Applying Distance Lessons to Holidays

The pandemic is still upon us. Although schools are open for in-person learning, more than half of my students are still Zooming in for distance lessons. Families are discouraged from gathering as well. So I decided to apply some of the things I’ve learned teaching virtually, and host some family get-togethers on Zoom.

Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving, we had a video call with my siblings, mom, nieces, and nephews. I ran the Zoom like my classroom, and it was slightly awkward, but fun. The big hit was the Kahoot about family trivia on the last slide. All together, over two dozen people across four generations in multiple locations (and time zones) participated. Because it’s 2020, my teacher Bitmoji made several appearances.

Christmas

For Christmas, we will continue being apart, but we still want to spend time together, so I proposed a digital Escape Room that I discovered in an online teacher group. At a predetermined time tomorrow, I will send out the link and we will all start trying to solve it with our households. An hour later, we will get together and compare notes.

There are so many online resources for family holiday games! Kahoot has a selection of trivia quizzes. YouTube has many Name That Tune videos. I picked my favorites to create a virtual party for my family. I’m even going to try sending them to breakout rooms to create a virtual animated Christmas Card.

Happy Holidays to each and everyone who reads this! Here’s hoping for a better 2021.

First Day of School

Well, here we are. School starts next week. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic. Our local community has not met the health standards to reopen schools yet, so our school will be opening virtually for the first three weeks.

It’s certainly a different circumstance from my first day of high school. Picture 1980:  Jimmy Carter was running for re-election against Ronald Reagan, Christopher Cross was all over the radio, and cell phones and the internet were not yet common. I looked through fashion magazines and my mother took me shopping for a new first-day-of-school outfit (baggy jeans and a pink button down with a ribbon tied around the collar, trying to be “preppy”–thankfully no pictures of that day exist.) I walked into a huge high school and worried about whether I would find my classes and if I could open my locker.

Next week, instead of navigating physical spaces, students will be opening up a device and meeting their classes through a camera. Anxiety is still part of the game. For the past few days, teachers at my school have been attending professional development sessions virtually, and I’ve learned quite a bit about what it will be like for my students. Here is a list of tips and tricks.

Showing up

  • Expect your teachers to share Google Classroom codes. Enroll in the classes that match your schedule in Skyward. If this doesn’t make sense to you, use this form to access the tutorials you need.
  • The best way to get to Google Classroom in our district is always to go to the homepage and look for the word “Launchpad.” After entering your credentials, you’ll see a page similar to the image below. Open the Google folder and click on Classroom. The Launchpad saves all your passwords so you can easily access multiple district resources, such as library databases, your grades, and digital textbooks.Screenshot of Launchpad
  • Once you’re in the Google Classroom that matches your schedule, look on the Stream or on the Classwork tab. Sometimes you’ll see a link that takes you right to your digital space (probably a Zoom room, but maybe a Google Meets link). If all you see is a Meeting Room ID, go to Zoom and enter the ID.
  • The freshman team decided to schedule all our classes on our Google Calendars. Mine looks like the image below. Notice that I’ve selected the Week view (in the upper right) and checked all the boxes for my Google Classroom classes, but left other calendars, such as Advisory, unchecked. Everyone has a personal (private) calendar but you can add others. Once you enroll in each of your classes, the calendar for that class will automatically show up, and you have the ability to make the events show up or not, by checking the boxes. Screenshot of a Google calendar
  • There are two ways to access your calendars:
    1. From the Launchpad, open your Google folder and click the Calendar icon.
    2. From Google Classroom, go to the Classwork tab and you’ll see this:

calendar link spot

  • When you enter a Zoom room, it might ask you to enter your first and last name. For day 1, enter it the way it will appear on a teacher’s roll. If you go by a different name (or you’ve accidentally used someone else’s account to log in), you can change it later by clicking on Participants, finding your name, and editing your profile. At the beginning of the semester, every teacher needs to connect you to the names he or she is legally obligated to identify.

Minimizing Distractions for Others

  • Just as you would carefully pick out your first day of school outfit (my apologies to 1980), it’s important to think about what others will see and hear on your end of the Zoom call. So set up your space and test it out.
  • Some teachers will want you to keep your camera on during the whole lesson; others might be flexible and let you turn it off during parts of the lesson when you will be working independently. If you’re assigned to a breakout room, seeing each other’s faces will make communication more effective.
  • Find a quiet place. Whether you live with one person (like I do now) or seven people (like I did in high school), seek privacy. I know two professional adults who do all their video conferencing from their closets.
  • Please don’t come to a Zoom room while holding your device. Set it down, and if you’re using a phone, place it horizontally.
  • box with head and shouldersYour whole face and your shoulders should be in the frame. Professional journalists set up interview shots with this much space between their subject and the edges of the frame.
  • Turn on your camera and see how you look.
  • Raise your device, if needed, by placing it on a box or books so the camera is near eye-level. Views of the ceiling are rarely interesting.
    two people zooming The person at the top is not centered in the frame, and the angle of the computer camera is not good. The bottom pic is better.
  • Check the lighting. Can you sit near a window? Turn on a lamp? I found that turning OFF lamps in a room (they were behind me) allowed my camera to readjust much more effectively.
  • Notice your background. Position yourself so the background is just one wall, or a curtain, or a bookshelf:  that will be less distracting than if others see your whole house, or a room with pets running around, or an unmade bed and dirty laundry.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. Even if you just got out of bed, don’t come to Zoom school wearing pajamas everyone else can see.
  • Keep your microphone muted, unless you are speaking. If you need to say something brief, holding down the space bar will temporarily unmute your mic.

Minimizing Distractions for Yourself

  • When in Zoom, you have control over whether you see it full screen or not. You can also switch between Gallery view and Speaker view. If you get easily distracted, keep it on Speaker view.
  • You can choose this Speaker view button  or this  Gallery view.
  • To split your screen between Zoom and another window, hold down the Windows key while pressing the right or left arrow button. This is useful when the teacher asks you to open a file or web page.
  • Put your phone out of reach and out of sight. There will be breaks during the school day for you to check it.
  • Parents shouldn’t be looking over your shoulder. This is your opportunity to learn independently. If you have trouble, teachers will be posting recordings of the video lessons that you can all access later.
  • Despite your best intentions, it’s entirely possible to get distracted. This becomes evident when all of a sudden everything gets quiet and you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing. Check the chat box for directions. If you don’t see any, just be honest and ask.

Zooming

  • The tool bar at the bottom of the Zoom screen has buttons to mute/unmute, as well as to start and stop your video camera.screenshot of zoom tool bar
  • If you click the Participants button, you will see some tools you can use to send the teacher signals:  speed up, slow down, raise your hand, etc. Other people only see what you have selected if they have the Participant window open.window of participantsparticipant signals
  • The chat box is a good place to ask questions. Avoid using the chat box for unrelated conversation.
  • Actively listen when others are speaking:  nod your head, clap, snap, type encouraging things in the chat box, use the Reactions buttons.Reactions button

Virtual backgrounds are allowed, as long as they are school-appropriate. To put something as your virtual background, click on your camera button.where to click to install a virtual background

 

Distance learning will be new to most of us. Remember to show grace and kindness to your teacher as well as your fellow students. The first step to success is showing up. I’m looking forward to the first day of school.

Distance Learning Project Presentations

This week marks week 7 of distance learning due to school shutdowns in response to the COVID19 global pandemic. Normally, about this time, my students would be making formal presentations about their 3-month-long collaborative service learning project (Make a Difference, or MaD) to their classmates, parents, and community members. So guess what they are doing? They are making formal presentations about their 3-month-long collaborative service learning project to their classmates, parents, and community members. While I was planning this activity, I received an email from Deeper Learning about the value of continuing to do presentations, even while we are forced to do schooling virtually; it included this helpful toolkit.

How did we pull this off? Each of my groups (4 or 5 students) has scheduled a 30-minute slot through Google Meets (formerly Hangouts) to do their 20-minute presentation. They have invited 3 people each to create their own audience, and I have invited additional people to attend. The first group went yesterday, and while I realize the most competent students typically volunteer to go first, I was absolutely blown away. Not being able to coach them face-to-face, I had done the best I could with a set of digital directions.

I was struck by how well this particular task demonstrates skills they learned in my class this year. Here is a list. The skills they gained during distance learning are in green.

  • How to carefully read a rubric to create a quality product
  • Graphic Design
    • Using Google Slides as a presentation tool
    • Applying good choices in contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity
    • Importing templates
    • Using different slide layouts
    • Choosing the best font types and sizes
    • Adding different types of content to slides (images, video, sound)
  • Video editing
    • Making a stop motion animation
    • Combining music, movement, and images to convey a message
    • Framing an interview subject professionally
  • Sound editing
    • Recording one’s own voice for a podcast
    • Importing interview footage into a sound editor
    • Combining sound clips
    • Choosing music that helps tell a story
  • Collaboration
    • Dividing up tasks
    • Communicating with teammates through a variety of methods
    • Treating each other with respect
    • Conducting primary research
  • Public speaking
    • Taking turns when presenting with a group
    • Speaking from notes but not reading verbatim
    • Understanding their audience
    • Dressing professionally
    • Researching secondary sources to understand an issue
    • Incorporating powerful stories
  • Video conferencing
    • Making appointments and inviting others (with Google Calendars)
    • Positioning oneself in the frame and choosing appropriate backgrounds
    • Managing cameras and microphones 
    • Minimizing distractions
    • Sharing a screen
    • Using the chat box
    • Creating an agenda and using it to facilitate virtual conversations

The rest of the video conferences are scheduled for the next three days, and I am very much looking forward to them.

School in the Time of Coronavirus

How do you teach when school is shut down? Millions of teachers like myself are answering that question right now. Schools have closed during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, to minimize spread of the virus. While some places have cancelled school altogether, in many places, school has transitioned to an online platform.

MaD Fair

Last year’s MaD Fair

The hardest part of this change, for me personally, has been letting go of things I had been anticipating. The week after Spring Break we had a school-wide event scheduled. My lesson plan for that week was built around preparing for that event:  a fair in which each of my service-learning groups could tell the public (students and their families) about what they were doing to make a difference about a chosen topic. It has always been a highlight of the year. Last year my students raised over $1600 for worthy causes during the 2-hour event, and learned valuable skills about marketing, public relations, promotion, and public speaking. When I surveyed my students about our new situation this year, I gave them a link to my cancelled lesson plans for the week, just in case they were curious about what they would be missing.

While mourning my plan, I realized the students would also be sad about their own plans. So I gave them an opportunity to give voice to those disappointments in my first Distance Learning assignment. Our district has been strict about the types of assignments we are allowed to make; these limits have been helpful, because it frames our expectations and helps us be consistent across the board. My first assignment was very much like the examples they gave us:  read this, do this, answer these questions, and the whole thing should take about an hour. (In addition to the one-hour weekly assignment that will be graded, we are encouraged to post optional enrichment activities.)

While I was planning my lesson, my local online newspaper published a story about how people were helping their community while following recently-imposed social distancing guidelines. I linked the article in my assignment, then asked students to consider how the current situation may have affected their service learning topic. My Digital Media standards say students should “collaborate using various electronic technologies such as email, blogs, chat rooms, discussion threads, and wikis.” So I decided to use Flipgrid.

Screenshot from FlipGrid

With Flipgrid, teachers make a video and students post video responses. They can also respond to each other’s videos. They can use a computer or a phone (there’s an app, but it works just as well on a browser). After a week, my 123 students had posted 103 responses (a few students opted to do a paper version of my assignment, which did not include this part). There were 129 replies, 5190 views, and 70.4 hours of engagement. I responded to each message with a video, asking questions to push their thinking even further. If I were to do this again, I would limit the students to less than the maximum of 90 seconds, to discourage rambling. Replying to these videos gave me something meaningful to do all week, besides checking email, texting my colleagues, and one or two Zoom meetings with faculty. It was refreshing to see familiar faces I had not seen in two long weeks, and to hear their voices expressing unique opinions and ideas.

The portion of my assignment that was for a grade involved 5 simple reflection questions on a Google Doc. Since my students have been using Google Classroom all year, this was logistically very easy. A handful of families picked up paper packets at school, and I will receive their work later.  Throughout the week, the other four freshman teachers and I sent out reminders via Classroom and Remind, and we put together a spreadsheet of student work that had been completed; if we didn’t have work from a certain student, we contacted the student or the parent to find out what was going on. By the due date, over 90% of my students had successfully completed all the questions.

I checked in with families mid-week, by sending a Remind query to parents. The responses I got back were all favorable, but one parent requested some face-to-face online time so his student could socialize. So the next day I set up a Zoom session and announced it on Classroom. About 20 students popped in to talk; it was fun, but a bit awkward because there was no agenda and we had trouble thinking of things to discuss.

Next week, my lesson will build upon the feedback I’ve received this week. Our principal sent a survey to parents to ask for general ideas. One suggested “a wider variety of learning experiences.” Another asked for “interactive group-based learning.” A third asked for scheduled classes, during which students would log in and meet with their teacher.

Scheduling classes would pose difficulty for large families who have to share devices, or those for whom internet is not reliable. In my socializing Zoom meeting, I asked students how many people are quarantined with them in their houses, and answers ranged from 2 to 8. But I think I can make this happen. My students are already assigned to groups of 4 or 5, and have been working with these groups since the beginning of February. My expectation for next week is that they communicate with each other (their first group Contract had them share contact information), and make an appointment with me for a 30-minute meeting. I gave them a link to my class Google Calendar, and changed the settings so it would accept invitations to appointments. I created a video tutorial showing them how to do this, and how to invite all the members of their group and also me.

Once the meeting is scheduled, Google automatically creates an online digital hangout (it used to be called Hangouts, but now it’s called Meet), so on the day of the meeting they will be able to click on the link and join. To ensure that our meetings are purposeful, I’ve created a Google Slides presentation that I can send to all our screens.

Looking forward, the one big project I have not yet done with my class is a podcast. They did podcasts in groups last semester in a different class, so they are familiar with an app (Anchor) that will make it easier than the way I have traditionally taught it, but it will still take a long time. I think the best thing to do is stretch it out and ask them to write a script one week, then record it the following week. The time will need to be shortened. Making compromises is par for the course when it comes to distance learning, I suppose. We have to do the best we can under the circumstances.

So far I am pleased with the way distance learning is happening. While I miss meeting my students in class every day, picking a song of the day for passing period, facilitating club meetings, and planning with my colleagues, I realize why we have to do things this way. I just hope we can get back to normal soon.

How is the coronavirus global pandemic affecting you?

Picking a Topic: A Pivotal Process

A new teacher (who used to be my student) recently asked me how I helped my students pick topics for a project we were both doing in our different classes. He had struggled with that piece of the experience. Picking a topic for a project can be daunting. If teachers want the best work from their students, investing effort in the process will pay off. During the past decade, I have developed a few lesson plans and procedures that have been successful for me.

Lists

In situations where the teachers know more about the topic than the students, it’s easy to provide a list. For example, my colleagues do a project on endangered cultures; since students are unlikely to be familiar with the numerous groups worldwide that fit the theme, it makes sense for the teachers to give students a list of options. But sometimes teachers can’t possibly know all the options.

Group Decisions

My class does a project every fall in which they create and perform a play.The criteria for deciding upon a story has guidelines, but the possibilities are limitless. I devote an entire class period for groups to select a story. In the classroom, there are books of children’s stories from other cultures, and the internet is also accessible. Students have already spent time bonding as a group, discussing the value of conflict, and engaging in models for making decisions.

On slide 3 of the presentation above, guidelines are given. Without specific guidelines, projects can get off track and the goal of the project may not be reached. On slide 4, groups are required to call me to their table upon making a decision. If I approve their topic, I make a big deal of it:  I ring a bell and announce to the whole class, “Group B has chosen a story!” and then I write their story’s origin culture on the board. This encourages groups to make a decision, and it also narrows down their choices because no two groups may pick stories from the same region. By the end of class, nearly every group will have picked a story.

Topics Determine Groups

Sometimes what students care about determines how best to create groups. Every year my students made humorous videos about Technology Do’s and Don’ts. We begin that unit by reading an opinion piece from 1995 about the internet. Then each class brainstorms 50 examples of how people misuse technology and I write them on the board. They vote by placing 5 dots on their favorite topics. By the end of one class period, we have identified topics and groups have been arranged. Because we do this openly, students have some control over both their topic as well as their group members; I have control over the size of the groups and the 50 topic options.

For a longer-term project, letting students pick their groups is not the best idea. Collaboration works best when groups are diverse. In general, if the project lasts longer than 2 weeks, I determine the make-up of the group. For our annual service learning project, which lasts most of the semester, I use a different process. They fill out a worksheet with their opinions about certain topics (taken from recent articles, political speeches, or, as in the example below, crowd-sourced from my social media friends.) The topic list starts with my examples, but we do open-ended brainstorming at the end, so each class period has a list that is 50% generated by themselves. The worksheet asks each student to rank their top 6 topics, and i use those to create balanced groups. For a few students, nothing matches their top 6, but I have data on the rest of the worksheet that shows me how they feel about all the topics. Finding common ground about the purpose of their efforts makes groups much more likely to succeed.

 

The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life sponsors an annual project called Speak Up Speak Out. The teacher resources are excellent, and the lessons below are based on the official curriculum guide.

The brainstorming lesson is designed to set the rationale for the project. The next lesson goes into further detail about the project itself, and leads them through the process of picking a topic and group mates.

photo of students

2019 SUSO Winners

For the past two years, San Antonio has had a local Speak Up Speak Out competition to determine who qualifies for the state-side competition. My students have won every place at the local competition two years in a row.

The most effective learning happens when students are highly engaged in relevant projects over which they have some control. Choosing a topic is a pivotal part of successful project-based learning. I hope other teachers find these ideas helpful.

When the world comes to you

A few weeks ago my principal asked if I would host some visitors in my class. This is a frequent occurrence, because our school is part of several networks of schools and visiting one another is normal. We also have relationships with sister schools in Germany, South Korea, China, and Japan.

SACIV

SACIV visitors

Friday, eleven people came to my 7th period. One was a former student who now works for the San Antonio Council for International Visitors, a nonprofit that aims to “build international friendships, facilitate the exchange of ideas, foster cultural understanding, and promote San Antonio as an international city.” One was an interpreter from the U.S. State Department, and another was a facilitator of this particular exchange. The other eight were important people from other countries hoping to learn about cybersecurity and digital communications in the United States. They were coming to our school to see how we teach young people to communicate digitally, so Digital Media class was a good fit.

Due to the time frame of their visit, they were only going to spend time with my 7th period, but I wanted to get the other classes involved. So in periods 1-6, I passed out the one-page biographies of each visitor and asked groups of 3 or 4 students to write questions for that person on an index card. I was curious to see what they would ask of an Ethical Hacker from Slovakia, the Chief Analyst for fighting human trafficking in Macedonia, or the person who headed up the cyber crime division in Hungary’s version of the FBI.

Fortunately, I have two periods off (lunch and conference) right before 7th period, so I had time to rearrange the furniture into larger groups. I made placards for the official guests, and seated two at each table, along with 6 to 8 of my freshmen. The students had just designed business cards in a graphic design unit, and Friday was the day I printed them out. I placed the business cards in certain seats, with certain items. The person sitting to the right of a guest was given that person’s bio, and the task of introducing them to the group by reading the three most interesting things (in their opinion) on the piece of paper. The student in the middle had a computer, and was tasked with showing their digital portfolio to the group. The others received the index cards with the questions from the other class periods, and chose which ones to ask.

At first, the students were intimidated, but very quickly they felt at ease. Every student got to interact with each visitor, because the adults rotated from group to group after ten minutes. The structure, which was necessary at first, was less needed after the second rotation, so I gave them permission to just talk. That’s when the walls really came down.

One of my favorite moments was when the lawyer from Tajikistan gave her business card to one of the students, and I encouraged the student to give her business card in return. She was so excited! Several students got in a spirited discussion with their experts on the Area 51 Raid, which was happening that day. The guests encouraged the students to look up images of their countries and they were impressed by the beauty of a place like Macedonia.

For the last 5 minutes of class, I invited people to share something they learned or appreciated about the experience. Several students hopped to their feet to say what they enjoyed. When class ended, the local tour guide told me the visitors asked if they could just keep visiting high schools for the rest of their itinerary.

 

Penciling things in

For many years, I have done an assignment in my class in which students work in groups to draw a picture of a Global Citizen and then present it to their class. It’s fun, it gets them talking to one another, and it gets them up in front of the class to present, but with the safety of others alongside them. We usually do this during the second week of school.

This year, we moved up a field trip, so I skipped this activity. There came a time, however, when students really needed to understand the concept of Global Citizenship as it applies to our high school’s Graduate Profile. Students are writing their first blog posts (a.k.a. digital portfolio entries) and the reflection section requires them to answer the question, “How did this work help you become a Globie?” Globie is our school mascot, and what we call each other. The question really means, “How did this work help you work towards the criteria of the Graduate Profile?”

drawing of an out line of head and shoulders

head and shoulders penciled in

So I brought the activity back, with certain parameters. Instead of spending a day and a half drawing, I only gave my students 15 minutes. But it worked! In the past, students spent a very long time debating how much of a person’s body to illustrate, but this time I gave each group a piece of paper with a head and shoulders already penciled in. This one change in strategy meant they could get right on task.

Another thing I did differently was give the groups a printout of the Graduate Profile:  one group had Science, one had Social Studies, one had English, one had Math, and in my larger classes, a 5th group had Art. I allowed them to use words on their drawing this year for the first time, but limited them to only 15 words. I encouraged them to pay special attention to the bold words (which were largely the same for each group).

After each group presented, I asked them what they noticed. I wanted them to notice that certain aspects of the Graduate Profile were repeated across all the subject areas. These aspects (the bolded words on each handout) are the domains of Global Citizenship that we want them to reference when they write reflections on their blog posts. I saved the activity for the moment they were writing their first blog post, and expected to tie their projects to standards. Immediately after the presentations, students opened up their blogs and wrote the last part of their post:  the reflection.

This year, drawing Global Citizen Portraits was more meaningful and way more efficient. Drawing the outline of a person and forcing groups to create a picture in only 15 minutes resulted in some very creative outcomes.

Peer Observation

Today I went to art class. Administrators encouraged teachers to observe one another, and offered class coverage to allow us to see someone else teach. I picked art teacher Andrea Puentes, because I believe her style is similar to my own in many ways, but I have always wanted to learn more about art. Doing so can improve the way I teach graphic design.

art class

Art teaching giving instructions

The third period class, Pre-AP Art I, was working on plans for a still life drawing. Ms. Puentes gave them several minutes of instruction, tips for how to do a good job, pointers about how to use tools, reminders of their timeline, then let them work. She made a few behavioral redirections, but gave a rationale for them, too (for example, they shouldn’t use their phones because they can’t be drawing at the same time); when two boys tried to hold a conversation during this time, she stopped talking until they stopped.

Once they started to work, the class got really quiet. I call this the “sweet spot” in my own lessons–the moment when everyone knows what to do and is doing it. To help set a mood, Ms. Puentes played music in the background:  she asked the class what type of music they would like. I play music sometimes, but I could do it more consistently.

sketch

One of my 8 sketches

I drew! The task was to create 8 sketches of a large combination of objects in the center of the room, in order to determine a focus for a still life drawing. While my sketches were not as detailed as the students’, I worked seriously for most of the period. I felt inadequate to the task, because I had missed prior instruction. This is probably how students feel when they are new to a class, or return from a prolonged absence. Taking the role of a student gives me chances to develop empathy for them. It’s also interesting to see my students in a different environment. One student who struggles in my class is a very good artist, so she shines in art class:  she worked diligently all period, whereas in mine she distracts herself.

art class slide

Art class teacher directions

Being part of art class was a nice change of pace–a good way to spend my conference period. I wish I knew more about art, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn a little more, and I recognized ways in which a few of the concepts (Rule of Thirds, negative space, etc.) overlap with what I teach in Digital Media.

 

 

Graphic Design: Designing an Effective Worksheet

Design contributes to effective communication. My students do a research project about a topic of their choice. Following a “reading for meaning” strategy, I created a set of generic questions that could apply to any topic. Once students answered the questions (true or false), I asked them to demonstrate if they were right or wrong by using evidence from credible sources.

The worksheet looked like this:

Many students were confused because they didn’t read the paragraph at the bottom. We had to spend an additional day of class time revising the document. So this year, I redesigned the worksheet. Creating a table with boxes makes everything much simpler to use and it will also be easier for me to assess.

I expect this change to result in greater student success, and more effective research.

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