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Bye-Bye Classroom: Transitioning to Distant Learning

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

A View of Canvas and the new workplace.

A View of Canvas and the new workplace.

It’s Monday, our weekly late-start collaboration day. Between 8 and 9:30 AM, teachers meet with administrators and /or departments. Students arrive at 9:30 and go to all 8 periods. In terms of instructional time, every period is half-hour long, as compared to 1 ½ hour-long periods of block scheduling (consisting of 4 periods) we have for the rest of the week.

In many respects, today’s schedule is fitting as the last day of school before the campus shuts down in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, the last day of school is a minimum day.

My school is not alone. My sons’ schools in Spokane, Washington will shut down after this day is over. In fact, many schools and school districts throughout the country are shutting their doors by day’s end...if they haven’t already.

This will be a new era in education, but this is no time to celebrate. This will take us, the teachers, out of the classroom, into our students’ homes -- and possibly out of our comfort zone. It will be a new path for students as well….including my sons. Will they self-advocate and take the initiative to learn? Or will they turn their back on the lessons presented to them? Will their parents take active roles in their children’s education?

This new pedagogical era already has a new name: distant-learning. And our tools will be the Internet.

By all means, this is supposed to be temporary until the threat of COVID-19 is gone. Still, this will be a test to see if we’re ready to switch strategies and techniques for teaching. In addition, it begs the question: how will this change education during and after this pandemic? I suspect that change will either be dire or beneficial. I also believe that there’s a possibility that these changes -- good or bad -- will shape how education is taught in the not-so-distant future.

Still, this era starts with possibly the most important collaboration day meeting of the year. And, I will have to observe from afar through the very technology that distant-learning will be relying upon.

The Superintendent Speaks

Physically, I can’t be there. Doesn’t matter: accommodations for this all-important meeting have been made for me and others in my same predicament. I suspect that some of my colleagues didn’t show up today for a myriad of reasons such as:

  • their children’s schools may have already closed down;
  • They’re aware of the growing dangers of being in large groups and have brought upon themselves to social distance from others by not showing up;
  • May have had lingering health issues that make them vulnerable.

I open a link from an email and I’m taken to a video broadcast from the superintendent and the district administrators.

And, with every point he makes, he repeats the rallying cry:“We’ got this!”

Always full of pep and speaking at rapid fire speed, the superintendent starts delivering a speech meant to “gather the troops to a cause.” In this case, we’re the troops and the push toward a distant-learning transition is the cause.

His half-hour speech hits several points such as:

  • The need to sanitize the school while the students are away;
  • Ensure that students who need free lunch can pick them up at the campus; and
  • Tech people will be on call to help students and teachers.

And, with every point he makes, he repeats the rallying cry:“We got this!”

Afterward, the other district administrators speak their part, giving cordial --sometimes laconic -- presentations about the district’s plans and procedures in the coming weeks. In many respects, they give the nuts and bolts to the superintendent's fiery speech. Still, the superintendent is the star of the show, and he closes things with a rallying whoop.

“Just remember,” he repeats, “ we got this! I know we will.”

Interestingly, enough it’s his mantra, not the procedures presented, that I remember the most.

After the Speech

The speech is over. And, for a lack of a better word, my participation in the meeting is done, as well. Another aspect to life during the quarantine is about to begin. My youngest son, Cassidy, will start his last day of school.

He’s dressed and ready to go. I take my wife’s car and drive him to his elementary school.

Before I sign off, another email arrives. They are slides from my principal. I glance at it and realize that she has more news about the rest of the week. The slides are part of a presentation she is giving to my colleagues after they viewed the superintendent’s speech. It appears she has a plan. There’s no rah-rah in this; it’s just about the process of distant-learning.

I’ll have to read it later. It’s time to get my son to school.

From L.A. to Spokane, the slogan spreads.

From L.A. to Spokane, the slogan spreads.

Yesterday may have been the final school day for Cassidy, Gordon (who currently doesn’t live with us) and me. Although the marque at every school in the Spokane area flashes the message that school will resume on April 27th, the gut feeling I have is that it may be longer. Currently, my school is restarting April 10th.

Still, the show must go on. School will be in session, one way or another.

Last night, I had some time to review my principal’s slides. She is asking us to start transferring our lesson plans onto the school’s Internet platform called Canvas. In addition, she informs us that we’ve been given a link and password for Google Meet, a video conference device on our school-issued Chromebook (luckily, I usually carry it when I fly up to Spokane). We are to establish an “office hour” for each day. In addition, we need to contact our students through school email to let them know about our lessons on the platform and the office hour.

We are supposed to have things up and running by the end of the week. In the meantime, our students stay at home with their family. They will have plenty of time at home...and away from school. How will they adjust to lessons that are essentially self-maintained, I wonder.

Time will tell if they will congregate over the Internet to continue their education. We the teacher, on the other hand, will be competing with other distractions on the Internet to get the attention of our students.

Just this moment, another email comes in. It indicates that we, the teachers, still have to show up to work on our lesson plans. She mentions that tech people will be available to help set up our lesson plans on Canvas.

Being more than 900 miles away from my classroom, this will be impossible to do. If I can’t be there, it will be akin to an absence, and could take away one of my sick leaves. Even in the midst of this pandemic, I can lose a sick day (I’m shaking my head).

I have to contact the principal to let her know about my situation. Those sick leaves can roll-over into next year and so on. I'd love to use them when I'm close to retirement. I must preserve them!

Lesson Plan or Bust

I get a reprieve. In a video meeting involving the principal, the vice-principals and the rest of the faculty, it’s revealed that more changes have happened this morning.

“We’ve been told that there shouldn’t be more than six people in any meeting,” one of the vice-principal states. “If you can’t or don’t want to come in, that’s fine. As long as you get your lesson plans onto Canvas.”

She also mentions that the campus will be open but for a limited number of people. In addition one must call in advance before arriving.

The principal adds that if a teacher has already placed their lesson plan on Canvas and have already had an administrator review it, they will not have to come in and a day missed during this transition week will be voided and not be counted as a sick leave.

After the meeting, I turn my attention to my Chromebook and flash-drive. I don’t have the option of coming in. It’s time to convert my lesson plans into an Internet program.

The Promise and Curse of Canvas

Canvas is not an easy system to learn. You have to bundle your lesson plans with available software, links, and other Internet technology and place them in instructional units/ systems called modules. Often, Google products (such as Google Docs, Slides or Spreadsheet) and pdf files are the primary choices. It supports other programs such as a sync system with Power Teacher’s Gradebook system (PowerTeacher Pro), external tool links, YouTube, and video/audio recording devices. The platform allows for a lot of tools; however, it also makes for a complex management system.

My district had Canvas available for several years. In addition, they offered workshops to help teachers implement it into their curriculum. It is a wonderful system...once you find ways to incorporate all its tools.

Like many school districts, the goal was to weave technology into traditional teaching models and introduce it to an increasingly tech-savvy student body. Such goals always look good on paper. The problem, however, was that not every teacher on campus was ready to switch to Canvas or to use it as a primary tool for lesson planning.

Although workshops, as well as a year-long training program, were offered by the district for years, not many took full advantage of them

Several factors that made it a hindrance rather than a blessing, such as:

  • Managing the tools offered;
  • Not everyone was trained to use it;
  • The amount of technology it offered was daunting and scared many from utilizing it; and
  • Many teachers saw it more as a back-up to their current lesson plans.

Some made their modules, told the students to go there if they missed a day of class. But worksheets, textbooks, lectures and notes were done through traditional paper handouts or packets.

Further explanation is needed about training. As mentioned, not everyone had been trained to use the program. Although workshops, as well as a year-long training program, were offered by the district for years, not many took full advantage of them. In part, it had to do with the students and school-issued Chromebooks.

The class of 2021 was the first group of students to receive Chromebooks. Not only were they the first to be issued them, they were expected to be the first to receive lessons, teaching material, and assignments electronically (this, of course, being through Canvas).

As a result, anyone teaching students expected to graduate during 2021 and beyond were also given a school-issued Chromebook -- with Canvas already installed -- and were given priority to take the training workshops for learning how to operate the laptop and the platform.

Two years ago, several courses I had consisted of students that will eventually become the class of 2021. Therefore, I was lucky enough to get a computer, get a personal Canvas account, and some training.

Makeshift teacher's desk

Makeshift teacher's desk

Still, there was nothing easy about training. In many respects, you had to attend these courses once or twice each month, right after the school (and considering I was commuting from Orange County to Los Angeles County’s South Bay area -- a 40 mile round trip on the infamously congested Interstate 405 --- after school workshops were not ideal to me).

On top of that, the information for all the programs it supported could be overwhelming. While I found Canvas to be full of bells and whistles, I often wondered -- worrying -- how I was going to use these bells and whistles in the most effective way possible.

Before the pandemic, I used Canvas as a back-up plan rather than a primary tool. Now, in the wake of things, I have to change my mindset.

My eyes are blurry and bloodshot. I’ve been at the dinner table, seated in front of my Chromebook, converting my lesson plans to fit Canvas. I’ve discovered that certain activities don’t translate well onto Canvas, especially if it has graphic items such as text boxes or empty squares.

Still, I keep going as I fight off the urge of nodding off into slumber. And now, I’ve come to an end, at least for the day. I’ve placed the first text and/or activity for each module I’ve created for the three courses I teach. It’s time to call it a night.

I look at the clock and am surprised it’s 2:00 AM. I’ve been working on this since noon. But I have enough on Canvas. I hit the Publish button, hoping that my students will see it when they log in to their accounts. Despite how late it is, I have one more feat to do: I email my principal to let her know my lesson (including my syllabus and office hours for Google Meet) is up. Hopefully, I will get the clearance I need to stay at home.

Morning Decision

The principal looks it over and decides I’m good to go. That’s a relief! I just spared my sick leave.

Another email from the district arrives. Originally, distant learning was going to last until April 10. Now it has been extended to April 24th. I’ve talked to a few teachers and administrators about this, via email or video chat. Many believe it will go much longer. I suspect this, as well.

I get an email from Cassidy’s first-grade teacher. They mention that school will continue through distance-learning. His teacher states that he and his peers (this is a group email) can start utilizing the school’s math learning programs, SplashLearn, and its reading software, Raz-Kids. Also,she states that a platform called SeeSaw will be set up for the future.

Luckily, these programs exist on available tablets we use at home. As soon as we receive this, I get him started. It’s not easy. Nearly a week without any assignments or school, Cassidy has grown accustomed to doing games, watching TV and causing playful havoc.

Later, I get word that Gordon’s school has already started him on his work. They’ve sent packets. I cringe upon hearing this: packets are disliked by students because it’s viewed as “busy work.” (I will later learn that the packets were created as a means to keep students busy until they are able to get a distance learning platform online). Still, you use the tools you’re given. And, that’s precisely what Gordon’s teacher has done.

As a result, many students have settled into the complacency that the quarantine is having on them while districts go into panic mode.

No doubt, this first week of school lock-down has left schools (including mine) scrambling to get their distance-learning programs off the ground. As a result, many students have settled into the complacency that the quarantine is having on them while districts go into panic mode.

At best, I can say that my lessons are online on Canvas and ready for my students to start. No problems, right?

Where’s the Lesson?

I go to Google Meet, expecting students to join me for office hours. Instead, I’m staring at a video feed of myself staring at the laptop screen. I have it on for an hour before signing off. I check my email, and it’s from one of my students. It simply states “Where’s the lesson?”

I reply and tell him it’s live on Canvas. He doesn’t get back to me. I assume he’s found my assignment.

“It’s not there.” He writes in the title of the email and nothing else (he uses the emails as if he’s texting).

I write back, “The assignments are there. I just checked it. Is it possible you are having connection problems? If so you can contact the tech folks and find out what’s going on.”

He responds with “ I see my other courses, but not yours.”

Another email from another student : “I can’t find your assignment. What do we do?”

Not long after that, another student emails a similar message.

The realization hits me: My lesson plans -- the ones I stayed up into the wee hours of the night are now invisible to my students. How? My administrator saw it. As did the tech people that I later contacted.

I’ve spent much of the day emailing copies of lessons while answering more inquiries from other students. This problem lasts through the night. I go to bed, stressed.

A new day dawns… so does a revelation. I go back to Canvas and search the modules. After a few minutes, I discover something I have overlooked...something I recalled learning a few years prior when I took the Canvas training. The program has more than one “publish” button. When one completes an assignment or page, you can hit publish. However, it isn’t visible until you hit the “publish” button for the module.

It’s an easy fix, albeit a dumb one. Within an hour of hitting the final button, I start to see the student work coming in. Not all the students have completed an assignment or discussion within the module. Still, a few of them have. And, right now, that’s a small victory.

End of the Beginning

And so it begins; I’m teaching a course in which my students are two states away. In many cases, they’re doing work that they can do on their own. I’m merely a facilitator.

It’s the end of the beginning for the distant-learning process. Who knows what this will entail. What I do know is that nothing will be the same after this day.

Literally said it on the Marquee.

Literally said it on the Marquee.

© 2020 Dean Traylor

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