Focusing on the Possible: Adapting the (distance) learning environment

The world’s worst air comes rolling in

Last week we wrapped up our first full week of classes, and it was challenging. Not only were we refining our distance learning program and dealing with extreme heat during the week, but wild fires are ravaging the Bay Area, with one of our staff members losing their home in the CZU fire.

It’s been an exceptional start to the school year, in the truest sense of the word. We knew going into this year, that we would be most successful if we were “built to adapt” while focusing on the possible. The first week tested these principles and here are a couple of things we learned.

Pay special attention to the aspects of the learning environment you can control: Every teacher knows that on hot days in buildings with no air conditioning student attention is a limited resource. When you are all together it’s pretty easy to read the room, but not so much on Zoom. Last week we had excessive heat, which was difficult to deal with, but then the heat combined with “the world’s worst air quality” to create a situation where families could not even open their windows at night to cool down. While we could not do much about the air flow in our students’ homes, our teachers could control the work flow. Our staff adjusted their assignments, replacing synchronous work with asynchronous work, allowing students to take breaks when needed and complete the work when they could concentrate best. It was a quick reminder for us that we always need to be mindful of how the learning environment shifts for our students, and how we need to control the pieces we can control.

“Cameras On” may take awhile: One of our biggest dilemmas in distance learning involves students turning on their cameras when logged into Zoom. Teachers do not like teaching to a screen of black boxes and students find it more difficult to collaborate in break out rooms when other students have their cameras off. The easy solution is to mandate “cameras on”, but this ignores key parts of the student experience. At the beginning of the year, many students are not comfortable with their peers and teachers in their classes, which is the main reason that students do not turn on their cameras.

But students may have their cameras off for a number of reasons other than comfort level: 1) it uses less bandwidth, which is important in a house with multiple students engaged simultaneously in distance learning; 2) students may not have a quiet place to work that they want to share with their peers. In many cases students are working in their bedrooms and there are many good reasons that students do not want to their classmates checking out their rooms.

In addition to these reasons, we can think of several more, but overall it seems that “cameras on” was more about meeting the needs of the teachers than the students, so we have not mandated it. We hope that as the year progress, the relationships will strengthen to the point where students will feel comfortable turning on their cameras during lessons on Zoom, but we also realize that student comfort level is not the sole reason that cameras may be off.

To help build comfort level, many of our teachers are using Flipgrid to have students post videos introducing themselves and doing things such as telling a joke. This gives the teacher a chance to get to know students better, allows students to post an “acceptable” video rather than livestream via Zoom, and gets classmates more comfortable showing their faces to one another.

Of course as designers, our best option is to ask our students. Many staff are using this Zoom comfort level form, which will likely lead to some surprising insights on our end.

Impromptu Town Halls are okay: Our final lesson for the week is that it is ok to hold an impromptu Zoom town hall. We have tried our best to be as predictable as possible at the start of the year, but we held a town hall last week on short notice for our new families. It was well attended and those that could not attend watched the recording later. The recording feature makes the impromptu town hall less impromptu, as families can watch it any time during the week.

Also when holding parent town hall, be sure to build 5–10 minutes into your agenda to put parents in breakout rooms to talk. They need to start building their support team. We did this, and by the end of the meeting a parent was compiling a list of everyone’s email via chat that would be shared with all participants.

So hang in there everyone, humans are resilient and adaptable, and we need to tap into our full supply of those traits.