After three days of distance learning, here’s what I now understand

I feel like we all know the issues with online learning. If not, we all will soon enough. No need to make this post all about the problems, though it would be strange not to mention them at all. Here are the main ones:

  • A social environment is more motivating than being stuck in your bedroom alone
  • You can explain stuff, and people can ask questions, but it’s really hard to know what’s going on for kids who aren’t asking questions
  • I am also taking care of my two young biological children
  • You can’t tell what’s on kids’ pages as they are writing
  • My own two children are absolutely going to destroy our two-bedroom apartment
  • It is very difficult to show anything in to the teacher while asking a question
  • The two-year old is hitting the five-year old in the face over and over with her Elmo figurine

So, what do you do? Justin Reich had been very generous in talking through some ideas with me, and he helped give me a way to think about it. “Organize around individual check-ins,” he wrote. “When I talk to the best full time virtual school teachers, they say they spend a considerable portion of time following up with individual kids.”

Designing materials for a lesson like this is not easy. If you start with individual check-ins, there’s a nasty chain of deduction that pretty quickly leads you away from normal classroom practice:

  • You can only check-in and tutor individual students unless most students have something productive to do
  • You’re going to need a few days to individually check-in with all the kids you need to
  • That means that everybody needs something that they can do pretty-much independently for several days

It’s not really easy to design materials for that.

Well, I should say that the difficulty really depends on the group. I have a high-flying 8th Grade class that is seeming relatively easy to design for. I’ve used ASSISTments (buggy, but good) to assign practice problems from Illustrative Math, with Desmos extension problems. That’s been smooth.

But, yeah, all my other classes have been harder.

The way I’m seeing it right now, you’re looking for materials that have three qualities:

  1. The assignment lasts a couple days. This reduces planning time, and also gives me more of a window for checking in and helping my students with the assignment.
  2. The materials include clear examples and support. This is how kids are going to do the assignment more independently. Fawn just wrote a very nice post about making worksheets that start with models and then fade the support, teaching kids what correct answers look like.
  3. There are challenges at the end that are optional. Because some kids will finish things in a day and want more math, and they deserve it. If they want it. If they want to go outside and take a walk while maintaining nice physical distancing conduct, they should do that too.

The hardest, hardest thing so far has been finding time to put materials together while taking care of my own two biological children. My wife is also teaching her middle school students from home, and every evening we’re scraping together a schedule that lets us both do our jobs. I’m really so grateful to be getting a paycheck at all right now, I can’t really complain. But it’s not easy for me to put nice-looking things together.

So, here it is, a sloppy thing that I’ll share. It’s the resources that I gave my high school geometry students as their assignment this week, and it’s been going OK.

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The document is here.

We were studying similarity before school closed. I had gotten as far as practicing setting up and solving proportions.

Starts with an example:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.29.20 PM

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.29.33 PM

Two things about the example:

  • I talked it through with the whole-group on Zoom, which I might as well not have done. I had to work it through one-on-one with the kids who I knew would need it. Still, it was worth the five minutes to reassure some kids that they understood this so that I could focus on the individuals. I’d say the whole-group is worth it, but not worth a huge investment of time.
  • A lot of my kids don’t have printers so they’re reading my worksheets on their phones, so I’ve been trying to write in big, clear fonts. Not sure if it’s helping, but it’s the rationale behind those huge letters.

After the example comes practice. I send kids into breakout rooms and tell them they can leave the computer and work alone if they want, but they can also collaborate. All I ask is that they remain more or less around so that I can call them back if I need to, and so far that’s been OK.

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.29.52 PMScreenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.00 PM

Then another example:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.22 PM

Then, ideally, would have been some indirect measurement practice except it’s BEEN ONE HELL OF A WEEK and I put what I could find into the worksheet even though it’s not a perfect match:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.30 PM

Then, the extension problems:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.36 PM

And also:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.39.51 PM

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I did something similar for my 4th Grade class, and it went better than Day 1 did.

Example:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.40.55 PM

Practice (this time with more fading of the supports):

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.41.34 PM

Extension challenge:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.41.43 PM

And it went better, in the sense that I was able to have some mathematical conversations with people and figure out what they understood, what they didn’t understand, help people, that’s the whole point of this job, right? The key, when you strip everything else away, is figuring out what people understand and helping them understand it?

But you’re basically flying blind in this distance teaching because you can’t see what anybody is doing at a given moment. Maybe there’s some digital tool that can help give you a better picture of what kids understand and can do, but without that the main thing is the individual conversation. This is a structure that tries to plan around that.

Please, share if you’ve got something better. Please.

Oh, and remember how we used to share resources online and but then we stopped because blogging died? Can we bring blogs back, if just for a few months?

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Addendum, 3/19/20:

There is a way to sort of do whole-group instruction that opens up a tiny window into how students are thinking. It uses the chat box.

You can change the chat settings so that all chat messages are sent privately to the host of the meeting. At first, I did this because I wanted to cut down on random chat chatter. But then I realized it’s a private way that students can respond to questions.

Here is a routine I’m finding useful during whole-group discussions:

1. Ask a question. I state it, and if possible I also write the question in the chat box. That way, everyone receives the question even if they missed it when I said it.

2. Then, everyone types in their answer to the question. As the answers come in, I acknowledge receipt. “Thanks, Emma.” “Got it, Jake.” I’ll comment on wrong answers without calling individual students out. “Careful, if you’re writing (x – 2)(x -3) that’s factored form.” I can also address individual students: “Tommy, what you wrote is fine.”

3. Then, I’ll share the answer. I’ll take questions, rinse and repeat for however much whole-group time I’ve decided on for the lesson. Attention spans for this vary by class and by age, of course. More than 15 minutes is probably pushing it, I think.

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