Sunday, January 10, 2021

Find the Good

Back to Square One

I have had many challenges in my teaching career, but nothing like I experienced over the last 9 months (as every single teacher). Every day was like starting all over. I had no idea what I was doing and was just trying to survive each day while keeping my students' education and social-emotional well being at the forefront.

Despite the struggles I had outside of the classroom, my students were(are) a blessing.  They became the focus. How do I construct my lessons to be a good fit for my students? How will I remind them that their mental & physical health is a priority? What do I say? How do I listen?  

And looking back, I am pleased with how I laid out the semester.

Know Your Audience

I know my students.  I know them really well.  I know their strengths and I know their weaknesses. I know they need structure and someone to hold them to high expectations.  I know they are highly dependent on their teachers to support them. I know they are great at social media and horrible at academic technology. I know for many of them school is a safe place.

So with that in mind, I started the first few weeks with Google Classroom instead of Canvas.  I knew that distance learning would be a huge stress on my students for so many reasons. Many of my students have no self-contained study area, siblings to take care of, chores to complete, lack of technology and/or internet, no or very little parental/caregiver support, etc.  In my experience, a big roadblock to getting to know my new students virtually would be for them to learn a brand new platform remotely by themselves. Google Classroom has been used by many teachers for several years by now, so familiarity is a good place to start in times of such stress.

The feedback that I got was confirmation.  Most of my students were relieved to be using a familiar platform and understand how to access & turn in assignments.  I got nearly 100% engagement right off the bat. My students and I were chatting back and forth.  They were doing the work.  They were coming to class.  And that was so important. I knew I needed to work on building a relationship with them and learning a new platform would serve as an impediment. Students would be focused on the tech instead of adapting to a new environment; as I verified to be true later.  

I know it's become a cliche, but it's so true: Maslow before Bloom.

Easing Into Change

After that, I started using Canvas and dialing up slowly the amount and  intensity of work. Many students commented in their final exam screencast that was a plus. One of the things I started week 1 and continued through out the semester was what I called "Attendance Questions." The schedule was limited to live classes only twice a week for 80 minutes.  So I knew getting kids to come was imperative. That was my "hook." But the questions didn't require kids to attend live class, just encouraged.  

Mos of the types of questions focused on light & silly topics.  Examples of different topics would be: "Is the Kool-Aid man the jar or liquid?," finding hidden objects, math puzzles, "What color do you feel like today?," which one doesn't belong, finding the math, etc. The feedback from my students demonstrated how important these were each week.  Many students commented that it was an opportunity to "destress."  That just made me smile ear to ear.  That was exactly my intent.  I wanted to weave in assignments that would support a healthy mental state and allow them to forget the world, even if it was for a few minutes.

Here are some images that students really enjoyed: 

I started to give "Weekly Assignments" about a month into the semester. There would be one or two that students would have the entire week to complete. This was a tough one as I knew an overwhelming number of my students were professional procrastinators.  But I wanted them to give them flexibility and to learn time management.  In the beginning I started to give Deltamath as these weekly assignments.  But then I changed gears.  

I instead gave activities that were game like and involved art along with some other ideas.  The kids loved the "Pumpking Carving" activity from Desmos along with the "Maze Builder" and "Legend of Zelda."   I gave one a bit more serious on bullying towards the end of the semester. I am glad I gave this at the end of the semester instead of the beginning as students were more open to sharing. I had many students who really opened up about their own experiences. I was honored that they felt they could do that with me.

Here's an example of what kids produced on using the Polypad: 

Key Practices

Other than my choice in what I gave my kids, there were two key practices that really made this past semester work for me and my students.

One was the learning cycle I adpated from Audrey McLaren. I had attended a webinar during the summer where she shared how she structured her time with her students. Before that, when I was trying to plan, I was so lost on how to maximize the time with my students. So I adapted what she did with the schedule we had. 

There were issues using Kami within Canvas, so I decided to table that.  I also really was looking forward to using Fluidmath, but my students weren't ready first semester.  (I am hoping to use with my honors this semester.)  Edpuzzle wasn't working well for 100% of my students within Canvas, but I decided that platform was necessary to introduce the concept for the week.  So students ended up having to go directly to the website to access.  It took some time to get used to, but now students are a pro at knowing where & when to go. I also cannot imagine what this past semester would have been like without Desmos and all the great activities created by teachers and the Desmos team. Being able to see what students are doing real time is priceless. And kids loved how they could see each other's responses as well as get my feedback to help them.  It wasn't like being back in the classroom, but it helped feel like it just a little bit.

On Monday's we only meet with 4th period.  So doing a lesson would throw everything off.  So that day was perfect using Edpuzzle. So I assigned an Edpuzzle for  all my students on that day. Their responses gave me good feedback on how and what to do for the first synchronous lesson.  So then the first day with my students would be a Desmos activity to practice and play with the concept they were introduced to.  Then the off day would be a Deltamath assignment to give them practice. (This didn't happen on a regular basis mainly because I forgot to set it up.) The second day I see them would be to wrap up the lesson for that week and give an assessment if they were ready.  It took students most of the semester to get acclimated to this cycle, but based on the feedback from their final exam - it worked. It gave me and the students a nice routine.  We all knew what to expect whenever we met.

The second successful practice was to have my students do a portfolio. 

I have wanted  my students do one for years now. Part of the main reason I never did was that I think I just had no idea how to go about helping my students curate one.  But with the closure of school and being 100% virtual, this opened the door to trying one more time. Plus, I had an awesome support system in my Twitter PLN. There were lots of ideas and examples of all the different ways I could have my students do the portfolio.  The top three were: Google Slides, Blogger & Desmos.

After a lof of thinking and brainstorming with colleagues, I decdided to use Desmos as the platform for my students to create their portfolio.  There were quite a few reasons I landed on using Desmos.  I really liked the fact that I can see all students' progress easily on the "Teacher Dashboard."  I also really like the feedback feature that is integrated. It was also easy to keep them from editing after the due date.

I had my students do a total of 4 portfolios over the course of the semester.  Each one covered a 3 week period of the semester.  Each portfolio that I created got a bit better each time with what I got back from students along with the indirect feedback I got.  Most students took until the fourth portfolio to see the value.  But they came around.  I could understand as this was completely a new idea in a math class.

Originally, I had thought since everything was laid out in the modules in Canvas, it would be obivious what should go into the portfolio.  But it clearly wasn't.  So after the first one was done, I gave the kids a rubric that specified exactly what I wanted to see.  Unfortunately, because I was planning from week to week; the rubric came a week before they had to turn it in.  But the rubric clearly helped students understand what was and wasn't needed and how many screen shots to put in.  

Focus on the Good

After a lot of reflection, I have been reminded to focus on the good.  And to help my students do the same.  This is of course especially important as we are in the midst of the country going through so many trials and tribulations.  I am resilient and so are my students. We will all come out of this just fine.

I didn't recongnize my successes as I was surviving day to day.  

But taking the time to write about it forced me to find the good.

Lessons Learned

I started this school year with such great hopes.  I know I was ready to take what I learned from a year of distance learning and help my fu...