Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Advice for Back to (hybrid) School

students writing outside
learning outside by me
My school has moved to a hybrid model which started on Monday, August 17. Half of the students attend block classes in person on Monday and Tuesday while the others attend online, vice-versa on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is advisory, office hours, etc.

I just got off a Zoom meeting with my advisory students who are seniors. When asked how things are going so far, here's what they had to say.

Those who have attended in-person classes already this year said they prefer it to the completely online approach we did last spring. There are things they're adjusting to for sure, like wearing masks at all times and social distancing. One student said all she wanted to do was give her best friend a big hug when she first saw her but couldn't. Another lamented not being in the same cohort with most of his friends. One-way traffic in hallways and stairs, signage everywhere – a lot is different this year compared to any of the other years I've taught. But one constant for the in-person cohort was that they were actually happy to be back in school.

If you're situation is like mine and you're doing a hybrid approach blending online and in-person students, my remote students mentioned some things that are worth considering.

  • Find out quickly who is having issues with the technology. It's pretty easy to tell who's not in attendance online. Prioritize supporting those students. (Easier said than done, I know).
  • Create quality content. Record one of your first sessions, and then be honest with yourself. Would you want to watch an hour of it?
  • Pay attention to the audio and video quality of your conference. Routinely check in with the online students to see if they can actually see and hear what's going on. 
  • Make the most of in-person time. One of the common themes my students have is that they actually missed being at school, and a big part of that is physically being together (even if it means being six feet apart). If in hybrid mode, balance your attention. But when you dismiss the online students, be fully present for each other.
  • Seek out video conference mentors. Some of the newest teachers in my school are the ones who are using Zoom most efficiently. We tend to think of mentors as seasoned veterans, but especially now that isn't the case.
  • Simplify the tech. At the very least just make sure you can stream the class and that the remote students can see and hear adequately. For example, having more than one camera in the room is a nice idea, but if you're spending an inordinate amount of time trying to manage the remote technology, simplify. 
  • Engage the online students. Some of them mentioned feeling more like a spectator in some classes. 
  • Honor the students' time. Do we really want students staring at a screen all day? If we're not actively engaging them in an activity, do they really need to be in the conference?  Students appreciated the teachers who delivered content first, then assigned a task for them to do by the next in-person class.
  • Flip it (a little bit). I don't think we should flip all classes, but my students mentioned that it made sense for a class like music where the teacher records a demonstration for students to watch online and then perform in person. As my student told me: "at home you're learning; in school you're working."

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Covid journal #2: Lessons learned from making media during a pandemic

Mad World by Cam

During the coronavirus shutdown I learned a few things about how some students thrive in online settings. A lot of the success I saw in these students can be attributed to two things – leveraging the affordances of digital networks and self-regulation. In this post I'll talk about mainly the positives I learned from my students after interviewing them at the end of the school year.

Location, location, location

Where the learning happens changes things. When my school went from a traditional face-to-face (f2f) classroom to a completely online setting in mid-March, I wasn’t sure how my media production class was going to go – if at all. In all the years I've taught this class the physical space was the center of making and learning. That’s where all the cameras, computers, and applications were.

Then there’s the community aspect – the refining of story ideas that takes place through class discussion, the collaboration between peers as they coordinate filming, lighting, and audio for an in-person interview. And then there are the subjects of the stories themselves. Typically the content of high school media programs are primarily about and for the people who are in the building.

So if there’s no “school” per se, there’d be no product, right?

But then something unexpected happened. A number of the students started producing work that in a lot of ways was more compelling than what they made in the three quarters prior, work that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened in my f2f classroom.

Leveraging digital networks

One of the reasons I still love teaching is that I've been fortunate to learn from others through digital networks for about 20 years now – connecting on Teachers Teaching TeachersYouth Voices, and through the National Writing Project, for example. Another vital piece of my professional learning network is PBS NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs who came through with resources like Making Sense of Coronavirus and Conducting Virtual Interviews. I talk about this in detail in this Media Education Webinar, but to summarize one of my main points in that webinar, having this resource ready to go as I navigated uncharted waters lightened the cognitive load for me as a teacher, and knowing that other students around the country were also doing similar stories motivated my students.

One of the initial problems my class faced was when students had to figure out how to make their own equipment work.  In my f2f classroom I know how to use all the equipment and if students don't figure things out on their own, I'm there to show them. But when students had to use their own equipment, they were using tools and applications that i Never had. 

Other students became resources for each other. Instead of me demonstrating how to use the equipment in the classroom, our online classes turned into troubleshooting sessions, where I found myself emphasizing how people were making things work, rather than dwelling on the all the things that were going wrong.

Figuring things out on their own

I don't want to minimize equity issues, because admittedly some of my students struggled with access to computers and little to no wi-fi at home. There are systemic educational issues that have to be addressed if we want a healthy economy and an electoral system that works for everybody. But that's another discussion. And how my community supported struggling students during Covid-19 is something I'll take up in another post. Right now I'm focusing on the things that worked this past spring, and one of the themes that ran through a number of the interview responses was that students came up with creative ways to solve problems on their own.

For example, Cam couldn't get his older-model HP computer to read video files shot on his iPhone 6. I did some searching for resources but in the end, through sheer persistence, he figured it out on his own. Watching his video I think his success, at least in part, is consistent with what Nora Fleming writes about in the article, Why are some kids thriving during remote learning – self-pacing and getting enough sleep. From a research standpoint the behavior described in the video supports Zimmerman's observations about the cyclical process of self-regulation in chapter 2 in the Handbook of Self-regulation.

When asked, a lot of the students mentioned how they learned a lot about their own technology through this experience. Sam said: "I learned that virtual interviews can actually be as easy as conducting them in person. Thanks to apps like Zoom or FaceTime, virtual in-person interviews are easy to conduct." Other students used their gaming systems like Game Bar, or OBS. "In my situation, I didn't have access to any video or audio editing software, but I was able to conduct interviews over the phone, and use their transcripts to write a story.”

Expanding world views

Something else happened this past spring; the scope of our stories became more worldly. Some of the students produced a series of interviews about how coronavirus had impacted teens around the world like in ChileNorthern Ireland, and England. Sarah interviewed an international student at our school who left for her home in Korea as soon as our state's schools went completely online. 

When asked what they learned about coronavirus from doing stories from an international perspective, some noted similarities ("I learned how people around the world are in the same situation as I am, unable to leave the house or hang out with friends"), while others noted contrasts: “I learned how differently other countries handled the pandemic, especially in comparison to the United States. I also learned that not every place went into a full lockdown.”

Other students conducted virtual interviews with adults about issues that affect millions of people. Katie interviewed a representative from HEAL Utah, a local environmental non-profit about the obvious benefits of reduced commuting on air quality but also learned that the pandemic's effects on the environment were more complex than what she was seeing. Another student interviewed a member of the US Olympic Committee for a story on the cancelled 2020 Summer Games in Japan.
"I learned about ways to make an interview look extremely professional despite being across the country. I realized that even if we do go back to school next year we won't be limited to interviewing those in Utah."

The challenges ahead

Some of what my students had to say warmed my heart, like this one: "I learned that even though many of us have been struggling, we have adapted to new ways of life and learned to appreciate all of our blessings. People are more forgiving, grateful, and willing to go out of their way to see the people they love. I think our world has learned the importance of being proactive instead of reactive, in order to keep a pandemic like this from happening again."

That sentiment would make for a happy ending, but I can't close without recognizing the struggles. While some of my students thrived online, others floundered. And I'm left wondering how we can make school work better for all our students.

Too many of our students are feeling like what this student of mine wrote:
"I wake up every day around 1 P.M. I usually fall asleep around 4 in the morning. The virus has taken away everything I love, any way for me to make money or see my friends, and has indirectly caused my grades to tank. I’m stuck at home doing homework and sleeping in a weird, unhealthy pattern. I go through the rest of my life like a drone, just waiting to get my next hit of a popular movie or critically acclaimed T.V. show. Some would say my mindset is unhealthy, and I totally agree, but there isn’t much else I can do at this point. All aspects of my life have been touched by the virus, all in a negative way. I’m less healthy, school is more difficult (especially because teachers don’t know how much online work is too much), and I can’t see or interact with my friends. I’ve never wished so badly that I had school. I’d give anything to be back in a classroom, understanding the material and learning with my friends."

Even before Covid-19 a lot of our students had experienced trauma. In a recent episode of Teachers Teaching Teachers Richard Koch had a lot to say about how to teach in the age of stress and trauma. His book, The Mindful Writing Workshop, is a wonderful starting place.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Accessibility: COVID-19 journal #1

Screenshot of one of my classes (unfortunately a few missed).
Due to coronavirus, my school went completely online on March 16. Luckily we saw the possibility of going online about the week before we actually did, so I was able to brainstorm with my students about ways we thought we could still keep learning from a distance. My school uses Canvas LMS, and one of the things I tested with my students was the Conference feature, which I never really had a use for since we always met in a traditional face-to-face school setting.

As we went online another thing I realized was that, although I've taught online and hybrid courses before, I still had this nagging feeling that I wasn't utilizing enough of the affordances of this new online environment. So I joined the MAET Mini-MOOC: Remote Teaching. Turns out I've got a lot to learn.

One of the things I've learned more about is making our online work more accessible to everyone. Introduction to Web Accessibility by WC3 is one of the many great resources I've come across. Just as curb cuts benefit people in wheelchairs and also people pushing baby carriages or dragging luggage, accessibility online also benefits all users. including transcripts or using subtitles with our videos not only benefits people with auditory disabilities, but also works for people who want to watch a video but are in an environment where it's best not to listen to audio.

As encouraged in the MAET Mini-MOOC, I'm implementing accessibility features like text styles and heading styles in the transcript below this video I put together for anyone who might want to use the Conference feature in Canvas.

Using Conferences in Canvas

Starting a new conference call 

Click on the Conference link. Click on the New Conference.   First decide who's going to be in on this. Is it the whole class or just some members. Think about whether you want to enable recording for this, for posterity or for students who won’t be able to be there. Let’s call this "Conference test" and let's think about how long we're going to make this. In this case I'm just going to make it 30 minutes and that seems like enough, so I'll click Update. Then I get the screen where I can click Start and we've just started the conference right now.

About the audio 

The first screen you will see is how you want to join the audio. I always am going to choose the microphone. But realize the students see this screen too so that you may only want them to listen only or use a microphone. And realize they can also join using your phone. I'm going to click allow for my microphone. Then there's an Echo test. In this case I could hear my own voice so it was echoing, so I’m going to click Okay it was echoing. Then after that we're ready to go. The next thing you notice is there's a mute button and unmute button. That's really important because I think we want the students and ourselves not to pick up distracting background audio.

About the chat 

Next you'll notice there's a chat that's taking place there. That is a public chat and you can see the students are filling up the chat with their wisdom, and we could use that in a lot of different ways. These students were just testing this feature out for me, FYI they are a lot more articulate than that.

Set your status 

You can also see that if you click on your own avatar you can set your status. There are things you can do like raise your hand. You can signal that you're away from the computer for a second, you can say that you're confused, or sad, or happy or things like that which seems like useful information for people in the rest of the conference to know about you.

Shared notes 

Another feature you'll notice over on the left side, below messages and above users, is the shared notes feature, which I have to say is a little distracting at times because everybody can write in that document at the same time. So sometimes they’re overwriting each other. If you're wondering how many notes that panel can hold a student tested it and found that the entire script of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith actually can fit in there. So there doesn't seem to be a limit to the number of notes students can add or teachers can add to the shared notes.


You and your students can see each other, so you can turn on your webcam and share that. I am turning on my webcam right now and the students can also join so if you want to be able to see them, it’s possible.

Screen sharing 

The last feature that I think is really useful is to be able to share my screen. In this case let's say I wanted to give some feedback to a student who has a piece of writing. I can use screen sharing with them and I could in Canvas annotate the document, or we can just have a discussion about it. Sharing your screen is another feature that's worthwhile.

End meeting 

Now it's time to end the meeting, so I'm going to go up to the top right of the screen, and click End Meeting. I'm going to say yes. The last thing that the students can do, and you can do, is give feedback on the meeting, so you can all give some stars and some comments.