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Distance Learning Tips, Tricks and Takeaways From Educator Jim Bentley

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 (Jim Bentley)

This report from the trenches of distance learning comes from KQED Media Literacy Innovator Jim Bentley.

Not a Normal Start

It was Friday before the start of the school year, and I met my students outside the cafeteria, all of us wearing masks. I handed them textbooks and a bag of resources and said, “See you Monday on Zoom.”

This is not normal.

On the Friday after the first week of distance learning, I posted this Twitter thread with 45 takeaways. As of Monday, August 17 the thread has more than 1,300 comments and retweets and has been liked 4,000 times and counting.

Here are some of my favorite ideas from that thread.

Week 1: Focusing on 3 Cs

I wanted to try and get to know my students through a rectangular screen. I turned to Jennifer Gonzalez and used her student inventories which I adapted for my own use. I created a 2-page Google Slide show and shared via Google Classroom, making a copy for each student.


Students need to talk and get to know each other as well. I did a simple activity I call “2-Things. 1-Minute” where students run and grab two things that are important to them and then get one minute to explain what they are and their significance. I went first to model. It was fun, easy, and gave students a chance to talk about themselves.

Pets. If you have them, show them. It was surprising to see the menagerie of animals my students have in their homes: birds, cats, dogs, reptiles. Everybody got to introduce their pets. One student’s pet had recently died. She showed a pillow shaped like her dog, its picture, and the urn holding its ashes. The class gave a lot of virtual hugs and love back to her.

By control, I do not mean my control over students. Instead, I mean my students’ control over a situation where they have likely felt out of control for the past 6-months. I teach in a year-round school. My students had the month of February off and were scheduled to return to school in March. That means they had been out of school since the end of January!

I wanted to focus on facilitating student navigation of different platforms we would use, and give them small doses of practice using them with fun, engaging activities. The platforms that we visited and my students used successfully were: Newsela, Listenwise, Edpuzzle, IXL, XtraMath, Edublogs, Nearpod, Kahoot. Also, check out KQED Education’s free distance learning classroom resources and online PD.

It was something from their educational past that connected to an uncertain and new educational present.

Another thing we did was something familiar to my students: math lessons using a document camera and manipulatives. I brought my ELMO TT-02RX document camera home and connected it to an aging iMac (had to download the Image Mate 3 driver first). We took out math journals, took notes, used base ten pattern blocks to model 1/10 of or 10 times as much, and I even pulled out a small whiteboard to use in breakout rooms as students worked in their math textbooks in small groups. They felt in control again of their learning. It was something from their educational past that connected to an uncertain and new educational present.

As a project based learning teacher, building a culture of collaboration, communication, and self-management is instrumental to project and student success. PBLWorks has several articles on this.

We connected naturally by using hand gestures to communicate as humans rather than pushing digital buttons.

But how to build culture quickly in a virtual setting? One simple way was that we connected naturally by using hand gestures to communicate as humans rather than pushing digital buttons. This Edutopia article was the inspiration for the hand symbols we adopted.

Breakout room discussions. This was another way to reconnect students to each other after a 6-month absence from interacting in academic discussions. I turned to the Kids’ Book of Questions for inspiration. These are used each morning for our “Morning Discussion” in Google Classroom. Students respond briefly in writing then follow up with a discussion in Zoom.

Week 1: Takeaways

What does the huge response to my Twitter thread about week 1 tell me?

  • Teachers are searching for answers and ideas on how best to serve their students.
  • Districts might not be giving teachers sufficient resources (or time) to prepare.
  • Textbook publishers don’t have solutions for distance learning teachers, having mass-produced in-person widgets often with inadequate digital platforms worthy of a students’ time.

It seems like we must turn to each other for answers, share our practices and resources, and be eclectic, pairing individual educational platforms to get a job done in the current vacuum of leadership and direction that many of us strive to find.

Read more weekly reflections on teaching remotely on Jim’s blog or on his Twitter feed.

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