What Worked this Year in @Home Learning?

Teams meeting image with Author highlighted

The 2020-21 school year has been a year of growth for me, and for the teachers I lead. In the fall I had the privilege to work with 150 Math/Science/Tech teachers, as part of a huge Online Secondary School. And then in February I joined a smaller K-12 Virtual School, with students engaging both synchronously and asynchronously.

Last week our K-8 teachers gathered, and compared notes for the year. And here’s what they told us worked for them:

Communication

Our teachers made use of a range of technologies to connect to families, and maintain student/teacher/parent communication. Our teachers provided weekly communication schedules, built community through circles, and encouraged their families to share images and videos of their children’s learning.

Ergonomics

With a minimum of five hours a day in front of a computer, our teachers became experts in chair yoga, and implemented multiple monitors and drawing tablets into their toolkit.

Events

Particularly in our primary grades, our teachers became event planners: Dinosaur Tea Party, Snow Castle Challenge, Jump Rope for Heart and Tinker Tuesdays were all planned and scheduled this year.

Results

Rather than isolating during COVID, our families and teachers forged deeper connections and achieved greater academic gains than they had in in-person classes. The use of large-group, small-group, and 1:1 interaction resulted more focused learning within a supportive and friendly learning environment. Our teachers found they had more time to work 1:1 with students, and appreciated the ability to develop language skills without the interference of masks. Their lesson planning became more creative, and was presented in a structured format that allowed for improved support from EAs, other teachers, and family members. Students with special education needs were more easily integrated into the activities of the class, and were able to safely learn.

Educator “Moves”

As a result of the change in environment, our teachers had to increase their creativity and flexibility, and they found that it paid off in huge improvements for their students. They used humour with their students, and teamwork with their parents. Because they were limited in the classroom materials available to their students in their homes, they differentiated tasks and were “wowed” by the results.

Teaching Strategies that Worked

  • One-on-one meetings and instruction
  • Running Records
  • Predictable routines
  • Socializing and Sharing at the start of each day
  • Weekly checklists
  • Real-time assessment and feedback
  • Playtime structured to allow students to play together
  • Reader’s Theatre
  • Asynchronous sessions, with “expect a teacher call”
  • Interactive Games
  • Whiteboards

Technology Tools

  • Boom cards
  • Chrome Music Lab
  • Raz Kids
  • Book Creator
  • Secret Stories Better Alphabet Song
  • Flyleaf
  • Virtual Field Trips – Toronto Zoo, Art Gallery of Ontario, etc.
  • Use of “spotlight” in Teams to focus on students when they speak
  • Office 365 tools
  • Screen shots
  • Mote – to record audio on slides
  • Cool Chrome extensions
  • Guest Speakers
  • PE with JOe the Body Coach
  • Apps: Teach your Monster to Read, Lalio, Kodables
  • Robotics Canada
  • Pearson Bookshelf
  • Use of Breakout Groups
  • Dictate and Immersive Reader
  • Edsby poll to take attendance
  • Math Antics – YouTube
  • OneNote
  • Use of Learning Management System – especially useful for split grades
  • Awards in the Learning Management System
  • Sharing of Learning Management System “shells”
  • Pre-recorded “How To” videos

Conclusion

The impact of teacher learning this year will only be able to be measured once they return to their physical classrooms in the fall. There is little from the lists above that cannot become part of our teachers’ toolkits as they move forward, so I am anticipating even more positive results for the 2021-22 school year.

My prediction that parents might now wish to opt for continued remote learning for their children was absolutely wrong. Our experiences this year have shown parents that they need teachers in classrooms even more than they need teachers online. Our successes this year were as a result of extraordinary efforts on the part of our teachers combined with intensive support from families at home. As parents and caregivers return to their in-person work, they do so with a greater appreciation for the work of our educators, and a strong value for the in-person interaction that our classrooms provide.

Remote learning will now be added to our collection of supports for students, but I believe it will not become the preferred mode of learning for most of our kids. A safe, supportive classroom, with access to technology tools to allow for access to resources, thinking tools, and media to share learning, is the best option for our students as we move forward.

What will we bring back to in-person learning?

This week our Ontario elementary teachers are concluding weeks of reflection as they gather assessment data and craft report card comments. And as they do so, I’m certain that they are reflecting on all that they have learned as they tackled remote learning. What will they be keeping, to use in their “in-person” classroom in the fall?

Today I’m going to “guess”, since I’m their Principal, and have only an outside view of their classrooms. Next week our teachers are meeting to share, and I’ll write again, to report what they shared and to evaluate and revise this list.

Here’s what I think that our teachers will be looking to implement for September 2021:

Learning Management System

Our teachers make use of two Learning Management Systems: Edsby and D2L.  They have a choice, since neither provides all the content organization, parent communication, assessment tracking, and mark reporting functions in one single tool. But what they both do very well is keep content organized and students on track. I believe that our teachers will continue the use of these tools, and will be better able to support students beyond the classroom.

Student-to-Student Digital Collaboration Tools

Since our kids haven’t been able to work together in person, our teachers have developed a range of collaboration tools in order to facilitate connection between students. The chats that begin in class often continue after the Teams meeting ends. The collaborative slide stack is added to and referred to by students at any time after the class session. And shared documents remain as working documents, with no need for additional notes to be taken.

Increased Differentiation

Our students have come to this year’s learning from many different circumstances, which has resulted in very uneven progress. Our teachers have had to scaffold and support more than ever, and they’ve become experts at quickly meeting students where they are and helping them move forward.  When September begins our teachers will meet students whose learning might have been interrupted by technological challenges, whose families were unable to support their work online while working full-time themselves, along with those who have thrived online with strong family support.

Transparency and Structure

Classes online require clearly communicated agendas, with chunking of time to allow for students to manage 225 minutes in front of a computer. The benefits of this clear structure have been seen in the excellent work submitted by some students, and in their positive outlook, even on a sunny day in June! Scheduling has been necessary in order to ensure that teachers and students arrive in the same space online at the same time. And class materials have had to provided in a format the allow even our JK kiddos to access them. Bringing this organization back to the classroom will be supportive of all our learners.

Greater Professional Networking

With our teachers having to connect via email, phone and Teams this year, they have developed strong networks of support that will live beyond COVID. They have reaped the rewards to working collaboratively, and will continue to work together in support of improved teaching practice.

We meet as a team next week, where our educators will share what has been working for them. I will listen, and compare their list to mine.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog!

Priya Parker, Brené Brown, and Protecting your Source Work

This morning’s walk allowed me to listen to Part II of the conversation between Priya Parker and Brené Brown entitled A Meeting Makeover. And something that Priya Parker shared resonated when I heard it, and then returned to me throughout my day: Protect your Source Work .

“I am continuing to develop my mastery in my craft, and then I can write about it and read about it and talk to others about it, but if I’m not close to my source work, I’m going to shrivel up and I’m going to become pretty boring”.

What does this mean for leadership in Education? For me that means I continue the work that supports my purpose: teaching, hiring, mentoring and learning. If I get caught up in management I lose my focus on doing what is best for kids. So I need to hone my craft by teaching each time I meet with my teachers, revisiting my values and vision when hiring new teachers to my team, mentoring my teachers through Annual Learning Plan and Teacher Performance Appraisal processes, and always, always, always learning.

Teaching

As a Principal there aren’t a lot of opportunities to teach in the traditional meaning of the word. However, at least once a month, we get the opportunity to lead a staff meeting, and so mine are designed more like lesson plans than meeting agendas. I try out new tools and strategies, embed new technologies, and try to model processes that I hope to see followed with our students. I also look for teaching opportunities outside my school, both formal and informal, in order to continue to grow and develop my skills.

Hiring

When we bring a new teacher into our system, we have begun a relationship that will last 30 or more years. So we have great responsibility, both to our students and to our new teachers. My hiring process includes providing candidates with the questions ahead of time, so that they can prepare (as they would each day for their classes) and I can be confident that I will be able to make a decision based upon all the possible data. And I begin building a relationship with each candidate I meet, ensuring that they hear my hiring decision from me, not from their friends, and offering to provide feedback to help them learn and improve. I have often met great teachers who weren’t a great fit for my vacancy, but were perfect for one at my colleague’s school, and I am proud to have supported them to that destination.

Mentoring

Once teachers are in our school, we then can bring our experience and skills to the process of mentoring them. Each year is an opportunity to meet and discuss their Annual Learning Plan. Sometimes the plan isn’t directly related to their teaching career: one of my teachers expressed a goal to get married and start a family and, though I told I couldn’t help her much with that, did achieve her goal! Every five years our teachers get a chance to share their practice through the Teacher Performance Appraisal process, and to have us observe and confirm their strengths and achievements. When we get to know our teachers we can network and connect, supporting them to broaden their perspectives and deepen their knowledge.

Learning

If student learning is our goal, then we have to keep ourselves in learning mode as well. Curiosity and wonder must remain constant, even as we work through the paperwork and administrivia that seems to fill our day. I’m currently taking an Additional Qualification course, as readers of this blog will have recognized by previous posts. But the greatest source of new learning is found within my work: my teachers and their students. Each classroom observation, each email or phone conversation with a teacher, and each problem that presents itself is a gift of learning. 

I’m protecting my source work by continuing to teach, hire, mentor and learn. And I love it!

Preparing our New Teachers

It’s mid-December, and I know that the Teacher Candidates who began our pre-service program imagined a very different reality than we know today. They were promised a program of teacher-preparation, with placements with Associate Teachers which would prepare them to enter classrooms upon graduation.

Instead, they’ve had to pivot their university courses from face-to-face, to Adobe Connect and Zoom. They’ve missed their second placement entirely, as it was to begin the day that lockdown began in March. And now they are in placements in secondary schools with teachers who have limited experience with Google Meet, PearDeck, Brightspace, and all the other tools of their new remote/hybrid/online classrooms.

It’s one thing to “train” for a job; and it’s another to figure out the job while doing it. Both our Associate Teachers and our Teacher Candidates are in the middle of a steep learning curve, and boy, are they learning!

Some boards have asked teachers to teach fully online.  This is the simplest model, and one which our Teacher Candidates have experienced during their third term as students.  They have developed a strong toolkit, and have had excellent models in their university professors, and so they’re doing a good job when they land in these classrooms. Their students, however, are novices with the technology, and so they’re having to teach both the course content, and the tools with which to learn.

Some students are in traditional classrooms, but the students are physically spaced, wearing masks, and attending in person for only some of the classes. These students also have synchronous online classes, as well as asynchronous assignments where they work from materials within their learning management system (LMS), such as Google Classroom or Brightspace. Building community, supporting social learning, and monitoring individual student progress is a new challenge.

Many students are in hybrid settings: the teacher has some students physically in the classroom, and the rest of the students online, both at the same time! This requires accessing two very different set of tools, and trying to deliver them simultaneously. Some of the students are able to provide real-time, valuable feedback throughout the lesson, and others are merely muted names on the screen.

The most challenging scenarios I’ve encountered are physical and health education classes, with as few as two or three students in person for a 2.5 hour block, with the rest of the class at home without equipment.  They signed up for “phys. ed.” and they’ve ended up having to do a lot more reading and writing than they anticipated.

This move to larger blocks of time was designed to minimize the overlap of cohorts within schools, but they have created learning sessions that are far longer than most teenagers can manage without distraction.  I hope that reflection on the part of school leadership might result in new models that permit facility-dependent programs such as physical education, nutrition, construction, etc. to bring more groups into the school to use the space, throughout the day. 

I’m hearing from my students that these learning teams of teachers are having to experiment, reflect, and problem-solve every day, to try to meet the needs of their students. Teachers are questioning the use of traditional assessment tools, and worrying that the challenges of slow internet, lack of access to technological tools, and limited support within their students’ homes might be roadblocks to their students’ learning. They are finding new ways of teaching and assessing, and I hope that they will soon begin to share their successes and support their colleagues to adopt these new strategies.

As I conference with my students, viewing them either live in Google Meet, or recorded in their classroom, I am hearing that they are working harder than they ever have.  And they are learning more than they could ever imagine.

We are graduating an amazing group of young teachers this December.

Coming soon to a classroom near you!

School Online – Journal – Day 26

Today we began week three of our online school, and the nature of my email inbox is shifting.

Student Attendance

Our teachers are now pursuing students who haven’t yet arrived.  We ask them to reach out to parents first, then guidance counsellors, and finally to connect with the VP responsible for then student (as determined by their surname). To accomplish the first, the teacher must have access to our student information system, and know how to query it to locate each student’s record. So I spent time today sharing the documentation on our system, and then troubleshooting access to the documentation and/or steps within our information system. Then I shared again how teachers could find the name of the guidance counsellor, and the list of alpha VPs. With some teachers only now gaining access to our information systems, it’s a jagged front, and each query requires an individualized response.

We now have office staff who can assist with corrections to student attendance, and with verification of students who could not be verified by their teachers.  I am not sharing the names of our staff broadly, as I do not know the impact on them of what is essentially a school that is an order of magnitude larger than any other school in our board. I will play “gatekeeper” until we figure out how they will be able to handle the deluge.

Teacher Absences

The past week has been spent letting teachers know how to apply for approval of absences such as holy days or family responsibility.  Although they are still attached to their home schools, we must do the approvals.  And we need to ensure that they enter the absence into another system, and that they do NOT request a supply teacher for the first few days of absence.

Communication

Although we have divided our students into groups by surname, and our teachers into groups by subject area, there are still hundreds of questions each day for each of our teams.  And the master list of “who does what” has traveled down in everyone’s inbox, and needs to be sent again to most who need it.

Professional Learning

Having shared the student information system documentation, I then received a beautiful email from a teacher, offering to provide a workshop for our new teachers.  I know that if I offered a workshop many teachers would see it as a “demand”. And I don’t want to pressure any of them, as they plan assessments in order to have data for next week’s report cards. So this teacher has offered to communicate directly with her colleagues, and I am hopeful that some will accept her offer, and learn the skills they need to work efficiently and effectively with our system.

Technology

While I pride myself on my facility with computer technology, I really don’t have much experience with the tools our teachers need to use.  And as an administrator, I can’t even try some of them out! I really am going to have to practice with both Google Meet and MS Teams, as this seems to be the area of least experience for our teachers as well.  Wish me luck!

Teacher Education

I accepted this role as a half-time Principal, but haven’t yet had a half day.  I teach a couple of classes in the Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University, and this morning I managed to listen to our guest speaker (an elder, visiting and explaining the Seven Grandfather Teachings: Love, Respect, Bravery, Truth, Honesty, Humility, and Wisdom) while screening board emails. 

When my class met, following this amazing presentation, I had opened the wrong virtual classroom, and only nine made it there.  We figured out my error, emailed the rest, and they finally all arrived.  Then they informed me via chat that I had not enabled their microphones, and a little later that their cameras were also not enabled.  Thank goodness I have been working with them for a full year, and they are giving me the benefit of the doubt as things do not go smoothly. I comfort myself that I am modelling flexibility and a positive response to failure!

They are very anxious about completing the necessary practicum hours to graduate in December.  I have offered to connect them with teachers in our school who might appreciate their support in planning, creation of course materials, and in developing new skills within their asynchronous and synchronous tools. They can log hours as volunteers, without having to complete the paperwork necessary for a full placement.

Time Management

I am priding myself on getting my inbox to zero by the end of the school day.  I scan for emergency emails to ensure I don’t leave anyone hanging for too long, and it’s a positive sign that I managed to avoid working throughout most of the weekend. I know that our teachers will likely find time to reach out to me in the evenings, not during the school day, so I return to email a couple of times each evening, to respond to issues that will impact teachers and students the next day.

I wonder if our families realize how close to 24/7 the job of a teacher has become?