Michael Pershan, a New York City math teacher, returns to TeachLab to share his experiences in the face of COVID-19. Back by audience request, Michael reflects on the challenges faced during the spring, and shares his strategies for the fall. “...It's hard to know what kids are actually learning and doing. So I'm trying to be flexible. My plan for the spring was eventually keep things engaging, keep kids coming back. That's my fundamental goal. Try to teach as much as I can. And that's what I'm going to try to do in the fall also.” - Michael Pershan
Michael Pershan, a New York City math teacher, returns to TeachLab to share his experiences in the face of COVID-19. Back by audience request, Michael reflects on the challenges faced during the spring, and shares his strategies for the fall.
“...It's hard to know what kids are actually learning and doing. So I'm trying to be flexible. My plan for the spring was eventually keep things engaging, keep kids coming back. That's my fundamental goal. Try to teach as much as I can. And that's what I'm going to try to do in the fall also.” - Michael Pershan
In this episode we’ll talk about:
Resources and Links
Check out Michael Pershan on Twitter
Check out Justin Reich’s new book!
For more teacher reflections from COVID-19, check out What's Lost, What's Left, What's Next: Lessons Learned from the Lived Experiences of Teachers during the 2020 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic
Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
Justin Reich: From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. This week, we have our first ever audience-requested episode.
We got a letter from Gretchen Hummon of the Johnny Appleseed Elementary School in Leominster, Massachusetts, who told us, "I teach all subjects in fourth grade, and I'm really at a loss for how best to teach math remotely to young children. I taught math this spring, and normally I think that this is a strength of mine, but I don't think I did it well remotely. Frankly, I feel like I was more of a coach than a teacher. I'm just writing a request that you return to Michael Pershan for a follow-up interview and find out how it went for him in that fourth grade classroom. I'm looking for guidance from every corner."
So we got right back in touch with Michael and said, "Michael, will you come back and talk with us again about what you've learned teaching online this past spring and your online summer camp?" And Michael Pershan from New York City is back with us. Michael, welcome back to TeachLab.
Michael Pershan: Thank you. I am excited to be here.
Justin Reich: So we spoke... It was the middle of March. Your school was one of the very first schools to shut down. An exercise that we really like to do with the learners in our online courses is "I used to think, but now I think." Let's see if we can try to remember what were the assumptions or predictions that we had in the middle of March, as the shutdown was just starting, about what good online math teaching remotely might look like, and then what actually happened and what did you learn? So to start with what, what were your thoughts going into that?
Michael Pershan: It's not easy to get back into the mindset of March, but one thing I think we talked about was how remote learning done really well would look really different from anything like a classroom learning. It would look radically different. You might want to post like really simple activities that students could work on. It's going to involve a lot of homeschooling from the parents' end, especially with younger kids. And it would really look drastically different from school learning. It'd be more like you set goals, and you give students time to do that, and give parents and families a chance to work with students on those goals that are clearly articulated. And it would look not like live teaching in a classroom does, but it would look more like the classic grade models of homeschooling and remote learning.
Justin Reich: That's what all the research on virtual schools as they exist in the United States says. Very few efforts at synchronous teaching. Virtual school instructors pre-pandemic report six hours of synchronous classroom teaching the week, and then the rest of the time is spent individually coaching students. So that was an assumption. And what actually happened?
Michael Pershan: Well, the thing is that that is, I think, ideal. I still believe that sounds great. That is not the kind of teaching that any school I think was really able to pull off in the emergency virtual learning that we put together for this past spring and for me in the summer, and that we're going to be doing again in a large part for the fall, right? Because parents and families, first of all, didn't sign up for this.
Justin Reich: Right.
Michael Pershan: So the whole idea that that families will be there supporting students through these things that you post, that's an assumption that you can make, but that is not an assumption that is shared with all the parties involved.
Justin Reich: It's not what parents have planned for.
Michael Pershan: That's exactly right. And therefore schools are making synchronous learning a part of this. And not many schools... Or I shouldn't say not many. Many schools were not doing any synchronous stuff, even for young kids, at the start of the pandemic in March. My school from the start was doing a lot of synchronous stuff. I think it's a good idea to do some synchronous stuff for the emergency pandemic learning. I think more schools are planning on doing that for the fall, though that has challenges also, because of access to the internet at various times and access to devices. But anyway, schools aren't doing synchronous stuff. And so that's a whole different set of challenges than the ideal model might propose.
Justin Reich: And what were some of the challenges that you encountered? Particularly for your fourth graders, which I think is just a tough age. I guess fourth grade is where some young people are starting to develop more independence, more executive function, more ability to follow multi-step directions, to attend to a calendar, those kinds of things. But what did the teaching and learning with your fourth-graders end up looking like?
Michael Pershan: Well, at first it was very rough, because from the get go, I remember the first lesson I taught these fourth graders I had... Please don't get mad at me.
Justin Reich: I won't.
Michael Pershan: School. No, not you, I'm not worried about you, but I did borrow a document camera without permission from my school.
Justin Reich: From your school building?
Michael Pershan: Which I'm saying now, because I'm going to return it. But so I brought it home and I set it up and I started trying to treat it like my blackboard. And immediately it was like, "Oh wait, that part's fine. I can't see anything that any of them are doing." And so for me in the spring, the basic pedagogical challenge was, "Well, how do I see how they-"
Justin Reich: You're teaching through a one-way mirror?
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: You can see what you're doing and you can't really see... Maybe if you make the kids put their camera on, you could see their faces, but their faces are not that informative. And what's really informative is whatever it is that they're scribbling in front of them as they're trying to do math.
Michael Pershan: Exactly. And I tried really hard in those first weeks. My first thought was... It became clear right away that this was the biggest pedagogical challenge for me. And if I could figure this out, things would go better. And if I can't figure it out, things wouldn't go better. So that was where I really focused my energy in the first couple of weeks of this teaching exercise. I mean that and everything else, but my teaching energies were focused this way. And I think the first thing I tried was my school was using Google Classroom, finding ways for kids to post pictures of their work, hold up their pictures to the camera and post pictures. Great idea. Not fun.
Justin Reich: What wasn't fun about it?
Michael Pershan: Have you ever tried it? It's not easy to hold up something to a webcam. This is a birthday card. Hold it up to the webcam, and if you put it in front of the camera, it blocks your eyes. So you can't see if it's in focus. And so you get these real sketchy things. And also it's laborious. There's ways to cut down the number of clicks. I'm a good elementary school teacher, or I like to [crosstalk 00:07:35].
Justin Reich: Let's take that as a factual statement. There's an assumption of this conversation. Michael Pershan, a good elementary school teacher.
Michael Pershan: I didn't mean that I am an excellent elementary school teacher. What I meant was I am definitely an elementary school teacher in that there was a routine. So I'm like, "Oh, I have to explicitly teach it." So I set a whole lesson. "The goal of this lesson is just to teach you how to take pictures of your work with the webcam in the simplest way possible." And it's still hard. It's hard, and the pictures don't come out well, and it takes time. So if you're in a lesson, you're teaching something, I can get kids to post stuff, but it's not going to be in time for me to use it.
Justin Reich: Yeah, you can't have that formative feedback loop. Our norm is you wandering through the classroom, poking your head over kids' shoulders, looking at the work on the table in front of them and being like, "Oh, four of you are making the same mistake. I'm going to pull those four into a little group, or I'm going to go back to the board and have a conversation about this interesting misinterpretation that people have with things like that." Whereas what's happening is that process, which might have taken you three minutes or something like that in the classroom, now gets stretched out over 15 minutes and kids forgot what they were working on by the time you've gotten the data together to say something interesting back to them.
Michael Pershan: Absolutely. And I was just talking now about synchronous lessons, but the asynchronous lessons were a mess also. Because I'd post assignments. My school said, "Don't worry, don't stress. You can just post a worksheet. It doesn't need to be a whole thing. It doesn't need to be a whole production." That sounds great. So I post a worksheet and I say, "Post a picture of your work." And as a fourth-grade teacher and also a third-grade teacher, I know that just because I didn't get something doesn't mean the kids didn't do it. They might not have submitted it, because that's a whole other thing to remember to do.
So I found myself in the first couple of weeks in utter doubt as to whether students were doing any of the work, learning anything, and whether they were submitting stuff. I was getting some work, which means that I had another problem, which is that I know that some kids are learning stuff. Do I keep going? What's the pace in which I should... I need [inaudible 00:09:53] right. So that's the problem. The problem was access to kids' thinking. And that eventually pushed me to technology. That pushed me, because I don't like using other technology. I'm a tech-savvy person, but I think what that means to me is I'm super wary, because I know that it's complicated. Right? I feel like, because I know how to use stuff, I also know that it's not going to be easy for children.
Justin Reich: So you defaulted in some ways to what you thought was the simplest possible way for students to be able to share their thinking with you of just, "Do it on paper, take a picture of it and send it to me." And you set up some routines for that, and just students weren't doing it. The students who were doing it, there's too much time lag between you assigning things and people getting stuff back. What were the technologies that you turned to next? Or what were the ones that ended up being most successful?
Michael Pershan: I mean, I don't like recommending particular tools. It's against my instincts because tools can be... I mean, they're all private companies. You'd like a tool. It becomes expensive really quickly, and they take it away and they change something. There's data concerns. There's privacy concerns. I don't like recommending specific tools. But I will say I use a tool called Classkick. I learned about it from another math teacher who wrote about it a little bit online. I was very skeptical. I thought it was just a Google Docs thing. And then that eventually became very useful. Just to be clear, because it's not about the particular tool, but let me say why it's useful.
Justin Reich: Yeah. Tell us about the routine that you are able to do with this technology. And then presumably there's a bunch of different technologies that would let people do this routine.
Michael Pershan: Or there should be right now. Somebody should knock it together right now. Yeah. So first of all, like I was saying, and like any third- or fourth-grade or teacher of young children would know, or middle-school children or high-school children or anybody, people are not always reliable about turning stuff in. Anybody, by the way, who taught with Google Classroom this year, has dealt with the conundrum of Google Classroom telling you that one out of 20 people has done your assignment, but that's not true. It's just, nobody's clicked the button that Google makes you click that's like, "This has been actually submitted." Meaning submission is an extra step.
Technology, the first thing that I would say for any good classroom technology for this distance learning is no submission. As soon as you write it or produce it, it's done, it's submitted. You don't need to click or submit or send an email. Nothing. Just as soon as you produce it, it's done. Which by the way, does push you by definition into doing work on the computer setting. That's a trade- off, right? If you're writing on paper, there's no way to automatically send that. But if we're asking students to do their thinking on a computer, there are tools that could allow you to automatically send that to the teacher or share that with the teacher and that's really useful. So that's thing number one. Thing number two is no accounts needed. I don't want my students to have to juggle a password. There are tools that I considered using with my third and fourth graders in the spring. And then I couldn't because the idea of getting them all signed up with a password that they would remember was impossible.
Justin Reich: And we heard that over and over from parents this spring, that there's seven different teachers, would each come up with two tools that each had a different log in associated with them. And it just became confusing and impossible to manage.
Michael Pershan: No good. Right? So there's a way to avoid that, which is some tools there's just the link that you click and it sends you there. And that's an environment where the student works and when they close the link it's done. That's great. So those are the two big things. The third thing is the environment needs to be like an okay one for students to work in. If students can't actually do stuff in the setting, it's going to be useless. You can see it maybe, but it won't be good. So at the minimum for math, that means that you need to be able to write stuff and you need to be able to draw stuff. You need to be able to write things like numbers or variables, and you need to be able to draw stuff for symbols that aren't-
Justin Reich: And your students are drawing stuff on a tablet with their finger or drawing stuff on a computer with their mouse or a trackpad or something?
Michael Pershan: Yeah, either one, right? Obviously it's not as good to draw with ... Anyone who's drawn with a mouse knows that it's not as good to draw with a mouse. I can say in a moment ... I mean, I guess I'll say this here in case we forget later, the one thing I did learn to do, was have a lot of connect the dots sort of activities. It would be very easy to draw with a mouse.
Justin Reich: Less free form drawing more ... Which of these lines should you connect to make the right thing appear.
Michael Pershan: Right. Connect the equal expressions so that you just need to get from one to the other rather than like solve 37 times 6, which is like the whole thing.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: So I ended up doing more stuff that was simpler to produce with really sloppy mouse writing. So that's thing three, that the environment needs to be an okay one for doing the work that the kids doing. And the fourth thing, maybe this is the last one, because I'm riffing here.
Justin Reich: Yeah, yeah. But these are concrete things. Let's review one through three.
Michael Pershan: Yeah.
Justin Reich: No submission. The submission has to be instantaneous as you're doing it, no logins or passwords, there just needs to be a link that you click on. And then you have to be able to do math in a basic way in the environment. Those are the three things. And then what's number four?
Michael Pershan: Well, the fourth one is that you want to be able to see what students are doing as they're doing it. It's kind of connected to the submission thing, but you can imagine technology that's not easy to observe what students are doing as they're doing it. Even it ends up being observable later.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: What's important is being able to see, especially if kids are doing stuff, when you're not present. Asynchronous learning, just assignments that kids are doing, it can be very useful to observe what students are doing as they log in and do it. Where are they getting stuck? Where are they not sure what to do? Are they logging in at all? So being able to see what students are doing as they're doing it. Live observation is I think a fourth crucial aspect of any tech. So Classkick does those four things, there's various things that it doesn't do well. There are some bonus things that it does well for some of these synchronous classes, like students can sign into the same page together and collaborate. So that's nice, and that became really useful for my summer teaching, which was kind of more explicitly collaborative in some ways. Like the teaching and learning ones.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: That's a value of the camp in a way that it was not for the spring stuff. In any event, So that's what pushed me to a textual in a way from my existing ideas.
Justin Reich: Web cam infrastructure.
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: So what would you, what would a typical daily or weekly routine look like for your fourth graders?
Michael Pershan: Yeah. I also teach third graders also, those are really different in my school.
Justin Reich: Hmm.
Michael Pershan: The third graders, once a week, I was allowed to kind of like ... Allowed is the wrong word. Once a week, we had a synchronous meeting and then there were three assignments posted the rest of the week. So the first meeting of the week was kind of like an introduction, but you can't really follow up on what students are doing with a live session. The fourth grade was two live sessions a week and two assignments a week. And they were split up in a way that was kind of balanced, so that you could respond to students. So in both my third and my fourth grade classes, there'd be a live session. And I would then every other day, post a link to a Classkick assignment with some exceptions. Like I'd other stuff here and there, but most days a Classkick assignment that I created that they would work on as an assignment.
So my routine was like this, first things first, post a joke at the top of the Google Classroom page. So there'd be a post on Google Classroom. First thing is a joke, the set up and not the punchline, this is goofy as anything, but I needed ways to get kids excited to say stuff on Google Classroom.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: Especially my third graders. They [crosstalk 00:18:58].
Justin Reich: So just low hanging fruit. Here's what I want you ... Did they have to guess the punchline?
Michael Pershan: They had to guess the punchline. So it'd be like ... Oh, I can't remember any of the jokes. Oh yeah. What do you call a question? What do you call a factory that produces things that are just okay, but not great? The things aren't great that they produce, they're just fine. I'd post that question. And then I'd say, "Hey everybody, here's what we're doing today Classkick assignment. I loved your work yesterday that I saw. Congrats to such and such person for solving this problem, loved your work." And then I'd say, "Okay, if you have any questions, do this." And then in the comments, students would start guessing the punchline. And I would be there chatting with them.
And especially for my third graders that did not have kind of the same executive functioning stuff to be able to come in Google Classroom and check all the time. That was really useful to me. It was something to get a conversation going beyond class hours. And that was very useful to me. I could also imagine ... Oh, I should tell you the punchline.
Justin Reich: Yes.
Michael Pershan: A satisfactory.
Justin Reich: Very good. Very good. That's hard for a third or fourth grade.
Michael Pershan: Okay, I hope you like that. I know, I know, I know. There's better ones. I just like that one.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: Anyway. And so I'd had that kind of conversation. My fourth graders, by the way, had no problem chatting on Google Classroom. I would wake up or if I'd go outside and play with my kids for an hour in the rain or whatever because it was like raining all the time in March. I'd come back like soaking wet to open my computer. They're like 50 discussion comments from my fourth graders. Just yelling at each other in nice ways. But whatever.
Justin Reich: All right. So you post a joke, people start replying the punchline. You've gotten them engaged. What comes next?
Michael Pershan: So let me talk about third grade first, because these are two really different models. The third grade thing, I just needed ... Kids we're not signing in reliably. Right? I was coming in as a math teacher. Their main show is with somebody else. It was challenging to get kids to sign in. To remember, to come back to class. So I was trying to make our live synchronous meetings as fun and as enjoyable as possible while still being mathematical. So I was prioritizing those things for something like we'd play a game together or do a puzzle together that would introduce whatever assignment. That would also kind of connect to whatever assignment I was doing later that week. But I was okay with it being, not the closest connection of all time.
So it'd be kind of like if we have a ... And this was the way it was, like a half hour time slot to have a meeting with these kids. It would be like play a game, talk about what they did last week and give some kind of whole class feedback and then give them a little example that would help them start the next day's assignment, which was going to be a Classkick assignment where I take like four or five different math problems and give them some variety. So I could have just done like worksheets every day, but I was really worried about them because kids were dropping like flies. It was not easy to keep kids coming back to these things.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: So what I ended up doing was, if on Monday we had this kind of meeting together, this live time, I'd get them really excited. I'd be like, "Here's the kind of stuff that we're going to do. This puzzle will reappear later this week. And I know that some people last week requested some multiplication. We're going to do that too this week. You're going to see that on the slides this week in Classkick. And I know that a lot of people like these other types of puzzles and that's going to be there too." So I was giving a variety of stuff, figuring that there's something that somebody will like in every day. And I can't tell which kids need help of what if they don't come back.
Justin Reich: Yep.
Michael Pershan: So that's really what I was thinking. And that's really different by the way, then the virtual. Just to put that point, that is not what research or whatever suggests is the best model for virtual learning, done ideally, right?
Justin Reich: How so? How is it different?
Michael Pershan: Because I think it takes attendance ... It doesn't treat attendance as something you have to fight for and participation is something you really need to like battle for, right? To get back people coming back.
Justin Reich: I think that is a consistent issue in virtual schooling. I mean the two classes of people that sign up for pre pandemic virtual schooling are kids who are really being poorly served by the existing school system. They're failing out or dropping out or leaving or being really poorly served by their existing traditional district public school. And so their parents enrolled them in online school because maybe this will work better. And then they're kind of like athletes, gymnasts, musicians, kids who have some alternative life, people who want to do homeschooling. A group of people that are sort of affirmatively opting into the system because it fits their lifestyle better. And then folks who are really struggling with the existing school system and trying to use this as an alternative. One thing that's clear from pre pandemic research is that these ... Virtual school teachers spend a lot of time following up with kids who are disappearing or not doing what they're supposed to be doing.
Michael Pershan: Right. I've talked to some people like my friend Courtney, she tells me that she devotes time every week to emailing her students.
Justin Reich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael Pershan: To just follow up like, "Hey, I didn't get this assignment from you." But I still think they've signed up to do this thing.
Justin Reich: Yeah. Nobody wanted to be in emergency remote school closures.
Michael Pershan: So students who would otherwise be incredibly reliable were just-
Justin Reich: Disappearing.
Michael Pershan: Disappearing.
Justin Reich: And so you're trying to come up with this sort of panoply of things. Whatever it is that kids seem to be hooking in on, you're trying to give them more in that. And you're trying to give everybody a little bit of things so that every week they'll see some stuff that they're interested in. In the synchronous sessions are they working on Classkick? Are they working in Classkick between things? How do you take advantage of the fact that you can sort of see their work in real time?
Michael Pershan: Okay, well, just to say this here, I wasn't doing as much of that with the third graders. With fourth graders, I was because fourth graders, I'm seeing them twice a week live. And so that gives you more options for really focusing on a specific skill. Decimals was a unit that I kind of successfully in my view, taught the fourth graders.
Justin Reich: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael Pershan: Like how to add decimals together and how to turn decimals into fractions. So yeah. So what I would do there is, I would start class with an example and then I would send them there and then I'd put them in breakout rooms. These kids know each other, they like each other. I would ask them, "Who do you want to work with today?" Again, I wanted it to feel good, because kids were dropping out. So I didn't want to put them with the kids that they always fight with, you know?
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: I might do that in the classroom. I might say it's not a good idea for all sorts of reasons for kids to pick their group. That's not a great move for an elementary school teacher always, to tell kids, "Who do you want to work with today?" First of all, it causes fights, it can make kids feel bad, and third, it would be raucous and unruly a lot of the times, but I was totally willing to do that in these Zoom sessions because I wanted kids to feel good. So I was putting kids ... I was asking, "Who do you want to work with today?" Put you had a breakout room, give you the assignment. I'd say, "If you want, somebody who can share their screen and you can all talk together about what goes there. If you want, you can all work by yourself. You just need to decide as a group, and then I'll come around to each group." So was there goofing off? Yeah. I was able to tell which groups were having the most trouble getting started because I was able to monitor it on the back end of this Classkick thing and then I'd zip in there and I'd tell them ... that's standard teacher stuff. "Hey, how's it going?"
Justin Reich: Yeah. "Has anybody read the problem yet?"
Michael Pershan: "What do you think?" It's the same dumb stuff I do every day, every year. So that's not hard. That's not hard. That's not pandemic card.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: So that was good. That made me feel ... it was less efficient. There's less kind of social we're all doing this together, so it's easier for goofing off to happen, but people would fall into groups that were productive for the most part and I would monitor them and I would help them and it was slow, but it was normal-ish. It was within the realm of normal teaching, and that was good. That's what it allowed me to do. It felt more normal.
Justin Reich: So putting kids in small groups with people they want to work with and having them work in some environment where it's really easy for you, even if you're not in the breakout room, to see what they're working on so you can jump in and help them out, that sounds like that's the sort of core of the synchronous routine.
Michael Pershan: Right. I think it feels like a lot of research on group work mentions accountability for the group, and I think that being able to monitor them gives you real accountability. It's not like you just showed up and like, "How's it going, guys?" "It's going great." "Okay." You can really kind of see how things are going and say, "Well, nobody's started ..."
Justin Reich: Yeah. "I'm in this room because I'm looking at your slides and you've done zero for them. So let's talk about how you might continue next." Was that routine successful enough that that's the basis of what you're going to do this fall?
Michael Pershan: Well, one thing I'll add is that the group work aspect is not as crucial as I maybe thought at first. You can just as easily assign everybody in a whole group context some task, and if you're able to monitor it, that's fine. Kids work on things on their own with help in classrooms too. So my mix is a mix of whole group and group work ... and I should say also, not entirely in Classkick. The other big, useful thing that I figured out pretty early on was that the chat is -
Justin Reich: Zoom chat?
Michael Pershan: Zoom chat is really useful. I would set it to privately only go to me. So I wouldn't really allow for -
Justin Reich: Discussion.
Michael Pershan: Discussion. That's not what I was looking for.
Justin Reich: You would just ask a question and then everybody would post individually their responses to you.
Michael Pershan: Right. So maybe the fuller synchronous class picture looks like this: "Hey everybody, welcome to class. Brief blah, blah, blah. Okay, here's a problem from yesterday. Can you type your answer into the chat? Great job, Melissa. Fantastic, Justin. Five isn't right." I wouldn't say, "Jimmy, five isn't right." I'd say, "Five isn't right. If you sent five, you might want to revise that," stuff like that, and then I would say, "Okay, today I'm teaching you this. Here's an example of this. I would ask everybody in the chat, can you explain why I did this and this and this," because I want kids to explain conceptually particular details from whatever we're learning, because that's just good teaching in general, and so I'm using the chat to do that. It's set privately, so I'm telling kids, "I really want everybody to respond. Your job is to say, I don't know or IDK or whatever, if you don't know," because I want participation very frequently, very frequently.
And some days I would spend the whole time in that mode, in the kind of you're participating by chatting mode. Some days I would say very quickly, "Okay, time to start a Classkick assignment." Desmos, by the way, is another useful tool in the mix for teaching math. It turned out not to be as useful to me in the spring as Classkick because of ... we were talking before about the four things. It has a lot of those four things, but it's not as easy an environment for kids to do some math than others. For example, you can't write text as easily to annotate the slide, and kids can't collaborate on the same screen. So it's another useful tool though. If I didn't have Classkick I would use Desmos, and particularly for graphing. For middle school math, it's ideal. For elementary math, it was less ideal.
But anyway, point is I would do some that stuff also in the secretive sessions, and variety is important. Consistency is important, but some variety is important. So in the synchronous meetings, I basically have three things I can do. I can go back and forth in the chat. I can ask everybody to click a link, go to some other math environment, like Classkick or Desmos using a tech tool on their own, or I can put kids in breakout rooms and they can collaborate on something, and so those three modes are what I kind of was juggling. It's possible to think of those in sequence. At the start of the unit, I'm more likely to keep everybody in the whole group setting doing the chat stuff. Then I would be more likely next to ask them to try some stuff on their own and then maybe to collaborate on a longer assignment. It's possible to think of this as a sequence.
Justin Reich: And you sort of adapted kind of whole class instruction, recitation, and small group work, independent work into what fits into Zoom, and then sort of like you would in the classroom, you're sort of alternating between these three things, both based on what the content dictates, based on the mood of folks, and some of it just kind of alternating things so that there's variety in the daily schedule, but not so much variety that people are confused as to what they're doing next.
Michael Pershan: Right. Variety in here's the link that you're going to click today, not like here's a new ... by the way, there's lots of good puzzles and games that kids do like doing, and if they're built online already, it's like an app or a website, those are good a variety also. So that was, I guess another thing in the mix also, just to keep things ... variety is important. It's got to be ... you lose kids, younger kids, I think especially, if it's not fun.
Justin Reich: Yeah, and I think losing kids in this online setting is different than ... there's always a risk of people sort of zoning out, but at least they're in the room.
Michael Pershan: Right.
Justin Reich: At least you sort of have a chance a few minutes later of recovering them back in. Once they sort of walk away from the computer, turn the webcam off, log out, it's a lot harder to -
Michael Pershan: Right. You've eliminated ... because motivation can be individual motivation and it could also be social motivation. School is usually an amazing social environment for motivation. Even though people have mixed experiences, when they look back on their school years, fundamentally, it's a place where lots of people are doing the same thing, your peers and friends, and it's pretty effective, all things considered, in helping encourage people to do things that are good for learning. You wipe that out entirely in one fell swoop.
Justin Reich: Yeah. I have this vision of when a third grader sort of gets bored doing what they're doing and they lift their head up in a classroom and look around and you see a bunch of kids either sitting at tables doing their work or hunched over worksheets, they sort of go, "Well, all right. Everybody's kind of doing this thing. I guess I'll do that thing." Whereas at home, if you pick your head up from your iPad or your Chromebook and look around, you're like, "Oh, I got a bunch of toys in the corner and there's a refrigerator full of snacks over there, and oh, my mom's downstairs, I wonder what she's doing." There's just so many more things to draw you away and there's nothing that communicates to the you the cue that, "Oh, everyone else is doing this thing that I'm supposed to be doing. I ought to keep doing it."
Michael Pershan: Right. So one thing I did do as part of my online teaching to try to create some of that kind of social is ... again, I'd really lean into narrating when students were doing things well, just to try to create that kind of everybody's doing it. "Great job, Teresa. Fantastic, Eva. Maria, this is wonderful."
Justin Reich: You're basically narrating what you wish students would see when they're kind of looking around.
Michael Pershan: Exactly.
Justin Reich: In the model that I just gave, the kid lifts their head up and they see a bunch of people working. Since you're the only one that can see all that input, you're just talking about that input all the time with people.
Michael Pershan: Exactly.
Justin Reich: To kind of reinforce the normal thing to do right now is to be working on this thing and to be posting in the chat and to be asking me questions. I mean, that makes a lot of sense to try to reinforce those sorts of social norms. So that'll be your plan kind of going forward into this year. Another thing I wanted to ask you about was just kind of pacing. So because most people don't teach both third and fourth grade, but you do, and some of your third grade students will be your fourth grade students this year?
Michael Pershan: Well, this is getting in the weeds a little bit, Justin, but my assignment this year is shifted a little bit. I'm teaching third graders ... my fourth grade class was replaced with a calculus class.
Justin Reich: Okay.
Michael Pershan: To 12th graders, not to fourth graders. So I'm not teaching fourth grade this year, but yeah.
Justin Reich: Okay. Let me re-ask the question. All right. So in terms of pacing, what's your sense for your third grade class next year? Are you thinking that you'll teach sort of the same amount and the same range of topics as you would have taught in 2017 or 2018 to third graders? Or how are you thinking about adjusting the curriculum or adjusting your pacing throughout the year?
Michael Pershan: Does anybody know? I mean this seems like the big uncertainty, and I'm entering this year trying to be as open minded about what I may see as possible. We don't know. We really don't know. I'm in New York City. Our case count has stayed pretty low lately. I have no idea what's going to happen. Schools are opening in New York City. Some schools are opening. It's not clear what the picture is going to be, and some of my third graders will be going to school. I will be teaching them remote because of the weird plan, which every school's got a weird plan, but the point is that I don't know, and so I approach this as not trying to figure out what they know, but trying to figure out how to teach under this kind of intense uncertainty about what they've already learned, what the pace of learning is going to look like. So how does that look different? I don't know. I'm going to take a guess and start and then -
Justin Reich: So you'll start with the same unit that you would start in any other year, and you're going to go into it ... if you had had a two week unit on whatever the first thing in third grade math is, it's still going to be a two week unit on whatever the first thing in third grade math is, and you see where you are at the end of those two weeks.
Michael Pershan: Yeah. Unless after the first week it's a disaster, you know what I mean? My feeling about this year, as long as we're doing this remote thing is we got to just power through it. I don't know if there's going to be a way to really nail the pacing decision and I don't know how much better things would be if we could nail it. Because fundamentally there's less teaching time, there's less learning time, it's less ideal conditions for learning and teaching. I don't know how much students are going to be able to learn this year and I doubt that anybody does. So if I wanted to devote resources and energy to like trying to really plan for eventualities, I'd be focusing on whenever things go back to normal. I would be trying to make this year as best as possible in the moment. And then trying to think like what systems and structures can be in place to try to get back on track after. Because the thing that's missing is our ability to assess how it's going.
Justin Reich: Yeah. We have no idea.
Michael Pershan: It's not a separate thing. You can't assess how this thing's going for the same reason that it's going poorly. Because it's hard to know what kids are actually learning and doing. So I'm trying to be flexible. I'm going to try my plan for the spring was eventually keep things engaging, keep kids coming back. That's my fundamental goal. Try to teach as much as I can and that's what I'm going to try to do in the fall also. And then when things get back to normal, that's when I think that we should... I'm a classroom teacher, I am not an administrator, but that's what I think we should really be putting our kind of emergency plans or our big plans together our longterm plans
Justin Reich: Where we might go back and say, "Okay, are there really critical things that students missed? What kind of deeper remediation plans do we want to have? How do we want to add tutoring or other kinds of things to help folks out is." Mostly for now keep kids engaged with school to help them learn as much as they can to help them stay connected, have a sense of normalcy, have a sense of routine, to build connections with peers and trusted adults. And then to the extent that we feel like here's things that people missed in their educational experience. Let's worry about that when the world feels a little bit more normal and right.
Michael Pershan: You can't know how things are going and there's not that much you can do about it right now. But when you get back... We need a way like okay, so it's March and everybody's back to normal because it turns out COVID just self explodes on its own.
Justin Reich: It's just going to go away.
Michael Pershan: Yeah. It just goes poof after a while, it expires essentially like bad milk. So when everybody gets back okay, we don't want to like give everybody a standardized test on that Tuesday, but like how can we figure out whether we can dive back into grade level content in a classroom. And how can we figure out who's going to need tutoring? Because tutoring I think is a very useful tool in this situation, right? How are we going to figure out how everybody can graduate on time? How are we going to make sure that college access is not harmed for anybody? All that stuff I think you can't do yet, but you can plan for that now. And that's where I wish school administrators were devoted. I mean obviously it's hard right now because they're all putting out fires with this kind of emergency remote learning plan. But that's what I really think could help.
Justin Reich: All right. So it sounds like we're talking about worked examples, how we demonstrate to students new ideas and new ways of doing problem solving in mathematics. I know you've recently given the talk at the research ed conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were sharing with folks in your presentation there?
Michael Pershan: And so I gave a talk and the talk was about worked example of research. So example on how to teach effectively with examples and how that looks somewhat different in the physical classroom than in my online classrooms just because the context is so different. Which I think also goes to show that research needs context so we've got to plug in. Research doesn't tell you how to teach. Research gives you principles and ideas that you then kind of connect with your-
Justin Reich: Adapt to your local setting. Yep.
Michael Pershan: And local setting has changed a lot from a room to a screen. So worked example research everybody knows that you got to give kids something to... Sometimes you have to tell the kids here's how something's done. You got to give examples. But we also know that kids don't always learn from examples when you share them. And one idea from research about why that is, is because some students kind of spontaneously when there's an example they start thinking like, "Oh yeah, this makes sense. I can say, yeah that has to do with this. And that's because..." They explain things to themselves. That's how they make sense of it. They think deeply about it, but not everybody does this, certainly not on their own. So a cognitive science research, one idea from cognitive science research is that you should prompt kids to do this.
You should teach kids how to give explanations and you should prompt them to give explanations to themselves after showing them an example or something that you'd like them to think about. And that's great, I love that. That's a rock solid principle. Here's how I do that into my physical classroom. I would use something kind of like a turn and talk. I'd say, "Okay, here's the example." I would look at eyeballs, I would see where the attention is. I'd see that people are reading it and I'd say, "Okay, it looks like people have been reading it." I would say, "Put your thumb up if you're done reading it." People put their thumbs up and say, "Okay, here's some prompts. Here's what I want you to think about. Can you think about these things? Take a second or two and think about how you would answer these things." And I'd say, "Okay, I'd like you to turn to your partners and I'd like you to discuss them."
And then I'd walk around the room and I'd listen to the discussions. And I'd give you a chance to just kind of see, Oh, are people able to explain these things? Are people not able to explain these things? Who looks like they need some help? Who has a good idea that I could kind of like pull out and ask them to share with everybody? And I'd do that and then I'd have a brief discussion I'd say, "Okay, here's another problem I'd like you to try it on your own. Try to use the same ideas from the example we just studied for this new problem over here." The chance to make a generalization, to connect two different problems with the same strategy. Great, that works pretty well in my classroom. If you want to know more about how to make that work I'm writing a book about it.
Okay, which of those things can you do through a screen? Well, if I post an example I can't see anybody's eyeballs. So that's gone. If I post prompts, I can't have kids talk to each other. So that's gone. I can read what people type into the chat though, so I have kind of learned to adapt this kind of routine, just so that's happening through a chat box.
Justin Reich: And there may be some advantages of doing a chat box in the sense that now you have a record of what people said. There are some comparisons that you can make. You probably can't ask everyone to verbalize in a classroom. You couldn't say, "Hey, all 17 of you tell me what you think at the same time." And have them speak because they'd all talk over each other it wouldn't make any sense. But you can do that if they're typing into a chat box.
Michael Pershan: Right. It's really different. And you can pull out, like you can say like, "Oh yeah, that's a great idea Erica." Copy paste. "Here's Erica's great idea let me read it to you everybody. Erica said..." Another thing I would do that I couldn't do in a physical classroom as easily is if you ask students, "Okay, what do you think the answer to this question is?" Sometimes there's kind of like social convergence. Like someone was like five, seven, seven, seven, Oh, it's seven. Definitely seven. What I can do is if I ask people to answer a question and there's two things I would very frequently say, "Okay everybody, here's the two answers that people have given five, seven. In the chat, which of these do you think is correct and why?" That kind of thing to push deeping into thinking in different ways.
So the talk is and the book also is kind of about this too. I think it's a point that's important, which is teachers are very used to hearing people bring out research and just kind of like slam it over your head with it. Like "Yeah, research says you should use this, it's says you should do this." And that's not really how research can interact with teaching. Research gives you principles, ideas, theories, whatever. But then it requires teachers to kind of like make it work.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
Michael Pershan: And so I think that's really true. And I think pandemic is kind of an opportune time to notice that.
Justin Reich: Right. Because research is most useful in cognate circumstances, most useful when the place where people did the research is like the circumstance in which you're teaching. And now there's very little research that we've ever done, which is in a circumstance that's like emergency remote teaching. And so all you can do is try to take those first principles and see okay, which of them work in this specific context?
Michael Pershan: Yeah, of course. But I don't need to tell you this, but lots of research is already kind of not in the exact cognate circumstances of the classroom anyway. Right?
Justin Reich: Right. It was done in the lab [crosstalk 00:48:45].
Michael Pershan: It's done with a different subject. So there's this adaptation that we're doing now we always have to do.
Justin Reich: Yeah, that sounds right. Well, good. Well Michael, it's enormously helpful to get your perspective and I hope that we answered some of Gretchen's questions from the Johnny Appleseed Elementary school in Leominster, Mass. Not far from where I'm sitting right here. And I think the routines that you described will be really helpful. I think the ways that you've described your principles for selecting some technology and I think boiling things down to the fundamental thing that you were missing was the ability to have students make their thinking visible so that you could be responsive to their thinking your teaching. I think you've given us some great suggestions for how teachers can think about solving that in their own classroom contexts with whatever technologies their schools and districts make available or they select for their own classroom. So Michael Pershan from New York city, I hope you have a very safe fall and I'll look forward to keeping chatting with you and seeing how your remote teaching continues.
Michael Pershan: Always a pleasure.
Justin Reich: That was Michael Pershan a math teacher in New York city at one of the first schools to close due to COVID. And hopefully one of the schools that will be opening safely this fall. You can read his blogging, it notepad,michaelpershan.com. And in the show notes we have links to our first conversation with Michael and his recent talk at the research ed conference. I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes on how educators from all walks of life are tackling distance learning during COVID-19.
I've got a new book coming out this fall about education technology in schools. It's called Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education coming from Harvard University press. You can learn more failuretodisrupt.com. And the book will be released on September 15th. So you can pre order now. You can also join our free online book club starting September 21st at failuretodisrupt.com/virtualbookclub. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley. It was recorded and sound mixed by Garrett Beazley, stay safe until next time.