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What's With All Those Black Screens?

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

October 29, 2020

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined my educational career would include a global pandemic. Today's COVID-19 numbers according to the dashboard hosted by Johns Hopkins University report a global total of 44,684,011 cases. The terms unprecedented and “new normal” get thrown around frequently because the world is now truly different than ever before.

Why all those black screens? This has become the symbolic question of teaching through Distance Learning. It's been super frustrating for teachers to pour their heart and soul into creating amazing and interactive lessons for students, only for teachers to see a sea of black screens, because students are electing to tune in for synchronous lessons with their cameras turned off. Teachers end up feeling like the teacher in the movie Ferris Buller’s Day off, “Anyone? Anyone?”. In our district we thrive off student interaction and engagement, but rather than give up and accept this type of apathy we have been determined to find a solution to this new era of engagement, interaction and learning opportunities.

Like many school districts in the United States, the Val Verde Unified School District closed on March 13, 2020. We quickly transitioned to emergency distance learning. Given fear, uncertainty, and the entire country coming to a screeching halt, school was voluntary and there were no harmful grades. It was a time to lead with love, empathy and grace. Employees, families and students were hurting physically and emotionally. We were keenly aware that it was only a matter of time before someone we knew personally would test positive for COVID-19 or worse.

2020 would be an exercise in the 4Cs for adults. We were using the exact same skill set we were desperately trying to infuse in learning activities for our students. Our first true challenge (that we actually got a chance to plan for) was honoring our senior class with a graduation ceremony. Educators near and far engaged in Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication to create a viable solution that met all the health criteria. We succeeded with drive-thru ceremonies!

Summer came and went and it was clear that distance learning would need to continue to be in compliance with local health orders. However, there would need to be more accountability with respect to grades, attendance, and rigor. School began in my district on August 12th and we will remain in full distance learning throughout the entire first semester. Teachers have been trained on lesson design and we've added more options for interactive lessons using Nearpod. Fortunately, we've been a 1:1 district for several years with all 20k students receiving Chrombooks for use in school and at home. Moreover, we've been a Google G-Suit district for the same amount of time. We were fortunate to deploy over a thousand hotspots from T-Mobile, supported by a generous donation from Google. All this to say that technology hasn't been much of an impediment to teaching and learning.

In early August, we were selected by Google for Education to be one of only five school districts on the planet to participate in a Google Design Sprint. Oddly and somewhat prophetic, we identified this essential challenge: How might we create authentic and equitable relationships for staff, students and parents in a virtual environment? Our team from Val Verde worked diligently with our Google Sprint Master and we used this quote to help guide our thinking:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” -Eckhart Tolle

Our solutions took two paths. One path focused on robust feedback development and the other path centered on building a strong growth mindset.

With respect to robust feedback development, the team focused on these opportunities:

● How might we shift attitudes around graded work: not just graded but seen?

● How might we foster peer to peer feedback and teaching?

● How might we drive increased engagement and iteration in assignments and close the time gap between submission and grading of assignments?

● How might we bridge the gap between present-day demands and long-term accomplishment of grade-level competencies?

While the following list of possible solutions is not exhaustive, it is meant to be a starting point and provoke additional thoughts as new teams gather to build on this work:

● Publish/showcase student portfolio of work to broader authentic audience:

○ Spotlight

○ gifs, etc

○ Gallery of product process (timeline)

○ Show n tell

● Small group learning, projects, feedback and showcase

● Student led engagement with parents and teachers during office hours

● Celebrate student wins such as awards and distinctions (e.g.-stickers, badges)

● “Flight Map”

○ Provide students a year-long timeline that allows them to track their progress throughout the year, and helps them see how individual assignments contribute to the final score or grade

○ Teach & model time management and goal setting, with a focus on flexibility

● Tools and resources:


○ Google Docs, Slides, Sheets and Jamboard (comments and track changes feature)

● Provide teacher Professional Development on the many types of feedback

● Alternative scoring mechanisms (other than A-F)

● One on one’s with bidirectional feedback (student:student, teacher:student)

● Establish standards of quality, and have students model them

● Backward planning

In terms of growth mindset, the team focused on these opportunities:

● How might we foster intellectual curiosity in a virtual environment?

● How might we create “psychological safety” that empowers teachers and students to take informed risks.

● How might we help teachers and students adapt to disruption and unforeseen challenges?

● How might we empower students to be proactive in their learning and progress?

Again, this list of possible solutions is not exhaustive, it is meant to be a starting point and provoke additional thoughts as new teams gather to build on this work:

● Option to repeat certain assignments to improve grades

● Perfection Free Zone

● Exercises for students on “design thinking”

● Self / group reflection

○ Design and provide contingency plans (Begin the day with them and end the day with reflection and takeaways)...Glow ons & Grow Ons

○ Create spaces/times for students to share their “feelings.” Use Google Forms to capture daily student moods

○ Talk sessions on the need to seek help and how we do that

○ Check-ins: circles to increase community and bring people together (e.g.- opening campfire exercise)

● Analyze panorama data for pre/post COVID-19 insights

● Teaching Strategies/Tools that bring out growth mindset:

○ Socratic Method

○ Student led discussion

○ Cogenerative dialogues

○ Practice changing questions to statements

○ PBL / Genius Hour (students solving real-world problems e.g.- COVID-19 and Sea level Change)

○ Gamify Instruction

● Use growth points for grading--not just right answer

● Student Mission Statements including:

○ Respect/Trust Pacts

○ Students’ goals for the year

○ Values

○ Portrait of a Graduate (have students create a personal one with details)

● Routinize check-ins with families

● How was your day?

○ Happy/Neutral/Sad button seen at airports (daily tracking)

○ Begin each day with a live video session where students can share their thoughts and feelings about their work (morning meeting)

● Student choice and voice:

○ 20% projects (e.g.- Google)

○ At least one assignment per semester where students get to choose what and how they want to learn

To introduce teachers to these solutions and opportunities we created a multi pronged approach to Professional Development and PLC time for this new year. The pandemic really afforded us an opportunity to rethink and redesign our teacher support. We set out to decentralize IT & PD while creating both collaborative and personalized learning opportunities (UDL for teachers).

● “Learn, Earn, Create and Share” was our end of summer learning and creating opportunity for our teachers district-wide. 78% of our teachers participated and the positive responses were overwhelming. It lowered our teachers’ anxiety and helped them feel prepared for their new journey with distance learning.

○ Lead Teachers and Ed. Services provided professional development workshops (short and “bite size” as we like to say), check-ins, and coaching with participating teacher PLC teams.

○ Participating teachers earned up to 64 hours of extra duty pay.

○ Teacher teams collaborated to create distance learning lesson plans inclusive of technology tools, SEL and Community Building based on the best practices provided in the PD workshops. Teams designed their own “work time” around their schedules.

○ Teacher teams were provided a time and opportunity to share their products with their site teams during our “Welcome Back” PD days. This was essential for accountability as well as sharing and influencing the site with best practices, shareable templates and ideas.

● Using a self-directed professional learning program through Alludo, Val Verde launched TREK (teaching, reaching, engaging, kids)

o TREK is a personalized and gamified professional learning program for teachers that meets them where they are at and provides just what they need.

o They explore “missions” and advance through levels to earn badges.

o The PD is offered in small micro-lessons around technology, pedagogy, SEL, curriculum, etc…teachers do the lesson, submit “evidence of learning”, and are awarded points.

o The leaderboard and points-based “store” incentivize the learning and brings a fun competitive edge to the platform. o We had teachers logging in all hours of the day and night to “play”.

o We run competitions and continue to build out new levels.

o This is not mandated but driven by self selection. As of mid October, 983 educators have participated in TREK and accumulated 3,241 PD hours.

Since the beginning of the school year ongoing supports for teachers have included the following:

● Teacher Tip Tuesdays- short tik-tok like videos covering the on-going hot topics like Students not turning on screens (Tip #2)

● Power Hours- one hour weekly interactive ZOOMcasts to answer questions and problem solve by topic area, grade level, and/or subject team

● Distance Learning Development Team- ongoing work with teacher leaders to create model lessons based around Eduprotocols.

With these tools, supports and opportunities for collaboration the realization has been the need for GRIT, iterations, and routines for ourselves and our students. The perfection free zone is a mindshift the educators had to allow themselves first and now they can let go of the need to control the uncontrollable in these new learning/teaching environments. We continue to practice the 4 Cs daily and always- ALWAYS fail forward.

So back to the black screens, of course, they are not ideal. However, as our guiding quote directed us, what if we look at those dark boxes instead as windows of opportunities, as if we choose to have the students there with us in any form possible? Students don’t want to show their faces for a myriad of reasons that we may or may not be aware of. What if the question is not how can we get students to turn on their cameras, but instead how can we engage with students EVEN when we can’t see their beautiful faces? How can we leverage tools and techniques to allow for interaction so we can “see” our students through their work and ideas? We might not have their faces, but we do have their voices through a chat tool, breakout room, Nearpod, Padlet, Peardeck, Google Slide, or whatever interactive digital tool a teacher chooses to have students own their own learning. In Val Verde we will take the black screens, we will take distance learning, we will take our students any way they will come to us, and we will come alongside them as they learn.

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