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.

***

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

***

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?

***

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.

Will schools close for coronavirus?

First, listen to the experts. Here is who I have found helpful to follow:

I’ve been trying to figure out what is going on and what the response actually will be. This has been an attempt to just make sense of what various experts are saying, and think about the implications. I know nothing about this beyond what I’ve learned in the last few weeks, like the rest of us.

Here is what I think is going on:

It’s tempting to ask, “how lethal is this virus?” It’s also tempting to summarize that lethality in a number. But the mortality rate of a virus is not some fixed fact about the virus. The reason why the usual flu isn’t so very lethal is because it’s seasonal, there are vaccines, we have experience treating it, and so on.

So this new virus has a mortality rate, and for vulnerable populations it does seem to be many times worse than the usual flu. But mortality is not simply about biology. And that’s where the real potential for crisis begins.

Because this virus is new to humanity and spreads so rapidly, dangerous cases can pile up very quickly. If hospitals are overwhelmed with cases and don’t have enough nurses, doctors, beds, masks, and so on, the virus suddenly becomes much deadlier. If you have a choice between everybody getting sick over the course of a month or spreading that out over many months — you would definitely want that second option. All things being equal, the mortality rate will be lower.

Not all things are equal, though. Stretching out the timing — dragging this whole thing out as long as humanly possible — also buys time for scientists and medical professionals to figure out how to treat the sick. It makes sure that doctors themselves aren’t all sick at once, and available to work. It gives the government time to fund mask manufacturers so supplies aren’t immediately depleted. And, of course, it gives researchers time to work on a vaccine.

When it comes to pandemics, slower is better.

A lot of what has been happening so far feels like an attempt to contain the disease. We’re used to a world where people are quarantined to keep the disease from spreading. For example, the WHO has been speaking about how it is important not to give up on containment of the virus as a goal:

“As long as you have these discrete outbreaks … there is the opportunity to control them — to get on top of these and contain them and prevent a lot of disease and ultimately death,” says Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization. “That’s the big message we saw in China — and one of the big surprises.”

Other experts, though, have been puzzled by why the WHO is talking like this. From their point of view, the opportunity for containment has long passed:

As best I can tell, containment was never really a serious possibility. It’s just that even a failed containment strategy gives a government a head start on slowing things down, which is the real public health goal.

What will that mean, in the months ahead?

It’s hard to know exactly, because we’re constantly learning more about the virus, the disease, and potential public responses to it. It was initially unclear whether kids were even getting sick and spreading the virus, since their symptoms have been so mild. My sense is that evidence is starting to come together that children do get infected with the disease. If their symptoms are more mild, does that mean that they infect others at lower rates? We don’t know this yet, and governments need to know this.

What I’m getting the sense of, though, is that schools won’t be closed in the initial stages of local epidemics — for now.

There are a good number of school closings, but they seem to be focused on wealthier schools or school districts that are more responsive to the needs and fears of parents. They also include colleges and universities where online learning is easier to put together.

Public schools, though, are a big deal to close. And even experts who are raising alarm bells are reminding people that shuttering schools isn’t necessarily the right response. There are confusing network effects of closing a school. If you close a school where kids are getting their meals, will that send more kids to an overburdened hospital? Will nurses have to stay home to take care of their children? Will kids gather outside of school anyway? (This was apparently something that happened during H1N1 closures.)

That said, school closures, even big public closures, are clearly happening across the world. Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, they’ve all closed all of their schools.

Based on what’s happening in Seattle, it seems to me that this is the escalation of responses we can expect:

  1. Early isolation – When the virus is new to a place, a school (or anyplace else) will shut down the moment someone gets tested positive. There’s still a chance at some kind of containment of the virus early on. This is when public health officials want to isolate and chase the cases.
  2. Individual caution – When the disease is plausibly in your neighborhood, it seems that public health officials then urge individuals to start changing their habits. Be on guard, they say. You may have this disease — don’t mess around, isolate yourself is you are feeling sick. Wash your hands seriously. Cut down on contact. Reasonably avoid crowds. On the margins, be more careful. And this has an impact.
  3. Easy shut downs – As cases pile up, places that can begin to shut down. Private schools or districts that aren’t responsible for providing a lot of social services begin to shut, when cases are a degree or two away. People are encouraged to work from home as much as possible. Big events are cancelled or postponed.
  4. Tougher shut downs – If things continue, then bans on gatherings above a certain size can be imposed.

And so on, and so on. And if a community starts approaching the capacity to handle cases, and there’s a risk of running out of healthcare resources…that’s when the serious moves are pulled out. And, as far as I can tell, that’s when large schools districts with lots of poverty will begin to close, for several weeks.

My sense is that various countries have been able to avoid these tougher shut downs, for now, by aggressively pursuing 1-3. Part of the work of 1-3 is extremely widespread testing for the virus, and the US has gotten a slow start on this despite adequate warning. (It doesn’t seem like this is entirely the fault of the White House, but it seems like they didn’t help things along at all. Here’s a piece about what we know about the testing rollout.) That’s somewhat scary, but my understanding is that testing is ramping up in the US. Hopefully we’ll be able to move smoothly on that front, from now on, but who knows.

All this, though, is just the first wave of the virus. Who knows, at this point, whether we’ll get any reduction in cases when the weather gets warmer. Even if it does, though, we’ll have to deal with all of this again in the fall. We can expect waves, though future waves will (hopefully) not be as severe. Anyone who already fell ill will have some immunity (as researchers have recently confirmed). And who knows, maybe we’ll know more about treating it. Hopefully we’ll have a better sense of what measures are effective by then at slowing its spread.

But we should expect a few waves, I think, over the next year or two. That’s my impression.