Virtual Learning: Cameras

After 8 months of mostly virtual learning, I find myself wanting to capture some of my thoughts and experiences about camera use in a virtual classroom setting. This has truly been a journey that I’ve varied my position on during the COVID learning situation.

March (cameras – whatever works for you)

We found ourselves plunged into working from home from a situation where we didn’t use technology very much in our classroom. I had been recording and posting my lectures and materials in Google Classroom every day, but the intent was simply for students to have access if they were absent. Our use of this tech was limited to substitute plans and those daily recordings. Enter the pandemic and in our sudden forced time at home we were expected to “deliver content” but not to necessarily hold synchronous classes. If we did have a class the expectation was that it was not required and that we record it so that students could watch later if they were unable to attend.

I spent 4 days creating and posting videos and having students submit work. I was so sad after those 4 days that I knew I had to change something and FAST. What if this went on for a long while? You can read about that journey here, but let’s sum it up and say that we moved to synchronous classes quickly and suddenly cameras came into play.

April – June: The rest of spring (cameras – whatever works for you)

It took me several weeks to have the courage to turn on my own camera. I didn’t have a webcam and my laptop was positioned off to one side while my external monitor was in front of me. I also had a Chromebook from the other side. My class was a mix – some kids had theirs on, some off and some off and on rather regularly. One day I turned mine on and one of my kids said, “oh there you are!!” We went on to talk about cameras a bit. I kept mine on after that – it was clearly important from our exchange to the kids to see their teacher. I honestly didn’t concern myself with cameras too much. I began to feel connected to the avatars and got more comfortable with video. One thing to note about this situation was that I in my 2nd year of teaching the same group of students because I had looped with them. We were pretty comfortable with each other by this time.

Summer PD (cameras – it makes sense to have them on)

Over the summer I had the chance to take some classes and lead some sessions. One session was done with a high school teacher in our district. We had a lot of chats about cameras and attendance and the general expectation at the high school was that students have their cameras on. I started to delve more into student opinions and also sought parent opinion. My parents said that it was kind of pointless to hold class if you didn’t require a camera. They heard lots of stories of students logging in and just walking away. Some students said they would just not come to class if they had to have their camera on. The reason they showed up was that they didn’t have to be dressed nicely and out of their pjs. Some admitted to eating breakfast while in class while others said their mom kept popping in and they’d be embarrassed if their camera was on and their peers could see that. Some shared that their internet connection was just not very strong and it couldn’t handle the camera being on. (and back in the spring we weren’t doing a whole lot of interactive things yet – it was mostly direct instruction with some activities). Just as with in-person learning there are so many facets to consider. I was only hitting the tip of the iceberg in my questioning.

September – October 2 – Class norms (I’d really like the kids to have them on)

I started off the year naively thinking that I could just set up my class norms and expect that the students have their cameras on. But with no schoolwide norms, our slightly whacky schedule (two of my classes were combined so we had one very large crew that made cameras/mics tricky at best), and the fact that students were used to not having live class in the spring or having no camera requirement if they did resulted in the planned norms not working quite so well.

October 5 – Nov? – Hybrid learning (I don’t have to think about cameras)

I admit I don’t even remember the date we went abruptly virtual again. I just remember thinking I was so glad I got birthday cookies handed out to most students before we went virtual. We got a little break from thinking about cameras for a while when our hybrid learning kicked in at the beginning of October. Suddenly I got to see my students in person and we finally got a chance to get to know each other. Wow – I think we got about 5 weeks where we didn’t have to think about cameras in the classroom. I had optional opportunities to log into class, and I did have a second screen so I could see the kids if they came to class and had their camera on, BUT in general, kids didn’t and we mostly relied on audio for the interaction between in-person and remote students.

Once we went remote – (cameras – please turn them on)

This was an interesting time for us all. We were suddenly used to seeing each other in person and I respectfully asked the kids to keep their cameras on as a class norm. It made me feel human. We had switched to following our bell schedule which meant we’d interact as we would in normal school from 8-3 with the exception of lunch, study hall and homeroom. It would be a long day for kids and teachers. Teachers aren’t used to a traditional desk job and students aren’t used to sitting at a computer ALL day long. I thought actually seeing each other would help.

And I succeeded … for awhile. I felt really connected to the kids in these first weeks home. Most students had cameras on and the vibe was positive. I looked forward to school and I was having fun trying new things for virtual learning. And then something happened with the students. I don’t exactly know what (teachers don’t often get the full story) but I do know that it involved kids feeling unsafe on camera because of their peers. I felt powerless to fix it and the dominoes started to fall. They fell on one day actually.

It was the best of classes … it was the worst of classes – (I give up)

One day I went from my period 5 class (every single student had their camera on) and our class went really great to my period 6 class (suddenly and abruptly the kids didn’t have their cameras on). I don’t know exactly the reason but I chose to pick the fight and engage that day. I repeatedly reminded kids of class norms and respectfully and continually asked them to turn them on. Some did and some did to turn them right back off again. It was a terrible class. When I went downstairs for lunch my kids said, “oh man mom that sounded awful.” I said it was awful and I really wasn’t sure what to do. I was already starting to struggle with staring at a screen all day and that was when kids had cameras on. Now I was going to have to accept staring at avatars all day long. I couldn’t fight the kids. I didn’t have enough kids with them on to start to try to change the culture. On that day I just decided to scrap the norms. I didn’t feel up for the fight that I didn’t feel I could win.

And we have a couple weeks back in school (no camera worries)

Now when we went back to school we had switched to requiring students to attend their classes on their virtual days if they were hybrid. Our virtual students attended every day online too. Again, no camera concerns. Our connection was by Google Meet but we didn’t focus on the virtual kids having cameras on.

Another month of virtual (and it is back to the beginning)

And this time my class that used to have everyone with a camera on has reverted to no one with their camera. The classes that used to have no cameras have hit a middle ground with some on and some off. We had “bring your emotional support stuffed animal to class day” and “holiday outfit” and “hat day” and even an online ice cream party. On those days more cameras were on. We now have breakout rooms and cameras are on sometimes there and sometimes not.

I feel like I’ve come full circle on this. As someone who just does what anyone in authority tells me to do I spent much of the fall just wanting a school directive. If you ask me to do something I will so if the school says “we have cameras on” most of the kids will. When we vary it teacher by teacher it is tricky. It becomes something of a class culture.

As we enter 2021 my thoughts on cameras

I stepped back from this and started to observe my own behavior. At faculty meetings, I turn my camera on if other people do. In a training, it is the same thing. If I can get away with it off I often leave it off. I get distracted by seeing myself. I am more productive and focused if it is off. But I feel more connected to the leader and my colleagues when it is on. I have grown to love the avatars the kids choose and I definitely notice when they change them. I wish I could use cameras as a symbol “turn your camera off as you work” and I could do this for a while back when the kids were with me on the norms I set. Thankfully Google Meet has evolved as we’ve been virtual as well. I can use their hand raise setting to do this same thing.

I miss the kids. I miss seeing them and interacting “in person” with cameras. But, I can recognize their voices and I know their avatars and we do know each other. I still think a class runs better when cameras are on and I would welcome a top down directive, but I’ve settled in and I’m ok with where my kids and I are right now.

We head back into in-person hybrid schooling Monday so at least for a bit I can stop thinking about cameras.

Using Jamboard for Math

Last year my son’s Chemistry teacher created a lot of assignments in Jamboard. He proudly showed me his work. At the time my Algebra kids were humming along with taking pictures of their work on paper. I was intrigued by his projects though and offered up the option to them to give it a try. The class agreed that it was too challenging to write on and it worked just fine to take pictures.

Math 8 was a different story. When I opened it up to them they were mixed. Some students preferred the format and others were really frustrated by it. Our school was using Google Classroom at the time and classroom played very well with my iPad. I could pull their pictures into it, mark them up and grade easily. It didn’t play nicely with Jamboard. So, last spring I offered Jamboard alternatives to students who wanted to use them but stuck with mostly traditional pictures of work.

Concurrent learning

As with many things, the world has changed since last spring. My school now uses Brightspace and my students are learning concurrently. On any given day we have a mix of students in the classroom and at home. Some students are virtual every day and many are hybrid students. In our district, this means that they attend school in person two days a week and learn virtually two days per week. With COVID we can find ourselves virtual for 2 weeks with little notice. Collaboration and connection are important parts of success in this new landscape.

The paperless classroom

I’m proud of the fact that I’ve turned my math classes almost paperless since the year started. Even with a little bit of paper use, I have made fewer than a couple of hundred copies by December. Jamboard is just one of the many tools I’m using to make this mostly paperless math room work. The complete list of tools:

Not all of these tools are for students. Many are just for me for creating materials. I’m trying HARD not to add too many tools, and every day I seem to find a limitation on a free version of something that makes me want to fork over the money for something new.

Looking for Jamboard templates? This great post from Kris Szajner has some great ones in a guest post in Ditch that Textbook. Select the image or click on the link below the image.

Check out these from Ditch That Textbook.

Student Jamboards

I kicked off Jamboards with my kids just a bit before Thanksgiving. All of these examples represent individual Jamboards. The first two slides are examples of Math 8 work and other slides are pages from Algebra work. A big thank you to my students both for working so hard

November Virtual – Week 1

As our school pivoted to virtual, our 8th graders got settled into the new, temporary routine! Here are some updates for parents (and kids) and anyone else who happens across this about our first week learning from home.

What can you do?

I’ll kick this post off with a few things you can do to support your child in virtual learning and then share about our week.

  1. Establish a consistent work space, ideally at a table or desk. Bedrooms are very comfortable but sometimes too comfortable for focusing.
  2. Establish a consistent bedtime and wake-up routine just like with brick and mortar school.
  3. Check in with your child about how the day went after each day. Check out Brightspace with your child so you can support work.
  4. Consider having a fun goal for the week and a reward. In my family it is as simple as the week ending and getting one night of take-out. Something to look forward to at week’s end is really great. For kids struggling with work, treating it as a reward for completion could be something to consider.

We’re following the bell schedule

There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle when deciding a schedule and our middle school went with our bell schedule. This was great because kids are used to following it for in person school and it allowed things to feel less compressed. Even so, it was a very big adjustment to being on screens most of the day. Tuesday felt like Friday to me and the Veterans Day holiday turned into an almost 100% work day for me. In weekly self-reflection one student said, “this week felt long” and another said they spent Wednesday’s day off working on back work all day.

Snack opportunities, fun new backgrounds and integrity

Last year in 7th grade, the students spent a lot of time focusing on integrity. They learned about what it means and worked to always “stay in their integrity.” Students need to feel safe in virtual spaces just like they do in our brick and mortar classrooms and we had to revisit this topic this week. There are many known struggles for online learning already and I hope our kids have learned not to add to these very real struggles by taking photographs and posting or mocking students in virtual classrooms.

I truly appreciated students having camera ON this week. I could see raised hands and thumbs up, confused faces and confident faces and feel human. Our digital space IS our classroom right now and it can feel just as fun (in a different way) than meeting in person. We had a pretty solid start!

Cool tech

An example of my board as we talked through a problem.

I have found a few things that are rather fun in the past two weeks. My colleague introduced me to a digital whiteboard that I tried before we went virtual. The kids liked it and we all quickly got the hang of it so it was the first tool I employed this week!

Desmos has some AWESOME activities. We tried one out in Algebra this week and once we got past the struggles of entering the code and getting in it was good. We plan to do more of these next week both in Algebra and Math 8. We’ve already done one of these in Math 8 in our hybrid model and the kids liked it.

Go Guardian is a tool I have had access to for a long while at school but I just tried it out this week. When in a virtual setting there are so many screen struggles – getting to the right spot, knowing what to do when you get there, managing the band width of a meet AND an activity and more. Go Guardian let me support kids with their work while having them leave the Google Meet so their Chrome Book could handle the load of a video or an activity. My favorite moment from the week was when a student was working and was still on the meet and I heard her say, “wait I don’t get this one.” I saw her screen and what she was struggling with and was able to chat with her in Go Guardian and tell her to pop back over to the meet and I could help her. Of course it also serves the function of letting me know when kids are playing video games when they should be working and more and unfortunately we’ll need that information too. Our kids are learning how to stay focused when we are not in a physical space and all these tools help us.

I saved a rabbit today

On Thursday after the school day, I drove my son to work and delivered cupcakes for my business. I decided to use the little bit of daylight left to run on the Black Diamond Trail so I parked on the trail toward the bottom. My son had asked me to take a video of the trail for him, so I stopped my watch after just under a mile of running and shot some video. I forgot to restart my watch and just kept running. My intention had been to push to the last bits of daylight and enjoy my run but not to run til it was pitch black. That meant I had about 4-5 miles total in time.

My rabbit dressed up for Halloween.

As I began my run I was tired. I felt spent and felt like I had been moderately successful with most things and felt a little mired in some of the failures of other things. I set an intention to use my run to switch my mindset. Because of the watch debacle I ended up running past 6 miles and until it was fully dark. I was a little scared because I hadn’t brought a headlamp, but I also felt refreshed, energized and POSITIVE. The running brought perspective: Most kids had their cameras on. Most kids participated. Most kids tried their best. Most kids stayed in their integrity this week.

On the way home a rabbit darted in front of my car. I managed to avoid the rabbit. For a brief second I thought, “I almost killed a rabbit.” and then I quickly spun it to, “I saved a rabbit today.”

We can’t control that we are virtual right now but we can choose our mindset!

Shifts of Functions Project

This year during our virtual learning time, I took a project that I usually offer for extra credit and made it a class assignment. I decided that with the time we were all spending at home because there are no sports, in person social gatherings, concerts or opportunities to be out and about that it was the perfect time for kids to get to dive into a creative project. Algebra students had just finished studying shifts of functions, and we culminated that experience with a project.

The details

The project was a creative one. It had a simple goal: You will create an original piece of work using graphs from many “families of functions” as characters in your story. My hope for you in this project is that it is FUN, CREATIVE, and that it brings you JOY! Formats permitted include: poster, book or booklet, digital document, mixed media. The story required 6 pages or scenes and may be any genre. Ideas for topics include: How to book, original children’s storybook, existing children’s storybook, recipe book, current events, Anime or sports.

Example of student work. Read on to see the complete projects.

Your story needs to include at least 15 characters. Every character has its own equation, regardless of where it appears in the story. For example, if you decide you are y = x2+3 you are always that function.  You must use at least 3 of the following function families. You may include others if you like.

  • Quadratics
  • Square Roots
  • Absolute Value
  • Cubic Functions

              Quadratics                 Absolute Value               Cubic                           Square Root

         f(x) = a(x-h)2+k     f(x) = ax-h+k         f(x) = a(x-h)3+k        f(x) = ax-h+k

Your story may be about the topic of your choice, however, it must remain a PG-13 rated story. If you would feel embarrassed sharing the story with your parents or grandparents, it is not appropriate for this assignment. If you are in doubt, please check in with me.

Another image from student work. Complete projects are at the end of this post.


The project was worth 25 points. 3 of those points were from our Delta Math shifts assignment where the kids would demonstrate they had mastered the concept of shifting functions. In the future, I plan to change this to a 30 point project with 5 points given for mathematical equation accuracy.

LabelingEvery character’s equation is labeled in every scene. This can be a key on the page. It doesn’t have to disrupt the story and be right by the equation, but it does need to be clear. Graph paper is used for accuracy./5
StorytellingThe reader can follow the story and there is a clear purpose for each character in the story./5
AccuracyAll 3 graphing families are represented in a purposeful way. Note: you are welcome to do more than required here. If you include extra families, you will receive bonus points./5
ArtistryWe are all artists in our own way. To get full points in this category your story or poster needs a consistent artistic focus. The style should be evident throughout the work and not taper off toward the end./5
SubmissionTo receive full credit in this section you need to submit your project using one of the following: video, attached documents or photographs or physical drop off if that is your preferred method. You must also complete the Delta Math assignment. (Due Friday April 24th). That is worth 3 points of this 5 point section./5

My example story

To demonstrate the idea to my class, I wrote a story about my family’s experience during Covid-19. It is a true story featuring some of the highlights of our early time during this pandemic. We are a family of quadratics and other families are introduced with some of the characters.

My story

Student projects

I was blown away with what the kids turned in. As the submissions started to arrive, I was so excited!! Many had a great time with this. I enjoyed reading the different directions they went with this project. I received permission from several students to share their work. Select the links to view their projects.

Recording LIVE math classes

After an 8 day journey I finally figured out how to record my live classes with Google Hangouts. Now, let’s be clear that this is not a huge feat if you are teaching something that can be done solely with a computer. My problem is that I need to use my iPad to share my screen using Explain Everything. I have figured out a few things in this process that make me ultimately happy that Google Hangouts won’t let you record a live meeting from an iPad. Read on to hear the journey.

The quick history

We have been asked to hold daily office hours to answer student questions and of course we’re responsible for teaching our students. Initially I chose to do this by recording a video every morning and posting it. However, after just a few days I missed my kids and I needed the feedback sooner. I wanted to be able to answer their questions in the moment and I wanted to make sure I was delivering instruction at a level and pace they could manage. These things are both better accomplished with a LIVE class. I also wanted to record the class. I asked my accelerated Algebra students to attend live classes for 4 days so I could work out the kinks with them. Our first 7 days are chronicled here, with day 8 below.

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Week 1: Student thoughts about online learning

It’s been a week of this so I reached out to my students. What do they think? Are there aspects they like about online learning? What is challenging? I posted this to my 80+ students and received responses from several. I appreciate these varied responses.

I feel like I don’t really like it because I wake up and there is like already a lot of notifications on stuff to do and like I have to do things with my family and stuff so to balance so much work and house/ family things is hard. Also, with todays delta math it’s kinda frustrating me because it says that I am getting them wrong and then I go to submit the same answer again and then it says its still wrong when it’s literally the same thing.

I wish there were fewer notifications in Google. It is overwhelming. I know it is hard to be a student and see all these notifications because it is hard to be a teacher and get all the notifications too. I wish Google had a lovely calendar view of posts. They have a calendar view but it isn’t really good enough in my opinion. I want a true calendar grid that can persist at the top of the feed and show all assignments on the day they are assigned with all the necessary info. I created a version of this for my students in my classroom website (password protected) and gave the link in the top of my feed but it is still another place for them to navigate to. Delta math is a great program that we use, but it does have its limitations and that largely comes with entry of problems. Like any computer program it can only accept what it expected to see, so if a student makes a small rounding error or submits the answer in a slightly different way than the computer wants it, it will say no.

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It’s a wrap: Week 1 of online learning done!

A little over a week ago when school shut down abruptly for a month, I felt a mix of fear and anxiety. In the mix of this I also felt pretty prepared to tackle school online. I’ve already been recording my classes and posting them daily. Just a month prior I had a student start to poke fun of teachers and their tech ability and he paused, “actually you are the most tech savvy teacher I’ve ever had.” This comment made me smile. I try really hard to integrate tech in a seamless way into the classroom and this 8th grader noticed.

What I’ve learned and tried

Continue reading “It’s a wrap: Week 1 of online learning done!”

Teaching K-12 Online – part 2

This week when schools were abruptly shut down due to Covid-19, our school rallied with teacher training. I was invited to do some of the training sessions. We determined that my focus would be Digital Assessments, Explain Everything and Workflow. Over the weekend I worked on putting presentations together for my colleagues. Our plan was to offer Google Hangout sessions (the platform our school has selected for video conferencing) to all the teachers. Each presenter would record the session for future accessibility.

Digital Assessments

Continue reading “Teaching K-12 Online – part 2”

Recorded Classes with Explain Everything

This post has been on my list of things to do for so long. I was inspired to write it after our Algebra 1 midterm this year. I teach mostly Math 8 classes with one accelerated group of 8th grade Algebra students. As part of our year we had a midterm review followed by a midterm. The midterm grade was a small portion of their grade. The focus for them was to learn to study for a cumulative test and to manage the pressure as well as possible.

After the midterm we went over the test in class. I record most classes so that students can watch if they are absent. This allows the kids to come back to school caught up or close to caught up. Sometimes I don’t record if everyone is present. The day we went over the midterm Jordan was absent. I recorded the class as we went through the most missed questions.

Ms. Dawson I was talking to you!

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Teaching K-12 Online – part 1

A few years ago I went back to teaching after a really long gap of staying home with my kids. During those years home Common Core was instituted, SmartBoards were invented and a lot about the education world changed. There were a few things that made my entry back easier than it could have been.

  • I went back as a long term sub
  • The SmartBoard in the room I taught in was broken
  • I was already really progressive with tech when I left teaching
  • My husband works in tech
  • My kids were in grades 6 and 9 and were very willing to help me

There were more things, but these were the essentials. At the core of this was the fact that my students were not at all used to being taught with tech because of the broken SmartBoard. I had the gift of time to innovate given the conditions I was working with. I wrote this post on my husband’s blog about my journey into tech.

Continue reading “Teaching K-12 Online – part 1”