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!

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 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 -Day 22

Teaching Synchronously:

On August 13 of his year, the Ontario Ministry of Education released Policy/Program Memorandum No. 164, referred to by the short form: PPM 164. It defines “remote”, “synchronous” and “asynchronous” learning.  And it addresses seven areas:

  1. minimum requirements for engaging students during remote learning
  2. minimum requirements for synchronous learning
  3. process for exemption from synchronous learning
  4. protocols for delivering remote learning
  5. access to remote learning devices – such as laptops or tablets – and the Internet
  6. standardized suite of synchronous learning platforms
  7. cyber security, privacy, and online safety

It requires synchronous learning any time a student is at home more than three days in a week, and specifies the length of time that teachers should be providing synchronous instruction:

Secondary Grades 9 to 12 The higher of 60 minutes for each 75-minute class period** or 225 minutes per day for a full course schedule

And it specifies that “synchronous learning platforms should include live video, audio, and chat features and be fully accessible”.

While many of our teachers who were teaching in the spring have developed facility with our synchronous learning platforms, Brightspace or Google Classroom with MS Teams or Google Meet, many of our long-term occasional and short-term occasional teachers have not. Most found themselves unemployed during the shutdown. So they are beginning this school year with workplace demands that they have had neither training for, nor experience with.

Having accepted a position they are now working from home, without the support of “the teacher in the next classroom”, and are struggling. There is an option to have them work from a local school, but there are few spaces available as we spread out our students in our “bricks and mortar” schools.

Our challenge now is to ensure that they are supported, and that they don’t become overwhelmed. I have begun this by connecting each teacher with others who teach the same course. I have shared our Empowering Modern Learning resources, created by our central staff. And I am now brainstorming ways in which will be able to provide professional learning opportunities that will work for our teachers, within the intense, draining workday they are experiencing.

If you are one of our online teachers, and have any suggestions for how we might provide this professional learning, please connect with us and share your ideas. You are working differently, and so must we.

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.