To synchronize or asynchronize instruction, that is the balance

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In my last post, I sounded a somber note and was feeling just a mite pessimistic about this remote learning thing. It’s hard not to feel that way when you hear ambulances every few minutes and wake up to the steady death tolls in the hundreds across the city each day.

But thanks to inspiration from the hard work of teachers and leaders putting their nose to the grindstone, I’m feeling hopeful about remote learning. We can’t just throw up our hands and write off this time. There is learning to be done, folks. And it’s happening. So let’s get to it!

Let’s talk about synchronous and asynchronous remote learning.

Synchronicity vs. Whenever’s Clever

Synchronous means instruction occurs in real-time, such as via a videoconference or livestream. Asynchronous means instruction happens whenever a learner chooses to access it.

If Twitter be any gauge, people have strong opinions bending towards one or the other. And it seems like individual schools may have a strong preference for one or the other in how they attempt to structure their students’ on-line time.

I’ll admit when this whole remote learning thing kicked off, I had a strong bias myself towards asynchronous learning, more due to familiarity with that form than anything else. I’d never Zoomed or videoconferenced a lesson before. I assumed that the primary function of synchronous would be community building or social-emotional in nature. After all, it really is important to simply see the faces and hear the voices of people we know when we are in this unnatural state of exile.

But after seeing and reading about some strong examples of synchronous learning for instruction, such as via Baltimore teacher Kyair Butts, Brooklyn history teacher Amy Berman, and NYC math teacher Michael Pershan, I realized that synchronous learning can hold a lot of power.

Asking Better Questions

So I think what we should really be asking ourselves is:

What is the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning for this [school/student/content]?

I think a related question could also be:

What is the least amount of synchronous instruction we can provide that will motivate and equip students to complete asynchronous tasks and access resources independently?

It may be that some progression also needs to occur between the two forms over time, such via a gradual release model, whereby more synchronous learning is needed initially for new content or for students who are struggling, then is tapered off.

Teach Like a Champion: Remote Learning Style

I had the opportunity (H/T Tiffany Peltier) to attend a small group Zoom session with Teach Like a Champion guru Doug Lemov last week (UPDATE: the Uncommon team has graciously provided the content for free! Check it out) where he provided what I’ve found to be the most useful guidance for thinking about these two types of remote learning. Rather than suggesting one or the other was superior, he simply laid out some of the opportunities and challenges of each, then asked what might be done to leverage those opportunities and mitigate against their weaknesses. We watched a few example lessons from each form to consider effective teaching moves. I was really impressed with the high quality teaching evident in these videos, which were by teachers that had just jumped into remote learning themselves. Doug posts these videos on his Teach Like a Champion blog, by the way–you should be following his posts, as these models are invaluable. Here’s a few to get you started: K-1 teachers at Brooklyn Rise, Alex Barba’s AP Bio class, and teachers doing online read alouds.

He also provided an overview of cognitive load theory in a nutshell, and really got me thinking about how it is all the more critical that we make our remote learning instruction and tasks as concrete and bite-sized as possible. Why? Because unlike in a traditional classroom, we have no control over our students’ environment. And their working memory may be getting taxed by any number of factors — siblings demanding attention, overstimulation from noise around them, the stress of neighbors and family getting sick, ad nauseam. So we need to provide content and tasks in a manner bite-sized and solid enough that it can be consolidated into long-term memory despite everything else that may be happening.

A few other tips to leave you with from this session:

Synchronous

  • Use cold-calling! Doug modeled this throughout the session and it really keeps you on your toes.
  • Provide frequent opportunities, as in a typical classroom, to consolidate learning and clarify misconceptions, such as via a turn and talk or stop and jot

Asynchronous

  • Include “pause points” to allow students to engage in an activity and provide clear directions for how they will do it
  • Talk slowly
  • Provide a graphic organizer or “tracker” so students can follow your instruction and you can monitor their learning, such as via a Google Doc

That’s a Wrap

Just touching the tip of the iceberg on this, but wanted to get this out there so I can keep building on these ideas. I’ve heard a lot of initial talk about synchronous and asynchronous forms in NYC, but I think there’s still schools that haven’t quite thought through how they are distinguishing between them and attempting to leverage them to full effect.

How are you balancing the two? And what have you found most effective so far?

Why Closing Schools Exacerbates Inequity

Many have already picked up on how COVID-19 is exacerbating already existing inequities, from a few different angles:

  • Those who have adequate tech devices and bandwidth vs. those who don’t
  • Those who have pre-existing conditions and health issues vs. those who don’t

Both of these factors loom large in the schools and communities I serve in the Bronx. Many of our students and their families don’t have iPads, laptops, or a desktop computer, nor adequate internet access and bandwidth.

The NYCDOE is tackling this inequity as best it can, sending out internet-enabled devices as they come in to families the most in need. The total number identified needing devices was initially 300,000. That’s a lot to get out there, but it’s happening. That’s amazing.

At first, Spectrum and Optimum were refusing to provide service to those with unpaid bills. Thanks to reporting on this by Chalkbeat and getting publicly shamed, they’ve reversed course.

In terms of health issues, residents of the Bronx are reported to be twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as residents in other parts of the city.

If you have a background of inequality, whether it’s social determinants, access to health care, or anything else, and you throw a virus on top of that, what you’re going to get is exactly what we have, which is people who start out poorer and sicker and are going to get sicker,” said Dr. Neil Calman, president of the Institute for Family Health, which leads the Bronx Health REACH coalition.

And to add to that, poorer people tend to live in greater density. There’s more people sharing apartments, in more crowded buildings, in more crowded neighborhoods, with less means to get any distance from anything. It’s hard to escape a pandemic in such situations, most especially when you still need to get out on public transit to earn your paycheck because you are one of those “essential” workers who are on the front lines of ensuring wealthier people never have to leave their homes.

And we can see this playing out in real-time. Here’s the most recent map of COVID-19 cases in the Bronx.

https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page

See all that deep purple in the middle-west side of the Bronx? That’s where the highest rates of cases are occurring. Those are the communities I serve. We don’t yet know how these correlate to death rates and to socioeconomic status and to race.

But we know enough to know it’s not good. And it’s going to get much worse.

When Home Offers Little Comfort

But I also think we’re overlooking something fundamental about how COVID-19 will further exacerbate social and other inequalities. Closing schools doesn’t just exacerbate inequity because some kids have more access to technology and internet. It further exacerbates inequity because staying at home may mean overcrowded and stressed conditions with poor acoustics, poor air quality, and few trees and other greenery nearby.

In the area of the Bronx my schools are in, we also have the highest rate of students in temporary housing in the city. So what does staying at “home” mean for them? When even in the best of times such instability can be stressful, imagine what that might be like in the midst of a pandemic, as people are losing their jobs, as people are losing their mothers and fathers and grandparents and relatives, as real fear sets in, as the weather warms up and tempers flare, as the streets are filled with the sound of gunning engines and ambulances?

Being at home may mean idyllic boredom for some. For others, it may mean something much more dire. Toxic stress in high poverty blocks was already a killer. Now, we’ve got this pandemic on top of all that.

The optimistic side of me wants to believe that this remote learning thing can be an opportunity to get kids engaged who weren’t engaged by typical school. But the pessimistic side of me is afraid to think more deeply on what this may mean the longer we draw out keeping schools closed.

There’s no winning, either way. Either way, the same communities will lose, big time. That’s the hard thing to look at straight.

We’re talking mitigation, instead of acceleration. We’re talking desperation, instead of inspiration.

I’m hoping this is wrong. I’m hoping we can make this right. Working in education means, fundamentally, that you believe teaching and learning will make the world a better place. I believe it. Let’s reach our kids who are the hardest to reach, who need us the most to reach them, with whatever Zoom Chromebook iPad remote learning application livestream we can.

Forming Google Forms

I hope your week in remote learning is going alright. I don’t know about you, but I hit a kind of spiritual doldrums today — a feeling of slow suffocation. But on the flip side, my son is taking really well to potty training! So there’s that.

There’s also playing around with Google Forms to cheer one’s soul up. That’s what I did this afternoon, and I made another mock lesson, continuing off the flow I had from the last one. This time I tried chopping up smaller videos and embedding questions around them. I also included a Do Now with images.

This is a reading lesson for 8th grade from a Horror unit, focused on “The Tell-tale Heart.” It would follow from a first day of reading the entire text together as a class and discussing the gist.

I apologize for the poor quality of my videos and how absolutely boring I am in them, but I figured this is all in the spirit of learning so these are all first takes.

A note also on the approach I’m taking with this mock lesson: I’m attempting to set up a lesson that is fully asynchronous, while still maintaining the main components of explicit instruction.

I included a Do Now with this one, and realized that it may be better to leave something like that off — since it’s part of one Form, students wouldn’t get immediate feedback on their responses, and instead have to complete the entire Form and lesson. So I don’t think I’d continue with that aspect. It would be nice for Forms to have a feature to grade each section as you complete them. . .

To build off of the last Forms lesson I did, I tried breaking up the videos into smaller chunks to make it slightly more interactive with questions embedded between.

Here’s the Form. Let me know what I can better refine (other than my voice–I know I’m speaking in a monotone)!

Instruction in a Google Classroom

A new week of remote instruction begins in NYC. Last week felt like a scramble to figure out what the heck is going on, while now it feels like we’re beginning to figure out a few nuts and bolts.

I’ve been sandboxing a few things in my own Google Classroom to try and help figure this stuff out, too.

Google Classroom is a simple but well-developed platform for assigning tasks and facilitating on-line interaction, streamlined with other GSuite apps like Drive, Docs, and Slides. But one issue is that merely assigning tasks—even when you organize them well as Topics—can make instruction feel piecemeal.

For example, if I want students to first watch a video or view Slides for a lesson, I’d assign that as a task. Then I might create another assignment with a Google Doc for them to write about what they learned. Or I’d create a question as the assignment, and ask students to respond to it.

What I want, instead, is one or at most two assignments that can approximate and encapsulate the primary components of a lesson—explicit instruction, collaborative and guided practice with scaffolding and feedback, and independent application.

So there seem to be three main ways this could happen within Google Classroom and GSuite, without reliance on 3rd party apps: 1) Google Forms; 2) Google Docs; and 3) Google Slides. Or some almagamation of the three, depending.

By the way, whatever I share here is not meant to be an exemplar—I am putting imperfect material out there in the hope it will help others and help me to refine my thinking. And I apologize in advance for this post being messy.

I’m trying to heed my own advice, which is to keep it simple. I picked around with all three of the above, and any one of them can be made to work for you. For Google Slides, you can add links, videos, and even embed questions via third party apps like Pear Deck. However, I’m resisting reliance on any additional apps at this point in the interest of keeping things streamlined and simple. So that factor, in my mind, makes Slides the less optimum measure.

Google Docs can add an element of synchronicity, in that all students could potentially be on the same doc at the same time, commenting or editing. I made a mock up of this to play with it. It seems to me like training students to comment on specific parts of a document, rather than all inputting on separate lines, might make it more manageable.

While I like the potentially synchronous element of it and that it’s pretty flexible as a template for adding nearly any kind of content, I think it’s too messy and has a lot of potential for confusion on a students’ part. It appears to me that in GClassroom you can either allow kids to only view a document, or to edit it, but not to just be able to comment on it. Allowing everyone to edit it is a recipe for confusion until kids are trained on how you want them to interact with the document.

That seems like a lot of unnecessary confusion and work to me.

Of course, you can also set any Doc so that it automatically makes copies individually for each student. This can work well for independent practice, but doesn’t seem ideal for tying together explicit instruction and practice.

So where I’ve landed is on using Google Forms as a vehicle for a lesson, and so far, it’s proving to be more effective than I had thought at first glance.

With Forms, you can embed either a video or an image into it, and then add questions right beneath it. What’s great there is that those questions can then be graded within forms and drop straight into your Google Classroom gradebook. That’s a pretty nice integration feature there that’s worth capitalizing on. Teachers don’t have time to waste sifting through endless Docs or PDFs grading work. And if you use the multiple choice or short answer grading function in Forms, it’s even automatically graded, thus freeing up even more effort and time.

I made two mock-ups, the first below is just an example of the basic feature of embedding media, in this case a notice and wonder activity:

In this second mock-up, I replicated the Docs lesson I had earlier, but this time within the format of Forms:

I like this the best so far because it feels clean and I love the fact that I can embed checks for understanding and some practice right alongside a mini-lesson, and that some of that can be auto-graded. The main limitation I hit is that I felt like independent practice directions needed to be put into it’s own assignment:

But if I were consistent in using this format for every lesson, I don’t think it’s a major problem.

The other hurdle with Forms is that you can’t, so far, embed Slides into it. That means you would have to record, or use, a video to provide explicit instruction. And the video you do record also has to be uploaded to YouTube in order to be embedded into Forms. I don’t get why they’ve made it like this, as it seems like an unnecessary restriction — but it’s not too hard to upload and you can keep it private in any case.

I’ll make a short video showing how to use Forms and put together a lesson and backlink it here, I just don’t have time at the moment. I wanted to put this out there first in case it helps anyone.

Let me know what I’m missing and can work to refine on any of this. The thing I’m going to tackle in my next mock-up is making my mini-lesson videos much, much shorter and bite-sized — and even splitting instruction into multiple short videos interspersed with checks for understanding.

Excelsior!

Preparing for Remote Launch

Wow.

What a week.

It’s been a rollercoaster, in every way you can name, and we’re all in this together.

I’ve been in schools with administrators and teachers as they planned and prepared for launch next Monday. It started with fear and panic — but by the end of the week, there was a sense of resolve and readiness, despite a wide array of unanswered questions and unknowns and anxiety still facing us.

We’ve all now experienced the awkwardness of videoconferences, the urgent need to ‘mute’ our microphones, and the tinny feedback of too many microphones in near proximity.

It’s been great to see educators pulling together and battling this out, both here in NYC and across the globe on Twitter.

In my last post, I shared a few general principles for getting started with remote learning:

  • Maintain Continuity
  • Start With Physical Environment and Resources
  • Start Small. Keep It Focused
  • Balance Synchronous with Asynchronous Learning
  • Remote Learning Doesn’t Require a Screen (At All Times)

As I watched schools preparing and struggled to prepare myself, I had some other things come up that I’ll share in the hope they are useful. Again, these are general principles and ideas — there’s a lot of specific and concrete tools and resources being shared. Twitter has been great for this.

What does a Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education mean?

I’ll admit the first time I read the CR-SE principles adopted by NY state and city, they felt just a bit vague and remote from daily instruction.

Two days ago, while on the train on the way in to a school, I was pondering what CR-SE meant for remote instruction, and at first, I couldn’t see the way in.

I thought of a middle school I was going to, and how they were plugging along setting up Google Classroom to link to CommonLit passages and assigning them to students, which is essentially what they had been doing as “test prep” the last week or two.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. This was the last thing that kids needed right now. Not to say anything bad against CommonLit, it’s an amazing resource that I’ve been recommending to everyone I know, and we’ll get there. But CR-SE means responding to and sustaining students based on who and where they are. CR-SE instruction — in this pivotal moment — means supporting students in processing what is happening to them and to their world. This is unprecedented. We are all freaking out. We are all overwhelmed.

Students are stuck at home — and “home” can mean something very different for the many students in my district that live in temporary housing. They may be frightened. They may have no idea what’s happening. They need us to help them process and cope with this.

Furthermore, they need our help in becoming informed on a situation in which we don’t know all the answers and our understanding is constantly developing.

This is our opportunity to get kids reading, writing, discussing, and involved in their world. This is what is relevant. This is what is responsive.

In that sense, then, this may be an incredible opportunity to engage kids who were disengaged by school.

We can’t fumble this by throwing random texts and tasks at them. For crying out loud, the state test is cancelled, folks. Stop that nonsense and engage your kids.

What will be each student’s experience?

The other thing that came up for me is that I see some folks steaming ahead into a full blown school day experience on Day 1. I think we need to hit the pause button and pull together around what exactly we may be demanding of each student.

If a student has never interacted much with an online platform, most especially in a situation where they may be completely on their own, they need to be eased into it. And there will be students who you will need to call on the phone and locate and talk them through or their caretaker through how to access the platform and problemsolve the tech issues or wifi issues they encounter.

We can’t start sending assignments from 10 different Google Classrooms. Think about the 1st day of school. You probably had a big meeting in the auditorium, introducing the principal and staff to students. Think in the same way for your kick-off to remote learning.

Think of it also in the way your team may plan homework assignments. If you each ask a student to do an hour of homework, or you all assign a major project at the same time, you’ll know what I mean. A school and each department or grade-team needs to be aware of what each student will be experiencing.

“This is a time for simplicity and being careful not to throw in too many bells and whistles.”

Take heed.