Pro Tips for Distance Learning

This one was making the rounds on social media (date: March 27, 2020).

Week One is over. Grumpy Old Teacher’s (GOT) Florida district was one of four that reconvened online as the extended Spring break ended. Monday, all 67 districts will be online to provide distance learning as we teach our students from home. This post is a ‘Lessons Learned’ for all those yet to enter this grand experiment.

ONE: The most important thing is to connect with students, who are missing their routine and crave normalcy. Make your first day an easy one. Check-in, ask about their family, ask how they are feeling, assure them you will support them from afar the same as if you were together in the classroom.

One of GOT’s students made a point of showing him her dog yesterday. That’s the kind of emotional connection your students need.

Your first day is going to be rough, full of technological challenges as you find out what works and what doesn’t. Don’t get fussed when things don’t work out or students get upset. They expect the technology to be perfect from the get-go. It won’t be. Don’t make that mistake.

GOT had a class where nothing worked the way the district said it would. (Microsoft at fault; not GOT’s district.) The upshot? Everyone gets full marks for the assignment. It wasn’t their fault.

TWO: Don’t try anything new. You won’t know how it will actually perform and you haven’t had time to train your students in how to use it. All those great apps you’re reading about? Forget it. Don’t use anything you haven’t already been using in your classroom unless you have no other choice.

GOT’s district committed to Microsoft long ago. We use their apps, period. A year or two ago, the district cut off access to other platforms, such as Google Classroom, for many reasons including compliance with FERPA, IDEA, and other federal laws. Don’t get creative. Stick to your district’s plan. It’s the best way to ensure we are protecting the rights of our students.

For example, Teams gives the ability to hold video meetings. If that’s what your district is providing, don’t use Zoom. There are many reports of security concerns with Zoom. You don’t want the trolls bursting into your video classroom in the most inappropriate ways.

THREE: Make attendance easy. Understand that children may be sharing their devices with siblings and may not be able to attend your video meetings when they take place. It may be later in the day. Teens will follow their body clocks: up late at night, sleep in the morning. Adapt to them. Make it easy.

GOT has seen teachers share many ideas for attendance. While he means no disrespect, in the secondary classroom, requiring children to fill out a form or respond to a question is a bit much. They are trying to navigate 6 to 8 classes, all of which have different procedures and expectations, while fighting for computer time with siblings and maybe even parents, if Mom or Dad has a work-at-home routine.

GOT goes the extra mile. If a student interacts with his class in anyway during a two-day period, they are present. When he starts the live video meeting, if he sees the child join, that’s ‘Present.’ If the child leaves a comment in the chat, even hours after the meeting, that’s a ‘Present.’ If a child ignores the video meeting, but views the assignment in Teams within 48 hours of posting, that’s a ‘Present.’ If a child submits work for that class, that’s a ‘Present.’

FOUR: GOT is checking his word count. This post is passing the 600 threshhold. That’s about as long as a blogger can expect an online reader to remain focused on the writing.

Remember the same as true or even more so for children.

Don’t try to replicate your in-person classroom experience online. Cut back on the work. Don’t try to instruct the entire time, then assign the classwork followed by a homework assignment. Parents are reporting that their children are spending upwards of 12 hours online trying to do all the work. We need to stop. Cut back. Teach for 30 minutes, allow the students to work while you give them help like you would in the classroom.

And homework? Forgeddaboutit.

Superstar Flunkies

If she reads this, she may figure out who inspired this post.

Gratitude Day 66 – Letting Go of Superwoman – simplewordsoffaith
This one’s for you.

It was supposed to be the Year of the Teacher. The governor proposed to raise all teacher salaries to a minimum of $47,500 a year, including rookies entering their classroom for the very first time.

The existing bonus program, which was called ‘Best and Brightest,’ but scorned as ‘Dumb and Dumbest,’ would be eliminated in favor of a performance pay plan that would compensate teachers at schools that meet improvement goals based upon state test results.

There was a lot of controversy. Teachers hate the plan because it makes no distinction between those with years of experience and those first starting out. Experience makes a difference and, in the classroom, teaching is no exception. Simply stated, the longer someone teaches, the better they are.

But teachers hate the plan even more because it disregards the people who make the schoolhouse work–without whom, there would be no school. Flunky is not the word for them. They are superstars.

When a child vomits on the floor, who cleans it up? The ‘flunky’ superstars.

When children is hungry, morning, midday, and afternoon, who feeds them? ‘Flunky superstars.’

When a school district decides it no longer needs librarians because the clerk can unlock the door, who keeps the media center running? The ‘flunky’ superstars.

What are these ‘flunky’ superstars doing during this time of school closure and distance learning? They are contacting families to check on the students. Are they safe? Are they healthy? What do they need?

They are handing out school lunches and driving school buses to deliver learning materials so children will not regress.

They are coordinating a hundred million details that no one ever thinks of and they don’t ask for thanks. They merely say they are part of the team.

What do we do for them? Most principals will treat them to lunch once a year whenever that particular Wednesday pops up in April.

You can’t pay the bills with a free lunch once a year.

You can’t pay the bills when you only make $11 an hour and your hours run about 1200. Do the math. For all they do, the ‘flunky’ superstars make about $13,200 every year. If they volunteer for extra duty, such as after-school programs, they might extend that about another $2,000 or so.

Face it, we don’t pay them enough, we don’t recognize them enough, we don’t do enough for them even as they put in the extra effort because they are part of the team.

They deserve much better. So while you are congratulating teachers for their sacrifices during the pandemic for their care, concern, and efforts for students, remember the ‘flunky’ superstars.

They are every bit the equal of a teacher.

When this is over, they need attention, too. $15 an hour is the least of what we should start with.

Treat them right.

Distance Learning: Day One

First the song: There will be a morning after.

It will happen.

As expected, the unprecedented load on the servers of the nation’s 20th largest school district caused things not to work so well. What was unexpected was where the data logjam occurred.

Running live meetings went well for the most part. Students were able to join the meetings and watch teachers deliver lessons. Some students complained they couldn’t see the video, but since it wasn’t all, they probably had a key setting disabled. Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) used a whiteboard feature in his first class, but subsequently learned that the whiteboard portion was not recorded. “We’re fixing that bug.”

Assignment files was the big block. Teachers are able to add files to their Teams assignment. Students open a copy and actually fill in responses that are saved by the system for later review and grading by the teacher. Except, it didn’t work. Students couldn’t access files and teachers were scrambling for a work around. “We’re fixing that bug.”

GOT found a workaround. He made his assignment files shareable so students could download a read-only copy, do a save-as so they could edit their own version, and upload via the grade portal we use (FOCUS) or even an old-fashioned email attachment to his work email account.

Except when he sent the links to the students school email accounts, Microsoft’s bots decided GOT was a spam account. At this writing, his work email is suspended. GOT sought advice and has submitted a request for service to his district’s IT department. He hopes that they are “fixing that bug.”

In the last period of the day, during the video lesson, GOT’s mike was muted continually. He told the students to cut it out, but later found out that anytime a student unmuted their mike, it automatically muted his. In a post-school day discussion, another teacher made suggestions for adjusting the video settings, which is possible if the meeting is scheduled. GOT will try to see if it will “fix that bug.”

The problem with scheduled meetings is that the students can start early and hold a pre-meeting. Don’t get GOT started about pre-meetings. He had enough of that in his preacher days.

Maybe IT can “fix that bug.”

Not bad for a first day. But as we move forward, GOT hopes that the distance learning will not become:

They’re fixing those bugs.

A Strict Accounting

Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) knows this might be an unpopular opinion and, if you don’t work in his school district, that you might want to scroll on by as he is talking about his employer and his contract.

Some ask why teachers need to work while schools are closed. Quick answer: we want to be paid.

We have a contract. We have a union, who is the authorized agent to bargain with the school district on behalf of all employees. We want our union and our bargained contract. We often demand (rightfully so) that our employer respect our contract. But we must do so as well.

In September, we closed schools for three days due to Hurricane Dorian. While we are immensely grateful that the storm passed safely to the east, out in the ocean, that we actually did not suffer harm in our city, we must realize we were paid for those three days for which we did not work.

We made up two days; the third, the school district forgave as we would meet the state’s minimum hours of instruction. They willingly granted us a day of pay without work.

Now, the state has extended Spring Break for another week. The school district is continuing to pay us. Add another five days to that excused day.

In order to comply with the crisis and state orders regarding facility closure, we have to attend training tomorrow. From information supplied, it will not be all day, but let’s call it a required day of work.

Doing the math, that’s still five days of work our school district will excuse us from. Five extra days of make-up in June, but as of now, not needed. (GOT’s school district has said they believe they can end the school year as scheduled by moving to online delivery of instruction.)

Readjusting plans for Friday’s training, when previously teachers thought it was a free day, is inconvenient.

But let’s be honest. Things are fluid and changing by the hour. However, as things stand, teachers will get paid for 190 days although they will only work 185 days.

Time to be grateful.

To Teach or Not To Teach

With apologies to the Bard, but hey–Covid-19.
To teach or not to teach? That is the question--
Whether 'tis nobler in our profession to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous infection,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing them, be fired? To quarantine, to sleep--
No more--and by that sleep to say we end
The exposure to a thousand viral shocks
That flesh is heir to--'tis an isolation
Devoutly to be wished! Self-quarantine and sleep.
But sleep, a chance to dream--aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep at home what dreams may come
When we don't shuffle into our place of employment,
Must give us pause. There's the disrespect
That makes calamity of so long a career.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of ed reform,
Th' oppressors' wrong, the proud oligarchs' condemnation,
The pangs of despised professionalism, the laws that hasten
From the insolence of office the spurns of educators
That their patient forbearance of th' unworthy takes,
When they themselves might their quietus make
With a simple resignation? But how would children learn,
But for the grunt and sweat of weary teachers,
Whose dread of something better after the schoolhouse,
The undiscovered careers from whose places
No teacher ever returns, confounds the will
And makes them rather bear the ills they have
Than fly to others that they know not of?
Thus dedication and the profession makes cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the fevered crown of virus,
And movements of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

New Feature: WTF

Time to have some fun with the 2020 version of the annual train wreck known as the Florida Legislative Session. WTF?

Grumpy Old Teacher found this pad today as he was cleaning up his work area at home. No, he would never dare to use it for feedback on student work. But, perhaps hilariously, it will work for commentary on the various education bills that make their way out of the 2020 Florida legislative session for the governor’s signature.

Jose Oliva, WTF did you mean by that amendment that would make a school board’s collective bargaining agreements with local teachers’ unions subject to approval by the Department of Education? Explain.

GOT gets it. He really does. The legislature intends to designate half a billion dollars for teacher salaries and it wants to be sure that money actually goes into teachers’ paychecks. After all, in the land of ‘shall’ means ‘may,’ one can never be sure that the minions get the memo about fidelity to purpose, a scenario that Florida’s legislators are well aware of since they have frustrated the restoration of voting rights to Florida’s ex-convicts, thwarted the class-size amendment that voters have approved three times, and diverted funding for the purchase of land conservation to the administrative budgets of agencies.

What do you do when you want to be sure that designated funds go to designated purposes?

Look, the concern of the legislature is real. More than anyone, they know they have also passed a requirement that school boards find an extra $233 million to make up for pension funding shortfalls, something they also created when they decided teachers should contribute 3% of their salary to their pension because school boards promptly said, “Thank you very much,” and reduced their contribution by the same amount, which was not intended by the state.

They know the optics would be bad if school boards, in a ‘shall’ means ‘may’ moment, declared that teacher pensions are part of compensation and so, in a way, if they use the funding for salary increases to undergird pension funding, that might count as salary.

They have to be sure. Thus, they want to put FLDOE’s Richard the III (“A charter school! A charter school! My state’s school districts for a charter school!”) in charge of making sure that salary dollars wind up in salaries.

A just concern, my lieges. But one subject to mischief as the fulfillment of the intended purpose still rides upon the integrity and good will of the designated authority. What if, in a moment of pillow talk, Richard’s wife expresses a concern that she wants that money to enhance staff compensation at the charter school she runs?

It’s a dangerous business to ignore the will of the governed. Or, in this case, the will of teachers who have said over and over: put the money in the base student allocation and let us bargain with our school boards.

That’s a solution too simple and elegant for the men and women who warm the seats in the Capitol buildings’ chambers.

WTF? Seriously, WTF? You are giving the Commissioner of Education veto power over collective bargaining in the state? What were you thinking? And is it constitutional?

Coronavirus

Most likely, it’s already among us. Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) is not talking about the known cases, the people in isolation or quarantine, the cases that can’t be traced to travel in high-risk areas; it’s the mundane incidents of persons who are advised to stay home and avoid contact with others.

Due to a lack of tests, doctors suspect but cannot confirm.

So they give the best advice they can: your kid has a touch of the ‘flu,’ keep your kid home, contact the school and advise that, upon medical advice, you won’t be sending your kid back to class for two weeks.

Most likely, it’s already among us.

Image result for coronavirus
Real-time data may be found at this website.

It’s not panic time. Unlike Ebola, which had a 100% fatality rate until the world’s medical authorities found treatments that turned a death sentence into something less, the coronavirus, more specifically Covid-19, has nothing near that.

Even the reported rate is skewed as it includes all deaths, including those from Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, during the time when China was in denial and treatments were not known. As medical authorities have gained experience with treatment, the death rate outside of China’s epicenter is much less.

And China, once awoken, having imposed strict regiments and quarantines, has seen its incidence rate peak, plateau, and begin to decline.

But as the virus spreads around the world, precautions are in order.

GOT’s school district provided this list of planned actions to prevent persons traveling in high-risk areas of the world from going to a school (telephone instead) to enroll until an appropriate period of time has gone by. Families and children will be supported by home education as an alternative.

International travel is banned. For previously planned and paid for trips, school officials will review the itineraries to determine if they should be canceled. High-risk areas will not be permitted. The same goes for out-of-state and out-of-county trips.

Students returning from high-risk areas should not return to school until their parents have contacted the school about how the students’ education will resume.

But the talk of the hallway was about the planned sanitizing of school facilities over the next week as we are taking our spring break. In particular, conversation centered on the provision of hand sanitizer and what the custodial staff would actually do with the cleaning supplies as they perform the directed sanitizing of schools.

Would the supplies of hand sanitizer be distributed to classrooms? It is an important issue because many children do not wash their hands when using the bathroom. They return to their classroom and ask for the hand sanitizer. (If you are wondering, GOT sends them back to the bathroom to wash their hands. Handwashing is far more effective than the use of an alcohol-based hand rub.)

Word has seeped through the ranks that the hand sanitizer would be available in common areas, but would not be placed in classrooms. Talk about a morale booster! Secondary teachers who do not move through common areas during class change will not have access to a means to protect their health, but at least the district is looking out for the children.

Then there is the maddeningly lack of detail over what the sanitization of facilities procedures will be. Listening to the radio, we hear that everything that is commonly touched by many people should be wiped down with an EPA-approved antiviral product. Examples include door knobs, coffee machines, and the like.

Exactly what is being done? Rumor suggested it would only be the common areas and the custodial staff would not cleanse the classrooms. Because children don’t spend most of their time in a classroom? Because children don’t touch everything with germy hands? Because children naturally do things they hate to do and don’t need an adult to supervise their health, diets, cleanliness, etc.?

It’s not really reassuring to say that schools will be sanitized with special products when we don’t know what that entails. This is not an issue to fob off the public with a show of doing something. Coronavirus is not a public relations problem. It is a real health concern.

And so, GOT devised a way to know. When he returns to his classroom in ten days, he will know whether anything was done.