Five Things I Learned Remote Teaching Summer School

Attendance is a lot better when grades are involved.

Back in March, a younger, more innocent me argued in favor of excusing students who didn’t show up for high school classes after the shutdown. They didn’t sign up for online school. School is an obligation that society shunts on kids, and it has certain boundaries and (yes, really) choices. So if some students didn’t wake up on time and gave up, or decided that a grocery store hourly wage was a better use of their day, I was all in favor of holding them harmless from that decision. Their choice. In my view, they should not be penalized for that choice. No “F”. No delayed graduation. Take the class off their transcript, reduce the credits for graduation.

Silly me, not to anticipate that some districts and unions would band together and decide that if some kids couldn’t perform, then everyone must pass. Some schools froze grades at point of shutdown, others mandated the even more disastrous credit/ no credit for everyone. In both cases, students could skip school entirely and move on to the next class in the sequence so long as they were passing in March. In the second case, students could work hard and learn or never show up and get the same grade. In my particular school’s case, kids who didn’t show were literally missing an entire semester. Didn’t matter. Even in math. They passed with the same grade as the students who attended zoom sessions, asked questions, learned. And don’t try to feed me any shit about how the hardworking kids earned a moral victory, because without college admissions tests there’s no difference between a kid who didn’t learn anything and a kid who did, if the teachers were forced to give them both a pass.

I wrote half an article about this before I realized I was ranting. Peace.

Anyway. In summer school and, I dearly hope, this fall, teachers can give out grades. I had good attendance all summer.

So from now on when you read those stories about absentee students, remember to email the reporter and ask if the students who didn’t show were guaranteed passing grades and knew it.

Brand new students you’ve never met before? Not a problem. 

One thing everyone seemed certain of last spring was that remote learning only worked because teachers had existing relationships with their students. I worried about that, too. Happy news: that turned out to not be a thing.

I don’t do team building exercises, don’t spend lots of time getting to know my kids. None of this made a difference. I had roughly 25 students in two classes, but all but about five of them were taking both sessions (algebra semester 1 and 2). So about 30-32 students total.  None of them were from my school. I didn’t like remote teaching, but I still routinely received the two plaudits that comprise my success metric: probably 25% of my students said “I like the way you teach so much better; I’m really getting this.” and by direct count eight parents sent me a note saying their kids had mentioned how much they like my teaching. I say this not to brag, but because, well,  I’m a pretty darn good teacher and I get a lot of compliments. And that didn’t change in the move to remote. Students who had no idea who I was still thought I was and only saw me on Zoom a couple hours a day liked me a lot better than their last math teacher.

However, explaining is my go-to skill. So if that’s you, then not knowing your students might not be something to fear. If you are a beloved mentor whose influence is based entirely on in-class conversations and bonding, or lunchtime safe space, good luck.

One challenge left to take on: I sit my students in ability-level groups and they work together productively. I didn’t try this in summer school. Again, I’m not a huge fan of getting-to-know-you activities. I just bunch the kids together and tell them to get to it. I’ll have to be more conscious about this if I try it on Zoom.

Zoom Breakout Rooms

According to David Griswold, Google Meet has some nice features, but the list of limitations he rattled off have convinced me Zoom is my bet. I learned about breakout rooms in my other summer job, teaching test prep (they begged me and hey, I could go on vacation and still teach so why not?).

Breakout rooms solved a huge problem I had during the spring, when I ran “office hours”. I had no training on Zoom, just used what I saw. I used to have different groups sign in at different times, based on what topic they needed to learn, and it was a huge hassle. Breakout rooms are fantastic. You can set them up ad hoc.

Downside #1–to the best of my knowledge, you can’t add rooms after you’ve started, so I always create a couple extra.

Downside #2–if a kid drops off the line and comes back on, you might not see it for a while. If you, the teacher, are in a breakout room, you don’t hear the sound alert for a new entry. So learn to check the icon (it will say “1 unassigned”).

Downside #3–you can’t peek in on the other rooms. Remember when you were a beginning teacher helping one student out while right behind your back mayhem was breaking out? It feels like that. Except it’s not mayhem, it’s just kids not working.

Still, these are manageable problems. Breakout rooms are your friend.

Collect work right away

I quit assigning homework nearly six years ago. With remote learning, I’m no longer wandering around the room monitoring student work, seeing their progress. Last spring, I just asked students to turn in work via Google Classroom.

I wasn’t obsessive about it; students could skip turning in some assignments. But some students never turned in anything. I’d bring them in for special sessions and establish their level of understanding. Which was a lot of work, but remember, the kids didn’t have to show up at all last spring so I was in “sell” mode.

I couldn’t hold those extra sessions in summer school even if I’d wanted to. Students met with me every day for at least an hour. If they had questions, I held office hours earlier, and they’d come to those. Most kids were also turning in the homework, but at least 10 of the 30-some students were turning in little or nothing, despite coming to class every day and answering questions, demonstrating understanding.

I finally realized that they weren’t turning in work for the same reason they didn’t do homework–because once school ended, they were done. They didn’t think about class until the next day. In short, the reason that I stopped assigning homework all those years ago was still a really good reason.

So what I needed to do was consider this work classwork, not homework. Once I’d explained everything, I didn’t dismiss the class. “Do assignment 2, problems 1-8. DO NOT LEAVE ZOOM WITHOUT TURNING IN YOUR WORK. I will give you a zero otherwise.”

That worked. For some reason, the same kids who were untroubled by zeros for homework would religiously turn in classwork to avoid a zero.

By the way, reviewing classwork adds hours to my week, in case you think it’s all daily walks and a few zoom calls.

Google Form Quizzes

In the spring, I used a Classkick hack as a quiz delivery system. Classkick is a great way to administer several different quizzes to students–upload the quizzes into classkick, which allows you to generate a unique code. You can then give the quiz codes to student groups. Classkick’s value-add is the ability for a teacher to share a quiz view with just one student to help them out with questions.

These were just freeform quizzes, suitable only for regurgitation of the basics. That’s all I was able to do in the spring, and I began summer school using that method as well: build my quiz, convert to PDF, upload versions to Classkick.

But Google Classroom offers a Google “Quiz” option, which I learned was just a google form. With a bit of research, I was able to create my“multiple answer” tests:

Algebraic System

Graphed System

I can weight questions, import images, use images in answer choices. It’s very flexible. Not as flexible as paper and pencil tests, alas. I haven’t yet figured out how to allow students to correct answers or if I want to do that. But it’s a start.

None of this is great.

Pacing is incredibly slow. I’m not optimistic about returning to even my notoriously limited curriculum. If you know a teacher who is bragging about covering everything, that teacher has highly motivated and capable students or a lot of lost kids.  I hate being reduced to one mode of instruction. I know kids are only paying partial attention. their lives have been reduced to nearly nothing. This is a horrible way to teach, a worse way to learn, and shame on the people who think covid19 is a reason to shut down schools.

It’s a terrible thing that fearful people are doing to society, to children, to education. And I’m one of the lucky ones.


About educationrealist

17 responses to “Five Things I Learned Remote Teaching Summer School

  • Ryan

    I’d been wondering how this was going, so I was glad to see your write on it. Do you think there will be a permanent impact on student’s levels of education or socialization, or is it too early to tell?

    It really is a crime that the people making these decisions are so disconnected from their consequences.

    I’m going on my sixth month of what is effectively paid vacation, but I have family and friends who are suffering.

    • educationrealist

      I honestly don’t know. If this pandemic causes us (regardless of who wins) to shut down immigration, it might have a positive impact on income. I’m never too terribly worried about things like test scores showing learning, but there’s just no way this isn’t really horrible.

      I’m incredibly lucky that everyone in my family is ok. As I think I wrote earlier, in most of my earlier careers I would have been completely fucked by this shutdown.

  • senor.goose

    How much do you care/worry/do about cheating with online tests? 🙂

    • educationrealist

      I worry about it a lot. It’s why I collect work.

    • Chester Draws

      We too found that the attendance improved considerably when grades were involved.

      We got around cheating in two ways.

      1) we used form feeds to give students different values in their tests.

      That doesn’t stop cheating, but it makes it considerably harder than just asking someone else for their answer (answers calculated on a spreadsheet so marking wasn’t much more difficult than usual). You don’t even need to do it for every question — I often give students I suspect are cheating in class work a slightly different question hidden among the similar ones.

      2) we verbally checked by Zoom any students for answers that were out of character for them. Since they knew it was going to happen, we only ended up questioning a couple of them.

      That said, our lockdown was only six weeks, and we knew our students quite well when we started — so it was immediately apparent if they were performing unusually well.

      • educationrealist

        Yeah, different versions is normal practice in math classes anyway. And I did my verbal checking early–that is, I did check for understanding with private chat answers (will use polls when I get it) and that established how well the kids were getting it.

  • Joel

    Many of us, especially parents, are anxiously trying to imagine how online education looks from the teacher’s perspective. Most teachers had to start from zero on short notice, but somehow maintain a semblance of academic standards. It’s reassuring that you are finding ways to teach effectively while maintaining your mental health. Write more.

    • Your process and examples for Algebra seem practical, eliciting gradeable work and real-time feedback. The multiple-True/False format looks like something you could assess quickly enough by reading each student’s answers one at a time, but do you have a program that automates this process? Pre-Internet, Scantron bubble sheet scanners could rapidly grade batches of paper and pencil multiple-answer tests. How is this basic function integrated into your workflow?

    • Like Señor Goose, I’m concerned that online testing is optimized for cheating. From elementary school spelling tests to SATs, there’s no way to securely monitor remote students like in a real classroom. Thoughts?

    • I am less concerned about attendance, or maybe just resigned to whatever can be salvaged. But in California, schools are paid by the state for each student’s daily attendance. Pressure will be exerted on teachers to maintain sufficient attendance/funding to justify their employment. My bold prediction: mistakes will be made, systems will be gamed. Will the Average Daily Attendance model be modified or abandoned? Will schools lose public trust if this happens?

    I assume many of your readers are teachers in similar situations. It would be interesting to read their comments about what they are thinking and experiencing. Ground-level reports are more informative than district- or state-level proclamations. So much Zoom.

    • educationrealist

      It’s kind of interesting to realize that without zoom or something like it, we wouldn’t have been able to do online education at all.

      Teachers have to submit attendance records and then sign off saying “I commit this is true”, like a fraud prevention signoff. I don’t think fraud will be any more of an issue than it is in real life school. However, I really think all the people–meaning unions– who are signaling contentment with long term remote education really understand what they are asking for. You simply can’t effectively teach PE or Music online. Many vocational education programs are impossible to do effectively online. For that matter,a lot of district staff have no real reason to exist.

      The way to slice school funding isn’t through attendance, but by saying “No PE, no voc-ed, no music, no district staff”.

      The only tning stopping that is the fact that just as schools are afraid of going back to work because of lawsuits, they are terrified of the existential threat to public ed if they take that step. So fear moving forward in either directions leaves us in limbo.

      I actually spent most of July working on a piece I ended up dumping. I am trying to write more. Maybe I’ll do a symposium.

    • NakedEmperor

      Hey there,

      I’m one of those long suffering teachers being forced to do hybrid learning: I’m in the classroom rather than home, because teachers were given the choice before we were told of what the county actually envisioned for the students. Ergo, I didn’t acquire a doctor’s excuse to stay home and continue to teach virtually like some of my colleagues.

      So those of us who agreed to return to the classroom effectively got punished by being forced to teach BOTH in person and virtual kids at the same time. The virtual kids are largely home by themselves all day. I teach 4th grade in an all-minority economically-depressed school.

      Most of my job is to be a virtual truant officer. I spend too much time and energy chasing after the kids who don’t log on to class, or don’t do work, or log on and then vanish from the computer. I have to text parents while I’m trying to teach, and trying to manage the behavior problems that are in my real classroom at the same time (since only the worst behaved, most inattentive, ADHD kids came back to school because their own parents couldn’t stand having them at home every day).

      We do use something called Peardeck, which is an extension that makes my google slides interactive: instead of a PowerPoint lesson, kids must respond to each slide. If they don’t, I assume they’re absent and go back and change the attendance: another time consuming activity. But make no mistake: we’re responsible for tracking down those AWOL kids.

      Why the district didn’t just assign teachers either all virtual or all-F2F kids instead of making the in-school teachers do double-duty is beyond me.

  • Anonymous

    Millions of hours are being wasted to the insanely poor default decisions in Microsoft TEAMS.

    Neglect of customer needs rivals that of the Ford pinto exploding gas tanks.

  • Susan Meisels

    This is the only blog post that I have read that has just given me the answers to all of the questions I’ve been searching for but not finding. Leave it to Ed Realist to have done it and then taken the time to blog about it. Thank you.
    Being in Quebec, we’re starting live face to face next week, but there is an ever present reminder that at any time we may go back online. So I will study all of the tips here.

  • paddy

    Great post.

    Off of this topic, but from your Twitter the other day re: DT v JB in Minnesota (sorry I’m afraid to engage in public on Twitter) I think this helps explain the state of the race in MN.

    At least here in MN, DT is getting crushed by college educated whites which is in concurence living among them and its to MN’s great benefit/detriment that we have 2nd highest percent of people with college degrees.

    DT’s position from 2016 has stayed the same among all other demo’s (including non-college whites) but has worsened among college educated whites. That in and of itself explains the poll numbers.

    I don’t see a path for DT in MN.

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