Sunday, March 29, 2020

In Times of Crisis Self-Care is More Important Than Ever

The majority of us did not see the COVID-19 pandemic coming. Up until this point, our lives were dominated by both professional and personal routines.  Sure, there might have been a few detours or hiccups that would throw us off course for a little while, but for the most part, we would all get back on track.  For me, my day would always start and end the same. Whether on the road or at home, I would get up by 5:00 AM, work out at the gym, down a protein shake, work, and then go to bed by 10:00 PM.  Well, just like everyone else, my whole schedule has been thrown off, and every day looks different. Like many of you, it has been difficult for me to adjust.

I loved my routine, and it was vital to my self-care. To get to the heart of the issue, here are some thoughts from Noma Nazish.
Self-care is important to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself as it produces positive feelings and boosts your confidence and self-esteem. Also, self-care is necessary to remind yourself and others that you and your needs are important too.
Still curious as to why it is so important?  Take a minute to reflect on this piece that I pulled from a health care website:
Why is it important? Self-care encourages you to maintain a healthy relationship with yourself so that you can transmit the good feelings to others. You cannot give to others what you don't have yourself. While some may misconstrue self-care as selfish, it's far from that. When you pay adequate attention to your well-being, you're not considering your needs alone. You're reinvigorating yourself so that you can be the best version of yourself for the people around you. Everyone around you also benefits from the renewed energy and joy you exhibit.

As districts and schools have moved to remote learning, more stress and pressure have been put on families.  There is no fault or blame here towards educators.  They are doing their best to keep learning going under challenging conditions that were never foreseen.  Parents and guardians, though, are trying to juggle so many conflicting priorities stemming from their own work at home responsibilities and that of their kids.  Remote learning has totally upended life at home for many of us. Combine all of this with the emotional and physical impacts of social distancing, and the result tends to be a lack of focus on or attention to self-care.

Here are some ideas I have. By no means is this an all-encompassing list. 

  • Embrace new routines
  • Expand your boundaries
  • Learn a new skill or take up a hobby
  • Be intentional about physical activity
  • Open up to your spouse, kids, or friends about what you need
  • Engage with family and friends using technology (Facetime, Voxer, Zoom, Google Hangouts)
  • Take a break from technology
  • Read
  • Meditate
  • Begin a journal
  • Embrace nature
  • Commit to a healthier diet
  • Watch a movie or start a new TV show
  • Listen to music
  • Take a nap or sleep in


The aspects of social and emotional learning (SEL) apply just as much to all of us during a time of crisis. Take care of yourselves, people. Empower others to pay attention to themselves and, when appropriate, guide them to embracing various avenues of self-care. Finally, educate families and kids as to how they can also make the time to care for themselves. 


Be sure to check of the rest of my #remotelearning series

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Tips for Engaging Families in Remote Learning

Throughout my #remotelearning series, I have tried to provide practical ideas and strategies that can be used now.  One aspect that needs more attention, at least in my opinion, is how we can assist parents throughout this ordeal. It goes without saying that many of them are dealing with some intense challenges such as equitable access to technology, WIFI availability, finding time to assist their kids with school work, and a general sense of not knowing what to do in a remote learning world. Combine this with the added responsibility of working from home themselves, dealing with impending or current unemployment, the stress of not being able to see older relatives, and being a parent; you can assume that tensions are running high. They need our support and understanding just as much as our learners do. Together we are better, especially in times of crisis. 


Educators across the way are stepping up in incredible ways. As I mentioned in a previous post, when it comes to remote learning, there is no one right way. The same can be said in terms of how you engage with parents. Below are some general ideas to consider. By no means is this a comprehensive list. However, as I developed it, I put my parent hat on and took into consideration what I need, expect, and how my home district (Cypress-Fairbanks ISD) is engaging with us. Here are some ideas that you can either embrace if you are a parent/guardian, incorporate into your remote learning plan, or share with those in your community.

Communicate regularly

In times of crisis, there is no such thing as over-communication.  Consider using all assets available such as email, social media, phone calls, and Remind. Phone calls can be a great way to find out or share whether or not technology is available. If it isn’t, then you can consider mailing out messages.

Establish a delivery and pickup location for work  

Students need feedback, especially if technology is not being used.  Parents also want to get an idea of how their child is doing. In my previous post, I shared how one district was using its bus routes. Work with parents to elicit the most practical ideas to make this work in your community. 

Encourage the development of an at-home learning schedule

Some structure is needed to help kids manage their time, complete assigned tasks, and meet deadlines.  Herein lies a great opportunity to work in the competencies of self-management, independent inquiry, pacing, and reflection. For more ideas, check out this post by Adam Drummond.

Ask parents to be honest about what they need

The list here could get relatively long, and I am not even sure if making suggestions is appropriate. However, below are a few considerations:

  • Technology for kids to complete work
  • WIFI in the form of mobile hotspot for kids to complete work
  • Creating an at-home schedule
  • SPED accommodations
  • Counseling for their kids
  • Counseling for themselves
  • Work to be picked up and dropped off in a no-contact way
  • Ideas on how to help their kids adjust to remote learning

Follow district/school updates  

Obviously, the best way is to use social media. As I emphasized in Digital Leadership, a multi-faced approach that encourages two-way engagement should be employed.  Don’t assume that parents use the same tools as you.  

Incorporate movement and outdoor time (if possible) into the day 

I cannot emphasize enough that one of the potential pitfalls of any type of remote learning is an extended lack of movement.  To counteract this, make parents aware of tools like GoNoodle or encourage them to include movement. There is no better way to incorporate movement while adhering to social distancing than family walks or bike rides.

The ideas above are not the best by any stretch. However, they are practical and can assist with engaging parents and guardians as long as schools are closed. On a side note, my wife and I have used the time we now all have together to enjoy family dinner. It might sound cheesy, but I always start by asking my kids how their day of learning was and if they need help from their teachers, or what else they need to be successful. My wife and I then share what we did for work. Since I have traveled so much over the past couple of years, I can’t begin to explain what this time with my family has meant to me. In many cases, we let life get in the way of what is truly important. Herein lies a great opportunity to re-establish or fortify family bonds.

Please consider sharing some ideas that you have found successful when it comes to engaging families in your community in the comments section below.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

8 Non-Digital Remote Learning Ideas

Before our eyes, we are watching districts and schools valiantly roll out remote learning plans to support all students during extended closures. Equally as important have been the many innovative ways to make food available to our most disadvantaged children.  I cannot commend their efforts enough.  Throughout this ordeal, we must be patient, understanding, and flexible as teachers and administrators, with little to no training in this area, do their best to provide an education to students.

Even with all the progress being made and practical innovations taking place, COVID-19 has unearthed on a global scale the inequity that persists when it comes to access to high-speed WIFI and technology.  Even though many of us have been beating the drum for years regarding this issue, there is such a long way to go when it comes to closing the digital divide. Even in more affluent areas, one cannot assume equitable access. As such, educators are in need of ideas that can be implemented without the use of technology.  



Here are a few that I have been sharing with districts and schools where I have served as a coach throughout the year:
  • Modeling through written explanations: Even though efforts should be made to avoid piling on new content, learning can only progress if new material is presented. Think of this as direct instruction on paper. For example, in math, a teacher would typically write out the steps to solve a problem on the board.  In this case, he/or she would just do it on a piece of paper that the student could refer to before moving on. It’s not the best option, but it is a realistic one.
  • Scaffolded questions and tasks: Piling on low-level questions that are recall and knowledge-based don’t constitute learning. It’s what a student does with this information to construct new knowledge or apply it that matters. Consider using the Rigor Relevance Framework as a tool to accomplish both of these preferred outcomes through scaffolding
  • Guided and independent practice: Considering the two items previously addressed, practice can be chunked (guided) in ways that steps are followed until students are asked to do it on their own (independent).
  • Authentic challenge problems: Knowing that digital resources are limited, reference materials can be provided for kids to engage in inquiry-based learning.  As you structure lessons and or extended projects, contemplate about how you will get students to think at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy while solving unpredictable real-world problems, also referred to as Quad D learning.
  • Independent reading and reflective questions: To assist students who are at a lower reading level, consider providing suggestions.
  • Playlists and choice boards: These powerful blended learning strategies can easily be converted to non-digital options to keep students engaged for days to even a week. Choice leads to more empowerment. With a playlist students choose the order they want to complete all the activities. With choice boards, students choose to complete a set number of activities but don’t do all of them. No matter what you decide, you can incorporate all of the strategies addressed above. Below you can see an SEL choice board shared by Keri Powers Pye.

  • Movement: Any type of remote learning tends to be sedentary.  Think about activities that get the blood pumping, which will help students maintain focus while providing needed brain breaks. Movement matters more than ever if learning is the goal. Below is a great fitness activity shared by M. Robinson PE using the game Uno.
  • Reflective writing journals: No matter the strategies employed, getting kids to reflect on their learning each day can empower them to make connections between concepts and content areas as well as identify what they need to work on going forward. It can also function as a form of closure.
With everything listed above, there has to be a way to disseminate lessons and materials as well as review them to provide feedback.  As part of your remote learning plan, think about the best way to accomplish this that minimizes contact.  Maybe it is at the district or school office or perhaps a collection bin of some sort. Chad Miller's school district in Ohio are running bus routes to deliver food and learning materials to their kids. Regardless of what you decide, parents will need to be fully aware of where to pick up and drop off learning materials.   

Also, don't forget that accommodations have to be made for special education students as per IDEA.

By no means are these the only ideas that can be used to support students with limited or no digital resources available. My hope is that the greater educational community will continue to share what they have found to be successful with #remotelearning.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Creating Interactive Lessons Through App Smashing

Remote learning has been thrust upon school districts. The result has been disruptive change like we have never seen before.  In a previous post, I shared some broader ideas to help navigate these uncharted waters.  However, the fact remains that there are now expectations to get work out to kids in many forms. So, what does this all mean? Educators now shoulder the burden to create lessons and activities that will enable students to learn at home.  Virtually none have received extensive professional learning in this area. We know that teachers, like they always do, will rise to the occasion.  My goal is to try to make it a little easier with some simple to use tips on how to leverage free tools.

First and foremost, we must always keep sound pedagogy in mind, something that I discuss at length in Digital Leadership.   If the plan is to just “deliver” content though video, this constitutes no real difference from direct instruction in the classroom. Now I am not saying that teachers shouldn’t do this. The key is to ensure there is some interactivity during the synchronous component of the lesson or later on during the asynchronous part. Technology, if available for your learners, can play a vital role in accomplishing this goal. Most schools are relying on their Learning Management System (LMS) such as Google Classroom, Canvas, Microsoft Teams, or Schoology to push out work.  That is a good start, but not a solution if learning is the goal. Content consumption does not equate to the construction of new knowledge, discourse, answering questions, solving a problem, or creating a learning artifact. Here is where app smashing comes into play.




Greg Kulowiec provides an excellent working definition:
App Smashing is the process of using multiple apps to create projects or complete tasks. App Smashing can provide your students with creative and inspired ways to showcase their learning and allow you to assess their understanding and skills.
The power of an LMS can be unleashed when lessons or assignments are posted, and then students can respond in a variety of ways. For example, a teacher could create a video lesson, upload it to YouTube, and then utilize tools such as Edpuzzle or Playposit to make it interactive.  It can then be “smashed” with the LMS to push it out to learners to complete. Since many tools now allow the importing of rosters to the LMS’s listed above, it just makes sense to take advantage.

Here is another example.  Suppose you want to develop a literacy lesson for your learners.  ThingLink could be used to curate content (text, video, images). I often recommend the use of this tool in History as a way to explore primary source documents. After kids review the content, Google Forms could be used for them to answer higher-order questions.  The link to the form could even be included in the Thinkglink.  For multimedia discourse, tools like Padlet and Linoit could be smashed with your LMS.  If you or your school doesn’t use one of these at scale, consider using a general Google Doc where the permission is set that anyone can access without signing in. HERE you will find some great tools to get started. However, don’t limit yourself to this list as the possibilities are endless. Just like with remote learning in general, there isn’t one right way. The right or best way is your way.

A word of caution when it comes to app smashing.  It’s not how many tools you use that matters, but the degree to which your students use them to learn.  Many tools are being shared, which can be overwhelming.  Stick to one or three that you and your learners are most comfortable with using.  In this case, less is more.  If you are interested in learning more or seeing what other teachers have done, click HERE

For more ideas follow #remotelearning on social media.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Special Education (SPED) and Remote Learning

In a previous post, I shared some ideas as well as strategies that districts could embrace to establish a realistic remote learning plan taking into consideration both digital and non-digital pathways.  One aspect I did not address that keeps coming up here in the United States is how to address special education students as per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Like everything else, thanks to COVID-19, this is uncharted territory as well. However, the US Department of Education (USDOE) has released some guidance that everyone should be aware of. You can access it HERE.



In this post, I am going to highlights considerations for special education educations students where a local education agency (LEA), such as a school or district, has initiated a remote learning plan.  Below are some specific pieces from the report I have pulled where I also add my thoughts.
If an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE. (34 CFR §§ 104.4, 104.33 (Section 504) and 28 CFR § 35.130 (Title II of the ADA)). SEAs, LEAs, and schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP developed under IDEA, or a plan developed under Section 504. (34 CFR §§ 300.101 and 300.201 (IDEA), and 34 CFR § 104.33 (Section 504).
The translation is pretty straightforward in my eyes.  If your district or school has any sort of remote learning going on during a closure, then accommodations have to be met for kids that need them.
IEP teams may, but are not required to, include distance learning plans in a child’s IEP that could be triggered and implemented during a selective closure due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Such contingent provisions may include the provision of special education and related services at an alternate location or the provision of online or virtual instruction, instructional telephone calls, and other curriculum-based instructional activities, and may identify which special education and related services, if any, could be provided at the child’s home.
If your school has not closed yet, consider getting a contingency plan in place.  In the case that you have already closed, IEP teams can meet physically (many schools are having just staff in to plan for remote learning) or virtually to modify plans. Protocols must be established to safeguard sensitive information.

The USDOE also released this fact sheet that outlines how to protect the civil rights of students during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Guidelines are one thing, but seeing what it looks like in the field is another. Thus, I decided to reach out to some educators in my home state of New Jersey.  The NJDOE, under the leadership to Dr. Lamont Repollet, had every district develop a plan on March 5 well before any school closed.  These then had to be submitted back to the NJDOE as soon as possible.  Knowing that this was the case, I sent an inquiry to two administrators to see how their districts were serving special education students.  Below you can see the comprehensive plans that have been implemented.


I would love to hear how your district or school is meeting IDEA requirements for your SPED students who are engaged in remote learning. Please consider sharing in the comments section below. 

For more ideas follow #remotelearning on social media. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Navigating Your Journey to Remote Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted the world in ways that many of us have never seen or could have predicted. Social distancing has quickly become the thing to do and will soon be the cultural norm. Gone are handshakes and fist bumps replaced by conversations at a distance of six feet or more or through tools like FaceTime.  The world has moved from business as usual to business as unusual. In some cases, life, as we have become accustomed to, has come to a screaming halt.  In my hometown of Houston, bars and restaurants have closed for fifteen days, which has been a trend occurring across the world to limit the spread of the disease. 

The ripple effect has impacted schools across the globe.  Many have already shuttered their doors for weeks, while others have opted for months and even indefinite amounts of time.  Teachers, principals, district administrators, and other support staff have now been thrust into uncharted territory and are facing unpredictable challenges. My heart and respect go out to all of them for working to navigate through this crisis. I cannot overstate that they all need our support and patience right now.  

Prior to the virus turning into a pandemic, school districts began to prepare, and others are now following suit with ways to provide instruction and learning for who knows how long. I am not in a position, nor is anyone who doesn’t work in a school or district, to tell anyone what they should or must do. However, I do know one thing, and that is, there is no one right or wrong way to develop realistic strategies for remote learning. The right way is your way that aligns with your vision, mission, and available resources.

Below I will offer some ideas that I have, knowing full well that they don’t represent a silver bullet. However, it is essential to focus on remote versus distance or virtual learning.  In my mind, there is a clear distinction.  Distance and virtual are appropriate where all kids have access to a device and the Internet. Remote, on the other hand, focuses on both digital and non-digital pathways to keep realistic learning going. I must emphasize the need to be realistic as this rests on the mere fact that most teachers have never been adequately trained in this area. Whereas parents and guardians have to be patient and understanding with teachers, the same can be said in terms of administrators and the expectations that they place on their staff.

Here are some ideas I have.



Get a plan in place. If there isn’t one, be proactive regardless of your position. Provide guidance and support to teachers and administrators while reassuring them that there is no one right or wrong way to go about remote learning. The best way is your way. Once a plan is in place, convey it to parents, guardians, and other stakeholders.  The Mount Olive Township School District in NJ, under the leadership of superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki, has been way ahead of the curve.  You can check out their entire plan HERE.

Come to a consensus as to what is feasible in the community where you work. Provide devices and mobile WiFi, if possible. In the case of the latter, this is what the Mount Olive School District did. Equity matters more than ever. 
In Mount Olive, school officials were initially doubtful the district could support virtual learning. Then they hatched a last-minute plan. The district distributed 1,300 Chromebooks to its middle school students and decided to pay $4,600 to provide wireless access for any student who didn’t have it at home. “We have achieved equality of online access in a week,” said Superintendent Robert Zywicki. “Boom. Mic drop.”
Develop a manageable workload and time limit for learners. As this is new to everyone, piling on too much work will be counterproductive.

Don’t put the responsibility on parents for students grades five and above. Our youngest learners will need some help and guidance, especially if their elementary schools have not been 1:1 or Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Parents are juggling an equal amount of challenges and pressure. Asking them to take on this added responsibility will very well push some over the edge.

Shy away from low-level packets and worksheets. These aren’t an effective practice in school, and thus it shouldn’t be a go-to as a means to validate a remote learning plan.

Use playlists and choice boards. These have quickly become a high agency, pedagogically sound strategy to personalize learning in school and can be adapted as part of a remote learning plan.




Suggest lots of independent reading. You really can’t go wrong here.

Determine how feedback will be given once school reopens. In the case of districts and schools that have limited digital resources, it defeats the purpose of assigning lessons and work if kids don’t know how they did upon their return. Notice I am not saying to grade the work. There are too many variables outside the control of teachers that would make grading anything completed during an extended school closure fair.  Feedback is often a more powerful conduit to learning than grades anyway.

Use Google Voice for parents and guardians to ask questions and get needed advice. It is free, easy to set up, and masks your real phone number. Voxer can also be used. 

If technology is available and equity has been ensured, take some of these ideas into account.

Consider a balance between synchronous and asynchronous. Facilitating lessons using live video is excellent. However, with these chaotic times, learners might not be able to tune in. Asynchronous options such as flipped lessons and self-paced assignments have the added bonus of teaching kids how to manage their time and develop a greater sense of responsibility. PreK - 12 students can even go through a pre-set schedule using Khan Academy (access HERE). 

Fully utilize a learning management system (LMS) if one is in place. If you or your staff use Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, or another LMS routinely in the classroom, then this is a logical decision. Plus, kids are already used to logging on, completing assignments, and receiving feedback.

Develop the means for real engagement. Within the LMS, a slew of digital tools can be included for backchanneling, collaboration, checks for understanding, and creation.  To assist check out the resources in this post

Make the time for digital check-ins with learners.  Consider having virtual office hours or use communication tools embedded in each LMS.

I also tried to articulate the information above in a video, which you can view below.



Consistent communication is vital for the success of any remote learning plan.  Digital leadership compels all of us to meet our stakeholders where they are and engage in two-way communication when possible.  Now more than ever, this is crucial in keeping everyone’s sanity. Think about what tools your community regularly uses, including students, and blend with traditional means.

When the dust settles, and after reflection, educators will have a much better idea of what worked and what didn’t. From there, districts and schools can begin to put in place professional learning plans that transform practices in the classroom that can be used for remote learning if the need arises.

For more ideas follow #remotelearning on social media.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Choice Boards 101: Strategies to Ensure Classroom, Professional, and Virtual Learning Success

As of late, I have been working with quite a few districts on personalization through a variety of blended learning strategies.  My experience in this area began over three years ago, thanks to having the opportunity to coach teachers and administrators at Wells Elementary School. As we are now in our third year together, they continue to take feedback and act on it to improve their practice. I can honestly say that I have learned so much from them over the years as to what pedagogically-sound blended learning really is, and, in my mind, they are a global exemplar for others to emulate.

Their influence can be seen and heard in my writing, presentations, workshops, and work with other schools.  Throughout this school year, I have had the honor of working with all the K-12 schools in the Corinth School District in Mississippi. They are a 1:1 district who have really begun to hit their stride and push the envelope when it comes to the purposeful use of technology aligned to research-based pedagogy. They have made some incredible shifts, including a shift towards station rotation and choice boards. You can read more about their progress in this post.  


After my fourth coaching session with them, the principal asked if I could create a choice board for his staff to work through and learn to use even more technology tools effectively. I was excited because I always ask the schools I work with to reflect on the feedback that is provided and determine how to best use my time when I am there next.  Ownership of learning shouldn’t just be for students. I was also equally terrified as I had never created a choice board of my own. Typically, I only share the ones created by Wells (TX), Snow Horse (UT), and Corinth Elementary (MS) as well as Corinth Middle School. As I have stated for years, don’t ask others to do what you have not done or are not willing to do yourself.  Challenge accepted!

On a recent Sunday, I began my choice board journey.  Since I had already provided numerous workshops and sessions in the district, the foundation was already set to move forward with this. First, I did a few Google searches for editable templates, which led me to an array of examples in Google Slides.  I then chose one that aligned to the content, in my opinion, developed a learning target, created nine different activities, and hyperlinked to supporting resources. Since pacing is a pivotal component of both personalized and blended learning, I did another Google search for ways to integrate timers into Google Slides.  In literally fifteen minutes, I had my choice board created.



The key with a choice board to use as a part of professional learning with adults or classroom learning with students is sound blended pedagogy.  In addition, below are some tips that I have used with the schools and districts I coach:
  • Use pre-made templates (just make a copy).
  • Use a timer for pacing and self-management.
  • Behind the scenes, the teacher works with at-risk students or those who need extra help. If you are leading professional learning, this frees up time to answer questions and provide feedback.
  • Add links to your Learning Management System (Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, etc.) to see student work and to hold them accountable.
  • Monitor regularly to ensure on-task behavior.
  • Create a scaffolded formative assessment for all students to complete once they are finished (3 questions or more that increase in difficulty). For professional learning, you could have attendees share what they have created or learned using Google Forms.
  • If students or adults finish the required choices and formative assessment, have them choose other activities.
  • Consider using Google Slides and add either anchor charts or essential content for review to assist with completing the board.
  • For more edtech tools, click HERE to access a resource curated by Tom Murray.
HERE you can view the choice board activity that I created based on the story at the beginning of the post.  You will see numerous slides before that actual board that allows access to the presentation as well as some content slides to review prior learning. The iteration that you see was updated and tweaked numerous times thanks to the feedback I received from the Corinth School District, Jill Bromenschenkel, and my wife. Going forward, I will definitely be integrating more choice boards and station rotation into my workshops. It’s vital that anyone leading professional learning practices what he or she preaches. 

Choice boards, both digital and non-digital, represent a pedagogically-sound virtual or #remotelearning option, especially for our youngest learners. If they have been implemented prior to extended school closures or breaks consider incorporating them into a distance learning plan.  In the case that they haven't been used, I would suggest creating a short video explaining to learners how to complete the board and how to submit or show work when finished.  

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Remote Learning Resources

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting us all to the test both mentally and physically.  Schools across the world have begun to shut down for extended periods of time and remote learning plans are either being developed or put into effect.  I will be the first one to say that this is no easy task. Special considerations have to be made for our youngest learners as this group presents a unique challenge. Equally as important are strategies that have to be put in place to ensure equity. Some students do not have access to devices or the Internet. In this case, they can’t be sent to public places as a solution. For any plan to work these major challenges have to be addressed. Now let's talk resources. 



Over the years I have written extensively on the power of technology to empower learners both in and out of the classroom. There is a wealth of options out there.  Google Hangouts and Zoom are great options to disseminate content through video just by pushing out a link. Asynchronous flipped lessons can be created using a variety of tools and added to YouTube or a learning management system (Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, Moodle) for learners to access.  While all of these represent fantastic options, it is important to take into consideration ways to impart greater engagement and ownership through application and construction of new knowledge. Below are some posts that I have written over the years that might be able to aid educators as they look to facilitate remote learning.
You can also search the following for specific tools, lesson ideas, and projects  that are age-level appropriate tools using the following:
Below are even more amazing resources:
I hope these sites and resources are helpful and I encourage you to share more resources in the comments section below. For more ideas follow #remotelearning on social media.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Students Remember Experiences, Rarely Grades

As a kid, my parents used to take me to professional baseball and hockey games all the time.  Even though I was an avid sports fan, I think I looked forward to the food and walking around the venue more than watching the sport that was being played.  Over time this changed, but as a kid eating junk food all day and not worrying about calories, sugar, or fat was the life. Herein lies my point. I vividly remember the food and atmosphere, but not the score of each game.  The same can be said for a variety of other experiences that have shaped my life and influenced my thinking over the years.

The Book Professor blog provides the following perspective:
How often have you heard the saying, “Experience is the best teacher.” I used to hear that a lot, especially while growing up, and while I didn’t always appreciate it then, I now agree with it 100%. Although there are some experiences I wish I could have avoided due to the pain they caused, they’re still a part of my story. The innate beliefs we have about ourselves can be the driving force behind the decisions we make. Our experiences (good or bad) shape who we are. They become a part of us, a part of our story.
When it comes to school, what do students remember? In the short term, it might be grades. However, as the years pass, what was earned becomes a distant memory.  For the most part, I only remember the grades that I got in graduate school as I earned all A’s and one B. I don’t remember any of my marks from K-12, but do know that I was an above-average student.  What I do recollect are the amazing experiences that some of my teachers provided me in their classes that epitomize the many strategies and ideas presented in Uncommon Learning



Mrs. Williams had us draw pictures in Kindergarten that depicted what we wanted to be when we grew up. At the time, I wanted to be a farmer. 
In art, Mr. Wynn was one of the coolest teachers I ever had. Since I went to a K-8 school, I had him as a teacher for years.  Even though I was a horrible artist, he was always able to provide some sort of positive reinforcement. Mr. South had us evaluate how we would colonize Mars as 7th graders and then create prototypes of inventions that would help us get there.  Dr. Hynoski used humor and showed compassion in high school chemistry and anatomy.  I struggled to earn a good grade in both classes, but because of the classroom culture he created, I worked hard. I never had Mrs. McDonald or Mrs. O’Neil as teachers per se, but they were both student government advisors who were always willing to lend an open ear, whether it was school or personal related.  

The teachers above, and many more, helped to mold me into the person I am today, not because of their grading practices but through the fantastic experiences they created for my classmates and me.  While grades might work for some students, they definitely don’t for all, especially those who:

  • Feel ashamed by the stigma that a letter or number has (or had) on them.
  • Don’t learn one particular way, but that is how their classes were structured. 
  • Receive high marks for not trying or being challenged and thus walk away questioning what was really learned.
  • Are punished through unfair grading practices such as zeros where their final grade doesn’t adequately reflect what they learned. 
  • Lacked relevance and meaning during their time in a respective class or course.

The key takeaway here is that more often than not, it’s the engaging, relevant, meaningful, fun, awe-inspiring, practical, and empathetic experiences that kids will remember long after they have had a specific teacher or graduated. The result is the formation of relationships that serve students more than any letter or number ever will. For grades to really mean something, there has to be a deeper, more emotional connection beyond what is just seen on a report card or transcript. This is what learning can and should be. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Assessing the Value of Interactive Whiteboards (IWB's)

Long gone are the days where the overhead projector reigned supreme in the classroom. I still vividly remember venturing to the local office supply store to get my transparencies made for my lessons. After all, who would even think about direct instruction with the assistance of notes displayed on a screen instead of writing them all out in chalk?  On second thought, I did do that on occasion when I forgot to get transparencies made. Coming home after a fulfilling day of teaching with chalk all over my sleeves was like a badge of honor. I still wish I had a dry erase board, though.

The overhead projector began to fall out of favor in the early 2000s with advances in technology. In my case, it was replaced with a large television that I could now hook up directly to my computer to display my notes that were meticulously crafted in PowerPoint.  Some of you might be wondering why we didn’t have LCD projectors. Well, at this time, they were the shiny new tool on the block and quite expensive.  Over time the television sets that were placed on carts with wheels were phased out in favor of LCD projectors once the cost plummeted.  It should be noted that in both examples above, direct instruction was followed by some sort of student-centered learning activity.

Times have changed since I began teaching.  Display technology has not only evolved over the years, but it has now become much more interactive and less costly.  Districts and schools have started to replace standalone LCD projects with a variety of Interactive Whiteboards (IWB) such as Smart Boards, Promethean Panels, and an array of other touchscreen devices.  In many cases, every classroom is outfitted, as well as conference rooms and professional learning spaces.  Many of the devices even come with excellent software packages that can be used to increase student engagement.  When I ask teachers and administrators what support is needed to help them improve learning in the classroom, the IWB is a typical response.  No matter how many are purchased, the expense is significant.


Herein lies the point of my post.  I shared my story about how both the overhead projector and television were used to support how I taught, not how my kids learned.  Does the way in which IWB’s are now used in classrooms differ? If not, then we can conclude that the decision to invest in them was not a wise one. In almost every classroom I have visited over the years, I have observed these devices being used as glorified overhead projectors.  The interactive capabilities are what differentiate these devices from any standalone projector.  Thus it is incumbent upon schools and educators to ensure they are used in ways that they were designed for. If not, then why waste precious funds? I reinforced this point in Digital Leadership.
Overall though, when it comes to the real benefit of IWB’s in the classroom it is what the learner, not the teacher, does with the device as means to better understand concepts. It is important that any piece of display technology does not become a glorified direct instruction or presentation tool.
 I recently shared this on Twitter.

When and if IWB’s are purchased, there should be a clear vision for how they will be used in the classroom consisting of a balance between teacher and student use.  Just having one student use it during large group while the others watch just doesn’t cut it in my opinion. Professional learning opportunities need to go beyond just how to use the device and associated software to include strategies that empower students to use it as a learning tool.  Blended learning represents the best option in the form of station rotation, choice boards, and playlists. In each case, an activity can be designed to get kids using the IWB to collaborate, manipulate, solve problems, and create artifacts of learning.

Technology should be used in ways that represent a fundamental improvement over what has been done in the absence of it in the past.  A key consideration is how students will use it in ways to learn that they couldn’t without it. When it is all said and done, the value of IWB’s lies in the pedagogical strategies that empower our learners to actively use the device.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Bookend Pedagogy

As I work with more and more schools in a coaching role, I am beginning to see specific trends emerge. Now, before I go any further, it goes without saying that I see fantastic examples of sound pedagogical practice and innovative strategies that are leading to improved learning outcomes.  However, my role, as the schools I partner with and I see it, isn't to just spit out platitudes and tell them what they want to hear.  The most important aspect is to empower them to take a critical lens to their work through evidence and begin to think deeply about needed changes to practice.

In a previous post, I outlined what a typical coaching day with me looks like, as well as the most common areas where growth can be achieved based on many classroom visits.  Wells Elementary has been taking the feedback that I provide for over three years and recently asked me to create a session that focused on strategies for opening and closing lessons. I was excited about this opportunity as I was going to have the honor of meeting with all teachers by grade level and present newly created content. As I pondered over what I was going to call this presentation, the idea of bookend pedagogy popped in my mind.  I ran the title by my wife as she never hesitates to tell me how it is. She liked it, and off I went to create a new slide deck.



The more I think about it; I really see bookend pedagogy as a critical element of any successful lesson. How a lesson begins typically makes or breaks it in the eyes of a learner. A well-structured anticipatory set gets the ball rolling while a review or prior learning right after helps to ensure that the kids understand what was covered previously. The end provides valuable feedback to both the teacher and student to determine if the objective/target was met and that learning occurred. Without closure, it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate whether a specific lesson was a success. For my session with the Wells staff, I developed and then implemented a mini-lesson on personalized learning while ensuring that I included an anticipatory set, review of prior learning, direct instruction, and closure. 

In the past, I have written posts on all three of these elements, but a quick review never hurt anyone.  In addition, I will provide additional strategies and resources. The anticipatory set is used to prepare students for the lesson by setting the students' minds for instruction. This is achieved by asking a question or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, focus student attention, and initiate the learning process. Types of sets can include the following:
  • Short video clips
  • Relevant writing prompts
  • Riddles
  • Personal stories or real-world scenarios
  • Current events
  • Picture prompts
  • Props
  • Open-ended questions
For more context, check out this video.



Just because something was presented in class, the assumption cannot be made that students actually learned it, which makes reviewing prior learning critical.  Research in cognitive science has shown that eliciting prior understandings is a necessary component of the learning process. Research also has demonstrated that expert learners are much more adept at the transfer of learning than novices and that practice in the transfer of learning is required in good instruction (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). Check out this article from TeachThought, which outlines 27 strategies to review prior learning.

How do you know if the class got it at the end of a lesson? Learning increases when lessons are concluded in a manner that helps students organize and remember the point of the lesson. Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the lesson, allows students to practice what is learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback and review. Time must be set aside for closure, and efforts should be made to include it in lesson plans. A straightforward way to do this is to provide three scaffolded questions (easy, moderate, challenging) as a means of formative assessment. Below are some general closure examples:
  • Explain one thing you learned today.
  • What was the most challenging concept, and why?
  • Identify the most significant learning from the lesson and explain why.
  • What do you need to do to develop a deeper understanding?
  • How did the lesson impact your understanding?
  • How would you summarize what you learned for someone who wasn't here?
  • What was one thing you were unsure of?
  • Discuss an "aha" you had and how it connects to the learning target/objective.
The above only represent some ideas on how to close a lesson.  As is the case with anticipatory sets, reviews of prior learning, and closure, there is no one right way.  Many tools can help facilitate all of the above. Here they are in no particular order:
  • Whiteboards (no tech)
  • Paper exit tickets
  • Plickers (best tech option)
  • Mentimeter
  • Pear Deck
  • Nearpod
  • Google Forms
  • Kahoot
  • Quizizz
  • Quiz Whizzer
  • Gimkit
  • GoSoapBox
  • Padlet
  • Linoit
  • AnswerGarden
  • Flipgrid
It should be noted that bookend pedagogy might not be necessary during lessons that involve high-agency strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, or those involving extended inquiry and project-based learning. However, with any of these pedagogical techniques, there should be an opening and an end at some point, so always keep bookend pedagogy in mind. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Knowing Where We Are Paves the Way for Change: The Impact of Coaching

I often tell audiences during keynotes and workshops that my role isn’t to tell anyone what to do, but instead to get educators to think critically about what they do. It would be foolish of any speaker or presenter to do so, considering that we don’t really know the people who we are blessed to speak with, let alone the specific culture in which they work.  The fact for many in education is that we teach the way we were taught and lead the way we were led.  In some cases, this might still be effective. However, the opposite is more often true, and helping others come to this realization can be a tricky process.

Where I see the most change from my work is when I am fortunate to work with districts and schools on an on-going, long-term basis. This allows me to really get a pulse on the culture, understand the challenges that are faced, make observations, collect evidence as to where practices are, and ultimately build relationships in the process.  Trust and honesty are key, which compels me not to hold back when engaging both teachers and administrators in dialogue on feedback.  Often, we are blinded by our own bias or comfortable where we are. No matter the case, both can be detrimental to growth.



So how do we begin to move the needle? It starts with analyzing how feedback is given.  What I have learned from past experiences, and currently, when working in schools, is that a tendency remains to tell people what they want to hear as opposed to pushing them with critical conversations on practice. The latter might sting at first, but it is needed to create a sense of urgency.  Making people feel good is always crucial, and a critical component of a positive culture. However, it shouldn’t come at the expense of shying away from the problematic and thought-provoking conversations that are needed to drive change at the individual and systemic levels.  

One of the best ways to help others know where they are and lay the groundwork for meaningful changes to practice is through coaching.  Currently, I have several projects around the country where I have assumed this role. Last year alone, I visited over 1000 classrooms and pretty much followed the same process.  At the conclusion of each day, I submit a detailed report that contains general commendations and recommendations for growth to each school. If I am there for an extended period of time, the district receives a comprehensive report within 24 hours of completing my last school visit.



In addition to general feedback, I script what I see by classroom while aligning evidence to support the ratings for how I chart data across five indicators. This allows me to provide some simple data for districts and schools to get an idea of where their practices are. Here is how I code each lesson after scripting and providing recommendations for growth:
  • Rigor Relevance Framework Quad alignment (A, B, C, D)
  • Engaged (E) or disengaged (DE)
  • Tech (T) or no tech (NT)
  • Teacher-centered (TC)) or student-centered (SC)
  • Student agency: High (H) vs. Low (L)
Now, these are meant to be black and white in terms of whether it can be seen or validated with evidence (i.e., questions, assessments, tech used by kids for learning, student work, etc.). However, I always stress that there is gray inherent in what I provide and encourage dialogue and support between coaching visits. It goes without saying that these visits are just a snapshot and, by no means, are indicative as to what happens during the entire lesson or regularly throughout the year. It is up to the school and individual educators to make that determination. There is one non-negotiable that I establish, and that is an administrator or teacher who has to accompany me. The reason being to coach the individual(s) later on providing feedback and to ensure interrater reliability (do we see the same thing).

I am fortunate to be involved in several long-term projects where I have been able to document growth over time. Over the years, I have shared all of the wonderful things happening at Wells Elementary, as I am now in my third year as their coach. Other schools and districts are beginning to follow suit. One, in particular, is the Corinth School District in Mississippi. The stage was set over the summer for me to work six days in each of their three schools to assist with teaching, learning, and leadership associated with their 1:1 implementation.  Following the protocol described above, I facilitated coaching days.

Even though I have a few stories of significant growth to share, I want to focus on just one. During my first visit to the high school in August, I spent the entire day visiting classrooms and then providing feedback to the admin team. They, in turn, then shared recommendations for growth with their teachers.  One teacher took the feedback and ran with it. 

The next time I met with the teachers, I facilitated a workshop on digital pedagogy.  Something from this day and the feedback from the classroom observation clicked him. During my third visit, we saw him implementing a choice board with his economics class. Going from direct instruction primarily to this high agency approach represented a dramatic shift in practice.  I again provided feedback both in the form of commendations and recommendations for improvement, specifically when it came to assessment.  I can’t begin to tell you how pleased and excited I was during my fourth visit. When we visited his history class, he again had the students working on a choice board. The main difference from last time was that there were six different rubrics to go along with the activity.  


The growth story of this teacher is one of many in the Corinth School District. His colleagues across all content areas at the high school have begun to implement an array of innovative strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, self-pacing, digital check-ins with students, and the purposeful use of technology aligned to effective pedagogy.  The middle school has begun to make impressive progress with blended learning, especially at the 6th-grade level. Last but not least is the elementary school where evidence has been collected, demonstrating tremendous growth with high agency strategies.  To be honest, I could fill this post with picture after picture as validation.

We can’t allow ourselves to stick our heads in the sand or cuddle up to the status quo.  Sometimes a push is needed. In all the schools I work in, the catalyst for change is always the first coaching visit.  Using an unbiased and non-judgmental lens, the stage is set for assisting educators in coming to a determination as to where they are.  Initially, this can be a tough pill to swallow. However, the fact remains that nothing about public education is perfect. Sometimes it takes an outside view to help come to that realization.

If you would like to know more about our coaching process and on-going work for schools or districts, shoot me an email (esheninger@gmail.com).