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.

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