In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by educator, Aimée Skidmore, to explore her insights and reflections of teaching students online.
Get in touch with Aimée: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:39 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 01:07 A conversation with Aimée Skidmore. Reflections on being new to teaching online. I have followed Aimée on Twitter and LinkedIn for several years and I’ve recently been really impressed with her posts on LinkedIn where she has shared her daily reflections of entering into teaching her students online. And I asked her if she would join me in this podcast, both to share the insights of what she’s been learning, which I think are powerful, but equally I’m anxious for her to share with listeners the reflective process that she’s been using. So welcome, Aimée.
Aimée: 01:51 Thank you for having me, Steve.
Steve: 01:53 I’m wondering for starters, if you would give people a quick introduction, a little bit about your background, some things about the Collège du Léman where you’re teaching.
Aimée: 02:04 Yes. I’m an English teacher in the high school there. I’ve been teaching about 23 years, both in the United States, in public schools and here in Switzerland, I teach grades nine and 10 and 12. And I also teach in the IGCSE Lang and Lit program.
Steve: 02:25 And how long have you been working online now with the school closures?
Aimée: 02:29 We’ve been working online for four weeks.
Steve: 02:32 Okay. So I’m wondering if you could go back to week one and maybe talk us through the things that happened and your reflections back on that week.
Aimée: 02:46 Well, first of all, when I first started the first day, I didn’t really know what to expect and we had one day without students online with our colleagues to plan for what was coming up. And most of the conversations we were having at that time were about longterm plans for curriculum. And I was, at that point, more worried about how am I going to interface with students. I kind of knew what I wanted to teach because we didn’t stop our instruction. We were only about two or two days away from students at that point. And so the content I wasn’t worried about, but I was more interested in how am I going to roll this out to the students. How do I not overwhelm them and how do I get through this process in a smart way instead of a panicked way.
Aimée: 03:39 And I’m a naturally reflective in everything I do in teaching, so this reflection process is something that is built into the way I teach. However, in the state that I was in and many of my colleagues were in at the beginning, we were kind of in a panic. We didn’t know how the technology was going to work, whether the students would have access to what we needed to them to have access to. And you know, the fear of the unknown just threw me into panic. And so, my normal reflective process wasn’t really engaging at that point. I wasn’t taking the time to do adequate planning. I was kind of trying a lot of things and then quickly reflecting on them. So I didn’t follow my normal process. Let me put it that way. I was kind of reflecting on the fly.
Steve: 04:31 Is that called quick adjust?
Steve & Aimée: 04:31 [laughter]
Aimée: 04:31 Yes, I guess you could call it that. I mean, it’s just not – I didn’t even, I wasn’t even conscious that I wasn’t taking my time and reflecting properly. So usually I like to take a slower approach and have a measured, you know, what’s my purpose for this activity? What is best for student learning? What’s the best tool to use and is this a good use of my time and resources? And in this case I was rolling out a lot of content and just trying to get something up on the board, you know, onto our learning management system.
Steve: 05:08 When you said you weren’t reflecting in your normal style and taking the time, I was wondering if taking the time meant identifying the appropriate questions to be asking yourself for the reflection. And I kinda heard, what you went on to was, you were now identifying what those critical and most important questions were.
Aimée: 05:31 Yes. So I wasn’t using my normal reflective practice, so I was just doing without asking myself why I was doing the things I was doing. I was kind of on autopilot.
Steve: 05:44 Gotcha. Gotcha.
Aimée: 05:46 And I knew though, that I needed to get feedback from students before I moved on. I do that anyway all the time. And so in this process, that was something I built very early on was a survey of students to understand how they were perceiving what we were doing. And within the first day, I realized that we were loading them too heavy with content. And so, I started to encourage my colleagues to survey their students as well in a short survey just to get ideas about how the students were perceiving what we’re doing and with that information then, we can start to build that reflective practice in. We need to know what the effect of what we do is so that we can plan better for the next thing that we’re going to be doing.
Steve: 06:37 Many of the people that I’ve spoken to and gotten feedback said that early on, teachers were actually giving more content and more requirements to the students as they switched online than what they would’ve been doing in their natural setting.
Aimée: 06:59 I would agree with that. I observed that with my colleagues as well. So not only was I reflecting on what I was doing, I was reflecting on what we were doing as an institution and I was concerned about that, both for the health of the teachers and for the students. And so I brought this up, I was feeding back that information I was getting from the students back into our normal channels to department heads and higher up so that they could understand that it’s okay to slow down and take stock of where we are at the end of each day and then make adjustments from that. And that’s how my video reflection started is because I needed to take stock at the end of the day to see where I was and what effect my actions were having on students. By the end of the day, however, I was shattered so that that – being tired, I wasn’t able to reflect properly. So I was using the morning, really early, like five in the morning I was up and I was reflecting and writing down notes of my observations in that quiet time before the surge of input started coming in and my surge of output to students started. And in that way, in that calm moment, I was able to ask the right kind of questions that brought me to change what I was doing.
Steve: 08:25 So, if I moved you from the end of that week one to the end of week four where you just are now, and I know you’re headed into to a little bit of a break here, what’s the biggest insights, what would you say are the biggest changes if we were to look at the way you’re interacting with your students in week four compared to to where you were at the end of week one.
Aimée: 08:53 At the end of week four, I’m taking a more measured approach to the things I’m doing. I’m receiving a lot of information from my social media, from the educational groups that I’m in, from my colleagues and I also took two online courses. And so I have a lot of input and I just make a list of all the things that I think would be good to try for the purpose that I’m trying to achieve. And I’m trying to do those things in a more measured way in that I will try one thing that’s different and then I will observe that in process, write down some notes as the students are interacting with whatever that technique or tool is. Then I will ask them about that at the end of the week, make adjustments to see is it getting me the results that I want. And those results, what I want out of this experience has changed over time as well.
Steve: 09:54 So tell me more about that.
Aimée: 09:57 What I want for students is that they are moving from the extrinsic motivation of exams because those have been canceled for us to a more intrinsic, basic, how do I become a better reader, writer and communicator, and how do I keep learning? Taking that into my own hands versus my teacher telling me what to do. So for me, that’s exciting because that’s a way that I wanted to move since a long time. So for me, I think that’s a positive change. And other things that I want to have changed in this new approach is that I want students to take on more of the responsibility for showing me what they know and what they can do as opposed to me sending them tasks that they have to comply with. So in that way, it relieves the pressure off of me a little bit. I can allow them to, yeah, take control and show me what they know. I know this to be good practice and I’m better able to do that in this environment than not.
Steve: 11:07 So am I hearing a increase in student agency and a responsibility that goes along with it?
Aimée: 11:16 I’m designing for that. Whether that’s actually happening, I have to wait and see. Because at this point in week four, we’re still getting into the habit of how do we work online and how do we work together? How do we keep those relationships going that we had before? How are students managing work? So as students start to hand in their work, that’s when we need to start questioning what are they handing us and how do we slow that process down and enable them to reflect on their learning. That’s something that I’m seeing in my colleagues and early on in myself that I was having students do something, hand it in, give them feedback, moving to the next. So I wasn’t giving them opportunities to reflect either. And I’ve built that in now into my end of the week activities. So they need to reflect on what did they learn, where do they need to go next, what kind of changes are they going to make to their piece of work or skills that will enable them to move forward. So encouraging reflection for students as well as teachers is important.
Steve: 12:30 You’ve kind of touched on a question that I had prepped here to ask you. And that’s what you thought were some of the things that students were going to learn out of this process beyond your curriculum. So you kind of labeled reflection here as one. I’ve heard a little bit, I think, of what I would call a more intrinsic motivation into the work that they’re doing. Others that that come to mind on that?
Aimée: 13:02 I would say students will hopefully be learning how to interact with each other in a more meaningful way. And I mean that in both the social sense but also in an academic way. I feel lucky to have taught students how to do peer review in the classroom before this happened. So I’m going back to those skills that they already have and reminding them of how that works. Being clear about my expectations for the peer review. But that’s also a reflective process that in reviewing someone else’s work, they’re reflecting on their own and they’re reflecting on their mark scheme that they were using for that assignment. So to me that process is extremely important. Students don’t always see it that way. Sometimes they see it as not real feedback because they are waiting for me to tell them what’s good and what’s not. And I always tell them that the peer review process is more for the reviewer and less for the receiver. And that is difficult to make them see that. But this is my ultimate evil plan for students is that they will do a lot of peer review, some self review, before I even lay eyes on the piece. So hopefully that will go well.
Steve: 14:23 It rings for me that, I’m big on identifying what I call student learning production behaviors and that is that the teacher planning that it’s what the student does that’s going to produce the learning, that the task of the teacher is to figure out how to get the student to do those things that’s that’s going to cause the learning. And a piece that I’ve been putting in front of people as they look to work online now, especially with with the older students is that we may need to even inform the kids as to what the student production behavior is so that they think less about this is an assignment or a task that I have to “finish” and more about this is a task where I’m using or developing this skillset. So for example, it really clicked for me when you said that about about peer review that I may be learning more when I’m reviewing somebody else’s and having to go through that thought process than what I’m necessarily learning from the feedback I got from a peer.
Aimée: 15:29 Yeah, exactly. And I think that those student behaviors have to be made explicit to them. What is it that I’m looking for in this assignment? What does that look like practically? And using student friendly vocabulary to do that. Sometimes our marks games, especially from exam boards are just overly complicated and students don’t really understand what behavior you want in that task. That’s still not easy and I think that this online learning is an opportunity for us to slow down with the workload in order to engage in more meaningful ways with the piece of work. So I’ve, instead of going from two pieces of writing per week, I’m really shrinking it down to we’re going to stick with this one piece until you’ve polished it to the point that you’re ready to say, okay, now measure this and hand it back to me. They’re not used to that. I’ve seen a lot of compliance and completion in my school, in the conversations I’m having with other teachers. This is a huge complaint. How do I get them to do the work?
Steve: 16:42 It’s part of the message I wanted to get out to parents that it’s not about doing the work if work is a finished task, it’s about getting the learner engaged into the task.
Aimée: 16:54 Exactly. And I think that this is – there’s so many debates swirling around about the asynchronous, synchronous, all the different techniques that we use for online learning. And I would just urge people to take a look at the depths of engagement as opposed to how long is that student sitting in front of a live video or sitting in front of a computer? How deeply do they care about that assignment that they’ve been given in getting away from that completion because we’re all working more much more slowly now.
Steve: 17:30 Which could be a good thing.
Aimée: 17:34 Yeah, it’s not a bad thing. And it doesn’t mean it’s less rigorous, it just means that it’s, it could be deeper learning and maybe learning for the long game in that there is no exam that they’re preparing for. So we to give them a reason to do this work and what’s a better reason then I’m teaching you to think and to reflect and to move forward.
Steve: 17:59 And how often, how often as teachers, have we blamed the exam for the reason we can’t go deep? So here’s our chance.
Aimée: 18:08 I mean, I think this is going to be a big challenge. We’re only – we’ll go back to school April 26 and some of those students will have, you know, another two months of instruction that is not tied to an end of term grade though their grades have already been determined. But we feel that we want to keep students engaged in thinking and moving forward in their skills for whatever program that’s coming next. So I’m worried but also secretly excited that this is going to be a change for a positive in a time when people are kind of stressed out.
Steve: 18:54 I jumped on Twitter when I saw that first note that said Columbia University was going pass/fail. And I thought I’ve got fourth grade teachers around the country struggling with how they’re going to grade and the university is figuring out you can go on to be a doctor or a lawyer having come out of a course pass/fail.
Aimée: 19:12 It brings into question all of what we do in our assessments, in the reasons for what we do, the exam boards, you know, qualifications. I mean, lucky for me, I’m not sending someone out to be a brain surgeon tomorrow, so you know, but I do see it as a time for teachers to pause for systems to pause and take another look at what we’re doing and what we’re asking students to do.
Steve: 19:39 So, my next question is kind of connected and that is, I’m wondering if you’ve had insights to this extent, into the program that you think would be influencing your teaching when the classroom doors open back up.
Aimée: 19:58 Definitely spending more time on one piece, polishing and refining. I would say I will be changing the way I’m doing feedback to be more direct and meaningful in that, students can act upon the feedback I’m giving them, that it’s not the end point. So the feedback, whether you call that an assessment or whatever, but the feedback I’m giving them, I want them to see that as an opportunity to improve as opposed to a measurement.
Steve: 20:37 So yeah. So your feedback now is directed to them staying on the staying on the piece.
Aimée: 20:43 Right. Or staying on that skill, whatever that skill is. But I think it has to be actionable. And sometimes what we think is actionable may not be. I’m putting things – sometimes I’ll make a comment on a piece, “don’t use vague language” and they don’t know what that word means. And I never stopped to check. Did they understand what vauge means or do they even know what that word means and how to fix that. So as English teachers, we’re, used to giving extensive feedback on their writing, but can they act on that feedback? That’s something that I want to make sure that they can do when I come back into the classroom.
Steve: 21:26 Well, they almost have to act on it in order for you to have the answer to that question.
Aimée: 21:33 Yes.
Steve: 21:33 If they can take your feedback and cause your feedback to improve their performance or take them deeper in the skill, then that’s how I know that that’s my feedback.
Aimée: 21:45 Yes. And this is – I’m hoping that this will get us out of the cycle of, we keep assigning the same things and they just don’t – I
keep seeing the same mistakes appearing appearing again and again. Well, why? Well, you need to ask yourself, well, what feedback am I giving? Because they’re not able to act on that or they’re not acting on it. Now, why aren’t they acting on it? It’s possible that they feel pressured to move to the next task. They don’t understand how those are related and especially more so maybe in content areas than in English. Those, you know, you’re moving from unit to unit, at least in English where it’s a spiral, you know, it’s iterative and they come back around to the same skills over and over again. So with a reduction of the number of tasks that I’m asking students to do and sticking with a task longer, I’m hoping that that will enable me to be more calm in my reflection process, in my do, test, redo, refine, examine, you know, I want to be more mindful or more, I don’t know. Yeah, more formalized in that process. I have a tendency to approach the reflection process a little bit frenetically as as opposed to measured and what’s the data telling me.
Steve: 23:13 Well I mean a simple step of students doing doing less pieces or less assignments should create an opportunity at the minimal, for the teacher to have more time in giving the kind of feedback on that assignment. I got really caught up on this several years back. I worked with a high school, a vocational school program and the students I met were writing a paper for their aeronautics class. They were writing a paper on famous people that had influenced that industry. And that paper was their English paper, a science paper and their aeronautics paper. So the same piece of work was getting input and graded by three teachers. And you know, I shared the impact of the difference of that kid working on three different assignments. One for each course versus the ability to pull that all together with the expectation of the time and the quality that you are now going to look for the student to produce.
Aimée: 24:22 Yes. Yeah. And that’s, that’s in line with how we know the world works. Right? We’re not in separate subjects in the real world. We have to blend the different disciplines and we’re not very good at that in school right now.
Steve: 24:39 And to do a quality piece would require that. It’s going to require science knowledge that likely my English teacher is not possessing, it’s gonna include writing quality that chances are my aeronautics teacher is not possessing. So now those three teachers working together can give that feedback to a student to hit a level of quality that any one of them working on their own would unlikely be able to hit.
Aimée: 25:10 Yeah. True. And I think that’s where the shift comes from – the looking at process, from looking at the content to observing the process students are going through. If I can observe your process, I can jump in when I see your process going off. I don’t necessarily need to know the content for that.
Steve: 25:29 Yep. Right.
Aimée: 25:29 And so building into our measurement systems, more observations on process I think will be beneficial to students in the long run. And I’m finding that in my AP research course, I have students doing research projects on topics that I am not familiar with. I have one doing a social science and one doing an experiment, a biology experiment. But I certainly can observe their process and give them feedback on that. So that’s moving from being a content specialist into a learning specialist.
Steve: 26:07 Yeah. Well, I really appreciate the time you’ve given us here. And when I looked at your most recent post on LinkedIn before you’re headed off to vacation, I was caught by the quote that you provided there and also the list of questions that I guess you’re taking on vacation. And so I’d appreciate if you’d share them here for folks.
Aimée: 26:33 Certainly. Certainly. I think that, you know, we’re looking at this time at so much information about the way to do things and I don’t want to slip into that role of being an advisor on online learning. So for me to end my four weeks with questions, puts me in that place of continuing to learn along with my students. So questions are super important to me and this is why I like what James Baldwin says about questions. And he says that, “the questions which one asks oneself begin at least to illuminate the world and become one’s key to the experience of others.” And through that questioning, I’m hoping to understand what my students are going through and be a better teacher for them. So I’m going away on spring break with the following questions for myself and hopefully for other educators as well. So how do we move from emergency teaching to solid, meaningful, online teaching practice?
Aimée: 27:44 What activities can we assign students that will allow them to show what they know? How do we move from extrinsic motivation of predicted grades and ranking students to a more intrinsic model? And how are we planning for student to student interaction? That’s a piece that many people are feeling is lacking in online learning. And I don’t think it has to be lacking in online learning. So, we need to think more cleverly how we’re doing that. And the last one is how are we using assessment, not for measurement necessarily, but to drive our own instruction and provide students with opportunities to improve.
Steve: 28:30 Well, thanks again and you’re pushing my learning. I’m sitting here thinking I can go back and take each of your questions and see if I can invite two people to come onto a podcast where we’ll explore those those questions. Have a great break.
Steve: 28:45 Thanks again. Take care.
Aimée: 28:46 You as well. All right, thanks Steve.
Aimée: 28:49 Bye. Bye.
Steve [Outro]: 28:50 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean, and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.