Packing the backpack is a thing of the past — at least for the next few weeks.
My daughter is a second-grade student in the Northshore School District, which closed last week due to the coronavirus outbreak and brought all learning online. That means the written homework and practice tests have been replaced by Google Forms and Docs. Sitting in the same room with her teacher has been replaced by classroom conferences via Zoom.
This situation sounded daunting, but I’m OK with how things have been going. Actually, I’m kind of enjoying it.
While this new online model, which the district has dubbed “Classroom to Cloud,” doesn’t have the predetermined structure of the traditional school day, some of the changes that come with it are welcoming. Besides some bits of scheduled live instruction, my daughter is generally able to go about her day in a way that works for her as long as she completes all of her assignments. That’s a good thing, because she can take a break when she needs one and dig into math when she’s ready. She can take her time eating lunch rather than being rushed out of the cafeteria door.
The response from parents and kids as a whole seems to be positive, though it does have some complications.
Wide variety of software
One challenge for parents is the sheer variety of programs being used. While some of the programs are used in most of the classrooms, others are specific to certain teachers. Parents of high school and middle school kids have it particularly hard because they each have multiple teachers who might all use different programs and allow — or not — flexible schedules. Based on what I’ve heard from parents, the experience can be like night-and-day, depending on the teacher and the teacher’s level of comfort with technology.
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Lisa Youngblood Hall, director of communications for the district, said that was the very reason for the variety — because they wanted to make the teachers comfortable.
“We wanted teachers to be able to use the same tools they have already been using in class and that fit their teaching style,” she said.
On the plus side, this also means many of the students are already familiar with the tools, because they’ve used them before. Some of the programs being used are Google Classroom and Docs, Zoom, i-Ready, Noodle Tools, NoRedInk, FlipGrid and Seesaw.
Hall said the district recognizes that this can be overwhelming and confusing. They’re hoping to make some programs consistent across the entire district. She said they have been talking with Microsoft about making modifications to Microsoft Teams to make it a better fit for educational settings. The program is currently being piloted in a few of the schools, and they hope to roll it out to the rest of the schools soon.
My daughter’s class uses a combination of Google Classroom, Zoom, and i-Ready. i-Ready has already been used throughout the district for elementary students as a way to give lessons and measure students’ abilities in reading and math. While Google Classroom and Zoom were new to us, my daughter was already fully competent in i-Ready. The other two were very easy for us to get up and running.
But we’re lucky. My husband and I are very tech-savvy. Other parents may not have the extent of knowledge in that area. That can make things challenging for them and their kids. In response to that problem, the district set up a tech support phone bank to answer parent questions and help with problems getting their kids up and running.
“In general, it’s going fairly well for us,” said Jenn Kirkland, who has daughters in both middle school and high school. “One of my daughters would prefer more of her classes like choir, drawing, and ASL to be in-person, and getting the other to move around is a challenge.”
Team Northshore supporting teaching and learning this morning with responses to questions. So important for the timely staff responses !! Let’s do this !! pic.twitter.com/URHWTUiLJc
— Michelle Reid (@Northshore_Supt) March 10, 2020
Kirkland said her daughters also differ when it comes to technological comfort.
“[One of my daughters] is in all things artsy, but her tech comfort level is fairly low by comparison with the rest of her family,” she said. “[My other daughter] is a bit of a mad scientist. She’s tech-friendlier than I am (and I’m pretty good).”
The other big issue the district had to consider was equity. Again, my family was lucky in that area. We have recent devices and a reliable high-speed internet connection. But the district had to make sure every student had the opportunity to keep learning. In order to do that they loaned computers or tablets along with WiFi hotspot devices to anyone who needed one, even if the family already owned a computer. This way, families with multiple kids were all able to participate when they needed to.
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This is a bigger challenge for Seattle Public Schools, which announced its own two-week closure starting Thursday but isn’t offering online learning because it isn’t able to provide equitable access to all students across the district, which at more than 53,000 students is more than twice as large as the Northshore District, across a wider range of communities. Northshore could afford to give every student a device thanks to a levy that passed in 2018 that was designed to specifically fund technology initiatives in the district.
The daily routine
In the Northshore district, Monday was the first day of full online school. It very much mirrored the first day at physical school. Lessons were light and it was more about getting up to speed on what the process would be. Yesterday, I got to see what a normal day of online learning will look like.
Every morning we log into Google Classroom to take a look at her assignments for the day. Then the class has an online chat with their main teacher via Zoom. That nearly hour-long session involves a variety of group lessons. Sometimes it might be discussing a book. Yesterday the students shared some opinion writing they had been working on and got feedback from the other students.
This might seem like the biggest recipe for disaster you can think of — 22 second-graders all together in one video chat. The teacher handles that daunting task by taking advantage of some of the tools available in Zoom. He gave the kids a couple of minutes to converse among themselves and say hi to each other. I was sitting in the same room as my daughter during this class, and I’ll admit, my first thought as they were all yelling at each other was, “how in the world is this going to work?” But the teacher has the ability to mute everyone else and then unmute the student who’s talking. He can block the video one-by-one as well, if someone is distracting everyone else.
It took the kids a minute to understand the set-up. My daughter kept trying to talk when she was muted and I could see some of the other kids do the same. If they want to talk, they have two ways they can do that. They can raise their hand physically or use the “raise hand” option in the program. From an educational perspective, it would be better if the option appeared on the main screen (if anyone from Zoom is reading.) Right now, it’s buried in a menu – though a couple of the kids found it quicker than I did.
There is also a real-time chat, but her teacher set it up so the messages only go to him, so the kids don’t have a chance to be distracted by that. Once they all realized they were muted, they stayed pretty engaged. But I wasn’t really surprised by that, as I serve as an art docent for the class and they’re mostly respectful kids when other students are talking. We may have gotten lucky on that front, as well. Like most other video conferencing programs, her teacher is also able to share his screen, which he did on a number of occasions.
That wasn’t the only live lesson my daughter had yesterday. She had a chance to jump into a music class as well. That was also done over Zoom, and that teacher took advantage of the tools in much the same way. The only time he would unmute everyone was when he wanted them to sing along while he shared his screen with the sheet music on it. Then he told the kids to go play around on the Chrome Music Lab.
But not all of her lessons are live. Besides the activities in i-Ready, some of the lessons are pre-recorded videos that the students watch. Then they complete the lesson, whether that be working in a hard-copy math workbook or doing some writing straight into Google Docs. Any Google Doc that she creates is automatically stored on her personal Google Drive, which she has already been using on a regular basis.
Other pre-recorded lessons, including library and P.E., try to mimic what they would be like in school. The librarian shared a book and then offered instructions for kids to go to the King County Library System site to listen to some more throughout the week. The P.E. teachers had some written instructions for warm-up activities and then videos of gymnastics stretches and rolls that they’ll be focusing on when the kids go back to school. I was not expecting the specialty classes — music, library and P.E. to offer as involved lessons as they did.
Hall says that while the Classroom to Cloud program needed to be implemented out of necessity, the district also sees it as an opportunity to continue learning when schools need to be closed for other reasons, like last year’s snowstorm, which shuttered the district for more than a week. It’s also a way for teachers to take advantage of technology in a larger way when the students return to school.
Before the long-term closure was announced, the district closed the schools for one day to give teachers a full-day training session. Hall said it was really eye-opening to the teachers. “Some of them came out of those meetings saying ‘I had no idea what was possible,’” she said.
The original closure announcement said schools would be closed for up to 14 days, but the date when students will return to school hasn’t been determined. I’m doubtful if schools will open before the end of March. Based on the work-from-home policies recently enacted by the major tech companies, 14 days seems like a very low number. And while I have a lot of flexibility as a freelancer to support my daughter’s at-home learning, many are not so lucky. Even though every kid has the technology to learn at home, many families have serious challenges helping them. Finding solutions to those challenges will require more than the school district to solve. The community has to step up as well. I’m thankful that the community in the Northshore district seems up to the task.