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.

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 25

Day 25 was Friday, and Monday is World Teachers’ Day, so I have waited until Sunday to post this blog.  I have been recognizing World Teachers’ Day in many ways over the past couple of decades, but this year has me stymied.

How do we recognize how challenging this past year has been for our teachers? How their relationships with their classes were challenged when they pivoted to Emergency Distance Learning in March? How they rose to the challenge, keeping their students connected and learning? How they worked with their schools to bring computer hardware, connectivity, and support to families? How they had to learn an entirely new skillset, in order to continue as teachers?

In one of my previous roles I was responsible for supporting the use of Instructional Technology in our school district. When we considered the possible use of LCD projectors in classrooms we planned a 5-year process of pilots, assessments, and then staged implementation.  But this past March we compressed that entire process into a couple of weeks, and implemented across the entire system an entirely new means of instruction.  It wasn’t just the hardware that changed, but everything we know about F2F instruction had to be modified and augmented to meet the needs of our new reality.

Taking attendance? How to you record that a student was late because their Internet connection dropped? What if a student doesn’t actually own a webcam, and you’re only able to hear their voice? What if they have to share a computer, and so they might have to log in, find out what to work on, and then hand back the computer to let Mom or Dad attend a crucial meeting at their work?

Access to resources, while richer due to the Internet, is limited by copyright.  All those textbooks are still sitting on the shelves in classrooms, inaccessible by students.  Copyright laws permit reproduction of up to 10% of a text, or a single chapter, so teachers are having to choose carefully which resources they may use with their classes. Teachers are doing their best to share, but all resources require editing and clear presentation, in order to match the reading level needs of their students.

Interaction is limited by the platform.  While Zoom has been most prominent in the news, it is not permitted for use in our classes.  Instead teachers are having to learn how to function with MS Teams and Google Meet, both of which are structured for large group meetings, not group or independent work. Cooperative and collaborative learning is a challenge within a tool that is structured more for a single meet chair or instructor, with the rest of the participants limited to the use of “chat” to interact.

Organization of class materials requires significant writing and uploading on the part of our teachers.  In the past one might write on the blackboard or overhead projector, or prepare a PowerPoint presentation.. Now there must be a file uploaded, and in most cases it needs to be in a PDF format, requiring additional steps. While video has become a key component in our F2F classrooms, teachers are now limited by bandwidth, knowing that many of their students won’t be able to stream without lagging.

And building community has been a challenge.  Much of the time our students have their webcams and microphones off, so when we speak it is into a “void” of silence.  No nodding heads. No excited chatter.  And creating opportunities for students to interact with each other is a complex and time-consuming activity. 

And added to this is the anxiety related to the safety of our students.  We can no longer listen for signs of bullying.  We can’t see if our students appear tired or stressed. We can’t whisper in their ear, and ask if they are “OK”.

Despite all of this, our teachers are doing an amazing job.  They are juggling the demands of curriculum against the need to support the mental health of their students. They are working in isolation, and then reaching out to support each other through subject- and course-based networks. Social media is connecting teachers, and shared drives are allowing them to divide up the work, and reduce their load.

I am excited to hear what our teachers have learned through this process.  Will they adopt a hybrid approach, integrating more media and technology tools into their teaching? Will they choose to work online, having developed strong skills that support learning by students who need to work remotely? Will our models of “school” finally shift from desks in rows?

Tomorrow, please take a moment to recognize the extraordinary efforts of our teachers over the past seven months. And please continue to support them as we face the challenges of the months ahead.

Happy World Teachers’ Day!

School Online – Journal – Day 16

Today was the first day of school for our students. As they were online, we really don’t have a good idea of how many showed up.  Since our student information system hasn’t yet been modified for our schedule, we have only paper records with each teacher. So I think they showed up, but I have no data.

I do know a significant number of our teachers began the day without timetables, and will only now have the information available to connect with their students. And their students will have been waiting at home for their teachers to reach out. I hope that has happened.

Our teachers have the choice of Brightspace or Google Classroom, and MS Teams or Google Meet. Many will have had little experience with either, so I would imagine today has been very stressful for them.  Their Brightspace shells are generated each night from our student information system, so they would not have been available today as we matched teachers to classes. Some will have accessed class lists, contacted students by email, and met them online. Others will have found themselves without the necessary information to do so.

Tomorrow will go smoother, as will each day from now on.

Our work will then shift to our families, and addressing timetables that don’t match choices.  We are also going to learn a great deal about “fit” between students, teachers, and technology.

Behind the scenes our team is calling occasional teachers, offering them positions, and then completing the paperwork to have them signed on.  All this has to happen before they can be added to the student information system and be assigned classes.

So what did I do as a Principal? Lots of emails. From 5:00 a.m. this morning, until I signed off at 6:30, with a two-hour break in the middle to teach. The teaching was fun; helping a new friend learn how to sew with a sewing machine.  And the return to a chair, not so much fun.

One challenge for us, responding to questions, is that our class records are under the name of the original teacher, while classes may be instructed by a long-term occasional teacher. We must match the teacher on leave with the LTO teacher, in order to provide our LTO teachers with course and student records.

Our teachers are all working from home, so we are limited to phone and email communication. It’s never as easy problem-solving when we can’t meet face-to-face. And I can only imagine their frustration waiting a response that could have been almost four hours in some cases today.

I never did get to and “empty inbox” between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., but in the final half hour I did it! I then put an “out of office” message on, promising to respond in the morning, and enjoyed a meal, an episode of “Maigret”, and hopefully a soak in our hot-tub after I finish writing this.

I know that we have wonderful teachers, and they are doing their very best.   I hope they find joy in their classes, knowing that they are creating a brand-new world for their students. And I hope that I can ease their way on this journey.

Tomorrow I will be up bright and early, hoping to allay concerns and support our teachers.  I could not have imagined the school we have, when I began teaching in 1983. Had we a pandemic then our students would be alone at home, with only mailed packages and a phone as our tools.  Now we have the Internet, multimedia tools, and the ability to bring a class of 31 together online to interact.  What a world!

School Online – Journal – Day 6

Well it’s almost bed time for me, and I’m having to think hard to remember what my day looked like today. It started out slow, and then ended like a freight train!

As I mentioned earlier, our teachers don’t yet know what they will be teaching next week. So, a survey was designed to be sent out to our more than 400 secondary teachers, to request their input as we begin to assign teachers to classes.

Since we are a new school there are no distribution lists. So, I hand-keyed all the names, and hoped that our Outlook email system would find them accurately.  It did, for the most part, but there remain about 20 teachers whose names on our list don’t quite match their email names, and so they won’t have received the request to complete the survey.

It took me a couple of hours to copy and paste both the subject line and body text, and then to BCC each person. When it was done I breathed a sign of relief…. until I received the “gentle” email pointing out that I had identified this year as 2020-2012!  I must have copied that at least  10 times without noticing.

All I could do was laugh!

The survey will be due at the end of the day tomorrow, and then I’ll work with the resulting spreadsheet to create lists for each of the courses we offer, so that we can do our best to match requests to available classes.

That matching will take place on Saturday (no choice but to work the weekend), so that we can get the information out to teachers.  Fortunately the plan is to begin teaching on Wednesday, so they’ll have a bit of breathing space at the beginning of the week to plan, and to reach out to their students.

In my last post I talked about the challenges I anticipate. The one that is preoccupying me is how we create community for our teachers, so that they don’t feel isolated as they embark on a full year of distance learning.

I find that I do my best thinking in the middle of the night. So, it’s off to bed.

I hope your “school start” is going well, or at least as well as it can in these unique times.