5 Truths from Observing eLearning Teachers

Our public high school has been open for both in person instruction and eLearning since August, as we are in Florida and in person instruction was mandated by the governor’s executive order. In this model, students have chosen to either come to school traditionally, with the assurance of sanitization, distancing, and hygiene protocols, as well as the worry of occasional quarantine. 

For our students who chose eLearning, they are still a part of our school and campus, taught by teachers from our school who may be teaching from home or from campus, following the same bell schedule as our on campus students. They log into our learning management system to check for attendance, live classes, or possibly guided instruction through virtual learning platforms.

Just as we have been observing our on campus teachers to give them support and feedback in their instruction, we also have the expectation that eLearning teachers have observations as well. I was honored to be able to observe eleven different teachers this year who have delivered their instruction live through eLearning, and these are the five truths I’ve found as I’ve learned along with them.

#1 Live instruction can be engaging

There’s a big assumption out there that our eLearning students are struggling due to lower quality instruction or standards in eLearning. Nothing could be further from the truth. It does take a teacher, a skilled professional, to make that instruction engaging, and I saw it repeatedly in my observations.

Every eLearning observation that I joined had students actively participating in discussion, sometimes verbally, but must often through non-verbal strategies. They were using strategies in the video chat feature, like waterfall, where students wait for a teachers cue to all simultaneously post, to get responses from all students, and then drawing out discussion from there. Lessons and activities were chunked, paced, and scaffolded, and often fun greetings awaited learners to arrive. Lessons ended on a rigorous note, with either a writing activity, a reflection, or some appropriate ending at the standard.

The larger issue I heard from the teachers was just getting students to attend. In the spring for the emergency eLearning, most students could just submit an assignment or two per week at their own leisure, with no live lessons or attendance expected. Since students now have to attend on the bell schedule, many of the failures in eLearning are students not attending, whether that has been due to a lack of communication about expectations. 

Some students have even appeared on their class video chats from their day jobs, whether from the belief that eLearning would not have as rigorous of participation expectation, or whether out of genuine economic need for families during this crisis. As we have just started the second semester, a new executive order from the governor has gone into place where we need written communication from families to keep a failing student in eLearning. At this point, most of our students have returned, with mostly our successful eLearners left in these engaging environments to learn.

#2 Student-Teacher relationships are deeper than ever

This is an interesting observation as I’ve been in classes: though you’d expect only seeing a person on a screen to be detaching, it has actually given an incredible opportunity for students. Students now communicate with teachers using the tools and on the terms that they are used to communicating with their peers, so they seem to be able to convey themselves more openly and honestly to their teachers. They can essentially text their teachers via the learning management system anytime of day or night and be more open in their interactions through the virtual platform.

One teacher told me that 10 students have come out to her as LGBTQ so far this year, where they don’t often say so in person. She also told me that others have opened up to her about their medical conditions and struggles, as that teacher was eLearning due to her medical needs and has been open about it to her students. Others have opened up with deep struggles too, that have led to referrals to student service, and some to community mental health services. I am grateful for a team with strong protocols and support in these cases.

Many teachers open their classes with music and greetings in a way that connect with kids. One sees herself as an Effie Trinket, a hostess of learning adventures in the eLearning environment, wearing various wigs that her students have given unique names over the year. Clever background, themed to the lesson, catch student attention. One teacher has dedicated social-emotional learning and mindfulness spaces on the homepage of her class to help connect to kids.

Another teacher has pointed out the value of private messaging within the video chat. Students aren’t embarrassed by corrections, or afraid to ask questions because of the fact that other students can’t see the private chat with the teacher. For this teacher, bilingualism and the ability to provide Spanish assistance has been enhanced through the eLearning platform has helped learners too, and increased connections with students.

#3 It’s never just one digital tool

In every eLearning class that I attended, all teachers blended multiple tech tools together to create an engaging learning environment. Though using a video chat platform was the central tool all teachers used in their live instruction with students, every teacher added at least another tech tool with their video instruction.

For math teachers, each used a document camera to project their work to students for notes and to see their work. One had multiple levels in one session, so students were able to copy a problem and work, while he erased the whiteboard and presented a new problem for the other course. He flipped back and forth between the courses, giving each the time to solve a problem, while working with the group that had just finished.

A world language teacher used a video from YouTube sharing a unique conjugation to pace out instruction, pausing to break it down with students, and giving time and means to assess and discuss. A science teacher used a Nearpod to assess students in a variety of ways throughout the lesson, particularly noting the usefulness of the whiteboard functionality. With the whiteboard, she could tell whether students where just getting their answers from web searching, or whether they were actually working it out themselves.

An access points exceptional needs educator, teaching intellectually disabled students, took them through images on the screen, including the worksheets he’s able to provide to them as hard copies. He also took them through a virtual reality tour of a bee hive, and had them experience videos of bee behavior, experiences they likely wouldn’t have had in person.

English, reading, and social studies teachers used creative combinations of engaging students in texts. Often they had audio books, or had students read together. One annotated texts in Word with students, and another had deep, engaging conversations using the discussion function in the learning management system. Another had students complete an analysis card through Nearpod, keeping the graphic organizer function, but paced with tools to keep it chunked and manageable. Text went hand in hand with discussion, using the best of the tool and the live video chat, especially in deep conversations about civil rights in a social studies class.

#4 Teachers will be forever changed in formative assessment

There’s that classic saying about the rubber band that has been stretched and won’t go back again, and that’s how the minds of eLearning teachers will be after this experience. Last year, my husband’s school had a schoolwide focus on formative assessment and how to include it in their classrooms while in person, before the pandemic hit. Now that these eLearning teachers have had access to nearly endless streams of data, they will truly be the champions on our campus for formative assessment.

Our eLearning teachers have more data on students, and have to know how to use it wisely. For example, in a traditional classroom, if a teacher does a turn and talk, those voices may get lost into the room, with the teacher hearing a few, or the teacher trying to call on a few to capture the thoughts of the room. In a digital learning platform, you have documented everything every student says, whether its in the video chat, in a discussion board, or in a collaboration tool.

This data is constantly coming in, particularly as teachers turn to non-verbal communication strategies. Several teachers found Nearpod useful for its variety in assessment, and its capture of student information. Math and science teachers particularly were concerned about looking for process in student work, using whiteboard tools, either in Nearpod or Whiteboard.fi, to capture student thinking. Even in the ESE class, students held their work up to the cameras regularly for the teacher to make sure everyone was where they needed to be.

With the wisdom of data, comes the ability to reteach. Teachers said they were able to privately message students to hang out after class for further instruction. One reading teacher gave the invitation as an invitation to collaborate with peers, and was able to create small group learning opportunities after whole group instruction that way. As some of these teachers started to come back to some sections in person, this was a difficult adjustment in person for those teacher, having them long for more technology to be able to capture continuous assessment points.

#5 Administrators are connectors in eLearning

By my nature and leadership, I’m a maximizer at heart. I look for the strengths in my teachers and employees, and try to build off of those to enhance their impact on our students. We had our veteran teachers, all with some medical reason that limited their exposure to students, teaching eLearning students.

They had a learning community led by a teacher leader on campus. He facilitated weekly lunch and learns, where they could discuss their issues and share technology tips. However, the one thing they hadn’t yet done was gone to observe each other’s classrooms, the same as we would have a demo classroom, or just walk into a peer’s classroom. This was where I found my opportunity to truly showcase the strengths of our eLearning teachers.

In reflection, each teachers was fairly candid about what their need or desire was, what they’d like to improve on. And for most, I was easily able to highlight the work of one of their peers and suggest they either learn about that tool from a peer, or observe that peer in action. In my role, being a maximizer for the talent of my teachers meant being a connector, bringing them together as a professional community with expertise to share.

What I also realized is that I had some of the longest conversations with teachers I’ve had since I was a new teacher mentor. Many of the teachers, particularly the ones teaching from home, don’t get a break to talk with an adult peer throughout the day, or on a regular basis. In my role as an administrator, listening and letting teachers be heard was important too, as I found valuable feedback to improve our systems to make eLearning students and teachers feel included as members of our school.

We didn’t expect eLearning to continue as a choice into the second semester, but I am grateful that it has been an engaging, rigorous option for our students who want it. I am grateful for our teachers who have led and pioneering this way or work, and what they have taught me about about instruction and leadership along the way.

My Office as an Assistant Principal

During the COVID-19 closure my office got painted, and in the process I had some time to make some design updates to my assistant principal office to make it more welcoming and friendly to families and students that I wanted to share.

  • Social justice + STEM art: I keep Amplifer’s art on rotation in my frames, and this year’s campaign encouraging women in STEM is the current focus in my office, including Spanish posters. All of their artwork can be downloaded for free. Then, I had the full sized posters printed for under $6 each at Costco. Next year, I’ll be adding into the rotation some “I am a Scientist” posters from Plenary, which are now available for pre-order (check out their slides for free download as amazing resources to share with students)!
  • Plants + lighting: Always keeping neurodivergence in mind, I avoid using the overhead fluorescents. I want a place where we can have conversations, not a space that feels like an institution.
  • Television facing seating: This screen is an extension of my computer and plays a rotation of student images celebrating diverse groups of student achievements, and it also plays announcements about mental health, letting students know I can escort them to a confidential counselor, graduation requirements, and a weekly school calendar. I can also pull up their current grades and records and put them on full display so we can have a conversation about the data, rather than awkwardly talking about something behind my screen that they can’t see, potentially creating mistrust (I do have private screens back there)
  • Little Library: There’s a selection of about eight books I bought from our media specialist’s summer reading challenge. For students who just need a quick break from class without the formality of ISS, I have a cafe hightop table with barstools outside of my offices and they can choose one of the titles to read.
  • New faux leather seating: My old seats were school provided fabric lobby seats that I added throw pillows to. By switching to faux leather, I can ensure that I can sanitize chairs between visitors safely.
  • Sidetable: On my sidetable, there’s a bowl of fidgets. With this bowl, it’s always pretty easy to tell the more neurodivergent students from the neurotypical ones who don’t understand the fidgets! I’m usually able to recommend that they can get fidgets and recommend them as a coping strategy. They’ll typically see me out in the halls during lunch with these too. Unfortunately now, I’ll have to take care to sanitize these too, but I’m glad to be able to serve students that need the stimulation to focus, as well as parents who bring small children into my office. There’s also 211 cards, and a box of tissues.
  • Wall of celebrities at PCHS: So far, I have four photos on campus with celebrities. Three are SEC coaches, one is from when Good Morning America was on campus!
  • Other favorites in the photo: I love my framed articles featuring either my students or me, rather than just keeping them in the drawer. I also love the framed photos my students have given me over the years. The one on the far right is from a former student who’s authored a book, so it sits with her book. In the first photo, there’s a couple of plush animals, one from my AP CSP & Esports kids when I left, and another from a tech support kid when he went to visit Silicon Valley before moving there for coding school! I also have a board of all my tags, buttons, and other memorabilia from conferences, including press passes from the White House for President Obama’s campaign and Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency when I got to cover it with my journalism kids.

New on ASCD EdAdvantage

Today I was published on ASCD’s EdAdvantage on Faciliating Professional Learning. The article, “Showcasing Teachers to Enhance Professional Development”, highlights the work I helped led with teachers and administrators at Bloomingdale High School as a Teacher Talent Developer to increase all areas of professional development, instructional leadership, and teacher leadership on our culture survey and improve the school grade 80 points in two years. It’s a three page read full of ideas you can implement at your own school—check it out!

School Apps

In an effort to communicate better with parents and students in a mobile culture, I started the Bloomingdale High School app in the Android and iOS stores in July 2014. In nearly three years it has over 9,500 users and has had over 258,000 views! Recently, I started an app for Boyette Springs Elementary, my kids’ school, that brought the school apps back in the spotlight.

Our app features social media feeds, like our Twitter run by our principal and our WBUL Youtube channel, so that they can see the latest news from these outlets without having to be a user of that social media network. Our course and club directories are featured, as well as current sports schedules. Guidance, news and grades are a click away, as are lunch menus, maps, the student handbook, and the calendar. You can email your teachers, or call the school at a click. Next year, we’re going to try to do salad and sandwich line pre-ordering via app too!

We use AppMakr/Infinite Monkeys as our publisher. It’s important to understand why we use this route: to publish in the Android store is a $25 one-time fee; to publish in the Apple store is a $99 annual fee. With a coupon code for student apps, the cost to us is free, avoiding the $99 annual fee (message me to learn more). It’s also a what you see is what you get editor, which means you can drag and drop icons in and adjust your app without any programming knowledge! My favorite part is that it pushes out instant updates without having to wait for Apple to approve the update!

You’ll spend the most time building the app itself. It needs clean, consistent graphics with a uniform look. There are some icons to pick from, but I prefer downloading my own from Flat Icon. You’ll want to create a banner for the top screen of the app as an image. From there, it’s deciding what features you want to include.

The most important thing to know about the Apple Store is that you only get two shots to get it approved, or you’re permanently banned. Here’s what you need to know to get approval:

  • Make sure your graphics are on point. If they’re misaligned, or inconsistent in appearance, they won’t approve of the aesthetic. Give the background a color that matches your banner (best bet is to learn the hexadecimal color value and use the same color).
  • Apple requires interactive features. That is, they don’t want your app to be a mobile website in function. Use AppMaker’s wall and chat features to allow parents to communicate, and add it in the app description. (Remember how I told you it makes instant updates? When we get our apps approved, we immediately delete these features! The thought of unregulated conversation on school apps scares us a little. Or a lot.)
  • Make sure that each link is good–is there content under each click? The AppMakr has a demo view and will allow you to text a web preview to your phone to try it out.

Once you get Apple approved, it’s very easy! Android access is immediate without approval, and they send you all the graphics and uploads you need for a successful Android launch. I recommend you get your webmaster behind this, so they can help you in keeping it updated regularly, and download the Bloomingdale and Boyette Springs apps for inspiration. Happy app building!

Strategy Lists

As a part of our teacher led PD project, we empowered teachers at our school to come together and share strategies they use that focus on specific topics that either improve questioning and discussion, or assessment. I’ve posted those lists on my website as resources, and for space, have condensed them as links here.


Questioning & Discussion:

International Teacher Leadership Conference

On March 2, I presented “Teacher Leaders Transforming Professional Development: Join Us in the Journey” at the International Teacher Leadership Conference in Miami with Florida Teacher Leader Fellows Pam Ferrante, Marti Ladd,  Sarah Barnett, and Amy DeCelle. We decided to use the Open Space format, where each of us had an opportunity to share our inquiry questions.

Here’s a synposis of my inquiry question from the conference.

Here are some of the resources I shared that I used in implementing personalized PD:

Making a list, checking it twice: Preparing for Winter Break

Here’s a few things to consider before Winter Break:

1. You need time to relax and decompress. Research on teacher well-being shows that this time is critical for you to recharge. Your families need you. You need to focus on them, and doing nice things for yourself. As professionals, there will always be more work to do. Now is not the time to try to do it, because you’ll just end up with more to do.

2. Don’t take a large stack of papers home to grade. If you do it, you’ll be miserable. If you don’t do it, you’ll be miserable Sunday night before we return. Nothing is worse than bringing papers home to grade then having to bring them back ungraded (which is why I swore off bringing papers home years ago). If your New Year’s resolution is to grade more often, being defeated over break isn’t the way to start. You will have planning time during exam week where you can catch up on grades if you still need to.

3. Unplug devices –coffee pots/Keurigs, TVs, lights, etc.– but not your computer (updates may run over break but you can turn it off and they’ll still run). Bloomingdale’s media center caught on fire on Christmas Day one year (due to no fault of a teacher, but a contractor doing renovations). There’s nothing more heartbreaking than hearing about that on Christmas Day and coming back to work to a soggy room full of ruined books (my apologies to English teachers who just died a little on the inside).

4. Make copies of your review materials now. Come back with a fresh start on Monday. Do everything you can now to prep the room, materials and lessons. Don’t have that Sunday night guilty feeling (which isn’t a bad New Year’s resolution–turning that feeling into one of excitement because you know your class/lesson is ready to go).

5. Get all food out of the classroom. Tis the season for holiday cultural celebrations, but coming back to bugs and other creatures isn’t pleasant. That means your emergency chocolate stash too (I know I can’t be the only one).

6. Give some love to your custodian. Maybe your hall can collect for a gift card (we did in my old classroom area). Find where you can deliver leftover treats to custodians instead of throwing them away. And please, with those holiday cultural celebrations, try to take out the trash yourself when possible (or least get extra bags–the mounds of plates and cups spilling out of the trash isn’t fun to deal with–multiply it by their hall assignments and Friday is a terrible day for them).

7. If you have a window, close your blinds and make sure the windows are locked. Keep valuables locked away to not make the school a tempting target for theft.

8. I hope my mentees take the Starbucks gift card I gave them and go enjoy a warm drink with someone you love. We are teachers because we care, and we need to remember to nourish our other relationships too.

Hope you all have a safe, wonderful, restful break!

Review Strategies

The most important thing I hope my mentees take away is to not just hand your students a packet of questions to answers or terms to define and walk away! Students need quality instruction and processing time to truly understand all of the material from this semester. Here are some strategies for review.

Student Created Questions
Some of your best questions can start with students. If they write them, they can understand content better (and there’s less work for you!) I recommend showing them Costa’s levels of questioning and pushing them towards Level 2 and 3 questions, as they’ll be more likely to see that on exams and EOCs. Check out this link for more, including stems for various content ares.

In this Kagan strategy, students create a question card. They then find a partner, quiz them on the card, answer the other students’ card, then trade cards. The students then find a new partner, and ask their new question. See this link for more detailed instructions and some variations on this method.

Break up your content into small chunks and assign it to different groups to present. I often ask them to make a poster with requirements to have a visual, and key information. This will look different depending on your content. You can also do variation where each student in that group writes a question then you create mixed groups, where a member from each table comes together with new questions.

With Foldables, students create their own visual/kinethetic study guide to review material. See the attachments for instructions and examples. This link goes to a social studies Foldable guide with tons of creative ideas on how to use them. Here’s another awesome link to more great Foldable and review ideas, including graphic organizers. There’s some science-specific content too.

With Kahoot, you can make multiple choice questions into trivia games. The students love it, but they need devices and WiFi to do it. Note that there’s many Kahoots that already exist, but they may not meet the needs of your students. Do preview all content! Making one is very easy too, and if one person in your PLC does it, then you could share with all (or jigsaw it, like where each PLC member makes one for different units)! Better yet, if you do the Jigsaw questions above, have each group pick their best question. As the students mingle together sharing their own questions, make a quick 5 question Kahoot with their own questions. Bragging rights, or extra credit to winners makes it even more fun and competitive! (Often, when all students are finished with their exam, we’ll go back for fun and play the Disney trivia or other previewed pop culture ones. It’s a great way to build community!)

There are Powerpoint templates out there that make the game playable as a PPT. If you need one, go this link (that also has other run review games). You can also go to this link for a web based version. You can add rigor by making students discuss their answers and come to consensus, or by using student created questions.

I like Quizlet because the students can download an app on their device and study with flashcards that go everywhere with them. They’re easy to create, and on a computer they can play games with the content, like Space Race, or matching games. I recommend demoing it so students take advantage of the power of it. Quizlet is also great for you as you study for your subject area or Professional Educator exam–for many tests, people have already shared their flashcard sets so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel!