They aren’t bad students.

In talking with some teacher friends and colleagues, one thing is clear: these aren’t easy days for students. Let me provide some back story.

  • I met with a middle school teacher recently who told me that a third of the students in his school were failing one or more courses.
  • In a conversation with a high school counselor, she communicated that she sent out three times the number of failure letters that she’d usually send out in the first marking period. Additionally, most of the students were being notified that they were failing multiple classes.
  • Personally, I’ve had two students who withdrew from my class with an overall percentage less than 20%. As we enter the final weeks of the semester, at least a quarter of my students are at risk of failing for the semester.

The simple explanation would be to chalk it up to unmotivated individuals who haven’t developed the time management skills to be successful students. They’re simply bad students.

Except they’re not. In most of these cases, they’re just students who have been unexpectedly thrown into online/remote/hybrid learning. Despite their efforts, they’re struggling to keep things organized, to stay motivated and to learn. Add in a global pandemic and the isolation resulting from social distancing and you have a perfect storm for the large-scale academic struggles we’re witnessing. They’re not bad students. The perfect storm has created a bad environment for learning.

As we navigate this challenging time, it’s critical that we as educators try to focus on what’s important and that we work to find additional strategies and opportunities to support our students. Remember, they’re not bad students. The global pandemic has created a bad environment for learning. And that’s going to require some innovative approaches and solutions.

Luckily, I came across The Danielson Group’s Framework for Remote Teaching. If you’re not familiar with the original Danielson Framework of Teaching, it examined 22 different teaching components across four different domains: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities. The Danielson Framework is one of the most widely used tools for supporting teacher professional development nationally.

But the Framework for Remote Teaching is different than the original Danielson Framework. Instead of focusing on 22 components, the Framework for Remote Teaching only focuses on eight across three domains: knowing and valuing students, building responsive learning environments and engaging students in learning. The Framework for Remote Teaching even provides specific strategies to help teachers better support their students’ learning in these trying times. Besides offering some innovative solutions for engaging students in synchronous and asynchronous spaces, I think the Framework for Remote Teaching also communicates something really important. In this current environment, teachers may not be able to do it all.  Let’s focus on the most important aspects that foster student learning. This change in focus may not help every student be successful in this difficult environment for learning. But the strategies the Danielson Group offers may help us better support our students as they navigate the difficult waters ahead.

Revisiting the Past

I posted my first 8 Blog post in November 2009. The great thing about consistently blogging for eleven years is that I’ve discussed so many topics and innovations over the years that this space serves as a cool time machine for me to go visit the not-so-distant past. While these posts can provide a cool lens for viewing our past, it can also help us re-examine our present. Take this post from 2013. In it, I write about being “a worm in horseradish” and how people have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living. I’m going to reshare the post below, without commentary. As you read, remember this post was written in May 2013, long before remote learning and global pandemics. Enjoy.

Watching some TED videos recently, I came across a Macolm Gladwell video where he discusses the history of Spaghetti Sauce and choice.  In the video, Gladwell talks about how people don’t always recognize their needs or wants because they don’t possess the worldview to see things differently from how they’re experiencing it.  He talks about Ragu and Prego spaghetti sauces and how Prego didn’t gain market share initially because consumers traditionally bought Ragu sauce and weren’t willing to try something different, even though marketing research showed they would prefer Prego over Ragu.  Drawing on a Yiddish saying, Gladwell says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”  In this simple quote, he captures that worldview concept.   People sometimes have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the worldview concept and how I’m sometimes “a worm in horseradish.”  This past semester, I had several sixth grade teachers from a local school district visit my class to speak to my students.  After the presentation, the teachers answered questions from my students and one asked about how technology is used in their classrooms.  One teacher responded that the school allows students to bring their own devices to class and that at any given time there might be a handful of students working on Kindles, laptops, iPads or iPod Touches.  Other students may choose to take notes in a paper notebook, he explained, but he allows his students to make their own choices.  The teacher then remarked that he was surprised that not a single one of my students was taking notes on anything but paper during his presentation.  No one was working on a laptop or a iPad.  He wondered whether he was seeing some generational differences between the populations.  One of my students explained that many professors don’t allow the use of laptops or iPads because they find the devices distracting and unprofessional.  The teacher laughed and said that his sixth graders managed just fine.

It’s hard sometimes to see past the world in which we’re working and see how our customs, norms and traditions are different from other places.  We’re surrounded by our institution’s history and work with colleagues who mostly share common experiences.  While newcomers can bring different worldviews and experiences, they can also be swept up into the traditions of the institution pretty quickly.  Take the experiences shared by a colleague recently.  Her daughter just finished her freshman year at another institution but is taking some summer classes at our school to get a little ahead.  On her first day, she pulled out her laptop to take notes and then looked around.  In the large lecture room, not a single other student had a device out.  While no one explicitly communicated that the devices were not allowed, my colleague’s daughter put her’s away before the class even started.  At her school, the daughter explained, she’d be a freak if she didn’t have some device to work on.  At another institution, she was a freak for having one.

My intention with this post isn’t to say that the traditions or customs of one school is better or worse than another or that students using laptops or not using them somehow says something about the university.  The post is intended to shed some light on those tacit norms that impact teaching and learning on our campuses.  Each of us is “a worm in horseradish” in some way.  Maybe the critical lesson to learn is from my colleague’s daughter whose eyes were opened when she traveled outside the world to which she was accustomed.    Maybe we need those new experiences to expand our worldview and see how things are different outside the horseradish.

An Email and A Window

Connor (not his real name) came to class last week, but he wasn’t really there. He logged into Zoom and I could see his name projected in his box, but he was unresponsive to my questions. After multiple attempts to engage him through private chats, I removed Connor from the class. While I did it without calling attention to his removal, it was the first time in over twenty years that I kicked a student out of my class.

Let me start but saying that I don’t know if removing Connor was the right decision. I second guess these decisions hundreds (thousands?) of times. These are the decisions that occupy my time when I stare at the ceiling at 3 AM. Do I worry about World Hunger? Climate Change? Democracy? Sure. But at 3 AM, I replay the recent instructional decisions I’ve made. Should I have asked that follow-up question instead? Should I have organized that lesson differently? Was the feedback I provided effective? These are the things about which I ponder while the rest of my family sleeps.

So, to preemptively quiet my worrying insomniac brain, I emailed Connor immediately after class. I reviewed what had happened and explained my rationale for removing him from Zoom. And then I simply asked:

“What’s going on?”

Connor responded within the hour. In his reply, Connor apologized for being unresponsive during class and then explained that he’s been struggling with the expectations and assignments from his classes. As Connor describes it, some of his classes are being taught synchronously. Others are being taught asynchronously. And one of his classes is being taught entirely through email. The multiple delivery approaches, multiple forms of interactions and the variety of expectations and deadlines were creating tons of stress for Connor. In his email, he writes,

“I’ve been getting hammered and I’m really stressed out. I’m just struggling keeping everything together.”

While Connor and I are going to meet later this week to work out ways for him to be successful in these waning weeks of the semester, I am now reflecting on his email and what it says about our students’ experiences this semester. In a way, Connor’s email provides a window into the chaotic educational world in which our students are trying to live and learn.

I’ve been trying to come up with a good metaphor to reflect the experience as Connor describes it. Here’s my best effort. It’s like Connor is simultaneously living in multiple foreign countries with different languages, different customs, different foods and different norms of practice. While he’s navigating these diverse lands and trying to figure out the norms and customs, Connor is also trying to learn the content we’re attempting to teach.

I still don’t know if removing Connor from the Zoom was the right decision or not. You can email me at 3 AM. Maybe I’ll have a better answer then, but I doubt it.

Tending to the Garden

My dad was an avid gardener. Every spring, he’d be out in the back yard, shirtless with a shovel in hand, digging up a huge area to plant tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and a ton of other vegetables. And throughout the summer, I’d find him out in the yard, shirtless and tending to his plants. That’s what one of the things I remember the most about my father. He tended to the garden he’d plant. It is a good metaphor for the kind of man and father he was.

Despite my best efforts to channel my father’s spirit, I haven’t had much success with the gardens I’ve planted over the years. I always have good intentions but I usually lose focus or motivation. Then one day, I realize my tomatoes are overgrown with weeds and my peppers are dying from dehydration. Despite the expert modeling from my father, I’m not very good at tending to the garden.

But, I’m working on it. I’ve given up trying to grow a physical garden, but I’m using that mindset to guide my work with my online classes this semester.  I’m trying to be more mindful about tending to my online classroom and cultivating a “fertile soil” that can help my students grow and learn amidst some really challenging times for them and for me. To me, “tending to the garden” means that I’m explicitly and intentionally attending to their social and emotional needs. Here are some things I’ve been trying.

This semester, I’ve been starting every one of my synchronous classes with some sort of opening icebreaker question. The questions are not anything particularly cognitively taxing. Instead, they’re a way for me to work on making connections with my students. This week’s question was “What was your all-time favorite Halloween costume?” Some students replied through chat. Others shared their costume memories through voice and video. Ultimately how they participate doesn’t matter to me. I just want to take a few minutes to foster some relationship building. If you’re worried about coming up with good icebreaker questions, check out these icebreakers curated by Rob Walker. Definitely some awesome ideas there.

Show Up Early and Stay Late
Since the start of the semester, I’ve been opening up my Zoom rooms 15-20 minutes early. I’ll project a “Welcome!” slide and play music as students start to show up. Usually a handful of students will come early just to hang out. Sometimes, they’ll ask questions about upcoming assignments. Other times, we’ll just chat about the music that’s playing or how their other classes are going. At the end of class, I’ll stick around until the last student leaves to make sure I’m available for anyone who may have questions or concerns. I know it’s a simple strategy but I’m communicating to my students that building relationships is important to me.

Individual Meetings
Last week, my students were working on one of the major culminating projects in my class. To give them time to work on the projects, I decided to restructure our class time and focus more on one-on-one meetings with students. Using SignUpGenius, I required every student to schedule an independent meeting with me through Zoom. And every student scheduled meetings and showed up!  The really cool part was that some students who were reluctant to turn their cameras on during class were more comfortable about doing this in an one-on-one meeting. After nine weeks of the semester, I was finally to able to see everyone’s face!

Finding Joys
This is a mindfulness strategy that I’m using in one of my classes. In this class, the students are completing internships in area K-12 schools while also taking college classes. It’s a stressful semester that creates a lot of emotional challenges for students. To combat this, I’ve asked them to identify joys from their week. While there are lots of challenges we’re all experiencing right now, there are lots of joyful moments, too. We just have to remember to look for them.

Tickets out the Door
At the end of many of classes, I’ll use a Google Form to ask students a few reflective questions about the lesson. Usually they’ll be things like “What questions do you have?” or “What was the muddiest part of today’s lesson?” This semester, I’ve been adding questions like “How are you doing?” and “Do you need to chat?” This gives me the chance to check in with students and see if they’re okay.

Learning about Active Learning Online

Regular readers know that I teach a lot online. I’ve been teaching online for the better part of the last fifteen years and have designed and taught online classes for most of that time. I co-authored a book on blended learning in the sciences and even acted as an external reviewer for a college who was starting a fully online program. I’ve also researched online teachers’ efficacy for teaching in online environments. Put a little differently, online learning is sort of my jam.

I’m not saying all of this to document my resume or to pat myself on the back or anything. More than that, I’m laying the foundation for the dissonance I’ve been experiencing lately. While I’ve taught online for years, most of that experience has been through asynchronous means. Sure, each semester, I’d teach a few synchronous classes, especially as part of my hybrid and blended courses. But now, I’m teaching several synchronous classes every week and that’s given me the opportunity to explore different strategies and learn more about the synchronous learning environment. Since I’m a big believer in the power of active learning in my face-to-face classrooms, I’ve been working to replicate those strategies in my synchronous space. As a college instructor, I’m a proponent of Chickering and Gamson, who write:

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

So, that has been my goal for my synchronous classes for the last nine or ten weeks. And here’s what I’ve learned about active learning online.

Synchronous spaces require extended wait time.
In my face-to-face classes, I found that the traditional 3-5 seconds of wait time was enough to prompt student response. Maybe with really challenging questions, I’d wait a little longer. But in my synchronous classes, I find I need to wait a lot longer to elicit a response. In some classes, I find myself waiting ten or more seconds before students will respond. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. In one class, I’ve even started using Wheel of Names to call on students randomly. It’s not ideal but it helps to keep students engaged in the active learning process.

Synchronous classes change how I group students.
For most of my face-to-face classes, I found that a group of 3-4 students was the ideal size for most tasks. A group that size promotes interaction and diverse thought while also diminishing the chances for students who are unwilling (or unprepared) to contribute. In my synchronous classes, I’m finding that five students is more optimal. With the technical challenges that some of my students are facing, smaller groups increase the likelihood that a student will be partnered with one or two students who can’t (or won’t) contribute. Which would really defeat the purpose of active learning if the student is in a three-person group.

Some active learning strategies don’t translate well to synchronous spaces.
I’ve given up using think-pair-shares in my synchronous classes this semester. While this was one of mt favorite ways to promote discussion in my face-to-face classes, it is cumbersome and ineffective in Zoom. The group size is too small (see above) and it takes too much time to orchestrate. But I’ve found other strategies work really well. For example, I’ve had a lot of success with jigsaw activities where different groups of students are assigned different readings before class. During class, I place students in breakout rooms where they first discuss the reading with other students who were assigned the same material. After a few minutes of discussion, I rearrange the breakout groups to partner students with peers who were assigned other readings. By design, jigsaws promote more interdependence which can help motivate students to prepare and be more engaged participants in class.

I’ve also found “popcorn” style discussions are pretty effective. In a popcorn activity, I call on a student to respond to a prompt.  After responding, that student calls on another who responds before calling on another student. And so on.  Since students are calling on their peers by name, it’s a great way to get more people involved and helps to foster community in class. Beyond active learning activities, “popcorns” are great ways to engage students in ice breaker discussions at the start of class.

In a synchronous space, students need to create artifacts collaboratively.
In a typical face-to-face class, I’d break the class into different student groups, give them a cognitive task to complete and tell them to be ready to respond when the return. Sometimes, I’d give the student groups markers and a poster board to create an artifact to share with the rest of the class. But in my synchronous classes, I’m finding I need to have them collaborate on a digital artifact with almost every group discussion. Most times, I create a Google Slide deck and assign each breakout group to a different slide to gather their ideas. Besides giving the students a space to gather their ideas, it also allows me to monitor each group’s progress. I can view the slides in “grid view” and see the work that each group is doing. I can then jump into breakout rooms that seem to be struggling with the task.

Two-way communication is critical.
In a typical face-to-face group discussion, I’d stop the groups midway through their conversations to ask about their progress and to see if they had questions. That’s really challenging in Zoom. I can broadcast a message to individual groups but they can’t respond back. They can “ask for help” but, unless I’m in their breakout rooms, they can’t talk with me. To correct this, I’ve set up a Back Channel chat which allows for constant back and forth conversation while the students are in breakout rooms. The tool also allows me to poll the groups and share files.