Taking Stock

Spring break has been moved forward by a week so it seems as though this is a good opportunity to reflect on things that have and haven’t worked during e-learning. As the rest of the world starts it feels strange to have been on the front lines, trying out a number of different ideas to keep students motivated and engaged. Some have been more successful than others but I am proud of what my team and my students have accomplished. On Friday my class had a reflection meeting where we took stock of our accomplishments and reflected on how had felt things had gone so far. It was good to hear the students’ perspectives on how they felt they had done, activities they had enjoyed, and what they would like to see more of when we return from the break.

Well that went well…

I began the first week of e-learning by assigning the students a summative task for the end of our unit of inquiry. The students had planned a migration story before the Chinese New Year vacation and so I set them the task of drafting and revising their work. The idea was that this would be a week-long process allowing for teacher feedback and guidance with the final product due at the end of the week. The first thing I realized was that distance learning is not like learning in the classroom. Students saw that the deadline was Friday and so the majority did their work on Friday. Looking back I now see the students needed additional scaffolding with a more gradual release of responsibility. If I were to do this again, I would begin by modeling the writing process through videos shared with the students. I would have written a paragraph collaboratively using the meeting feature on Microsoft Teams and then assigned students partners in the same time zone to work on a paragraph together. All of this would have been done before asking them to work independently. By aligning this task with Vygotsky’s gradual release of responsibility model I could have reduced student anxiety in addition to helping all students find success.

Image from wikipremed.com CC license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/legalcode

Strict deadlines are another thing that I found do not work with e-learning. I had students in different counties around the world who were unable to access material posted online at the same time as their peers. Flexibility and a focus on communication helped alleviate some of the pressure many students were feeling at the start of e-learning. I have observed that more students have started to reach out for help as the weeks have progressed and the majority of students have settled into a daily routine.

Access has been a recurring area of difficulty during e-learning. After attending the ACAMIS technology conference in October I was incredibly grateful for the toolkit I had at my disposal. I quickly found, however, that many websites were having issues that meant students could not view content from their homes. I had to work closely with my team to come up with solutions that would allow students to be able to access the materials we had posted each day. We posted files to Google Drive for students outside China and Microsoft’s One Drive for those here at home. We found that by posting videos to YouKu we were able to support students in China whose internet was too slow to download large MP4 files. Additionally, I quickly learned that I needed to test all websites using an internet connection without a VPN before asking students to use them. During the first week of e-learning, I forgot to do this and found that many of the websites I had posted to had restricted use for students in China. Perhaps the biggest take away though was that e-learning is not the time to be attempting to introduce students to new websites. They need to have had previous exposure and feel confident in navigating platforms in order to make the most use of it.

Success Stories

Microsoft Teams has been incredibly useful in allowing students to stay connected to the rest of their class. I have been holding daily meetings in the mornings and afternoons to connect with my class. I feel that building a learning community is one of the most important and best parts of teaching. I’m looking to Vygotsky again here but his theory on social learning has heavily influenced my pedagogy. One of the big questions I faced was how do I let students know that they are still part of 4B when they’re out of the classroom? Consistent video conferencing has been extremely helpful in helping me meet my own expectations. These meetings have followed a familiar formula each day where I explain the day’s tasks and schedule, answer questions and clearing any misconceptions students may have, and finally sharing stories or work from the previous day. Students reported they found these motivating and enjoyed the opportunity to meet online with their peers. The more experience they gained with Teams the more they began experimenting and building their own communities. Different chat groups started to spring up and the students had a place where they could talk to one another and feel connected again.

For students with ESOL needs, I felt it important to try and talk over the phone every day in small groups so that they could maintain their conversational English. By doing this I have found that students quickly grew in confidence when speaking over video chat. After the third or fourth session, many of these students felt more comfortable in joining meetings with other members of our class and began asking me for help independently when they needed it.

One of the benefits of students being at home is that they had access to their personal devices. This allowed for a great deal of tech integration into every single day. Students regularly used PowerPoint to create presentations and share their understanding with others. A number of students have been creating videos and a few have started to edit them to add music or titles with iMovie. I had the students create a Leap Year detector in Scratch that they could use to test whether years from the past were or weren’t leap years which helped to round off a maths unit. My team also managed to have the students take part in a virtual field trip, exploring the galleries of an art museum. All of which has helped the students stay motivated and excited about learning.

My own experience

It’s incredible just how much extra work e-learning is compared to being in the classroom with the students. The thought that needs to be put into every assignment as to whether students will understand directions or they will know what to do if they’re stuck can feel overwhelming at times. My experiences with COETAIL have helped me see things from my student’s perspective. Many of them are taking extra online classes in addition to the work set by me and they are finding it hard to find balance. It’s something I have found difficult too but I am slowly finding it easier and getting back to feeling grounded. We still have some time with distance learning ahead of us, however, we have started to hear rumors that we may hear of updates regarding school reopenings soon. Things are starting to feel more like they are getting back to normal here so I think it’s good for all educators to know that there is an end to this. I asked if I was meeting the needs of my students in a previous blog post. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to answer that question yet but I am proud of all I have achieved over the last seven weeks and it’s amazing to read and hear the experiences of other teachers going through the same thing.

TECHnically speaking…

On reflection, I can look back on my time in university and say I probably took the wrong undergraduate courses. I studied English Language, Politics, and Drama and Theatre Arts at A-level so, naturally, when I applied to university I decided I wanted a BA in Media Production. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to be when I “grew up,” and Media Production seemed as good a choice as anything else. Much of the theory I found pretty dry, however, I loved using the tech to produce sound and edit film. My friends and I spent our free time messing around in the editing suite and this proved to be a formative learning experience. Now, as an educator, I love getting tech into the hands of students at every available opportunity and giving them the opportunity to become creators.

After working at a private ESOL school in Japan, I quickly fell in love with teaching and pursued a career in Education. Even when teaching adult language classes, I tried to incorporate technology whenever possible. One of my favorite lessons came from a book called Sprint 6 and involved making telephone conversations. I would have my students call a teacher from a neighboring school to practice making authentic phone calls. It was fun to set students up to roleplay conversations in a safe environment. It was an important step in building students’ confidence and developing skills that were relevant to their jobs and for travel. As Kim Cofino mentions in her blog post 3 Steps to Transforming Learning in Your Classroom “Once you know what you want students to know and be able to do, then you can start thinking about how students can demonstrate their understanding.” By taking this approach to teaching, we can help increase motivation and enthusiasm for learning.

Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

Lights, Camera, Action!

My first job as a qualified teacher was working in a Special Education resource room. I mainly worked with students in Fifth and Sixth Grade who received pull out and push in services for reading support. Many of these students were aware that they found reading significantly more difficult than their peers and, as a result, developed many avoidance tactics. I was struggling to motivate my students to practice reading outside of school. That is until a student, I will refer to as “J,” hit upon an idea that would incorporate technology. J had a younger brother who lived in a different state, who he didn’t get to see that often. One day, J mentioned that his brother enjoyed reading, but he didn’t live near a library. I asked J how he felt about recording a video of him reading to his brother and sharing the video. There was an immediate change in his motivation and desire to practice. Suddenly reading was relevant to him and had a purpose other than being something he was told was important.

Soon after I started recording and editing J’s read alouds, I asked other students if they would be interested in creating videos too. For many of them, reading to an Ipad reduced much of their anxiety and increased their motivation to practice reading fluency skills. I also hadn’t anticipated the high level of student interest in video editing. They wanted to know how to add cutaways, titles, music and sound effects in Imovie. My school had just started to incorporate the ISTE standards and it was great to see kids who struggled with reading start to become creative communicators.

Going Viral

As we approach week six of E-learning here in China, it is hard not to think about various ways we are using technology to enrich the learning experiences we offer to students. After considering the 15 Questions To Ask About Tech Integration In Your Classroom, right now we are constantly asking ourselves, “Will all students be able to access and leverage this tech?” Access is a huge issue when we are sharing video lessons and resources, particularly within China. We are currently relying on Microsoft office 365 platforms for much of our resource sharing, however, we have students who are scattered all around the world. For those students in China, we post videos on the Chinese video-sharing platform YouKu. For students outside China, the download speeds from SharePoint and slow buffering of videos from YouKu become barriers of access for some students. To help assuage this, I have started also uploading files to Google Drive and this seems to be helping. This requires me to be more organized and persistent. I am constantly searching for new ways we can share materials with students.

The biggest frustration for me is still the nagging question: Am I meeting my students’ needs? After listening to Sal Khan’s TED Talk, I believe I am finding some success.

I am spending a long time producing videos that, I hope, students are finding interesting. I think it is incredibly beneficial for them to see demonstrations as I explain and hear my voice so that they know we are still connected. They are able to pause videos and rewind when they need to clarify what has been said. I am still working on ways to support all students. I am concerned that language learners are struggling and I would welcome any ideas of how best to support them. I am also trying to figure out how I can do checks for understanding before students attempt a task I have set.

I have been holding meetings with students throughout the day. These video conferences have proven to be very successful by not only allowing students to ask face-to-face questions, but also giving students the opportunity to talk to each other. I have been really impressed with how polite my class has been, taking turns to talk to one another and asking if it’s okay to speak to one person directly. I believe the most important thing about these meetings is that it reminds students that they are still part of a learning community with peers who care about them.

King of the who?

When I told my girlfriend about the skill I want to work on for the next few weeks the eye roll I received was audible. As she walked away laughing I could have sworn she asked me why I had to be such a nerd. Now, I don’t mind this as I embrace my geeky side, as those of you who have read my blog posts have probably already guessed, however, it did make me second guess what my action plan was going to revolve around. I also started to think about what it would be like to receive this feedback if I were a student and how it would have affected my confidence.

As we move into our fifth week of e-learning Mimi Ito’s video really struck a chord with me. I received a message from a concerned parent last week that some students had started their own chat group on Microsoft Teams. Her worry was that this group would distract her daughter from her studies and prevent her from making progress. It was interesting to hear someone confirm my feelings that these online interactions were important, even more so currently as students have no other way of hanging out at the moment. Ito’s comment on how “kids are not really welcoming of adults in the friendship driven space” really rang true. A lot of students are having a tough time at home as they don’t have their regular friendship driven spaces where they can let of steam. Instead, they are sat in front of a screen all-day feeling, ironically, disconnected. They need to have a place to meet up with their friends and let off steam away from teachers and parents or, at the very least, a place where what they say isn’t being scrutinized.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Providing a space for geeking out

One of the benefits e-learning is having is that it is forcing my students to incorporate more tech into their daily routines. I was shocked when, during our unit of inquiry into online responsibilities, students completed a journal tracking their use of new media. Man7 of the students in my class informed me that they had strict limitations of what they used and how often. That seems fairly reasonable for a group of Fourth Grade students, however, what shocked me was the revelation of just how few students had regular access to a computer or even a tablet. This was eyeopening for me and it gave me the motivation to give students a crash course in how to use a few different pieces of software.

One of the applications I taught the students how to use was Microsoft Teams. As a provocation students had to work collaboratively with students from another class to create a PowerPoint. The catch was, however, they could only use Teams to communicate as our classrooms were on opposite sides of the school. The students are now using Teams every day to communicate with me and each other and I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to give my students the time to get comfortable with some facets of online communication before it was forced upon them.

Connected Learning an agenda for research and design talks about the ” tremendous potential of new media for advancing learning.” In many ways, we are seeing this in action right now. It is not necessarily how I would prefer to be having the students experience new media, however, I have been impressed with their adaptability and willingness to give it their all. My hope, once we return to normality, is that my students, and their parents, start to take note of the benefits of their new media literacy skills. It will be interesting to hear their reflections once we get back into the classroom and I am looking forward to the opportunity to share some of my own.

Finding a balance

Despite many of the benefits I feel that e-learning is having one thing I am currently struggling with is finding an appropriate balance. I have students who come online throughout the day in a staggered fashion due to many still being outside China. This is tough because I want to make myself available for them to help answer questions they may have, however, the reality is that this means I am spending upwards of 12 hours a day in front of my computer. I am finding it difficult to hold meetings online, answer emails, provide feedback, plan, prep, and find time for myself. I would welcome any other educator’s approaches or advice they have about finding that balance. Talking to my teaching team it seems as though we are all in the same boat and, while we are working collaboratively to plan and prepare lessons, we are finding it difficult to maintain the appropriate balance. If you are teaching through e-learning, what are you doing to maintain a healthy balance for you and your students?

A sea of plastic

In the interest of maintaining my sanity during this time I recently chose to research hobbies that would give me a break from staring at a screen. I started talking to a friend of mine from the UK about hobbies we had as kids and we started geeking out over Games Workshop. I remembered the small plastic Eldar army that I collected and painted when I was younger. Sadly, however, I had the artistic talent of a damp towel so my miniatures looked pretty sad when they took up position on a tabletop. I am 25 years older though now and, after a few clicks on the internet, I discovered it would be very easy to jump back into the hobby. Would I do it though?

Feet First

My order of tiny plastic components JUST arrived in time for this blog post. I am feeling slightly overwhelmed looking at all of the different components on the sprue so I have decided to create an action plan on learning how to paint this collection of Space Marines. I have done some prior research on what the steps are when I paint these but I haven’t tried any model painting since I was about 12 years old.

March 2nd – March 5th I will assemble the 20 odd assortment of “The Emperors Finest” and glue them together.

March 6th – March 8th I will start priming and undercoating my miniatures which, as I am lead to believe, is a very important step in making the models look their best.

March 9th – March 12th I will apply the base coat to the models.

March 13th – March 16th I will be applying oils and washes to the models to help build shadows and brings out detail in recesses.

March 17th – March 20th I will be adding highlights and drybrushing the models to brings out texture details.

Seeing dates and a timeline in front of me makes this endeavor feel very manageable. Kaufman talked about the 20-hour rule in his Ted-X speech The first 20 hours — how to learn anything and I feel that I definitely have the opportunity to learn some new skills as I wade through this box of diminutive Star Warriors (I love Chinese translations) and start trying to build my painting prowess. I will not be alone on this journey, however. I have already started to research “How to” guides on YouTube and I am starting to look up different hobbyists on Twitter with a plan to post some pictures and get some feedback. I will be posting updates as we move through the next few weeks and, hopefully, showing how some of my skills are developing.

Doing this has made me appreciate how students must feel when given a Summative assessment. Just breaking down the steps and seeing the timeline in front of me, however, made me feel immediately more relaxed and confident that this is something I can do. I sometimes feel that this blog is making me out to be King of the Nerds. I’m not sure I am quite there yet, however, I suppose it’s something to aspire to.