Student work + Remote Learning

When it comes to actual teaching during these trying times, one of the biggest obstacles is getting into frequent contact with authentic student work. I don’t how authentic it is, but I have been able to examine student work just about everyday in a way that isn’t totally horrible. Plus, with a little prep beforehand, I’m experimenting with how to seamlessly bring their work into our Zoom sessions to start conversations. Here’s what I’ve been doing. (My pal Michael Pershan wrote a great post on this topic, too.)

1. Before class, students do some math by hand on a given problem I’ve assigned.

2. They scan their work using Genius Scan. Scanned work has some serious advantages over regular photos. It’s clearer and glare and other lighting issues are usually minimized. Genius App is free — and I’m sure there are others like it.

3. They upload their scanned work to Google Classroom. I create a new Assignment for each problem in Classroom so that I’m only looking at work from one problem at a time. I make it clear to the kids that their “grade” for the assignment is based purely on completion, not correctness. That’s the bait I use to encourage them to submit work that is genuine. I think it’s working, but who knows. What else do I have?

4. After they submit their work on Classroom, here’s how it appears on my end:

Screen Shot 2020-04-13 at 6.02.45 PM


In doing this almost every day, looking over their work and providing feedback has worked out far better than I thought it would originally. The whole process feels like it did when I collected work from them in person (minus handwritten feedback). The arrows near the top allow me to toggle between students with ease and leaving a “private comment” becomes a space for direct feedback that is emailed to each student on the spot. Copy and paste is my friend for common errors, which is a nice bonus that comes from typed feedback. In the comments, I have even been including links to other students’ work (anonymously) and YouTube videos that I know would help them. Some kids have told me that the feedback is helpful, but I know there are others that never use it…but this is not unlike the oft-ignored handwritten feedback I used to give them, right?

5. After looking at all of their work, I choose 3-4 interesting ones and paste those into a Google Doc. During our Zoom sessions, which are twice a week, I am developing a routine where I give the link to the doc and then put students in breakout rooms to discuss the work.

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What’s nice about this is that not only are they assessing other kids’ work, which I find to be a worthwhile and engaging task for them, but even if they didn’t do the problem or submit it on Classroom (which is A LOT of them), they still have access to it and can think about math. It keeps all kids in the loop. Well, at least in theory. Most of my breakout rooms are jarringly silent.




Dear Students, (Student Letter #7)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the seventh post in the series

Note: While all of my previous letters were written to individual students, given the COVID-19 crisis, this one is written to all of my current students.

Dear Students,

We’re three weeks in, and this remote learning thing is beginning to settle in. The Zoom sessions, mounds of emails, and teaching from my bedroom have somehow developed into routines. It’s all still quite strange, but markedly less strange than what it once was.

I wonder how you all are feeling about it. It may be hard to judge with many other aspects of your young lives evolving at the same time. Your stories are vastly different now than they were a month ago. Many of you are still picking up the pieces. Your families have been hit hard. Illness has gripped your reality, you have lost loved ones. For some, parents. Sadly, it seems that every day I learn of another one of you who has been wounded by this vile and unmerciful pandemic. Even though I have lost both of my parents, I simply can’t understand your loss. Others have had guardians lose jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, yet are still required to log on and fulfill empty demands. And for those privileged enough to have not been directly touched by this virus, many of you have expressed a sap in energy and severe lack of motivation. Through extended bouts of isolation and nothing but more bad news arriving each day, you are feeling helpless, alone, and uncertain about your future.

For these reasons and many more, being your teacher right now is hard. I mean, seriously, what am I doing trying to teach you polynomial long division? Is that what is important right now? And why am I having you drudgingly scan and upload your work to Classroom every day? So I can feel like I’m assessing your math thinking? Why am I tyrannically and insensitively pushing deadlines? I have cut the curriculum in half, but why have I given you so many grades? Am I leading with lessons — or love? Why am I attempting to recreate our in-person learning experience? Don’t I see that this will never be possible? I’m staring at a green dot!

I’m sorry, I’m just confused. And I miss you…and our classroom. I’m worried about not doing right by you and your needs. Right now, I don’t think I am. I haven’t been as sensitive as I should be during this time and it’s getting to me. I was already apprehensive about where I saw teaching and learning headed before this virus threw a tarantula on our lives, and now that it has, I don’t know what the hell to think. It’s hijacked our way of life and forced us to exist only as screennames on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me.

Speaking of Zoom, you have to excuse me each day as I plead with you all to activate your camera and share your faces with me and the rest of the class. I get that you don’t often want to be seen at a time like this (especially you, 1st period), but I find seeing you awfully comforting. Noticing you sitting atop of your kitchen counter eating ramen starts a conversation. It gives me something to hitch my floating mind to. It makes you human again. You see, I used to be able to walk up to you at any time and create a moment out of thin air. I could ask you about the essay you’re working on in ELA, your new hamster, or how your mom is holding up at her new job. Now I don’t even get to hear each of you speak unless you do it on your own (maybe that should change?), let alone see you. Even if you’re having a crummy day, please know my day will always be better after seeing you. It’s all I have.

I want to strike the right balance of compassion and accountability, but instead, I’m being held hostage by a screen and a keyboard. There’s a pressure — both externally and internally — to make things as normal as possible for you. Well, THIS ISN’T NORMAL. Putting those words in all caps — and this letter in general — is a self-imposed prick on my finger; a reminder of what’s important. Being aware of how ensconced I now am in remote learning is in itself a check for myself. With the school year now permanently severed and with us being detached for so long, I fear that the humanity that I tried so hard to solicit in our classroom is being drained out of me one Zoom session at a time. Gradually, over the last month, my settling into remote learning has pivoted my attention away from your struggles, hardships, and the state of flux that your lives have become. I’m getting comfortable staring at a green dot and it is getting scary. I apologize.

In lieu of that apology, I have nothing to offer you but my word that I will be more critical of how I serve you in the months ahead. I promise frequent non-academic check-ins and a greater emphasis on community and togetherness and less of a focus on the strictures of curriculum. I promise to remember that you are more than a green dot or screenname. I promise to do my best to lead with love, not lessons.

Sincerely Yours,
Mr. P

Haiku #6

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the sixth post in the series.

Teaching and learning have both been upended in recent weeks and, while I am energized by change, I’m still searching for ways to process this one. Our new normal has arrived with no mercy for what we took for granted. Who would have thought I would miss my trapezoidal desks and the fight my SmartBoard always seemed to give me. I miss making copies and catching up with colleagues who I never see around the building. I miss the building. Maybe it misses us too.

School reborn on screen
Empty classrooms left confused
Where are the humans?



One week in, a conversation with myself about remote learning

In this time of sun-deprived isolation, pardon me as I indulge in a much-needed conversation with myself about remote learning.

Me: So, you’ve been doing remote learning for a week. How’s it going?

Remote Learning Me: I don’t like it. No matter how excited I am about breakout rooms in Zoom, being tethered to my MacBook and staring into a little green light for hours on end is torture. I’m buoyed by the details of personal interactions. A brighter-than-usual smile, a new backpack, a pair of slumped shoulders; it is the minutia that drives me and my teaching. Not having access to these subtleties have blinded me from my kids. I don’t see them and I can’t stand it. But it does present my teaching with a new challenge — which I am learning to savor. Plus, it beats sitting around refreshing the NY Times homepage 23 times a day. My apartment is a mess, but I need the structure, and so do my students. That said, my days don’t feel organized or even separate. They’re bleeding into one another, creating a very strange experience.

Me: Given the strangeness of it all, how are you approaching things?

Remote Learning Me: I let go a lot. While I’m fascinated by how I might reinvent learning for my students, hoping along the way that I’ll become a more robust teacher when this is all over, I’ve relaxed my curricular expectations. I’ve embraced that, at best, I’ll probably accomplish 40% of what I would have in a normal setting. We’ve been yanked in all directions by this virus. We’re all overwhelmed. There’s no way I am going to make the situation worse by shoving Common Core in my students’ faces.

Me: OK, then. What’s working?

Remote Learning Me: Nothing, yet. I don’t get my kids to work hard for me in person, so how am I supposed to work my magic when they’re concealed behind a screen, wrapped up in a blanket, eating cereal? That’s another reason why I’ve become far less aggressive with the curriculum. Anyway, pre-corona, I structured our Algebra 2 course to revolve around interleaved problems that I asked them to complete prior to class, which we then interrogated during class. The problems surface key ideas. I have no plans to abandon this structure, but helping my students have meaningful conversations is proving to be hard on Zoom. On more than one occasion this week, having asked them to talk about a problem, I entered silent breakout rooms, with every kid having muted themself. I couldn’t help but wonder what cereal they were scarfing down.

Me: How might you improve this?

Remote Learning Me: I envision using a lot of student work to guide their discussions. In person, we did this using giant whiteboards around the room. On Zoom, many students are working from computers, and holding up their work to the webcam is awkward and clumsy. So towards the end of the week, I began having students scan some of their work using Genius Scan and upload it to Google Classroom.

When we meet on Zoom, I want this bank of student work to be the backbone of class. Before we meet, I imagine sifting through their work and pasting a few of them in a Google Doc. I would then put kids in breakout rooms to debate the work, discuss errors, and agree on a correct solution. Ideally, then they have something tangible to latch on to even if they didn’t do the problem (all the while enjoying their cereal).

Me: So everything will revolve around the work they scan and upload before class?

Remote Learning Me: Nah, I don’t think so. I plan to leverage the work-based discussions often, but I’m also making short videos to overview certain problems that are less complex. Students would watch these on their own outside of our virtual class time. There are also problems that will require direct instruction. I hope to keep it to a 10-12 minute lecture, with time for the kids to practice an example or two in breakout rooms. This may also come in the form of a YouTube video (not me) that I direct them to watch before class. I’m also relying a lot on Desmos and DeltaMath — which now has instructional videos.

Me: Any thoughts on formal assessments?

Remote Learning Me: Well, stressing academic honesty, I “administered” a quiz on Friday. I posted a problem on Classroom and gave students a six-hour window to scan their work and upload it. Glancing over their work on Friday Night, I provided meager written feedback as a private comment on Classroom. It’s not perfect, but the quiz served its purpose: to put me on to what they know and what they don’t know. The results were typical of what I know of about students and I plan on making it a routine until something makes me change my mind. It’s not the best solution to the issue of asynchronous, at-home assessment, but I don’t want to give up and say that we cannot formally assess our students anymore just because we can’t do it in a controlled environment. Benjamin Dickman’s thinking around take-home exams comes to mind.

Me: Anything else?

Remote Learning Me: