How We Began Online Learning Successfully

As we began distance learning, I started writing and reflecting. I wrote this piece back in March as this began and in the hustle and bustle, I didn't publish it. I just forgot it was there. However, as I read this, I am inspired and coming full circle that we have more work to do and I also think this reflection is part of the journey and is worth sharing. The truths from this kickoff are still true now as we plan for fall. I hope if you read how the journey has happened from our school that we'll all consider how far we've come even if we consider how far we might have to go.

In the end, nobody knows what we face ahead only that the ability to be flexible, smart, and to use technology to link us wherever we are is part of what we have to do. We didn't lose any instructional days and in hindsight, our parents felt it was very successful. So, enjoy this post written on March 19, 2020 as we were just beginning distance learning…

Two weeks ago today my Headmaster put on my radar to be ready to lead forward should our school have to close. I think most of us were in denial. However, we agreed we'd prepare and not panic. In life, we have to control what we can and we have to trust the rest to the Divine. In this post, I am reflecting upon the last two weeks. I was asked on this day two weeks a go to begin to prepare and compile a Distance Learning Playbook and life has been a whirlwind ever since. (I can't share the Distance Learning Playbook, it belongs to the school.)

The teachers were trained on zoom before we left last Thursday

The teachers were trained on zoom before we left last Thursday

Last Saturday, Google Classroom Guru, Alice Keeler streamed live with me for 2 1/2 hours as we did a duo demo of all of the things in Google Classroom showing both sides of how it works. This includes how to organize files, how to grade. Everything you need. I'm slicing down these videos and they are in this blog post and going to this playlist.


Since then, over 200K people have viewed some of the blog posts and YouTube tutorials on this site and lots of things have happened. The teachers have come an incredibly long way from when we were teaching them Zoom at 3:30 pm last Thursday. (see pic below)

If there could be a silver lining, it is easy to show people shiny tech but true technology WORKS when you need it to. Don't talk. Do. Don't pretend. Live it. Breathe it. Be it. These things and times are hard but perhaps a few of these reflections might help some of you.

Fourth grade meets with their teacher, the Instructional Tech director (me), and their teacher on Tuesday, the first full day of class after our orientation day on Monday.

Getting Connected

The first part of any journey is to learn from those who have traveled before you. Last Monday, I was home after a trip. First, I joined a Facebook group at the recommendation of my friend Dr. Thomas Ho. The Educator Temporary School Closure Online Support group was just a thousand back then. Now we have over 95,000 educators and growing. I researched the tools and shared it on the 16 Free Tools for Schools Closing Due to the Coronavirus.

The Facebook group that has helped me the most.

We were learning from teachers in China and Italy and across the world. This is probably the very best resource of all. I spent last Monday at home and researched and worked to get information to prepare.

Mistakes to Avoid

Learning is different but it is still happening at my school where we live out world-class every day. It is who we are. The students are. The teachers are. The parents are. The administration is. We are partners in learning and it takes all three.

First, I scrolled the group and made a list of “mistakes” that schools said they made and sat down with admin last Tuesday to discuss them and figure out how we could not make the same mistakes. I've listed the mistakes that teachers said happened and what we did about it. Some of them included:

The Worst Mistakes

  • Some schools just closed.

Perhaps the worst mistake of all. These teachers are not receiving paychecks now or having their pay cut significantly.

  • Some teachers “opted out.”

These teachers made themselves easy to lay off. As I shared in the book I co-authored, Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds, if you are invisible online – YOU DON'T EXIST to others in the space. We have to connect and learn.

  • Children need structure.

Children need the structure and stability of familiar faces.

Online Learning Lessons

  • Not making sure faculty and staff and students took books home every day

We started taking books home last Thursday as per teacher request. We didn't make a big deal about it, we just started doing it. This included everything. Yes, we got groans but the kids are happy about it now.

  • Not testing tools

    Students work to create spaces and places to get learning done.

A fellow teacher, James Byrd, and I tested every video conferencing tool we could find and settled on Zoom. It gave us more controls. That was our choice.

  • Not having onboarding before students left on the tools

If a child can't log in, they can't begin!

A note on leadership: My administration secured a sub for my classes and put me on this task full time starting last Thursday. Again, this is leadership. Leadership frees up resources for important things. Leadership has a vision that might inconvenience someone today but they're thankful tomorrow. I could not have done it without leadership from my headmaster and principal. Leadership matters.

So, we had every student in grades 3-12 log into Google Classroom last Thursday and Friday before we left as I sanitized keyboards and mice in between them.

We also made sure they could see all their classes in Google Classroom and teachers began stopping lesson plans to teach zoom and give assignments in Google Classroom so we could work through issues. A note about teachers:  Teachers are practical people and good ones realize unusual circumstances and act. Our teachers dropped everything and focused on onboarding. Our whole school benefits from the wisdom of wise teachers who don't panic but prepare. 

(One teacher in the Facebook group was talking last week about how their administrators wouldn't let them talk to the kids at all about it. This is hard for me to understand.)

Friday was our last day and when the last child walked out, we had this done. Every child had their username and password except those who were out. Those, I handled over the weekend.

  • Not being ready to go online and teach.

    Our teachers had orientation Monday. I oriented students Monday and then by Tuesday, we were up. We didn't take any days out of school for the transition because of preparation.

The SCA Distance Learning Playbook was submitted in first draft last week. (Sorry, it belongs to the school and I'm not the one who can share it.) We also now have a Distance Learning Playbook for teachers. This includes all modified policies and procedures such as attendance and other expectations.

Why did we choose the word Distance Learning? We are learning at a distance. I have always disliked the term “virtual learning.” Virtual means “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.” Well, we're really learning and really moving online. We're learning at a distance.

  • Not training teachers.

We canceled our staff meeting last Wednesday and held after school PD on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday on Google Classroom, Zoom, and Assessments and teaching online.

You can't move old-school teaching online, you have to adopt new pedagogies.

  • Not getting on the same page

Day 0 was Monday and we oriented teachers and students and I taught every student in an ONLINE LIFE classroom – one for the middle school and one for the high school including the How to Learn in an Online Classroom video I shot last Tuesday. We made sure parents, teachers, and students all had the same playbook, all understood what we were doing, and all had training on the tools. We recorded these sessions and shared them.

  • Not communicating with parents.

On Monday we released our SCA Distance Learning Playbook to our parents and students and it was part of orientation. We had amazing attendance at our parent orientation sessions! Also, parents have great feedback for us. Our leadership team has spent a considerable about of time talking to parents this week so we can adapt and level up.

  • Not considering bandwidth and sharing with siblings

We put methods in place to make sure screentime wasn't excessive and to coordinate schedules so students can more easily share devices at home. We also selected tools that work on just about everything. Google Classroom works on every smartphone, tablet, PC, Kindle Fire, and Xbox and PS4. Zoom works on everything and we also have call in features on some events so landline phones can be used. We have to make learning accessible.

  • Not considering that some kids have to do the work in the evenings because their daytime location doesn't have internet (or parents want to supervise).

All content is recorded and shared so we can be on the same page.

  • Attendance policies are clear (Done.)
  • Routines are clear. (Done.)

We have to learn and help one another. We have to learn from mistakes. We have to level up. My Headmaster had me start a list of best practices this week. We keep adding to the list as we find things that work.

I could list at least 15-20 other things we did as a result of parent feedback and educator conversations on Twitter and in the Facebook group.

We're all in this together and all you can do is start from today.

Leadership Makes a Difference

But as I ponder this, I marvel and appreciate a leadership team who helps us do the hard stuff. There are leaders who just try not to ruffle feathers. As a result, little progress is made sometimes in the technology arena. In the placid times before this latest storm, technology was a – “should” and now it has become a “must.”

Those schools who went ahead and boldly made it a must are more easily transitioning. Likewise, some leaders can't help where they are, they live in areas that haven't invested in the technological infrastructure to learn at a distance.

But it is also in the DNA of a school.

Truthfully, we've been doing the hard things in technology for over a year. We moved from the server to the cloud. We moved from exchange to Office 365. We started setting up Google Classroom (yes we have both).

We synced Google Classroom with our SIS over a month ago for all classes because our registrar said it was “so easy” and she' like to have it there “just in case.” We moved the calendar to the cloud.

None of these things were easy. All of them required work.

For example, as we all took files off the server and uploaded them to Office 365. That was not fun. However, the teachers who did so are now rejoicing they endured the pain then. Our leadership team said do it and the followership of our teachers and staff executed on the plan.

When we changed from exchange calendaring to Google calendaring, it was a challenge.

And yet, I see now that by doing the hard things then, as we do hard things now we have less hard things to do.

Those schools without the leadership of a true blended future are realizing that they have to move forward.

Yet, as I told the teachers, I never would have chosen this way. This is hard. I miss my family. I've decided that since I literally had to work with every child in the whole school last Thursday and Friday that the only right thing to do was to come home on Friday and be home for two weeks. I feel fine and am in almost a week now. But this is not easy.

When I see irresponsibility

Those of us taking it seriously just want to be done with this. We're cleaning our schools. We're disinfecting our homes. We are social distancing if we have to go out.

However, I'll admit that when I see certain behaviors that extend our need to be apart, I'm struck by  the need for us all to be selfless and not selfish.

The selfishness of “I want to” do this or “I want to do” that means that when enough selfish people who choose to congregate for non-essential reasons continue to spread this thing, that we make more draconian methods become considered in a country that is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Sometimes the brave thing is to stay home. The brave thing is to say no to your children who want to take a vacay at the beach. The brave thing is to stock up and cook at home and be home for as long as possible.

I'm not here to debate you if this is real. But when people stop getting paid (including those schools and educators who don't take care of business and provide a world-class education for children) then it will be too late.

If you aren't online, you're INVISIBLE. And right now, more than ever, if you're INVISIBLE, you don't exist.

Lots of people are working very hard right now. But I'm pained for schools who are struggling due to infrastructure, poverty, or lack of leadership. Their children will be harder to keep home and the long term impacts will be more detrimental. XBox Live makes a terrible babysitter.

Good Things

These are challenging times and yet in my small sphere of the world, I'm encouraged. I have met the household pets of almost all of my colleagues. They now know I like to drink diet Ginger Ale. WE're growing closer and in many ways becoming more of a family.

I'm meeting more parents. Having more face time with individual kids. And in many ways, getting far more teacher training than I could have done in the next five years.

I hate that this has happened. I don't like it one bit. I don't like that my country seems to becoming some lost ship at sea with the passengers locked in their cabins.

And yet, as Tolkien wisely said,

“You cannot choose the times in which you live. Only the way in which you live the times.”

One of the easiest ways to get carsick is to look out the back window too long. And one of the easiest ways to get lifesick is to long for yesterday.

As my husband and I pray every night, this is often our prayer,

“Lord, thank you for helping me do all the things I wasn't capable of doing yesterday but You helped me do them. Today, help me to do the things that are beyond my ability again.”

These are unusual times that stretch those of us who know that the path forward requires our work and engagement with our world while we keep our front and back doors shut. Our way out is online.

As I told my students and parents, they can keep us apart physically but nobody can separate our hearts.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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The Cool Cat Teacher Blog
Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere