• Share on Facebook
  • Tweet
  • Submit to Reddit
  • Share on LinkedIn
  • Send email

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Virtual Learning is Real Learning


Of course in person is better for some, but not all. This rush to get back to in person learning is not only dangerous health wise, but could have a negative impact academically as well. 

(they lean in close, I can't type on mobile)

 Well yes there are distractions. I often here others in the background in students homes and I sometimes wonder how they can pay attention through all that noise, but they are not distracted by what is going on in my classroom. Except one time and I taught that student how to hide the boy who was distracting her and she is all good now.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Opportunity

I'm trying to put some thoughts down on paper and see if they are good or not, I'd love some feedback as well.

As the Coronavirus rips back the band-aid of inequity in the public school system I fear that we are squandering the opportunity. 

Yes I know students in undeserved neighborhoods are taking the brunt of the negative effects of shutting down schools and the economy. I know too many students don't have solid internet, don't have a device, don't have a quiet place to learn and study. I know so many have to take care of younger siblings. I know so many adults in these homes are essential workers, leaving their children to fend for themselves because they cannot take a day off, even when faced with sickness and death for going to work. And all of that is not even half the problems these children are facing right now.

Yet it is still an opportunity being squandered. The traditional school, with it's emphasis on tests, rigorous curriculum, unyielding rules, and so on and so forth has been failing for the 20 years since NCLB and it was failing for decades before that. Yet, still people argue for more of the same. Even when discussing remote learning the stepping off point is recreating the same classroom model.


Why are teachers who have half the class in school and half remote live streaming instruction? We already know teacher directed lecture instruction is one of the least effective models of teaching. Why when we talk about remote teaching do we even consider teaching 4 separate classes as I would at school?

I teach math and when I introduce a new skill it can be very difficult to get that down to a 5 minute lesson, but that is what I aim for. I'm really breaking down my skills instruction to the smallest possible bit because I don't intend to teach it live. Then I wonder if I could do this in a live classroom what would I do for the next 50 minutes of class? Would they practice the skill, seems a bit of overkill there. Even those who swear teaching math is all about practice probably think that is too much.

What do I do with all the extra time? Especially when I'm remote and this 5 minute lesson goes to everyone at the same time. I've suddenly freed up about 4 and a half hours. How would discussion work? Can I do that? If I were teaching live I'd have students quickly break into small groups of 2 to 4 and talk for a minute and then return and share. We can't do that in Google Meet. We can break off but just for a minute and back might not be feasible (It could be but would require some strong discipline on the part of the students and that might not be where I want to spend my time).

No, right now I have my 100 or so students watching a 5 minute video (or 4), and doing a bit of practice. How do I get some quality discussion in? In the classroom they would be sitting at a table, and naturally in groups of four. We can do this remotely too. Instead of synchronous session where I live teach and stream to some I'm kind of flipping my classroom and now I will ask student to meet in groups of 3 to 7 (less than 3 and there is no discussion more than 7 it gets unwieldy). They can watch the video right before, or even together, then answer some discussion questions together maybe writing down the answers. A Jamboard with a slide for each group and each group can peek into someone else's group if they get stuck (make sure to create clear expectations of not messing with other people's stuff).

This works pretty well, but I want to listen in to each group. Should I require everyone to do this at the same time? No way, let's have each group schedule their math lesson when they want it, but with me so I can monitor each group (I'll probably have to have two or three groups going at a time, but this could work). With 100 students and 5 students per group that is 20 groups, too many for one at a time and 5 at a time might be the limit for effective facilitating by me. What to do?

It is time to really break out the small group discussion and facilitation strategies. Sure I can just give out a worksheet and have each group work through it. I can even differentiate and give out one of three or so group worksheets. What I really need to do is play around with some class discussion models and adapt them for virtual work. My students need to create something, not just fill out worksheets. I've already talked about a shared Jamboard, but what would a gallery walk look like when not everyone in the classroom is meeting at the same time in the same place? Could we do a fishbowl discussion? How about a think pair share? I'm not sure how all of this works just yet, but I do know we need to build the sense of community because we won't be in the same groups all year.

Small group work is tough in the classroom. Often we are afraid that the students won't be on task. Can I get some help from a paraprofessional? Maybe they can help monitor some groups. Can I change the lessons up a bit? Instead of four 50 minute time periods a day we think in terms of the week? Jeff Utecht suggests 2 days a week focus on two or three subjects and rotate through the subjects. If I'm introducing new material for math on just Monday and Tuesday. I might introduce a bit more, but then expect my students to spend a bit more time on the math during those days, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday would be time for me to check work and give feedback and allow students to make, hopefully, minor adjustments.

With a weekly schedule like this there are more staff available to monitor small group discussions. Ok maybe they can't do the math, but they hopefully can utilize the parent and student resources I've provided and if they still can't help they can send me a message. Sure they are also looking at student work from their part of the week and giving feedback, but we should be able to work something out. In any case the teaching time I am doing is basically the same, but the schedule can be more flexible for the students.  I know most of my middle school students hated getting up before 10AM or noon, so why do they have too? I can put in my 5 teaching hours but I might do an hour in the morning with the early risers, then 4 later in the afternoon for my later students. (Yes I know not everyone wants to split their schedule like this and it isn't a requirement, but not everyone has to start at 8AM either.)

Now instruction by the teacher is way down and small group work is way up and most groups have an adult actively monitoring the discussion or just a quick message away. Behavior is still going to be an issue, but a completely different issue. The majority of referrals (when a student gets in trouble and they refer them to the office) is for disruption and disrespect. It will be next to impossible for a student to interrupt a lesson (often the disruption or disrespect depending on how the teacher views it). In the groups they could cause havoc, but their influence is limited to just 2 to 6 peers. Perhaps Google can add a moderator level to a group function and we can assign a student as group leader, then they can mute or even kick anyone who is disruptive. Not the best solution, but allows students to be active if they want to be. It also puts these students into higher focus. Many disruptive students are less disruptive when in small groups, especially if partnered with a peer they like and respect. In our virtual small groups it won't be the teacher who calls a student out for disruption and make a scene it will be the student's peers and they will be more effective most of the time. Yes, there will be those who cannot be in any group and it is not the students responsibility to police each other. On the other hand part of the reason we put students in groups is to build those soft skills. Not just teach each other, but to learn to work together and overcome obstacles. If some students cannot work in small groups then they work one on one with the teacher as often as possible.

It seems to me that the largest problem most school districts had during emergency remote learning was students not turning in work, not showing up, or turning in unfinished work. In case you didn't know, this is a problem in live classrooms as well. It's just that we stop students in the hall, catch them before or after school, we sign them up for homework help or tutoring, we require them to come to class during lunch and sit them down and make them do work. This has been masking the real problem(s) the entire time. What those problems are have to do with, not knowing how to do the work, not having time or a place, not caring, etc.... Remote learning hasn't created those problems it just made it harder to cover them up.

I'm really big on using administration to work closer with these students. They obviously won't have students being sent to their office all the time. Now instead of calling these homes ans saying, yes your student is in my office again for disruption they can have a "wow I missed your student in class today>' The conversations are less about how are we going to stop your student from causing havoc to I really miss your student and want them to succeed.

I am also imagining more one-on-one time. It won't be much, but even 5 minutes a week can mean a lot to students. Think about my teacher schedule for a minute. I am expected to teach 5 hours a day, give or take. I have another 3 hours a day for planning and grading. Sure I could spend all this time doing that, but maybe I can also spend more time requiring each student do a one-on-one session with me. At five minutes a meeting I can get in 36 meetings in 3 hours. I can meet with my 100 students in 3 days a week. If the school has shifted schedules I might even have more time to meet with students. If I have to I'll cut a bit of small group discussion time to put for this. Why, because this is relationship building time. In my school we had advisory type class one period a day. I'll use that advisory time for relationship building. Maybe discuss an SEL lesson, or just how are you doing, what have you learned, what are you working on learning, how's the family. etc... (In Scouts we cannot meet one-on-one with kids for their protection so maybe this would be small group as well, but as all the technology can be monitored by the district I am less worried about this).

It may seem that all this small group would leave the students who are farthest behind alone to fail. I say no. First smaller groups without distractions of being in a class can hopefully focus more on helping each other. Having more adults monitoring means hopefully more teacher help. Finally, a bit part of this is creating or curating resources students can go to for help. If the choice is sending a message and waiting for the teacher to come help maybe they can spend that waiting time going to a suggested resource and seeing if they can answer their question on their own. This all really depends a lot on building strong norms, but that is the same in the classroom as well.

Let's recap how we can change teaching:
  1. Reduce teacher talk time (or more aptly student boredom) by keeping videos down to 5 minutes or less.
  2. Increase small group time by allowing students to work basically the whole class in  a small group.
  3. Focus more time on facilitating discussions and student creation.
  4. Increase adult facilitation by playing with the schedule so that more adults are available when students are in these small groups.
  5. Increase student participation by allow for more flexible schedules.
  6. Reduce behavior by limiting the ability to disrupt.
  7. Build student relationships with more one-on-one time.
  8. Increase completion rate by helping students be more self sufficient.
Ok I admit there are a few details I haven't gotten to yet. Like I said I'm just putting this down into words to see if it makes sense. Please add your two cents here in the comment sections or on twitter or Facebook or where ever you see this. 


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

What to do about Systemic Racism

It is a new century. Being anti-racist has changed.
Sure in the late 1700's just saying slavery is bad was good enough.
Then in the late 1800's giving people the right to vote was all in vogue.
By the late 1900's integrating schools, and diners was progressive.
Now we are in the 2000's. What is anti-racism today?

Recognizing and rooting out systemic racism

Except too many people have no idea what that is.
Feagin defines systemic racism in the introduction to the book:
Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power. Systemic here means that the core racist realities are manifested in each of society’s major parts [...] each major part of U.S. society--the economy, politics, education, religion, the family--reflects the fundamental reality of systemic racism.
So how do we fix it? A woefully incomplete list so please add
  • Require police forces to take deescalation and cultural competence training 
  • Changing the way we evaluate and test students
  • Changing the way we discipline students
  • Changing hiring practices
  • An overhaul of the financial system
  • An overhaul of the mortgage and home owner what ever
  • Prison reform
  • Voting reform
  • Changes in drug laws
  • Sentencing reform
  • Teaching cultural competence to doctors
  • Actually doing something about racial profiling
  • Add yours here
So many people think ending racism is just stopping their own individual actions. It isn't. Not anymore. We have to actively work to make changes in the systems and the processes around us. We have to make our friends a uncomfortable. We have to make our jobs a uncomfortable. We have to put our own necks out there.

We have three choices.
  1. We can be an active racist,
  2. We can be a passive racist, or
  3. We can be anti-racist.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Teaching in the Pandemic Period

How has teaching changed.
PIcture of the author wearing a homemade mask

I used to get 15,000 steps about 10,000 of them within a 25 by 20 sized room.
I used to stop drinking coffee at 8:30 because I just forgot or didn't have time.
I can go to the bathroom at any time and that is awesome.
I don't plan a daily lesson.
So much of my time was spent planning and reflecting on my daily lesson. Then grading exit slips and homework. And of course about 5 hours a day was actually required to be in the classroom. Way too often those 10 or 15 minutes quick lessons dragged out to 45 50 minutes because:
  • Someone wasn't listening so I had to repeat.
  • Someone was late.
  • Someone was goofing off.
  • Someone had a question.
  • I was too long winded.
  • We went down a rabbit hole.
  • The instructions were unclear.
  • Someone felt turn and talk time meant a discussion of birthday plans.
Today I am doing my best to shrink those 15 minutes lessons into a 5 minute video.
Instead of spending all my time corralling restless middle schoolers I can stalk GoGuardian and ask them if they need help.
I'm changing my teaching into a more coherent week long project based lesson with optional skill and concept building lessons on video.

It took forever to teach students how to be students in my classroom. Now I have to teach them how to be students in my online classroom.
They need to learn these life skills.
  • There are no classes - self directed learning with support from me
  • Time on tasks is less important. Quality of learning is more important
  • Organization is key. Tracking of assignments - calendar ?
    • Take notes
    • Set goals
  • When you need to get help
    • Anyone can be a resources, friends, family, college professors, Reddit
    • Google the answers, I'm not there to stop you
    • I have office hours, I'm around most of the day send me a message. Seriously yesterday I spent an hour one on one with a student. We never got frustrated we didn't feel pressed for time.
  • How many hours do you spend on learning? You should put in a few, but it probably won't be as many as if you were in school to get the same benefit.

I have the opportunity to try different things.

School now has to be more focused on results and less on time in the seat. I know the standardized testing culture was supposed to make us focus on results. What it did was scare administrators who pushed teachers to spend more time gathering and analyzing data to show growth then they spent planning quality lessons. I guess they figured if we spent 30 hours a week gathering and analyzing data we would use it, instead we cut down our lesson planning time because we were over worked.

Now I'm not expected to run a tight ship of a classroom. I don't have to spend all my time crafting scripted lessons and worrying if students were doing exactly as they were expected. I can spend more time developing a well crafted project. Create a few skill building videos, Then spend the rest of the time actively connecting with students.

All of those things that I was told are hallmarks of good teachers, but I didn't have time to actually do. I get the time to do it. I'm just not physically in the room.

The two problem areas. Not enough students are showing up, and I'm not getting enough work that I feel I can give high quality feedback.


Monday, March 23, 2020

The Silent Apocalypse

It is so surreal. The silence. 
Fog settling over a field

I've been home during the week before and for the most part it was normal. You could hear people in other houses and yards working. the occasional delivery vehicle or something. This shelter in place feels different.

It's quiet. I sit on my computer studying or writing and watch as families walk together down the street. I've seen people walk before, the occasional family, but almost always in the evening and most likely one person walking a dog. Now you'll see an entire family walking, kids up front goofing and the parents together following behind. When they pass another family it's always on the far side of the street.  I'm am not on a cul-de-sac but close enough that there really is no reason to pass my house if you don't live in the neighborhood.

I've been out a few times. It's quiet, but not quite as dead as you sometimes see on social media. I not alone on the road. The cops are in their best speed trap spots. I think they are pretty bored as well. It was weird to pass the mall on a Sunday afternoon and see an empty parking lot.

The stores that are open aren't very busy (at least the non-grocery stores). People react weird when I stop 6 feet away. No thanks I don't want to get any closer to you. I actually backed away a bit when the hardware store clerk who was helping me stepped into my 6 ft bubble. 
I went to borrow a tool from a friend. No hand shake, he didn't offer to help put it in my car as he normally would. The kids went off to play a bit while we talked, everyone for the most part observed social distancing.  It was kind of strange seeing someone in person who wasn't family. 

Everyone seems to be preparing as if riots will start and governments will fall, but we know that won't happen. The fall of civilization isn't quick. It's a death of a thousand cuts. At any time we can stop. We can step back and change course. 
Civilization, society, government, it's supposed to help us. There will always be those who use this service for personal gain, but for the most part they are held in check by a communal agreement on what is right and wrong. Most of us just want to leave the world a bit better than we found it. 
Lately it feels like those who lust for power or wealth or fame have become more numerous and more entrenched. As if we are reaching a tipping point where the majority who don't wield such personal power are at the end of their rope and might start doing something about it. I don't believe it. 

There is an election here in just about 6 months. We can change. We can change a little bit. We can change a lot. We can step closer to the knife so it cuts deeper. We can make minor changes and hope someday things change. We can make a major change and heal. It isn't about the person it's about We The People
Will we finally rise up and require our own government serve us? Will we stop blaming each other and trust most people are doing their best? Will we respect ourselves? Will we stop fearing people? Will we realize that life can be different, life can be better, life doesn't have to be, shouldn't be the same for our kids as it was for us? 
Can we finally really believe that the future is bright? (I gotta wear shades)


Friday, March 20, 2020

Making Myself a Better Teacher Episode 1

My first podcast with a friend Joy Kirr.

The audio file 
Joy is a local teacher whom I was following on Twitter. I don't think I even realized she was local when I first started following her. One day she tweeted out an activity she was hosting at the school she worked at the time. I was like, hey that's right down the road I should go. And so I did, with my wife and kids in tow we went. I just really love making these connections. 

We haven't talked much in the last few years but when I decided to start this podcast series and I was trying to think of teachers that I would like to chat with I remembered Joy and thought, "Yes, she is a teacher I would like to learn from." So here we are with my first episode. 

As I reviewed to the chat I thought I would mark down some of the parts I thought were good.

Around minute 3 we talk about low and high points in education and she really embodies a growth mindset.
Keep those keepsakes, you meant something to your students and those things will remind you in years to come.

Minute 6 what does good teaching look like. Not every student will like you because they have different preferences for types of teachers. It's going to be hectic. I would love if I could learn to help students transition from one activity to another.

Around 10 minutes talk about classroom management strategies. She had an idea for a change to make in her own classroom. A few days later she shared it with me via Twitter. 

A bit after 15 minutes we talk about why we still teach in classrooms and not with video lectures.

Around 18 minutes I ask her how do you know your successful? Surprise it has nothing to do with grades.

I follow up with an ask about grades near minute 20.

Minute 25 was a really funny quote from a student.

Finally I asked her to share some of her resources.

Here are the resources I curate and share with parents and teachers:
Feedback LiveBinder -
My own grading explanation -
My own books -


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Education Could Transform in the Wake of COVID 19 But it Probably Won't

Check out the 7th grade e-learning plan from a local school district.
Do you notice the nice mix of technology and non-tech work?
Do you see the choice?

Wouldn't it be great if education was more like this?

I'm not saying kindergartners can be expected to work with this level of autonomy. I'm also sure many parents are working their butts off trying to keep their kids motivated and doing something constructive. To this end I'm sure many parents are sacrificing work. I also have to admit, in my own house my kids are not being very productive.  That being said wouldn't it be great if schools transitioned to this model as the standard rather than the exception? Not the work from home model, but the choice and independent work as the rule rather than the exception.

What if the expectation was that students would be spending the bulk of their time in a classroom working independently? What if students had projects all the time? Big ones, small one, individual assignments, and group assignments, and anything in between. What if they were asked to explore the almost limitless knowledge gathering dust on the internet first, then asked to apply it, and then got feedback from the teacher? What if we only gave feedback and not grades until the students felt they mastered a topic. Can we change the gradebook so students and parents could see the progression of work and feedback with a rubric and examples good bad and ugly so they have an idea of what high quality work looked like?

I don't know about you, but when I try to give a short ten minute example on the board it always turns into a 30 minute tooth extraction, mostly because I can never get more than half the class to pay attention at the same time.

When students in my class don't know an answer more often than not the response seems to be, let me chat with my friend. I'm mean what is that? Not a raised hand, Mr. Murphy how do you do this? Not asking said friend if they know how to do this. Not even a quick search on the internet. Just an off task chat and annoyance when they are asked to get to work. Or sometimes the other extreme, after explaining in detail the task ahead, giving an example or two, writing the directions down, as soon as I release student to work I'm inundated with questions and no I can't start until you answer my question. What do you mean I'm third in line already can't you see I jumped out of my seat the second you stopped teaching to ask you a question. Fine then I'll talk to my friend.

In my school students are always surprised when I give them permission to look things up on the internet. I'd love it if, when they pulled out their phone, it was to google how to do the day's work, not to FaceTime someone in another classroom.

I know, I'm supposed to teach these things, and I could do a better job. The thing is, we aren't consistent. Some teachers are all about giving students the freedom to use their independent brains to explore and expand their learning, but why does everyone always assume its wrong if they don't get the answers from the teacher?

Is I do, We do, You do. the best method of teaching? I find getting past the I do stage gets harder and harder as the year progresses. Students learn, if they never actually do the We Do part nothing happens and they don't have to do the You Do part. Well they fail, but they aren't making that connection.

And does any curriculum really get into this project, problem based teaching? Well yes, but not the one we use. To be fair I have been told problem based learning is part of the plan. I've also been on standards based grading committees. I also built a curriculum from scratch using projects (it needs a lot of work). yet here I am using a curriculum that doesn't have any projects.

So I go back to the beginning. What if school were like this COVID-19 interruption? What if students were given choices every week and told to pick one a day? What if they were asked to use a set of resources to explore and learn skills on their own, or with a couple of peers? What if they got feedback but no grades? What if the teacher was a knowledge base of last resort?

Could we do this in kindergarten? Yes, with a modification. The last time I was in a kindergarten classroom we spent quite a bit of time in centers, thanks to parent volunteers. What if the school set up the expectation that students would learn to be more and more independent each year so that by the time they were in high school almost all of their work was independent or group projects and almost no teacher directed learning? What if they could miss a day, or even a week of class time, but still be productive and learn? What if...