Sunday, March 22, 2020

Tips for Remote Teaching

Our school just finished our first week of Distance Learning, but I feel like it was more like a month because so much has happened. The week began with a non-stop flurry of communication from students, parents, teachers, and administrators, and I felt like I was just treading water. By Friday, I felt like I had almost found a rhythm. Below are some of the strategies that I will be using next week, and  I hope some are helpful to you.

Simplify Communication

When we first launched our online teaching, everybody had questions and rightfully so. All aspects of school seemed brand new, and no one wanted to fall behind. As the EdTech Facilitator, I wanted to be responsive to the other teachers because I knew that they needed answers to their questions before they could move forward. In my zeal to be responsive, I found myself scattered and frazzled, often answering multiple questions at once, jumping among email, text, phone calls, video conferences, Google Classroom comments, and Twitter. It was too much. Next week I will
  • Encourage students to email their questions. It is convenient for them to leave comments in Google Classroom as they think of them, but it takes multiple clicks for me to open a comment, and there is usually only one comment in each place. I will be encouraging my students to ask questions by email, and I will let them know that I will only answer comments in Google Classroom if I happen to on that page. For instance, when I grade an assignment, I will answer any comments that the student left on that assignment.
  • Focus on one mode of communication per hour. Hopping around among devices drove me crazy. I can still be responsive if I answer within two or three hours. Next week I will prepare my activities for the day early in the morning. I will then answer emails for an hour with my phone put away. Once I am done, I will then check text messages. I will schedule all of my video conferences and phone calls in one block of time near the end of the work day. That way, I can gain some momentum and feel like I am making progress without being distracted by new incoming requests.
  • Create canned responses. Once three students asked similar questions, I would copy my answer and paste it in a text document on my desktop. That way, if any more students asked, I could copy and paste my response. If multiple teachers asked questions about an app or Google Classroom function, I made a quick screencast video that I could share with other teachers with the same question. Now the recipients feel like I gave a very detailed response, but it only took a couple of seconds.

Make a Schedule

We all know that teaching can be all consuming; after all, we care about our students and we make often make our own work, which can be a time-hogging combination. Online teaching is even worse because we don't leave campus. Next week I will be sticking to a schedule that is similar to one I had when I was teaching on campus.
  • Wake up at the same time every morning, get dressed for work, eat, Bible Study, clean the breakfast dishes, all of the tasks I would do if I were leaving for school. I want to have a set lunch time as well so that I am not snacking at my desk all day. 
  • I do all of my work in one part of my house and all of my relaxing in a different part. For me, my dining room table is where I work, but I try not to bring work to the kitchen or in front of the television where I relax after work.
  • Try to leave your work space at the end of the work day. Similarly, save household chores for after work because it is too easy to get caught up doing laundry instead of working. Did anyone else clean their dorm room during finals week?

Over-Communicate with Parents

After I earned my master's degree online, I noted how it was perfect for me but would be very troublesome for most pre-college students. Online learning favors the go-getters, the motivated students who look for the next day's work and ask questions. 

Last week, there was an unusual sense of peace that I had not felt in the classroom. After some thought, I realized that I had only interacted with the students with whom it is easy to interact. On our live, online class, only 2/3 of the students logged on, and only the engaged students contributed to the discussion. I received a lot of emails from students, but they were from the same twenty or thirty students who really care. In the classroom, I would have walked around the room and seen students off task, and I would have spent a great deal of my week talking with them and motivating them. In an online environment, the unmotivated students are invisible, and the positive reinforcement of the go-getters makes it very attractive to leave the unmotivated students invisible.

I imagine that my unmotivated students are enjoying the fact that a strict teacher is not looking over their shoulder, at least temporarily. I believe that these students open Google Classroom in the morning, but if they don't read the whole daily announcement (they would need to click on the "read more" message to see all of the day's work) and don't watch my whole daily announcement video, they could honestly tell their parents that they feel like they are done with their schoolwork without doing much. We need to communicate often with their parents and make it very clear where the students need to look for the work for each day. 

Keep it Simple, but Try Something New Each Week

On one hand, we need to limit the number of online places where students need to go each day. At our school, every teacher needs to post the daily agenda and homework in the RenWeb/FACTS Lesson Plan, mostly for parents, and in a daily announcement on the Google Classroom Stream, mostly for students. If some teachers email the agenda, others post it in the Remind app, and others write it in Slack, students will be lost. 

Similarly, teachers are overwhelmed by moving their classes online. They have to learn new platforms and rework their curriculum for this new style of teaching, usually just one day before they share it with students. I read on Twitter how many veteran teachers feel like they are first-year teachers all over again. Don't feel pressure to do too much each day. Everything I read states that we should decrease the amount of work and give grace on due dates since this is such a scary time for students, families, and teachers.

On the other hand, what a great opportunity to try new techniques. When teaching in the classroom, we often do not have time to try new apps or online tools. This is the perfect time to try flipping some lessons with EdPuzzle, have students comment on each other's work in FlipGrid, or share inter-active lessons on Nearpod, PearDeck, or a choose-your-own-adventure Google Form. The lesson might not work right, but at least you don't have a classroom full of kids to supervise while you fix it - you can just tell them you'll try again tomorrow.

Other Things I will Try Next Week

  • Take phone calls and answer emails outside in the sun and fresh air
  • Yoga videos
  • Stand every 20 minutes
  • Have a video chat with one life-affirming friend or relative every day
  • Don't check the news until the evening
  • Give my family "do not disturb" times. I will tell my children that I am happy to help them at the top of the hour, but please don't interrupt my work at all times of the day. This is only possible because I have teenagers who can work independently.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Why I Love My Flipped Classroom

Ten reasons why it was worth the work:
1. Free up class time
2. More equitable homework
3. Multiply myself
4. No more absences
5. Appeals toNetflix generation
6. Stronger relationships
7. Project-based learning
8. Helps students focus
9. More time efficient
10. Better answers to classroom questions

Friday, January 17, 2014

Henry Kissinger on Writing, Rewriting, and Rewriting Again

I just heard my new favorite story about writing, perseverance, and the importance of high standards.

The following was said by Ambassador Winston Lord, who was ambassador to China and assistant Secretary of State, about Henry Kissinger in an interview at George Washington University.

Well, basically it was, I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. [Dr. Kissinger] called me in the next day and said, "Is this the best you can do?" I said, "Henry, I thought so, but I'll try again." So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, "Are you sure this is the best you can do?" I said, "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time." Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, "Is this the best you can do?" So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, "Henry, I've beaten my brains out - this is the ninth draft. I know it's the best I can do: I can't possibly improve one more word." He then looked at me and said, "In that case, now I'll read it."
Classrooms around the country contain young people who are good students but mediocre writers because they believe that finishing the last paragraph means they are finished with their essays. I can relate because I believed this too until my sophomore year of college. These students do not understand the old teachers' quote that "Good writing is good rewriting." Completing the last paragraph is just the start. Effective communicators go through their writing over and over: tightening up arguments, checking punctuation, strengthening vocabulary. After the first draft, there is always a more brief, more elegant, more convincing way to write each sentence.

All of this takes time, commitment, grit, and a tough teacher (or parent or boss). Most students are lazy with their writing at first; they need someone to hold them to a high standard who won't accept their half-hearted work. I certainly needed a professor in college who sent me back to perfect my papers.

This is closely related to my teaching philosophy, which is the same as my parenting philosophy: have high expectations but provide lots of support. That is how writers - and children - succeed. It is also the reason why Clickademics Essay Engine, our essay writing tutorial, does not just stop at the concluding paragraph. Students are shown how to go through three rounds of editing to make their writing even better.

Mercifully, we don't send students through nine rounds of editing like the demanding Henry Kissinger.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Essay Engine is Now Even Easier

Back in May, we made our basic Essay Engine program free for two reasons. First, we built it to help students write essays, and offering it for free makes it accessible to far more students. Secondly, we wanted more users so we could see how actual students use it on real essays.

Well, we have been happy to see so many writers using Essay Engine, but we noticed something: too
many of our users were not finishing their essays.  We asked a few about this, and the most common thing we heard was that the program was too long.  Writers began their essays using our program, but they did not know how much further they had to go. And let's face it, when students start an essay, the only thing they really care about is finishing.

So we listened to our users, and made some improvements. First, we shortened our essay writing program. Because it was already efficient, there was not much we could remove. We tightened up some the written directions, edited a few of our instructional videos, and took out some early steps that explain why essay writing is important. After all, students don't care why they are writing, just what they need to write.

We also added a progress bar. It shows the writer how far she has come and how far she has to go. More importantly, the writer can click on the bar to see a pop-up overview of an expository essay. She can see which pieces she has completed and which she still has to do. This is also a nice reminder of the steps the student takes each time she writes an expository essay. Our goal has always been that students practice writing with Essay Engine so that they learn how to write on their own. Every student needs to write essays in class without help, either on an essay exam or a standardized test.

Please check our our new, more streamlined Essay Engine at And don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

How to Say Yes Without Being a Pushover

It happens in every family. The child asks for something big - bigger than a t-shirt but smaller than a car - and the parent wants to say yes but also wants the child to earn it, to make a sacrifice for it. After all, the parent is afraid of the slippery slope: saying yes today will make the kid expect a yes next time too.

Here is a perfect solution that I learned from my in-laws. When your son or daughter asks for something big, ask them write a five paragraph essay before you say yes.

Let's say your daughter wants to go to a concert. You would rather that she not go, but she seems desperate to join her friends and see the show. You want to make her happy, and you don't want to have an argument about it, but you also don't want her to expect immediate gratification every time she asks for something. So say yes, as long as she writes a persuasive essay with three strong reasons supported with facts. This will accomplish a few things:
  1. Your daughter has to earn this special privilege
  2. She must think about why she wants to go, teaching her to consider her decisions carefully
  3. You get a glimpse of how she feels about the decision
  4. She becomes a better writer through practice
  5. You get to say yes and be the good guy
If your daughter does not really want to go, she won't go to the trouble of writing the essay, and she will drop the subject without you having to crush her dream. If she really does want to attend the concert, she will write five compelling paragraphs to convince you to agree.

The best expository essays are persuasive essays, so if you ask your child to write first, you are asking him to support his argument with facts and logical reasons. This rarely happens with a verbal discussion which quickly descends into an emotional debate. Your child can convince you to agree in a cool, thoughtful way. In effect, you are making your child practice the art of convincing others to agree with him, a skill very useful in adult life. 

This works for children of all ages. When my kids were in kindergarten, we had them list three reasons, just a couple words, why we should take them to the movies or get a cat. More recently, we took away video games because they were neglecting their chores. When they asked if they could have video games back, we had them write five paragraph essays listing reasons why they should. They even considered why we might say no and included a counter argument. The vocabulary and grammar were elementary school level, but the form was just like what I taught in my classroom. I spent time walking my kids through the essay writing process, but you of course can save time by having your kids use Clickademics Essay Engine which walks the student through all of the steps of creating an organized essay.

If your child gives you an essay that is poorly written or based on weak arguments, send them back to the computer to improve it before you agree. You might even consider writing an essay of your own stating your concerns - the concert will be too loud, you will be out too late, there will be no supervision - and make your daughter find solutions to each of your worries.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

In Defense of College

There is a lot written about the higher education bubble and how something needs to be done before it bursts. What makes college a bubble is the fear that the money that a student pays into tuition won't be recouped in higher wages after graduation. If the student can't find a job for which she is trained, then the tuition was a bad investment. Why pay $100,000 for college if the graduate will not make $100,000 more than another worker with a high school degree? Add the finance charges of student loans, and the problem is that much worse.

But what if the this whole argument is based on the wrong premise? More on that in a moment.

The fact is, college is a very inefficient place to get trained for a job. Yes, a degree from a top school is mandatory for certain careers: medicine, academia, law, finance. If a student knows that he or she wants to go into one of these fields, then that student should go to the best school possible and focus on that career path. But for everyone else, their college education has little to do with their actual job. How many people do you know who have a job directly related to their major? Is four years of study worth more than four years of experience?

When people view college as their ticket to higher salaries, they are bound to to be disappointed while the economy and job market is still slow. There just aren't enough jobs for all of the people coming out of school, so there will be too many new graduates piecing together part time jobs or working jobs that don't require a college degree.  These young people, and their parents, are now wondering if college was even worth it.

If a student only wants to make a higher salary, college is a lousy bargain. Here's a suggestion, those students should learn to code. Take some classes in C++ and Ruby at the local community college, work through tutorials online, build experience on some freelance jobs building iPhone apps, and the chances of pulling down a six figure salary are significantly better than if that same person earned a degree in French literature from a private college. Or go to a trade school, be an apprentice, and join a union. A trained welder makes a lot more than an anthropology major who is still looking for work. Another idea I have read about - take the money your family has set aside for college and start a business. A entrepreneur can do a lot with $50,000 and an idea.

However, when students view their college education as more than a résumé builder, then the tuition makes a lot more sense. The tuition investment may not immediately help financially, but it will pay off intellectually, socially, and emotionally. College is about exploring ideas and discovering yourself. It is one of the few times in life when you can take a class about art, psychology, philosophy, or calculus. It is a chance to debate ideas late into the night, to join a robotics club, to meet people from different places, to learn how to think critically. That is why it is great to study French literature or pursue an anthropology major. Those students may not have a career that involves French literature or anthropology, but they will certainly have a career where they must think, write, and persuade others. And don't discount the value of networking with other alumni later in life.

Which brings me to a point that is not obvious to recent graduates, most of them will have several careers in their lifetime. In the 20th century, it was common for a young person to get a job in a GM plant or a school district and stay there for their whole career. Today's workers might have an average of seven careers according to some sources. It would prove short-sighted for a young person to skip college in favor of going into a service job when she may soon feel inspired to move to a professional career that requires a college degree. Choosing to skip a university education can limit a person's choices for the rest of their working life.

Though I have many successful friends who never went to college, I know that some of them regret it. I think of my one friend that feels embarrassed admitting that he never went to college, and I compare him to my other friend who is proud to share that she is the first person in her family to earn a degree. This idea is more important to everyone, but it should be part of the decision.

If at all possible, I believe students should always choose college, not because it will get them a better job, but because it will make them a more well-rounded person. It will open doors and give them confidence for the rest of their life. I don't, however, know if it is worth skipping a reasonably-priced state school in favor of a high-priced private college. That is a topic for a different article.

And when it comes time to write your application essays, don't forget to use Clickademics Essay Engine; it will help you organize your thoughts and write a catchy introduction.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reading Textbooks: The Right Way, The Fast Way, The Wrong Way

For many classes, everything you need to know for the class is in the textbook. The problem is that you need to read the textbook.

If you want to do well in the class, and you are going to spend the time reading, you might as well do it right. Here are some ways to read textbooks:

The Right Way: When you really need to learn the material, here is the best way that I have found to read and retain information from a textbook. It is my practical, faster version of the SQ3R method. Follow these steps:

  • Skim everything that is not a paragraph. The great thing about textbooks is that they put all of the important items where they are easy to read - boldfaced titles, italics, diagrams, picture captions, end of the chapter summaries. Read these quickly.
  • Ask yourself what is important. You are more likely to find the answer if you know what the question is, so ask yourself what the textbook author wants you to know based on the material you skimmed in step one.
  • Read the paragraphs and take notes - quickly. Now is the time to read the chapter in order, but keep a fast pace so that you don't get bogged down. Every two or three paragraphs, write down a line of notes. Review last month's newsletter for tips on note taking.
  • Use two column notes. In the left margin next to each line of note, write a title - two or three words that describe the content of the notes.
  • Review. Skim over the chapter headings, illustration captions, and end of chapter material just like you did at the beginning. Did you learn about all of the important things that the textbook highlighted?
  • Study. Fold your page of notes over so that the titles in the margin are showing. Test youself. Do you know the information that goes with each title?

The best part about this method is that your brain is exposed to the content several times. Each time you skim, read, write down notes, look at your notes, or review, the information is cemented in your memory.

The Fast Way: But what if you are too busy to read the correct way? Do the best with the time you have. You know how you skimmed the boldfaced titles, chapter headings, italicized phrases, illustration captions, and end of the chapter stuff in the instruction above? Since that has most of the important information, this is where you should go when you are pressed for time. Ten minutes of skimming will give you a lot more than reading the first two pages of the chapter.

The Wrong Way: Do not read a textbook the way that you would read a novel. If you just sit down and start reading in order, it is not likely that you will remember as much. Furthermore, if you run out of time, you will stop reading where you are and get nothing out of the end of the chapter.

Strangely, reading a textbook should be a lot like surfing the web - lots of skimming and looking at pictures, with close reading only where you need it. This is especially true if you are reading an electronic textbook on an iPad or other device.

Speaking of devices, don't forget that our Essay Engine shows you how to write great essays and works wonderfully on all internet-connected devices.