Coffee Break - Distance Learning & Teacher Planning


It goes without saying that this past week was a new adventure for most parents, students and teachers. Shifting from typical classroom studies to distance learning was an adjustment for all involved. I applaud all parents and students who embraced the challenge and found a different rhythm, but I am especially impressed with the incredible teachers who made these lessons possible. I had the chance to interview one such superhero, Dr. Hannah Oldham (high school math teacher at Georgia's Sprayberry High School), regarding her experience, planning and overall approach to this new world of distance learning. Enjoy this peek into the life of a teacher throughout distance learning. Thank you to teachers across the country for all that you do! 

What was your initial thought when distance learning was initiated?

Well it was a whirlwind of a week. I have a doctorate in which I analyzed over 11,000 pieces of unique data, I teach senior level statistics, and I am the coordinator for our STEM scholar academy at our school so I am PASSIONATE about statistics and data. I have actually done a lesson on the spread of contagious virus EVERY YEAR for the past 7 years (I have seen the movie Contagion over 31 times), so it was kind of surreal having my lesson play out in front of me. On Monday and Tuesday, I actually altered my lesson plans to talk about how it was not that serious based on the data we had from the CDC and the WHO. We did regression models and percentages to compare R0 (r-Naughts) and CFR (Case-fatality rates) to previous outbreaks. Based on the math, there was not anything that made us think we should be worried about a disruption of life. What we can say with hindsight is that, even though our math was right, it was based off of under-reported data. So Wednesday we left school thinking "Hey, just make sure to wash hands, see you tomorrow." Wednesday we got an email at 4pm saying there was a confirmed case in our elementary school and then a few hours later the president made his address. So we came back to school Thursday realizing it might be our last day together for quite some time (turns out we still had Friday even though many many students did not come).

So with how fast everything changed it is amazing the power of teachers. In a mere 24 hours they figured out the most creative ways to handle moving to digital even though we had 100 billion questions. Because that is what teachers do. We get the job done. Rather than talking and making committees every teacher went, "OK, what am I already doing, what do I have access to? What do my students have access to?" Many teachers printed out a packet of material to give to students who did not have access to the internet or printers at home. The last time we saw our kids we had no idea if state testing was still going to take place so we didn't know if we and our students were going to be held responsible to prepare for a high stakes test at home. As of this week, the governor has said that all state tests and teacher evaluation programs are suspended.

My personal experience is that I am a digital teacher anyway. I have always had a digital presence. I post my notes and assignments to my calendar every day so when I heard we were going to make this jump, my students and I were reassured that, at least for us, we were already pretty well prepared for this.

What, if any, previous experience did you have with distance learning?

My masters program was online but it is not an ideal format for high school students, especially ones who are not used to the personal accountability required in online learning.

How do you plan differently for distance learning vs. classroom lessons?

I still am following my main plan. I create a packet for each unit and the students already had this when they left. I have been posting note videos each day depending on the page we are working on. I also post updates on the website for each day and send out a text on the Remind app. The Remind app is great! Students join the class and I can send out a text to the whole class at once. It uses a randomly generated number to send and receive texts so we can communicate on our phones without crossing that privacy mark. I have students text or email me screen shots of their work if they want feedback. Then I send them back a quick video or screen shot.

What are some challenges you've come across throughout this distance learning journey?

Running a daycare (reader note - Hannah has a 12-month old) and trying to teach is very difficult. I know many teachers are trying to use Zoom and MicrosoftTeams for conferencing. I think that is great. With a 12 month old, I cannot commit to a specific time during the day because 12 month olds do not choose when they are going to sit nicely and cooperate without singing and dancing and banging. We as teachers also have to realize that many families may only have one computer and now Mom, Dad, Kid 1 and Kid 2 are all trying to share the one family computer to all do their work. If teachers mandate a specific time for teleconferencing, even students WITH access, may struggle to meet this time. That is why I set up the channel so students can watch when they can.

Also, because I have seniors, many of them (who work at the grocery store) are picking up double shifts to help out the family with income. So they are working all day and do their school work at night.

What advice would you give parents as they support their students through distance learning?

Oh man, the teacher memes have been amazing through this. I like to read them as bedtime stories to myself. I think my favorite has been "After 1 hour and 11 minutes of homeschooling Teachers deserve to make 1 million dollars a week"

But really I would like to say, parents please be patient with us. Just like you are learning how to adjust to our current normal so are we. Also remember that while you are homeschooling one child, we are trying to homeschool 100 students at once, in different classes, along with their parents who want help understanding the material as well. OH and yeah, we are homeschooling our own children as well.

The best thing right now is kindness and communication. Be kind to your children and their educators and reach out to us! Just like we tell your students in class, if you don't know something raise your hand and ask! If you have a question about an assignment the teacher will GLADLY explain the details, but we don't know if you don't ask.

What advice would you give your fellow teachers as they embark on this distance learning journey?

Same as parents! Be kind and communicate. Also, don't let one negative nancy comment make you think you are not doing an amazing job. You are working so hard and having to adapt an entire career into something new overnight. Focus on the kids who are working digitally and do not lay awake about the students who refuse to log in. Help the kids who need you right now, you are the stability and normalcy that students need during this chaotic time.

What specific tools do you personally use for your distance learning?

  • Youtube channel
  • Screencastomatic (to make my videos)
  • Document camera (to write out my hand written notes)
  • Remind App
  • My Personal Website
  • Email
  • Office365 (every student in my district has access to our county onedrive storage. Students submit their work/projects/presentations in here and I can give immediate feedback and they can respond and make changes back. We have been using this all semester so my students are already well versed in working in the cloud)

How do you take attendance?

We have been instructed from the county to not take attendance. We are currently in the process of reaching out to EVERY student/family to make sure they have some access to the internet, and if not we are directing them towards companies that are offering free or reduced rates. Reaching out to a student body of over 1,700 with no notice has proven to be very difficult.

How do you grade?

We have been told that we are to not grade ANYTHING until further notice. We can assign material and we can give feedback but nothing is going in the gradebook.

How do you protect your personal time while balancing being available for students?

Well, my 12-month old, Miles, appears in many of my videos! The Remind app is great because when I am mommy-ing Miles and chasing him around the house, I can respond back to student questions on my phone and pull a lego out of a mouth at the same time. I actually respond to more emails outside of school time now than I did before. I'm answering questions and emails at 10 pm. Any student that is taking the time and effort to do distance learning, I want to show support for, so I respond.

How do you ensure collaboration, or are all assignments completed individually?

Like I mentioned above, we are not allowed to grade anything. But I do have students who have sent me screenshots of their work and I have responded back. We are also working on a unit long statistical research project that each student is working on individually anyway (we had started before schools shut down). They have to come up with a topic of research then design and survey to collect data and research it. All of these projects are on the cloud and are linked with their own account so I can see who edits and when.

What would the ideal distance-learner set-up look like? Any tips for helping the learner get the most out of this experience?

This is hard to answer because every teacher is doing a different method right now and every student is working through their own at home situations (becoming the full time baby-sitter to siblings, working extra shifts, sharing a computer etc.) So what I suggested to my students is, whatever your current situation is, carve out a set time every day that is school work. About 2 hours. During that time you work on your assignments. If possible try and make it the same time every day. It will help keep you on track and bring normalcy to the non-normal of our lives right now

What have you learned throughout this whole process?

Not that I didn't already know this but, teachers are incredible. If you give us the power to teach, we are going to find a way to do it. We all went to university for a ridiculous amount of years (and for a ridiculous amount of student debt) and we know what we are doing, so you can trust us to adapt to the situation and know how to teach. 

Dr. Hannah Oldham

  • B.A. History University of Georgia
  • B.S.Ed. Social Science Education University of Georgia
  • M.Ed. Masters of Education in Mathematics Georgia State University
  • Ed.D Doctorate of Education in Curriculum and Instruction Georgia State University
  • Certified Educator for 6-12 mathematics, History, and Curriculum and Instruction
  • STEM Scholar Academy Coordinator for Sprayberry high school
  • Facilitator of the Girls Who Code club (Which won an $10,000 GRANT to provide much needed laptops and software!)
  • 12 years of experience in high school mathematics., teaching in special education co-classrooms all the way up to Advanced Mathematical Decision making with seniors.