Thursday, March 26, 2020

New Normal 2020: Staying connected

Although I occasionally demonstrate some introverted tendencies, I am an extrovert. I need social interaction to refuel/recharge. I enjoy spending time with people and getting out helps me do that. In our "new normal," obviously, that is not happening. One by one, things dropped off my calendar. A significant one: A roadtrip with a friend to a conference in Palm Springs looked possible. The annual CUE Conference brings so much time with and around people. I feel connected and spend time in my element. I learn. I grow. The first year I attended, I went by myself and I knew no one. This would have been my seventh consecutive year attending. I knew it was for the best that it transition to a virtual format. I am both nervous and excited about presenting in the virtual format.


I had only heard of Zoom before last week. Then, Zoom became a part of daily life for people worldwide. Now even my moms' group has scheduled a virtual meet-up using Zoom. I have enjoyed nightly Zoom gatherings with the #midnightpedagogy crew.  I do more listening than talking as sometimes my connection gets wonky at night. I have yet to pinpoint exactly what keeps happening, but I will figure it out. Connor has even shared his Snowball microphone with me for these. I will eventually get down to the storage unit to grab a few things, including one of my microphones. At this point, though, I have successfully put off going to get the things on my list because the kids are staying engaged with what we have at home.

I have appreciated the opportunities to feel connected. These less formal gatherings also allow me to get to know
the platform better which will help when I present next week. I still need to fine-tune my presentation a bit. Some of the interactive pieces I built into it following last month's ETC! will not work the same. A little tweak here and redesign there should do it. Mostly, I hope it becomes a conversation and lesson sharing opportunity. Zoom allows for screen sharing which will be helpful, but I especially look forward to the face-to-face conversation.

Bonus: Zoom allows the host to set up breakout groups. AWESOME!

Class Dojo

Please stick with me here. I know a lot of people who have a strong dislike for Class Dojo. When used as an equivalent to a clip--chart to primarily focus on the behavior piece, there are mixed thoughts on its effectiveness and appropriateness. I am not getting into that here. What I have seen with Class Dojo the past several days is something incredible. Like me, my children need social interaction. They miss seeing their classmates and interacting with their teachers. They are both involved in scouts, as well. Naturally, as we continue to shelter-in-place all activities have ceased.

What their school has done with and through Dojo has helped bridge the gap right now. Their teachers start each day with a post and both teachers have included riddles and challenges. The kids love these! I appreciate that it gives us a good jumping off point each day. In addition, the principal and even the librarian have made schoolwide posts for the students. The students are engaged and feeling connected in an otherwise distant time. The other piece of this that I observed includes the different ways in which students can interact on their end. They can draw, share a picture, or write a post. These items that the student share on their end goes directly to the teacher. The teacher can then add it to the student's profile. That function allows the parent to see the student interaction. On the parent end, I have seen all of the riddle responses my two kids have offered as well as a few other pieces. Today, Kiera sent a message sharing how much she missed the humor in the classroom and her teacher. Her teacher responded with kindness. I had the opportunity to see the full interaction.

Some use Seesaw which is a great program, especially for primary level students. I like the schoolwide application of the Class Dojo functions and I appreciate the way my kids can interact with their teachers, the principal, and the librarian. And, I know they do as well. Class Dojo has certainly played a role in making this social isolation more tolerable for students.

Google Classroom

Teachers across the country have started using Google Classroom. Some had implemented it previously to one degree or another. Others have just turned on to all it can offer.

Students can interact with their teachers (and, if permitted, each other) through different features within Classroom. Teachers can push out assignments or challenges. Classroom offers the option of assigning points or leaving an assignment ungraded. Teachers can determine due dates. As different schools take different approaches to distance learning , Google Classroom offers some flexibility. I know a local high school has used it to push out assignments and even take attendance for classes while Connor's class has used it for different challenges. The ability to integrate other Google tools is important. Teachers can push out instructions in a "view only" manner or make a copy for each student in their class which allows the students to work within a Doc or other GSuite file. And, again, grading is optional. While some schools are holding students to a high bar including attendance, deadlines, and grading, others are allowing students to work at their own pace, read, explore, and engage daily challenges without worry of grades and grading. My favorite part of Google Classroom both as a parent and as a teacher is its flexibility and ease of use.

Now that Classroom is available to the "outside world," I have actually set up an "At-Home Learning" class for my two kids at home. If they run out of things to do from their teachers or the stacks (we have a card table set up with books, puzzle books, art supplies, etc.) then they can check the at-home classroom. I have posted resources and "assignments." I created to Padlets where they can share their learning and more. (I love the map option on Padlet! One I created for the kids asks them to find a "field trip" anywhere in the world and share it on the map.)

Bonus: Assignments with due dates in Classroom automatically appear on your calendar. AWESOME!

Google Hangouts/Meet

I have appreciated Google Hangouts for a long time. I use it with my kids when I'm traveling. Again, face-to-face interaction (even remotely) is important to the three of us. I have helped my kids with homework while sitting in a hotel room a hundred miles from home because Google Hangouts allowed us the opportunity. It has changed some over the years, but still is one of our favorite tools. The kids use it with other family members as well. Recently, I have used Hangouts to check in with a student I tutor. His teachers also use it for some of their class sessions during this time over remote/distance learning. Other teachers use Google Meet. Google Meet is a little more limited in what you can do if you are not part of an organization. For example, someone in a G-Suite school can start a Meet while someone with a regular/standard Gmail address cannot. A few years ago, when we first started our idea of podcasting, we used Google Hangouts and recorded. That option is no longer available, but someone conducting a Google Meet can record the session, share it Classroom, and students can come back and watch the video if they missed the original session or rewatch if needed.

Messenger Kids

This is personal. This is important. We function not just within our family, but within a "framily." My best friend from 8th grade is still my best friend today. In November, we will celebrate 30 years of friendship. She is a sister, not by blood but by circumstance. We have had our ups and downs. We have seen each other through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I am a part of a moms group that I joined when I was pregnant with Connor. Now, more than 13 years later, we are like a family. We started on iVillage back in 2006 and moved to Facebook a couple of years later. In fact, that is why I moved from Myspace to Facebook. (Yeah, I know.)

I have connected with college friends on Facebook. And, their children as well. My kids have pen pals because of my Facebook connections. When Messenger Kids launched, I gave it some thought, but kept setting it aside.

Then, I received notice that my niece and nephew were on it around the same time a friend asked me about connecting our kids. Suddenly, it had to happen. So, it did. Messenger Kids has been a blessing during this time. My kids can communicate with their cousins, pen pals, and role models. One of my best friends from college has interacted with Kiera daily and it has proved to be a positive experience for both of them. And, they may not know how much they are helping the other. However, I must say that I can see it from both sides and it is incredible to see them love each other through difficult days.

What are some digital tools helping bridge the distance for you right now? Remember, we are all in this together. Some tools work better for some people than others. I know some people prefer Zoom to Meet and vice-versa. What tools are working best for you? For you kids? For your students?

Kicking it "old school"

I have seen a lot of teachers gathering together (separately in their own cars) and driving around the neighborhoods around their schools, like a parade. What a great way to let the kids know you're thinking about them! I know Connor has always appreciated when one of his former teachers passes by and gives a honk and a wave. Imagine having a whole parade of teachers! Well done, educators! Well done!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Kitchen Time with the EdTechFamily

We love to cook.

We always have.

We have a schedule that we created to start on Monday, March 23. The schedule includes meal prep time ahead of lunch and dinner, as well as a block of time in the morning for a walk and breakfast ahead of any contact with books or Chromebooks. I count cooking in the time set aside as "creative time," as well. So if the kids want to plan or prep for a meal during that time, that fits. Additionally, on Tuesday the 24th, Kiera used part of her creative time to mend one of Connor's shirts. "I'm the sewer," she declared. (She is far better at mending things than I am in large part because of the arthritis in my thumbs.)

Paving the Way in the Kitchen

I have always included the kids in the kitchen. From a young age, Connor has done well with things such as pork roast in the slow cooker. I have a picture from 2011 with Kiera in the backpack on my back as Connor and I prepared dinner one spring evening. She was not even one-year-old, but she helping right along as a ten-month-old could.

Each summer, we spend some time with family at our Ranch near Santa Maria. During our time there, the kids team up with my aunt and uncle. This is one of the rare times we actually do "boys vs girls" and it lends itself to some fun. Sometimes, my youngest cousin participates as well. We always enjoy when our schedules sync up to allow this.  The teams then compete in what we call "Chopped: Ranch Edition." I make a list of items and do the grocery shopping. Then I put together bags (rather than baskets) for each team. The first year we did this, we had two kitchens. One was a very small kitchen in a trailer, but it allowed the teams to have their own space. Another year, they shared a kitchen and the stove had only two working burners. To say that they have operated under varying circumstances and successfully cooked interesting and delicious dishes would be an understatement.

They do well. I try to keep the ingredients somewhat tame, but interesting. My parents ultimately serve as the judges (hint: it always ends in a tie) and we all enjoy a meal together at the end. "Chopped: Ranch Edition" has helped my two learn a lot more about maneuvering around a kitchen and playing with flavors. Although Miss Kiera still has some picky eater tendencies, I have also seen her tastes grow by spending more time in the kitchen. Now if I could just get her back eating seafood.

New Normal 2020

As Spring 2020 neared, we had an international adventure where we spent all but one evening cooking meals at "home." One evening, Connor offered to cook dinner. He had minimal assistance, though I made myself available in a supporting role. He created a wonderful dinner that included sauteed chicken. The lefotver chicken was delicious cold the next day as part of our lunch. This evening in February showed me that he could do even more in the kitchen on his own now Supervision is a must, always. Still, he proved himself ready for more freedom in planning and cooking. From a small kitchen in a flat in Paris in early February to our "new normal" in mid-March, we have started exploring new ideas.

Before the shelter-in-place order came from Governor Gavin Newsom, we had a Pi Day adventure. We had to navigate the oven being out and we had planned pizza and pie, of course. So, we got creative. I found tips for making pizza in a cast iron skillet and the kids suggested making a no-bake pie. Perfect! We used a Pillsbury pizza dough, jarred sauce, and shredded cheese. We started by flattening the dough in a preheated iron skillet. After cooking the first side, we flipped it. The kids spread sauce then covered it with cheese. Each of the kids added their preferred toppings to the pizza (tomatoes and salami were top choices, giving us more circles!) and then I sprinkled a little more cheese on top. I covered the skillet to keep the heat in and cook the toppings. When the cheese had melted to the satisfaction of those who would eat it, I removed it from the heat, cut pieces and served it. The kids loved it! For the pie, we used Cool Whip, sweetened-condensed milk, and lemon juice for the filling. We picked up a couple of premade graham cracker pie crusts ahead of time. So, once we made the filling, we filled the two pie crusts and placed them in the refrigerator to chill while we made and ate the pizza. (I put a cheese board out for the adults.) When the pie was ready to serve, we all enjoyed it. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that I picked up additional supplies to make it again. We still have a lot of lemons left to use. So, we will make another batch, but we will also explore some other options for using our lemons.

No oven? No Problem

A few days later, my dad made a loaf of bread in the turkey roaster.

 I have always believed in "waste not, want not," but I have upped my game during this time as the grocery store is not real high on my list of places to visit. It has now been a week since my last grocery store trip and I have adjusted fairly well to this part of my new normal.

On Sunday evening, we found we still did not have an oven. I planned macaroni and cheese for dinner. No oven? No problem! I looked up recipes for making macaroni and cheese in the Instant Pot. I used them to follow some general guidelines and put together my own recipe. I used 16 ounces of elbow macaroni cooked in my Ninja Foodi with dry mustard, salt, and pepper. When it finished, I mixed in the additional ingredients:  a spoonful of sundried tomato cream cheese, shredded mozzarella, grated sharp cheddar, grated Swiss, and some finely grated Parmesan and about four ounces of evaporated milk. It was super cheesy and absolutely delicious. I heard great feedback from everyone in the household and that tells me it will become a part of my go-to recipes. I served it with streamed green beans and cherry Jell-O. Sunday felt like a good comfort food day. Miss Kiera had made the Jell-O previously and it hit the spot.

Using just four ounces of a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk, I sought ideas for what to do with the remaining milk. I have some ideas to keep in mind for future uses, but I went my own direction with it this morning.

Today, I made my first attempt at bacon gravy. I needed to add in some regular milk as well, but eventually it turned out ok. It resembled bacon pudding before my dad stepped in and properly thinned it out, but the flavor was good. This leads to a goal I am adding to my shelter-in-place time. I will get better at gravy making. In the meantime, I appreciated making gravy being a part of our science for the day. Connor took some video and is working on putting it all together as part of a science project for the day. We love Kitchen Chemistry and so I expect more of this to occur in the coming weeks. In fact, we're planning to make caramel sauce, compliments of a recipe my brother provided.

Let's Do This

Let me give you a glimpse behind the highlights reel.

Monday was our first fully scheduled day. I planned a lunch. As lunchtime grew nearer, Connor stepped up. Then stepped in. I set my lunch plan aside as Connor gathered ingredients for his quesadillas. He chopped onions and bell peppers. He prepped pans. Kiera emerged and offered to grate cheese. It was a perfect moment. Then, it happened. As Kiera grated cheese, the grater slipped from her hand and grated cheese flew across the kitchen. She apologized. I took a deep breath. I swept the cheese from the floor after she brushed grated cheese from my back.  I put the broom away and took another deep breath. As I returned to the kitchen, I small crash followed by an "OH NO! NOT AGAIN!" rang out. I cringed. And, in all honesty, I totally lost my cool. Grated cheese was all over the kitchen floor. I was sure our first day of this carefully crafted schedule would head south and never get back on course. This time, Kiera swept the cheese from the floor. She apologized profusely. Then returned to grating cheese. I stood by, sure that all the cheese in the house would eventually end up on the floor then in the trash can. Fortunately, everything went well from this point. Connor made individual "to-order" quesadillas for everyone in the house and they were delicious! I regained my cool and the day got back on track.

We will likely share some more kitchen adventures throughout this shelter-in-place time and beyond. We love to cook and create. We also take time to stop and enjoy the moment when we can. Tuesday afternoon included a special treat after our otherwise ordinary lunch of chicken fries and buttered corn. Stay tuned for more reflections on our adventures and learning during this time at home.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Reflections from a TeacherMom: New Normal

I don't have to tell you that we are in a new normal. You've read the news. You've experienced the changes in lifestyle. You have had calendared events cancelled and you have watched as students have made the transition from going to school every day to staying home. Every parent has suddenly become a homeschool parent and every teacher is navigating distance learning or some variation of it.

I will be using my blog to share some activity ideas and some of our own experiences. Our creative time here will include videography and podcasting, so we will share our creations as well.

But what I want to do right now is stop and reflect.

I am a die-hard baseball fan. Watching as first the season was to be postponed two weeks to then being postponed indefinitely was hard. I felt the lifestyle impacts greatly. I had baseball tickets, concert tickets, a conference to attend and tickets to see "Hamilton" all between now and the end of April. I had a similar line-up on the calendar for May and I am bracing myself for those erasing from my calendar as well. But, I am a grown-up. I can recognize the disappointment while simultaneously understanding the importance of these changes. I get it. I am a huge proponent of flattening the curve. I will do my part. Yes, I am disappointed. I even teared up when the start of baseball season became postponed indefinitely. However, I rebounded quickly. "I'll get some hot dogs and we can watch the DVDs of the 2012 World Series," I planned quietly to myself. (Let me know if you find any Nathan's hot dogs. I haven't found any yet.) But, my son is 12. He will turn 13 at the end of May. This is a very self-centered time. Not judging. Simply, acknowledging. My birthday is tomorrow. My birthday plans evolved, changed, and cancelled all within a matter of a couple of days. So, I ordered myself a gift and called it good.

My son, however, was struggling some. His concert with me last Thursday was postponed to October. He actually did ok. "At least it wasn't cancelled," he said eventually. Then his last basketball game was cancelled. He sunk. Then a run we were scheduled for on Saturday was cancelled. He sunk deeper. Then, the pancake breakfast he was scheduled to work was cancelled. He was sad, frustrated, angry. I could read it a mile away. He initially took it personally. "Why are they doing this to me?" As recently as this morning, when I mentioned the cancellation of something, he had a sarcastic tone. "Let me guess, the Coronavirus?!" So then the talk got really real. I had attempted to affirm his feelings while helping him understand before. We had talked about the fact that his perfect attendance may not be worth bringing this virus into our house (we share a home with my two parents and they CANNOT get exposed to this). Each time I thought he understood, a short time later, I realized he was still not quite getting it.

But, today, he got it. And it was less about "why are they doing this to me" and more about, "this sucks and I'm scared and I'm sad."

As we rolled into the parking lot this morning to drop off the kids for their last day of school, "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth came on the radio. I was struck immediately. I knew something they didn't. Based on the comments of California Goveror Gavin Newsom, I knew there was a chance this was their actual last day of the school year. And, with the shift our lives has been taking, I knew this could be their last, last day. But, also, suddenly everything became more real. There is so much unknown. I have spent time reassuring parents, fellow educators, and kids. I have immersed myself in helping. Now, it all struck me. It was heavy on my shoulders and in my eyes. Tears trickled down my cheeks as I helped the kids gather their things and as I reminded them what items they needed to bring home today. I hugged Connor, just a little tighter. "It's all going to be ok, mom," he said. He walked to class and I got in the car as the song continued. Now I was missing a friend who died last year, realizing how I was experiencing a bit of mourning for the schedule I've had to clear, and thoughts back to the kids and the unknown. The unknown. I sobbed. Sobbed.

I took my car in for an oil change today. All went well. Except, they checked EVERYTHING out. Turns out my $70 oil change would result in a very expensive shocks and tires need. I am full on in the "do not put anything off" camp right now. If my car needs a repair, it gets it. Turns out, in addition to not celebrating out with friends this year, my birthday gift is such an "adulting" moment. Shocks and tires. But, here's the moment where everything shifted. As I thought about it, I realized this was the way things were to be. Originally, I had been scheduled to drive to Palm Springs today. I probably would have checked the oil, topped it off, and waited to take it to my mechanic when I got home. Folks, my tires probably would not have survived the trip to Palm Springs and back as it turned out. And here, I started seeing things differently.

Are we frustrated? uncertain? overwhelmed? YES! All of this. But, there are silver linings. There are teachers doing what teachers do. There are late-night video chats. There are new learning opportunities. And, there are tires being fixed so that we can safely drive on to the next adventure. And, that is awesome. On my way back to get the kids, U2's "Beautiful Day" played and it caused me to step back and look. It really was a beautiful day. Gorgeous! Then I sang along with Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know." Then I cued up "Seasons of Love" from Rent for a sing-along with the kids.

I picked them up. They loaded into the car. Connor's teacher came up to his window before we pulled away. "I'm really going to miss you guys," she said. And at the moment a reality hit. Hard. Connor burst into tears.

I thought he didn't really get it. Turns out. He does. And it hurts.

The connections between teachers and students is so strong, so important. Everything I wrote up to now was the just setting the scene for that moment. A seventh grade boy burst into tears today because he did not want to leave school indefinitely. Ladies and gentlemen, we need to work together to get these kids through this. My kids will be fed. They will have great experiences and learning will happen. They have a schedule mapped out and a list of household responsibilities. They are already leaning into the new normal. However, what I can't give them is the drive to and from school. They will miss their friends and they will miss their teachers. They will do some Google Hangouts and other things, but this is still going to be hard. It was never about the basketball game or anything like that. It's all about the connection. Now imagine what it's like for the kids who do not have what my kids have.

Sending virtual hugs, peace, and love to all who read this. Do what you can to bridge the gap in this time. And look for the silver linings when you can. I promise you, they are there. They just may be harder to see sometimes.