Planning for Reality

For many local schools, the start of the school year is a week or two away. As the pandemic schedules are becoming more of a reality, I’m receiving many emails from panicked friends, colleagues and former students who are asking “How do I do this?” For some, they’re facing class schedules where students are alternating between remote and face-to-face instruction on different days. For example, one local district has broken the student body into an A group and a B group. The A group attends face-to-face classes on Mondays and Tuesdays while the B group participates in asynchronous instruction during those days. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the groups flip. Group B attends face-to-face classes while Group A participates in asynchronous instruction. On Fridays, students in both groups attend synchronous sessions remotely.

Administratively, this may seem like an ideal way to provide similar experiences to students while being mindful of social distancing protocols. From an instructional perspective, however, this can present enormous planning challenges. One teacher I spoke to compared it to creating two independent classes for each period during her school day. As I’ve considered how I’d navigate these challenges as teacher in that district, I thought it would be great to share some ideas here.

Identify “bookend” experiences. You’re right. I made up that term. But as I thought about how I’d plan for a non-traditional hybrid model like this, I’d want to identify experiences that could act differently for students depending on where they were in the learning cycle. For some students, the experience would set the stage for learning. For others, that same experience would act as the closure. That way, I could schedule the same experiences for both groups of students and could avoid planning double.

Let me provide an example. Let’s say I was teaching two-dimensional motion to high school physics students. One of the classic teaching examples is dropping a bullet while simultaneously shooting one horizontally. When I used to teach this topic, I’d show a demonstration which would set the stage for our classroom discussion. Teaching this concept in the non-traditional hybrid model, I’d create a demonstration video for students to watch and provide several questions for students to answer. For the students who navigate the asynchronous modules first, the video and questions would set the stage for our discussion in class, similar to how I’d traditionally teach the content. For the students who navigate the asynchronous modules a few days later, however, the same video and questions would act as a formative assessment of the material they learned a few days earlier. It would be the same experience but would “open” or “close” the learning for different students. Hence, the “bookend” terminology.

Build shared artifacts across groups. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I feel like things are going to go back to normal at some point this school year. For our K-12 schools, that means transitioning these split hybrid classes back into a single holistic environment. We can prepare for that transition now by avoiding seeing the groups of students as being discrete and independent of one another. We can create opportunities to share learning artifacts across groups. For example, a group A student could be paired with a group B student and act as “virtual notebook buddies.” The pair would both contribute to a shared notebook in Google Docs or Office 365. This would be great for science labs or for multiple-day activities that span both group’s face-to-face days. It would also help to build community for the day (hopefully) when the two groups of students are combined into one face-to-face class.

Provide structure. Like most online learning, these hybrid models create a “transactional distance” that needs to navigated. Let me explain. Developed by Dr. Michael Moore in the 1970s, transactional distance theory sees online learning as “a psychological and communication space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (Moore, 1993). To close the transactional distance, teachers need to provide clear communication and a lot of structure. Considering the phases of online and face-to-face learning trough which students will cycle, teachers will need to provide supports to help their students self-regulate and stay on track. Think online checklists, rubrics and calendars.

Talking to different teachers from many different schools, it seems like there are a variety pandemic schedules that are being adopted. While the ideas I’ve shared may not be suitable for all of the pandemic schedule, it may provide a starting point for all of those teachers who are planning for the start of a school year unlike any other. Good luck.

Online Learners’ Needs

Last week, I moderated a panel discussion at the 2020 Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) Conference. Usually, the DT&L conference is held in Madison, WI but with the pandemic still impacting travel, the conference was moved to a virtual event for the first time. Over 900 educators, instructional designers, librarians and administrators gathered throughout the week to discuss online learning. Needless to say, the rapid move to online instruction was a common topic in many sessions.

During the discussion I moderated, I was joined by several experts who spoke on different aspect of distance learning. The discussion was titled “The ABCs of Distance Education” and was intended to provide an introduction to people who may be new to the concept. One of the experts on the panel was Penny Ralston-Berg, senior instructional designer at Penn State World Campus. Ralston-Berg got the session kicked off by provided a continuum of different distance education delivery modes from face-to-face instruction to the recently popularized Hyflex model. With different institutions use different terminology to describe their online modes of delivery, Ralston-Berg’s discussion helped to situate the overall conversation and provide a common vocabulary for the attendees and presenters.

While the panel covered a lot of territory (Universal Design for Learning, Community of Inquiry, Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction), I found Ralston-Berg’s discussion of the “Top Five Online Learner Needs” to be some of the most beneficial aspects of the session. In some unpublished research she had conducted with her online students, Ralston-Berg found that online students reported the following “needs.”

1. Orientation: Students need to be introduced to their online courses and how the instructional space is going to be used. A short orientation video has been shown to have a significant impact on student success in online classes.

2. Transparent Technology: When courses are online, there’s a tendency to use a lot of technology to support student learning and interaction. In her work, Ralston-Berg reports that students need to clearly understand why specific technologies are being used and what value they add to the learning environment.

3. Clear Expectations: This student need is pretty straightforward. Students need to know how they’ll be assessed, how they can communicate with their instructors and how they’ll receive feedback on their work.

4. Consistent Navigation: As students move from module to module and course to course, they need to interact with consistent navigation and organization. This consistency lowers the barriers for students and helps them dedicate more of their cognitive energy to learning.

5. Alignment: While students interact with individual modules in individual courses, they may not always see the purpose of the work they’re doing. Providing instructional alignment across the courses within a program helps students to see the value each course contributes.

While these “learning needs” may reflect the work found in some other documents (QM standards and OSCQR, for example), I found the outline to be a good reminder of the ways to design online courses for student success.

Teacher Dreams and Expectations

It’s early August and I’m starting to have my “teacher dreams.” If you’re an educator, you probably know what I’m talking about. At some point in late summer, my subconscious starts to remind me that school is starting soon and that I need to start getting prepared for the school year. For me, “teacher dreams” usually consist of missing the first day of class or showing up to teach in my pajamas. Or some fantastical variation of these. To get the dreams to subside, I’ll dedicate some time to prepping classes and preparing syllabi. I spent a few hours yesterday and completely prepped one of my fall classes. Last night, I finally had a restful night of sleep without a “teacher dream.” But I’m sure the dreams will return soon.

As I’m prepping my fall classes, I have to admit that I’m struggling a bit. Two of my classes are ones that I’ve taught in face-to-face manners in the past. With the pandemic upon us, however, my institution has moved almost all of its classes to completely online delivery for the fall. As I’ve thought about how to redesign the classes for effective online instruction, I’ve decided to offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students in these two classes. I’m hoping that the mix of flexibility and consistency will meet the students’ needs. That’s the plan, at least.

So, where am I struggling? As I’m working through my syllabi, I want to include some expectations for our synchronous class meetings. Looking at my social media feed, I’m seeing a lot of my colleagues and teacher friends who are sharing all sorts of things that burrow deep into my brain and get me thinking about my role as a teacher. One friend shared the following meme credited to Dr. Brad Johnson.


I have to admit that these concepts really resonate with me. Regular readers know that I advocate for teachers to “Lead with Empathy.” especially during these stressful times. I know that my students (and my colleagues) are struggling with all sorts of challenges right now. I want to be mindful of these challenges and offer grace and empathy as I can.

But I also want to set clear expectations in my classes. If I’m designing my classes to include some synchronous components because I know its pedagogically sound and in my students’ best interests, I have to clearly communicate what expectations I have for students’ attendance and participation in our synchronous meetings. Thankfully, my social media friends have given me some things to ponder there, too. Here’s an image shared by another teacher friend that offers some clear expectations for students who participate in a synchronous setting (in this case, Microsoft Teams).


As I examine these two documents, I’m struggling with how to align these two. While the synchronous expectations presented above are clear and concise, do they reflect grace and empathy? Do they focus on relationships? Do they communicate patience? While the expectations are probably achievable by the majority of students, I worry about those students who may not have a “quiet room” in which to work or may not have the opportunity to “eat a healthy breakfast.” I worry about the students who struggle to “stay focused” in an online environment or the ones who may not have regular access to all of the expected tools (headphones, charged computer, notebook, pencil, webcam).

So, there’s my struggle. How do I clearly communicate my expectations without also communicating from a position of privilege? How do I outline my requirements for participation and attendance without also ignoring the challenges that my students are likely to face? I don’t have the answers, yet. I think I need to sleep on it some more.

A shot of serotonin

It’s the middle of summer and (hopefully) the middle/end of the pandemic. This is the time of the year where I’d usually be vacationing in some far-off location with my wife and children. Instead, like many of you, I’m socially distancing myself from a lot of my friends, family and colleagues. It’s been challenging, and isolating, times.

To fill some of the gaps, I’ve been planning my fall classes, working with some graduate students, and reading a lot. To build some social engagement around my reading, a colleague and I decided to read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek (2017) together. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, check out his TED Talk titled Why good leaders make you feel safe. It’s a good starting point on his perspectives on leadership and how leaders build a “Circle of Safety” for their co-workers and employees. In the book, Sinek writes,

“By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization, leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities. Without a Circle of Safety, people are force to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other” (p. 27).

With the number of outside dangers facing education right now, I find comfort in the concept of the Circle of Safety. I worry, however, that in our isolated states we’re not sensing any real community with our colleagues. And we’re spending a lot of time and energy protecting ourselves from some very real threats (job security, health and safety concerns, economics, etc.) on our own. In times like this, leadership that fosters a “Circle of Safety” and instills organizational empathy is critically important. The book provides a great road map for promoting this perspective.

To build a foundation for his brand of leadership, Sinek focuses on how individuals emotionally react to different leadership styles. He spends a lot of time discussing the chemicals in our body and how they impact our emotions. He labels endorphins and dopamine as “selfish chemicals” because they drive us “to hunt, to gather and to achieve.” These emotions are primarily dedicated to those activities we achieve individually, though. We don’t feel endorphins from someone else running a marathon or dopamine from someone else being promoted. To feel a rush of endorphins or dopamine, we have to accomplish a goal or complete a task on our own. In Sinek’s view, these chemicals act in opposition to the fostering of any collaborative “Circle of Safety.”

In contrast, Sinek labels serotonin and oxytocin as “the selfless chemicals” and deems them as being critical for the keeping the Circle of Safety strong. He writes:

“It is the selfless chemicals that make us feel valued when we are in the company of those we trust, give us the feeling of belonging and inspire us to want to work for the good of the group” (p. 55).

Although serotonin and oxytocin are both important for fostering the Circle of Safety, in Sinek’s mind, serotonin is the most critical of the emotion-inducing chemicals from a leadership perspective. He even calls it “the leadership chemical” because it instills a feeling of respect and pride in the work we do. Because it’s a “selfless chemical,” we can get that rush of emotions from the success of our colleagues, our employees, our students or our friends. And that’s what makes it so critical to good leadership. Sinek writes:

“Whether we are a boss, coach or parent, serotonin is working to encourage us to serve those for whom we are directly responsible. And if we are the employee, player or the one being looked after, the serotonin encourages us to work hard to make them proud” (p. 59).

As we work through the chaos of summer and this pandemic, let’s seek out those shots of serotonins. Let’s take pride in the accomplishments of our colleagues and rejoice in the work of our students. In our isolated states, let’s uncover those opportunities to validate the work of our peers and celebrate the accomplishments of those we value. It will feel good for them. And probably feel good for us as well.

And we could all use a little of that right now.

The misconception of kindness

I’m taking a few weeks off to regroup this summer and thought I’d replay a post from a couple of years ago. This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in April 2018. Enjoy!

I get mixed reviews on Rate My Professors. For every student who rates me well, there’s another student or two who has rated me poorly. I try to not get too worked up over the ratings. For the most part, they’re sort of like Yelp reviews. People only really post a review on Yelp when their experiences are amazingly good or amazingly bad. The vast majority of people who had a completely ordinary and solid dining event will never review their experience at all. And I think most people would tolerate a solid experience over a negative one. But I digress.

Returning to my Rate My Professor reviews, to me, one comment stands out among the ratings.  One student posted:

“His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.”

I don’t know what motivated this student to write this or to give me a poor rating, but I’ve thought a lot about that comment over the last two years. For the most part, I think the student’s assessment of my feedback is on the mark. I also wonder whether that’s the reason that some of my undergraduate students don’t find me particularly empathetic. At least that’s what some of my student evaluations say.  And I find it troubling.  Here’s why.

Over the years on this blog, I written many posts dedicated to providing quality feedback to support students’ growth. Across all of the posts, however, there’s never been a real dedicated focus on how students’ receive feedback. I’m a big subscriber to Grant Wiggins’ Seven Key Elements to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

And I provide that feedback. My worry, however, is that some students are not used to getting this type of in-depth feedback and don’t know how to respond to it emotionally. When students are accustomed to getting a few check marks on their papers and a “Great job!” written at the end, they see the professor who provides detailed feedback for growth as being the outlier. They rate the professor as being blunt and to the point and not having much empathy. To some degree, my students see me as being unkind with my feedback.

Being the hyper-reflective teacher that I am, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think there is a prevailing misconception of kindness, one that trades long-term impacts for the short-term ones. Let me explain.

Take the student who gets the “Great job!” on their paper but receives little other substantive comments from her professor. The student is receiving feedback that probably feels good. It reinforces her perceptions of the amount of work that she’s dedicated and her perceptions of her ability. She probably sees the professor as being kind and supportive.

But this is only a short-term emotion with short-term impacts. If the student’s work is not really high quality, the student will eventually reach some place in her educational journey where her development or progress will be stunted. She’ll reach a point where she sees that she may lack the skills to succeed at the expected level. She’ll recognize that her education hadn’t prepared her for that next step.

But I tend to focus on long-term impacts. While I’m (mostly) okay with students calling me direct or blunt or lacking empathy, I hope they’ll realize at some point down the road that the detailed feedback I gave wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings but was intended to help prepare them for whatever comes next. That’s long-term kindness.

I heard someone say recently that “Frustration isn’t part of learning.  It IS learning.” And maybe that’s the motto I need to share with more of my students. I know that the direct (and blunt) feedback I give to students can be frustrating at times. But it’s hardly unkind