Where the freak have you been, Vo???
Don’t be mad. I know I’ve been absent from this blog for a while. Let me explain. In the future, monstrous aliens show up and start decimating humanity, so our descendants came back in time to draft me and thousands of others to travel 30 years forward and help them fight this extraterrestrial menace. Ah, sh*t, sorry. That didn’t happen. I’m watching “The Tomorrow War” as I write this and for a second I thought I was Chris Pratt’s character, Dan, who’s a science teacher like me.
Back to reality. First off, I got kinda lazy. Um… yeah, that’s about all I’ve got to say about that. Second, COVID happened. That sucked. Still sucks. You’re probably a teacher, so you know. I did the whole distance teaching thing. It wasn’t the best predicament to be in, but it could’ve been worse, and I did what any science teacher would do. I adapted. I never got to be perfect as a virtual learning educator, but it’s impossible to achieve perfection even under the most ideal teaching environment. I would say, however, that I made the best out of a lousy situation. I picked up a few tips and tricks that I’ll be keeping and bringing back with me when I return to the classroom after my tour of duty in the future is up. Wait. Damn imagination! I meant when I return to the classroom in August. So let me share these tips and tricks with you.no
Let’s start with something easy. Since March of 2020, every grade school educator has had to rely on an online web service to manage and grade assignments, tests, etc. There are a whole bunch of ‘em out there, but the one my district uses is Google Classroom. Before distance learning, I printed and handed out most assignments, which my students would tape into their interactive science notebooks. I would post the assignments to Google Classroom for students to refer to later if they were absent or forgot what we did on any given day. I would then walk over to each student days later and grade the assignment for completion while giving the kids a quick bit of feedback on their work. Thirty kids per class and twenty seconds minimum to check and give feedback for each kid equals 10 minutes of class time, leaving only 39 minutes left for the day’s lesson and time for the kids to do their work. You can imagine the feedback I gave to the kids was not as comprehensive as I would have liked.
Enter COVID. Once distance learning started, I couldn’t give my students hard copies of assignments or check their notebooks anymore. Luckily, Google Classroom came to the rescue. Through the service, not only was I able to provide assignments for my students online, but I was able to grade them and provide more detailed feedback. I also love the fact that I can save feedback comments in Google Classroom and copy/paste them for other students. Huge time saver!
With everyone returning to school buildings in the Fall, I could go back to my old ways of printing and handing out forests of assignments again, but SCREW THAT! I’m gonna stick with posting almost everything on Google Classroom. No more wasting time and paper waiting for the copy machine to print out hundreds of worksheets and no more daily notebook checks. My students will still be able to complete most of their work online and I can grade them just about anywhere/anytime (more on this in my next post). And as I mentioned earlier, my feedback to the students is much more detailed and helpful through Google Classroom.
I’m still gonna have students take notes and/or sum up their learning in interactive science notebooks because studies have shown the brain remembers handwritten information much better than when it’s typed. Until my district provides devices that also have digital pen input, I won’t be completely moving my students away from pencil and paper… but purty close.
Actively Try To Get Every Kid To Pass
Grading Policy I felt like such a failure after submitting first quarter grades in October 2020. At least half my students were failing… BADLY! I’m talking single digit percentages in my gradebook. Most of those kids just didn’t see the point in trying. Some were overwhelmed from having to help out their parents or take care of siblings; some were deeply disappointed and even depressed about the extended time away from school buildings and friends; and some feared failure because it’s all they’ve ever known. I needed to find a way to get these kids to have hope again and at least try.
I remembered a quote I had read years ago: “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?” It got me thinking. There was no way I could take away my students’ burdens, bring their pre-pandemic lives back, or change their past school experiences, but what if I took failure out of the equation? Would they be more likely to at least give distance learning a shot? I decided to find out because… well, I was desperate.
So, this is what I told my students:
“For assignments, answer all the questions as best as you can (no blanks, silly answers, IDKs, etc) and I’ll give you 100% on them. I don’t care if you get every answer on every assignment wrong. Just give me your best guess. As long as you try your best, you will get an A on your assignments. I will only take away points if you write nothing or silly answers. It’s almost the same thing for tests. Try your best, answer every question, and even if you get every test question wrong, the worst grade you’ll get on exams is a 70%.”
My gradebook is purty simple. There are only 2 categories: assignments and tests. Each is worth an even 50%. I made sure my students knew this, then I walked them through how to calculate their grade for my class. It went something like this:
“Let’s say you tried your best on all your ASSIGNMENTS but you got every single question wrong. Doesn’t matter because your overall grade for assignments would still be 100%. Let’s say you tried your best on all your TESTS but you got every single question wrong. Doesn’t matter because your overall grade for tests would still be 70%. To get your overall grade for my class, you average the assignments percentage, 100, with the tests percentage, 70.
100 + 70 = 170
170 / 2 = 85
At this point, I asked my students what letter grade they would have in my class if all they did was try their best and answer all the questions, and one of them said (with surprise in their voice), “85% is a B!” Then I responded, “F*CK YEAH!” I’m sorry, that’s what I was thinking. What I actually said was “EXACTLY! As long as you try and answer all the questions to the best of your ability, the worst you’ll have in science is a B!”
By the end of the school year, most of my students passed science. A huge percentage of kids still left questions blank, wrote nonsensical answers, and/or didn’t turn in all their assignments, and ended up with a C or a D. Some still failed my class. Regardless, the vast majority of my kids PASSED, and my new grading policy had a lot to do with it because they knew they had nothing to lose by trying and everything to gain.
There were a couple of other things I was doing before the pandemic, which helped out my pupils during the 2020-2021 school year. For one thing, there’s no penalty for turning in work late, and they can make corrections or retake assignments/tests to increase their grades in my class. Some kids have a rough start at the beginning of the year/semester and have a butt-load of missing work or perform poorly on assignments and tests. It’s demoralizing for them. Allowing kids to turn in late stuff with no penalty (even if it’s months late) and retake work gives them hope of catching up.
Another little thing I did to give the poor performing kids a fighting chance, even before COVID, was excusing them from the relatively unimportant assignments they hadn’t turned in yet. I’m referring to video notes, graphic organizers, questions on what they’ve read, redundant assignments, etc. Don’t get me wrong. Those “unimportant” assignments are useful and helpful for students, but if they aren’t vital, then get rid of them for the failing kids. They’re already doing bad. Why weigh them down with unnecessary stuff? Besides, just because I excuse those assignments doesn’t mean the kids can’t complete and turn them in later on for credit. It’s kind of like dessert. I don’t always partake and I can live without it, but it’s there if I want to give it a go.
The last thing I was doing before the pandemic but continued through the present (and will continue into the future) is excusing students from the missing assignments leading up to a test that the kids performed well on. If they got an A or B on an exam, then they clearly understood the content I taught them, so I couldn’t give a flying f*ck about the assignments I gave them to develop the knowledge and skills for the test. Remember, the reason why some kids don’t do their work is because they’re overwhelmed by things we probably have no clue about. So, if they show us they understand through the test (I mean, isn’t that the whole point of tests?), then who cares about all the assignments. (I’m very conflicted about whether or not I should’ve put a question mark at the end of that last sentence.)
Anyhoo, I know some people think all the above teaches students they can be irresponsible. I say, “HORSE SH*T!” If anything, it puts ALL the responsibility back onto the kids. They can’t blame me or anybody else if they fail because as long as they try, they’ll get at least a B; they’re welcome to make up their work if they screwed up on their first go-around with no penalty; and I excuse them from all kinds of work already. Come to think of it, my policies have been great for covering my @$$ with parents. Maybe I should’ve started with that? (Now, I’m wondering if putting the question mark at the end of the previous sentence was the right call.)
Message EVERYBODY. I wish I could say offering my students everything in my grading policy was the fulfillment of what I had to actively do to get all of them to pass. I’m sure a few got motivated as soon as I explained my new policies, but most everyone else needed more. So, I privately messaged kids during class and emailed them encouraging words and reminders of the numerous options they could take to pass my class. I made sure to let their parents know about these options, too, and that there was hope for their kids. Whenever an RSP teacher was involved, I kept them in the loop by CC’ing them on the messages. And I didn’t just message everybody once or twice. I did it over and over again until I started seeing improvement in the students. If they weren’t getting any better, then I’d continue sending messages. As I mentioned somewhere above, not everyone passed, but I did what I could, which means I can sleep like a baby.
My favorite method of messaging kids and parents are “Falcon Way Postcards”. The PBIS Committee at my school had almost two thousand postcards printed up for teachers to send home positive messages to their students. It was a brilliant idea because what kid doesn’t like getting mail? I (and every other teacher at my site) was given one hundred of these postcards, and I put them to good use. For kids who were failing or in danger of failing, I typed up a nice message reminding them they could still catch up and pass my class, and that I believed in them. Yeah, it sounds corny, but that’s how I talk to my students in class and they’re used to it. For other kids who were doing just fine academically, but were struggling in other more personal ways, I mailed them a simple message of encouragement and reassured them that I would help them in any way I could.
Pro tip: You gotta keep the messages to both parents and kids POSITIVE. All parties have to know you’re on their side and you just want your students to succeed. It should be pretty easy because it’s the truth.
Check-ins. At the beginning of every week during distance learning, I posted a Google Form in which students could voluntarily tell me what was going on in their lives. I called it a “Check-in”. Not everybody filled it out, but for the kids who did write something, the “Check-in” was a treasure trove of insights. I learned who wasn’t sleeping well, who was sad about moving soon, whose parents were getting married, who had family members infected with COVID, who was auditioning for America’s Got Talent, whose aunt ran away from home, what anime shows they were watching, what books they were reading, what sports they were playing, who had family issues, etc. The information I picked up influenced my interactions with the kids during class. Whenever necessary, I’d message kids either to express my joy over their happy occasions, or to support them during their sad moments. Either way, it brought my students and I closer and helped to make us a family even though I never knew what most of them looked like (because 90% of them always kept their cameras off).
Since the responses to the Check-ins were always brief and I didn’t get a response from every kid, I was able to read and respond to them really quickly. The benefits of the weekly Check-in far exceed the tiny amount of time I invested in it, so I’m definitely going to continue using it even when I’m face-to-face with the kids again.
Virtual Tutoring. Most districts I know of built in after school tutoring as part of the distance learning schedule. Middle school teachers in my district provided tutoring through Webex (one of many virtual meeting apps available) on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. The number of kids who attended my Webex tutoring sessions was about the same as the number of kids who attended my face-to-face, pre-pandemic tutoring hours. Also, I was able to help the kids in virtual tutoring just as well as ordinary classroom tutoring. So, I figure if it’s all the same, I might as well continue with helping kids after school through Webex. This way, I can leave work right after school and tutor from the comfort of my home, while taking care of my domestic duties. My students can do the same. After all, how many kids do you know who could use tutoring but don’t attend because they’d rather (or have to) go home than stay after school for help? Of course, I’m happy to remain at school for an hour for those kids who request face-to-face help, but I’m thinking that’s going to be pretty rare. I guess I’ll find out.
If you’ve been reading my blog (in particular, the post entitled “It Sucks. I Hate it. Let’s do it.”), you know I exercise regularly. I’m no athlete, but I’m pretty fit for a 40-something teacher/husband/father. I lift weights 5 days a week, do cardio 6 days a week, and walk anywhere between 3 and 8 miles a day everyday. I used to do cardio workouts with students after school as part of my Active Club (see “Developing Good Relationships With Students (Part 1 of a Series: Clubs”)); I would get in my steps at work by walking around my class/school (I almost never sit down at work); and I’d hit the weights either before or after school. When COVID hit and the gyms and school buildings closed, I wasn’t really affected because I work out at home. I’ve got a pair of Bowflex 525 adjustable dumbbells, resistance bands, a treadmill, and an elliptical machine, all of which I amassed years before the pandemic. As I gave students direct synchronous instruction, I walked on the treadmill. When it was time for students to do their asynchronous work, I hit the weights while monitoring their progress through Go Guardian. I got my cardio done before/after my virtual classes or during my prep. Managing my time and multitasking like this really freed up big chunks of time in my evenings.
When I return to my classroom this fall, I’ll walk around the class to get in my steps and start up the Active Club again for cardio just like before the pandemic. However, I’m not lugging each of my 52.5 lbs dumbbells back and forth from my home to school everyday so I can get my strength training done. What I can do though is carry resistance bands with me while students work independently or in groups, and pump out a few reps/sets as I walk around to monitor them. I could also train during passing periods, lunch, and my prep. If this works out, I’ll be able to get all my exercise done and out of the way before I get home from work. SWEET! (Read “Have Your Cake. Eat Your Cake.” for more multitasking and time management ideas.)
Anyhoo, that’s pretty much everything positive I got out of distance learning that I’ll be taking back to the classroom with me in August. I can’t wait to implement every one of them. They’ll improve the quality of life for both my students and me. I don’t know if any of my ideas will work for traditional education, so this whole thing will be an experiment. Just like any experiment, the more people who participate, the more data we’ll have to draw conclusions from. So, please feel free to give each of the tips and tricks I pointed out in this post a try and let me know how it goes. Do it for science and the well being of you and your students. Now, I’m sure there are some other tips and tricks I haven’t stumbled upon yet, so if you know of any, please comment away.