Connecting Virtual Rural Classrooms with PearDeck

In our southern Alberta rural school district we have many very small schools. Sometimes there are only three or four, or even one or two students in a grade level. In primary and elementary levels the solution is triple graded classrooms, however, this is less practical or realistic once students hit junior high. One solution that our district has employed is the development of a robust video conferencing network, supported by reliable technology.

While our division has been connecting classrooms via video conferencing for over a dozen years, the supporting technology has changed and sometimes outpaced the technology that our teachers are using. In the early days of video conferencing teacher assistants would fax and/or email student assignments back-and-forth to the teacher to be marked. Of course, this was time-consuming, and the time it took to digitize these paper products added to the length of time students waited for projects and assignments to be marked and returned. As technology has become more 1 to 1 it is important that our teachers shift from the fax and email mentality to using the many tools that are now available to not only make accessing work easier, but also more engaging.

Our ninth grade video conference math teacher is located in one of our larger centres but teaches math to four different school sites, each with 1 to 5 students.

Math 9 via Video Conference

5 sites are joined via video conference for Math 9

Each group of students is assisted by an Education Assistant (EA) who helps with the content on site, as well as the logistics of getting materials back-and-forth. Despite the support, it is still a challenge to keep students on task and to help them as much as they need. To alleviate this, we have been working together to come up with solutions for this teacher and one of the very best has been in the form of Pear Deck.

The Video Conferencing Pear Deck Revolution

The teacher pushes her Google Slides lesson out to the students and they join the Pear Deck session on an iPad. As they work through the lessons, she can watch in real time as students respond to questions.

Pear Deck real time

The video conference teacher using Pear Deck can see thumbnails as each student answers questions in real time – from 5 different sites.

Unlike some other platforms of this nature, students do not have to press submit to send their work. This is very important in this situation because the teacher can see who is stalling, off task, or struggling. After the modelling portion of the lesson, the teacher turns the lesson setting to “student-paced” so students are able to work through remaining questions/slides at their own pace, while the teacher can move between slides to support individual students.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher publishes “student take-aways” – a premium feature – which automatically puts a Google Doc copy of all notes/slides and a copy of the student responses into a Pear Deck folder in each student’s Google Drive, organized by lesson date and title. The teacher also has a copy of this document for each student so she can use portions of it for individual assessment if desired.

Other video conference classes in our district have also been using Pear Deck, but since they are humanities-based, students can type many of their responses on Chromebooks. Trying to have students type Math just to use Pear Deck would be a deal breaker, so we have found enough iPads (sometimes old ones) to allow each student to use a stylus + iPad to “write” their math. This has taken some getting used to, but it is becoming more normal. We have solved the issue of “not enough writing space” by increasing the custom slide length in Google Slides – this allows the students to scroll down to continue their answer, something they can’t do when the lesson is on a standard-sized slide.

Of course, there will be ‘bad internet days’ when a cloud-based technology like Pear Deck just doesn’t work.  Fortunately, there is always pencil and paper as a backup!

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Creating VR via Video Conference

I’ve just pressed SUBMIT on the 2nd of 2 Google Expeditions tours that I created with some Grade 7 students for Google Expeditions #LoveWhereYouLive BETA tour creating project.  This project was fascinating for me on many levels, but over the past two days of finishing up the project, I’ve been reminded of the power of technology to leverage learning in rural areas. beta process 2

The setting: The class that was joining me in this adventure is made up of grade seven students in two locations taught via video conferencing. To drive directly from one school to the other takes about 1.5 hours. If I drive to either school from my location it takes about an hour.  In total there are about 12 students: seven at one site and five at the other. These two groups usually only see each other via video screen so there was lots of excitement last week when we all joined together on an overnight adventure to take 360-degree camera footage and supporting regular pictures at some sites of cultural and historic significance in southern Alberta. Our school division has a set of Virtual Reality viewers and we use Google Expeditions extensively; we are excited to be able to create some Alberta content and hope that it will be published for others to use.

The marvels of technology: So after the field trip, we have the task of working to do the hard work of scripting and processing pictures and moving all of the pieces into the tour creator. All of this separated by great distances. This is where the marvel that is Google comes in. We had all twelve students working in eight documents where they were scripting and adding links to pictures. The Social Studies teacher and I, from different sites, were able to check in and provide guidance to all students. Additionally, all three sites were connected by video conference. It did take some work to get all students into the required incognito Chrome browser and then logged into the @dryeraseacademy.net account to actually create in the tour creator. The first day, of course, was the hardest, as logging into something new always is, but it was easier on subsequent days. It was a great lesson in resilience for students as we had some tour creator crashes along the way and work had to be re-done.

High School Educators: Ego vs Open Culture?

As George Couros writes in his blog series on “Leading Innovative Change”,  a growing, improving school needs to ’embrace an open culture’.  He writes:

 Organizations, as a whole, should model what they expect from students on a micro level; that they are willing to learn and grow.

At our high school, one of our school goals has been to learn and grow by visiting the classrooms of our colleagues. This goal is a ‘left over’ from our AISI project; a goal that we felt was too significant to abandon. The concept is simple in theory: encourage teachers to spend some time in the classrooms of their colleagues–10 minutes, 30 minutes, a full class period.  The underlying principle is that we all have much to learn from each other, even if we don’t teach similar subject areas: maybe a classroom management technique, a review procedure, a technology tip, or a way of interacting with a challenging student.  Nevertheless, in a high school environment, this is a very radical idea for many!

Why do high school teachers have such a hard time 'opening the door'?

Why do high school teachers have such a hard time ‘opening the door’?

Simple in theory. Just before the Christmas break, our staff completed a short survey to help leaders determine our progress in learning and growing from each other.  Teachers who had made even short visits to the classrooms of their colleagues overwhelmingly responded that it was time well spent–that they came away with a new perspective at the very least.  Unfortunately, even though the school year is almost half over, more than a third of our teachers had not yet responded to our school initiative of visiting a colleague’s classroom.  Some responded that they had intended to, but just hadn’t found the time; a few however, felt that it would be a waste of time… that there was nothing to learn as no one else taught exactly what they did.

So, the million dollar question: how do we continue to create and foster a culture where learning from others is seen as both valuable and important?  How do we model this culture of learning from others for our students?

George Courous continues in his blog: ” If your practices are amazing, sharing them with other educators gives them the opportunity to help more kids. If practices are weak, it often brings in new ideas to help your kids.  There is no loss in this situation for students, yet ego sometimes (often) gets in the way.”

Helping students learn, and of course increasing the ever elusive student ‘engagement’, are at the heart of our school goal.  I hardly read a research paper or a book on leadership that does not cite learning from and with each other as essential to school growth.  As such, I’m continually reassured that our modest plan of having colleagues visit the spaces of their peers is an important and worthwhile goal in fostering an open, learning culture.

When asked about creating synergistic positive energy in a school, Michael Fullan suggests that negative or punitive pressure is not the answer, but that:

 “no pressure seems problematic as well given the existential power of inertia.”  http://www.michaelfullan.ca/media/13514675730.pdf

So our question for the new year….How do we encourage the resistors, whether they be resisting intentionally or not, to join in a culture of learning from one another?

Teachable Moment-December 5

In Grade 10 Social Studies we spend the semester studying globalization.  We are at the part of our course where we really focus on learning about human rights.  On Thursday, we were looking that the kind of pictures that make students glad they live in Canada: children fishing in the garbage laden Yangtze River in China, orphanage beds where kids sleep 3 or 4 to a single bunk, sweat shop workers seated in neat rows on the floor, child weavers squatted in front of a carpet loom in Bangladesh, injured children after the Haiti earthquake…

Of all the pictures we looked at, the one that  caused the most spirited conversation was of a homeless couple and their dog, early twenties, on the streets of San Fransisco. Franco Folini Under a CC Licence “If they’re homeless it’s because they deserve to be”, quoted one young gal.  “Yeah,” chimed in another, “there probably there because they did too many drugs.” After a few similar comments, one brave young gent broke in: “Well, just a minute. I know of a man in town who…..”  Slowly, a few other students challenged their classmates assumptions that homelessness is a deserved condition.

As any good Social Studies teacher, I feel that I need to sometimes stir the pot to challenge perspectives. One of the early opinionated commenters was a young gal who has had some serious but mysterious medical ailments recently and has undergone a barrage of tests and hospital visits.  I casually asked her how her medical situation would be if she lived in the United States. Her answer went something like this: “We would be bankrupt! Do you know how many tests I’ve had lately.  All of my hospital visits would cost a fortune in the States. We would just have to give up…..Oh my God! Maybe they’re homeless because they couldn’t pay their medical bills. That would be me. My family.”  Short pause. “This course just keeps messing me up.”

Ahhh!!! The power of a teachable moment.  This conversation was occurring right about the time that Nelson Mandela’s death was announced.  Tomorrow…Nelson Mandela and human rights.