Distance Learning Tips from Berkeley’s Middle School Math Team

Several years ago I was named Berkeley’s Instructional Technology Coordinator.  As part of my work as a new administrator, I wanted to get to know teachers and teaching styles in my district as well as I could.  That first year, along with my DigiTech team of 3 others, we made over 700 classroom visits.  My biggest takeaway: there are SO MANY incredible teachers doing SO MANY incredibly varied things in their classrooms and we should showcase and learn from them as often as possible.  From then on, I was committed to the idea of encouraging teacher-leadership and teacher-led PD.  I have many mentors and collaborators within my district for this and am honored to work with each of them.  Two years ago, when I decided to return to the classroom, I made a promise to myself to continue this theme of supporting teacher-leadership and teacher-led professional development.

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 2.17.42 PMMy gratitude for The Berkeley Public School Fund runs deeper than words could ever express.  You can read about their extensive work on their web site, but I want to especially thank them for being such a powerful supporter of teacher-led initiatives and professional development.  For the past 2 summers, King Middle School teacher Geeta Makhija and I have received large grants to run middle school math summer institutes.  At both, our idea was to develop teacher leadership and strengthen our middle school math team’s collaboration.  Although our original grant was for an in-person summer institute to focus on middle school math intervention, we pivoted to organize a virtual institute focused on sharing & reflecting from distance learning in the spring and improving it for the fall.  We have 3 middle schools and around 25 middle school math teachers.  We offered everyone the opportunity to be paid to learn something new over the summer to improve distance learning and then present on it to our entire team.  Eleven teachers said yes and the presentations were incredible.  Our institute spanned 4 days and each day had presentations plus small group collaboration time to dig deeper into any one of the topics we had learned about that day.

I know I don’t have the time to carefully write up summaries of each of the presentations, so instead will share bullets of what I want to remember.  I don’t have permission to share each presenter’s slide show, so I removed the links, but here are the presenters and their topics.  I’m so incredibly proud of our team, the unique and powerful topics that each teacher took on for their summer learning.

    • Have a slide show template.  Students build a slide to show their work and record a Screencast explaining their thinking.  Cap the time they are allowed to record so that you are not listening to them for too too long.
    • Give students leveled choices using choice-boards for asynchronous work and a rubric for how you’ll evaluate that work.
  • DESMOS: Escape rooms are an incredibly fun way to do team-building activities.
  • HONORING BIPOC MATHEMATICIANS: I blogged about it here.
  • IXL:
    • Explicitly teach students how to learn from an example so that when they get something wrong and an explanation pops up, they have learned what to do with that.
    • If you use the diagnostic, don’t give it all at once.  Spread it out over several days and teach students how to find and click “I don’t know this yet” when they honestly have no idea how to do a problem.
    • Explicitly teach students how to go back and forth between their Zoom screen and their Pear Deck screen.
    • Use for Quick Writes & journal responses.
    • You can run a lesson synchronously one day, then create a new link to have it available asynchronously for students who were absent.
    • Use different types of mood meters to address how students are feeling, socially/emotionally on different days.
  • 3-ACT TASKS:
    • When showing an image and you want students to think of a story to describe what may have happened, have them use the chat.  Call out students names and highlight stories as they go.
    • Have students use the @ button to reply to comment on others’ stories in the chat.
  • ZOOM:
    • Use a sand timer when putting students into breakout rooms.  Show them the timer and say you’ll flip it when you click to have them zapped into breakout rooms and will call them back when the sand runs out.  Use the sand timer for short ‘turn and talk’ type situations.
    • Connecting a document camera means you can have a permanent writing surface without having to rely on Apple Pencil/iPad.
    • If you can get physical white boards into kids’ homes, they can show work and hold it up to camera.  Very easy to see it.  Trying to see kids’ written work on paper over the camera is nearly impossible.
    • Berkeley Everett’s web site Math Visuals  is a great one for Zoom-led number talks.
    • Kids on Chromebooks cannot rename themselves, so be ready to do this as the teacher/host when a kid’s Zoom name isn’t their real name (as often happens when signing in on a family member’s device).  Host can change a students’ screen name by going to participants->More
    • All students (and teacher) can add pronouns to their name by going into Zoom settings and editing their Profile.  Your pronouns will then permanently show up on any Zoom session alongside your name.
    • “Leave Computer Audio” turns off all Zoom audio.  Great to use when you are giving quiet work time to kids while they are on Zoom.  A kid can turn that on when they want quiet work time and off when they want to come back onto audio to ask teacher a question.  But that way, others won’t have to listen to the questions.  It’s found by clicking the arrow next to the microphone/audio button.
    • In breakout room settings you can set it to have a countdown timer broadcast into the screen in breakout rooms so participants always know how much time is left.

I hope these tips are as helpful to you as they were to me.  I wish I had time to write up a full summary of all 11 presentations, but this is the best I can do for now.  Our math institute was far more powerful than a list of bullet points.  There were several times when teachers were brought to tears by the incredible depth of diverse knowledge and strengths among our team.  We learn SO MUCH from one another and have such profound respect for one another.  Our teaching styles and strengths differ from one another, yet we also have so much in common.

And a huge thanks to Geeta Makhija, who wrote this year’s grant and didn’t let me walk away at times this spring when I wasn’t sure I could hang on to the work any longer.  Her unrelenting confidence in our ability to make this dream a reality in the midst of all the uncertainty about this coming school year (and us both having very young kids at home) is something I will always be grateful for.   The Berkeley Unified School District’s Middle School Math team is truly remarkable.








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