Forget Normal. Let’s Get Real.

If you thought the close of the 2019/2020 school year was unusual, just wait for the beginning, middle and end of the 2020/2021 year! No stakeholders are going to recognize their roles in regard to school this year. Parents are in the process of making decisions about their children’s educational environments without full information. Students are starved for face-to-face contact with peers, as they realize the limitations of social media. The US economy has come to the startling realization that academics are just one function of schools. And teachers. Teachers are going to reinvent teaching once again as we correct issues that were duct-taped together last spring.

Here is my outline of what must be better in schools this year along with my proposals for improvements.

Students need a reasonable number of classes. My 8thgraders had 7 to 8 classes to keep up with last spring. When I called students to find out how I could help them when I saw them falling behind, I discovered they were working on some classes at the expense of others. A student with three different technology classes could never get to his math or his English. I tried to meet with students in small groups to help them prioritize their workloads. They were overwhelmed and ill equipped to make decisions about how much time to spend on an assignment. They got behind and soon saw no point in working to catch up. This cannot happen this year. We, as the adults in the room, must make this process manageable for learners. Students should have only 4 to 5 classes. If a student wants an elective class, it should be just that – elective. This recommendation stands whether schools are online, face-to-face or a hybrid. This is a temporary measure. Not permanent. (I know we must have arts and technology and physical education, but right now, we need to get our students to read and write on grade-level, or at the very least, at pre-Covid-19 levels.)

You may question, if student have only 4 to 5 courses, will such a plan would lead to an excess of elective teachers? Certainly not. Those teachers have experiences and relationships with students that must be utilized in general core education classes if students are going to be able to make up for lost learning from last year and move forward with grade-level content.  This is true regardless of the medium of education. We need all teachers focused the same goal, to get education back on track, not teachers fighting for one course to have priority over another. 

In a face-to-face class situation, multiple teachers will be required for each core class as the class size will be too large to fit in a single classroom. A second teacher will be needed, not a monitor. A teacher—a trained, licensed educator. I do not worry about content knowledge. That can be acquired, or rather reacquired. These teachers are college educated. I am confident they can quickly grasp 8thgrade concepts.  And, they can learn right along with the students if need be. Adults by their very nature can learn more quickly than middle-schoolers. Adults can share their sincere joy of learning with the students. The adults can also bring a perspective to the learning that can benefit the learning process in the class. Teachers by nature are lifelong learners. They love to learn and share that learning. That can benefit students in ways that I could never do by myself.  This is a job I would only trust to my colleagues that are already in the building. I do not need an assistant. I need an equal partner. 

The same holds if classes are held entirely online. Any teacher with experience from last spring will tell you that it takes much more time to prepare for online class than it does for face-to-face class. It also takes longer to provide students with individual, quality feedback. It takes longer to facilitate constructive discussions among learners. Having multiple teachers with varied areas of expertise in content and technology can bring the entire online educational experience to another level entirely. There will be a synergistic affect that will benefit teachers and students alike. Again, I do not need an assistant. I need a peer who has skin in the game to help bring our learners to where they need to be so they may move forward with deftness and alacrity.

And what if the classes are hybrid? The amount of work required on the part of teachers to conduct a hybrid model is a daunting thought. If half of the students are learning at home three days a week and in school two days a week and then the halves switch, a single teacher cannot prepare, conduct, and provide feedback under two entirely different educational mediums in a single day, let alone four out of five days. The amount of preparation, monitoring, support, feedback, assessing, grading, reteaching, follow-up, parent contact, documentation, research and planning required for one course is staggering. One adult simply cannot successfully sustain this any period of time.  It will take a team of motivated, committed, trusted teachers to accomplish this. I know of no better teachers to rise to this challenge than the elective teachers with whom I have worked over the past 14 years. They are committed, intelligent, and trusted. All educators must be utilized to help our students at this time. This is when we must come together and show what we can do. 

I heard a school board member say at last week’s meeting that elective teachers would not go for a model that put them in general education classrooms. I think the school board members expect that these teachers would be monitors rather than teachers. Teachers are teachers and want what is best for student learning. These specially, intentionally placed teachers are not being devalued. On the contrary, they are being revalued. They are what can help right this wronged situation in which education now finds itself. We would be doing our students a disservice if we placed monitors with them in annexed classrooms rather than driven, qualified, quality teachers.  Motivated adults can acquire content knowledge quickly. The expertise that a qualified teacher brings to a class comes with experience.

There is not time, money or space to hold school safely to a pre-March 13th standard. Teachers must work together for the benefit of society to get the education ship righted sooner rather than later. The better our educational system is, the better the economy will be. We must remember that we are helping build the creators of this world who will go on to be great leaders, inventors, and scientists; great writers, problem solvers, artists, and thinkers. I get a sense from neighbors, the small town newspaper, local and national news broadcasts, Facebook “friends” and users of Twitter that teachers are being vilified for their concern about returning to a physical classroom. Teachers know what makes a classroom a successful place to learn. A classroom has students learning and working together. It has teachers challenging and scaffolding students as these learners construct their own knowledge and understandings. Putting students into classrooms, spaced six feet apart, under vigilant monitoring to keep learners from following their instincts to get close to one another; to share thinking as well as supplies; to be stuck in the same room all day long as teachers move from room to room, this sounds miserable for all parties. Nobody wants to be back in the classroom more than teachers. We want to do what we do as teachers and have students do what they do as learners, but the traditional look of that is not safe at this point in time. It will not be safe for quite a while. I do not like these facts, but I must accept them. I must be able to move forward productively for the benefit of my students. Posterity is counting on us.

As I was drafting this post, I ran across this Tweet from @MathDenisNJ. Thanks Denis.

Planning Out-loud

I am trying to plan a bit for next year. This is some raw thinking, so feel free to push back. Until I have a pacing guide, I am going to work on structure, regardless of the course. I will be teaching NC Integrated Maths 1 and 2 to 8th graders.

I learned several things last spring. I have other areas to bring into focus so I can work on them. Here’s where I am now:

1. There needs to be a school bell schedule of sorts. This cannot come from me, but must be implemented above me. I tried to keep a schedule of synchronous classes last spring and continuously had to adjust my days and times due to staff meetings and department meetings and district training opportunities. Teachers and students need consistent structure, just like a normal school day.

2. Students need a schedule. Last spring, my most successful students were those whose parents made certain they went to bed at night and got up in the morning. Structure and home support matter. While that is always the case, the effects of parental support and structure are amplified with online school when learners are not yet in the mindset of self-monitoring.

3. Too many apps and links and new programs for students leave little time to concentrate on learning content. Figure out the most beneficial tools and stick to them. Seems to me 3 to 5 applications are the maximum any class should have throughout the year. I will be using Desmos, Nearpod and Edpuzzle for certain.

4. Planning at least a Module at a time is essential. Tweaks here and there must be made, but a longer-range plan is helpful. I hope I know where we are expected to be at the end of the first 5 weeks of school so I can plan backwards. I know I want to spend ample time up-front getting to know my learners and their support systems.

 5. Synchronous class time is sacred and must be used for class discussions, discoveries and sharing if student work. Students can take quizzes, complete practice, interact with videos, check homework and take notes on their own time. It is likely I will only see learners twice a week.

6. A platform must exist where students can easily submit work from their workbooks so I can plan how to use that work to further learning in class. Perhaps I set up a Google folder by course by week where students submit pictures or scans of their work. If students can scan their work into a file. I can select and sequence work for class discussions in realtime. Maybe there is a way to do this within Canvas. 

7. Students must value learning for learning’s sake if online learning is going to be successful. If students go through the motions, checking off boxes with no real interest in outcomes other than grades or parent approval, they will be able to play the game of online school. However, students will not truly be successful at it. So, how do I build the culture I want online? This is always the culture I strive for in my classrooms. My students can hear, feel and see my passion for learning, and for many, that is enough inspiration. That is far from the norm though. I must help them find joy in learning.

8. I want a white board where students can draft their mathematical thinking as they develop it. I know I am going to send physical white boards home with students when they come to pick up their workbooks, but what about an electronic whiteboard? I just started looking at Google’s Jam Board. I like that the boards can be captured as images. I like that you can add post-it notes so you can actually type things in. Typing with a mouse causes hand cramps and not everyone has a stylus or a touch screen for writing. Canvas has sharable whiteboard space, but it gets very crowded with large classes. Zoom also has annotation tools that could be used as a white board. I’m still testing out options.

9. Summative assessments can be run through Canvas, though I think I will tighten the windows of time available for assessments from what I permitted in the spring. By being too accommodating last spring, some students got so far behind they could not catch up so they gave up entirely. 

10. Communication with parents needs to be simple and systematic. I need to develop a newsletter format, include links for additional help, preview the coming week and recap the past week. This must be done for all courses. This will help me stay better organized and focused as well. I will put samples of the technology we will use in our learning for the week. I may put in talking points to help parents engage in conversations about learning math with their children. A weekly calendar will be necessary.

11. I see I have two classes of 37 students and 2 classes of 29 students at this point. I know supplemental instruction will be necessary as there is likely unfinished learning from last year. I envision this will be short videos I find or create. I do not want to steal student learning through these, but they must be efficient if students are going to watch them. Again, these videos will help me focus the course content. Videos can be part of a Nearpod lesson, an Edpuzzle lesson, a Desmos activity or they can stand alone as a file within Canvas. The key here is efficiency to cover unfinished learning from prior courses. I hope to accompany these with “green sheets” and train learners how to use these to support their learning so we may continue to work on course-level material.

12. Train students on using discussion boards in Canvas. I made an incorrect assumption last year that students knew how to respond and interact with discussion boards through Canvas before our remote learning experience. I was wrong. 

13. Activities in Desmos as well as the MVP/OUR lesson activities require perseverance on the part of students. Positive experiences requiring effort and perseverance will be key in the first two weeks of school to instill these qualities in students.

14. Not everything that matters counts toward a grade. Students and parents alike need to understand what grades are in my classes. Grades reflect mastering the standards. Grades are not rewards any more than they are punishments. Grades are simply the common shorthand language spoken and understood among parents, teachers and students. See number 7.

 15. Last year I did not teach Math 1. In fact I only taught Math 1 one year since the implementation of Common Core and those students just graduated. I am excited about this course. It used to be that students had 20 days to solidify their placement in Math 1. If, upon mutual agreement among parent, student and teacher, it is determined to be in the student’s best interest to move over to a grade-level Math 8 class, that could be accommodated, but only within the first 20 days of school. This first 20 days will be, likely, online. This necessitates additional relationship building with students and parents involved in Math 1 to get to know these students well enough to determine what is, indeed, in their best interests. It is also possible that the “20 day letter” is no longer a thing.

Emerging categories based on numbers above:

In my control 3 4 5 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Not in my control 1 2 7

Teacher 2 3 4 5 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 
Student  2 5 6 7 8 9 11 12 13 14 15
Parent  2 5 10 14 15
Administration  1 2

Tangible 1 2 3 4 5 6 8 9 10 11 12
Intangible 7 14 15

Looking at my crude sorting of ideas, it is clear that students and I together shoulder the most responsibility. This is as it should be and always has been. I hope my list helps me better prepare communications with parents and students regarding needs and expectations. Looks like I have some work to do so I better get to it.

Perfectly Timed Lesson and Distance Learning Vaughn_trapped Style

Mathematics Vision Project is the curriculum I am using and we began the last Module for Math 2 this week. The first lesson set the stage for some meaningful LIVE online conversation with learners. The lesson is titled “TB or Not TB” and uses, as you might guess, tuberculosis testing results for the basis of studying the meaning of conditional probabilities. I launched the lesson and students naturally  substituted Covid19 testing for TB as we thought about the context. We had the discussion of what it means to have a false positive or a false negative. We talked about which was more dangerous. Students were more invested because they could relate to the lesson’s context. They indeed met the goal of developing an understanding of the situation presented.

So, you may be wondering how exactly I pull-off live discussions in the middle of May, 2020 with 40-some 8th graders. Well here is some of what I have finally landed on after many failed experiments and inefficiencies.

  • We meet LIVE two days a week, for those learners who are able to. I usually get 35 to 45 participants from a course of 52 students. That’s 2 brink and mortar style classes, but I run a combined virtual session.
  • We review the lesson assigned the prior day and preview the next lesson.
  • Students ask clarifying questions, offer options and make conjectures on open mic or in the chat window.
  • For online LIVE lessons, I take a district created PowerPoint and dump it down to a pdf. (Pardon my lack of technical jargon. I am a technosaurous trying to survive in the 21st century.) I import that pdf and share it with my class by way of a shared screen through Big Blue Button  which we access through Conferences in Canvas. I, as well as students, can write in real-time on the “slides”. The writing stays with the slides when I forward them which is handy if we need to revisit. (Note to self – go back after class and record those screens of the lesson that are marked up for students who were not there.)
  • I make clear the purpose/goal of each lesson and make certain through discussions that we hit the main points of the lesson. Students have their workbooks that mimic the slides so we are all literally on the same page. Students take notes and write down questions to ponder. I have them circle words and we go through new notations, for example, in this lesson, conditional probability…the probability that A occurs given B has already happened: P(A|B). This detail of instruction is NOT in the workbook because the workbook is NOT a textbook. A teacher is needed to execute this curriculum. Students also ask questions of me and of one another.
  • After the LIVE session, I post a scan of my completed lesson workbook pages to Canvas. To do this, I use a set of RocketBook Beacons that I attached to a small whiteboard. I point my phone at them and they shoot themselves to where ever I desire, usually my school email, but I am experimenting with other options. (I started by using my RocketBook pages and balancing my workbook while displaying the medallion at the bottom of the page, but Beacons are faster and create clearer images for me. I am not using them as they were designed, but it works for me.
    2020-05-20 rocketbook beacon setup with wb
    Here is the result:   8-1-1.
  • Another thing I use to work with my learners online is a pdf of chosen problems from Problem Attic. I format and download a set of questions I harvest and choose to display one question per page, extra large, simple font to a pdf. If we want to quiz ourselves, I import that pdf and share the screen as I did with the lesson pages. We use the polling options available through Big Blue Button if I choose multiple choice questions. I can also have students type answers into the chat window, but wait to press enter until I count down so they do not steal the opportunity for others to learn. We also write on the shared screen and talk about the questions. I then post this set of practice problems along with an answer key to Canvas after the LIVE session for all to access.
  • We finish in an hour. So that’s one hour twice a week LIVE. Since April 12th : we finished one module, including quizzes and a test, that we started before March 13 – the day the world changed; we completed an entirely new module and quizzed twice and tested on it; now we are into the final module which we will finish including testing by June 5th. It cis everything that I have motivated learners and for that I am grateful. I have measured results. Students who attend and participate in the LIVE sessions perform better on assessments.

So, this may look and even feel successful at times. I assure you, it is far from optimal. I miss the smells and the noises and the looks of elation as well as confusion. I miss sitting close to kids and watching them think through concepts. I miss being able to see individual student work so I can sequence it for sharing with the class. I miss seeing my students’ smiles when I say, “White Boards—GO!” as they run to their favorite #VNPS in the room. I do love that my kids are driven learners. They have worked and they have been exposed and the large majority of them have really tried.

What we have here is a failure to communicate….

A failure to communicate? No. We have a failure to read directions, right? NO. We have a failure to teach learners how to read directions. And follow them. I have failed my kids. I created a monster that can neither read nor follow directions for themselves. I did this because it was faster to spoon feed and answer questions that could easily be answered from READING THE DIRECTIONS. Oh my dear ELA and reading teachers, I have failed you too. I am so ashamed. I am sorry. I will do better. I am paying the price and learning the lesson.


I am guilty of not teaching how to read and follow direction and if your students aren’t harvesting the fruits of your tiring hours, you’re guilty too. It’s my fault. It’s all of our faults.

So, how am I going to fix this going forward? If I were rich, I would plant money in secret places that require my students to read and follow directions to find. But I’m not. But maybe I could hide other treasures? Would that be illegal given physical distancing? Encouraging notes hidden in the park? Or, better yet – or at least socially responsible – crazy videos of the math teacher that you get via clues left in the assignments. By golly. I’m going to try that!!!  Or some version. I need to give them something to talk about. They deserve a reward. We all deserve to have fun.

Let’s get this online revolution or at least a resolution to get learners to read directions going! Join me!!

Side note… Oh dearest blog, I am so, so, so sorry I have neglected you. You help me think. You help me come up with amazing ideas. My sour take on classroom management this year has led me to neglect you as I feared spreading negative energy. Please forgive me. I’m back. Time to get my kids back too!

Love, sbv



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