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

Introduction

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.

Planning

  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.

Writing

  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.

Building

  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.

Create a Great School by Showing Students You Trust Them

“Trust is something you have to earn,” my parents used to say to me when I asked them why I couldn’t use the car after breaking curfew the night before.  Growing up, it always seemed to me that I was working to earn the trust of my parents.  My parents rarely placed blind trust in me.  I had to prove to them that I could be trusted before they would actually trust me.  It seemed so arduous and ridiculous to me as a teenager.  Why couldn’t my parents just trust me?

The same can be said about schools today.  Many public schools have taken away recess or outdoor recess equipment because they believe that it is unsafe for children.  Did they test it out first?  Did they try to see what would happen when students played on a swing set or jumped around on the monkey bars?  Do schools show their students that they are trusted?  In most cases, the answer is no.  While the answer most school administrators would list as their reason for not trusting students comes down to safety, it is my perception that schools just want to play it safe and not have to worry about closely monitoring their students or teaching them how to properly use outdoor equipment.  At my elementary school, there used to be this super cool thing called the Witch’s Hat outside between two swing sets.  You’d grab onto the outside bar and spin around.  It was especially fun when taller students would then lower their side of the bar, sending the students on the opposite side flying through the air, literally in most cases.  It was so much fun.  While no student ever got seriously injured while using this epic piece of equipment, because it could be dangerous, teachers had to closely monitor this area during recess.  Instead of talking to the students about how to safely use this piece of equipment, the school took it away from us.  They showed the students that they can’t be trusted to use something that could be dangerous if used improperly.  It was hard to love my school as a student after that.  The principal took away any trust that he had in the students by removing the outdoor play item.  He could have taken the time to talk to the students about this piece of equipment and then show us all how to use it.  Instead, he just took it away.

One of the many awesome things I love about the micro school at which I currently teach is that we place an enormous amount of trust in our students.  We let them play outside during recess.  We let them eat lunch outside or in trees.  We let students skate on the frozen beaver pond.  We take our students into the forest on a weekly basis, where they may be ticks.  We have various spots in our school where students can tinker and build things with power tools.  We trust our students because this school belongs to all of us.  It is not my school or my classroom, it is our school and our classroom.  We empower the students to take charge and make appropriate choices.  Do they make mistakes?  Of course, but we use those times as teachable moments to help educate the students.  Do we give them blind trust from day one?  After we explain the rules of the school to the students, they are able to climb trees and run around at certain times throughout their day.  If they misuse this trust, they have a consequence, but they almost always earn our trust back very quickly.  We want our students to see our school as a fun place, where they share control with the teachers and headmaster.

As part of our Forest Friday curriculum, I teach my students how to safely and appropriately utilize a pocket knife.  I then allow the students to use their school-issued pocket knife for cutting branches or other shelter building related activities.  While they did not use them every time we went outside, whenever they needed to cut something, they had access to their pocket knives while we were outside.  In the numerous times the students used their knives, not even a minor cut was incurred.  The students utilized the knives carefully because they saw that they were being trusted.  Many of the students were a bit shocked when I informed them that we would be using knives in the fifth grade.  “My old school would never trust us to use knives.  This is so cool!” many of the students said.  I taught them how to use something that could easily turn dangerous if not used properly.  I then trusted my students to do the right thing.  And guess what, they did the right thing.  They used their knives carefully and safely on every occasion.

This past Friday, I taught my students how to use their knives to whittle and carve wood.  I had them practice on balsa wood before letting them go crazy with pine or basswood.  I showed them how to hold the wood carefully while carving or whittling.  I then let them whittle at their shelters.  The students crafted some amazing things with their wood and knives.  One student transformed her block of wood into the shape of the great state of New Hampshire.  Another student made a wooden toy for her pet hamster.  One student made a very cool feather out of the balsa wood.  It was so cool watching the creative juices flow as they whittled away in the forest Friday morning.  You’re probably wondering how many band-aids were given to the students.  Again, no one was injured.  When students feel and are trusted, they work hard to show the adults in their lives that they deserve to be trusted.  My fifth graders use all of our forest-related tools safely and carefully.

Creating an environment in which the students feel empowered to take safe risks and try new things that could be seen by others as dangerous, helps engage students and makes them feel like part of something more than just another school.  Our school is special because we trust our students.  Our students want to come to school early and want to stay late.  They want to stay after school to work on science projects or to build something cool in our Maker Space.  Because we trust our students, they trust us in return.  It’s really quite a sight to behold.  We’ve created a school where the students are cared for and safe, but where we also allow them to start camp fires, whittle, and use hand tools.  As a former colleague of mine once said, the base of the pyramid of fun is safety.  In my eyes, trust is the very next level of that pyramid.  I can’t imagine the boring school we could have if we didn’t trust our students.  “No, you can’t go into the lovely forests right outside our school doors because animals live out there.  Animals and ticks could hurt you.  You could get stung by a bee or pricked by brier patches.  There will be no fun for you at school,” an untrusting administrator might say at a school like ours if trust wasn’t part of the equation.  Luckily for us, we have created a safe space at the Beech Hill School for students to try new things, take risks, learn, and have fun.  It doesn’t get much better than this.