Our first quarter of full-time distance learning ends this week, and I thought it would be interesting to some readers, and helpful to me, to take some time to reflect on what I’ve been doing and how it’s been going.
I’m dividing this post into several categories: Summary, Concerns, and then specific discussions about what’s happening in each of my classes (ELL History, ELL Intermediate/Beginners English, IB Theory of Knowledge (I have three periods of TOK).
I’m feeling that – overall – my students are learning a lot and like our classes and, based on the regular anonymous surveys I’m using regularly (see HERE ARE STUDENT RESPONSES TO SURVEYS I USED ONE-MONTH INTO FULL-TIME VIRTUAL LEARNING), most agree with that assessment. Distance learning is clearly not as good as face-to-face teaching in normal times, but our classes are nothing to sneeze at.
I believe I worked harder during the first six weeks of this school year than I ever have during my teaching career (including my first year!) but, fortunately, the last two weeks I’ve been able to complete all my lesson planning for the following week during the previous work week. Prior to that time, my entire weekends were spent planning and grading. This still means I’m working lots of hours after-and-before school, including making calls to students’ homes, and the hours are still not reasonable. It does mean, however, that the odds are increasing that I might be able to sustain this pace for at least the next few months without major damage to my mental or physical health.
Nevertheless, I continue to have a number of concerns…
There are many.
I think that most of the students – at our school, at least – are going to come out of distance learning okay, even if it lasts the entire school year, and that projections of widespread learning loss are likely overblown (see How much learning have students lost due to COVID? Projections are coming in, but it’s still hard to say).
Nevertheless, some of our most vulnerable student populations are going to take a huge “hit.”
I think our Intermediate and Beginning ELLs will be okay, primarily because I am voluntarily teaching them four extra classes each week (this was and is totally my idea). I say that not to pat myself on the back, but to highlight our district’s empty rhetoric about equity – providing adequate education to ELLs should not be dependent on educators teaching students without pay. It would not be very hard to pay all ELL teachers to do the same at each of our district’s schools.
Clearly, our students with learning challenges, despite the extraordinary efforts by our special ed teachers (I still can’t believe that our district’s special ed director told them at the beginning of the year that “they have a lot to make up for from the spring”), are going to be hurt by the lack of face-to-face school, and I don’t have any idea of how to make it less worse.
Finally, based on the small sample size of my classes, I’m concerned that we are going to lose as many as ten percent of our students – permanently. These are the students who are most challenged – in skills, family situation, motivation. It seems to me that many in this group are ones who needed to have the daily schedule of school to attend (even if they didn’t necessarily come all the time), and the regular attention of a hands-on teacher to make it through the day and years. And I’m skeptical that having a twice-a-week hybrid model would be successful in reaching them.
Our school staff are making exceptional efforts to reach all the students who are experiencing challenges. I just don’t know if we have what I believe to be the resources needed to bring this ten percent “into the fold” (I also don’t know if that ten percent is reflective of school or district numbers, though we’re trying to find out). And I don’t believe that our district is capable of doing it. But, if anybody can, it’s our school’s exceptional administration.
Our district has not yet made any potential reopening decisions. However, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that, if it happens, high schools, at least, wouldn’t open into some kind of hybrid model until the beginning of our second semester (late January), at the earliest.
And I have a lot of concerns about if that should happen at all this school year and, if it does, what it looks like at our high school level (it seems to me that the issue of reopening elementary schools is a different kettle of fish, and I’ll pass here on that discussion).
There’s a mix of evidence about school reopening and COVID-19 spread (see As more students head back, here’s what we now know (and still don’t) about schools and COVID spread), though it does seem fairly safe to say there appears to be greater risk in high schools than in others. And it’s safe to say that the vast majority of our teachers have little confidence in our district’s ability to provide adequate safety measures.
In addition to those health concerns, I have major logistical worries.
If we go back, what kind of hybrid model would we use?
It’s pretty certain that a substantial number of our parents would opt to continue full-time virtual learning. Our school’s zip code has the highest infection rate in the county, and in schools across the country higher percentages of families of color have not wanted to return their children to physical schools (see Educators Wanted Vulnerable Students To Return First for In-Person Learning, But a Racial Divide Spoiled Their Plans). Of course, this reluctance can be traced to the face that their communities have been impacted the most by COVID-19 (see The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus).
Simultaneously teaching students face-to-face and online appears to be a nightmarish scenario (see Teaching in-person and virtual students at once? It’s an instructional nightmare, some educators say).
If we don’t take that road and, instead, reconfigure classes so all the full-time distance learning students are in separate classes, we may then have to match them up with different teachers, some of whom might be choosing not to return to the physical school because of health concerns. So everyone’s schedule gets disrupted, class dynamics and relationships are thrown-up in the air and, in some cases (like mine) there’s the situation where there are no (or an extremely limited number of) other teachers who can teach the class.
And face-to-face teaching is obviously not going to look anything like it does in normal times.
My very large ELL History class is, in effect, three simultaneous classes – three quarters are in an Intermediate U.S. History, three are studying World History, and six are Newcomers.
The plan I had developed over the summer, which was informed by my spring experience, has generally worked well (see Okay, Now, Here’s My Tentative Remote Teaching Plan For U.S. History). In most ways, in fact, it’s reflective of my usual in-school History class.
We’re using the book we usually use (America’s Story). There’s a leadership team of about eight students who are responsible for small groups working in breakout rooms. Students tell me the names of students they would like to work with, and every month I mix them up. Each month one of the members of the leadership team is responsible for each group.
In breakout rooms, they share the screen, take turns reaching each paragraph, and annotate it (words that are new to them, a summary, and a question). That’s what they would do in the physical classroom. There, they would also periodically use whiteboards to have students take turns reading sentences and have others in the group write them down without looking at the text, and then the reader corrects the writers. Students do the same thing online using Whiteboard.fi. We then review the chapters as a class.
Every other chapter or two, the small groups read the chapters as a jigsaw activity (one page for each group). In the physical classroom, they have created posters – now, they prepare Google Slides presentations (see Here’s The Hand-Out I Use For Jigsaw Activities & You’ll See An Ed Week Video Of My Class Using It Next Month).
In addition to the textbooks, we do lots of other activities, like inductive learning data sets, sequencing lessons, and read alouds. You can find quite a few of them at our U.S. History class blog. Generally, I introduce each activity to the full class, the breakout room groups complete them as a small group (though each student has to also complete their own copies), and we then review it as a full class. While students are working in the breakout rooms, I and two exceptional peer tutors are rotating in-and-out of each one.
We also regularly play reinforcing games using either Quizizz or FluentKey. To ensure that no one feels bad about being at the bottom of the “leaderboard,” they usually play them as their breakout room groups. All students have to do is get the join code from me, and then can then go to their breakout rooms where one person shares their screen. I make sure I put the Quizizz code as “instructor led” so I can eliminate the time limit to answer questions.
Students also have to complete two-to-three Brainpop movies and quizzes for homework each week.
After each unit, I have a simple assessment using Quizizz’s new “lesson” feature. Here’s an example.
After each class, we do a five-minute de-briefing where the leadership team members report on how they feel the breakout room work went. They, as well as similar teams in each of my classes, also complete a weekly survey (see RESULTS OF WEEKLY “SELF-ASSESSMENTS” DONE BY MEMBERS OF “LEADERSHIP TEAMS” IN EACH OF MY CLASSES).
While all that is going on, my three-student ELL World History group (composed of seniors) pretty much works independently. I have a series of activities for them to do each day on Google Classroom that is based on what we usually do in a physical classroom (reading and annotating the Access World History textbook, many of the activities at our World History class blog, and Quizizz games). Though I’m not that all impressed with Nearpod‘s ELL activities, I do like their Social Studies VR interactives, so I’ve been using them and they are getting positive student reviews.
At the same time, I have a combination of two exceptional peer tutors, a bilingual aide and, on some days, a student teacher, who all work with my small group of Beginners in a combination English support and ELL History class.
The non-History part is generally first doing some simple oral practice, then teaching English grammar or vocabulary words based on a theme, and then reinforcing them with a game from Baamboozle. Baamboozle is great because it’s set-up so that students can work in teams while they are all together – they can discuss the answer between themselves since the other team can’t answer it.
The History part with the Beginners follows a pretty standard routine:
One day the Picture Word Inductive Model (see The Best Ways To Use Photos In Lessons) is used to teach words from two images in the textbook or elsewhere; then students use Whiteboard.fi to demonstrate what they’ve learned, then they use a Padlet to share new words connected to the images, write sentences using them, and illustrate them with images. Next, they complete clozes (gap-fill sentences) about the two original images. Finally, if there is time, they play a Quizizz game using sentence scrambles using the same sentences (like this one).
The other History day is spent first with students sharing their words and sentences from the Padlet, reading a simple history text related to the images, and annotating it as a group with definitions and paragraph summaries (Google Classroom is monitored by peer tutors to ensure that students are actually doing it), Next, they review the original picture sentences again, practice dictation with Whiteboard.fi, and try to improve their work on the Quizizz sentence scrambles (the peer tutors and I review results from the first time and discuss what needs to be taught as a result).
All in all, the class is going very well, though I’m hopeful of getting more student teacher help. It’s a lot to manage.
As I mentioned, students seem to feel pretty good about this class:
Because I’m bald,I generally wear a fedora 2 school. Today, in middle of our online ELL class, spooky music started blaring, & a bunch of students (most who know me from previous years) turned on cameras to reveal themselves as costumed ghosts wearing fedoras. The kids r alright
— Larry Ferlazzo (@Larryferlazzo) October 30, 2020
This is a combination Intermediate and Beginners class, and has been the most difficult one for me to get a handle on. However, I think it’s finally working out.
I have a very good student teacher who primarily works with the Beginners in a breakout room. We’re doing thematic teaching there (primarily based on the content in Katie Hull’s and my book, The ELL/ESL Teacher’s Survival Guide – we’ve been working on the second edition, so a lot of those new additions are working out well). That, combined with reinforcement through Quizizz games, seems to be going well.
With the Intermediates, though I don’t think the National Geographic Learning Edge website is teacher-or-student-friendly, I am using their Grammar & Writing Practice Book as a grammar-teaching sequence, though I make it much more interesting than their book does using Nearpod activities I create and Quizizz games I find.
I also do mini-lessons based on student interests (their future occupational interests, their favorite singers, etc.).
In addition, we have been doing conversation “scrambles” where both students and I write them (see “PEAKSAY” IS LIKELY TO BECOME A “GO-TO” SITE FOR LANGUAGE TEACHERS), and our oral language practice is focused on academic language (see English-Language Learners and Academic Language).
The main focus, though, right now has been reading and writing fables. Katie and I have a pretty ambitious inductive fable lesson plan in our book, Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners, and that’s been going pretty well, though it takes a lot longer to do online.
After we complete this unit, I think I’ll go with a modification of WRITE Institute’s unit on writing about an autobiographic incident.
In both classes, we’ve been trying to encourage students to do work outside of class in their choice of Brainpop ELL, Raz-Kids, English Central, Duolingo or Quill. The Intermediate students have been doing Quill (which I had never used before, but like it so much that it will be a tool I expect to use for years to come), but we haven’t had much luck with the Beginners yet. I’ve got some ideas on how to create the conditions where they want to do more, and I’ll write in the future about if they work or not.
THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
I have been pleasantly surprised to see that A TENTATIVE YEAR PLAN FOR MY THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE CLASSES has actually been working out almost just as I had hoped it would.
I’m still frustrated that IB chose to change the entire TOK curriculum that same year as our pandemic, but all my summer prep work has worked-out.
I’m following that original plan, combining it with a leadership team in each class and having lots of activities done in group projects in breakout rooms. Two of the classes are the last ones on the days they are scheduled, and many students just stay in their breakout rooms to complete the projects long after school has ended. It’s easy for me to leave them going when I do other work.
Based on feedback from the leadership teams, students can choose their own groups for multi-day projects or do them on their own. I choose groups for projects or discussion groups that can be completed on the same day.
Probably the biggest challenge – and benefit – has been that one of my TOK classes is comprised of two-thirds of Intermediate ELLs who I recruited for TOK (I have Intermediate ELLs in all three classes, but scheduling issues required a larger number in one of them). This has caused me to re-think the scaffolding needed for the activities and, as I always say, “Good teaching for ELLs is good teaching for everybody.” Creating this new scaffolding, which is usually writing out a step-by-step process to complete each major assignment, has helped all my students. Online teaching requires additional scaffolding since we have less class time and I’m not as accessible to answer questions.
In addition, I have a voluntary lunch meeting with ELLs taking the class every Monday to give them an overview of what we’re doing to do during the week.
Unfortunately, that class is the only one that doesn’t meet at the end of the day, so they don’t have the advantage of being able to stay in breakout rooms longer. So I regularly modify the length, though not the core elements, of their assignments.
Well, there it is. I hope my report for the second quarter is just as upbeat!
I’m adding this post to HERE ARE DETAILED – & TENTATIVE – DISTANCE LEARNING PLANS FOR ALL MY FALL CLASSES.