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  • Wacey Tobler

Our Distance Learning Journey - Week One Reflections

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Who would have thought that, 3 months into 2020, we’d be getting a crash course in distance learning as we all deal with the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic? Here at FSHISD, we are believers that technology should be used effectively and purposefully to enhance education for our students, but never did we imagine being at the edge of the educational cliff as the ground falls away beneath us. That sounds bleak, but it’s true. Who could fathom such a global educational need? Yesterday, blended learning, 1:1 Chromebooks, Google Apps, ed-tech - all of these things are icing on the educational cake. Today, they are essential utilities for keeping our teachers teaching, and our students learning.

But really, distance learning is more than that. Much, much more. Thanks to COVID, distance learning has swallowed the world whole. Do believe me? Just check out social media. The number of Tweets and social media posts by people praising teachers for their care of their children and the struggles of at-home learning after just ONE DAY are going viral with nearly every post.

Educational institutions are the life-blood of our society. This is because education is an experience that we all share in some form or another. As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you got until it’s gone and this holds true for face-to-face traditional learning. Suddenly, people see the value of the work we do because they are experiencing the highs and lows of this wonderful and frustrating and rewarding profession.

Since our time of distance learning was announced, FSHISD has already gone through many cycles of communication with our staff, students, and parents. There have been some challenges to be sure, but our community has risen to the occasion and established an effective system for distance learning that needs to be shared. So, we are going to pause our TCEA 20 for 2020 series to provide a window into this unique and unprecedented time in our profession. This by no means represents the best way to conduct distance learning, but rather to document ours with the hope of using this to continually hone and refine our craft no matter how long this goes on.

The Need

FSHISD is a unique school district as we are situated on the Fort Sam Houston military base. Therefore, we exist to serve the military child. We have one elementary school and an integrated campus for our middle and high school. Here’s a by-the-numbers:

Getting a distance learning plan in place so quickly is a challenge no matter how big or small a district is, but we knew that we are blessed with the technology infrastructure to make this a reality for our students. Thankfully, our Cole MS/HS admin team is a big supporter of us in the technology department and we all quickly sprang into action to develop a plan.

The Plan

Over the course of two days, our Admin Team adapted a Remote Flexible Learning plan that was graciously shared with us from Alamo Heights ISD in San Antonio, TX, American School in Japan, Jackson County Schools in Jefferson, GA, and Hong Kong International School.

Mrs. Baker, our Dean of Innovation, Design and Learning, mentioned that as we were held up in our admin conference meeting that it was “like being in a war room” and it definitely was an apt observation.

Behind the scenes, the tech department was rapidly developing two important websites for distance learning - one for teachers and one for parents & students. Jeannine Freeman, our elementary digital learning coach, came up with the idea of localizing all available communication as stand-alone resources that would work with our district website to provide clear, concise, and consistent information. After splitting the resources up in grade level chunks (PreK-1, 2-5, 6-12, and special populations), we were then able to do a review of our available tech apps that would best serve these teachers. Our goal was not to overwhelm our audiences further, but rather to provide bite-sized resources such as video tutorials, step-by-step guides, and important documents from our district and campus levels. The result was the rather cleverly named FSHISD Learn Anywhere website for parents & students and FSHISD Teach Anywhere website for teachers.

Setting up these websites allowed us to continually work towards a final product as new information came. This also gave teachers an opportunity to share their best distance learning ideas, apps, hacks, tips, and tricks. Most importantly though, it gave us a mode of communication that consolidated all of the available COVID-19 and distance learning information into one place. Bringing these resources to the admin team during the planning stages provided a starting point for what would be possible for our distance learning schedule.

As the admin team finished the first draft of our learning plan, we invited department chairs and our campus design teams to provide a review and feedback cycle that helped us to further sharpen the distance learning schedule. The result was the RGCMHS Remote Flexible Learning Guidelines FY20.

A parsed down version of this document was then created and presented live to teachers during Learning Launch faculty meetings last Thursday. We also held a short tutorial for Google Meet and how to use the resource websites. Teachers were informed that they would be required to host 15-30min synchronous sessions with students during a set schedule each week. Meetings would be facilitated over Google Meet and recorded for those students whom were absent.

The Implementation

Day One is now a wrap (and nearly day two at the time of this writing) and the response from teachers, parents, and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Are there challenges arising and issues being discovered along the way? Absolutely. No system is perfect. But, a huge shout out to our tech and admin teams for being available, responsive, gracious, and, most of all, innovative. We’re out of the box now. We’re learning without boundaries. Our teachers are hungry for more. Most importantly, our students are feeling connected at a time when life is anything but.

We are seeing so much good and inspiring things from this tough situation. For example, one of our HS students started a Virtual Spirit Week with the hashtag #colevscorona that challenges the community to share a quick view into our shelter-in-place in a different way each day. The idea isn’t tied to curriculum and it isn’t part of any class, but it is better and bigger than that because it is a profound reminder of the community we serve. It is a way of reaching through the doom and gloom to put a smile on our faces as we share an experience.

Here’s a small sample of some other communal moments during our first day:

As I wrap my day, I have continually reflected most on the joy I see on the faces of my teachers and students. There was a tremendous amount of work put into making our distance learning happen, but these Tweets and the countless emails I have received thanking us for the time and effort we put into making this process as comprehensive as possible makes it all worth it. But, ss teachers, we don’t do it for the gratitude and we certainly don’t do it for the money. We do it for the kids because they are just so, so important. The magnitude of this situation should be putting an even bigger spotlight on how precious their lives are and how essential it is to keep them connected.

You hear all over the news that we don’t know what the future will look like, but we absolutely do. The future looks like each and every one of our students and I am so very blessed to be right in the thick of this momentous and revolutionary time in our profession. If you’ve made it all the way down to the end of this blog post I ask that you do two things tonight: #1. Hug your loved ones and tell them they matter to you (or call or FaceTime), social distancing be damned. And #2 - Thank an educator, even if that person is you! The world is relying on us to be the glue that holds society together. And we must stick together like glue to succeed. #FSHISDTeachAnywhere #FSHISDLearnAnywhere

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