Successful Secondary School Online Learning

We have completed six Octomesters in our board, and we just embarked on Octomester seven. For some of our teachers this is their seventh class online, and for some it’s their first. But since we are now ALL online throughout Ontario I thought I’d take a few minutes to share what has been working for us.

Consistent Structure

A consistent structure in both instruction and in the provision of content via the Learning Management System has helped our students. KISS seems to work, with a simple presentation of content combined with a consistent agenda for each day allowing students to get into a “groove” and succeed. One of our teachers has music on for five minutes before class, has a “question of the day”, provides breakout rooms for discussion, and has one task to be submitted each day.

Posting using Multiple Modalities

Our teachers are packaging content in two different Learning Management Systems: D2L/Brightspace and Edsby. They are also providing both print and video content, and embedding videos using OBS Studios.  Some students are connecting with their teachers via email, and others are participating in 1:1 work in MS Teams.


Teachers are making the “chunks” small, and easily managed on phones, tablets and computers. They are replicating the length of social media posts, and providing multiples that thread rather than posting a single, large document. Most Learning Management Systems allow for content to be hidden until needed, so our teachers are able to keep students from feeling overwhelmed.

Being Available Online

Our teachers are live in an MS Teams setting for more than just the mandatory 225 minutes (PPM 164). They are replicating their usual practices of “walking around the room” or “being available at the desk in the classroom” by being online in a Teams meeting, and welcoming students to 1:1 or small-group sessions throughout the day. They are doing less “direct instruction”, and more individual facilitation, and it is paying off.

Differentiated Instruction

Our teachers are providing both synchronous lessons, and asynchronous tutorials. They are providing voice and choice to their students. By personalizing methods of assessment they are meeting their students where they are.

Sharing a Master Agenda

While some are using a list, and others a calendar, our teachers are all creating a “one-stop shopping” page where all assignments, links to handouts, and dropbox are located. The LMS is also a huge help, housing all course content and videos of the daily meetings. Live links to content assist both students and their parents to navigate each day’s work.

Clear Expectations

Use of learning goals and success criteria has allowed students to self-assess, and to reach out when they require assistance. Because the octomester structure results in very long days, but fewer of them, our teachers have pared down their goals to as few as possible, and are focusing their work on essential learning.

Taking an Inquiry Approach

Several teachers have structured their courses around fun engaging inquiry questions, and supporting student-to-student interaction to complete their “quests”. They are taking advantage of the technology, and access to Internet resources, and exploring content beyond the textbook.

Communicating Regularly with Students and Parents

Weekly newsletters and emails to parents are helping them to support their children to be successful. Our teachers are providing tips and tricks to families, so that their teens are supported at home.

Monitoring Participation

Our teachers are able to track who is attending meetings in person, and who view the videos later in the day. They can then follow up with students and their parents, and get them back on track quickly. One teacher has an attendance quiz each day, with one question: “Are you here today”? This populates a spreadsheet, and allows him to enter absences at the end of the day. Taking a look at statistics within the LMS is also helpful, and is allowing our teachers to reach out before students get too far behind.

Breakouts to Connect

Structures such as breakout rooms and shared documents have supported our students to connect. They have needed these in order to get to know each other, as many live up to 200 km from each other. Since the culture in our board is to have cameras off the breakouts provide a safe space for cameras and mic to be on and for students to interact. It is important to build rapport with our students, so our teachers make that priority.

Allowing for Fully Asynchronous

Several of our students are now working full-time jobs. They are managing to access class resources, and complete the day’s work when they are at home. By structuring courses to allow for fully-asynchronous participation, our students are able to continue their learning despite the need to work.

Team Teaching

Where we have more than one class for a particular course our teachers are team teaching. Sometimes they create one LMS, and share instructing duties. In other cases they plan and create two or more LMS shells, and instruct only their class. In both, however, they benefit from their PLN, and are able support each other to be more creative.


Our teachers have been experimenting with standing desks, multiple monitors, and other tools to ensure that they aren’t in pain at the end of the day. Some are scheduling regular walk breaks into their day, getting outside for some sunshine and to stretch their legs.

Learn and Share

Our teachers are learning a great deal through this process, and are happy to share with their colleagues. If you are teaching online, please reach out to a peer and talk about what is working (and not working) for you.

Advice to Novice Online Teachers:

  • Don’t stress out.
  • This is pandemic teaching, not a normal teaching year.
  • Be flexible.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Reach out if you are feeling burnout.
  • Extend grace to your students and their families.
  • You are doing great!

Junior Kindergarten Online – Journal – Days 13 & 14

C awoke ready to make breakfast. Of course he needed a recipe, so he drew each item, and then labelled them: bread, butter, cinnamon and raisins.  The last two he copied from the packages, and as you can see in one of the images above, he’s beginning to adopt a traditional pen grip and trying to put all the letters in a line.

Then he helped prepare tonight’s dinner: beef stew. I did the chopping, and he added each item to the crockpot. He even tasted a new food: parsnips. 

I headed back to my tiling project, and C stayed in his pyjamas, building Lego and singing songs. We called his parents via Facebook Messenger Kids, and he was able to walk around the house with my phone, sharing all of his favourite places. It is clear that they are missing each other, and so we committed to a daily conversation.  This should help him with the conversation turn-taking, and support his strong connection with his family.  We’ll also have to plan a few evening calls, so that he can see his little sister, who is at daycare during the day.

We had an adult conversation as well; hoping that the return to school date of February 10 might actually be real. We’d like his transition home and then back to school to go smoothly, so we’re thinking that he’ll head back at the end of next week, if all goes according to plan.

We shared a lunch of leftovers, and then I returned to my tiling while C took out his tablet to play games and watch some of his favourite shows. Then he asked to go back to his Chromebook, to visit the videos in his Virtual Classroom.  He was disappointed that there were still only two videos, and two books, all four of which he had viewed. So, he ended up back with shows on YouTube (oh well….) He does seem to choose videos that connect either to books we have read, or toys he owns. He is certainly developing a strong sense of plot and of the various characters.  His imaginative play also includes some sophisticated language from some of these shows.  Among my favourites to view with him are the perennial Peppa Pig, and the impressive Chico BonBon: Monkey with a Toolbelt. I know that the latter is responsible for many new words that otherwise would not be part of C’s vocabulary for many years. 

As C and I interact throughout the day, I try to engage him in puzzles, both word and number.  One night in the hot tub we played with 6 pool rings.  With the jets and bubbles on I would hold some of the rings above the water, and ask him how many were underwater. It was interesting that when I held up six, he said “no”, meaning “no rings”.  We then substituted the words “none” and “zero”. It was a fun game, and he clearly understands all the ways to “make six”.

The next day began in a similar fashion, though C was hungry enough to want to make pancakes without a recipe.  He has become very proficient at levelling dry ingredients, and breaking eggs. His variation on the recipe this time was to add cinnamon and raisins to the batter (are you sensing a theme here?).

His day was again one of parallel play; with me as I did some TA work online, then began to grout my bathroom, and with grandpa as he taped drywall. C is quite happy to play with Lego or blocks, or view videos, as long as we are nearby.

With the cold temperatures, we weren’t sure about outdoor play.  But by 4:00 it was clear that he needed to get out of the house, so he and grandpa headed down the drive to the mailbox, out to the back with the kitchen compost, and then into the pond to play in the snow.

It is a gift to have all this time with C. After three weeks he is really missing his parents and sister, but he seems happy most of the time. At four years of age he is likely to remember this time together, and we will certainly not forget. 

They are re-opening schools in the London and Ottawa areas, and so there is hope that the GTA schools will re-open as well, after the promise February 10 date. That means at least another week with us, and so I will be trying to think of unique activities that we can do here.  We have lots of snow, plenty of building materials, and much more time than most parents!

And I have the benefit of suggestions via responses to this blog, Twitter posts, and conversations with friends and colleagues.  I am learning a great deal, and appreciate all the support I have received. Thank you!

Junior Kindergarten Online – Journal – Day 12

As promised, today we are not going to try the synchronous Google Meet, as it seems to be more stress than success. C was happy with this decision, and happy to head to the Virtual Classroom (Bitmoji) where he had listened to one story and viewed a video on volcanoes yesterday. I was happy that I didn’t need to “time” his school start, so he began at 8:45, rather than waiting to sign in at 9:15.

Today he tried the second video in the Virtual Classroom, on coral reefs, but found the lecturing adult female didn’t hold his attention. His choice was to return to the volcano video, which then sent him down a path of choices which, fortunately, were SciShow Kids, and appropriate for him.  Getting back to the virtual classroom by selecting the correct tab in Chrome is much more difficult than clicking on the animated advertisement for the next video suggestion in YouTube. SciShow was founded in 2012 by one of my favourite vloggers, Hank Green. Heading down the rabbit hole of his, and his brother John’s work is definitely worth it!

But back to Kindergarten.  Among the curriculum expectations are a few that we really need to work on, including “26. develop an appreciation of the multiple perspectives encountered within groups, and of ways in which they themselves can contribute to groups and to group well-being”, and especially “2.4 demonstrate self-control (e.g., be aware of and label their own emotions; accept help to calm down; calm themselves down after being upset) and adapt behaviour to different contexts within the school environment (e.g., follow routines and rules in the classroom, gym, library, playground)”. The latter has been a real challenge for C to achieve within Google Meet, and so I’m hesitant to completely give up on the synchronous classroom, knowing that there is a great deal for him to learn about turn-taking and connection.

Yesterday’s blog post evoked this response via Twitter: “I say go for it. We would be asynchronous all day long if I didn’t need something to “occupy” M while I’m on for my 225+ mins…” This is a shared concern of all of my teaching colleagues, who are trying to support their children online while teaching themselves.  I have the luxury of time to “prompt” and “redirect”, which is not possible for a parent who is managing a class of 30 online. So, I think we need to look for strong asynchronous resources, ones which allow a student to work independently for longer periods of time, and which transition from one event to the next easily for little ones like ours. I am going to have to give this more thought….

I stepped aside this morning to listen to Stephen Hurley and Doug Peterson on VoicEd radio’s This Week in Edublogs discussing last week’s blog. It was affirming to hear their thoughts, and to hear their support for my last two recommendations, to have an agenda for the day, and to connect individually with students. Writing this blog supports my thinking and problem-solving, and I am hopeful that it might inspire the same in others. My husband and I discussed Stephen’s comment about this year being C’s first experience of “big-boy school”. We concluded that he likely won’t think of this as school; it will be the physical building and the social connection that he experience prior to lockdown that will be “school” for him. (It should be noted that while I was doing this C continued with his video-watching for more than an hour, ending up, inevitably, at one of his favour toy-demonstration videos!)

We then engaged in parallel play: C with his play dough, me with my bathroom tiles, and his grandpa with wiring. He stayed focused until lunch, which he shared with his grandpa while I set tiles. Then he joined me to begin the clean-up process, washing thin-set off tiles, and discussing the purpose of the “plus signs” between the tiles. He asked for the offcuts, and used his markers to begin to build a small house (see photo above).

It was a beautiful sunny day, so he headed outside with his grandpa, though only after a great deal of conversation about the “getting dressed” process. He has a very strict order for these type of processes, and would prefer if we followed the same order as he. We have been able to have a good conversation about respecting differences, and allowing others to do there own thing. I wonder how much of this “rule following” is his natural tendency, and how much is a result of his daycare and school experiences.

It’s now the end of the school day, and we have had no tears. C is happy and well-fed, and both grandparents have also completed some of their own projects.  We will cook dinner together, enjoy a movie while we eat, perhaps play in the hot tub, and will end up with four stories (he is four years old, so we have to read four books) before bed. His self-regulation will be challenged by the full-length movie, and by the requirement not to splash in the hot tub. And we will work on his memory skills while we review the day, and talk about his highlights.

I am thinking that perhaps we should work on his interpersonal skills with our own Google Meet sessions, with only one person at the other end, so that he can practise turn taking in conversation.  Sounds like a plan for this weekend!

School Online – Journal – Day 29

After more than a week of delays, then finally a memo outlining our reporting process, there is now an entire “about face”.  I can’t share it, because I’m not the official “messenger”, but I know it is making the rounds in Facebook and Twitter.

And yesterday’s post seems prescient: many of our Ontario school boards seem to be ready to opt for the worst of all worlds: a hybrid model where a teacher has to teach TWO groups at the same time, one in front of them in person while at the same time juggling the other group online within MS Teams or Google Meet.

I am seeing wonderful learning happening in our fully online model.  And I saw tired, but happy, students in their double-periods in face-to-face settings.  Both had the benefits of some asynchronous learning, and synchronous lessons with the full class of up to 34 students.

Now our successful online model is at risk of being downgraded, with teacher attention having to be split.

I need to go watch more Murdoch Mysteries…..

School Online – Journal – Day 28

I began my day with the voice of Stephen Hurley of, in conversation about “rhythm”. And that had me thinking about schedules and cycles within education. Then, when I listened to CBC Radio One, near the end of the day, it was Bruce Sellery talking about Income Inequality in Education with Gill Deacon on Here and Now.

The latter conversation, where many models of education were discussed, had me thinking about the two models we are using now, and the third that is a possible option moving forward.

Fully Online

In this model, in our online school, our students are almost halfway through a Quadmester, where they are taking two courses which will be completed in mid-November. Every two days our students participate in three synchronous classes of 75 minutes each, and one asynchronous session, presented either in Brightspace (D2L) or Google Classroom. Over the course of 20 school days, a student will see their teacher synchronously for 30 periods, and asynchronously for 10 periods.

Adaptive Model

This model was prescribed by the Ministry of Education, for school boards in areas where the incidence of COVID-19 is high. It is also a Quadmester, where students take two courses.  However, in one week they attend in person for two back-to-back periods on one day for one course, and on the next day for their second course. Every afternoon consists of one asynchronous period, and then one synchronous. And on every other Wednesday they get a bonus day of face-to-face double periods, adding the equivalent of two face-to-face classes every four weeks. Over the course of 20 school days, a student will see their teacher in person for the equivalent of 10 periods, synchronously online for 10 periods, and work asynchronously for 20 periods.

Hybrid Model

This is the model currently in use in many other school districts, where the online and adaptive are combined within a single school.  Teachers teach face-to-face, to a small group in person, while at the same time streaming the lesson to students who are working from home. This preserves the school community, is infinitely flexible for students, and ensures that support resources are close at hand. In this model teachers would be utilizing face-to-face instructional tools simultaneously with online tools. Where fewer than 50% of the students have chosen an online option, the timetable would be identical to the Adaptive Model.  If more moved online, then teachers would no longer need to provide two cohorts with instruction for each course, freeing up time for more online synchronous sessions.

Having written this out, I am VERY impressed with the rhythm of our online school. Our students are able to develop relationships quickly. Their teachers are able to respond with agility to their needs. And there is a consistency to the routine that provides for a calm, safe learning environment.

Which model are you teaching with? What do you think are the strengths of each?

School Online – Journal – Days 19, 20 and 21

This should have been only Day 19, but both Saturday and Sunday were filled with work, attempting to connect new teachers to class lists so that classes could begin today.  We were partially successful – but there are still many classes without a teacher, despite efforts by our team over the past two weeks, without break.

On Friday we met to define admin duties, and it was decided that I would take on half of the Principal role, in support of MST. So I spent Saturday pulling data from our files, and grouping teachers by the subjects they are teaching in these first two Quadmesters. I then emailed groups, introducing them to each other, so that they could connect to plan and share the work.

On Sunday it became apparent that many teachers were still to be assigned classes, and another team was busy throughout the day doing so.  My groups are now inaccurate, but at least most of the teachers are able to access the expertise of one or more others.

In the evening I was contacted by one of our Vice Principals, who was concerned that she was hearing from teachers who did not have access to our Student Information System, and did not have class lists with which to contact their students.  So, because I was in transit from my mother’s to home, she agreed to email each of the teachers, asking them if they were ready for Monday.  The negative replies were addressed throughout the evening by the two us, with my taking A-L, and her taking M-Z.

My evening even included a couple of phone calls, walking teachers through several of our processes so that they could email their students. Some of these teachers are bravely stepping into an entirely new way of teaching, and with little support.

Today I began with my university class, learning about how we support Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students from staff in our Provincial Demonstration Schools. It was new learning for me, and a wonderful experience for our about-to-be-teachers. We had an hour-long class together afterward, and we shared concerns for student with hearing impairments in this new online reality. My students have chosen to have me teach with my camera on, but with their cameras and microphones turned off.  It’s eerie talking into the void, with no feedback either through facial expressions or chatter.  I make sure I ask questions that can be responded to with emojis, and I invite them to speak when they have a question that isn’t easily written into chat. It’s awkward, but we are managing, mostly due to the fact that I have known them for a year, and so it’s akin to talking on the telephone with old friends.

When I returned to my computer at noon my inbox was at 163, and it took me until dinner to work my way through. The requests now seem to be focused on students, rather than on getting classes together. And so I was finally able to begin to delegate some of our concerns to our VP team.

Our teachers have been informed of the alpha groupings for VP issues, and subject groupings lead by Principals. So I believe our communication will now be more efficient and accurate, with faster responses.

So, what have we missed? Well, no one knows how to do attendance twice in a day. We have yet to determine duties during the asynchronous support periods, for those who are teaching only one course this Quad. I am gathering counsellor information so that our teachers can consult with their students’ community school guidance counsellors, and that will be communicated shortly. We have yet to plan for professional learning; and there is a great need among many of our teachers to develop their synchronous instruction skills. Parents don’t yet have a system to let us know when their students have been absent with permission. And, with Markbook no longer available, all of our teachers are having to figure out how they will gather, record, and track assessment data.

As I write, I am hearing that Brightspace is down. I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for teachers who have to squeeze lesson prep between dinner and bedtime. And our students who are catching up on the day’s work will be equally frustrated.  I hope it’s just a short “outage”, and that everyone will be back on soon.

I am also still hearing that teachers are confused by our timetable.  On Day 1 our teachers see their period 1 class synchronously, and then provide work for their students to continue working on asynchronously in period 3. Their period 2 class is synchronous, and then they return in period 4 to continue synchronous work.  This is to be in compliance with the Ontario Ministry of Education requirement for 225 minutes of synchronous instruction each day, while still meeting the OSSTF contract requirement for a full preparation period.  On Day 2 this switches, so the period 2 class is seen in period 1, and then asynchronously in period 3, and the period 1 class is now synchronous in periods 2 and 4.  Confused?  Well, hopefully not for long.  I have had teachers who think they can just do asynchronous all the time, and those who want to spend their prep assisting individual students.  While the latter is a personal choice, the former will get some of our teachers in trouble, so I hope they revise their practices.

Tomorrow we meet as a full admin team, and afterward with our MST team.  We will work out priorities for each of us, and processes whereby we will collaborate, and play to each of our strengths.  We are fortunate that we   have qualifications in all of the three areas, and so should be able to be a help to most of our teachers. I’m still not sure when I will actually have a .5 day, or even a .5 week.  But for now our priorities remain our teachers and students, and so shutting down email at noon, or ignoring it for a day, cannot happen.

What do I think we’ll see this week? I imagine that as classes settle, teachers’ focus will shift to some of the larger issues that remain unaddressed. Our students will begin to test their boundaries, and we will be hearing of those who are less compliant, and pushing the boundaries. At the same time I hope that teachers will begin to find time to experiment, and to stretch their skills by trying new things in this new teaching environment.  I am looking forward to hearing their stories; both their successes and dismal failures.  We will have both, but it’s the only way we will learn.