This weekend I responded to a call from colleagues to sign an online petition, about an issue that had been on my mind for a long time. I felt confident sharing my position on the issue, but wasn’t happy with the outcome of my action.
My “signature” generated emails to a number of people, many of whom hold positions of influence, but who are not directly able to take action on the issue. I didn’t know how broadly my “spam” emails had travelled until I began receiving responses from several people I greatly respect.
I am so embarrassed that I filled their inboxes on a weekend, and expressed my position to them via email.
Despite the fall-out from this campaign, I still respect the organization that requested my “signature”, and the colleagues whose tweets had inspired me to sign.
However, I would have preferred the option of composing individual emails to each person. And I would not have timed them to interrupt the necessary rest time on the weekend.
What have I learned? I am certainly going to be much more hesitant about signing any online petitions. And I am going to have to think more seriously about those issues that mean the most to me.
I am also going to much more sympathetic to my colleagues, who may find themselves with a much more public profile than they anticipated, due to this campaign.
Having taken a stand, I now feel compelled to become part of the solution. I cannot speak out, and then not follow through. I own my words.
So, I now must give thought to possible solutions. Stay tuned for my next blog post!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.