The Little Bugs

Throughout k-12 we learn about 5-paragraph essays. I understand why this format is used: it’s a simple way to be introduced to academic writing and when frequently writing timed essays throughout high school, there isn’t really enough time to adequately develop ideas past 5-paragraphs.

However, then you get to college and all of a sudden essays go from 600 words to 1500 words to 3500 words, and the 5-paragraph essay format just really doesn’t make sense to use at that point. But when are we expected to learn how to transition away from the 5-paragraph format? As a student it feels like this transition is just kind of thrown on you without much official guidance. It’s not even that you’re told not to use a 5-paragraph format, it’s just that it’s obvious that it doesn’t feel right when using that many words in an essay. So then everything you’ve learned about essay structure becomes warped. With a 5-paragraph essays we’re taught to introduce three main ideas in our introduction and those three ideas become the focus of each paragraph. Well, just because you’re writing more doesn’t it mean it makes sense to all of a sudden have 6 or 7 main points – then it becomes unclear what you’re saying. So how do you transition to writing multiple paragraphs about one key idea? It’s not really discussed, we’re just expected to start doing it based on gut feeling I guess…

Not to mention there is a whole other kind of academic writing that honestly hardly gets touched on at all in high school: reports. We talk about research reports and maybe look at one or two, we maybe even try to write one, but I remember even with the one time I was assigned to write a report in high school for AP Chem, the teacher’s instruction was, “look up examples online and base it on that.” So my peers and I kind of just winged it and I don’t remember getting much feedback on the matter. Yet we when we then were in college chemistry our first semester of freshman year, we’re all of a sudden assigned a research report every week after lab.

To be honest this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things that need to change with our education system, but sometimes it’s the little things that just really bother me. The little things show just how disconnected our k-12 and high ed programs are from each other. There are things like long essay and report writing that seem to never really get taught, and yet there are things like general US history that seem to be required every two years starting in 2nd grade and all the way into college… (I legitemently have a “US Consistitution requirement” in my online degree portal, and I took this course online and it was one of the easiest classes I’ve ever taken because I learned nothing new.) The little things on their own may seem insignificant, but they can be really bothersome for students especially when those little things start to add up.

Empathy Seeking

Online learning has been a wild ride… Personally, I’ve had moments where I’ve been frustrated, bored, and even, occasionally, pleasantly surprised by elements that come with school online. Because of this, I’ve partnered with OpenIDEO as a community coach on their current design challenge around reimagining learning during COVID-19. If you have any ideas (tested or half-baked), are looking for new ideas, or just want to express some problem points around our current learning situation I’d encourage taking a look at/contributing to the OpenIDEO site.
I’m trying to do a little of my own empathy seeking because I noticed an (unsurprising) lack of student voices shared on the platform, and yet student stories are some of the most insightful voices we need right now. So I’ve come up with these three quick questions that I’d love people (young learners especially, though I also welcome teachers, parents, parents on behalf of kids, etc) to respond to in the comment section. I’m hoping to take away some trends to be able to share with the rest of the OpenIDEO community to make sure we’re actually ideating for user needs:
  1. What’s your biggest frustration/what’s driving you crazy about online learning? 

  2. What’s your favorite part?

  3. It would be better if…

Furthermore, if you are a student and interested in joining a virtual collaborative discussion/brainstorm session to dive deeper into this topic, I’m hosting a student gathering this Sunday night, May 17th from 7-8pm EST. Use this form to sign up so I can send out the Zoom link.

Proud Alum

I’m always so proud of the great work the MVAllstars put on! (My former high school theater troupe.) Even in the midst of a pandemic and school closing, the show must go on!

Today has felt like a really long day for me going between meeting calls, classes, and studying for a midterm test tomorrow – I’ve been going fairly non-stop from 10am-8pm including a meeting during lunch. And after a long day of work, I was happy to then get to eat dinner and relax while watching the MVAllstars virtual production of Matilda the Musical.

I’ve been teaching dance classes once a week online and that’s had all sorts of challenges, so I can only imagine the amount of hard work everyone had to put into this project in order to pull off a full virtual musical. Super impressive work by the entire cast and crew. Truly a theatrical feat that will go down in MVAllstars history.

I’m honored to call myself an alum of such an adventurous and imaginative group that’s eager to face any challenge with open minds and willing hearts. Brava Allstars!

A Star in the Sky

For the past few weeks, I have been working on the brainstorming and planning behind what it would look like to host a virtual design jam (a design thinking workshop/challenge). We hope to start officially marketing the event next week, and I was originally going to wait until then to post about how much I’ve been enjoying working on this project, but I decided I couldn’t wait. It’s been so much fun to plan because I have to rethink everything I would normally do and figure out how to adapt it for an online environment and that’s been a weirdly amusing thought puzzle for me.

Today we had a group meeting with all of our table coaches for the workshop and even then I found myself still catching more little details that could be adjusted to make for a more interactive and engaging experience. It seems that every time I revisit the plans I realize there is something else I could do to make the process more efficient, and I think it’s finally starting to take on a really cool shape.

What excites me the most about this idea is that if we can pull it off, then a virtual design jam will be another tool in our pocket that we can continue to build on in the future. Being able to host a workshop virtually would give us the option to connect with such a wider range of people in the future and that’s a really exciting thought. To not be bound by the limits of physical location is truly game-changing, and I’m not sure we would have had the push to try out this concept had it not been for this pandemic; it’s forcing us to think differently and try new things that have the potential for great capacity building.

This pandemic has been awful, but it’s nice to remember that even on the darkest night, a few stars can still be found.

Too Much Choice

Today I realized a trend in my learning habits: I don’t do well with projects that give me too much choice.

You know, the projects that are super open-ended and students can pick “any topic” or, in my case with business classes, “any organization” to do their assignment on. I’m the kind of person that likes to weigh out all of my options before I make a decision. So when an assignment has hundreds of possible options to focus on, I just end up getting stressed and overwhelmed and usually end up procrastinating the decision until I inevitably have to make a last-minute decision I’m not happy with.

Clearly, this is a trend because when I think back to all of the assignments where I’ve had ample choice, every single one of them has caused me this stress and overwhelming feeling – the “Big History” project freshman year of high school, the civil rights project junior year of high school, my organizational behavior project last year, and right now my marketing assignment.

Now I’ll admit, I know not every student stresses these choices to the same extent I do. Some people are perfectly happy with just going along with the first thing they think of, but I also know I’m not alone in my frustration with these situations. And when I connected these dots, I also realized that my feelings actually correspond with what psychology tells us about choice: people tend to panic when given too many options. This is why any time you’re tasked with making a survey you’re told to not make too many questions or give too many answer choices. There’s a reason multiple-choice tests typically have 3-4 potential answers… The science says too many options and people won’t choose at all.

This makes me wonder, how might we find the balance between giving students choices in their learning without giving an overwhelming amount of choices to choose from?

Student choice is great, but it’s only great in moderation. We don’t want to paralyze students in effort to give them more choices in their learning.

For example with my marketing assignment that I’m currently working on, I would have loved if our professor said, “You are consulting for company X. You can choose any challenge/threat, target market, user need, etc. to focus on in your marketing strategy suggestions, but this is the company you are consulting for.” There is still plenty of room for choice and creativity in an assignment like this, but the slightly more focused prompt, just by giving the name of a company, would make this assignment feel so much less grand. Plus let’s face it, in the “real world” you get hired by a specific company, you don’t go around making up ideas for just any company you want – unless you have a very unique business model in your organization… I love this kind of project of identifying user needs and brainstorming ways to meet them, it’s essential design thinking just being called “marketing”, but I don’t get the purpose of working without first starting with a specific user. And we would still have to do plenty of research and problem identification work in order to respond to this assignment, but we wouldn’t have to waste time figuring out what company (user) we’re working for.

I urge teachers to consider the issue of giving too much choice when creating assignments because it’s such an unnecessary cause of school stress.

More to Learn

My mom asked me to lead the virtual team bonding session for our gymnast tomorrow, so I decided to put together a gymnastics trivia game. I got really carried away brainstorming the categories and questions and figuring out the scoring system and even backup questions for extra rounds if we have more time. I was so caught up in planning the activity I didn’t even notice that I “missed” one of my classes.

Luckily this was a class that’s pre-recorded, so even though I try to watch the videos during normal class time to help keep to a schedule, I can technically choose to watch the lectures whenever. I guess that’s one of the nice perks of online learning – you don’t have to stop in the middle of a great brainstorm to go get to another class.

I was honestly surprised that creating this trivia game had me so captivated. I realized that even for a topic like gymnastics, which I consider myself to know a lot about, there is still so much I don’t know and it was really interesting to learn some new facts on the topic. I love how there is always more to learn. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there is more to be learned until you go to teach it to someone else.

Class Culture in a Digital Environment

Every class is like it’s own little community, complete with its own culture including values, customs, and norms. Like the policy on going to the bathroom during class, or how comfortable people are with speaking up, or inside jokes that develop, or how loud the room is before class starts, etc. All of these little elements are what makes every class unique despite if the teacher and subject material are the same.

Having only had three weeks of school before the break, I don’t think any of my classes really met enough times to truly establish their own unique culture yet. However, these cultures definitely started to develop and there are usually some consistencies between all classes, but now being online, it’s been very interesting to see how the digital platform has changed class cultures.

In a lot of my classes, we never see each other’s faces besides maybe the few individuals that actually turn their video camera’s on. It’s very strange to not be able to read the room based on other people’s facial reactions and body language and I can tell the lecturers definitely notice this change. Plus fewer people speak out loud to ask questions or make comments, but in some cases, there is actually more participation due to the option to type in the chat versus having to speak in front of the class. The option to share reactions has also been an interesting tool that gives facilitators more direct in the moment feedback and some of my classes have really been taking advantage of that.

It‘s been odd though to not really know the individuals that make up the class, especially in my classes that have chosen to interact through pre-recorded videos; there are online discussion boards, but so many people post under the name “anonymous” that it’s hard to know how many are really participating. This change in participation has also really changed the social part of classes. It basically doesn’t exist, at least not peer-to-peer socialization anymore. There are no longer showing up to class conversations, or bumping into new people you met but didn’t realize you were in the same class, or partner conversations to help better learn the material and the people you’re learning with (ie your community).

The greatest change I’ve noticed is that it seems like everyone values “learning breaks” a lot more in this digital environment. Everyone is concerned with the idea of learning for more than 25 minutes at a time. In some cases, I really appreciate the additional breaks teachers are taking during live video chats and making pre-recorded videos in small segments rather than all at once. Though I had one class today that was only 50 minutes and our TA tried having 2 three minute breaks during this class and it just seemed weird, someone suggested we don’t do breaks next class and pretty much everyone agreed. It’s funny to me because if we were in person together I’ve sat in plenty of lectures that go on for an hour and a half without a break.

Only being a week and a half into online learning, I’m sure there are still many developments yet to come with our online communities, and I’m very curious to continue to see how our new mode of learning affects the culture of classrooms.

Virtual School: Day 1

Today was my first day back to school.

My initial thoughts about online learning: it’s going to be a long 9 weeks…

It’ll be manageable, but it’ll be long.

Surprisingly only one of my teachers opted to do live Zoom lectures. The other four classes are all being taught through pre-recorded video lectures, with optional Q&A Zoom calls. Most of my classes also have a “tutorial session” in addition to our lecture time where we meet with smaller groups to go over examples and have discussions; for the classes that have tutorials, those are also being made optional but are done live on Zoom.

Today I had my one Zoom class and two other “classes” (ie I watched the pre-recorded videos for these two classes during what should’ve been my normal class time). For the Zoom class, being online made the lecture feel a lot longer than normal. I know this is partly because we’re still in this weird trial period of everyone figuring out how things work and getting adjusted, but I think I had a false hope that things would be smoother at this point after having the break time where people theoretically could get more acquainted with online learning structures.

In terms of my pre-recorded classes, I really appreciated how my professors broke down the lectures into chunks of videos that are each only 12-20 minutes long as opposed to trying to do a full lecture in one video. Even though the total length of the lectures is the same, the psychology facts really seem to hold up with the concept that the shorter video chunks make the material feel more digestible and actually makes total time feel shorter. Though I do miss actually being able to see the faces of my lecturers while they present. Plus I feel like now my lecturers really are just reading straight from the slides which is kind of annoying especially when I feel like I’m always being told that’s the number 1 “don’t do” while giving a presentation so it always bothers me when teachers do this.

The whole switch to learning from pre-recorded videos also made me think a lot about Crash Course videos, because some of the videos I had to watch today were really boring… Like my textbook was more interesting and yet the lecture was just re-iterating almost verbatim what the textbook says! Crash Course videos though are super engaging while also being educational; I binge-watched all of the World History Crash Course episodes before the AP World exam way back when, and I definitely think that factored into why this ended up being one of my best AP exams. I actually watched a few of the econ Crash Course episodes today to compare them to the econ videos my professor made for today’s lecture. This made me wonder, wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to have a class based on Crash Course?

Like what if instead of being assigned to read chapters out a textbook we were assigned a Crash Course video to watch and then used class time to just discuss and expand upon ideas. I don’t think this is a super far-fetched idea nor do I think it’s the most learner-centered idea, but maybe that’s why it intrigues me – it kind of feels like a baby step.

The idea makes me think of how people try to do flipped classrooms, but I’d like to imagine this might be better because I’m just suggesting instead of reading a textbook chapter at home, watch a Crash Course video at home. I think flipped classrooms start to fail when kids are asked to do more than just digest information at home – when kids are expected to teach themselves material well enough to then also answer homework problems on the material before ever talking about the info in class, that’s when things get dysfunctional.

(Tangent: I mention this because every experience I’ve had with flipped classrooms has been pretty awful. About half of the class doesn’t understand what’s happening and gets super stressed trying to do the work at home without knowing what’s going on and then they come into class confused and upset and ask a million questions which takes up the entire class period. This then makes all the kids who did figure out the concepts at home feel like they’re being held back because the entire class turns into asking questions about the homework they already finished and understood. I remember being in a class like this and it was so annoying that I ended up just doing the next day’s homework during class, and eventually, it was so bad I asked to go sit in the hallway and do the next day’s work because it felt more disruptive to my learning to actually be in the classroom.)

I’m so intrigued by this idea of using Crash Course instead of a textbook because:

  1.  It seems really simple to implement.
  2. Watching a Crash Course video is way more engaging than reading a textbook chapter and I’d imagine kids would retain the same if not more information afterwords.
  3. The role of the teacher would have to shift.

Currently, in a lot of classes, the teacher gives lectures that are viewed as supplementary material to the textbook or in some cases just a straight-up reiteration of the textbook as a spoken presentation instead of reading the information; either way at the end of the day the textbook is the primary source of information. If a teacher were to use Crash Course instead of a textbook, then class lectures would be expected to be the time for going more in-depth and therefore, become more significant because Crash Courses are designed to be summaries and overviews versus textbooks are designed to be full of details.

Doesn’t it make more sense to look at a summarized amount of information before class and then go into class to learn more details, versus look at a super in-depth version of the information and then go into class and just repeat that information? The information gets repeated because it’s assumed we didn’t learn it the first time, so why are we putting in that extra work anyway if the assumption is most students didn’t do or didn’t understand the work? The reverse of that being, if you were to assume we did read and understand the material, then why go to class to hear the same info? (ie the flipped classroom dilemma: you can’t say “learn on your own at home then have a discussion in class,” because not everyone will successfully learn on their own at home so you will never get to the point of having discussions; the class will just be re-iteration of the “homework.”)

The role of textbooks just really doesn’t make sense to me in this sense and it’s been especially apparent now that learning is online.

To me, I just feel like all of the big things we should know should be what’s talked about during class, and anything we do outside of the classroom should be designed to help us better understand what’s talked about in class. This seems obvious, but I feel like more often what happens is that the textbook is viewed as everything we need to know and then the class is just extra help to understand the textbook. This mindset is why so many college kids don’t go to lectures and instead just read the textbook on their own and take assignments, and I’m sure if they were allowed to, high school kids would do the same – clearly, there is a flaw with the purpose of school if this is the case.

So this brings me back to: the next 9 weeks are going to be long.

But to some extent, I do appreciate being back in classes because it has gotten me thinking more again and I’ve enjoyed the various thoughts of the day that come from working and not just trying to keep from getting bored.

Team Bonding in the Classroom

Today was team bonding day for our gym Zoom call. I’m glad I was even able to make it, especially since I forgot to turn on the outlet that charges my phone last night so my alarm didn’t go off this morning…

I found it funny how you can be on a team with the same people for years, and yet somehow still not know basic information about them. Things like where people were born, when they started the sport, how many siblings they have, favorite x,y,z, etc.

Today’s team bonding session was all about discussing the answers to questions like this and it was really fun. I liked getting to learn more about the kids I coach from a whole-child perspective. You never know when it could come in handy to know someone’s favorite animal is a narwal and they were born in Texas having started gymnastics as soon as they could walk. The more you know about a person, the more you can empathize with them and the better you can work with them.

During the normal season, we hardly do any team bonding and it’s something we’ve always regretted, so I truly appreciate this time for allowing us to start implementing this new norm of taking time to value who we are as individuals and a team beyond just gymnastics.

It’s also made me wonder, what if classrooms considered themselves a team? I mean when you think about it, a class is a group of people working together for a year to hone their skills in order to overcome various challenges related to their discipline. That’s pretty similar to how I’d define any sports team…

And yet, in a classroom we often don’t act like a team. There isn’t typically an emphasis on group norms, bonding, and support for each other’s learning and progress. Even in gymnastics where we compete against our teammates, we still talk about the importance of working together in practice, cheering each other on during competition, and doing non-judged group activities to help encourage unification and love for the sport.

I guess it’s assumed in a class that kids already know each other because they’ve been in school together for years, but even when you’ve known people vaguely for years, each new arrangement of people creates different team dynamics.

What if classes spent more time during the year intentionally bonding as a class and thinking about how they will support each others’ growth throughout the year? The more you know about our classmates, the more we can empathize with them and the better we can work with them – and this goes for teachers too. Some teachers are great about getting to know there students, but what if this was even more intentional at a cultural level for the entire school vs just the occasional teacher that everyone knows really takes an interest in learning about all the students? For example, what if the first week of class was all about “class bonding” and setting the norms for the year and thinking about how everyone can best support each other – teacher included?

I wonder how learning might improve if we took more time to know our “teammates” as whole people outside of just the subject material.

Short Term Communication

If there is one thing that has become blatantly obvious with our current situation, it is the importance of good communication. Good communication meaning frequent and clear communication.

Sometimes it’s more important to just say something than to try and wait until you have everything figured out. People just want to know that they’re being thought about and that their needs are being considered in the discussion of big decisions.

When there isn’t communication, that’s when people panic, get fearful, and then rumors start. And that’s how things only get worse.

At the same time though, if you are going to communicate, make sure the message is clear. If a decision is made, be clear that the decision will stand or be clear that there is even a chance the decision may have to change, and note what could happen that might create the need for the decision to change. The worst thing is to be told a decision and then a week later get new communication that entirely conflicts with the original message and the message doesn’t even acknowledge the discrepancy. This just makes people mad and causes immediate backlash.

While I am aware of the importance of frequent and clear communication, I’ve realized these past few weeks that not everyone is. I understand that everyone is stressed and working hard to make quick decisions right now, but sometimes it seems as if people just don’t understand how important communication is in order to keep communities together. And I’ve noticed this both with people I depend on for communication and people I work with to communicate to others.

This made me wonder, in school, we spend a lot of time on long term communication methods – mostly with writing papers though also with presentations. We work a lot on adequate preparation, research, and formatting in order to create compelling arguments. How often though do we spend time on short term communication best practices, like communication via email, text, or even social media messages?

In a world where technology is becoming increasingly used in team dynamics, it seems to me like having practice and proficiency in these short term communication tools may be just as important as knowing how to write a well-researched essay. We use these communication tools every day and using them properly is an essential part of successful teams, successful community support, and successful organizations.

When I went to college, one of the most frequent compliments I got from professors was, “Wow, you really know how to write a professional email. Thank you.” And what I realized is, the reason professors were so impressed with this skill is because many students don’t have it. The thing is, they still don’t learn it in college… Sure professors may comment in their syllabus about wanting well-written emails and there is probably an “academic success” workshop or two on the subject, but with something as important as communication, isn’t that worth being taught in the classroom to ensure everyone learns the skill? Furthermore, I personally think this skill should be intentionally taught in high school to maximize time for growth and development with this competency.

If we want to receive frequent and clear communication, then we need to remember to teach it.