Week 3 in Distance Learning 2020


I’m still tired. This week, it’s mostly due to poor planning on my part, and things in my family life. Class, that’s settling into a routine. I’m making adjustments as I get feedback from my parents. Mostly it’s about giving kids “breaks” but also transition signals and check-ins to get them or keep them on track. I’m running classes about 30 minutes of direct instruction, then 30+ minutes for them to work independently finishing up work based on what I taught. The direct instruction includes Nearpods or discussions (small group or whole class).

A notable recent moment in the classroom was during the novel I’ve been reading to students, Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid which is part of his Kane Chronicles series based on Egyptian Mythology. I picked the book out because I wanted to find a fun book to start out the school year, and I wanted to have a non-white character, since most of those types of books used in elementary, and most of the novels that have traditionally been used for fourth grade have white characters. I had read the novel to my son when he was younger (but older than 9). The story starts with an explosion at the British Museum, where the Kane family was visiting after hours. Dad is African American Egyptologist. The kids are mixed, their mom was a white British anthropologist, who sadly has died under mysterious circumstances. The police start to question the kids, and the boy (who looks like dad) is getting a harder time than the girl (who resembles her late mom). The characters notice the difference, but even before that, one of my students raised their hand to bring it up.

The student believed that this was because they were Muslim. I had to explain to them that although that would be a problem, it was because of their race, as they are not Muslim and as we’ll find out later, they’re actually practicing a religion that pre-dates Islam, although Islam is the dominant religion in present day Egypt. It was a good intro to world religions, and discussion of racial profiling.  I wasn’t sure how well this novel would work, because it does have a white author, but he actually does an okay job exploring issues of colorism that happen in mixed families. Since a lot of the African American families in our school are mixed, it’s a good topic to explore.

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

Week 1 in Distance Learning 2020


I used to do a weekly review of my week in the classroom and before that, the computer lab. I thought it might be a good time to revive that practice.

First, some background. I am teaching a fourth grade classroom that is largely comprised of students I had last year in third grade. This is my first time teaching fourth grade in a long time, but it’s after two years teaching third grade, and a lotta years teaching sixth and fifth grade. Doing a “loop” up with my kiddos and their families is a great opportunity in a situation like distance learning, so I consider myself fortunate, and I hope that my families appreciate having someone that knows them, and that they know.

This week started with a lot of chaos and confusion around scheduling that I will not belabor, but since the start time was the same and I had already established solid contact with my families, so I had 90% attendance, and have run about the same since then. I do have some concerns (which I won’t go into, privacy) but I have a supportive admin who is aware of them, etc.

Here are some tips based on this week (and prior experience last year):

  1. Start with bell-work, do now, or some other piece of work that they can begin working on as class starts and they come in. We’re supposed to be doing an SEL activity, and I am doing meditation. This doesn’t work if you have kids dropping in a minute or two late (and you will) as you’re doing a focusing meditation. This gives students 5 minutes or so to “file in”. In a normal class, I’d do 10-15 minutes for this, but time is too valuable in a Zoom classroom, I move on and tell them to finish it later during our independent work time or as homework. I’m doing Daily Language Review and Daily Cursive Practice with my kids. My kids were used to DLR and handwriting at the start of day from last year. I wanted them to have some paper and pencil work as well, since they have a lot of screen time. You may not like these, come up with some of your own, there are plenty of options out there.
  2. Come up with signals, audio ones, to signal transitions. I’m working on getting some sounds. I’m using things like online timers and my mobile phone timer which have distinctive tones. I also got a doorbell  sound off of Youtube. I need to work out which one I will use more consistently, but definitely needed.
  3. Figure out how to get kids from Zoom to online applications like Nearpod. This is tricky even with 9 year olds who were pretty familiar with online applications. Here is how I do it.
  4. Teach kids how to take pictures of their work, and then post it up on Google Classroom. This is critical because not everything they do will be digital, nor should it be. This shows them how to take pictures with chromebooks here, and how to attach it here.

I hope this will prove useful to others. If you have a tip, leave a comment below.

Asking the wrong questions of technology…


1956 - Forbidden Planet
There has been a huge roll-out of technology with the advent of SBAC testing in California (and elsewhere in the country with CCSS testing in all forms). But is this really making education better? Is it making our kids better? Or is it like using Robbie shown above, good for little beyond holding the pretty lady’s train, and not the best use of public monies?

I know, I’m an ed tech enthusiast, but if this is the best we (and by we, I include me in that) can come up with…color me a Luddite and hand me some paper and pencils. I’m going to talk about what I think are stupid choices. Some of them are mine (which can be adjusted and improved on rather easily), and some are about how entire public education community and show little sign of improvement any time in the future.

In my last weekly reflection, I discussed how my kids did better writing with pencil and paper as compared to their online writing. Over the weeks, I would say their online writing is more generally better, but for my most fluent writers, they aren’t always quite as prolific and don’t always have as strong a voice in their online writing.

Some of the studies of reading and writing (in the form of note-taking) show paper and pencil to be more effective than computers and screens for the same task:

To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand – Robinson Meyer – The Atlantic

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens – Scientific American

That second link has some caveats in it, and a really good question at the end:

Although many old and recent studies conclude that people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens, the differences are often small…

Perhaps, then, any discrepancies in reading comprehension between paper and screens will shrink as people’s attitudes continue to change…

But why, one could ask, are we working so hard to make reading with new technologies like tablets and e-readers so similar to the experience of reading on the very ancient technology that is paper?

So I can see the mistake I’ve been making, I’m essentially transferring the writing that I used to have them do on paper, to a Wiki. Studies show improvements in students writing online happen with interaction, especially peer interaction, and multiple interactions. Now, I’ve only started having them write online this trimester, and I had a general plan to start with getting down the mechanics of writing there first, then start adding interactive writing. Now is that time, and I’ll share how it goes.

Now to a more general observation. These so-called new test are falling into just this this trap, and it risks making buying all these fancy new computers look like a huge waste. Look at the tasks that students are being asked to do on the sample test, they’ve essentially taken the same tasks that were on paper pencil tests to computer. All that’s changed is that tasks that are more cumbersome become a little less so on the computer. Here is a brief lists of the tasks (not comprehensive, but it covers most of what’s on the test):

  • Standard multiple choice questions (yawn!)
  • Questions with “checkbox” option, allowing multiple correct responses (really?)
  • Short response writing
    This is new for California, but New York has done this for years. It marginally improves the authenticity of the assessment, It’s like going from imitation non-dairy cheez-wiz , to the brand-name version. It’s still cheez-wiz. If it gets graded by “computers” (algorithms) I’ll be even less impressed.
  • Select the word/sentence/etc. that shows “something”
    This is the big new thing, but really, every since I first saw this, I’ve been unimpressed. It’s not that much more authentic, or demanding, than giving students a list of multiple choice items with words, or underlining words/sentences with numbers and having them pick the significant one(s). This is the sort of thing guaranteed to impress adults, but is a huge yawn for students.

Think I’m being harsh? I generally ask students after these annual tests to comment generally on them. Was it harder, or easier, etc. One student summed it up well, “They weren’t that different than the old tests, we just used computers.”

The two big things that could change in future years’ testing are scoring by algorithm/machine, and the introduction of “computer adaptive” algorithms, adjusting the test so that it provides “just right” questions to students. Both those ideas are fraught with problems that have been covered earlier here, and here. Consider this too, if they don’t machine score the writing, then the “decisions” about level of difficulty made for each student will be based only on non-written answers.

Image Credit: 1956 – Forbidden Planet by James Vaughan, on Flickr

posted under web 2.0 | No Comments »

We need to be willing to commit ritualized suicide…


Now that I have your attention, I wanted to share something that I found more disturbing than the Promethean guys in orange spandex bodysuits. It was a quote that I heard not once, but on twiceat the ISTE conference:

“We need to be willing to drink the koolaid” –presenter appearing on a video feed at ISTE

You might have used this quote yourself in trying to extol others to join the bandwagon of ed tech (or some other innovation). There is a school in my area that that has used this phrase to exhort teachers to “get with the program” on the school reform being implemented. People seemed to have completely forgotten the original context of the phrase and have decided that drinking koolaid is a good thing.

I find this puzzling, but unsurprising in a culture that practices unintentional irony on a periodic basis, but it’s disturbing nonetheless as my husband grew up with folks  who were members of the Peoples Temple, and participated (willingly or not) in the ritualized suicide that coined this phrase. I like koolaid and have used it to color home-made playdough (it gives it a great scent), and if no other choices are available at a party, I will drink it. But please do not ask me, or others in my presence, to take a metaphorical drink of koolaid, as I’m likely to give a negative response.

Some other phrases suitable for this use:
You need to be willing to dive in
You need to get outside your comfort zone
You need to commit yourself…
…heart and soul
…with blood, sweat, and tears
You need to take the risk

Week 26: Over the hump…


Number - 26

This has been a hard “Spring” in some ways, but easier in others. One part of the “hard” has been the fact that I’m in one of the few local districts that still does a Spring Break aligned with Easter, and this year, that wasn’t until last week. Both students and adults were more than ready for a “time out” by the time that last week rolled around it was not pretty. Rather than focusing on that, I’m going to share this audio recording of class discussion on the Constitution I made on Friday which went pretty well. The kids have a less than perfect understanding of text, because we only had about 2 days with the selection they were reading on the subject (normally they’d have three or four).  I will just point to the fact that this discussion meets few of the Common Core standards in ELA of informational text, but it shows the higher level of thinking and the type of analysis that I’d prefer they make.

I was discussing this with my husband. He was a bit precocious as youngster, and once did a bang-up job on a history essay by adding some background information gleaned from his own reading (he has always read history for pleasure, not just when required to). His teacher was livid that he had included outsider information, and didn’t stick to the text. Once again, I’m not concerned that Common Core is something new and scary, but has the potential to be the same old same old.

California is like the rest of the country…only sooner

Image Credit: Number – 26 by szczel, on Flickr”

« Older Entries

Links of Interest


Creative Commons License
All of Ms. Mercer's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Skip to toolbar