Whether you are in full-blown remote learning, a hybrid, or back in the classroom, remote learning is still fully on your mind. You might be back, but there is no telling if you will have to go remote again. The one thing we have learned from COVD is it's unforgiving and there is no telling when it will strike.
The key to being ready is being able to transition quickly, and here are a couple of tips that I learned over many years to make that happen.
Personally, I would rather build my own site, but that’s too much to ask of any teacher. It’s especially too much when you consider there are so many good options for an LMS out there in today’s education world. There are great paid services like Schoology and Canvas, and then there are services that come with systems you already have like Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. There are even ones that aren’t as popular anymore but will get the job done because they have loads of experience like Blackboard and Edmodo.
The key with an LMS is that it gives the kids a place to go if they are stuck, can’t find something, or just don’t know what to do. It’s something that is beneficial no matter if they are at home or at school, and it takes away a good deal of stress on the teacher. If a kid can’t find something, it gives you a place to send them. It takes away some of the stress associated with organization because it is always there. It also makes personalization a whole lot easier because it’s just a matter of organizing links rather than printing off hundreds of copies.
My own kid’s district is a perfect example of this. They built there own LMS (see my blog from last week on that discussion), and it integrates directly with Zoom. It’s built-in a class by class format with tiles to ensure that middle school and high school classes can shift from class to class. The issue is that they are trying to make elementary do the same thing, and it’s causes confusion.
Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to switch class at the elementary level. They have to do it for specials, but I really don’t understand why they need to do it for the different subject areas that their teacher of record teaches during the day. Yes, they make those shifts in person, but when you do it with technology, it’s more clicks. It means kids have gotten lost, it’s harder to find resources, and it’s actually tough on the teacher because they are managing multiple Zoom’s. If they had gone in with the designer mindset, this system would have worked much better.
Personally, I prefer to see two formats. I love formats that are in tiles. I think that image-based organization gives kids the visual representation that some of them need, and it also limits the instincts to post a good deal of text which can muddy a class online space quickly. Two good places to start are Symbaloo and Wakelet. Both have HTML embed codes which means you can put them almost anywhere.
The other way IO like to see is categorized lists and bullets. It’s a bit more visually appealing and it means that students can find the right topic rather than just sorting through a giant list of assignments. You can either go about this with a text editor or if your in something like Google Classroom you can use topics. Just think, if you use this space long term will kids be able to find stuff at the end?
Typically, when I use a shortener, I use bit.ly. I think bit.ly just has an easy format that takes me only a couple of extra seconds to do, and if you want to get really crazy you can even customize the address. I think customizing the wording after the \ makes it even easier on people, and I try to keep it lower case since this is case sensitive. This becomes especially handy with long URL’s like Google Docs and Forms.
I think it’s time that teachers realize that not every household is going to use the same accounts and devices that the school does or wants to be used. I think there is a raging debate in this realm between the Google Office Suite and the Microsoft Office Suite with Apple stuff thrown in, and teachers really need to accommodate for all of them. The safest way to do that is through PDF’s.
I have seen this first hand with my own kids. My kid’s district is a Microsoft district, and there have been several teachers who have said they won’t even accept Google formatting. I find this puzzling considering, they have still done the assignment. It’s a good learning experience for my kids because I can help them convert and work in both, but I worry about parents who may not have the experience I have. Their kids may be tied to a device, and formatting that works best on that should never be an issue.
It’s why PDFs are always safe. All three of the Office suites can open PDF’s, and there are plenty of PDF editors out there that can make this work. Kami is a real good one. I also think PDF’s give the best-formatted version to print if needed. It gives kids the most options.
Week 2 of Virtual Learning, and I have noticed one piece of advice I can give every school or district dealing with virtual learning. It’s also actually a piece of advice for every district in general. I think every district should adopt a Learning Management System, and that’s coming from a guy who did not like the design restrictions they put on me.
This all stems from my own kid’s district (I won’t name names.) It’s a Microsoft district, but instead of adopting Teams as their virtual platform, they decided to do some weird hybrid that looks like teams. I just don’t understand the thought process there. Microsoft, Google, Canvas, Schoology, and others are all optimized to handle the traffic that comes with every kid logging on (I know Canvas crashed, but’s rare.) This district site is not even close to being optimized for that, and guess what’s happening? It’s consistently crashing, and it’s really not fair to their teachers.
To make virtual learning work, schools have to have some way to organize assignments, add video calls, and communicate. That’s what an LMS is in a nut-shell (the video call part is still coming.) The whole key is to have that central place that students can go to if they don’t know what they need to do or need to get to work on something asynchronous. It’s a place that centers them, and that need has been there for a long time. It still amazes me that some districts haven’t adopted this on a wide scale. Teachers need time to get acclimated, trained, and it’s just easier to support if everyone is on the same page.
Now an LMS does cost. It might be part of the bigger package you already have (like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom), or it might be something a bit more like Canvas or Schoology. At this point though, I think that cost may be one of the most justified in a school or district. It’s not just about virtual learning either.
That ability to put things down and pick things up easily gives you the ability to bring class anywhere and add almost anything to a class. If there isn’t an LMS, you depend on kid’s organization skills to make things work. You also end up in the copy room way too often if you want to personalize and differentiate for every student. It’s almost impossible to do that with paper, and that’s what every kid really deserves.
Yes, education is changing. It’s becoming more digital, but it’s also moving away from the one size all approach and moving to a better approach of personalization. An LMS can be that daily driver, but I hope all districts learn from the one my kids are in. Leave it to the Professionals! You will end up wasting more money on the one you are trying to create, it won’t handle the traffic you need, and it has fewer resources. Hopefully, this experience will let them learn.
My kids started virtual learning this week, and I just wanted to write a simple blog to tell you it will be ok. Kids will get it. Is it better than in person learning? You already know the answer to that, but kids will get it. Teachers will get it. Teachers are one of the most adaptive groups in the county, and I am already seeing that in each and every one of my kids teachers.
We have to remember that when teachers started remote learning in March they only had a day or two to get ready. While I know some teachers can make the transition easily (I am almost positive I could before I left the classroom), the reality is that most weren’t ready. It’s also an especially hard transition for those that teacher younger students because they did not even have infrastructure to make it happen. March was just a hard time for everyone involved.
In the two days I have seen virtual learning, many of the major issues from the Spring are getting solved. Before this fall, most schools had their own version of an LMS, and often the elementary schools just relied on teacher blogs. It caused a bit of confusion and it also left organization of online content up to the teachers. For some, that works, but for most they need a structure to follow. Leaving out that structure means student work is unorganized and hard for a parent to really figure out what they need to do. The district I am in fixed that problem by having a central place for everyone and giving the teachers a format. Teachers could then add other communication channels to communicate when a platform was down. While it wasn’t perfect on the first day, it worked.
I have also seen a bigger influence of video conferencing this time around. Teachers are getting it and they are starting to use it to their advantage. For my middle school girls, I am fortunate that they can do a bit of self guided work and be ok. That isn’t the case with my 2nd grade son. He needs interaction, and I have loved that his teacher has scheduled class times with him. Were their tech issues? Yes, but the teachers was incredibly patient with working through them. By having this video conference time, it allowed him to see his friends, but it also allowed him to ask questions. Their was no disseminating through a parent view.
I also noticed that this setup isn’t perfect, but for the time it’s going to work. Students will get into the procedures as hey get deeper into the year. Take my second grader as an example. He needs hand holding, but as we got into the second day the only real help we had to give him was getting logged on. Did he ask us questions because we were there? Yes, but it’s because we were. If we weren’t he could have easily asked his teacher those questions.
I know I am lucky in that both my wife and my job make remote learning possible (I work from home, and since I am not traveling I am here), but I also think we are in an age where in person school is just not safe at the moment. I live in metro Atlanta, and our community spread numbers aren’t great. I don’t want to see us go back, and give COVID-19 to a teacher whose body just can’t handle it, and the logistics here are also just a nightmare.
I want school to come back just as much as the next person, but until everyone does their part, we are going to be stuck in this vicious loop. It’s hard, but it’s what we have to fight right now.
I see the panic. My kids are going back in a remote learning format for the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the panic is real across all of my social media feeds. Parents are worried how they are going to handle this with their kids, but hopefully, this blog will give you a few tips to make it work. Every situation is different, but there can be a couple of lines to simplify the process. Consider this the essential tips to survive virtual learning.
Tip 1: Accept It
Think of any of the programs where you can get over an issue. What is often the first step? It’s to accept it. That’s going to be the key to remote learning. It’s going to happen, and once you accept it as a parent you can start getting into parent mode figuring out what you are going to do.
If you're struggling to accept it, just remember one thing: schools and districts are making that call because they want to protect their staff and students. There is not a school or district in the country that wants to go back to remote only, but because of the COVID-19 spread in their area, that’s what they feel like they have to do. That protection intent is what we want schools to do, so while it is tough on you as a parent, you can’t know the intent. Remembering that should help with acceptance.
Acceptance is such a key component of making this work because if you don’t, your children see that. If you show anger and hate to remote learning, they see that as being acceptable and they can use it as an excuse in their own remote interactions. You don’t want that.
Remote Learning isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing. It can at least give your kids some purpose at home, and I imagine everyone wants that based on seeing their kids home from the summer.
Tip 2: Don’t Blame Teachers
This seems pretty straight forward, but it’s definitely something to watch out for. Teachers did not ask for this. They want to see your kids. Teachers are people who thrive with personal relationships, and keeping them home prevents that. This is incredibly hard on them too.
If remote learning is failing in your school or district, it’s a failure of school and district leadership. It’s possible to have a great remote learning structure, but if teachers aren’t trained for it, it makes that a moot point. This is the point where those leaders have to step up and get the teachers what they need, and hopefully now that they have had some time, they have done just that.
It’s what makes me hopeful for the fall. I think remote learning will be much better. Schools and Districts have had all summer to plan for the possibilities not two days. They should be much better prepared.
Tip 3: Organize
The key with approaching a digital curriculum is organization. You want kids to be able to find where they are going easily while starting in one central place. I did not see that with my own children’s teachers in the spring, but I am hopeful that we will see it with more planning in the fall. It does not mean you can’t do it as a parent though.
As a parent, the key here is going to be to decipher and organize what kids have to do. If the school is not giving you a great format for that there are a multitude of ways both digital and analog that you can hack a system into place. Here are just a few:
Tip 4: Get Cheap Devices
If your kids go to a school where they are given a device, you are lucky. In fact, you're really lucky in this environment. One of the biggest struggles in remote learning is having a device for every student in your house. You want them all to succeed and if they have to share the device that becomes way more complicated.
While this won’t work for everyone (there will still be some who will need to depend on the district for this), you can easily get a cheap Chromebook that will work perfectly for remote learning. Chromebooks as a whole start in the $200 range, but one place that might get you even further is eBay. There are under $100 used Chromebooks there, and that can fulfill the need.
Tip 5: Work on your network
Let’s look at the reality of the situation. The pandemic made it perfectly clear that broadband is as important as a utility as things like water and electricity, and with the pandemic continuing, it means you need to invest in your home network.
I have done two things at my house to help with that. 1) I bought an ethernet cable and ran it to a place that makes my house network a bit wider. I have AT&T internet and just by running cable in my basement to the other side of the house has doubled my internet speed. 2) I built a mesh network where several internet extenders are extending my speed.
Why is all that important? I could have as many as 5 people on Zoom calls at the same time in the fall. Without a strong network, we might not be able to make that work.
Now, I know there are plenty of folks out there who can’t afford to do that. If that’s the case working on your network becomes a matter of finding places near your house that have an internet connection. If you have to go that route, think of EVERYWHERE. Your kids should be able to get on the school network if it’s close, but there are plenty of other places with strong internet connections. Places like libraries, coffee shops, fast-casual dining
restaurants, and more all have internet connections. It’s not great, but there are ways to make it work in most locales.
6) Make your own learning schedule
Yes, schools are going to have prescribed schedules, but it does not mean you have to follow it. Most teachers aren’t going to focus on the timing part because they will just be happy if kids are learning. Teachers want you to do what’s best for kids, so don’t feel bad if you have to tweak their schedule.
The thing that makes this tough is that parents also have to work at the same time, and many of us are working from home. We may have to work the kid’s schedule around ours, and that’s ok. You also may have a kid like my son (the type that bounces off every wall in a room), and they need breaks. If that’s the case take them.
Just remember throughout that it’s ok to be the parent and do what’s best for your kid. Everyone knows things are difficult, and they will adapt as needed.
7) Focus on Learning Not a Number
This one is really important, but it’s really hard to remember. For so long, we have seen getting a grade as the way to achieve in school, but often that grade does not measure learning. It has things like effort grades and check-offs in there that just measure effort, and it has assessments that are poorly written where they don’t tell you much about what a student knows.
This idea increases exponentially with remote learning. Many parents see that number as the only way to motivate their students, and they focus on that. What’s easy to forget though is the inequalities in education are exponentially increased by remote learning. Judging kids by a number is just much harder to do.
As a parent, it means we need to have other gates that kids cross. Maybe you just get there with a discussion centered on what they learned. Maybe you make them create a project showing what they know. It’s really about a mindset, and it will take the pressure off both the kids and yourself as a parent if you focus on the learning not the number.
8) Get Creative with Connections
Just cause schools not in, doesn’t necessarily mean kids can’t connect. I know for many balancing work and kids school is going to be very tough, and that’s where you have to move to what parents do best: get creative.
No one is preventing you from getting kids together in small study groups where they can get that connection and keep a low risk of COVID. Those kids could even meet outside. It could become one of those things where you take the kids one day and the other parent takes them the next to allow better work balance. You could even do this virtually if COVID is really bad in your area.
I would also look at organizations like the YMCA for opportunities and programs for your kids. They realize that some people just don’t have a choice and they will do the best they can to create small enough groups where the risk of COVID is less.
It’s all about being the best parent you can, and this is the time to make that creativity happen.
9) Be PATIENT
Remote learning is new to everyone. It’s new for most teachers (Yes, there are virtual schools), parents, and kids. You have to be patient with the process or you’re going to drive yourself (and as a result your kids) nuts.
The thing to remember through all of it is that it is not ideal, but it’s also what you make of it. We are all in this together in this weird time, and patience is going to be the virtue we all have to live by. Teachers won’t do it perfectly, you won’t do it perfectly, and neither will your kids. Give everyone that space to make mistakes and this will go much better than you think.
So, I just got the decision of what school looks like for my kids as they come back to school in the fall, and it’s really missing something. The district that they are in has told parents that kids can either return as normal with social distancing practices in the fall or go all virtual. The worst part of it though is that we as parents have to make that decision by July 10. There is no middle ground. There is no hybrid approach. With where we are with this virus, how can we really make an informed decision?
I have so many things to consider here. To start, I am working with two different age groups that have two different needs. I have a son who will be going into second grade, but
I also have two daughters in middle school. I am not going to lie and say virtual learning for my son was easy. He is one of those little boys who typically bounces off every wall in a room, and his teachers have always been able to get more out of him academically than my wife and I have when trying to do things at home. He needs school. He needs that structured environment, but what will that even look like? Is requiring 2nd graders to wear a mask, sit in the same seat all day long, and not do anything collaboratively even effective? If he is just going to just sit at his desk all day and do worksheets, I think it may be more effective to keep him here, but it really is an impossible choice.
For my middle school girls, I think in-person instruction is important, but I think they can still get effective instruction in a digital format. My big question is what value does going to school have for them? It’s all going to be about what the instruction actually looks like. Are they going to be able to move around and collaborate? Are they going to be doing the exact same things they can get online? Will the social distancing guidelines implemented be so miserable that they will actually be happier at home? Without an idea of what instruction looks like, how can I possibly answer these questions?
I think the other thing that we have to weigh fully here is the health and safety of teachers. Do you know one of the first things that happened in the metro Atlanta area to make school closures a real possibility? It was a teacher collapsing because of COVID complications in a South Fulton school, and guess what? If it happens again, I think we are right back where we started with remote instruction. Will kids who were in person, be able to transition quickly? I have my doubts. I think this also is going to factor in the quality of the online instruction because of this. Naturally, my first thought is that all the best tech-savvy teachers would be the ones who pursue the online route. I think it’s more likely that it’s the ones where health is an issue whether they are ready or not.
On top of all this, how in the heck are we supposed to make this decision with the trends that are happening with the virus as a whole in the Southeast? It’s climbing past levels that got us here in the first place, and unless people start really adhering to health professionals’ guidelines, it’s likely to climb even further. A perfect example: masks. The governor of Georgia and Mayor of Atlanta came out today and asked people to wear masks. Do you know how many I really see when I go to the grocery store? It’s less than 50%. How am I supposed to make an all or nothing decision with that? It’s likely the virus is just going to be a worse problem without major intervention, but do we really think that is coming?
With all those factors, it brings me back to a hybrid. I want my kids to go back to school. I need them to go back to school, but why can’t they go part-time? My wife actually works for a church with a school attached, and I think that school has the perfect model. Split each school into 2 halves, Team A and Team B. You could do it by grade level or some other factor. Have team A come Monday and Tuesday, deep clean Wednesday, and then have team B come Thursday and Friday. The rest of the time students move to virtual instruction. It gives kids both and it also gives janitorial staff the time to make sure cleaning is actually done right. It also puts me as a parent in a position I am comfortable with. Cobb County Schools, I hope you consider it!
It’s time to get back to writing this blog. It’s taken me some time, but I want to get this blog back on the regular trajectory. What’s the topic de jour? It is what everyone else is talking about, it’s DISTANCE LEARNING. It’s here, and it looks like it’s here to stay. I am seeing it from several different slides of the coin and I have a lot of thoughts
I currently work for Tynker which is an Educational Technology company that is perfectly suited for these times. In my humble opinion, we are the perfect mix of curriculum that makes implementation for a teacher easy and gives students an opportunity to make and create with what they have from home. It also doesn’t hurt that students are using a future-ready skill (coding) to do that making. It really is a great platform for teachers to continue to student learning even when they can’t be right next to them.
I am lucky enough to work for a company that was in a place to grant a license to schools that were affected by COVID-19. We had no idea how far it would reach when we officially started the program in early March, but the response has been more then we could ever imagine with over 10,000 grant applications. My job at Tynker is to support teachers, so let’s just say it’s been a bit busy on my end. I feel like I am on right there with many of you on the front line, but I am just not in the classroom fully.
Being on the front line, I also see both the triumph and the struggle. I know many teachers just weren’t ready for this, but I also know the effort they are putting in to make things work. I see it every day both from all of my own children’s teachers and the teachers I am supporting. It makes me proud to be just a small part of this community. We have seen teachers go fully online in a matter of days. We have seen schools and districts move within days to close the equity gap with devices and hot spots. Schools are still provisioning lunches. Ed Tech companies have stepped up to the plate to support. There is truly no community like it.
I have seen the struggles too though. I have a first-grade son who it’s incredibly difficult to get started at school. I have seen the lack of organization from some teachers which can easily make things confusing. The difference in workloads and assignments has also been fascinating. While those struggles are there (with plenty more) I can’t be mad at teachers. They have stepped up to the plate in an impossible time with little training, little coaching, and essentially flying by the seat of their pants. I think the question to ask all of them though is, “How are you going to improve things over the summer?” Distance learning is not going away, and this summer is going to be where the rubber hits the road.
I think there are a whole lot of things that can make distance learning better. I think the irony is that I am at home supporting thousands of teachers yet I am not supporting my own kid’s teachers at the moment. Hopefully, this blog and the ones in the next couple of weeks might help.
Student creation is about more than just creating to create. You should want to create for a purpose. You should want to create for understanding and meaning. You should want to create to make the world a better place, and it all starts by building a scenario for the creation. Scenarios should always be your starting place.
What do I mean by that? I see student projects all the time that are “just create something about the topic.” That topic could be anything, but what the teacher is going to get is always the same: bad power points and bad videos. What if you actually made them create for an audience? What if you made them solve a real-world problem? You could get more than just bad tech tools with regurgitated information.
To me, this takes me back to my days in the Social Studies classroom. In Social Studies, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just having kids do a presentation to regurgitate information You have seen them a million times. They tend to have bad backgrounds, arguably plagiarized text, and images that just look weird. I thought there had to be more, and what I came to is that there had to be a scenario to create to. Instead of just giving them a topic, I gave them an audience. I put them in the history. They had to critically think like the people they were studying and like they were there.
Does this sound hard? Well, it isn’t. There are thousands of scenarios you could use in any topic, but I found one that was always a good starting place if I got stuck: The United Nations. Think about it, they have a hand in everything. They work with plenty of data to tie math in. They are worried about the planet which ties in Science, and they are involved in politics which ties in Social Studies. With ELA, you can adapt grammar and writing projects to almost anything. It means you can have all four CORE subjects covered in one audience.
The UN has even made it easier. They have published a set of 17 goals that they have for the planet by 2030. These are a great starting place! It sums up the world's problems beautifully and gives you a great place for kids to start solving them. There is also a massive teaching community around them, so you don’t even have to create all of the activities yourself!
These can even be used for coding scenarios, and Tynker has done just that. Check out the Hour of Code projects based on the SDG's at https://www.tynker.com/hour-of-code/
Let's take a few minutes to talk about my new favorite maker tool. It's got the two things that I think are the ultimate keys: accessibility and high ceiling. It's cheap, and you can code it in both Block and Python. What device is it? It’s micro:bit.
This device is the little mini-computer that could! A micro:bit has several aspects to it including an LED panel you can code, buttons, sensors, and edge connectors that can be used to add things like lights and motors. You can create your own robots, games, and even a scientific instrument or two. The ceiling is incredibly high because it can be the brains for almost anything!
It’s also an incredible way to learn coding. Kids can build and create anything, and they get to program it to do the function that they want. The coding on the device is also incredibly accessible. With both block coding resources and Python resources, you can have elementary school students make with it, but you can also take it into high school with Python. There aren’t that many devices that can cross over like that
I am fortunate to work with a company that even takes that micro:bit accessibility a step further. Sometimes it’s hard to teach kids everything they need for a mini-computer. You might want them to create, but you might not know where to start. Tynker has courses to fix that problem. We have both a micro:bit block course and a Micropython course that teach kids all the aspects of the micro:bit. They build projects to learn how to use the sensors, led’s, buttons, and edge connectors with the goal being to learn the functions well enough to build their own project. We have even simplified code deployment to make it easy no matter what device you have.
What can you build? The possibilities are endless. You could build robots, rc cars, scientific instruments, and much, much more. The ability to add accessories with the edge connector ensures that you can build almost anything you want. Isn't that what making is all about?
This blog is for my friend the Social Studies teacher. Many times your the red-headed stepchild of the core content group, but if we can take anything from the current state of affairs, you are so important. You might be the last ones to get new standards, but you are going to be the first ones that kids actually use coming straight out of high school.
This isn't to say the others aren't important, but think of the first ways someone can participate in the greater society. It's things like registering to vote, registering for selective service, and getting into the federal student loans program. All of them are things that may need advocacy, and we have to teach our students to advocate and participate.
No matter what you believe with the current state of the US government the abundantly clear thing is that we need to do an even better job of teaching civics. The impeachment inquiry is s a perfect example of this. It's clear that many Americans don't fully understand that process, and that lack of understanding is helping both sides manipulate both the process and messaging with it.
We are constantly hearing a lot about the process. The thing to understand though is that the process right now is like a grand jury. It's about finding enough evidence to see if you can take it to trial, but because it's already being tried in the public conscious people think that things should look like a full trial. That's the not the way things are laid out in the constitution, yet many Americans don't realize that. It allows both sides to manipulate the message to benefit their point of view.
We hear the argument of fake news and bias all the time. In reality, it's there on both sides of the argument. The problem we are all having is that we aren't teaching civics well enough which makes it almost impossible for folks to decipher what is real and fake. We have to keep up that fight because in an age of endless media, knowing civics is the only thing that will let you know what is real and true.
We are getting to a point where teaching civics is going to be the only thing that saves us. The old saying ignorance is bliss does not apply here. If you don't know how things work you just can't decipher through the noise.
Civics Teachers: Keep up the fight! You don't know how important you are!