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.


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.


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.


  • 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.