The COVID-19 pandemic has forced parents, teachers, and students to transition from face-to-face schooling to work-from-home learning. To learn more about adapting to learning at home, PETER VOGEL interviewed Vicki Davis, one of the best known teachers in North America, with 160,000+ followers on Twitter. She is a full-time teacher and IT director at a Christian school in Georgia.

        Vicki Davis

Peter Vogel: The world knows you through your Twitter handle @CoolCatTeacher. With the school closures sweeping the planet, how have you managed to maintain that air of cool serenity in your own school?

I would not claim such coolness. Times are defined by the struggles they overcome and the joys they celebrate together. Sometimes the greatest joys follow the deepest anguish and challenges and such is this time and moment. I consider myself a humble servant to this generation of students and teachers and hope to shine forth the love of Jesus Christ in all I do. He has called me to this work and even in the trial, I am glad to be of service. Life is too short to wish for better days, we must spend our times making the best of the worst and then when better comes, we’ll be super-overjoyed.

When did you begin planning for a possible shutdown of your school and what did that planning consist of?

My principal called me in on Thursday, March 5 and asked me to compile a Distance Learning Playbook. We decided then we didn’t like the term “virtual learning” because we would do real learning, just at a distance. We had already started putting our students in Google Classroom and synced it with Renweb earlier in the year to test the links based on the vision of my headmaster, Dr. Brian Dougherty, to have us all in Google Classroom by the fall. He wanted a blended learning environment as we seek to be world-class and God-honouring in all we do. The research shows blended is best, so that is where we were already heading.

Home learning can take a variety of forms, even baking. (Traditional Learning Academy photo)

I immediately joined some Facebook groups invited by my friend Dr. Thomas Ho who I then saw in Indiana when I spoke at their Technology Conference. Thomas gave me wise advice on moving forward. I also posted questions in the Facebook group for educators whose schools had been closed, about the mistakes they made. I made a list of common mistakes and wrote our plan so we wouldn’t make them. By the next Wednesday, we had students taking home books and we onboarded all students in Grades 3-12 into Google Classroom and oriented students in 6-12 in Zoom. We cancelled all after school meetings starting on Wednesday, March 11 through to Friday and conducted 2 hour training sessions for our teachers. This jump started our onboarding.

The SCA Distance Learning Playbook and SCA Distance Learning Playbook for teachers are our living, breathing documents as well as our adjusted schedules and Zoom schedules. It has been a lot of work on all sides and feedback from parents, our IT team, teachers, and students has helped us adjust and learn.

Would you briefly describe your school and community. 

I am the Instructional Technology Director and a teacher at Sherwood Christian Academy in Albany, Georgia. We are a world-class Christian K-12 school with a very diverse population of students from all walks of life and we meet in Dougherty County. Dougherty County has been very hard-hit by the coronavirus and the students and families in the county are basically in their homes now.

Perhaps more so than any educator in North America, you have pretty much seen, and often reviewed, every educational tool available. What have you identified as the key tools to allow your school to continue operation?

We had to select tools that worked on all devices and were easy. We also had to select tools that could be available to students who couldn’t attend school during the day. We simplified our toolkit to five things.

  • Google Classroom (which syncs with Renweb*) – younger classes are using existing tools like Class Dojo or Remind
  • Zoom (we record and post the recordings into Google Classroom) for 1st – 12 and Marco Polo for kindergarteners
  • Quizizz
  • Edpuzzle
  • Flipgrid (we are adding this now)

*Renweb is a student information system, not unlike say PowerSchool, MyEdBC, MySchool.

Zoom sessions help students learn online and engage with content. (TLA

Distance learning isn't for every learner. How do you support special needs students or those on IEPs?)

We have the SCA Learning Enrichment Center (LEC) with Kathy Thompson. She started with office hours our first week of school. Students make appointments to connect with her and have accommodations met. Teachers also have instructions to extend timing on Quizizz and other tools to accommodate students.

In the case of your school, is everyone working from home, or do teachers work from classrooms? 

A few teachers work from their classrooms, however, most teachers work from home. Our administrators made it possible for teachers to upgrade their internet with a reimbursement grant to allow working from home. Many teachers have children and this is the best way to make things work.

Education has both  academic and social components. How is distance education able to preserve some of the social components that define the school community? 

I don’t like the term “social distancing.” We are physically distancing but in many ways our school is becoming more socially connected. We know the names of each other’s cats, dogs, and hamsters. Teachers do Happy Hat Day or Sunglass Tuesday and take time each day to connect socially. We also do attendance questions and at least one question per week is a “mood survey” taking the “emotional temperature” of students and their classes.

How do you envisage the role of parents and guardians in this overnight change to education of children?

As part of the mission statement of our school, we partner with parents. Parents are now having learning happening in the home. On “Day 0” – the orientation day, we had orientation sessions for teachers, students, and parents. We are all a team and have to work together. We rolled out or “8 Key Principles for a Professional Distance Learner” and trained our Grades 6-12 students and our Grades 3-5 parents. We’re working to help everyone move towards excellence in distance learning. We are partners and I believe I serve remarkable students and parents alongside some incredible educators who love kids and are dedicated to the mission of our school to honour Christ in all things.

“We decided then we didn’t like the term ‘virtual learning’ because we would do real learning, just at a distance,” says Vicki Davis. (Colleen Roy photo)

How different is a typical “school” day for one of your students now from what it was say a month ago?

We have Zoom sessions scheduled either on Monday and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday for different classes. Students are learning online also and engaging with content. Each day at 8 a.m. our campus pastor shares a message as the students are studying 1 Timothy together with him. They attend Zoom at different times scheduled between 9-1. We have larger classes because they want to see each other and larger classes give them that socialization. Our PE teachers visit the classes and help the kids know how to stay healthy. Our music teachers visit and bring music. We’re even adding enrichment. Our librarian and some parent volunteers are reading books to kids at home. We’re a connected community who are working to give structure and encouragement to children and parents in this challenging time.

What might a typical week look like for say a Grade 10 student?

On Mondays there will be live 30-minute Zoom meetings in Physical Science, English, and Spanish I. They will have assignments in those three classes plus Geography and Algebra 1. By 5 p.m., the Monday Zoom teachers will have their videos uploaded and those who could not attend the live class will watch and be prepared to do their assignments. By midnight all of their work should be done including the attendance question. Teachers are able to help them between 2-4 p.m. during teacher “office hours.” Those hours may include email response or Zoom time.

On Tuesdays, there are live 30-minute sessions in Geography and Algebra I. The same routines are in place here for the other classes, the videos going up by 5 p.m. and the work turned in before the midnight deadline.

So, students have work to do in these classes each day. We have “no Zoom” Wednesdays, which is Professional Development for teachers and asynchronous lessons for students in Google Classroom. Once a week, teachers have late office hours to accommodate families who need more help at night and students who need help and have to work in the evenings.

We’ve got flexible learning and have worked to take our school online in a world-class God-honouring way. School is a ministry in these times and that gives students socialization, connection, learning, structure, and encouragement.

There are “assemblies” typically once a week for students and we are planning an Easter chapel in a large Zoom webinar room.

Learning from home. (Adelaide Goldberg photo)

What challenges lie ahead as you work through this COVID-19 school closure? 

The emotional challenges are here for everyone. Self-care is a challenge for all of us. I take the time to run on a sidewalk near my house where I can run in isolation. I feel better and can make it. Sleep is a challenge but there are times I have to choose to sleep. I think that it pushes us towards burnout and 24/7 connection, so I’m adjusting my working hours to have office hours in the evening on some days. We also have to help our students progress. Students need high expectations but different expectations from covering a chapter or book. We want growth but that is not necessarily that they’ve read Macbeth. Life is different right now but we’re pulling together to live out our mission statement and the vision for our technology department as part of SCA’s teamwork is there. Our society will be challenged and we must encourage and help each other – from a distance. We must wisely stay home and tenaciously connect. Life is too short to wait to make a difference.

Peter Vogel is The B.C. Catholic’s technology columnist.