One of my students is an ardent fan of Les Misérables. For the past few weeks, she has repeatedly asked if we can celebrate Barricade Day by building a barricade in our classroom. I laughed. But she was serious. I had never heard of Barricade Day. She was happy to fill me in. I hemmed and hawed. Finally, at our last class, it became apparent that this particular group would finish their video projects early. (They’re a pretty sharp, dedicated bunch.) I told my student that if she came up with a lesson plan that would teach the class about Barricade Day, I would give her 45 minutes to run the show today.
Sure enough, last night she emailed me a lesson plan with a 350-word mini-lecture about the June Rebellion of 1832, including images to share with the class and a short video. I honored my end of the bargain. at 1:45 sharp, we ended our regular social studies class and went to Paris to learn about the unrest there. At 2:00, filled with revolutionary zeal, we tore apart the classroom and built a barricade. (I did have two recommendations: don’t break anything and don’t get hurt.)
Here are the pictures my student shared followed by a picture of our 8th-grade version.
No change on the home front just yet. Oliver remains free of symptoms. Sarah, Maggie, and I have intermittent sore throats, but nothing that would normally phase us much.
We await our test results as patiently as we can. Today was the first day of the 2–4 day window wherein we expect to hear back. Nothing yet…
This week has been an unusual teaching week for me, involving me teaching classes with students at school while I’m at home. Let me back up and provide a bit of context.
For the past seven weeks at my middle school, students have been in “distance learning” mode on Mondays and Tuesdays. On those days we all stay home and do school via Google Meet, similar to how we did it last spring and for the first few weeks of school in September. On Wednesday through Friday, we’ve been in hybrid mode where most students and teachers go to school. There are lots of policies and procedures to maximize safety (masks, desks six-feet apart, fancy air filters, hand washing and desk cleaning procedures, etc.) but it runs mostly like school used to be.
The only unusual wrinkle is that the students who are at home (for whatever reason—health risks, a family member with COVID, etc.) join the class remotely. We have these funky “Owl” cameras that provide a 360-degree view of the classroom. They zoom in on audio sources (like students or teachers talking in the classroom) and make the remote experience a bit more immersive. Naturally, they don’t always work as intended and there are lots of little issues, but it’s a cool idea.
Until this week, I’ve never really been on the other side of the Owl except when getting some training on them at the beginning of the year. This week, however, since I am in isolation, I attended my classes remotely. It was a strange experience seeing the bulk of my students through the Owl’s camera. We always have another adult in the classroom to help with physical things like collecting work, setting up the camera, managing a break in the middle of class, etc.
With more practice, I expect I would get better at it, but it’s hard to be seated in front of a camera when my students are mostly together in a classroom. I’m usually a pretty mobile teacher, gesturing wildly, jumping around the front of the room, checking on students individually, etc. It’s a lot harder to feel connected when I know that my face is hovering on a big screen at the side of the room.
But, this was a short-lived experiment. Due to skyrocketing COVID rates around the state, my school is going back to full-distance mode next week through at least the middle of January. The metric that Minnesota is using to guide schools is the two-week “cases per 10,000” rate for each county. I’ve been graphing the data for the counties around the Twin Cities (from which we draw the majority of our students). It’s pretty grim. Saint Paul is in Ramsey County and Minneapolis is in Hennepin. (Recently they’ve been nearly identical.)
Chart of cases per 10,000
The state recommends that middle- and high-schools move to full-distance mode if their county rises above 30 cases per 10,000. Elementary schools are also included when they hit 50 cases.
Both Hennepin and Ramsey counties hit 50 by the end of October. Based on daily case figures since then, we are estimated to be at around 70 cases now. In short, it’s a hot mess around here. (If anyone is interested in the raw data, here’s a link to the spreadsheet where I compile the information. It includes a link to the latest PDF from the state.)
That’s it for now. We’ll provide further updates if we learn anything new.
Some schools have been going for a while. Others are delaying even longer. My school began with orientations this week for each grade level. In the middle school, we had each grade on a different day, spread out throughout the building in the largest classrooms. Students were grouped in their advisories and stayed together all day aside from an outdoor, socially distanced recess. Most advisory groups had one or more students who remained off-site—for medical or other reasons—and connected to the classroom virtually. I had three such students in my group of eleven, so I shared the room with eight physical students.
Orientation ran from 8:30 to noon. The time passed pretty quickly, though the adults were certainly worn out by the end of it. My own mask became incredibly irritating after the first few hours. It would have been smarter for me to try wearing a mask for four hours at home to really learn what type is most comfortable for me. As it is, I’ve rarely worn a mask for more than 30 minutes at a stretch (usually while shopping).
In the pictures below, you can see the fairly insane tech setup that we had running in my room. (It’s not actually my normal classroom, and none of us have been in during the summer, so things are pretty messy.) I had two computers and three screens running simultaneously. The laptop in the middle had the camera and microphone for the Google Meet with my virtual advisees. The laptop was also connected to the huge smartboard where I could display slides or videos. I had that Chrome tab shared in Google Meet with the remote kids. The third monitor, on the right, is attached to a separate computer that was also connected to my Meet so that the virtual participants were visible on a larger screen for the rest of the in-person class. My in-person kids were spread out with at least six-feet between each desk, so some of them were quite far away from the monitor.
We spent the day getting to know each other, discussing our summers, and laying the groundwork for the coming year. Regular classes begin next week. They will be fully distanced (remote teaching) for at least the first three weeks. Then the school will decide, based on infection numbers in the Twin Cities, whether to move to fully in-person teaching or some sort of hybrid model. It was great having this time to get to know some of our students before beginning classes next week. Just having them in the building (even virtually) made it feel more like school was really starting.
I have no idea how things will play out in the coming weeks, but I’m glad that we’re finally diving in. While there were many wonderful things about this summer, the hours of planning, worrying, scrapping plans, and worrying more was not my favorite thing.
Below is a copy of the introductory video that I shared with my advisees. It features some pictures of our new dog, Piper, and a few screenshots from my summer role-playing games.
I’m starting my second week of distance teaching today. Not loving it thus far. Admittedly, there are some neat aspects to it. I thought I would dislike having to record all of my class meetings, but it’s actually pretty convenient. If I’m having a one-on-one discussion with a student during our “quiet study” period, I can share the video with them afterward so that they don’t have to worry about taking notes. Similarly, if a student misses a class meeting, the video of the class will be posted within about 15 minutes… so that can be useful.
But, and this is huge, the connections with students are so much weaker. I see all their tiny faces on my meeting grid, but I can’t really tell if they are with me or snoozing or confused. Normally I can walk around the room and read everyone’s body language. If the energy is sleepy, I rev things up or insert a quick oxygen break. If students seem confused, I slow down and go over things more carefully. All of this is much harder when mediated by a video conferencing app. Even doing a “whip share” where everybody shares something feels slower and less dynamic on the computer. I find myself losing focus before we make it around the circle (and when I’m zoning out, I know that most of the class is long gone!).
I’m confident that I’ll get better at this as I gain more experience. I hope to solicit plenty of feedback from my students, too, about what’s working for them. I haven’t been at it long enough to see how the quality of student work changes. I’m curious about that.
Below are two artifacts from my first week. First is the Welcome Back video that I sent to my eighth-grade social studies students before our first class. It took me forever to make and I have a million criticisms, but it’s safe to say that it was the best I could do in the time that I had. The second is a cartoon created by my good friend Nate. He’s a teacher on the east coast and used to draw illustrations of our high school D&D adventures. In my classes so far, I’ve seen all of his archetypes except the skateboarder.
For the first time since 2011, I was able to go to Camp Widjiwagan this year as a chaperone for the week-long seventh grade trip. It was glorious to be back up north in the heart of winter.
The overall experience was similar to my first trip (as described in this post). I still enjoy cross-country skiing, but haven’t improved much in nine years; I still have a hard time managing downhill slopes where I pick up too much speed, panic, and crash. The sauna-dip experience involved much less trepidation, since I remembered it fondly from the first trip. It was just as good this time. For bedtime readings, I warmed my cabin up on Monday evening with one of my favorite creepy stories, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Cats of Ulthar. The next night, the students requested more, so we dove into The Call of Cthulhu for the remaining nights, wrapping up on Thursday with a few brave students managing to stay awake for the ending.
A personal highlight, as mentioned in my previous post, was our Wednesday DFRPG game with Sam doing a masterful job in the GM’s chair. It was the closest my beloved character, Zafir Abrashi, has come to dying, being nearly digested by a giant carnivorous plant!
I didn’t take many pictures, but the selection below provides a sense of things. (All of the following are my photos except for the chaperone group which was taken by Molly McMahon.)
Update: My colleague, Cheryl Wilgren, shared some additional shots from the trip:
Email from one of my students working on an audio-recording project this weekend:
I’m feeling a little under the weather and did my narration. I heard it back and I sound like a cat being choked. Is there a way to fix that?
After the success of our venture with the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game last spring, my colleague and I decided to offer the activity again this fall. We had enough student interest to justify buying two more boxed sets. The photo below shows all the material organized and laid out before students arrived.
Email exchange with a student just now:
Student: While reading my paragraph for homework, I thought there was something missing from it. Is it okay that I used the Interactive Immigration Explorer to explain some things in my paragraph?
Me: Yes, definitely! I love that idea.
Student: Good because I already did it.
Every year I begin my eighth grade social studies class by asking students to answer this question on an index card:
Why is social studies the most important class you will take this year?
It’s an outrageous question, of course, and I learn a lot by seeing how each student tackles it. Most simply write out some reasons why social studies is important. Others add that other classes are equally important. A few argue that another subject trumps social studies altogether. Occasionally someone identifies it as a leading question and castigates me for pedagogic incompetence.
This year, however, I received an answer that had me laughing aloud at my desk after school:
I don’t know yet. Convince me.