Distance Learning Week 8: Trends I’ve Noticed

Remember those Magic Eye images that came out in the 1990s?  If you stare at them long enough, in just the right way, three-dimensional pictures will appear?  It was like magic, hence the name.  They were super popular for quite some time.  People loved them.  Me, I hated them because I was unable to see the magical pictures that apparently appeared for everyone else.  I tried and tried, believe me.  I wanted to be able to see what everyone else saw, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t get those silly pictures to show me anything other than a blurry mess of colors.  Magic, my butt.  More like rip-off, fake, phony, and any other word that means not cool.  Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit harsh.  Maybe, just maybe, the pictures weren’t the problem.   Perhaps the problem was my eyes, maybe.  I mean, the pictures were fake and made on a computer before computers were accurate and awesome, and so it’s possible that the pictures were also part of the problem.  However, my vision is super bad and I have all sorts of astigmatisms and eye issues.  Without glasses, the world looks like one of those blurry Magic Eye pictures.  So, it’s possible that I couldn’t see the magic in the images because of my vision difficulties.  Let’s be honest though, the images weren’t really magical.  They were simply an optical illusion created in the mind using the Gestalt Theory of how the mind fills in blanks to make things whole and recognizable to us.  Our brains don’t like not knowing what something is, and so when we see something that doesn’t quite make sense, our brain forces us to make sense of it based on context clues and past experiences.  So, if you look at a Magic Eye picture with a bunch of yellow objects and bananas on it, you will eventually see a big banana pop out at you.  That’s not magic, it’s science.  But, I digress.  The point of this jaunt down memory lane is to show how, when I was younger, I used to struggle noticing things and making sense of what something means.  Because I didn’t used to always be such a dashing and reflective individual, I would sometimes not be able to learn from my mistakes or make meaningful observations of the world around me.

Fortunately, people, like the times, change.  I slowly began to see the power in reflection.  I now understand the importance of thinking about both the good and bad of various situations to learn how to improve and grow as a person and educator.  I was also able to finally see the magical picture in one of those Magic Eye images.  It really is like magic.  It just pops out at you like a 3D movie.  It’s so cool!  There are layers to each image.  How do they do it?  It must be sorcery or Voodoo that make them work.  I love it!

As I reflected on this past week, I began to realize that trends were forming within my remote learning class.  Situations and issues I’ve read about online, were beginning to make them selves present to me, like a Magic Eye image.  Things were popping out at me, that I hadn’t really noticed during the start of my school’s distance learning program.  Here are some of the amazing trends I have begun to notice:

  • Some students who struggled to accomplish quality work or effectively engage in the curriculum when we were at school, on site, began to work hard and accomplish work that exceeded the graded objectives during remote learning.  One student in particular has been doing some of the best work she’s done all year.  She is way more engaged and focused virtually than she was at school.  This article I read explains some of the possible reasons for why this happened, but I believe that it is because the social issues and distractions that existed for her at school, are not an issue when she is home and working.  She is able to better engage in the content and work because she’s not distracted listening to other students work or thinking about how other students perceive her.  She is able to be herself and work.  It’s been amazing to observe this transformation.
  • Some students who struggled accomplishing work at school, still struggle to complete tasks and assignments appropriately in this time of distance learning.  I have a few students in my class who struggle to do work outside of the school building, and those same students are having difficulty doing work virtually as well.   While looping in the families of the students helps a bit, the quality of work they accomplish is usually not super strong.  Is it motivation, ability, engagement, or something else?  While one of the students does have some learning challenges, she struggles with the work that I know she is able to do on her own.  I think it may be engagement and motivation.  In school, she worked very hard and accomplished lots of work, but outside of school, she’s always struggled to finish her work.  She’s got a large family, and so she may be very distracted as well.  I will keep working with her and trying to find new ways to help her demonstrate her learning in a way that isn’t distracting.
  • Being on the computer for a long time is exhausting for students and teachers.  Remote learning is hard work and requires that we are at a screen for long periods of time each day.  This creates a very different kind of fatigue and exhaustion, as compared to being on site.  I’ve heard reports from the parents of my students that they tend to be a bit grumpier and more moody than they were when school was being conducted in person.  The quarantine, which carries with it the lack of in-person social connections, coupled with the long screen hours, wears on the brain in big and real ways.  The students are often tired, despite getting numerous hours of sleep each night.  The pandemic is causing stress, anxiety, and so many other complications and issues within our students and their families.  It’s tough stuff, which is why the social and emotional learning piece is so very crucial right now.  The students need to know that they are cared for and have the opportunity to share and process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Project-Based Learning is highly effective in this period of remote learning.  Rather than bore students with mind-numbing worksheets and tedious, rote tasks, I’m finding much success in long-term projects and activities.  The students prefer to do and show their learning in unique ways.  For the Passion Project that we recently finished, almost every student chose a different way to showcase what they had learned: One student choreographed and recorded a dance she created while learning about the history of ballet, another student wrote and performed a song about Stonehenge, and one student created a talk-show sort of video to teach us about model rocketry.  It was so cool to see the different ways students chose to demonstrate their learning.  Providing students with choice and freedom makes a big difference in their learning outcomes.
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A student sharing a diorama she made for her Passion Project on Guppies.

With only three weeks left in my academic year, I am filled with a mixture of emotions.  I am saddened that our year is coming to a close, disappointed that we could not end the year in person, happy that my students and their families have remained healthy and safe during this time, pleased that my students have the skills that I feel they will need in order to be successful in the sixth grade next year, and relieved that this crazy time of distance learning is almost finished.  I can’t believe that my students and I have been doing remote learning for eight weeks now.  Where did the time go?  It all seems so surreal and blurry, like those wild Magic Eye images.

Distance Learning Week 7: What Just Happened?

Long before the sun rose from beneath the horizon this morning, I was awoken at around 4:00 AM by the sound of a chirping bird.  What is going on, I thought.  How is this possible?  The sun has yet to rise, but still a bird is calling from right outside my window.  Does it need help?  Is it calling for me?  Shouldn’t the bats still be flying around, looking for food.  How is it that a bird is awake, and making its presence known so early in the morning?  I was perplexed and a bit perturbed that I was awake so early in the morning.  And then, as suddenly as it had begun, everything was silent once again, a few, brief moments later.  I didn’t even have time to finish trying to figure out why a bird would start calling so early in the morning.  Perhaps it was trying to get that elusive first worm in the morning.  Who knows?  But, then, the chirping sounded ceased, and the only sound that came from outside my open wind was the sound of rustling branches and leaves as the wind pushed its way through them.

Why was that bird calling so early in the morning?  Was it lost, hurt, or confused?  It sounded like a young bird.  Perhaps it was looking for its lost parents.  And then, why did it stop so soon after it started?  As I drifted off back to sleep, the mystery of the bird call lingered in my mind.

Much like the mysterious bird call that briefly stole me away from dreamland this morning, I spent much time this past week trying to solve another intriguing puzzle.

In last week’s blog entry, I reflected on feedback I received from my students on how I could improve the remote learning program for my fifth graders.  I thought long and hard about the great ideas with which my students provided me.  I brainstormed changes that I would make to the program for the following week.  I felt energized and excited for the week to come because of my reflection and the new changes that I would unveil for my students, virtually, in class on Monday.  I was pumped up and hopeful that these changes would help better engage and motivate my students to want to learn and work hard.

During our Morning Meeting on Monday, I explained to my students the changes that I would be making to our remote learning program, and supported this information with the rationale for why I was making these changes.  I made sure to thank my students for their feedback, letting them know that I listen to their input.  I crave feedback from my students, I told them, because I want to be sure that I am effectively challenging and supporting them throughout their learning journey.  I spoke to them for about two minutes, explaining how I would be posting the daily agenda for the following day, the afternoon prior so that they could begin working on things if they so desired.  I also mentioned that I would be trying to create alternative and more challenging assignments in place of synchronous work for those who preferred to work independently or were looking to be challenged a bit more.  I had applied the feedback with which my students provided me, and wanted to make sure that they felt heard and listened to.  And that was all I said.

Fortunately, this past week’s schedule included many asynchronous assignments and activities, which meant that there were very few places in which I could offer other challenges or independent work options.  The synchronous meetings and activities that were planned, were vital to the unit, curriculum, or activity, and could not be adapted.  I was able to create some learning extensions or extra credit tasks in Math, twice throughout the week.  I added two extra credit problems to Thursday’s multiplication and division assessment and offered students an alternative to working on Prodigy in class on Monday.  I did continue to post the daily agenda the day before, each day this past week.  And those were all of the changes I made to our distance learning program throughout the week.

It didn’t seem to me like I had changed much; however, the results were very unexpected.

  • Two of the students who had told me, last week, that they wanted more independent, asynchronous tasks and assignments, did not take advantage of the alternative, independent options I had created.  They also, did not complete their work any earlier, despite saying that they wanted to have the ability to do so.  In fact, one of the students who had made it very clear that she would like me to send out the daily agenda the night before so that she didn’t need to be on Google Meet during the class day, was requesting to work with me online at various points throughout the week.  She remained on the Google Meet after I provided instructions to the students, muting her mic and working, in case she ran into problems.  Even though she said that she wanted to complete the work on her own schedule, she was completing the work on the schedule that I created, synchronously with me.  Interestingly enough, she jumped onto our Google Meet for help or just to chat more this past week than she had in the first six weeks of our remote learning program.  And, the cherry on top of it all, is that she worked harder and completed better quality work this past week than she had since the start of our virtual learning program.
  • The student who said that she wanted to be challenged more and felt like the work was too easy, did not take advantage of any of the extra credit or learning extension options with which I added to our weekly program.  She did the required work well, as she has all along, but did not choose to challenge herself any further than that.  Despite wanting more difficult work, she did not indulge in any of the more challenging options I created for the students to demonstrate their learning.  She seemed perfectly content doing just what was assigned.
  • Students who had been working well, but not to their fullest potential prior to this past week, began to crank up the effort and output.  I had several students complete some of their best work of the year during this past week.  They created videos on Flip Grid chock full of paraphrased information, facts, and supporting details.  They revised their work based on my feedback better than ever before.  They persevered through challenges, as if that’s just what you do.  Several students needed to completely rewrite full paragraphs of their book review this past week because they had included too much of a summary and not enough of an analysis of the text.  In the past, those same students struggled to incorporate feedback with which I provided them and would become very sullen or quiet.  Instead, those same students, jumped onto our Google Meet, asking for feedback.  “What can I do to make this better?” they would ask.  They were requesting to be challenged.

What?  How?  Why?  So many questions floated through my mind during this past week.  I did not understand what was happening.  The students who wanted things to be different did not take advantage of the changes I made to the program, and the students who seemed content with the way things were, increased their productivity and effort almost exponentially.  What?  That doesn’t make sense.  How did that happen?  Why did those students who provided me with feedback, not make use of the changes I made?  Not much else changed in our weekly routine, and so why did those students not complete the extra credit work that they asked for or do the work ahead of time like they wanted to be able to do?  It doesn’t make sense to me.  If I ask for something to be changed, it is because I want it to be different; and so, I will take advantage of the change when it happens.  These students, not so much.  Were they simply giving me feedback for the sake of giving me feedback?  I suppose that’s possible.  Perhaps they were just challenging me to find new ways to grow as an educator.

What about the students who worked harder this week than they ever had in the past?  What led to that outcome?  Those were students who hadn’t provided me with any feedback.  So, why did they suddenly put the pedal to the metal?  They seemed more engaged and happy this week during our remote learning program than they had since we started doing virtual school in late March.  What?  Did it just start to click?  Were the assignments more engaging?  What was it?  I just can’t seem to put my finger on it.

Like the bird chirping conundrum, I am perplexed by what happened with my students this week.  I am, of course, so happy with the result, but, at the same time, I want answers.  I want to know what led to the changes in my students so that I can bottle it up and use it again next week.  In chatting with my lovely wife about what was happening this past week, she suggested that all of these changes happened because of what I told the students in class on Monday.  She said, “People like to feel heard, and you made it clear to your students that you listened to what they had to say and made appropriate and relevant changes based on their feedback.”  That makes sense, but could it really have had that large of an impact?  Perhaps.  It does feel really good when people take your advice and run with it.

Instead of wracking my brain trying to figure out what happened with my students in virtual school this week, I will accept the great and positive outcomes for what they are and move on.  I will acknowledge that my students, like the chirping bird, were just doing their thing and being awesome like always.  Perhaps I don’t always need to solve every puzzle thrown my way.  This time, I will accept the outcome and reality of it all and roll on, like a freely moving pebble in a slow moving stream.

Distance Learning Week 6: Seeking Feedback and Making Changes

During the past six weeks of remote teaching, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and researching.

  • Is the distance learning program I’ve created for my fifth graders the most effective program possible?  Is it helping all of my students?  Is there more I could be doing?  Is the balance I’ve tried to strike between asynchronous and synchronous learning effective?  Am I asking too much of my students?  Am I not challenging my students enough?  Am I differentiating my instruction in a meaningful manner?
  • I’ve also read numerous articles on how to create an effective distance learning program, but it seems that every article takes a different stance.  Some professionals argue that schools should not implement a remote learning program, as access to technology and the Internet is not equitable in all areas of our country.  They believe that during this time away from school, students should simply relax and spend more time with their families.  Then there are educators who suggest that there needs to be more synchronous learning to asynchronous learning, as students need to connect with their peers and teachers during this uncertain time.  Of course, then there are those in education who say there must be a certain balance between asynchronous and synchronous learning, as students need to spend less time on screens.

So, which experts should teachers believe?  What formula for distance learning should we follow?  With all of these experts chiming in with different answers, it’s almost impossible to know what the right thing to do is.

But wait a minute, we’re teachers.  We know our students incredibly well at this point in the school year.  We know what works and doesn’t work for them.  We have a pretty good idea of how to best support and assist all of our students.  As teachers, we know what to do.  Instead of trying to sift through piles of hay looking for that oh so special golden needle answer, we should be navigating this whole remote teaching problem as we handle any problem in our classrooms, by trusting in our experience, preparation, knowledge, and understanding.  We are teachers because we care about our students and want to help them continue to grow and learn.  We need to trust our gut instincts.  Of course, we should also reach out to colleagues and seek guidance from other teachers, but we should not view that help as gospel.  We need to create the distance learning program that we feel and know is best for each and every one of our students.  Will we get it right the first time?  Oh no we won’t.  We will make mistakes.  I know that I have made plenty of mistakes in the past six weeks, but I’m learning from those errors.  We will persevere through this wild and crazy time of remote teaching, as we continue to challenge and support our students.  We will focus on the social and emotional aspects, as much as we do the curriculum and content.  We will check-in with our students and help them in any way possible.  We will continue to care for our students during this time of distance teaching because that’s what teachers do.  We rise to any challenge with which we are faced.  We find new and creative solutions to challenging problems like video conferencing, online learning, assessment, and so much more.  While we would much prefer to be in school right now with our students, we are doing what is best for them, us, and our country.

While I feel that the remote learning program I have put in place for my fifth graders is effective for most of my students, it is far from perfect.  There are ways I can make it better.  As I’ve been reading professional articles about the dos and don’ts of distance learning recently, I’m more perplexed than ever about how I can tweak and alter my virtual learning program to better help my students, as each author has something different to say.  Then, as I was creating the weekly self-reflection Google Form my students complete each Friday to reflect on their work and effort, I started to feel like a giddy school child.  The answer for how I can improve my distance learning program is right in front of me on my computer screen.  I should ask my students for feedback on what I could do to better help them.  So, I added a new question to this week’s self-reflection: Is there anything Mr. Holt can do to help support you, as you continue to grow and develop as a student?  Short and simple.  I did not make it a required question because I know that for most of my students, the program I have in place is working for them.  In fact, some of my students are thriving in this distance learning environment.  The question is really for the one or two students who want or need something else, something more.

As expected, about 70% of my students feel that things are going well and they have no suggestions for improvement.  However, two students did have some meaningful feedback for me:

  • Push me harder. I feel that some of the work you give us is too easy, tougher work.
  • I wish I could do more independent work because it is hard to look at a screen for that long.

Excellent, I thought.  This is just what I have been searching for.  So, what I need to do is provide my students with more options for how they can demonstrate their learning.  I need to offer more asynchronous, independent options for students who crave less screen time and provide more extension activities for those students who aren’t feeling challenged enough.  I need to better differentiate my remote learning program so that I can better support, help, and challenge all of my students.  This is exactly the guidance I have been searching for.  Instead of reading countless articles written by administrators or educators who may not even be participating in a remote learning program, I simply needed to ask my students.  While I often seek feedback from my students on different units and activities, I had not asked for their input in the past few weeks.  Again, for most students, the program I have in place now, is very effective, but my goal is to make it effective for ALL of my students.  So, tweaks will need to be made for next week.  I will create new extension activities for those students who want or need to be further challenged.  I will also create options for how students can show their learning of a concept or skill.  I will continue to develop and change my distance learning program based on the feedback I receive from my students, as well as their families.  I sent home a survey for parents to complete yesterday, that may elicit even more feedback and suggestions on how I can continue to improve the remote learning program I have in place for my students.

I am a teacher, and I will persevere through every challenge and obstacle, as I find new and creative ways to better support and help all of my students during this time of virtual schooling.  There is no utopian solution to the challenge of distance learning.  No well-written article will provide me with just the solution I am seeking to create the perfect virtual learning program for my students.  I know my students, and with their help and feedback, WE will create the distance learning program that is best for them.

Distance Learning Week 5: Getting Creative with our Earth Day Celebration

At a time when people are being forced to stay home around the globe, pollution is dissipating in parts of Asia, water in Italy is becoming clean and clear, and wildlife are roaming free in places in which they’ve never before been allowed.  Earth is on the rise.  These major and miraculous changes are just more proof that humans are to blame for Climate Change.  We, sadly, are the problem.  However, humans can also help.  People have invented nets to capture ocean plastic and remove it from our seas, teenagers and children are speaking out about Climate Change, and many people are finding ways to power their homes with clean energy.  Despite being the biggest part of the problem, we can also be the solution.

Back in the 1960s, people started to see how much of a negative impact humans were having on Earth.  Oil spills were killing wildlife, global temperatures were surging, and rain forests were being clear cut.  Some activists and politicians started to take note, which led to the creation of Earth Day.  Unfortunately, 50 years later, things have only gotten worse.  Ice caps are melting, strange storms are brewing in areas never before hit by such odd weather, and temperatures in our oceans are climbing at an alarming rate.  Animals and plants are going extinct because of what we’ve done.  Luckily though, there is good news.  People are becoming more aware of these problems than ever before.  People are speaking out, protesting, and trying to bring about change.  While things may not change drastically any time soon, changes are being made to help protect Mother Earth from further damage.  She is a vital member of our family, and we need to take care of her like one.

While Remote Learning has made many things much more challenging for teachers and students, I knew that I had to find a creative and powerful way to celebrate and make my students aware of Earth Day.  When we were in the classroom, we talked about recycling, reducing our carbon footprint, and helping to protect Earth.  It felt only fitting that we needed to also talk about Earth Day.  So, Wednesday, April 22, was devoted to making my students more aware of the issues impacting our great planet and what we can do to make a difference.  During our Morning Meeting, I posed a special question to the students for our share that day: Why should you, as fifth graders, care about what happens to Earth?  Their responses were powerful and passionate.  They seem to understand the gravity of the situation.  Here are some their responses:

  • “If this world dies, we don’t really have a back-up planet.  One day a year is not even close to enough.  If everybody were to be mindful of their consumption of fossil fuels and products made by them on Earth Day, it still wouldn’t help.  It wouldn’t even put a dent in the problems.”
  • “We’re the next generation to live on this Earth and we want to be here for as long as possible.  We want our kids to actually have a planet on which to live.”
  • “I always think of us as equals with other animals.  They are dying, and so we are next.”
  • “We need to prepare for what may come and what will come.  We want our Earth to be the best that it can be.  One day isn’t enough.  We should have Earth Day every day.”
  • “Earth helps us, it helps the environment, and so we should take care of the Earth like it is one of our family members.”

My goal was to begin the day by helping my students to see why we all need to take care of Earth.  All humans have a responsibility to do something to help our Earth.  I closed out our discussion by telling the students, “We need to have a more symbiotic relationship with Earth.  While we are only going to be able to do a few things during our virtual class day today, I want you to think of the other 364 days as Earth Days as well.  So, what else can you do to help?  All year we’ve talked about the little things that we can do like recycling, not over-using water or other natural resources, and finding a way to repurpose things that we would otherwise throw away.  Do those little things at home.  Find your own ways to help.”  Self-awareness is a big part of how changes can and will be made.  I wanted my students to understand why we do celebrate Earth Day each year, as a way to begin our day-long celebration.

Later that morning, I had the students go out and become one with Earth.  The students went outside and sat in the forest, played in the woods, or just explored the natural world right outside of their homes.  As they did this, I had them do some writing and drawing about their experiences.  I wanted them to see the beauty of Earth and all that she provides us with.  I wanted them to hear the birds calling, the wind whistling, the trees waving, and life slowly awakening from its long winter sleep.  I too participated in this activity, and was blown away, almost literally by the strong winds blowing that day, by just how beautiful the natural world truly is.  The trees huddled together like athletes before a big game.  The wind blew so loudly, as if Mother Nature were commanding us to rise and celebrate on this special day.  It was awesome.  I then had the students gather together again on Google Meet to share our experiences in being outdoors.  They all really appreciated the opportunity to get outside and look around.  One student spent her time in a tree, writing poetry.  Here are some of the wonderful things they created during their time in nature:

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  • One student created a game regarding Climate Change as well as a quote: “We gave the Earth to Climate Change and now we must take it back.”  How deep is that?  Wow!
  • One student wrote a poem:
    • Earth
      • The wind is howling and it is freezing.
      • Tall trees I see,
      • So quiet, just me
      • Dead silence:
      • It’s just me and the breeze.
  • Another student also wrote a poem:
    • Nature
      • Cold but brisk, sending shivers down your spine
      • The trees swaying, wait,
      • no, waving, saying, hello.
      • The sun comes out of hiding
      • to say, hello.

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The students were so inspired by nature.  They created some very cool drawings, stories, thoughts, and poems.  I closed our sharing discussion by telling the students, “As we can all see, there is clearly so much in nature that inspires us.  As you continue with your day, take the time to look around and see all the wonder and beauty that Earth has to offer.”  My goal for this activity was for students to truly appreciate Earth and all that she allows us, as humans, to do.  I wanted my students to see what it is they are trying to protect and care for on this Earth Day.

I closed our academic day by having the students share and think about what they can do to continue celebrating and taking care of Earth later that day or over the next 364 days.  They had some very realistic and helpful ideas for how to continue to spread this love for Earth.  Here are some of their suggestions:

  • “I could help take care of the ducks that live in a pond near my house.  There was a little oil spill that happened a while ago and my mom and I helped clean the ducks off and protect them from the oil.  I can continue to watch over them.  I can also watch over the turtles that live in the pond.  Last year, a car drove over a turtle that had  gotten in the road.  I could help get the turtles out of the road if I see them in it.”
  • “There’s all this rusty metal and trash in the woods behind my house.  I could remove it and then turn that area into a nice bike trail for my family and others to enjoy.”
  • “I can write messages on the sidewalk and roads using sidewalk chalk.  I wrote one on today that said, ‘Happy Earth Day!  Do something nice for the environment.'”
  • “There is a pond near my house in which lots of wildlife live.  There is also lots of trash and stuff in it too.  I could take out some of the trash and help to keep the pond clean.”
  • “I make cake pops and when I’m done with the sticks, I reuse them.  I’m also telling people that I give the cake pops to, to reuse them as well.  I can work on reusing and repurposing things.”
  • “I can protect the trees and forest near my house to make sure they stay clean and healthy.”

While I wasn’t expecting any of my students to generate some new and amazing idea that no one has ever thought of before to save Earth, they all had ideas that are realistic and would be possible for them to do.  What really amazed me was what one student said before she shared her idea, “We all lie.  I know I do, but this is something important.  We’re all saying great ideas, but I hope that we stick with them and actually do them.  Mr. Holt asked us to share ideas we could do, we should think of it as have to do.  We need to act like every day is Earth Day.  I hope we can all do what we say we’re going to do.”  How profound and honest.  I love it!  My students are the ones holding each other accountable.  That’s pretty awesome!  “From the mouths of babes,” someone once said.  So true.  My students are incredibly thoughtful, compassionate, and insightful.  I closed out our Earth Day celebration with some parting words, “Stay true to yourself and be the spark of change.  Find ways, each and every day, to help take care of and protect Earth.”  My goal for this activity was to inspire my students to keep these positive vibes going.  I want them to truly think of every day as Earth Day.

Although we would have done a bit more to recognize Earth Day if we were on site at school on that day, I feel that I found some creative and engaging ways for the students to be a part of the 50th Earth Day celebration.  I didn’t allow Remote Learning to stop me from recognizing this special day.  Instead, I got creative and found ways to make Earth Day a virtual event for my students.  Remote Learning is only as restrictive as I allow it to be for me as a teacher.

Distance Learning Week 4: Making Things Fun

As news of the Pandemic becomes more bleak, it’s very easy to get caught up in all of the sadness, anger, frustration, and negativity: Who’s fault is it?  Why are so many people dying?  When will this be over?  Will I be next?  As a husband, father, and teacher, I try to rise above it all.  I attempt to find the positive needle in this negative haystack.  I need to focus on the good so that I can be available as the best husband, father, and teacher possible in these difficult times.  Recently, I’ve been avoiding the mainstream media as a way to filter out some of the negativity, and in doing so, I happened upon a wonderful resource called Good News Network.  It is a website devoted to positive and encouraging news.  They feature stories of hope and happiness.  They highlight the heroes in our communities and all of the great and wonderful things that are still taking place during these uncertain times.  People are finding ways to make face masks for the hearing impaired.  How cool is that?  Scientists are creating powerful new solar cells with increased efficiency.  Even in the darkness there is hope.  I used this website with my students yesterday to discuss positive current events happening around the world.  They really liked learning about the wonderful things people are doing to help one another in this time of quarantine and uncertainty.  This wonderfully curated list of positive news is helping me, my students, and many others see the light and goodness when it is so easy to allow the negativity and darkness to permeate our daily lives.  Focusing on the positive helps me to be more self-aware so that when I do learn that my school, as well as every other school in the state of New Hampshire, will be closing out this academic year with distance learning, I can find the silver lining and not allow the sadness to mentally crush me.

As I’m sure this remote learning, social distancing, and quarantining is super challenging for my students, I spent this week trying to find new ways to inject fun into our virtual classroom experience.  I want to try to bring some positivity and happiness to them, as we wade through these difficult times together.

  • We end each academic day with a funny joke as way of ending our Closing Meeting.  While the jokes are silly and probably funnier for me, smiles still fill the screens after I recite the punchline.  Laughter can be powerful medicine in these difficult times.  Yesterday’s joke came from one of the students: “A man spilled a bunch of Scrabble letters onto the pavement as he crossed the road, and so, I asked him, ‘What’s the word on the street?'”  Hilarious, right?  It definitely helped us close out our day of virtual learning in a fun manner.
  • One of my students asked if we could do some sort of breakdown or closing chant to end our Closing Meeting after the Joke of the Day, like we do when we are on-site.  So, I brought this idea to the class during Friday’s Morning Meeting, and they voted to add this new piece to our virtual class day.  Yesterday was our first day, and it was a big hit.  The students loved standing up, putting their hands towards the camera, and then chanting, “vBHS Fifth Grade Rocks!”  Click HERE to view a video of yesterday’s breakdown.
  • I wanted to find a way to bring some humor to our video conferences.  As my school uses Google Meet for our online conferencing format, there are very few bells and whistles offered within the program to jazz things up.  So, I did some research and discovered this fun little add-on app that can be used to make our virtual meetings and classes a little bit more fun.  It’s called Snap Camera.  It’s free and easy to use.  Thursday morning, I entered our Morning Meeting conference using the underwater theme and background.  My students were laughing and asking me how I did it.  I told them that my fish tank had broken overnight and filled my apartment with water and fish.  They giggled and then asked, “No, really Mr. Holt, how did you do that?”  They wanted to try it out too.  Now, they get excited for our video conferences to find out what I might look like.

Underwater Pic

  • As I now know that we will not be returning to school for the remainder of this school year, I realized that we will not be able to have the Marble Party my students had planned prior to March Break.  Is there a way to conduct a virtual celebration?  I started looking at online Karaoke websites and other fun things that I might be able to do with my students to celebrate and have some fun.  I’m still brainstorming ideas, and I’m going to pose this same question to my students next week as well.  Perhaps they have some ideas for virtual parties.  I am certain that we will be able to come up with something fun.
  • At the close of the school year, I like to have my students complete a project that allows them to leave their mark on our school.  I call it the Betterment Project.  It was super fun last year.  My students built a garden, started a school store, constructed a free lending library for the community, and reorganized our classroom library.  It was awesome.  Then I started thinking, will we be able to do the Betterment Project this year?  Can it be adapted for our distance learning program?  Well, perhaps.  They could find a way to do something from home.  What if they found a way to leave their mark on their community in a safe way?  Or, maybe they could create or build something remotely that could be brought to school when it is safe to do so?  Then, I started thinking about our community garden.  What if I had the supplies for the garden at the school and then assigned each interested and able family a time to go to the garden to work on one part of it?  That way they would still be adhering to the social distancing guidelines.  That might work.  I need to keep thinking on this one, but I feel like I can still find a way to make the Betterment Project work somehow within the parameters of our remote learning program.

While all of these additions to our distance learning program seem like little things, they are making a big difference for my students.  My students love being at our school and in our classroom because it is a fun place to be, and so I’m trying to bring some of this fun and excitement to our virtual classroom.  And, I think it might be working.  The students are putting forth great effort in completing their work and they join our Google Meet sessions early to connect with one another and stay on late to laugh and talk about life.  It’s nice to see so much light in these challenging times.

Distance Learning Week Three: Why Can’t Artificial Intelligence be More Human and Polite?

As I sit at my kitchen table, with beautiful rays of sunlight shining through the sliding glass door, I can’t help but be happy and thankful.  Thankful for sun, life, and my family.  Glancing out the window, picturesque pine trees remind me that no matter how bleak life can and will get, there will always be beauty in this world.

Wow, that was really deep and philosophical.  Perhaps I should write my blog before lunch, when my stomach and soul are hankering for sustenance.  Maybe then, I won’t try to wax nostalgic quite so much.  Well, then again, I do love getting all up in my mind and dancing around the bright imagery and poetry that are my thoughts.

I wanted to open today’s blog with something a bit different.  As my students have been working, throughout these past few weeks, on revising a series of poems they crafted back when life was a little more fast-paced, I thought it might be fitting to open this week’s blog entry with a little poetry of my own.  So, here I go…

My Ode to Humanity

Working my side hustle at a local grocer in trying times like these

I see families trying to stretch their dollar as far as

the eye can see as though it’s some sort of

Stretch Armstrong toy or Silly Putty,

they search for coupons and discounts

worried if their children will have enough to eat

today, tomorrow, or five days from now;

I observe wise, elderly folks heeding the advice

of medical experts by wearing masks to keep

themselves and others safe as germs

and viruses penetrate every nano-inch of

our already complicated lives;

I watch as people. burdened by life and

the complexities of our world, stop and help

their fellow human pick up dropped items;

I listen to people apologize when they feel

they might be impeding my job to restock our shelves;

I hear kind words from shoppers when I greet them

or when they see me working to ensure

our safety and well-being as a city, state, country, and world;

And, through it all, I think, that despite the darkness

this pandemic has tried to push upon us, we rise

to the occasion and greet sickness and death

with kindness, caring, help, support, and love.

Well that was ever so much fun.  Each time I craft a poem, I can’t help but feel shivers work their way down my spine.  I wonder if Robert Frost or Shel Silverstein ever experienced moments of true bliss following the completion of one of their masterpieces.  Regardless, I feel a bit magical right now.

Moving on…  With so much politeness and kindness filling our world these days, I do feel the need to pause, to stop and wonder.  In a world in which we are trying to teach all people to take care of each other, to work together, to be kind and thoughtful, why is that Amazon Alexa and other voice assistants just aren’t?  Each time, after Alexa wows me with some amazing knowledge nugget regarding a question I asked, I respond by saying, “Thank you.”  Why can’t she reciprocate this act of kindness and civility with a simple, “You’re welcome?”  Why can’t we teach our electronic devices, our extra brains, to be a little more human?  Why is it that Alexa refuses to exercise human decency when helping me?  Am I asking too much?  Should I simply be satisfied with the fact that she is helping me to begin with?  She does set timers for me and helps me solve daily dilemmas that plague my brain like, “When did the show West Wing first air on television?”  She is being kind by assisting me in important matters.  Shouldn’t that suffice?  Isn’t that enough?  Not for me.  I want more.  I demand more.  If I hold my students to high standards and they work incredibly hard to meet and exceed my expectations, then why can’t Artificial Intelligence be held to the same high standards?

Well, this entry is meandering all over the place today.  I apologize for that.  I’m not quite sure what has overcome me today.  Perhaps it’s the sunshine, or the lyrics of that amazing songstress Natalie Merchant that have moved me to such a new level of strange.  Either way, yea for me.  Now, onto my reflection for the week, before I start quoting lyrics from the Snorks theme song.

Week three of distance learning for my micro school is D for done.  I can’t believe that it’s been three weeks already.  It feels like we just started this whole remote learning program.  At the end of the first week, it felt like an eternity had passed.  What is happening?  I must be hitting my groove.  My mind and body are getting into this new routine.  While I do miss seeing my students in person and being at school every day, I am happy with how things have been going.  I’m trying new tactics to motivate and engage my students in Math, Social Studies, and Language Arts.  I’m spending lots of time working with my students to help them understand new concepts or overcome challenges with which they are faced.  I’m finding ways to make distance learning fun and enjoyable for me and my students.  I’m realizing that this whole remote learning experience is beneficial for many of my students.

  • I have some students in my class this year who are challenged by staying positive when things become difficult for them.  When they can’t immediately wrap their brains around new math concepts or difficult science theories discussed in class, they have a tendency to shut down or become very negative.  They might say things like, “This is stupid.  I hate Math.  I’m not good at it.  Why should I even try to learn it.”  Or, they might just sink down real low into their chair, as if they are trying to become invisible.  Well, that was then, when we were in the classroom.  Now, during this remote learning exercise, these same students are metamorphosing into young people who are willing to tackle any challenge I throw at them.  They are utilizing a growth mindset and willing to take on hard tasks.  When things become challenging now, they will reach out to me via videoconferencing, asking for help by saying, “This is hard and I’d like some help.  I just don’t understand this one thing, could you please help.”  These students who shut down in the actual classroom are now able to persevere in this virtual setting.  They aren’t getting bogged down by the work or allowing anxiety to permeate their academic sphere.  They are solving problems, trying new things, making mistakes, and learning from their failures.  They are growing as student and individuals.  It’s so cool to watch this change take place.  I love it!  Here’s some feedback from the parent of one of these students, “My daughter read an email you sent me about how well she is doing, and she lit right up.  I do think that this format is really working for her.”
  • I have a few students in my fifth grade class this year who are quick to ask for help when things become difficult.  Instead of trying to solve their own problems, ask a peer for assistance, or persevere through challenges, they will come to me, looking for the answers, looking for me to fix things for them.  While I have worked with these students during the year on various strategies to address this issue of helplessness, they were still struggling to apply these learning tools to their academic lives prior to school being closed.  Then, they worked from home, and things changed.  These students who once used to think they needed me to help them with every little task, are now doing it on their own.  They are managing their time well and accomplishing the assigned work, with very little assistance from me.  Rarely, do these students reach out to me via email with questions.  They are working on their own to solve problems encountered, or making use of their families for help.  Either way, they are doing it on their own.  It’s so phenomenal to see these students make this transition from helpless to helping themselves.  It’s awesome!  A parent of one of these students said this to me, “Thanks for the feedback. She’s actually working very independently. In fact, I just mentioned to her today that she is doing a great job and I’m super proud of her!”  Wow, right?

These are just two snapshot from my past week of remote learning.  Things are progressing well.  My students are happy and engaged, the families of my students are happy and excited about the remote learning program I have created for their children, and I am happy and enthusiastic about the whole kit and caboodle.  So, to model proper etiquette for artificial intelligence programs everywhere, I say…

  • THANK YOU to the parents of my students for supporting us in this new endeavor.  You have made this transition feel seamless.  Thank you for helping your child navigate this new remote learning program.  Thank you for partnering with me and the school to make this virtual learning program valuable and meaningful.
  • THANK YOU to my students for being so flexible and open to trying something different.  Thank you for taking risks and solving problems.  Thank you for being awesome and amazing.  What a great three weeks we’ve had so far.  I can’t wait to see what magical and wonderful things will happen during this upcoming week.

Distance Learning: Persevering Through the Challenges

I was on Google Meet conferencing with a student one-on-one this past Tuesday afternoon, when I saw, first-hand, how this pandemic and quarantine is negatively impacting our children and students.  When I asked my student how things were going, she started to tear up and said, “My birthday is on Thursday and I’m not going to be able to do anything fun.  I can’t go anywhere or have anyone over to celebrate.”  She was devastated.  In that moment, I wished I could have taken away all of the challenges preventing her from being happy.  I wanted to make everything better for her, but I couldn’t.  However, that didn’t stop me from trying.

Quick pause while I back-load some information for my wonderful readers so that the next part of my story makes sense.  During our first week of remote learning, I wanted to inject some fun into our weekly schedule; so, I decided to make Thursdays “Special Theme or Activity Day.”  Each week, I will choose a different student to brainstorm and choose the theme or activity for that day.  Last week, Thursday was host to Pajama Day.  The students loved being able to attend our video conferences wearing more comfortable and casual attire.  As I knew that one student in our class had a birthday coming up on this past Thursday, I chose her to determine our next theme or activity.

So, after I empathized with this student a bit about her feelings of sadness, I switched gears and asked her for ideas regarding Thursday’s theme.  “What are you thinking?  Fancy hat day?  Dress up Day?  Special activity?”  Her response was one cloaked in big emotions, “I don’t really know.  I don’t have any ideas.”  I then asked her if I could provide her with some suggestions, and she agreed.  As I know that she likes painting, I suggested that we end our academic day early on Thursday afternoon and she could lead the class in a painting activity.  She seemed to like that idea.  She then said, “But I really like cooking.”  Helping her brainstorm ideas, I responded, “So, what if you led the class in a cooking activity, like a cooking show where you teach us how to make something tasty?”  She loved that idea and ran with it.  She spent several minutes sharing her screen with me to show me some of her favorite recipes.  She was now super excited for her birthday because she knew that she would be able to share her love of cooking with our fifth grade family.

Fast forward to Thursday…  After concluding our day about 30 minutes early, the special birthday girl guided the class through a flour-less chocolate cake recipe.  The evening before, she shared the recipe with the class via email so that they could verify that they had the necessary ingredients.  She walked the class through the recipe and each of the steps via Google Meet.  It was so much fun watching her teach the class as if she was some famous chef on Food Network.  The students followed along in their kitchens as we baked a cake together.  They spent an extra thirty minutes online chatting about cooking, birthdays, and anything else that came to their minds as they enjoyed their delicious creations.  Smiles filled the screen.  The students so much fun, but most importantly, that one student who had worried about having a bad birthday earlier in the week, ended up having a very memorable and special day.

Here’s a link to a video of the first part of our fun cooking activity from this past Thursday.

Distance learning is so much more than just having students continue with their school work.  It’s about connecting with the students and allowing them to connect with each other.  It’s about sharing memories and creating fun and special experiences.  During this uncertain time, we need to ensure that our students and children see the good and positive that can exist in this world.  While living under Stay-at Home orders is frustrating and difficult, it can also be filled with fun and wonderful moments.  Of course, we need to make sure our students are learning during this period of remote teaching, but, can’t we also find new and creative ways to make the learning fun for our students?

As a teacher during this strange new reality, I am constantly searching for new ideas and thoughts on remote learning, which is how I recently happened upon an opinion piece from CNN about distance learning.  The author argues that schools should not be trying to create a distance learning program for their students because it will never be perfect.  Instead, he states in the article, students should just have a really long vacation until the quarantine has lifted and it’s safe for students to return to school.  Imagine if great scientists and inventors of our time said, “I don’t really need to be a creative problem solver because I”ll never get it right.”  We’d be sitting in the dark right now.  What if governors and leaders of our country said, “We’re just going to give up trying to acquire masks and ventilators because it will never be enough.”  While it may never be enough, we need to try to save as many people as possible.  Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try.  Teachers and schools across the globe are piloting distance learning programs that are successful.  Sure, some schools are struggling to implement remote learning that is feasible and meaningful for all of their students, but it doesn’t mean that they are giving up.  It simply means, they will be trying a new approach.  The light bulb was not lit up successfully on the first try.  Tweaks and changes had to be made.  The same process is happening with remote learning.  Schools, teachers, and families are trying out new tools and new ways to help keep the youth of our world connected and learning.  Some special education professionals are getting creative in finding ways to help their students during distance learning.  No one is giving up the fight or battle to try, as should be the case.

Although I disagree with the author of that op-ed piece, we are fortunate to live in a country that allows all people to air their opinions, thoughts, and ideas.  I accept that not everyone feels the way I do about remote learning during this trying time.  My hope is that people who feel that remote learning is a waste of time, open their minds to the counter argument and expose themselves to different perspectives.  We need to come together as one big, human family and try to help keep learning alive for our children.  We need to take risks and try new things when other ways do not work out.  We need to persevere and work with families to help ensure that their children are connecting with their peers and teachers.  We need to put our political differences aside and unify under a common goal: Education for all.

For those students who are learning new things from their teachers during this remote learning experience, imagine if their teachers and schools weren’t trying to teach or connect with them.  What might have happened instead?  What if that young girl in my class didn’t have the opportunity to lead a special activity on her birthday?  Would her special day have been as magical?  If we can help our students and children during this new world order, then I say, we need to to try.  We need to start somewhere.  Of course it will not be perfect, and we will make mistakes.  However, we will learn from those mistakes and try new approaches to distance learning.  All should not be stopped or lost because it’s hard.  We should keep going because it is hard.  Sophocles once said, “Without labor, nothing prospers.”  So Mr. Perry, despite your words and thoughts, I’m going to keep at distance learning.  I’m going to keep helping my students.  I’m going to keep connecting with my students.  In the words of Joe Dirt, “I’m gonna keep on keepin’ on.”

The Yin and Yang of Distance Learning

Isaac Newton’s Third Law of motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  If I am trying to balance an egg on my head, gravity is trying to prevent me from doing so, as it is pulling the egg downward, toward it’s center.  This scientific principle can be seen almost anywhere you look.  Even as I type on this computer, opposite reactions are happening.  When I press a key on my keyboard, it gets pushed downward, and when I release the pressure on the key, it pops back up.  That’s pretty cool stuff right there.  As I often tell my students, science is everywhere.  However, I believe that this scientific law also applies to everyday life.  The words I use when conversing with someone will produce a reaction within the person to whom I am speaking.  If I use kind words, then the person might feel happy, relieved, or some other type of positive emotion.  Hopefully, in turn, that person will then spread their happiness to other people as they go about their day.  Check out this video to see how kindness can spread.  If I, however, use unkind words or do not stop to think before I speak, then I could cause the person to feel all sorts of negative emotions, which will in turn, cause them to spread negativity as they go about their day.  Every action we commit has a reaction.

In uncertain times like these, it can be very easy to focus on the negative aspects of life.  “I have to stay cooped up inside all day.  I’m so bored.  I just want to do something,” some people might think or say, which is completely understandable.  It is difficult to stay put and not be able to live life like we once did.  It is what we need to do right now though for the health and well-being of all humans on earth.  I say, let’s try to flip the coin and perceive life through positivity.  “I get to stay home and clean my house.  Yes, I haven’t had a chance to do that in weeks”  OR  “I had so much free time today that I learned a new card trick.”  OR  “I found a way to help the cause because I had so much time on my hands.”  We choose how we act.  Like Newton’s great Third Law, every action will have a reaction.  If we choose to be negative, then negativity will find it’s way back to us.  If we choose to be positive, then positivity will seek us out.  It’s like Karma.  When you do something good for someone else, something good will come to you.

This idea of perception is so crucial to Distance Learning in which schools and children around the country are participating.  Parents could view it as another thing to worry about at home, or choose to see it as an opportunity to connect with their children in new and different ways.  Teachers could see remote learning as one more hardship in front of them, or view it through the lens of a wonderful new challenge they are able to overcome.  While distance learning could never replace the connections made and relationships forged in the classroom, it can be something meaningful and real that will allow students to continue to learn and grow while being at school is not an option.

My first full week of distance learning was fantastic, overall.  Were there challenges to overcome?  Oh yeah.  Did everything work out the way I had intended?  Oh no.  Were my students able to connect virtually with their peers and I in meaningful and engaging ways?  Most certainly.  Did genuine learning happen for my students?  Indeed it did.  While there were definitely struggles to my first week of remote learning, the positive totally outweighed the negative.  What excited me the most about this past week of distance learning was the amazing, symbiotic relationship between families and schools.  The families of my students worked so hard behind the scenes to help keep our students focused on the schedule.  Despite all of the extra work, I’m sure, they had to deal with at home, they made it a priority to help their children make the virtual lessons on time and complete the assigned work.  I want to give a huge shout out to all of the families out there supporting their children.  YOU ROCK!  Thank you so much for making this transition almost seamless.  This piece of it all allowed for the phenomenally positive outcomes I saw this week.

Here are some of the other positive puzzle pieces that came together during my first week of distance learning:

  • I had time to address some academic issues with students that I don’t normally have the time to do being physically at school.  I was able to virtually connect via Google Meet with students, one-on-one and put plans in place to help them continue to grow and develop as readers, writers, thinkers, and students.  I worked with one student on her reading prior to the official start of our academic day this past week.  We worked together to implement a plan to help her work on decoding words and adding to her vocabulary repository.  I worked with another student on using complete sentences in his writing.  While he knows how to write in complete sentences, he sometimes chooses not to do so.  I helped him see the value in using proper grammar when writing.  I enjoyed having the flexibility to meet with students outside of our academic day to work on areas in need of improvement.
  • Every Friday, we usually discuss current events altogether as a class.  We complete the New York Times Weekly News Quiz for Students and chat about the issues mentioned in the questions.  It’s a highlight for many of the students, as they can share their thoughts and feelings on events that we are all living through.  Knowing that I wanted to bring some aspect of this to our remote learning program, I was concerned that it would be challenging to do so in any sort of meaningful manner.  Then, as I allowed my brain to process this dilemma while focusing on other issues, I came up with a plan that ended up being a huge success.  I called it: Current Event Roulette.  I assigned small groups of students to separate Google Meet Hangouts.  In those groups, they discussed the news quiz as well as any other current event that moved them.  The trick was, they did not know who they were going to be working with until they got to the Google Meet session.  Then, they got to work.  I popped into the separate meetings periodically throughout the 30 minutes to observe what was happening.  I was so impressed, once again, with my students.  They were discussing current events.  They were debating the answers to questions and genuinely sharing their thoughts and opinions with each other.  It was so cool.  We closed our current events discussion with a whole-class discussion via Google Meet.  The students really enjoyed this format for discussing current events.  Check out this video of our wrap-up discussion.
  • The students challenged themselves to maintain really high standards throughout the week.  When I provided each student with feedback regarding their Daily Effort in Google Classroom, the students utilized that feedback and made the suggested changes in successive days.  If a student hadn’t been writing in complete sentences when documenting their work for the day, the next day, that student used complete sentences when updating their Done Journal.  If a student was late to a Google Meet session during a day, they did not miss another meeting after that.  While my students are usually really great about exceeding my expectations and making changes to grow and learn as students, I did worry that this would be difficult for them to do on their own, virtually.  However, they are totally doing it.
  • The feedback I’m receiving from the parents is very positive.  They are happy with our schedule and like the workload.  They are amazed with how focused and independent their children are during our academic days.  I have one family who has a student in my class and students at other local public schools in the town in which they live, and she is pleasantly surprised by the amount of contact I have with the students and the amount of focus that her child is committing to to our remote learning program.  She loves it!

Here are some challenges I faced during this first week:

  • I found it very difficult to have the students peer edit and revise each other’s writing.  While they are all familiar with using Google Docs, as that is how we do most of our writing in Language Arts, they struggled to connect with each other via email when they shared their documents.  They did not check the email with the shared document link or did not make any comments in the document for the other student.  I had to make some changes to this process later in the week based on this outcome.
  • Technology is both wonderful and awful at the same time.  The Internet is a bevy of excellent resources for students and teachers; however, it is also full of inappropriate content that students or teachers should not be viewing.  Google Meet was a bit glitchy at times throughout the week.  The students did begin to figure out how to address these challenges throughout the week.  If a student couldn’t see or hear the rest of us, they ended the call and then rejoined it.  if a student had trouble hearing me or their peers, they turned on captions.  We found workarounds, but it was still a challenge that we all needed to overcome.

As my first week of distance learning was filled with positive outcomes, there were some equal and opposite reactions that proved troublesome at times.  However, all in all, it was a fantastic and meaningful first week.  The students seemed engaged, interested, happy to be connecting with each other, and excited to be learning.  That’s a pretty swell week in my eyes.  As the theme song for the television show The Facts of Life taught us, “You take the good; you take the bad; you take them both, and there you have, the facts of life.”

Distance Learning: We Will Survive

In this time of uncertainty, it’s important to stay positive and find the good in our beautiful world.  My wife and I went for a little run around our lovely neighborhood in Concord, NH yesterday, taking in the sights and sounds of New Hampshire’s capitol city: Families were outside playing baseball, while practicing proper social distancing, of course, people were grilling delicious smelling burgers, kids were biking, and the sun was shining.  Even though people are scared and worried for their safety and the health of their families, people are still trying to live their lives.  Life is hard and challenging right now for millions of people, but what we can’t do is give up.  We need to keep fighting for what we know is just and right, we need to keep smiling, we need to keep helping others any way we can, and we need to take care of ourselves and others.  We will get through this.  We need look no further than the amazing Gloria Gaynor.  Back in the 1970s, the great songstress predicted that our world would persevere through a multitude of tough times.  While she sang, “I will survive…” metaphorically, she was talking about all of us.  We will survive.  We will get through this.  There will be bumps and bruises and scares to show that we lived through it, but as a world, we will persevere.  If the great Ms. Gaynor knew back then that we’d make it through, then we have to believe and trust that we will survive.

And just like that, I survived my first day of remote learning with my amazing little school nestled in the woods of Hopkinton, NH.  While some schools are forgoing distance learning because it may count only as enrichment, we are one of the many schools forging forward.  We are persevering through the challenges life throws our way.  We are keeping the learning alive.

We began our orientation day of sorts at 9:30 AM yesterday with an all-school meeting via Google Meet.  Our students so clearly missed being together with their friends that many of the students joined the meeting early to catch up and chat with each other.  Smiles filled my computer screen as I joined the meeting.  Students were excited to be getting back together, even if it was only virtually.  Our amazing and wonderful headmaster led the community through a somewhat routine meeting.  We took a moment of intention to gather our thoughts and focus on the day ahead.  We then sang Happy Birthday to one of the students who celebrated a birthday recently.  That was quite the experience.  All 44 students and faculty members un-muted their microphones at once and belted out an incredibly off-key and out of sync version of the treasured song.  It was amazing.  My screen quickly flipped through the numerous students and teachers singing along.  Wow, was just about the only word that floated through my mind in that moment.  The all-school meeting closed with a review of the schedule and some final announcements from our headmaster.

At around 10:00 AM, the fifth grade class family got together via Google Meet for our Morning Meeting.  We began with a virtual hi-five greeting to be sure that everyone was acknowledged and accepted for being present and awesome.  The students then each shared an emotional check-in, we call it.  I asked them, “How are you feeling right now?”  While many of the students shared that they were bored, they were also excited to be getting back to some sort of normal school routine.  They loved reconnecting with their classmates and catching up.  I then reviewed the schedule for our first day of Virtual Beech Hill School (VBHS) with the students.  Meanwhile, they had their microphones muted and listened intently.  We used the chat feature on the side to have back channel discussions or to ask questions.  That worked out so well.  I shared a few announcements with the students before fielding any final questions they had.  One of the big questions was about the standardized testing we were supposed to have taken this week.  They wanted to know how that was going to work.  Our students are so studious.  I love it!  I informed them that when we return to campus as a community, we will discuss the schedule for making up those tests.  While we don’t participate in any state-wide high-stakes testing, we do have the students complete the ERB standardized test as a barometer for the teachers.  How are our students doing?  Are they learning what we think they are learning?  Are there gaps in their understanding of concepts?  Is there more we can be doing as a school to better support and help our students?  We use the results more as an internal tool for us as a faculty.  I concluded our Morning Meeting at around 10:40 AM.

We then reconvened as a class at 11:00 AM to discuss a few important features of VBHS.  While we in the fifth grade normally participate in Forest Fridays every Friday morning, I wanted to find a fun way to bring some of that curiosity and excitement to our remote learning experience.  So, in place of Forest Fridays, we will be working on a Passion Project.  The students will each choose a topic of immense interest to them, but one that they may not know a lot about.  One of my students recently got a dwarf hamster as a pet, but she doesn’t know a lot of information about dwarf hamsters.  She could research all about dwarf hamsters for her project.  Then, once they have learned as much as they can about their topic and have become experts of sorts on their subject, they will then make, build, or create some sort of final presentation.  If a student is learning all about rocketry, he or she might construct and launch a rocket as a part of the final presentation.  Their mind and creativity is really the only limitation here.  I began our second class meeting of the morning explaining this new Passion Project.  The students seemed very excited about it, as they asked lots of questions about possible topics.  I told them, “Start thinking about topics now, and next Friday, I will meet with each of you individually on Google Meet to discuss your topics.”  I also informed them that if they wanted to start on the research phase of the project early, they totally could.  The students seem to really like this new activity in place of Forest Friday.  While we could never replace the fun and wonder of Forest Fridays, I feel as though this will be a fun alternative for distance learning.

I then shared my screen with the students and walked them through how to complete and maintain their Done Journal.  This is a Google Spreadsheet that I shared with each of the students.  They will use this to document their work and learning while away from school.  It’s broken up into sections for each “class.”  At the end of the day, they will fill in the blocks with what they did.  Perhaps during the math block, they worked on Prodigy for 30 minutes and watched two Youtube videos to help them understand a concept covered.  They would write that in the math block of their Done Journal for that day.  I will use their Done Journals to assess their daily effort.  I detailed this whole process with the class and fielded their questions along the way.  I had them access their Done Journal and then practice filling it out to be sure that they understood how it works.  We then took a short break before we began the final block of our VBHS Orientation Day.

We ended our VBHS day with a Closing Meeting like we end every academic day in the fifth grade.  I had students share a highlight from their time away from school.  What have they been up to?  Two students mentioned that getting together today as a class was one of their highlights.  Ahh, our students really miss school and their friends.  How great is that?  I then previewed Monday’s schedule with them before taking any final questions they had.  As they had been diligent about asking their questions when they came up, they didn’t have many left for the end of the day.  I then finished our Closing Meeting by telling them a funny joke.  I figured, let’s try to end on a positive and fun note.  Someone once said, “Laughter is the best medicine.”  Friday’s joke: What do you call a bear that has no teeth?  A gummy bear.  While there was a bit of guffawing from the students, I was laughing hysterically.  I can’t help it, I’m a funny guy.  At the close of the meeting, several of the students asked me to show them how to create their own Google Meet so they can chat with each other during non-VBHS times.  So, I showed them.  Staying connected and maintaining social relationships in times like these is so pivotal.  Someone once said, “United we stand, divided we fall.”  When people connect with their friends, they’re able to keep some sort of normalcy alive in their now chaotic lives.  One of my favorite bands Taking Back Sunday have a lyric that I feel pertains to this concept of maintaining social connections, “If we go down, we go down together…”  The world is one big family.

Distance Learning

Day one of distance learning is now in the books for me and my school.  I felt that it was a huge success.  The only minor issues that arose had to do with the individual technology students were using.  Occasionally, the video or sound would get messed up for a student.  So, at those times, I had them disconnect from the meeting and then rejoin, and wallah, problem solved.  Other than that, it was a fantastic first day of remote learning.  As a school community, we could not have been more proud of our resilient students and talented faculty.  While I’m sure every day won’t go as smoothly as today went, I’m hopeful that we will be able to weather any storm that seeks to wrack our ship.  We are strong humans.  I have faith that everything will work out just exactly as it should.  Monday marks our first official day of distance learning.  We used Friday as a pilot and practice day by calling it VBHS Orientation.  We wanted to test out the technology and ensure that everyone could access our Google Meet and our Google Classroom pages.  And, YAH, it all worked out.  So, I say, Monday, let’s go and show this challenging time that we will not back down.  We will rise up and soar into learning.

I wish a similar and great experience to all of the other schools around the globe trying out distance learning.  I hope it goes well for you.  Please let me know if you have any questions about remote learning or if I can help you in any way.  As I like to tell my students, “We’re a family, and families take care of each other.”


Project-Based Learning: The Great Pinball Physics Project

Please join me on a journey in the Way Back Machine…  Think back to what you remember most vividly about your school experience.  What do you recall from your elementary, middle, and high school days?  The memories that most likely pop into your head first are those involving field trips, time spent in the principal’s office, and engaging projects.  For me, I remember the garden project I worked on in the sixth grade.  My class had to design and build a community garden.  It was so much fun.  We had to measure the space in which the garden would be planted and create a blueprint that took into consideration spacing between plants as well as walking lanes for watering and tending to the plants.  It took several weeks and much hard work, but resulted in an amazing garden for the entire school to enjoy.  I couldn’t tell you anything else that happened that year in Science class, but I do remember that super fun project.

Hands-on projects that require much problem solving and teamwork, tend to be the most engaging activities for students.  Their brains crave new and novel problems and activities.  Students are way more engaged and actively involved in the process of learning when they are doing something new or different.  Project-Based Learning, or PBL as it is often called, is not a new term or concept.  Great teachers have been making use of PBL for years.  Making learning fun and engaging is the root of all Project-Based Learning units.

A few weeks ago, I introduced the Pinball Physics Project-Based Learning unit in my fifth grade class.  The students, working in small groups, had to design and construct a working pinball machine using only materials available in our classroom.

Here is the project sheet the students used to guide them through this project:

Pinball Physics Project


Now that you’ve learned some basic physics concepts, it’s time to apply them. You will be working with a partner to create a working pinball machine. You will then demonstrate your learning in a report that you will write, on your own.


  1. Choose your partner. Be thoughtful and compassionate with this decision.  If the class can’t come to an agreement on how groups will be created, then wooden sticks will be used to choose groups.
  2. On a piece of blank copy paper, create a blueprint of your pinball machine. You must use drawing tools for this. Freehand drawing will not be accepted. Be sure to label the various parts of your creation. Include sizes and dimensions. Your final creation must be at least 30 cm x 20 cm, but no larger than one meter by one meter in size. Your creation must be as automated as possible and have a theme of some sort.
  3. Meet with Mr. Holt to have your blueprint approved.


  1. Both you and your partner must craft a separate report on Google Drive that is shared with Mr. Holt. 
  2. The report must include the following: Explain your design in words, being sure to explain how your creation will involve speed, velocity, potential and kinetic energy, and the forces of gravity and friction in a way that shows you understand each concept.
  3. You must have your report approved by Mr. Holt before you and/or your partner can begin constructing your creation.


  1. Working with your partner and using only the materials available in the classroom, begin building your creation. You may not use any other items, tools, or materials.
  2. Revise and modify your creation until it meets the specifications of your blueprint. If you finish early, find ways to add a scoring system or other bells and whistles to your creation so that it is playable and interactive for others to enjoy.
  3. Meet with Mr. Holt to have your creation checked and approved.

Fifth Grade Arcade Open for Business
On Tuesday, March 10 the fifth grade classroom will be transformed into the Fifth Grade Pinball Arcade. Available family members and faculty members will be invited to join us as we play our fun and interactive physics machines.

Graded Objectives

  • Students will be able to work with a partner to accomplish a goal.
  • Students will be able to solve problems on their own.
  • Students will be able to draw an accurate blueprint of a self-created machine.
  • Students will understand how the concepts of speed, velocity, acceleration, potential energy, kinetic energy, gravity, and friction are applied in real-world contexts.
  • Students will be able to build a working machine that demonstrates physics concepts.

The students rose to the occasion for this project.  Not only were they fully engaged in this project throughout the process, they learned so much about themselves as learners and students, practiced solving various problems encountered, and showed that they understand the physics concepts covered throughout this unit.  They had so much fun designing and building their pinball machines.  I was incredibly impressed with their effort and focus.  They pushed themselves to create aesthetically pleasing and amazing pinball machines that were completely playable.  Each group had different pinball machines, with different launching mechanisms and flippers.  They challenged themselves to try new things and take risks.  If one of the groups felt like they had an idea similar to another group, they would brainstorm a new solution to their problem.  It was fun watching my fifth graders hold themselves to high standards.  They weren’t simply completing this project to finish it, they wanted to complete it well and with gusto.

Yesterday, was host to the Fifth Grade Pinball Arcade.  The students exhibited and shared their work with adults in our community as well as members of their families.  It was an amazing experience.  The students showcased their working pinball machines as they explained the physics behind their pinball machines.  It was so cool observing them wowing our visitors as they talked about velocity and rolling friction.

Learning should be a hands-on and engaging process for our students, and Project-Based Learning allows that to happen in the classroom.  Students work together to solve problems and build things.  What student doesn’t love using a hand saw to cut wood or a power driver to screw things together?  My hope is that my students will not soon forget this pinball physics project experience nor the learning involved.  Making learning fun and real with an exhibition component is one way we can help our students see school as more than just a checklist of things to complete.  Learning should be a challenging and enjoyable process.