Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Overwhelmed? Think Three Ts

Being stretched and stressed seems to be part of a teacher's job description. Few teachers are able to work a 40-hour work week and achieve a healthy work/life balance. Some do, but I think it's safe to say that most educators' plates stay way full. And as if there wasn't enough already, along came Covid. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been a source of enormous stress for everyone, but especially educators. It's now September and while the curve has flattened in many areas, the virus does not seem to be going away anytime soon. But learning can't wait and we are moving forward with safety protocols in place. Although North Carolina is on Plan B which allows for in-person instruction with social distancing and other safety guidelines, our district has opted to start the school year with K-12 remote instruction and it's been quite overwhelming. But whether we teach remotely, face-to-face or in a hybrid model, there are new technologies, routines and requirements brought on by this pandemic and it seems every single educator is barely keeping their head above water. Some changes are temporary, but I highly suspect much of it will stick. Needless to say all this newness is causing educators to be stretched very thin - especially for those that have children at home. A lack of work/life balance can adversely affect not only our teaching, but also our health. I'm concerned that if we don't make some adjustments the exhaustion and stress can be just as hazardous as the virus we are trying to steer clear of.  

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While you may think there's little you can adjust, think Three T's: Toss, Tweak and Treasure.
  • What can we toss? If you are a tech enthusiast like me, you may be quick to jump in and try the latest toys to help stay remotely connected. But if we are not careful, those tech tools or novel strategies that may seem very promising may not actually be very beneficial and take us away from that which is priority. So, if it's not mandated by your school or district, it's not essential to remote learning, not required for your curriculum, and/or not really making teaching and learning more effective, toss it (or save it for later in the year). 
  • What can we tweak? Is there a routine or strategy that can be implemented a little differently? Perhaps there's a step you can omit? Could you record your lessons and use a tool like Edpuzzle that helps with checking for understanding, automatically grades and integrates with most learning management systems? There may be something you've successfully implemented in the past that perhaps can be digitized and used in remote learning. Reach out to a colleague or an instructional coach for time-saving tools, tips and pointers. Sometimes slight tweaks that can make a huge difference. Watch "212 - The Extra Degree."
  • What do we treasure? Our greatest treasures are people and relationships. Students are the reason we do what we do, but we also need our colleagues, parents and other stakeholders to keep us moving forward. But there are also some tech treasures that while initially overwhelming are winning our hearts and are becoming a staple in our practice. For us, district-wide implementation of Canvas LMS and Social & Emotional Learning, as well as school-wide implementation of Zoom are proving invaluable. And the consistency has been well-received and appreciated by students, parents and staff, most notably the use of Canvas. Prior to Covid, we were free to use the learning management system of choice (or none at all, although most used either Canvas or Google Classroom). Nevertheless, it's been exhausting as we've had to work through the summer in order to prepare for changes implemented this fall. I will say that we need to be careful to not throw out the baby with the bath water as things start to normalize. Before we consider tossing something new, we need to give it some time. As we become more familiar with new technologies, new curricula or new routines, the more speed we'll pickup and the more comfortable and relaxed we will feel. Much of our exhaustion is due to all the newness teaching in a pandemic has brought us. 
We are now in our fourth week of school and we are starting to adjust to this new normal. So if you are just starting the school year, please know that things will get better. Social media is loaded with posts from teachers venting their frustration and exhaustion. But as I read every post, I'm also encouraged by the unwavering commitment and dedication.

Image credit: Unsplash.com

Most of us could have never imagined having to teach through such challenging times. And while we may feel as if we barely have time to breathe, rethinking and prioritizing our workload will not only be good for our health, it will make us better educators, and impact our personal lives as well. Being intentional and reflective, figuring out what can be tossed or tweaked will help us to find the treasures in our practice that will restore our energy and love of teaching and learning. 

Stay positive and hopeful, my friends. I still believe good things will come of this. If you have helpful tips and strategies to help keep us strong, please reach out or simply comment below.

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Saturday, August 8, 2020

How Do I Love Flipgrid?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Flipgrid is a video discussion tool that is transforming education. Not because it's fun and engaging - we all know that the wow-factor quickly diminishes. Not because it's easy to learn and use, although that's a huge plus.  Not even because it's great and completely free with no premium upgrade and no strings attached, which is unbelievably amazing. Flipgrid is transformational because it can potentially engage students in critical thought and fosters student-driven learning. It can be used in so many ways. The more I use it, the more uses I discover and the more I love it, especially as we embark on full remote learning. 

I first heard of Flipgrid in 2016 from a fellow math teacher at my previous district. She was using it as formative assessment tool and found the verbal responses provided much better qualitative data than traditional quizzes. At the time I was serving as ESL teacher and she suggested I consider implementing it in my classes for speaking practice. But back then it wasn’t a free product and the free version was quite limited, so I searched for a comparable freebie and it was a hit. Eventually that product went off the market but soon after Flipgrid was acquired by Microsoft and became available to educators for free. That's when it won me over.

How do I love Flipgrid? Here are my favorite ways.

I love it as a way to build relationships. Flipgrid is popular for introductions at the start of the year or semester. Check out these great ideas for the first day of school. It's a great way to learn names. Share a link prior to the first day and you may be able to greet students by name as they join your class on the first day. However, I encourage you making it part of your daily or weekly routine. Regular use of the tool can build relationships and strengthen the classroom community. Many will say that videos are impersonal, but I think they tell us lots about students, both academically and socially. And it inspires, validates and empowers, as it gives them a voice and frees them to wonder and explore. This freedom strengthens the classroom culture as students build relationships with teachers and with each other.

I love it as an assessment tool. Exit tickets and quizzes don't always have to be on paper or in digital form. Verbal responses can't be copied from a peer or copied/pasted from a website, but who has time to meet individually with every student, so a videorecorded response is the next best thing. And when all responses are in you can easily grade answers by playing the videos one after another. 

I love it for inquiry-based learning. Ask students to record questions, not just answers. I highly recommend  the question formulation technique (QFT) by the Right Question Institute, a protocol that teaches students to how to ask their own questions.  Students can record content-related questions and if teachers can adjust the settings, peers can respond. Check out  Make Just One Change to learn more about implementing QFT.

I love it as a self-assessment or reflection tool.  Students can record their assessment according to a rubric. Have learners assess their work and perhaps even justify their grade. Or give them a 3-2-1 prompt for reflecting on a project or a unit of study. This develops ownership and also give us good information on how they assimilated the material. It's also good feedback on our practice. 

I love it as a teaching tool. Screencasts. Virtual Field Trips. Guest Speakers. It's better known as a video discussion tool, but recently added features, including a digital whiteboard, annotation tools and more, enable teachers to use it for lesson presentations and connect it to numerous resources. There's so much educators can do to elicit responses. 

I love that it's accessible on any device. I especially love recording on my phone. This will be helpful if students don't take devices home (which is not the case in a remote learning model), but even if they do the smartphone app is quicker and easier to use and helps address digital equity issues. Students can complete a Flipgrid assignment right on their smartphone and they can complete it while they wait for the bus or ride, or in their car before they drive off. And teachers can work off their phones too.

I love that it's a tool for all.  From Pre-K to higher education, Flipgrid works for everyone. It's also a great way to connect with parents and guardians and/or have students record their own progress report. This year, we are using Flipgrid to have a virtual open house the week before school starts to share course details with parents and guardians.

And those are just a few tidbits. Flipgrid is a very versatile tool and they are continually improving it and adding more features. There's so much you can do with it and so many ways it can enhance teaching and learning. If you haven't used it, I encourage you to visit Flipgrid.com to try it out for yourself. And if you are teaching remotely, check out Remote Learning with Flipgrid for lots of ideas.

If Flipgrid is a favorite tech tool, I'd love to hear how you use it and how it has impacted your school. You can comment below, email me or reach out on Twitter. I look forward to hearing from you.
Until next time, enjoy every minute of the journey. And remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Should Students Be Required To Keep Cameras On During a Virtual Class?

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I recently took this question to Twitter and my PLN overwhelmingly disagreed with the notion of requiring students to keep cameras on during virtual class meets, unless it was necessary for the lesson or activity.  While I can't say I was surprised that most educators were opposed to a mandate, I was frankly expecting a more even split. Based on my Twitter poll, 62% of respondents opposed the mandate, for 23% it would depend on the lesson and only 15% were in favor.

In our district, all teaching will be virtual until further notice, but instruction will be much more rigorous than it was in the spring. With a solid digital equity plan, most instruction will be synchronous, participation in video meets will be required and attendance will be taken just as it has been when students were on campus. 

And cameras are required to be on. That's a non-negotiable.

While I don't always agree with all of my district's decisions, this time I'm 100% on board. Here's why?
  • Accountability. This not about a gotcha. We all know full well that students will slack if no one is holding them accountable. I will speak for myself. Going virtual shortened my commute, but didn't lighten my workload. However, have to be on camera for meetings pushed me to be fully present and at my best. If all my work would have been asynchronous I may not have ever gotten out of my pajamas. Which leads to my next point.
  • Productivity. We want our kiddos to be fully present and productive, not just online. I've had conversations with many colleagues that will admit they are more focused when on camera. When cameras are off, they would tend to multitask, check their email and their attention would drift. They were overall not as productive and engaged in the activity or conversation.
  • Body Language. Our gestures and facial expressions speak louder than words. Body language can tell us how receptive they are to the material, if they are confused or totally checked out. 
  • Relationships. "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship" (James Comer). Most or all of your students will be new to you and it's hard to get to know someone new without meeting with them face-to-face. If in-person instruction is not an option, this is the main reason we need to keep our cameras on. I personally find it very awkward to have a conversation with someone who's turned off their camera - we may as well have a phone meeting.
Perhaps you haven't given this much thought or maybe you just don't agree that it should be required. Virtual school is still unchartered territory and we are still learning as we go along. As much as we are trying to replicate face-to-face instruction, let's not kid ourselves, it's not the same. It's a given that student cameras will be on during demonstrations and presentations are a given,

but regardless of the content we teach, we win when we know our students well, academically and socially. Keeping our cameras may not seem like a big deal, but accountability, productivity, communication and good relationships with our students makes us more effective educators. 

I don't start back until August 3rd and so at this point, I have no idea if staff will have the same requirement. I'm also curious how this will play out with students, so I may likely address this topic once the fall semester is underway. 

If you have a strong opinion either way, or would like to share an inspiring or funny story, I'd love to hear from you. You may comment below, email me or reach out on Twitter.

Until next time, stay well and stay strong. And remember it's the tidbits that make it all grand.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

To Podcast Or Not To Podcast

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

To podcast or not to podcast...that is the question.

Interestingly enough, I asked myself pretty much the same question in 2014 when I was considering starting a blog (To Blog Or Not To Blog...That Is The Question).

I've been as apprehensive about launching a podcast as I was about starting a blog. I didn't think I had anything worth writing about or if anyone would be interested in reading my posts. And if no one would read them and if my blog would be more of a journal...what was the point? Likewise, I've wondered if podcasting will be worth the time and investment. While I don't intend on purchasing additional software and equipment, time is certainly a valuable commodity. It will be one more thing on my to-do list and it could potentially distract me from my priorities and most importantly, take time away from my family. Though I pondered the idea frequently, I quickly dismissed the thought.

That is until recently.

Last April, I joined a virtual PD session on student podcasting and was very intrigued. When the presenter played samples of her students' podcasts, my heart skipped a beat and I knew this was something I needed to pursue. While I would like to eventually facilitate a student-run podcast, for now, I'd like to start a podcast so I can promote podcasting in the classroom.

With most schools going with a remote or hybrid learning model this fall, podcasting is a great tool for project-based learning and assessment. Podcasting can be productive in both listening and speaking about the content in our curriculums. Ideally, we should have students listen to podcasts and once they are familiar with the format, have them create their own.
  • Listening to Podcasts. News and information directly tied to course standards are a great way to enhance the curriculum and keep your content fresh and relevant. I'm a big proponent of teaching with current events, and assigning a listen instead of a read may be a better option for some students. And together with a transcript, it's an easy way to offer a read-aloud accommodation, although it would be helpful to all students. Here's a Free Podcast Reflection Sheet from We Are Teachers that can be used with a podcasting assignment. 
  • Student-Created Podcasts. From self-assessments to group discussion to expert interviews, podcasting provides teachers invaluable evidence of learning while sharpening students' communication skills. There are numerous resources out there to help you and your students get started, but I highly recommend taking a look at two resources from Read Write Think
I also encourage you to check out Anchor.fm or download the Anchor app on your smartphone or tablet. Although there are other free options, Anchor is free and super simple. So simple that students can learn how to use it on their own and you won't have to take up valuable class time walking them through it, although you can provide a link to a how-to video just in case.

My head is spinning with ideas for student work, but with all the newness brought on by the pandemic, we'll just have to wait and see how things will play out before I develop a solid plan. I do know that podcasting would be an invaluable experience for our young people. Just like blogging was a gamechanger in my ESL classroom, I know that podcasting will have a similar or greater impact on students. Aside from enhancing communication skills, all the technology involved in the craft can increase learners' confidence and positively impact their school experience. Who knows? A simple podcasting assignment may help a student find his or her calling.

Image by Michi S from Pixabay

So, To Podcast or Not To Podcast?  Teaching Tidbits Podcast is on. Just like my blog, my podcast will feature tidbits of ideas, reflections, and inspiration to keep educators (myself included) moving forward on our teaching and learning journeys. Sometimes it will be just me, but I do hope to be joined by educators and also students. It will be an interesting school year. I'm excited, and certainly a little anxious, but I'm ready for the ride and I hope you'll join me. 

Until next time, I hope you'll stay healthy and strong. And remember, it's the tidbits that make it all grand. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

We May Not Reap, But We Always Plant

Summertime for teachers is usually a time to reflect, relax and recharge. If the year ends well, we are excited and energized. If it didn't end so well, we breathe a sigh of relief, learn from challenges and mistakes, and move forward in the hopes of a better year.

Image by Walkerssk from Pixabay

But this summer is different.

Covid has turned our world upside down. Campuses closed, we taught remotely and ended the year unlike any other with no traditional celebrations and graduations. Remote teaching had us working harder than ever, and it was exhausting - physically, mentally and emotionally. It's also a little disheartening. Despite our best efforts, engagement was low, with some students disconnecting as soon as schools closed, especially once they learned of standardized testing cancellations. And the uncertainty of it all is nerve-racking. We can reflect but we are not sure what to plan for. 

Photo by Gary Fisher from Pixabay. Quote added using Canva

This year I realized that while I'm officially an educator, I'm really more of a farmer.

No, I don't live on a farm and have no connection to the farming industry. I've lived in the suburbs for most of my life, although I did live in a rural, farming community for over 15 years - a place I consider my adopted hometown. Even so, no one who knows me personally would ever describe me as a farmer. Not even close. I don't own a garden. I don't do much landscaping. I don't even have the slightest hint of a green thumb. Everything I've ever planted without the help of my dear husband has died. So why would I consider myself a farmer?

Like a farmer, I plant and I (sometimes) reap. Farmers deal with unpredictable weather, land conditions, pest infestations, and other uncontrollable factors that can adversely affect even the most skilled agriculturist. Likewise, even the most accomplished educator will encounter challenges beyond her control. From poverty to peer pressure to politics, there's so much that can throw off learning. Add a global pandemic and social justice issues to the mix and you have nothing short of a perfect storm. And although we know it takes time to reap and we may never see the fruits of our labor, we always hope to see growth.

We ended the school year in an unexpected, unprecedented way, and we move forward to a post-COVID season full of uncertainty and anticipation. Like a farmer, we take the good with the bad and if the season didn't go as expected, we pick ourselves up, sow again and never lose hope.

Stay well, stay strong and stay positive, my friends. Rather than fret about the unknown, let's be present in the moment and seize the day. I truly believe good things will come of this experience.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Letter To My Future Self

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Image Credit: wilgengebroed

We all know that change is constant and life is full of surprises, but never has our future been as uncertain as now.

This pandemic has played out like a horrible science fiction movie with no ending in sight. And while stay-at-home orders have been lifted in most areas, without a vaccine I think it's unlikely that we will return to school as we knew it based on  CDC guidelinesAlthough we don't know what the new normal will look like, we do know that we cannot work to potential if we are not feeling healthy, safe, and secure. I can't even speculate on what the future holds.

Image by Ranjat M from Pixabay

Last year a colleague introduced me to futureme.org. A cool website where you can write a letter to your future self, enter an email address, and your letter will be emailed to you on a date of your choosing. It defaults to one year, but you can opt to have it sent sooner or later. Also, you can choose to make the letter "private" or "public but anonymous." Public letters will be published on the website. It's sort of like a time capsule. I tried it over a year ago when I first learn of the site and when the email came in a year later, it was a wonderful surprise. I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already.

So, I wrote a letter to my future self to be delivered on December 21, 2020, at the end of the first semester.  I chose for my letter to be private on the site, but I am sharing my letter below.
Dear FutureMe,

While I embrace all the technology that goes with remote teaching and learning, I didn't realize how challenging it would be. Everyone in my department quickly took off running and did whatever it took to ensure learning was uninterrupted. We ended well, but it wasn't ideal. We have all been affected in some way by economic, health, social-emotional, and/or relational instability. Although many learners overcame challenges and thrived, too many were minimally or not engaged. 

But we press on. We move forward embracing the new normal – whatever that will look like. While I can't speculate on how we will achieve social distancing, I believe that much of what we implemented during remote teaching will stick. Here's some of what I expect:

•    Screencasting and videoconferencing tools will become staples in our instruction. There are lots of tech tools that can work both on campus and online, but those two are a must. I’m looking forward to helping teachers at my school and district implement them in their courses.
•    Canvas will be a life-changer. I think by the end of the first semester, teachers will be rocking it and it will grow on those who hated it.
•    More voice, more choice, more buy-in. One size does not fit all. From classroom teaching to professional development sessions, I think we will see an increase in personalized, learner-driven instruction.
•    There’s more to learning than grades and GPA. While those are important, they are not the purpose of school.  I expect to seen an increased focus on feedback for learning. Grades alone don’t bridge gaps. The challenge will be finding ways to provide effective feedback without quadrupling a teacher's workload. I think we need to start small and look at what can be eliminated.
•    Authentic assessments will be on the rise. We've learned that many of our CTE courses will no longer have state-developed multiple choice tests, but will either use an industry credential or a performance assessment. Regardless of how a course is summatively assessed, I think we will see fewer multiple-choice exams. I'm also curious about the future of AP testing, after this year's at-home testing that consisted solely of portfolios and/or free response questions.
•   No more silos. From sharing lesson plans to sharing tips and shortcuts, the best PD is often found in the classroom next door or in the teacher's lounge. I have a feeling that social distance has made our professional hearts grow fonder. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but I think not.

I sense there will be lots of surprises and curveballs, but keep the faith, Anabel, and believe the best is yet to come.

Cheers to a bright future!