How’s Online School Going?

In the past few weeks, as Pedagogical Director of Meizam Hatfustot – UnitED, I’ve trained hundreds of educators in multiple countries. South America, Europe, rabbis on college campuses in the USA. As an instructional coach at BetterLesson, I’ve had an inside view as to what is going on in many Jewish schools across the US in regards to online education. 

My week is a blur. A director in France sent me a list of 50 tips for Zoom use. 50! How about 5? I edited it down, tried to find the source — I think it was from a teacher in Ramaz — added a bunch of my own ideas, and ended at 21 Tips for Using Zoom. I think it’s pretty good. I’ve sent it to all the hundreds of teachers I’ve been working with and have heard positive feedback. Feel free to distribute.

For the past 15 years, as Founder and CEO of JETS, I’ve worked in digital education. I’ve traveled the globe, training more than 2000 educators from Australia to California, Amsterdam to Toronto to Johannesburg, sharing how to increase engagement in the classroom using digital tools. Many teachers responded with joy and vigor, adding video or collaboration tools – see JETS favorite toolbox – to their teaching repertoires. Others were less enthusiastic. 

“I don’t want them on devices in my classroom; they get enough at home.” 

“I can’t do this – out of my comfort zone.” 

“Our principal has too many initiatives this year; can’t spend time on this.” 

Legitimate responses. Or is it? 

Since COVID-19 shuttered schools globally, I’ve been very busy. Constant emails, whatsapp, webinars, night and day. 

“How can students record on Wizer?”

“How do you share screen with a video in Zoom? What can I share?”

“How do you make a PPT?”

“What online games for younger kids do you recommend?”

“Kahoot Challenge can be played at home? Great! How?”

On and on. 8 hour days turned to 12 hours, 16 hours. Teach us what you know. In 45 minutes. 

I’m pretty savvy at training teachers, but I can’t do that. 

There are many educational lessons to be learned from Corona. I’ve heard from teachers that they are thrilled that their schools are now more open to digital learning. What was once an option or a luxury is now a necessity. 

Is it too late? 

Students are on Zoom calls across the globe. Support from schools range. Teachers have been provided with Zoom accounts, and tech support to help them log in, but very few teachers, from what I’ve seen, have been given proper training in basic skills in teaching online, best practices in using Zoom, how to set up an effective lesson online, and how to provide meaningful learning both on and offline. 

How about: 

  1. Start with an icebreaker, an open, collaborative question that both welcomes students to this alternate universe in which we now live, and grounds them to the current group meeting of teacher and fellow students.  An icebreaker doesn’t have to relate to the subject you teach. “What good has come out of Corona in your world, and bonus points if you can relate it to Pesach?” I’ve gotten some gems as responses that help ground me, enhance my spirituality for Pesach seder coming up (challenging for all), and find the brighter side to this chaos. 

“The world will heal.” 

“We are all in this together.” 

“Plagues, makkot (the Hebrew term for the plagues G-d pummeled ancient Egyptians with to force them to release the Jewish people as slaves from Egypt) at Pesach time – eerie?” 

Icebreakers build trust, create an open environment for learning and encourage learning from one another. Isn’t what this is all about?

  1. Share your screen with an agenda of the day. Every student likes to know what to expect in the next 30-90 minutes (yes, I’ve heard of 90 min Zoom calls. Those poor kids). 
  2. Limit Zoom classes to 20 participants, less if you can. 12 is ideal! There are online classes going on with 80 students. Please tell me, what is the point of that? Everyone leaves frustrated with 80 participants online. 
  3. Explore the internet for inspiring videos on your topic, or on dealing with anxiety, humorous clips, or for Heaven’s sake, show songs or clips from The Prince of Egypt. Disney films are for everyone and students can compare Haggadah or text from Shmot, the book of Exodus that records the Israelites’ journey to freedom, to the movie and see how they fare. Which scenes would you rewrite? How? 
  4. Limit questions that have one response or long lists of halachic guidelines (lists of Jewish laws for Passover or other practices). Students can read or review Jewish Law and ritual on their own. Use your Zoom time to analyze, delve, evaluate, posting images, recordings, drawings on collaborative tools like Padlet, Lino, creating collaborative Google Slides on your favorite part of the Haggadah and explain why. 
  5. Replace, don’t copy. You might be the best classroom teacher in your district. I believe you. But that doesn’t always translate to being a great online teacher. Teachers often are charming, engaging, full of energy and warmth. Those are wonderful qualities and should be encouraged and rewarded. However, in a Zoom class, dynamic energy can only go so far. You will exhaust yourself and your students if that is all you have to offer. Look at what Zoom has to offer and maximize it. 
    1. Use the chat feature to the max. Kids are used to online chats and can be guided to respond to age appropriate questions. If they are abusing the system, you can remove ‘chat’ in your Zoom settings. 
    2. Zoom Rooms are an amazing feature; Provide targeted questions, activities, set a time limit, a place to produce results, such as a Google Slide, doc, infographic, recording, and appoint a ‘scribe’ and ‘president’ or commander/מפקדת – I live in Israel, I’m used to the term – for each Zoom Room to help facilitate the work. Set a timer, bring everyone back into the main room at the end and ask each group to share. 
  6. End with reflections. How did you enjoy our class today? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions. Shouldn’t students be enjoying class? 
    1. Ask: What did you enjoy? Did you enjoy the Padlet/Zoom Room/video/discussion? Why or why not? Gain student feedback and improve your lessons each time. Let them contribute however they can. We’re all in this together. 
  7. Contracts: No one is used to teaching online, aside from a select few of us who have facilitated hundreds of webinars in the past years. Certainly not students. Share the rules and regs. What are they? Here are some ideas: 
    1. Put your best foot forward. When you text/chat, is it a response you are proud to share? Chats can be saved and they should. Share that fact with them. Is this what you want to show me, the teacher, your peers, your parents, your community, while you worked online during a global crisis? 
    2. Are your responses the best you can produce, intellectually, spiritually, collaboratively? Model for the students what you expect from them and ask them to sign an ‘online learning contract’ that states the rules, regs or norms you expect from them. 
    3. Ask students to contribute to designing rules and regs and review them regularly. Print them and hang them behind your camera so they see them.  Send to parents and ask for their signatures as well. 

Check out ISTE’s Guidelines for Online Learning; I enjoyed them and agree with every word. 

I’ve heard some pretty scary Zoom stories in the past week or two. 80 kids per class. Reading psukim (Biblical texts) aloud one by one in an online class. Lots of lectures. Guitar strumming and everyone unmuted singing along. Live music does NOT travel well through Zoom. Share a video of the song you wanted to share. Send the words to the students ahead of time or have them on the screen and ask everyone to sing along, but keep them muted. Unmuting everyone is chaotic and sounds awful.

Just like in a brick and mortar class, online teachers have to ask: 

  1. What are your learning objectives? How have they changed in this current reality? 
  2. What are realistic expectations from me and my students?
  3. Is your teaching model sustainable? 
  4. What are students gaining from these Zoom classes? 
  5. Which activities can you send that encourage your students to get up out of his/her chair, create something using materials at home, that supports your topic (most people are teaching Pesach)? 

One teacher mentioned she looks to Pinterest for craft ideas. Great! After hearing that, I hopped on Pinterest – my first time, I admit – and found wonderful and creative activities I wish would be assigned to my child, who spent 10 hours at the dining room table the other day completing assignments exclusively on Google Docs. Her teacher sent her questions as a pdf. Sometimes, my daughter completed worksheets by hand, as instructed, and took pictures to send to her teacher. My daughter loves her teacher, but her teacher was never trained in online technologies; how is she supposed to know how to facilitate home and online learning? 

This is frustrating for me and for her. We can do so much better. 

Students are forced to attend school, either online or in a building, but I can’t imagine online education lasting too long if inappropriate teaching methods continue; the world is watching. We, as educators, must put our best foot forward, educating with 21st century skills, communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. The risk is too great to ignore.

About the Author
Smadar Goldstein is the Pedagogical Director at UnitED, part of the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Her prior experience at JETS, Jerusalem Ed Tech Solutions, led to digital training of more than 2000 educators in 18 countries. She is also an Instructional Coach at Better Lesson, and a Yoga Instructor at the YMCA. She loves living in Jerusalem with her family, and enjoys reading, gym life, and adventures.