMS tool in place, I’d highly recommend either Google Classroom or Seesaw as a simple way to set up a remote classroom for your students.
Here are some tutorials you could use to get those set up:
Seesaw for Home Learning (Video)
Quick Start Guide to Google Classroom (Website)
No matter what you do or what tool you use, be sure to be consistent. Whether you are sending out the weekly work every Monday at 9am or checking in daily, be sure you are consistent and available for support. Which brings me to my next tip
Support Your Learners
Many students are confused, stressed, or excited by the prospect of being out of school for an extended period of time. Their parents are also under a lot of stress during this time and may have lost work or are struggling to work remotely while being self-quarantined with their entire family. Life and learning at home will look very different for each of your students depending on their situation and you no longer have the consistency provided in a single classroom environment. Just like communication, I listed this section prior to getting into content and strategies because supporting your students is much more important than turning in a digital worksheet. If you do nothing else during this time away than consistently communicate and support your students with periodic check-ins, know that you will have helped with their social-emotional well-being if nothing else.
Sending short videos saying hello, leaving a voice mail, or even sending a letter to their home can be a way to check in and make them aware that you care about them and their well-being during this turbulent time.
Virtual Office Hours
As part of those check in with students, some teachers have set up “virtual office hours”. These can be in the form of brief 1-on-1 chats with students or possibly checking in with the whole group during your regularly scheduled class time. Many companies have stepped up to the plate and offered up free services for video conferencing for schools. Business video conferencing companies like Zoom and Webex are offering free versions or expanded basic versions for all schools. For Zoom you have to fill out this brief school information form and for Webex you can just download the app to get started. One thing to be cautious of is that many of the business versions of online video chat software are not COPPA-compliant (meaning kids under 13 shouldn’t use them.
For those of you teaching younger students, you could use a tool like Google Hangouts Meet (if you are GSuite school) or Microsoft Teams (if you are an Office 365 school). If these options aren’t available to you, here’s a list of kid-friendly video chat apps you might consider as well.
A couple of notes of advice from video chat experts:
- Keep the chats short. This isn’t the time for an hour long lecture. Figure on about 15-20 minutes of time to share any information you might normally do in a one-hour class.
- Have a script or set of questions to keep things on point. This can be as simple as asking students how they are doing to more academic questions.
Content Delivery and Retrieval
I saved this until later in this post as I know it’s probably the first thing many teachers are thinking about but also the most complex to deal with based on many of the items above. Before I list a few ideas, I have noticed that depending on the state you are in, academic work may or may not be counted on for a grade. You’ll want to follow whatever guidelines your school or district provides when it comes to grading. That said, many families are hoping or some direction and ideas when it comes to at-home learning. The two most common approaches when it comes to delivering content and work for students are these:
- Synchronous method: Teachers and students gather virtually in an online space during the time of their actual class period. So if you have Pre-AP Algebra from 9:30-10:20 normally, that’s when students would log in to work with the teacher. While this most resembles the actual school day, it’s also wrought with issues like students not being able to get connected, tech issues, or what to do when a student is “absent” and misses the virtual session. Recording these in Google Hangout Meet might be one option for later viewing, but just know the backend issues that can arise when doing this the first few times.
- Asynchronous method: This has by far been the most popular method for remote learning. Much like online university classes, assignments are handed out daily or weekly for students to complete. Teachers can record themselves using Screencastify for PCs, Quicktime for Mac, and the built-in screen recorder for iPad or iPhone. Then these videos can be uploaded and distributed via your communication method of choice (see item #1) along with any other materials you want to attach.
Collection of materials can be tricky without an LMS. Without a full-blown LMS you could ask students to gather their work in a folder or even in a virtual folder in Google Drive. One clever idea that was shared with me from a teacher in Illinois was using an ePortfolio system like Bulb for students to document their learning. Using Bulb, students of all ages can document their learning in a series of collections. Check out this 3rd grade and high school example for ideas.
Another tool that I’ve always loved for digital learning is Nearpod. This morning they released this Google Doc with a rough schedule of what a day of at-home learning might look like. What I love about their approach is that they focus a lot on building those SEL skills like meditation for middle school kids or goal-setting for elementary students. They even have lessons in Spanish! Ideally your school would have a Nearpod account, but if not, they do offer a limited set of tools or free.
Using FlipGrid is a great way to have a virtual, asynchronous class discussion around a multitude of topics. From virtual book clubs to selecting and sharing a variety of topics in their Disco Library, this web-based tool can work on any device and allows students an opportunity to see each other more often, even if it is not face-to-face.
Also, having a running Google Doc shared with your students could work in terms of sending them ideas or a daily to-do list much like the one Nearpod shared above. Collection becomes a little trickier without Google Classroom, but having Google folders set up to “turn in” work could be a work around.
I am working on a list of resources for teachers that are more based on grade levels and ages, but as this post is just a beginner’s guide, I’m just sharing the above tools that could be used regardless of age and subject.
The Power of Reflection
“We do not learn from experience….we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey
Reflection is a powerful ally to learning. One thing I always struggled with until late in my teaching career was allowing kids the time to reflect on what they had learned and accomplished. Reflection coupled with goal-setting can help with productivity as well as a student’s confidence to achieve a goal. One of the best examples of this that could totally be done at home is the design and building of a Rube Goldberg machine. Using available utensils and tools, the student creates a device with multiple moving parts and then predicts how successful it will be and how many attempts it might take. (here’s one example by a young man named Audri)
Taking time to reflect on their day and the process of what they are learning would be a great use of time at home. Reflections can be done in a physical journal, in a Google doc, on a FlipGrid, using a tool like Book Creator, or captured in a Bulb ePortfolio. No matter what subject or age you teach, try and encourage your students to document and reflect on what life is like in this crazy new normal.
I hope that the above areas help you get started on your journey as a teacher who works remotely. Remember to take care of yourself too during this time away and take time to reflect, share, and breathe. I’ll be sharing more tools and resources in a separate post.
If your school or district needs help, I’m available for virtual consulting. Click here if you’d like more information or need some assistance in your school or district.
I’ve been blessed to experience amazing professional development from around the world. I’ve had incredible, powerful conversations with people in my PLN via social media that help me learn and grow. All that said, yesterday’s #Student4aDay Challenge was the most eye-opening and possibly most life-altering experience for me as an administrator in a public school. What follows is my reflection on the day and some major “Aha’s” that I hope will guide both the future of professional development for our teachers but also the lives of our students. For those of you that want a play-by-play recap of the day, check out the hashtag #Student4aDay on twitter.
About the challenge:
I blogged out my predictions and a little bit of the background for this challenge in this post, but the gist is I wanted to “be” a 10th grade student for a day. My main goal was to see what student life is like in this 1:1 mobile world at a highly successful place like Westlake High School. I was also curious about how they interacted with the teacher and each other, the desks they had to sit in, how they used technology, and generally, what their day felt like.
I “borrowed” this schedule from one particular student who agreed to let me shadow her. However, because we had a pre-scheduled site visit, I needed to do take both 4th and 5th period off. It worked out well since World History had a sub and were going to just watch a video. I also had a AP US History teacher request I visit her class at 7th period instead of going to choir. Since I was feeling under the weather and my singing voice was not up to snuff, I took advantage of the opportunity to see her Humanities course in action.
I made 5 predictions (or hypotheses) about how the day would go. Here’s how they turned out:
1. Kids will be on their phones between classes – SOMEWHAT TRUE – There were a few kids texting or listening to music or even talking on their phones (rarely), but for the most part, kids were talking to each other. They were having conversations about a certain class, a movie, a game, or what they were doing after school. I assume some talked about relationships too, but they tended to quiet down when I got close.
2. My lack of a healthy singing voice will hurt me in choir – FALSE – Since I swapped out Choir for US History, this one never came to pass.
3. The desks will hurt my back- TRUE – I suffer from mild back issues, but sitting in these torture contraptions was getting to be down right painful by the end of the day. I found myself fidgeting in them, turning to the side, slouching over, and generally just constantly shifting from one “cheek” to the other.
4. Technology use will be a mixed bag – TRUE – In the English class it was extremely hands on, with the teacher using Nearpod to engage student questions about Catcher in the Rye and even have us draw what we thought Holden Caulfield looked like. Of course, the two computer lab courses heavily used technology as well. Most classes used the projector at a minimum, however one class, Geometry, had a long term sub and so he was relegated to only using the dry erase board. No technology (except for calculators) were allowed out in that class.
5. My “real job” will affect my job as a student – I did miss 5th period for a meeting and during US History I was asked to help trouble-shoot with a Nearpod issue. I tried to claim I was just a regular high school kid, but the class cleverly remarked that most kids could help troubleshoot technology, so I should too. Well-played…..
Class I was best at:
Interactive Media – of course! The class was at the end of a Photoshop project designing a an advertising poster for the college of their choice to recruit students. I observed several students working collaboratively on their posters (and some procrastinating). I came up with my Matthew McConaughey -University of Texas concept (pictured left) and nearly finished it within the 50 minute class period. One of the quotes of the day came when a fellow-student called out another student for procrastinating to which she responded with “I’m not a ne’er-do-well!”
Class I was worst at:
Chemistry – This was a mixture of style and content. I’ve always been a big fan of science and when I think about my favorite high school teachers, science usually comes to mind because it’s so hands-on. However, this particular class on this day was a review class, so it was very direct-teach over concepts I haven’t had to remember since…frankly….the last time I was in high school chemistry. (Quick! What’s Avogadro’s number?) The students had been over this more recently, but my memory was shaky. So much so that I failed the 2-question quiz over a couple of simple molecular concepts. 😦
Outcomes (or “AHAs”):
I could probably write a blog post on each class I was in and the overall student life. However, I’m going to try and summarize what I discovered during this day in four major “AHA” moments.
AHA #1 – The schedule is overwhelming
From the amount of time you have (50 minutes) in class to the amount of time you have in passing period (6 minutes), the day flew by without much time for deep thought or reflection. I realize that giving teenagers too much transition could spell trouble, but I barely had a second to digest what I had learned before abruptly moving to the next subject. And in the classes (like English and US History) where we were starting to have a good, deep discussion on a topic, we were interrupted by the bell. I can really see the benefits of having some sort of hybrid block-schedule after a day like today. In the end, I was completely exhausted at the end of the day and, strangely enough, just wanted to go home and play video games.
AHA #2 – The technology may have changed, but the kids haven’t
Sure they were on their phones during passing periods and occasionally they’d listen to music when done with an assignment, but for the most part, the kids were kids. Typical teenagers with angst and hopes and dreams (channeling my inner-Caulfield here). In the chemistry class, there were one or two students that tended to answer every question, while the rest of us (including me) blankly stared at the board. In between classes I even got into a spirited conversation with a 16-year old about how good the latest Tell Tale Walking Dead game is. The girls giggled and the boys sighed at times, but in general, the kids were respectful and attentive no matter what the subject. (save for a couple of girls I noticed texting under their desks during Geometry). One kid did try to use his camera on his phone to take a picture of notes on the board to which another kid called him lazy. His response was priceless – “That’s not being lazy, it’s being efficient.”
AHA #3 – How much of this content will be relevant in later life?
I can understand that taking courses like Geometry and Chemistry and Business Infrastructure Management give you the ground work for some basic life skills. However, I can honestly say I’ve NEVER used Avogadro’s number (6.02×1023 for those of you dying to know) in my real life. In fact the last time I used it was 24 years ago when I was a sophomore taking Chemistry. Why do we feel compelled to still teach the “4 core” subject areas every year in high school? Is it because this is what we’ve always done? I can see it being useful to those with a real interest in Chemistry or Calculus or Poetry but why force it on every student?
AHA #4 – It’s still really all about the teacher (and their style)
I’ve written in the past that technology is the “Great Amplifier” when it comes to teaching. It can make a good teacher great and a bad teacher terrible. In the classes I felt most engaged were the ones where technology was “invisible” in a sense and the focus was on the content and the discussion. I can tell you almost verbatim things I learned about Thomas Nast political cartoons based on the student discussion but I can barely remember what mathematical equation I was told in Geometry. The biggest difference in those classes was both the style in which the teacher facilitated discussion but also the physical configuration of the classroom. Desks in rows tends to imply that it’s all about focusing on the teacher (always exceptions to this too, as I discovered in the tremendously engaging English class). Desks with the ability to turn or face each other made the center of the room the focus, a place where ideas could be shared and discussed without judgment.
All in all, I have learned a lot from this day, much of which I hope to apply and help steer changes in the classrooms and schools for kids in the coming years to make it more about student-centered, personalized learning. It’s been an eye-opening experience that I hope others in my district (and in other districts) will attempt. I even reached out to some law-makers on Twitter to invite them in to do the same. It was both a humbling and frustrating experience that I was honored to be able to attempt and it will live with me forever.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and play some video games.
Editor’s note: Tracie Simetal took on the #student4aday challenge as well and live-blogged her results on this Google Doc. Kudos to Tracie and any other administrators willing to take this on!
Update: The Austin American-Statemen ran a report on this experiment and posted it here: http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local/administrator-spends-eye-opening-day-as-student/nkHWG/
On January 16th, 2014 I held a press conference to announce my retirement. There comes a time in every person’s life when they know it’s time to move on. I’ve seen some of the most memorable sports retirements and wanted mine to be modeled in the same vain.
Unlike those memorable speeches held in stadiums around the country, mine was held in my kitchen around the table. No microphones or press (unless you include the 3 precocious girls running around at the time).
It was time.
And so, with a heavy heart I told my wife that I was retiring from the DJ business. Instead of tearful goodbyes and interview questions those athletes face, my exit interview was much more steeped in reality. My wife’s response was, “that’s great honey, can you change the baby’s diaper?”
From a career that had humble beginnings DJing a friend’s wedding as a favor in 2010 to the height of my career in 2012, I had a lot of joy in getting the crowd up and moving during a wedding. I’m not blessed with much musical talent and I’m notorious for singing the wrong words to songs. One thing I’ve always been able to do well is motivate an audience to get up and dance.
I realized something those last few wedding gigs – good teachers are essentially classroom DJs.
Think about it.
Your job as a teacher is to motivate the kids to learn. The good ones know when things are going slow, when the crowd is starting to get bored and they change the song. Sometimes, you even need to get out into the middle of the room and get the kids up and moving. I mean, if we didn’t do that, we could essentially be replaced by a really good Pandora station for learning. Here are four traits that really good teachers and DJ’s share:
Just as there are classic songs that we play, there are classic lessons that teachers teach. However, the same songs don’t always work for the same crowd. If I tried to play some hip-hop at a predominately country wedding, I’d get a lot of listless, slack-jawed stares. The same is true for the how we teach. I used Google Docs with the Bride and Groom to request songs for their ceremony in advance. This “formative assessment” told me a lot about their styles and tastes and I could tailor the music to fit their needs. I see teachers doing more and more of this in classrooms as they change the direction of a lesson based on the crowd’s tastes. Sometimes, you have to remix it, change the style and suit the interests of your audience.
One other thing I loved about DJing was discovering all the new music the “kids these days” were listening to. Keeping my material fresh and up to date was a big key to my success. There’s nothing more embarrassing than playing MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit to an empty dance floor. As teachers, we also must make an effort to stay up to date. The influx of technology and tools available on the web are infinite and sometimes mind-numbing. However, using these fresh tools can keep your crowd more engaged and often will save you time in your day.
This one was a challenge for me early in my career. I felt it was so important to keep people dancing non-stop for 4 hours that I never planned for breaks or mixing in slow songs (“drink-getters” we call those in the biz). A good DJ knows when to change things up by reading the audience. With the amount of content we are “forced” to get through in the classroom, it’s easy to put the petal to the metal for 180 days straight. However, you’ll leave your students exhausted and drained if you went at that pace every day. Instead, change it up a bit. Have a “slow dance” from time to time to allow kids to catch their breath, reflect, and then get ready for more.
Some of my most memorable moments of being a wedding DJ are when the crowd responds to a song. (The Isley’s Brother’s “Shout” being the ultimate audience response song) . Sometimes in the classroom there can be that magical moment where the kids are so engaged you can almost feel them learning together “out loud” as a group. While you can do you best to anticipate this by judging your audience, adjusting your music and pacing, sometimes, you just have to let it go and let them take control. Pass the mic around and let them sing their rendition of “Sweet Caroline” so they can make those memories.
While I may be retiring in name, I’m not retiring in spirit. My crowd has shifted from inebriated party-goers to teachers and administrators that are thirsty to learn. My music is now the infusion of technology and dynamic learning in every day classroom life. I still need to judge the crowd for interest, avoid the empty dance floors, and allow them time to get a drink every now and then. So, in a way, this isn’t a retirement, it’s a melding of my previous career with my current one. I’m teaching like a DJ.
And that is sweet music to my ears….even if I get the words wrong from time to time.