Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.18.20Our First Round of Videos of Online Teaching

As promised I’m going to share some early video of what teachers are doing online and some observations about what seems to work.

Step one: Continuity, Community, and Accountability…

Some reminders: None of this is perfect–either what the teachers do or our advice based on it. We’re all figuring it out together in difficult circumstances and on the fly. Right now, as my colleague Hannah Solomon put it, “Every teacher is a champion.” We hope to help as much as we can.

Also, per my previous post here, these are all examples of asynchronous teaching, which has certain gaps: like a sense of connection and a feeling of accountability for the learner. All remote work probably shouldn’t be asynchronous, but, man, it’s a good place to start and a key thing to get right.

The first clip I want to share is a montage of four teachers at Brooklyn Rise Charter School in NYC: Jenna DeNicola (K-1 Science), Rachel Shin (Kindergarten), Davis Piper (Grade 1) and Cary Finnegan (Principal).

It’s fitting that we’re starting with examples of K and 1 teachers because online learning is especially challenging with younger grades but I also think everyone can learn something from these videos. In light of that, the second video I’ll show is of two high school teachers doing essentially the same thing.

Here’s the video:

Jenna kicks it off by calling her kiddos the “Steam Team” and reminding them that she misses them. Her tone is warm and caring but not over the top. It feels real. They feel connected to her, she reminds them that they are part of a team and then they get to work. Online attention spans at that age are short; smart teachers engage students in interesting and exciting work quickly. Her language is crisp and economical and she gives her little ones a way to interact (‘show me strength’) right away.

Rachel’s demeanor is also a gift to her students: warm, familiar, upbeat and welcoming in a strange world. It feels calming to see her on the screen. The feeling of normalcy and continuity is a theme we noticed in the videos we liked the best. Everyone in anxious right now, but kids don’t need to hear you talk about how hard it is and how much confusion you feel. Mostly they need to see your face, feel your sense of calm and know that they are still part of something. One big goal is to remind them of what’s familiar about school. Rachel does a good job of that but like Jenna doesn’t perseverate. They get down to work quickly–she’s thinking about keeping the task moving to maintain attention and knows that a short warm greeting is really important but that too much signals something amiss.

A side note on the moment when Rachel asks for ‘a big thumbs up’ from her kiddos and then says “good” afterwards. I’m calling the idea of pretending that you see someone reacting in asynchronous video (when obviously you can’t) “faux feedback.” It’s useful with very young students; but obviously not something to try with older ones who would quickly recognize it as false.

Like Jenna and Rachel, Davis greets his students warmly. He calls them “Bulldogs” to remind them that they are on a team and tells them that he misses them. Warmth and caring; any anxiety hidden. Then he gets down to work. Upbeat and positive. They do sight words first. My colleagues noticed how Davis is using the same routine he uses when kids are in the classroom for this. In the long run he may want to adapt his routine–perhaps he’ll want to insert some pause points to make sure kids have time to answer or can respond to show they’ve answered.

[One of the things my colleagues hope to write about soon is how to think about balancing wait time–giving students time to answer while a video rolls versus with pause points–asking students to pause and answer].

For now though we were stuck by how calming and familiar the regular routine must feel and therefore how much continuity Davis establishes.

Davis also does a great job with his eyes. When it’s his students’ turn to say the site word he very intentionally looks right at the camera. We respond to nonverbal cues whether we’re aware of them of not and this one makes a viewer–even a viewer in an asynchronous video–feel more accountable. It’s a sort of online Be Seen Looking.

Cary closes it out. More warmth but also more stressing of accountability. You’ll notice there’s a culture of accountability already being established in almost every interaction. You’re going to do work and I’m going to see it and that’s a good thing! It’s important in every educational setting to communicate messages like I care whether you do your work and I’ll know whether you do your work and maybe even It’s going to be a lot easier for you to build a habit of doing your work. But its ten times more important in a remote setting so amidst the warmth and welcome there’s a constant subtle emphasis on accountability–usually with a smile.

[Updated: 3.30.20: At a staff meeting one of my colleagues noted that Rachel steps back and stands up in her video. Suddenly it feels like you’re back in a real classroom with her. There’s an echo of the familiar and it feels dynamic. The world gets bigger. Can’t always be done, but maybe worth trying once in a while]

Now on to our HS video. These are from two colleagues at Uncommon Preparatory High School: Reka Bennett and Sara Sherr. We see it as a kind of theme and variation exercise–they are similar but different, though interestingly, many the things they both do are also similar to the K-1 videos.

Both videos start with the teacher on camera. That sounds trivial but many of the videos we watched started with a power point already up on screen. Distance learning feels distant right now…We want kids to feel connected with and accountable to a person whom they know so starting with you is important–ideally warm and optimistic and smiling like Reka and Sara are. Again there’s a brief greeting: we’re connected, it’s nice to see you. Then down to work. We want to keep students active and busy. No time wasting. That’s true in the classroom and triply true online. As for the greeting, Reka does a little more and Sara does a little less, but they both do it.

The importance of expectation-setting for systems and routines is another theme. It’s the beginning of the year all over again. “This is what we’ll always start with,” Reka says, reminding students of how things will work but also connecting them to routines that are familiar. She stresses the materials students will need and encourages them to pause and not go on unless they have them. We’ll always follow this procedure, she notes. We especially loved the specificity: here’s what to have on your desk.

Sara is similar. Warm and welcoming greeting where we can see her face. Quickly down to work. Clear statement of what needs to happen for you to be prepared. “Please pause the video if you haven’t” and a beautiful job stressing accountability–here are the two ways you can send me evidence of your annotating–right from the outset. Accountability is already implicit in every conversation.

These are simple starting points. Yes, we can’t wait to share more and dig deeper. But starting points matter so we hope these are helpful and that you’ll share your insights too.

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