Sunday, January 10, 2021

Staying Flexible: Preparing for School at 6:30 AM on a Sunday

My internal clock doesn't ever allow me to sleep in except when I'm sick, or frankly, recovering from surgery.  Thanksgiving Break?  Up at 5:15 AM.  Winter Break?  Same.  Spring Break?  Still an early bird.  Summer?  A cruel irony: I sleep in by about an hour, max, two or three days before autumn PD starts up again, I kid you not.  So it's not at all unusual that I am up, drinking coffee, eating a breakfast sandwich, and being productive at six-thirty this morning.  What has changed is that I'm not crocheting while catching up on DVRd shows, or reading, or participating in a Twitter chat, or throwing a breakfast casserole into the oven.  I've been navigating some work emails and have been updating instructional materials because the week I planned for has been altered quite a bit.  

"Stay flexible" continues to be my professional mantra, carrying over from 2020.  I volunteered to be a remote learning teacher last fall, and am one of those weird teachers who has actually looked forward to and even enjoyed creating a new learning and teaching environment. I've shifted from trying to make my Zoom and digital experiences "just like" on-site or "real" school (with all of the restrictions that on-site students and teachers have to adapt to, why would I wish any of that upon my class?) and to put it bluntly, my body greatly appreciates having multiple breaks scheduled throughout my day.  That's right, I have five, count them, F-I-V-E intermissions where I can and do use the restroom, e-v-e-r-y day.  In twenty-plus years of teaching, this is the most accommodated my bladder has ever been. 

Unlike past teaching years, my class size can accordion greatly.  I began with twelve of my own "permanent" remote learning students in the fall. Families chose my class because they intended to have their kindergarteners learn safely from home for at least the first semester of school.  Two transferred to on-site learning after parents who had lost their jobs during the spring and summer gained employment ("If I don't take this job and move _______ back to school in-person, we won't have Christmas or be able to pay other bills.") while recently another parent working the night-shift couldn't support his kindergartener's daily Zoom and activity schedule.  As a remote learning kindergarten teacher (I have a grade level partner) I host students who test positive and must isolate or who have a family member who has tested positive and must therefore quarantine for up to two weeks. My class size has grown by one, two, three, six, and last week, by sixteen students overnight. Yes, sixteen. Stay flexible.


Though my entire district moved to remote learning right after Thanksgiving Break, on-site classes begin again tomorrow.  Last Thursday and Friday, district students, their families, and teachers and their families were offered the opportunity to be tested for COVID, and as anyone could have guessed, I've already added at least one new student to my roster.  Should a kindergarten teacher in the district have to quarantine in the future, however, and with an extreme shortage of substitute teachers, there's a chance I could yet again, take on another entire class in addition to my own.

This week all of our middle-of-the-year mandated assessments begin.  Will I be screening ten, eleven, or twenty-five students for dyslexia and STAR Reading, or administering curriculum-based measures for math to children who I have not yet met nor even had the time to build a rapport? I'm also having to take Friday off to accompany my husband to his dental surgery, so I'll need to prepare for a guest teacher who has yet to be assigned since my original sub just received a positive COVID test for a family member. 

You know, even flexible tools like pipe cleaners and wikki stix break apart after being bent one too many times. At what point must others release their grip from the mindset of "we-have-to-make-this-year-as-normal-as-every-other-year-because-we-refuse-to-envision-education-in-any-other-way?" Often our ability to effectively apply self-care relies heavily upon the responsibilities thrust upon us even during our hours away from work. Here's hoping that this latest surge doesn't last long and that I can reclaim some of my time for myself and my family, and that my colleagues and their families can do the same. 


Sunday, January 03, 2021

What I Did Over Winter Break, a Teacher's List

I've spent some time over the past few days trying to work some great storytelling into this blogpost to no avail.  Maybe it's because of how everything has been slightly surreal since my winter break began, though most likely it's simply because there's no way that great prose is going to be able to sugarcoat this summary. So here, in *possibly* accurate order (days blended together if they didn't disappear altogether) is what I did over winter break:

I baked one batch of sugar cookie trees which were frosted white.  I added sprinkles.

I also baked my first ever batch of these Reeses Peanut Butter Cup cookie things.  My friend (and former Super Star parent) Kim correctly described them as "sacrificial cookies:" other holiday treats, sweet and savory were able to be sampled by me, myself and I, while The Teenager focused his attention on the pile of peanut butter goodness, yielded from the linked recipe.  I know, I know, these nummies aren't new to any of you, but they were to me, and they now have a permanent spot in my cookie-baking roster of tried-and-true recipes.

I deep-cleaned and disinfected the house, which is an annual agenda item for me each year before Christmas.  This year, it's a good thing I scheduled it early because...

I had to isolate Dear Husband, banishing him to the downstairs for ten days after he tested positive for COVID.  Preparing for dental surgery later in the month, he had been tested in anticipation of his appointment.  No, he didn't show any symptoms.

After contacting my principal, superintendent and colleagues, I managed to facilitate my quarantine and that of The Teenager, me to the master bedroom and he to his room.  It was an unanticipated adjustment for me, and no biggie for him, except for the constant wearing of masks indoors, and the odd state of things having Dad downstairs.  And the open windows everywhere.

I tested negative.  Dear Husband never developed symptoms of COVID. After his isolation ended, he continued to quarantine because The Teenager and I had four more days to go.  I never developed symptoms.  The Teenager never developed symptoms.

I turned fifty-one and was gifted a celebratory meal by the parents of Dear Daughter's best friend.  They bought and delivered to our porch delicious prime rib and chicken alfredo with all of the fixings, including cake and cheesecake slices. 


For the rest of our meals, I used our oven (thank you, Mrs. Stouffers), microwave (what a great reheater of leftovers), electric griddle (hello, French toast) and crockpot (only once) for two weeks after the stovetop blew out and Dear Husband ordered a new one.  It arrived on December 28, after I also purchased an electric skillet which made the best Hamburger Helper we'd had in a month.  We all ate in isolation/quarantine for two weeks, thanks to having a full deep freezer in the garage.

I spent time on the back porch each day, feeding and cuddling with a prairie cat that adopted us earlier this month. His name is "PC."  Yes, for "Prairie Cat." 

I celebrated Christmas with my family on December 29. We prepared our meal using the new cooktop Dear Husband installed, the job that was his first task upon his return to the main floor. Sorry about that, electric skillet, but you'll remain our standby, for sure.

I finished my one-afghan-per-month for December.

After four days of letting the downstairs sit, I deep cleaned it all, and finally made it back to my craft room, my creative spot that I had planned to spend quite a lot of time in during vacation.  I packed up the ornaments and mini-tabletop tree and put them away, and got back to work scheduling assignments and materials in Google Classroom and creating instructional slides for the return to school. 

I helped pack up Christmas and enjoyed a low-key New Year's Eve with Dear Husband, The Teenager and our cats, Buck and Tish-Tish. 

And I gave thanks, so many times, that this brush with COVID resulted in mere inconveniences and the postponement of our celebrations and not something much, much worse.

There you have it: my list. Tomorrow I'm back to work for the start of our second semester, still teaching kindergarten remote learners.  I'll be trying to work ahead in anticipation of the arrival of guest students who will be joining my class from others throughout the district because of having to quarantine while classmates attend on-site the week after next.


Was your winter break what you had hoped it would be?

Monday, December 21, 2020

December 2020: My Remote Teaching Reflection

On my first full weekday of winter break, I’ve decided to actually take a break. I’ve been a remote-learning kindergarten teacher (voluntarily) since the start of the school year and have been working through the new normal that has impacted my weekends and family time as significantly, if not more so, than the hours, weeks, months, and years that my master’s degree did. This reallocation of my time has broken years-long habits of enjoying hobbies, repeating patterns of morning, noon, afternoon, and evening rituals on autopilot, and of course, blogging. I need a brain-dump that only reflection can provide, so here… we… go. 

Despite assertions at the end of the last school year that I couldn’t predict the requirements my district would consider and eventually implement to accommodate remote learning opportunities for students and families this year, I’m glad I decided to take part in a summer workshop geared toward virtual/online learning that was recommended to me by a former administrator. Bitmoji Classrooms (which are just really, really busy Google Slides if you’d prefer a simple definition), equity in education, tech resources for devices, platforms, and newbies to it all, digital newsletters, podcasting, and my favorite tool since Pinterest, Wakelet boards, have all been resources I’ve utilized and content that I’ve shared with interested and receptive colleagues this semester. I have added more content to my boards and created new ones whenever I’ve stumbled across useful resources. Building a bank of awesome Linktree contributors has helped prevent me from having to create or recreate every digital activity or material, so that particular board has grown the most. 

Developing and settling into a new groove for planning, collaboration and instruction was a big shift, but one I haven’t had to do alone. Though initially dismayed at having been assigned to an additional remote-learning kindergarten position, my partner has demonstrated determination and has had the energy to put her all into her instruction, our synchronized adjustments each time we’ve gained a student (or six) due to quarantines from on-site classrooms, and frankly, collegiality. Having a co-worker who actually says “good morning” and shares some of the normal goings-on in her life on a daily basis and in turn, listens to some of mine, has helped to make this strange situation easier. She’s a finder and a sharer, an asker and a suggester. Kind people who rock reciprocity are cool. 

Despite my love of educational technology, I’ve always varied the tools I’ve put into my previous students’ hands and learning environment, so following a digital-tools-only mandate was never going to work for me. Suggestions for at-home materials such as math manipulatives have had to run the gamut from balls of Play-Doh, rocks from the neighborhood playground, Cheerios, and Barbie shoes. I’ve used my monthly copy-count only twice over the past four months to create bi-monthly work packets of pages that families shouldn’t have to print and that are beneficial to students. Students at home should be able to assemble thematic unit and holiday crafts just as their on-site peers do and are just as deserving of the magic of memories and keepsakes that are usually made within the confines of a school building. I don’t intend to ask for permission (again) or for forgiveness: providing students more, not less, continues to be the right thing to do. 

Before finding out that my job assignment would be as a remote kindergarten teacher at the beginning of the year, I already knew that new protocols and restrictions would be in place for me and my students. I tried to brainstorm ways to balance limitations with new opportunities, such as alternative greetings to hugs and high-fives, and opportunities for digital collaboration rather than physical partnerships at learning centers or my reading table. For remote learning, opportunities abound for students who are sitting on their couches, at the dining room table, on the floor in the basement, or at a makeshift desk tucked into an alcove in the hallway originally intended as a mud space, though a quick scan of some teacher groups on social media makes it abundantly clear that a lot of other teachers don’t feel the same way when it comes to having very little control over learning environments. While not making light of the issues of poverty, the lack of interest for some families in being the best guide on the side that their child could have, or issues with technology (equal access, availability, and general glitchiness), I have to say that I love that my Super Stars can come to each Zoom session with their favorite blanket, stuffed friend, and even a snack. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I have witnessed more awwwwww moments through my laptop camera and iPad screen this semester simply by looking up as I read a story. Multiple frames of five-year-olds hugging blankets and squeezing their stuffed bears, t-rexes, and frilly frou-frou unicorn/princess/octopus whatevers while sucking their thumbs and gazing intently at their iPad screen have stopped me mid-sentence on more than one occasion. And the learning spaces created or adapted for each of them? No one-size-fits-all table, no siree! From little offices or cubbies that resemble clubhouses or forts, to special placemats arranged in a breakfast nook or pillows crammed in a laundry basket underneath a tall table, my students have had a say in the structure of the areas where they have been tuning in. 

My own adjustments haven’t been all sunshine and rainbows... specifically, my own auditory processing issues. While most of my students hear me through their headphones, I hear EVERYONE’S background noises when students unmute themselves, and so do all of the classmates who are captive audiences during instruction. Dogs barking, doorbells ringing, parents loudly managing multiple learners, other teachers’ voices booming from devices used by older siblings in the same room who would rather not wear headphones, younger siblings screaming, spouses teleworking and shouting above everyone else in the next room just to be heard, it’s all excessively jarring and headache-producing. I hear it all at the same volume, which has nothing to do with a knob or setting on a sound mixing board that I can control. And for the only-once-so-far-please-let-it-not-happen-again “I don’t give a SH*T IF YOUR TEACHER CAN HEAR ME! THIS IS MY GOD-DA** HOUSE AND I’LL DO WHAT I WANT” event… well, yes, that one resulted in both a headache and a charley horse as I leaped from the reading table to the rolling cart that houses my laptop and extra camera/speaker in an attempt to “mute all.” My Super Star was mortified, his peers were confused, I was concerned and trying not to scream out in pain, and well, obviously Dad was stressed. Not every hour has been our finest and not every day’s successes have been the ones originally hoped for. 

I miss working in a room full of kindergarteners and their artwork. Not enough to request a return to teaching in-person, though. The same goes for all of the eavesdroppings I used to be able to do every day as Super Stars worked through their daily activities, learning centers, recesses, snack, and instruction within earshot. I miss it but still end up on the receiving end of some kindergarten and parent funnies via Zoom. Teaching remotely while limiting all of our exposure to COVID remains a reasonable trade-off for me. 

I continue to change two of my bulletin boards and some of my classroom décor monthly, even though my Super Stars are likely to never see it all in person. Not putting up bulletin board displays was a line I couldn’t cross. Goodness, I even hang up the results of my own directed drawing activities that my students and I work through during daily writing. Twenty-five years of teaching will do that, I guess. Our classroom can’t just look the part for students, it must feel the part to me


As curriculum publishers scramble to produce quality digital content and a huge gap continues to exist between teachers who find the use of tech devices and resources intuitive and those who feel it beyond their capabilities, I appreciate not only those teachers who share the content they’ve created (either freely or at cost), but those who collaborate in order to customize the resources that will benefit their students. I don’t have to recreate the wheel when it comes to putting Google Slides activities at the fingertips of my students, and I’m thankful that I know how to create my own content as well. But finding resources and putting them into the queue takes a lot of time, time that would have usually been spent in years past preparing materials with a grade level partner, mentoring a first-year teacher, or helping a colleague restructure her learning center organization during prep. Many teachers trying to make the leap from their file cabinets to their touchscreens are experiencing true stress right now, as are their colleagues who find themselves stretched so thin that they have very little left to give to their teammates, especially as they try to keep something of themselves in reserve so that they can make it home with enough energy to make dinner, clean house, and help their own children work through projects and lessons. Teachers in 2020 are finding it near impossible to do “just one more thing” even if heavy loads in years past were made lighter by many hands. There’s a lot not getting done that needs to be done, and there's really no point in priortizing the fascade that we're making everything as "normal" as possible. Sometimes we must dive into the deep end instead of continuing to dip our toes into the kiddie pool, no matter how frightening it may be.  And sometimes, we have to do it alone.  Bless anyone who has done their part to be the waterwings, buoys and lifeguards in education.

My mind will return to school-mode a few days before I return to the classroom as it must if I’m to create graphic organizers such as a weekly plan, choice boards and instructional slides, organize materials and schedule activities in Google Classroom, and frankly, iron clothes for the first academic week of 2021. But until then I am hoping to enjoy winter break with my family and get some much-needed sleep, which is also my wish for anyone reading this post. 

Happy holidays to you. Stay safe, healthy, and hopeful.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Adventures in Remote Learning: Unmute and Tell Me Your Word

Me: Alrighty, Super Stars, who is ready to add some words to our O and N lists?

(Several hands shoot up into the air onscreen)

Me: Um, okay, ______, unmute and tell me your word.

Star: I have a letter O word.

Me: Awesome! Let me hear it.

Star: Oprah!

Me: Oprah! Yes, "Oprah" is an O word! And because it's the name of a person, we use an uppercase O at the beginning.

Star, interrupting: Uh, Mrs. Sommerville, I said "Oprah," NOT "Oprah."

Me: Ummm... what, honey?

Star: I SAID OPRAH, ****NOT**** OPRAH.

Me: Mmmmmm.... Are you talking about a person, a famous person?

Star: No, no, not a person. It's something you uh, you uh, you eat! (mumbling in the background).... I KNOW Dad, I *AM* explaining it to her!

Me: ... something you eat... do you mean OKRA?

Star: Yes! OPRAH! My dad fries it! (more mumbling in the background)

Me: Okay (writing).... o....k....r....a. Okra. Is that your word, honey?

Star: Uh, I don't know. I don't know how to spell yet.

And right in front of my Star's face a thumbs-up sign being made by an adult hand appeared on the screen.

And that, folks, is how word-list building is happening in this time of Zoom instruction and remote learning.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

BOY Assessment Truths

F-i-n-a-l-l-y nearing the end of our beginning-of-the-year assessments, one of my Stars logged on to her Zoom appointment today for her comprehensive math baseline. 

Full of addition, greater than/less than, a 100's chart, subtraction, geometry and oodles and oodles of counting, the questions can seem to go on forever. 

Before I shared my screen with her, I told her "Honey, some of the questions I'm going to ask you and some of the screens I'm going to show you are things you already know, and some of them you don't know because I haven't taught them yet. If you see something you don't know or that confuses you, just say 'skip it' and we'll go to the next screen, okay?" 

"Okay, Mrs. Sommerville. I'm ready" she replied.

Eleventy-billion questions later, my Star sighed "W-o-w, Mrs. Sommerville, you really haven't taught me a lot."

It's the twelfth day of kindergarten.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

How to Navigate to a Google Slides Assignment from Google Classroom on an iPad

 My colleagues and I have been swimming in Google training as well as tracking down other resources in preparation for utilizing Google Classroom with all grades this year, both in-person and remote.  As we try to create introductory lessons and activities to familiarize ourselves (and eventually, our students and their families) with how Google Classroom, Google Slides, Google Drive and other resources fit together as a single digital puzzle, we've come up against some surprises that frankly are stymying us for far too many hours of the day. 

The biggest problem?  Trying to figure out why the Google Classroom app on the student iPad adds a preview of an assigned Slides activity instead of just taking the student directly to Google Slides when s/he/they tap on the assignment link.  The preview doesn't appear on laptops or desktop computers, just the iPad.

On a student iPad, I tapped the Google Classroom icon:

There's the classroom header (I'm logged in as a student):

Here's the access point for the Classroom's menu (as indicated by the three horizontal lines):

... and here's the menu.  The menu has a different appearance on the laptop and desktop versions, by the way. 

(iPad menu view above, desktop menu view below)

But I digress.

As we continue on with the iPad navigation, we arrive at the home page, where the "Stream," "Classwork" and "People" tabs appear at the bottom.

Tapping "Classwork," we're taken to our assignments screen.  I've assigned myself a beginning sound identification activity.  I created the activity in Google Slides because I wanted to have some moving parts for students to manipulate.

After tapping "Letter Aa Beginning Sound Slide," the following screen pops up.  The yellow box with the white rectangular middle is the icon indicating that the activity is a Google Slide.  My name next to the yellow box indicates I'm the student.  The title of the activity appears next, followed by an "X."

I'm not sure why the "X" appears here, but I can tell you that it is ohhhhhhhhhhhh so tempting to tap.  Spoiler alert: if the "X" is tapped at this point, no pop-up message box appears asking if you're *really* certain that you'd like to remove or delete the activity.  There's no "cancel" button either.  The activity simply disappears.  Poof. Gone. Adios. 

I resisted the urge (the first time) to tap the "X" and instead made sure to tap the text:

... and it looks like we're being taken to Google Slides, though the icon isn't yellow on this transition screen.

But instead of being taken directly to the assigned Slide in Google Slides, this screen appears:

There's the activity I created. We can see the picture grid, and the instructions, and the five blue circles that I'd like students to drag over to the grid to mark the pictures that begin with the Aa sound.  Yes, the boy in the airplane could count though the pronunciation would be a little off, but I'd also like to see who might leave the fifth circle unmoved, likely because they've decided the illustration depicts "flying" or "a jet."

That's my story and I'm sticking to it, *wink*. 

However... this isn't the Slide.  It's more of a... preview?  In the upper right corner we can see a search icon, a writing icon, and an interesting looking square with an arrow embedded in the middle of it.  

Notice the square isn't rectangle-ish, nor is it yellow. 

If we tap the search icon, a search bar appears at the top:

It's okay to tap the "X" to exit the search.  No, really.  It's okay. Not like that other "X" we encountered earlier.  I promise.

If we tap the writing/pen icon:

... it becomes possible to write on the screen, but remember, this isn't the Slide.  It's the iPad preview, or whatever we're calling it, because this screen doesn't pop up on laptops or desktop computers.  Because of course it doesn't.

There are writing tools down at the bottom of the screen: 

The add-a-box feature allows the student to, uh, add a box (big surprise):

Goodness, someone is in desperate need of a manicure and a humongous vat of hand lotion.

The pen, marker, highlighter and eraser tools all do what you'd guess they would as well:

Remember that the curvy arrow icons indicate "undo" (backward) and "redo" (forward).  They're even handier than the eraser tool when you encounter them, in my opinion.

In this mode, the preview that has been written upon will be converted into a PDF, which still isn't the Slide with the moveable pieces that I assigned. The PDF will be added to the assignment screen where the student could turn it in while the actual Slide assignment remains unfinished:

But what about that square-shaped icon with the embedded arrow in it that appears in the iPad preview?

That box, my friends, despite NOT being yellow and not being Slide-shaped is the navigation tool that will take us away from this preview page and into the Google Slide assignment. 

Seriously. Tap on it.

Voilà.  The Slide.  Within Google Slides.  The pieces move.  

Students could simply press the iPad's home button (the black button on the device) when they're finished because Google autosaves.  But if they choose to navigate using the back button/arrow (you can see it next to my name), they may end up on a Google Slides homepage instead of back in their Classroom:

See the smaller back arrow at the very top of the screen, with the word "Classroom" next to it?  It appears both on the Slide activity page AND the Google Slides home page.  If a student taps that teeny tiny print instead of the larger back arrow next to their name, they'll be taken back to the iPad preview screen:

Tapping the "X" on the iPad preview screen will return the student to his/her/their Classwork assignments in Google Classroom.  


To summarize:

If our students are accessing Google Classroom using an iPad, and teachers have assigned a Google Slide activity, a "preview" of that assignment may appear instead of the Slide activity itself. I have no idea why.

Consider teaching students to navigate this-a-way:

Tap on the text of the assignment (don't touch the "X!"):

When the iPad preview image is displayed, ignore the search and writing tools and tap the square icon with the embedded arrow because it's the navigation tool that will take students into Google Slides :

Complete the activity:

When you're done, navigate back to Classroom, bypassing the Google Slides homepage, by tapping the teeny tiny text at the very top of the screen:

... and turn the assignment in by tapping the big black "turn in" button quickly, before you're tempted to tap that little "X" in the assignment's link.  Don't.  Tap.  The.  "X."

When you find yourself back on the iPad preview screen, it's okay to click on the *"X."  I know, I know... I'm thinking it too.

Assign some colleagues to be mock students in your Google Classroom so that you all can see what the platform display and navigation tools will look like from both the teacher and student views. And remember, if students access Google Classroom via a **laptop or desktop computer, they won't be interrupted by the iPad preview screen.

* I'm guessing that "Xs" to the RIGHT delete assignments, while "Xs" to the LEFT simply close them.  Can anyone verify this for me?

*Some families might have their students use a smaller tablet or smartphone to work on assignments.  I do not know what display differences may exist on those devices.