Alternative Education

It’s back to school for me yet again. This year I’m working as a Vice Principal in an Alternative School, providing secondary school courses to students from grade 9 to 12. It’s an amazing place, and here’s why:

Safe Alternate Timetable

We have a consistent Monday to Friday timetable, rather than the hybrid model, with its two 2.5 hour classes each that run for a week and then switch with the other two for the following week. Our students attend either for two hours in person in the morning or two hours online in the afternoon, once a week for each credit. They are working independently for the balance of the week, with the goal being to complete two credits each quadmester.

This means that we have very few people in the building, with very small classes in person, so students and staff feel much less at risk of COVID exposure. And students always have the option to shift to online, should the degree of risk change.

No Deadlines

While the goal is to complete two credits each quadmester, our students have the option to “roll over” their students into the next. Our schedule will be the same from September to June, so students can anticipate support until they complete their credits. They can even roll their courses into the following school year, if needed. Our teachers have structured their course content to provide both direct instruction during their two-hour classes, and rich supportive materials in their Virtual Learning Environment (either D2L/Brightspace or Google Classroom). So control is truly in the hands of our students.

There is really no reason why this couldn’t be the case in our traditional secondary schools, but we have strong cultural norms that function to deny flexibility to our students.

Personalization

Because we have intake at multiple points in the year, and students are progressing at different paces, our teachers provide individual programs and support to each student. Our class sizes are very small, and our teachers are able to customize the program for each student.

Our students thrive in this environment, with very few returning to a traditional secondary school, but remaining with us until graduation.

First Names

All of our staff are addressed by their first names. This serves to “flatten” the organization, and puts everyone on the same level. I may be the Vice Principal, but I’m “Terry”, not Dr. Whitmell. Our Principal oversees seven alternative program sites, so she is here only a few times a week, but she is known by her first name, as is our custodian, the office staff, and our educational assistants.

This is a strong cultural indication to our new students that they are not in a traditional school, and with that realization comes hope and optimism that the rest of the school will be different as well.

Optimism

In all that we do, the focus is on success. Missing are detentions, penalties, suspensions, and many of the control mechanisms of a traditional secondary school. Instead our teachers can, as our school vision says, “Inspire Success, Confidence, and Hope”. Our students may remain with us until age twenty-one, and with a small teaching staff of two dozen they are able to forge strong relationships.

Support

We provide a range of programs, from grades 7 to 12, serving students whose needs can be academic, social, emotional or just a need for a safe place. Despite what we read in the media, students who are suspended or expelled are not abandoned by the education system. Instead they are enrolled in one of our programs, and are able to access Child and Youth Workers, Social Workers, and a range of community agencies as well.

A Safe Harbour

With all the uncertainty and fear we have been experiencing in the past eighteen months, I am thankful that I am working and contributing in such an amazing place!

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 how a Return to Work relates to K-12 Return to School

My morning walk is my time to listen to podcasts, and one morning last week I was captivated by a conversation (part 1 of 2) between Brené Brown and Priya Parker entitled “How We Return and Why it Matters“.

Priya Parker is the author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters“. In this conversation, she and Brené Brown discuss how the world is going back to work, and what that might look like.  As a K-12 Principal, it’s also been a topic at the forefront of my thinking, and I was struck by how similar our concerns are.

Access and Equity

Priya Parker and Brené Brown discuss the possibility that a return to in-person work might inadvertently be punishing those who choose to continue to work from home. Priya Parker suggests that “if not everybody is in the room, is it important to have two facilitators or two hosts, an in-person host and a hybrid host?”  She recommends that in order to not exclude those working from home, perhaps everyone has to take the meeting through their computers in separate rooms, so as to not limit power and access.

In our K-12 educational context, this is exactly the concern of our educators, who worry that a hybrid model with a single teacher will shift the focus to the teacher from the students. And they share a concern that students at home and students in the classroom will not have equitable access to resources, to the attention of the teacher, and to opportunities to collaborate and learn together.

Vaccination

Priya Parker shared a story about a parent who tried to protect guests to her child’s party by providing t-shirts that indicated their vaccination status. In an effort to allow her guests to make informed choices, she was inadvertently creating a caste system.

As our children ages 12 to 18 begin to be vaccinated, we will be entering our middle and secondary schools in September with both students and teachers who may be fully or partially vaccinated. I know that there will be students who will use this as an argument to push back against cohorting, masking, social distancing, and use of sanitizing processes. And I fear that those who still do not feel safe heading into our schools due to personal or family circumstances will run the risk of being excluded, both socially and physically.

Physical Distancing

In business we shake hands, and in schools there is often a culture of hugging and other forms of physical connection. Elbow bumps, bowing, and air “high fives” may need to be developed as a form of connection when we meet in person. There is a risk of “micro-moments of perceived rejection” as we develop our sense of connection, and consider physical proximity as a measure of how much or how little we are “liked”.

When working online we are glued to our seats, not moving. We cannot be moving around the room and still able to maintain connection through our cameras. Will a year of inactivity result in students who are no longer comfortable moving around the classroom, interacting with each other? Will teachers be driven to return to the 1960’s model of the teacher at the podium, lecturing to the class?

Principles and Policies

The principle behind the the t-shirts was caring, but the policy of providing shirts served to exclude. In order to get to meaningful policy we need to aim for policy that reflects people’s “deepest experiences”, through a participatory process so that people “feel that the policy is the best way to coordinate their work”.

As I write this blog post, some Ontario school boards have communicated an intent to deliver program through hybrid classrooms for the 2021-2022 school year. This policy decision has been made, often without any experience of the hybrid model. And for boards where hybrid models are in place, little attention may have been paid to the genuine experiences of the teachers, students and their families.

Policies provide the “handrails and guardrails” that Brené Brown says need to be designed from “power with and power to, not power over”. However a policy of hybrid instruction provides neither handrails, which would be created through successful models and exemplars, nor guardrails, which could only be formed from the experiences of our teachers.

Rather than impose a policy, we need to consider ourselves to be “in beta”, and continue to be creative and innovate as we remain in this period of great transition. Imposition of policy as an act of power can only be destructive to our education system, and to our students.

Next Steps

I look forward to listening to Part 2 of this podcast, and to continue my thinking about how we gather, be it online or eventually in person.

I am also interested in how the plan for hybrid learning will be framed by some of our school boards as anything other than a power and money move. In the long run, I cannot see how we can defend a system that creates worse outcomes for all participants. Will we hear from parents who want in-person-only classes, so that the teacher can provide individual attention to their children? Will parents begin demanding “paper packages” so that they don’t have to deal with technology at home?  Will teachers leave the profession, burnt out by the demands of teaching two different groups at the same time?

As a Principal of a fully virtual school I have seen how effectively each of the three remote models: fully synchronous instruction, asynchronous instruction via an effective Learning Management System, and remote learning with well-design print materials, can be for different student needs. But I cannot imagine how a teacher can do their best in all three models while simultaneously providing a rich, in-person classroom experience. We have the potential to develop the “handrails and guardrails” that we need, but not with an imposed policy based upon money and power.

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.

Chunking

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.

Ergonomics

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!

At-Home Learning – an initial reflection

Four weeks ago I embarked on a new journey in a new school board and in a new model of online learning. In a board with a large geographical area, much of which cannot reliably access the Internet, the model is very different from that which I experienced earlier this year. While many of the students are engaging in a synchronous model of learning, others are participating in asynchronous learning, and a few must be provided with packages on paper, due to their remote locations.

While the arrival of Starlink in our area is likely to be a game-changer, access to the Internet remains a huge impediment for our families. And so decisions were made at the beginning of the school year to provide the best education to ALL of our students

Our At-Home Learning teachers are, for the most part, teaching from their local schools. They participate in the school supervision schedule, and have the benefit of social interaction with their colleagues. Their students either participate synchronously through MS Teams and access their class materials through Edsby or our D2L/Brightspace LMS, or they use only Edsby, the LMS, and email to connect with their teachers. The few who require paper resources function much as “correspondence courses” would have in the past, with packages created weekly, and which are delivered via the student’s home school.

Synchronous Learning

It is fascinating to visit the classrooms of these teachers. Due to bandwidth, many of the students remain “cameras off”, but that hasn’t limited their participation.  You can hear the excitement in their voices, and in their contributions to the chat. The use of many tools such as Dreambox and

Asynchronous Learning

For many families, having the flexibility of anytime/anywhere learning is working for their children. The daily content is provided via Edsby or the LMS, and families can work at their own pace to access multimedia resources. Some “asynchronous” students will join into daily Teams meetings, then head off to work independently for the balance of the day. Others depend upon daily emails to connect.

“Paper Packages”

The third option has been problematic for some of our teachers, as they have to translate rich multimedia resources into single-dimensional paper versions.  However, for some families this solution is working well. The distractions that accompany use of an iPad or computer are removed, and parents are comfortable assisting their children to work with paper worksheets. We continue to look for ways to bring some of our richer resources “offline”, and provide them to families in a downloaded version on a device, so that they can make use of audio and visual content.

Octomesters

Rather than attending school for two semesters in a year, all of our Secondary students, both remote and in-person, are attending eight octomesters. They have one class for about 22 days, then move to their next course.  This has allowed us to be very flexible, and move students into our programs, or back to their home schools, where necessary. However, planning a program for fewer than 400 students, with a limited team of teachers, is becoming more and more challenging as the year progresses. We have offered most of the compulsory courses, except for French (due to a lack of qualified teachers). And so now we are looking to provide engaging courses that will support a diverse group of learners. As with our observations in the quadmester model in the fall of this school year, student achievement seems to present as an inverse bell curve. A group of students are doing very well in the model, and a group of students are finding it very difficult.  The group in the middle is very small, but are likely meeting similar success to that achieved in face-to-face settings.

Moving Forward

Over the next while there will be decisions to be made regarding the 2021-2022 school year. It’s likely that a version of At-Home Learning will need to continue, and there will continue to be students for whom this model is preferred. What that will look like is still to be determined.  I look forward to our conversations, and to the creation of a new system.

Beginning a New Job

Terry Whitmell - first day of work

Today is the first day of my new job. As a teacher, this is only my second school board, so it’s been a long time since I was truly walking into a brand-new organization. And it is very different from my first day back in 1983.

  1. You need a lot more “stuff” to begin work in 2021, especially in a pandemic:
    • Email account
    • Internet access
    • Logins to all the various digital tools
    • Computer
    • Headset with microphone
    • Good lighting
    • Make-up to look good in a virtual meeting
  2. You need to get to know a lot more people:
    • In 1983 I only needed to know our office staff, my department head and Principal, a few colleagues in classrooms nearby, and my students. And all of them were in the same building as I, and were easy to get to know. I would never have any way to connect beyond my school, so my world was very small.
    • In 2021 I will need to know almost everyone in the organization, eventually, but all of them are “invisible” to me. I did meet three people in my interview, and have talked to a couple more on the phone, but I have yet to get to know anyone in person. This means that building trust is a more challenging task.
  3. With social media you can easily make “faux pas”!!
    • I was originally to begin work on Friday, so I thought over the weekend I could update my profiles in places like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Not a good idea! The organization hadn’t yet determined their communication plan for me, and my premature communication complicated theirs.  Not a good way to begin a new role!
    • I have had two years of freedom in my retirement, having only to be accountable to myself. Now I am returning to a “family”, and will need to be sensitive to the possible responses from all of my colleagues. When I first stepped into Twitter my audience were people who knew and trusted me, and this network has grown. Now there will be people meeting me for the first time, and they have the potential to learn a great deal about me just by “Googling”.
  4. It’s not as simple as “getting the keys”.
    • Information flows digitally through an organization in a clear sequence, with checks and balances at each point. So, having been signed on by HR, there are still many steps that might lead eventually to creation of email and network accounts. And if you don’t have them, you don’t have clearance to view any of the information you need for the role.
    • Computers are configured specifically for the role, and then they have to be transported.  Given the size of my new organization, and the snow day today, this could take some time. I might have to continue to struggle with Sharepoint until I get a new computer; it confused my university and school board accounts, and now there is a third organization.
    • And each person who will eventually be working with me has to receive explicit instructions to share with me. Since the communication of my appointment has yet to happen, they cannot proceed, much as they would love to hand off tasks as soon as possible.
  5. Your identity needs to be more explicitly communicated:
    • Am I Dr., Mrs. or Ms.?
    • Should I add “she/her” as my pronouns, to assist those who might interpret “Terry” as a male name.
    • How do I structure my email signature? What is my name in Zoom or MS Teams or Google Meet? 

So, I stand here in front of my rather empty desk.  I have both phone and virtual meetings scheduled this week, which I know will add to my comfort level and task list. But in the meantime I wait.  In 1983 I would have been thrown into the classroom, and not stopped until the last day of June.  Today’s been very different. Perhaps I should enjoy the calm?

 

Junior Kindergarten Online – Journal – Days 17, 18 and 19

Despite our best intentions, our plans to go “screen-free” lasted until late in the day on Wednesday. By then we had been busy all day, and we needed a break from each other. And we decided that Netflix as a reward was working, so our screen time on Thursday and Friday featured “Go Dog. Go”, on repeat.

Wednesday began at 4:30, with C awake and ready for breakfast, likely due to his dinner decisions the previous evening. It took about 45 minutes to convince him to return to bed, and he successfully added a couple of hours to his sleep time.

But he did awake hungry, and so our first activity of the day was to dig out an old waffle iron, mix up some batter, and cook breakfast. The first batch didn’t meet with his approval, as I did not spread the batter to the corners, and so he didn’t have the four square waffles he expected.  As the second batch was cooking we took breakfast-in-bed to Grandpa, and confirmed that we would have having another “screen-free” day.

While he ate, we created a calendar for the month of February, entering all the important dates, including his birthday in three weeks. He enthusiastically crossed off 1, 2 and 3, and then later in the day checked off 4 as well! C spent the morning playing with Lego and his vehicles, and then making sandwiches for lunch.

We had a beautiful, clear day, so the afternoon was spent exploring nearby ditches, sliding down the snow, and keeping out of the wind. C has no idea that I might not have the flexibility and stamina that he has, and so it was a great workout.

In the evening, before bath time, we headed outdoors to examine two things: the electricity meter on the outside of the house, and the amazing display of stars. C’s idea to then play hide-and-seek in the snow was only partially effective: the temperature made the snow quite crunchy, so it was difficult not to hear where anyone walked. He did like the anticipation of hearing my footsteps, getting slowly closer and closer to his hiding spot, and I could hear him giggling as I approached.

Thursday we tried going back to the Virtual Classroom, but it consisted entirely of links to books about groundhogs, and a short memory game with photos of groundhogs. This engaged him for less than 30 minutes, and he then had a meltdown when I wouldn’t allow him to head to his toy videos on YouTube.

He was much happier playing with scissors and a small paper cutter, creating tiny squares of card-stock and then gluing them all together.

Since he had already put an X under February 4, we only checked the calendar to confirm that it was still several weeks to his birthday, and to note that his uncle’s would be the next day.

Friday was a snowy day, and C requested pasta for breakfast. He is very good at cooking Kraft Dinner, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say “no”. But before that he needed to make two small video messages for his uncle’s birthday and for his parents, to say he loved them. Both were improvised songs, and he ended the second with a heart made with his hands. I know that they will love them!

Then, because of the snow, we then relaxed with more “Go Dog. Go”, while I checked my email and the weather. We are hoping to drive south with him this weekend, but it’s looking like both days will possibly include snow squalls. Today promises 15 cm, with more tomorrow, and we have a 400-foot driveway to clear.

With the blowing snow, C is not keen to go outside, and neither am I. He asked for me to make a stuffed heart, and we worked together at the sewing machine to make it, and then he stuffed it. I added buttons, to his design, and it is now ready for him to give to his mother for Valentine’s Day. We also shortened the sleeves on a bathrobe, and he ran the pedal while I controlled the sleeve in the machine. Unfortunately these activities took minutes, not hours, and so we need to plan another eight to ten activities to fill out the day!

Looking back on our four weeks together, I am not at all worried about C’s learning. I wish that there had been some sort of social connection, both with his teachers and with his peers. However, we have been working on positive social interaction in all that we do, as well as independent work and self-regulation.

So, does Kindergarten really matter? As a university student I worked for an artist who chose to keep her children out of school until the law demanded it. She explained that schools killed creativity, and she wanted her children to be free to play until the last possible moment. The four-year-old that I cared for that summer is now a magazine editor, obviously not damaged by her lack of Kindergarten. My husband never went to Kindergarten, and began grade one in a one-room schoolhouse. He had a long career as an engineer, graduating near the top of his class both in high school and university. I attended half-day Kindergarten when I was five-years-old, and the requirements were much less detailed than today’s curriculum:

From this report card you will see that printing wasn’t even assessed until the last term of senior kindergarten.  I only counted to 10. And there are some characteristics you have learned about C that I also shared at the same age.

Despite this rather unimpressive beginning to my education I excelled at school, and achieved well in my post-secondary programs. It’s perhaps not surprising that I studied music initially, nor that I ended up as a Principal. However, I am sure that this report card would be received with little enthusiasm by today’s parents. It might not be surprising as well to hear that I spent much of grade one with my desk at the end of the last row, facing the back of the room. Nor that in grade 7 I had a desk by the window, with hand-made “blinders” to keep me from talking with the others, who were in groups of four or five.

My home at C’s age had only one black-and-white television set, which received one station only. There was at most an hour of children’s programming each morning: The Friendly Giant, Chez Helene, and Mr. Dressup. We had a few books, but depended upon the library for most of our reading material. We owned a couple of children’s records, but I had to ask my parents to play them for me on the “hi-fi”. And most days we played unsupervised with the other children in the neighbourhood while our mothers did laundry with a wringer-washer, nursed our younger siblings, and prepared meals without a microwave or food processor.

The world that C inhabits is infinitely richer than I experienced as a child, and his school experience has demanded far more from him already than was asked of me at a much greater age.

I am not worried about his development. And I don’t think that other parents should either. Providing a secure, caring home is much more important. Our kids will learn. Our kids will grow. Despite us!

Junior Kindergarten Online – Journal – Day 16

Today was a “no screens” day. Except for a search for a bread recipe, a Cricut project, and “window shopping” for Lego for C’s upcoming 5th birthday, we kept all computers, tablets, and phones out of sight. Generally it went very well.

We observed a lot more singing, imaginative play, conversations with both of us, and much more movement. There were a few tears, but they soon extinguished and C was on to something else.

Breakfast was one huge pancake, with C’s secret ingredients of cinnamon and raisins added. It was intended to be a normal pancake, but the raisins didn’t cooperate when exiting the bowl, and the entire batch found itself in the cast-iron frypan. C generously cut me wedges of the pancake, and we shared most of it, then put the remainder in the fridge for later.

A trip to the “attic” revealed some new-to-us games, including two small paddles and a birdie. Since this wasn’t going to be a safe indoor activity, we headed out into the wind and sun. C figured out how to toss the birdie, and occasionally hit it with the paddle. The sound it made was a strong reinforcement, and he persisted with the activity a lot longer than I expected.

Back inside we began the process of bread-making, with tasting the dough several times, and kneading his own small piece before returning it to the bowl. Unfortunately he acquired a taste for the dough, and secretly tasted some more later in the morning, as the loaves were rising just prior to going into the oven. (I noticed that the towel covering the loaves was askew, and he rather sheepishly said that he “was hungry”.) The result was one beautifully-shaped loaf, and one that was rather lumpy and lumpy, due to the pokes and pulls.

We made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, with C helping to spread butter, and separate the cheese slices. We insisted that our meal take place at the table, and except for the bright sun making C “hot”, it was a pleasant lunch.

Our Cricut project was inspired by our baking: the labels on our measuring cups and measuring spoons were almost illegible, and so we designed and cut new vinyl labels. C was able to put the spoons in order, but was upset that 1/8 tsp was the smallest, even though it had the largest number. I think that the concept of fractions is going to need a bit more work!

Then the Lego shopping took much of the afternoon. C is very concerned about the recommended ages on the various Lego sets, interested in the number of pieces, and not-at-all concerned about the price. I, however, am sensitive to price, and so it took quite a while to come to an agreement about which sets would have the best play value for the price. He understands that online ordering means that we have to wait, and seemed quite excited when I said that his birthday would be in three weeks. We haven’t converted that to days, but I’m sure that is coming.

It is likely that we will not be with him for his birthday at the end of the month, as we will be returning him home this weekend, so that he can (hopefully) return to school in person. So I will do curb-side pickup when we take him home, and ensure that his gifts are safely stored with his parents until that day. This deferred gratification will be a challenging exercise for him, but one that I hope will pay off.

We will be having dinner at the table tonight, without our usual video or movie to watch. I’m hoping that our conversation will continue through dinner. With a bedtime of 8:00 there is still a great deal of time for play and stories. And now that my tiling is done, C can enjoy playtime in the tub as well.

Junior Kindergarten Online – Journal – Day 5

C awoke eager to make robot cookies this morning, so before we even arrived at school we had mixed sugar cookie dough, and cut out cookies to bake. C is getting very good at levelling cups of flour, though not so careful with the stirring yet. He is also very ambitious with his cookie cutting, creating a robot that was a huge challenge to transfer to the baking sheet.

It took a bit of nagging to get him to log in, and he initially refused to put up his name card for attendance.  We did hear the teacher say hello to him, so we know that they saw him.  However, as we moved into the morning’s physical activity he turned both camera and microphone off. They then asked them to put up their name cards again, so he turned his camera on and chose yesterday’s card to reuse, because it was “Bumblebee in Disguise” (which he continued to sing throughout the attendance process.)

The cookies were baking as we headed to class, so he was able to share his first “man”, and then eat it as the teachers struggled to get today’s art gallery presentation to show. We could hear the presentation in the background, as one teacher coached the others to “share this tab”, and it wasn’t working. They finally decided that the other teacher should give it a try. When it finally worked, we could see the presentation, and the audio was “jittery”, but at least they could see it!

C had eaten his entire cookie, and was enjoying a juice box.  Not the healthiest breakfast (he had a yogourt before we baked), but at least he was smiling.  

He was able to identify that the image was a sculpture, but did not attend to the questions as the image remained on the screen for several minutes. When the response to one of her questions was that it looked like a “god” she then asked what they saw that made it look holy.  I know that C had no idea what she was talking about. The focus today was on art from Africa and the diaspora, and the curator talked about the Yoruba culture. She connected it to farming, but did not situate her work with a map, nor with any text, and she did not mention Nigeria at all. At 10 minutes we were still looking at the single image of the mask, and there had been no other visual support for what she was presenting. C was now using the straw from his juice box to blow bubbles of apple juice across his desk. We persisted, since it had been the art gallery presentation on Tuesday that had inspired C to draw. At 14 minutes it was still the picture of the mask, and she was talking about its size.  Without any reference within the picture, I’m sure our kids had no idea how large it was. At 16 minutes the image changed to “Wellness Activity” text, white on black, while she talked about festivals, and asked them to think about a festival that they had gone to. There were other classes contributing to her Q&A chat, so she repeated some of the names…. but it still said “Wellness Activity” on the screen.  I wonder if early readers were puzzled by this. From what the curator was saying, I’m pretty sure that it was the teachers participating, not any students directly in the chat. At 19 minutes she shared a contemporary sculpture made from shoes, which C saw as a robot, though it was entitled “Mother and Child” (which was confirmed in the descriptive text next to the image.) By this time C’s juice box had been compressed, and was being used as the target for his wrecking ball fist. At 25 minutes it was clear that several students were struggling, with one being reminded to stop playing with her microphone, and to keep it off.

Had this been a presentation in one of my secondary school classes, I would have suggested more visuals, supportive text for key ideas, and a quicker pace than two images in 30 minutes.  It is clear that the art gallery staff are not trained teachers, and have not read “Learning for All“, or any of our curriculum documents (Kindergarten). 

At 30 minutes she shifted to “Mini art activity” on the screen, and described what she was doing, but never shared herself to show us what she was doing. When someone added to the chat that we couldn’t see, she finally stopped her screen share, and showed us her drawing for about one second. Seeing her face was very welcome, though the two bright pot lights either side of her face put her in shadow. And then it was over…. without any clear direction for the students to follow.

Back with the class they began their opening ceremonies, with a great deal of negotiation between the teachers. C was entirely disengaged by this time, playing with his transformer Bumblebee at the side. He refused to turn his camera off, which I did not challenge, as his activity might be useful feedback to his teachers. It was interesting today that C chose to try to read along with his classmate as she read the land acknowledgement. And then the teachers spoke about C being “up north” where there would be a different land acknowledgement. This is our homework for the weekend, to share at the next class.

They also asked C to stay online after the national anthem, to talk about the pictures that we posted earlier in the week.  The national anthem was only audio today, and the students were reminded at the end that they needed to stand and not play during it. C found the interaction with the teachers difficult, and he didn’t take turns well during the interaction. I think that talking about the activity from four days ago might have been one of the factors, as was the tiny image on the screen with the full grid of his classmates as distractions. And, of course, Bumblebee continued to be a draw for his attention. Looking at the screen, and seeing the empty rooms, tops of heads, and students obviously singing and talking, I’m not sure that anyone was truly listening.

The next activity (they had now been sitting still for 75 minutes), was a scavenger hunt, where they would be able to get up and move. I redirected C’s attention to the screen. The first task was to find something with the colour yellow, so guess what he held up to share? The teacher called on each student in turn. The teacher described what each student was holding, but C and I were only seeing their initials, not their faces, so it really wasn’t helpful to reinforce the concept of “yellow”. C was the last to be called on, and it took almost 15 minutes to get through this first cycle of the scavenger hunt. They were very attentive to ensure that they didn’t miss anyone.  The next was something that smelled nice, so he shared cinnamon and his robot cookie.  Next was something smaller than his hand, and so a piece of lego was his choice. When they asked for something with numbers, C immediately said “measuring tape”, and we had to go up two flights of stairs to get one for him. He was very excited to then make the tape go as high as he could.  The teachers continued to struggle with their layout, with one only seeing the initials, not their cameras. The next task was to find something in his favourite colour, and since he had his Lego firetruck beside him, and red is his favourite colour, that was his choice.  Today was “wear your favourite colour day”, so his T-shirt was also red. And next was “something that keeps you warm”, and he headed immediately for his blanket from his bed.  By now his desk was getting very cluttered with the cinnamon, firetruck, Bumblebee and cookie, so his blanket created a bit of a disaster! Then, find something that begins with the same letter as your first name. This one was a challenge for C, but he was able to find something that was also a good snack! The last one was something that starts with “B”, and so guess what he shared… again.

They had now been attending for 95 minutes without a break; longer than I would even ask of my grad students! And the teachers hadn’t had a break either, not even a few seconds off camera.

And then, finally, break time. They were invited to go and explore the virtual classroom (though this instruction was difficult to hear as C and his classmates all had their microphones on) for the asynchronous time.  They were also directed to a new Jamboard, but with the delays in Google Meet (seems to be a universal problem over the past couple of days), the teachers were finding it difficult to share to model the activity. The students were then invited to choose a sticky, and post a message to cheer up everyone else.  The teachers would like them to do it “on their own”, so we decided to try this later, when C might have more attention to give (than he had now, 100 minutes into this class, as he was “zapping” his Lego firetruck, and removing parts.) These directions took some time, so the break time remaining was only  48 minutes to eat and explore. I was surprised that C was unhappy that we were leaving the meeting, saying “I love my teachers”. I guess that observable behaviour doesn’t always align with how a child is feeling!


It was wonderful spending more than an hour outside. C chose to “earthquake” his igloo, built on Monday. Then we headed to the pond to slide down the hill and explore the characteristics of snow, bark, and “snow fleas”, more properly named “springtails”. The latter were found in our footprints from earlier this week, and likely came to the surface during our recent above-freezing days. There was plenty of singing of improvised songs, lots of kicking and digging, and even grandma got more exercise than usual.


Back  in the house we put all our wet clothes in the dryer, and C assisted me to begin sorting my quilting fabric.  He arranged my six boxes in rainbow order (identifying the last as indigo), and then rushed around to find other containers for black, white, rainbow, brown, pink and “uncategorizable” fabrics. Then we cooked Mac and Cheese, and C relaxed to watch “Justin Time” while he ate. This adventure show incorporates geography and history, and introduces C to new vocabulary that then shows up in his conversations with us.

I took some time to review the content from this week’s Google Classroom and the Virtual Classroom (Bitmoji).  As of 2:15 there was still nothing more in the Stream than the Jamboard that they shared this morning, so I was not sure when they would be reconvening for the end of day (I assume 3:00), nor what activity was planned.

Instead we visited the Jamboard, and read the messages already there from six of his classmates.  Then we decided to add an image, so he drew a happy face, sounded out and wrote the word “SMILE”, and added his name. Using the “image” function we were able to take a picture of his artwork and his own smiling face, and add it to the Jamboard. 

Then he returned watching more Justin Time, eating more Mac and Cheese, and gave me time to reflect on the day.


I am impressed that he stayed nearby for almost two hours of online activity. By not pushing him (except when he was asked to speak to the class about his igloo building) he seemed more willing to return occasionally, and engage in the activity. He was more connected during the Scavenger Hunt, less so when they were sharing, and not at all when there was nothing for him to do but listen.

I am wondering how much direct instruction would have taken place when he was attending in person with his JK/SK class. I suspect that it was much less than we experienced today. I also suspect that his teachers did much more 1:1 interaction; they are currently doing almost none. Maybe they could use their tools to have students interact directly with them individually for 5 or 10 minutes, a couple of times a week.  I think that building that relationship, checking in personally, and supporting turn-taking in conversation, would go a long way to supporting engagement when they are back in the full-class, online setting.

So, now it’s the weekend.  We’ll continue to do creative activities, get outside a lot, and enjoy video resources together. And I hope that C will be happy to return on Monday, to see the faces of all his friends, and begin to develop some self-regulation and participate more fully.

I wish his teachers a relaxing two days, and a fruitful Professional Learning day on Monday. I hope that they are inspired to consider planning for more activities that are chunked within shorter timeframes, and which allow for direct communication with each of the students. I’m sure that they end their days exhausted, and feeling that they haven’t really connected. I’ll continue to reflect too, and consider how I might help from home, to connect C to his teachers and his classmates.

Happy Friday!