Reframing the Vision: Online Learning

This blogpost was created by me with the editing assistance of Dr. Mark Carleton.

There has never been a more interesting time to assess and improve the way learning occurs in the hearts and minds of every child. Many schools already succeed in developing school-wide programs that imbue intrepid, independent learners with confidence and passion. The secret to these inventive opportunities rests in the hearts and minds of experienced teachers working to shape the wonder and creativity of eager students.  Today, Online Learning programs have been designed by these teachers with these students in mind.  Through its growth and evolution, we seek to tap into the wonder and creativity of our children, in different but no less lasting ways.  Below you will find lessons learned from that experience as well as a glimpse of how we must commit to improve every child’s day-to-day experiences. 

In full disclosure, much of this blog post is credited to the thinking and development of vision inspired by Jennifer Gonzalez’s most recent post, 9 Ways Online Teaching Should be Different from Face-to-Face. If you haven’t yet read or listened to this installment, stop reading my blog and move to that one first. The whole blog/podcast, and specifically this single post, is gold on paper.

Teacher will begin to create moments that allow for sharing stories, interests, and dreams so that we can begin to know, love, and challenge each child to become more than ever before.

A Trusting and Inspired Environment

Above all else, teachers value the relationship a child and family will cultivate with caring, charismatic educators.  Especially in Online Learning, we must ensure that the teacher-student relationship remains at the heart of every interaction.  This year, in the days before Online Learning begins, teachers will reach out and make contact with every child. Whether it’s a phone call or a drive-through-and-wave event at school, I expect that our teachers will invest in building a positive, constructive relationship with their students and families. They will begin to create moments that allow for sharing stories, interests, and dreams so that we can begin to know, love, and challenge each child to become more than ever before.

Direct instruction—things like brief video lessons and readings—will happen mostly in asynchronous (anytime) form, using checks for understanding like embedded questions or what educators call “exit slips.” These “flipped lessons” will lay the groundwork needed to build something that is truly inspiring. Further, this asynchronous approach allows us to use synchronous (real time) meetings for more interactive, engaging work that is focused on capturing the attention of the learner with practical activities to enrich their understanding.  Working creatively with class material, categorizing it, organizing it, sharing further thoughts on it, having a discussion about it–all of these are great things to do live and even in small groups.

Teachers will continue to focus on the individual needs of each child. However, Online Learning doesn’t universally connect in consistent or even beneficial ways with each student.  In that of that imbalance, we must build creative assessments that demonstrate applied and practical learning, we should explore new technologies so that children have improved access to their adult mentors; and we need to reflect and offer feedback as essential components of the learning environment so that teachers can analyze how a student has learned and what he or she can do to improve.  We must retool our grading practices to focus on growth and grace as we acknowledge the demands on children who are trying to succeed in a socially constrained environment.

Consistent Communication and Active, Productive Dialogue

Whether a child is in Kindergarten, 4th grade, or somewhere in the Middle School, families should expect easy access to the following: (1) ready knowledge of the learning opportunities children will explore, (2) ease of access to these opportunities, and (3) an up-to-date understanding of each teacher’s vision for assessing growth through these opportunities along the way.  We will devote the resources and time needed to educate families on how to use the learning management systems associated with our school so that children know where to find their online school community and parents know what to expect when they get there.

With regard to internal communication, the setting has changed the way we must execute our collaborative effort. In the years before the pandemic, teachers would have frequent structured and unstructured meetings throughout the day. These in-person conversations developed our curriculum, allowed for course corrections, and ultimately enhanced the teacher-student relationship.  With Online Learning, those collaborative meetings can be challenging to schedule, so when we are in this platform, we will be intentional about carving out time for teachers to use their collective experiences in and out of their virtual classrooms to hone and develop authentic, high-quality learning opportunities. 

Strong partnerships are developed through transparency and trust.

Lastly, and with equal importance, is the extrinsic and essential value of including family feedback in as much of our program as possible. When it comes to setting goals for a school year, the opportunity to finish on target depends greatly on our ability to make course corrections along the way. By keeping a predictable line of communication open, students and their families can have a voice throughout the learning experience. We will encourage every person in the community to contribute when called upon to offer feedback as we bravely navigate this new path together. Strong partnerships are developed through transparency and trust.

In conclusion, faculty and leadership in my school have spent considerable time reflecting on the program we offered last spring. Throughout all our discussions, one expectation is clear: a school is a place of innovators that should offer a truly unique experience for the learner. In order to do this, we must work harder and build a united mindset. When we can achieve this effort, we will take control of this pandemic narrative, harness our collective intellectual capital and create a phenomenal learning experience for every student, parent, and teacher. We are determined to make tomorrow better than today, so we must continue to learn from our past decisions to make the coming year more meaningful, valuable, and joyful.

Throughout all our discussions, one expectation is clear: a school is a place of innovators that should offer a truly unique experience for the learner.

Featured image created by nurun

Heartfelt Moments at School

I will fight for you…I always do.

Sometimes I hear a song that tugs on my heartstrings. I’m a fan of Andy Grammer’s music, but I was shell shocked when I heard his song “Don’t Give Up on Me” which he wrote for a movie called Five Feet Apart. While the content of the movie itself is moving and heartbreaking, I was particularly moved when watching this video from his website. Please take a moment and listen.

I love to see PASSION and JOY coming from students, no matter if they are here at Presbyterian School, or if they come from somewhere else. The kids in this video are from PS22, a public elementary school on Staten Island. Not only can you hear the joy these students have in sharing their musical talent, but you can feel the emotion when looking at their faces. I am sure that this video was taken after a number of practice rounds. Further, I am confident that there were plenty of mistakes made along the way.

How much rehearsal time do you think the kids in this video experienced before they got to perform with Andy Grammer? Think about the various expressions on the faces throughout the performance. How much practice does it take to look genuinely emotional while singing? You’ve really got to feel the music and believe in the lines you are singing. For you all who participate in choir here at School, think about the number of times you have practiced a song before finally performing it. How many times has Ms. Holt or Mr. Harrison drilled you all on a single measure, over and over, to make sure that the sound is juuuust right? I’m sure you can relate to the happiness these kids show when performing. After all, the road is long, but it’s worth it. I mean…they got to sing with a rock star! That’s pretty cool.

Eighth graders: think about the hours and months of rehearsals for the three shows you performed. When did you finally see the pieces start to come together, and how awesome was it to perform in front of a large crowd of people, the largest group ever to watch a PS event. They stood and cheered for you! Like the choral director in this video, think of the teachers, directors, and so many others present at every rehearsal – never giving up on what you could do when you put your heart and souls into your work. It makes me think of the line from the song:

‘Cause I’m not givin’ up, I’m not givin’ up, givin’ up, no, not yet
Even when I’m down to my last breath
Even when they say there’s nothing left.

What is my foundation?

Take a moment to think about your greatest work throughout the year. Was it the Old West production that you fifth graders accomplished last week? Sixth graders, will it be that special thing you will present during the upcoming Genius Hour? Seventh graders, perhaps it was the Westing Game activity or science research paper, or the Talent Show? Eighth graders, I would like to think that every activity, from the musical, to the trip, to your RIDEE project, and even today’s Manifesto Museum is the product of great work, lots of practice, and learning.

I’m not givin’ up, I’m not givin’ up, givin’ up, no, not me
Even when nobody else believes
I’m not goin down that easily.

This year, countless times, all of you reached towards something that was there…but you just couldn’t see it yet. You trusted, you took a leap, and you found your footing…somewhere – maybe exactly where you had hoped, or, maybe not. But you stood up and presented, sang, spoke, defended, competed, or whatever the verb needed to demonstrate your guts, your passion, and your capability. As we have been using all year, the Essential Question, What is my foundation?, was apparent in each effort and every day…whether you realized it or not.

Matthew 7:24

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Of course, the Bible got it right when Jesus proclaimed that His words serve as the foundation for which all other things can stand. I hope your trust and your sure footing finds a home in His words. I’m certain that there were times when you felt like you were in free fall without any sign of support. But but support is always there – it just takes a little trust, and a lot of patience. So let’s talk about both the free fall, and the foundation in further detail.

And I will hold, I’ll hold onto you
No matter what this world will throw
it won’t shake me loose

Failure and Support

When you think about something from the year that you are proud to share with classmates, family, and community, I want you to think about two key concepts surrounding that effort: failure, and support. Let’s walk through these two compenents.


How many times have you tried and messed up, received a school paper that was all marked up with red pen, or worked as hard as you could only to come up short? I got to see an example of this type of effort when our varsity lacrosse team competed in their semifinal playoff game. They had never worked as hard as they did in that game. In the second half, the players fought tooth and nail for every goal, cutting into the lead before running out of time and falling short. But what I saw that day, what I hope that they have gained, was the experience of lifting each other off of the ground and showing true grit as they competed. Sure, the outcome was not in their favor – but the effort was. Another coach from the later game came up to me and commended our team on their effort – he said he’d never seen a team fight so hard. That acknowledgement is worth its weight in gold because it’s laced with respect – and respect is life’s most valuable commodity.


In all you have accomplished this year, how many teachers have stood behind you or next to you, for better or for worse? Who has challenged you to give it one more try, or take one more risk to accomplish something you’ve never done before? How many times have you heard a teacher talk about “next time,” or the fact that success is not about the grade, but the effort to get that grade. How often are you encouraged to achieve more, extend that lead, or improve your results? Your teachers will always be there for you. This group of educators will never stop encouraging and celebrating you. It’s not only their job; it’s their mission. In the moment, you won’t always like what you hear…but when you stop to reflect, I’m confident that you will see the true intention of your teachers – because their expertise isn’t in math, or history, or some other content area. Their true gift is seeing your potential – and getting you to see it, too.

I will fight.
I will fight for you.
I always do until my heart is black and blue.

To close, please remember the struggles, successes, and failures you have experienced this year. Think of the magical moments, and the awful ones. Think of the people from Presbyterian School who stood by you, fighting until their hearts were black and blue. Let’s start with the very beginning – you are known…your are loved…and you are wonderfully made. Thank you for a fantastic school year. Let’s finish strong, making beautiful music, until that last breath; until there’s nothing left.

Lenses, Not Silos

I am reading an inspiring book about school design and program development with the student at the center. It’s called Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I’m enthralled with the motivational idealism that exists throughout the work; however, this idealism is galvanized by practical experience as the two authors, former school principals, have demonstrated how theory can become common practice. Every so often, a quote pops up which allows me the opportunity to reflect on our School practice. This morning, that quote came from a chapter on “Lenses, Not Silos.”

Good, thoughtful teaching and learning is a process more gerative of questions than of hard and fast answers. – Building School 2.0: How to Create Schools We Need

It’s the Lens

The context for this question stems from the fact that classrooms cannot harbor concepts and skills in exclusivity. In other words, the ideas presented and discussed in a math class must, at their core, facilitate how a student can view the world through a filtered lens. That filter depends on the reference point (or, in the case of school, the material presented); however, a child in the classroom should feel empowered to use this lens as an every day, any moment skill. So when that same student is in history class, there should be an opportunity to utilize a math lens to view the task at hand.

This blending of content areas can happen organically, for instance, in history and English classes. With a little effort, the courses sync to the point where students should not recognize the difference between history or English class…and that is wonderful. But the example I used above (seeing math in history) can be a bit challenging when material is not presented with intention. But this essay is not a challenge to create connections. On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

Content as a Vehicle

Instead, I’d offer that educators must focus on building the lens through which a child sees learning. The content used is merely a vehicle for practicing ways to use various lenses. When we can teach students how to think mathematically or process a concept within socio political paradigm, the endgame will present itself tangibly. In our case, the goal must be a capable young learner who can see the comprehensive opportunity to process content as he or she would in the real world.

So I encourage you, in this last month of school, to frame your conversations with the lens of learning in mind. Let’s teach our kids how to see the world as an interconnected classroom, where their ability can bring many thoughts and materials into a useful, practical, and joyful experience.

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

My youngest son loves Elmo. He adores watching this character sing and dance, particularly with Taye Diggs as they go driving in their imaginary yellow automobile. For some reason, this little jam gets Parker moving and singing. He loves making the sounds that a car makes; he’ll watch the same video over and over. However, the song is not what I think about when I watch it with my boy. At the beginning of the video, Taye and Elmo “imagine, imagine, imagine” what their ideal car and drive would look like. They even remember to imagine seat belts!

Today, Elmo’s fun video has me thinking: what do I “imagine, imagine, imagine” when it comes to school? How has my vision changed over the course of the school year because of the challenges set before me by the facilitators and members of the Change.School program? How about the lessons learned from my colleagues at Presbyterian?

A Million Dreams are Keeping Me Awake

Much like Elmo, I close my eyes, and I can imagine a few key ideas:

  • I am meeting with middle school faculty. While greeting them, I ask them to reflect on why they enter the classroom each day. Do they enjoy the skill-driven learning goals they have built their curriculum and the ways in which they engage students? Am I feeding them with opportunities to do create dynamic learning spaces? Are they enticing students to own their learning process?
    • Teachers construct an adventurous environment in which students can explore and pursue learning with passion and vigor. It is my hope that we move beyond simple engagement with content. Especially for middle school children, almost all content will resurface in the coming years. So content is the medium; however, the true learning in place hones collaborative and creative skill. Learning to learn is the model.
  • I am observing a class that is exploring a new concept. Students are struggling with the challenge, leaning on each other and the micro-discoveries that manifest throughout the group on the way to comprehension. Students are smiling because they enjoy the challenge designed by the teacher in the room. That teacher is there to facilitate wonder and guide young thinkers towards a common pathway.
    • Learning spaces model trial-and-error; students should never fear the potential of failure as a step towards success. Grades as metrics do not provide any sort of long-term value; rather, it’s the skill to develop and manage a process that makes a great student and learner. Students should feel a sense of urgency to identify problems and make an effort to discover evidence which lead to answers…and more questions.
  • I envision learning opportunities in all spaces and from all sorts of places. Students are on their iPads, searching a multitude of spaces, referencing texts they may have found virtually or in the learning commons on campus. The teacher in the room bring her or his own knowledge base to the table as well, only inspiring further research.
    • The spark may come from other people in the room, such as students, YouTube, the docent at the museum, the professional with life experiences to share, etc. We need to tap into all resources in our learning spaces; to fall short in this area is simply a failure of the system as a whole.

Developing a Roadmap to Get There

I believe in the power of teacher autonomy. I should not need to observe and review lesson plans when my vision is clearly articulated and genuinely adopted by faculty. We hire faculty who demonstrate a willingness to buy into the culture of our school and appreciate the pedagogical freedom to live into that vision on one’s own terms. Further, teachers should have the authority to challenge my vision with practical evidence of “a better way” to inspire learning and student agency. That is what a division meeting is for – a gathering of individual vision so that we can move forward together as a confident unit. I look forward to the time we as a division can play together as much as the time when we wrestle through our differences. I would never claim to have all the answers (which is why I surround myself with smarter people in the room). So, is there a roadmap? I’d say the faculty in my division depend of me for a direction of travel, not how to get there. That diversity of thought makes school messy…and messiness models creativity in our students.

Driving towards a better model

Many schools today consider a move towards new learning methods as they seek to improve on traditional school design. A program in which I am participating, called Change.School, consistently stretches my brain to consider ways in which I lead my school and why I have chosen to do so. Some questions presented by a colleague in a recent post had me thinking particularly hard, so I will share my thoughts with you.

1.  What is the role of direct teaching in an inquiry based classroom driven by student questions?

I have researched the National Paideia Center and later had this organization come to train our faculty on a component of their framework: the Paideia seminar. Their stance is that a typical classroom should see about ten to fifteen percent didactic learning (with the vast majority of the remaining time be saved for practical application of knowledge and discussion via the aforementioned seminar). I’m a math guy, so these numbers speak to me as proper guidelines for leaders who want to give learning ownership to the students in the classroom.

2. Is there a role for teacher developed provocations?

I strongly believe in modeling how we expect our students to engage in their learning. Trevor MacKenzie has written Dive into Inquiry, a text that focuses on a gradual release of ownership to students when building an inquiry-based classroom. From phrasing the essential question which guides the inquiry to choosing research methods and the eventual medium to demonstrate learning, MacKenzie explores how to gradually shift each of these pieces to eventually reach “Free Inquiry.” Food for thought (and a good, quick read).

3. Once we determine the exit skills for a variety of stages in the educational development of children, can we give ownership of the standards to the children and allow them to determine how they will demonstrate their proficiency?

I think this is a brilliant idea. But as a senior thesis paper must be “defended,” so too should a student have to defend how and why the chosen demonstration accurately displays proficiency. Perhaps a better question is: “How can a student show learning as opposed to proficiency?” It seems to me that we need to measure progress and development towards mastery and not the snapshot, quantitative value on where a student is at any given moment. Learning is linear and follows its own time…but we can objectively measure that development given the proper rubric to follow.

4. How do we ensure a visibility to the teaching and learning going on in schools and how do we ensure parents are integral partners in the process.

Parents must have a strong level of engagement in the learning process. In the demonstration of proficiency you mentioned in the previous question, I would think that parents should be able to observe and appreciate the level of learning that has transpired. A fun activity would be to build a sort of “passport” for parents or visitors to use as a roadmap to see the different displays of learning to a) build a community that celebrates learning, and b) see the comparative progress made from one student to the next.

5. Should we be co-creating assessment criteria with students and then give them full partnership in assessing their peers and themselves? What does the role of the teacher look like in this environment?

This question brings to mind a slide that my headmaster uses in his presentation on assessment. It looks something like this:

There are 3 types of assessment in today’s classroom:

  1. Assessment FOR learning – enables teachers to use information about students’ knowledge to inform their teaching while providing feedback to students about their learning and how to improve
  2. Assessment AS learning – involves students in the learning process where they monitor their own progress/skill development through self-assessment and teacher feedback. Students can ask questions about their progress as a reflection of their learning and to re-set goals for the future.
  3. Assessment OF learning – the most typical type of assessment in today’s schools; this type of assessment measures student achievement against learning goals and standards.

6. Should attention still be paid to building community and ensuring we are building citizenship skills as well as facilitating student driven inquiry?

In my mind, a student is never going to remember what he learned in 6th grade science; however, she is NEVER going to forget the way that teacher made her FEEL. If you haven’t yet seen Mrs. Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk on relationships, then take some time to do so right now. Why am I a teacher/school leader? To ensure that I am building inquisitive CITIZENS who understand that character builds reputation (not knowledge or skill).

7.  Is there a time when a topic is so compelling a teacher should/must draw it to the attention of students and invite them to investigate?

I think this question goes into my answer for question 2. However, when something like the World Trade Center attacks occurs, we MUST stop and investigate how this changes the world in which we live. Granted, I believe this disruption is both the most difficult and most impactful “teachable moment” an educator has the opportunity to share with his students.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on these topics. Thanks for reading!