Sunday, November 29, 2020

Overcoming Engagement Hurdles with Remote Learners

In order to empower people at some level, you first need to engage them.  It is nearly impossible to create a culture of learning if there are elements of boredom, inactivity, and lack of relevance.  This is a lesson I learned most recently as a presenter and workshop facilitator. Early on, I used more traditional strategies since this was a new arena for me. The shift from principal to full-time consultant brought a certain amount of fear. Thus, I reverted back to what I was comfortable with in terms of what I could control and perceived that educators wanted. I basically became the sage on the stage and a master of direct instruction with little participant interaction. 

I thought I was doing a pretty good job as no one told me otherwise. There was consistent eye contact, and all of the feedback I received from surveys was mostly positive. It wasn’t until a presentation at a major conference where I got the kick in the butt that I desperately needed but wasn’t aware of until then. As I was reading tweets from the session, a participant basically told me that I spoke at them the entire time and didn’t provide ample opportunities for greater discourse, practical application, or reflection. 

It was at this point about four years ago, where I began to embrace and model the very same strategies that were being used at my high school when I was a principal. Multiple opportunities for discourse and collaboration were included as well as time to develop action steps. Engagement was amplified with a focus on the how, exemplars from all types of schools, and the use of digital tools to provide everyone with an opportunity to respond. In essence, my role is now more of a facilitator of learning.  Another fundamental change was intentionally developing ways to personalize the experience for those I am fortunate to work with in my role. For example, I really appreciate Michael Ford pushing me in this direction when he asked me to create a choice board as part of a professional learning date with his staff. 

These changes, combined with what I hope is a unique style grounded in relationships, have enabled me to better connect with educators. Now more than ever, I have benefitted from these changes in the current remote and hybrid world. As someone who currently supports educators and schools all over the world in this area, it is critical that I not only engage as many people as possible but also model the most effective strategies that can be implemented in the classroom. I recently saw the fruits of my labor in action during a keynote with over 2000 educators.  Using one of the strategies listed above, I was able to get over 1200 responses to a question part of the way through using Mentimeter.

The pandemic has created a myriad of issues for educators, with engagement being at the top of the list. Every day I am asked for suggestions, especially when it comes to remote learners, no matter whether or not you are hybrid at this point. In addition to some of the ideas that I shared above, I strongly encourage you to check out this post, where I outline six specific focus areas. Below are some additional ideas:

  • Begin each lesson with an anticipatory set to get kids excited and impart relevance.
  • Call on students who have their camera and microphone off. By doing this consistently, the stage will be set for increased attention and participation. 
  • Integrate breakout rooms for discourse and randomly pop into them. 
  • Utilize quick checks for understanding (1-3 questions max) throughout the lesson using Google or Canvas forms.
  • Leverage digital tools for voice and choice. It is also good to use these following any breakout room activity to get a grasp on engagement levels.
  • Use the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to evaluate the level of relevance in questions, tasks, and assessments. 
  • Develop means for accountability through routine feedback and timely grading. I cringe when mentioning the latter, but we must look at any and all strategies during these difficult times.
  • Include closure at the end of each lesson or synchronous session.
  • Move to tasks and work that are more purposeful through blended strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, self-paced activities, and flipped approaches.
  • Assign less work while going deeper into concepts.

The above ideas are more teaching-facing. However, engaging learners is a shared responsibility. Administrators can assist with the above by providing teachers non-evaluative feedback during remote lesson drop-ins or using a walk-through process. Additionally, job-embedded and on-going professional learning is critical for all educators, regardless of position, to improve engagement in pedagogically-sound ways.  Another way that administrators can help out teachers in this area is through relentless communication with families. In Digital Leadership, I outline how a multi-faceted approach that meets stakeholders where they are is the most effective way.  It is essential not just to get out information, but also engage families in a dialogue during these unprecedented times. 

When it is all said and done, engagement is grounded in a learner’s sense of why they are learning something and how it will be used in the real world through their lens. It can be achieved through a combination of context and application. Think about what motivated you as a learner and what still does today. This might be the best starting point of all. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Upgrading the Remote Learning and Hybrid Classroom

These unprecedented and uncertain times have spawned a paradigm shift in the way teaching and learning are conducted. With many schools and districts struggling to not only maintain effective engagement with their students but to be able to quickly and easily adjust to changing and ambiguous guidelines is equally as challenging. The ability to swiftly and seamlessly adjust to the unknown, short- and long-term future of curriculum facilitation is essential for maintaining education continuity for all students whether they are remote, in-class, or a combination of both.  Furthermore, the unpredictability of where educators can actually teach at any given time adds another caveat to fostering engagement whether learning in class, from home, or a merger of the two depending on the current climate. 

With additional local, state, and federal funding available to help schools and districts build remote and hybrid learning programs, the opportunities to effectively support students and teachers are there. However, with so many products, solutions, and methods surrounding the distance learning concept, it can be difficult to determine which solutions maintain and maximize engagement in multiple classroom or remote scenarios, and which can be easily integrated into all options. The key is to understand what types of solutions can provide the foundation for effective distance and hybrid learning concepts.  

It is more important than ever to use innovative classroom technology to foster student engagement, effective curriculum delivery, increase discourse, and set the stage for empowerment through personalization. The right solutions can greatly assist educators as they navigate through the new and uncertain future of teaching and learning.

An Ever-Evolving State

The uncertainty of the progression or digression of the current pandemic climate requires that schools and districts be ready for multiple scenarios during a given school year. Schools may start off the year online-only, but with the intent of having students back in the classroom at a certain point. Some may engage in a hybrid model where higher-risk students are able to continue learning from home while in-class instruction occurs simultaneously. However, changes in the pandemic status may require that schools go full online again to maintain the safety of all students. It is necessary for schools and districts to prepare for quick and seamless direction changes so teaching and learning continuity is maintained. 

Keeping students on-task and engaged can be a challenge regardless of which scenario is being used at the time. Remote students relying on video collaboration technologies can be additionally difficult without solutions specifically designed for these environments. Web cameras can be used as an inexpensive and temporary vehicle to maintain visuals between teachers and students in a virtual environment, however since many web cameras were originally designed for person-to-person and casual video communication, some limitations are apparent.  Some of these constraints include a static field of view where teachers are not able to move around the classroom, lower or choppy video quality, and out of sync video and audio which can all contribute to remote students losing focus and engagement. 

Therefore, building a foundation where virtual students can have a similar interactive and engaging experience with a clear and real-time connection with the teacher is important in maintaining effective communication and collaboration. Utilizing video collaboration technology specifically designed to enhance effective communication and information sharing is essential for maintaining a near-to-life connection to students not able to attend a physical class. Other essential classroom tools such as document cameras can be easily utilized in multi-purpose remote, hybrid learning, and even remote teaching situations. Finally, safe and secure charging solutions for in-class student devices are equally as important once students do return to class to ensure their technologies are enabled to support the in-class curriculum. Here we will explore the uses, benefits, and real-life applications of these foundational solutions to best provide equal opportunity education for all learners, regardless of physical location. 

During my time as a principal, I worked with EdTech organizations such as AVer Information in order to help ensure their solutions are relevant, up to date, and effective. Way back in 2010, my school was part of their national AverAcademy program where I became very knowledgeable as to how their solutions could support good teaching and learning. Tools and solutions need to address the current climate, as well as align with future scenarios and possibilities. Their distance learning solutions are not only a natural fit into the present environment but will continue to be effective as conditions change. 

New-Age Tools Can be a Solution 

As opposed to basic web cameras, auto-tracking distance learning cameras give your remote students a real, in-class experience while they learn from home, maintaining a real-time connection with both the teacher and fellow classmates. With a variety of features and functions, these professional-grade video collaboration solutions can take engagement to new levels while setting the stage for empowering tasks. The offer enhancements such as pan tilt zoom, auto-tracking, optical zoom, compatibility with popular video conference tools (Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meets), and free software.

Document cameras are time-tested classroom tools originally designed to clearly and immediately display physical objects and demonstrations on the fly without needing digital representations. Whether students are learning from home or in-class, document cameras have emerged as a multi-faceted solution to add real-life curriculum examples no matter where teaching is happening. Clearly display your physical lesson material to both in-class and remote students simultaneously. They can also connect with an auto-tracking camera so your remote students will experience your instruction and demonstration material in real-time, without missing a beat. 

With students returning to classrooms, device charge and storage solutions are more necessary than ever. With unknown variables such as the number of students in a classroom as well as potential part-time in-class students, charge and storage carts need to be available for charging and security as students are in-class. With some students using these devices both at home and in the class, additional safety and cleaning measures should be in place to keep devices clean. Storage and charging carts have now been updated with UV sanitation, adaptive intelligent charging, configurable and customizable slots, and individual AC adaptor compartments. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Competencies for a Post-COVID World

It seems as of late that we are always in the midst of difficult times. As I am writing this post, the world is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. The challenges that this is placing on society goes without saying.  In classrooms, educators continue to grapple with the impacts this is having on both remote and hybrid learning models. It's not easy, and many people are at a breaking point, but who could blame them.  The silver lining here is that we will get the pandemic under control at some point through more stringent social distancing requirements and a vaccine.

When the dust settles, we need to look carefully at critical lessons learned. The world of work has, and continues to, fundamentally change. There is a necessary shift emerging right before our eyes. More and more employers are moving away from physical spaces and embracing remote environments while providing greater levels of trust. What this equates to is less of a focus on the number of hours put into a day and more on getting the work done at a high level.

In my view, the future is bright, and these changes will be welcomed by many. The fact of the matter is that reporting to an office or being required to put in a set number of hours each day doesn't necessarily result in success. So, what does this mean for education? A greater emphasis on productivity in the future of work will require our learners to have a refined set of competencies. It is important not to get caught up in the hoopla about needed "skills." While these are important, they focus on the "what" in terms of the abilities a learner needs to perform a specific task or activity. Competencies outline "how" goals and objectives will be accomplished. They are more detailed and define the requirements for success in broader, more inclusive ways. In a previous post, I shared this:

Competencies, therefore, may incorporate a skill but are much more than the skill. They include a dynamic combination of abilities, attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge that is fundamental to the use of a skill aligned to a learning outcome. 

Now, and in the future, our learners will most likely need to be competent in the following areas to succeed.

  • Self-regulation: Process by which people plan for a task, monitor performance, and reflect on the outcome.
  • Remote collaboration: People work together, regardless of their geographic location, to achieve organizational goals using a variety of digital tools.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving: The ability to think in complex ways and apply knowledge and skills acquired in relevant ways. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, people are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.
  • Emotional intelligence (EI) – A person's capacity to be aware of, control, express one's emotions and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. A person who is competent in EI can understand, manage, and use their own emotions to communicate effectively, relieve stress, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict in positive ways.
  • Time management: Process of organizing and planning how to divide the time you have available between specific activities or delegate tasks to others depending on organizational structure. In a nutshell, it's about working smarter, not harder, to achieve goals.
  • Creativity – The ability to develop and successfully implement innovative ideas to develop solutions to complex problems while connecting seemingly unrelated phenomena.

It is essential for educators to develop their own sense of what is critical for learners going forward. The curriculum might dictate what has to be taught, but the art of teaching is all about how we teach in ways that inspire meaningful learning. As the world continues to change in ways that we could never have imagined, it is imperative that learners have what they need to succeed.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Professional Learning Sweet Spot

For the better part of my educational career, I always referred to any type of learning to assist me as a teacher or administrator as professional development (PD).  It was always referred to like this, so who was I to argue.  For the most part, this consisted of attending mandatory district “PD” days, professional learning communities (PLC)’s or approved off-site experiences such as conferences, workshops, or webinars.  The experiences where I had some level of choice were the most meaningful to me and resulted in real changes to my educational practice. I think the same can be said when it comes to the learners we serve.

In March of 2009, I began to use Twitter, and it was at this time that I began to create a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Through the use of social media, I realized that I didn’t really need to be “developed.” What I craved were experiences that I valued and could pursue that would help my school and district achieve collective goals. Thus, my thinking changed. Up until this point, professional development was always done to me as opposed to something that I wanted to be an active part of. Intrinsic motivation should always be the focal point of any experience geared at improving professional practice. If we find and see value, the emphasis becomes embracement as opposed to buy-in.

With a PLN, I was able to learn anytime, anywhere, from anyone I wanted for free. I now had access to a human-generated search engine where I gleaned the best resources, ideas, supports, and advice. Questions became a more prized commodity than answers. No longer did I have to continually fret about reinventing the wheel or coming up with the next most fantastic innovative idea.  I was both enlightened and empowered. It was at this time that I began to shift away from PD and instead embrace a culture of professional learning. There is a big difference in my mind.

Learning should be a personal experience, deeply rooted in purpose, meaning, authenticity, practicality, and relevance.  If the goal is to provide this for our students, then the same must be emphasized for teachers, administrators, and support staff. Personalization emphasizes high-agency approaches such as voice, choice, path, pace, and place, perfect for both kids and adults. Even though the individual level is the most important in my mind, we cannot discount our organization, district, or school needs. 

In order for a mission, vision, and goals to become a reality, it takes a collective effort to learn and grow together. The professional learning sweet spot evolves through a balancing act, as depicted by the image below.

In Digital Leadership I emphasized how input from educators is crucial to the success of any professional learning experience, as is time. When you think about the image above, take a critical lens to what you currently engage in and what is provided to you by your organization, school, or district.  On-going and job-embedded experiences lead to sustained changes to practice and improve student outcomes when it comes to results. A dynamic mash-up of workshops and coaching definitely falls into the sweet spot. It is crucial always to align any professional learning with current trends and needs. The COVID19 pandemic has brought a few of these to the forefront, such as social-emotional, remote, personalized, and blended learning. As schools begin to develop plans for student and staff re-entry, pertinent professional learning supports will need to be emphasized.

Below are some pathways to consider that are more personal and focus on the unique needs of educators:

  • Personal Learning Network
  • Asynchronous, self-directed opportunities (i.e., Professional Growth Period, flipped sessions, webinars, open courseware, digital badges/micro-credentials)
  • Edcamps and Teachmeets
  • Professional Learning Communities where educators determine the focus
  • Blended approaches
  • Peer observation
  • School and site visits

Effective and meaningful professional learning is all about striving for the sweet spot. At times there will have to be concessions in terms of time, choice, and available funding. 

That’s just how it goes. The key takeaway that I hope you leave with is developing professional learning opportunities through consensus and ensuring mechanisms in place lead to improved outcomes.  In the event that you are not satisfied with what is provided to you through your organization, district, or school, then there is a myriad of options that you can pursue.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Supporting Mental Health in Schools

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on students’ mental health, from coping with stress and anxiety about their health or the health of loved ones, isolation from friends, and now, a school year that, in many cases, looks very different than any they’ve experienced in the past. 

All of these issues have a very real impact on students’ ability to succeed in school this year. I wrote in detail recently about the need for schools to be proactive about supporting students’ social-emotional health. However, our current environment presents some challenges such as:

1. Identifying mental health issues in a remote learning environment

As a former principal, I know that teachers and administrators are often the first line of defense to spot warning signs that students are suffering from mental health concerns. As we get deeper into the school year and the pandemic continues and many students remain in a distance learning environment, it will be more and more difficult to identify students who might be in need of help.  For example, if a student is engaging in self-harm, it’s easier for them to hide it by simply turning off their camera. When teachers don’t see peer groups together, it is more difficult to detect if there are situations of bullying occurring. 

Joe Laramie and Holly Kelly recently shared several things teachers should watch for, including: 
  • Significant changes in attendance, such as only showing up for certain hours of class, or not showing up at all
  • Significant changes in how the student is attending class. For example, if they typically have their video on, and then suddenly start keeping it off
  • Increased attention-seeking behavior during class such as clicking their mute button on and off during a session
2. Use of paper-based systems 

Many schools still rely on paper-based systems to record concerns, which is an antiquated way to do business and also can prevent timely intervention. After all, it does no one any good if a teacher notices a concern and wants more background, but the student’s records are locked in a filing cabinet and the school is shut down due to COVID. This is a serious problem and one that we can address fairly easily simply by adopting the right technology.

Embracing technology

We live in an increasingly technology-driven world and schools should take advantage of the tech tools available to support student mental health.  I recently discovered a great new free tool from Impero Software called Impero back:drop that helps schools keep track of concerns. Impero back:drop allows authorized school staff members to record any concerns they have about student wellbeing. They can also access and share histories for each student in order to get a full picture of that student’s health and wellbeing. It eliminates the need for paper-based reporting systems and can be used whether students are learning at school or at home.

While Impero offers Impero back:drop free, they also offer a premium suite of student safety tools, including tools that let teachers view the students’ screens and tools that will alert school officials if students are typing certain keywords that could indicate concerns about self-harm, cyberbullying or other safety issues.

We live in an increasingly technology-driven world – made even more so with the advent of COVID-19  – and it’s important to have digital tools to support all aspects of education, including mental health and wellness so we can address any concerns in a timely manner and help students be successful in this very different school year and beyond, whatever the future holds. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

3 Ways to Streamline Expectations While Making Things Easier for Educators

It seems like every day presents a new challenge or adventure, depending on how you view the current landscape. Educators are stressed, worn-out, and constantly wondering when the pandemic will end. There are no easy answers or solutions that will work for everyone. The fact remains that there was no professional learning to prepare for the reality that everyone is facing nor a plan for something like COVID19. Through it all, though, educators have risen to the occasion like never before. In the midst of adversity, we see daily empathy, selflessness, commitment, and innovation.

I always like to focus on the small wins when I am facilitating professional learning with schools and districts. We can’t discount even the smallest success during these trying times as it is imperative to build people up. Over time these small wins can morph into catalysts for more extensive change efforts. During workshops and coaching sessions, I am always asked what advice I have to help teachers and administrators make things as easy as possible while ensuring quality learning is taking place. In this case, the goal is trying to achieve more systematic change that all educators can embrace. The bottom line is that it has to make sense and not require a great deal of effort to implement.

Below are the three recommendations I have been providing to help districts and schools persevere during the pandemic. You will see they are relatively straightforward, but each in its own right requires a certain level of continuity and consistency. I tend to refer to these as norms that everyone can get behind.  

  1. Embrace a learning management system (LMS) K-12
  2. Settle on a video conference platform with breakout rooms
  3. Use one digital tool for engagement and empowerment

The consistent use of an LMS such as Google Classroom, Schoology, or Canvas works to create a more equitable learning environment for all kids and families provided there is access in school and at home. It can become the hub for all lessons, videos, activities, assessments, and student work. A foundation can then be established for more personalized approaches such as pedagogically-sound blended learning or self-paced activities.  Students and families win as they have on-demand access to resources.  Building capacity now benefits all educators through vertical articulation and provides a foundation to build upon in subsequent years.

Whether remote or hybrid, many schools have relied on a video conference platform for synchronous instruction and learning. Like the LMS, consistent use across a district or school helps develop continuity, especially in upper-grade levels. For discourse and collaboration, selecting a video conference platform that has breakout room capability is a must, in my opinion. Thus, the options are Zoom, Webex, and Google Meets. No matter the platform selected, it is crucial to follow guidelines established by FERPA to protect student identity and information.

There are many digital tools available to educators these days, which often creates an overwhelming feeling. It’s not how many tools you use that matters, but instead the degree to which they are employed to facilitate engaging and empowering experiences. Hence, my advice is to master one tool and use it consistently to review prior learning and check for understanding and closure. The key here is establishing a comfort level amongst both the teacher and student. There are many great tools out there to use. My advice is to pick the one that allows for student responses to be used in different ways. My favorites are Mentimeter and Padlet.

The success of each suggestion above hinges upon providing professional learning support on using the tool or platform, as well as sound pedagogy. This represents a great starting point to help educators manage expectations during the pandemic. The recommendations can set the stage for more structured synchronous and asynchronous experiences that empower learners in different ways. They can also be a springboard for future change.