What you think you know

On Sunday I was coming back from the gym and listening to CBC Radio’s Sunday Magazine. They had Ed Yong, a science journalist on who spoke of umwelt – the environment that an animal can sense. Now, we know that dogs hear higher frequencies that we can’t hear and smell things that we’ll never catch (perhaps luckily). And a more icky example: the tick, who is blind, can only “see” in temperature and odour. It’s a fascinating half-hour listen: Link.

But for me as I was driving, I was making connections with the idea of umwelt and what teachers and administrators are capable of sensing. Okay, I had just finished report cards and also recently had a situation where administrators were acting blind to teachers’ concerns, so the idea was clearly fomenting. But umwelt now gave me a word to deal with what had been bothering me.

As a teacher, I can only know so much about a student’s progress — I’m definitely limited by time but also by what I hear, see and what I can remember (which is why things like this need to exist). There will be some things I just am unable to sense, whether by bias, or ignorance, or just the physical inability to notice (we know of the ring tone that only young people can hear.. but what about that mathematical conversation happening in the back corner of the classroom while we’re working with someone else at the whiteboard?). And this is the reason for triangulation — using multiple sources to try to get at what a student knows and doesn’t know, and why, and how, and when. We fall into the simple trap that because we have this particular set of evidence, that we know something. But there are whole other sets of evidence that we haven’t had access to (again, by dint of several things we both do and do not control). So umwelt is a call to differentiate, diversify and come down from our false sense of security that we know what a student’s mark, or progress, or potential truly is.

But it struck me that the administrators’ side was equally important — they rarely hear criticisms from teachers. Plenty of people are eager to support their ideas and give them praise, but it’s rare (at least at my school) to have people disagree with them, publicly. And so their umwelt is made up of only positive feedback for their decisions. When criticisms do surface, that should be the place to begin a conversation, rather than shut it down.

Hey, you just bought donuts!

So as a fund-raiser, my extracurricular sold Krispy Kreme donuts. To make things easier for me, I created a Microsoft Form that would track each sale — I didn’t want to have to read some kid’s scrawl from a paper form, or god-forbid, lose said form (that I would likely do more than the students).

But, of course, I wanted to confirm to the person that they had indeed purchased donuts from us. In comes Power Automate! And I had to show off, so I both emailed them and used a Teams Chat message. Here’s how:

Create your Microsoft Form as usual — be sure to capture their email address! In mine, I just snagged their Student Number or Staff ID and then added on “@myschool.com” when I was ready to send the message — it would be easier to just grab their emails. You can collect whatever else you want, including long pieces of text, and push that back to them.

Okay… Form Done!

Now, go to PowerAutomate. It’s an option in the Office365 Waffle — although if you’ve never used it you may have to click on ALL APPS.

Once there, you’re going to CREATE a new PowerAutomate Flow (a Flow is just a program — well, it’s simpler than that even, it’s just a recipe) and it’s going to be one that happens as a result of something else happening — i.e. when someone fills out your form, this Flow will kick-in. (You can also read about a timed-Flow in my earlier post here.)

Now, give it a name and indicate what has to happen — in our case, we want it to kick in when someone submits a new response to our Form. There are plenty of options — you may find one useful for a different purpose!

Okay, so the first step in our Flow is “something was added to our Form” — but we have to tell Flow what Form. Choose the Form you created (it knows all your Forms!).

We have to tell the Flow to read what the person submitted to the Form, so we Add A New Step called Read Response Details. This pulls that information in so it’s able to be used.

Click on +NewStep and it will ask you what you want to add — there are A LOT of options, and some are paid options (none I use!) but it’s easy to find things. Since we want to read our Forms results, I just type that I want FORMS and it only shows me things about Forms. We want Get Response Details so I click on that. It asks me for the Form Name again, and then for the ID of the new submission — HOW WOULD I KNOW THAT?!? Well, fortunately, Flow knows, so I click in the space and then click on the LIGHTNING BOLT that pops up and in the list, it will show you RESPONSE ID … click on that, and Bob’s your uncle!

These previous two steps are ALWAYS the same when working with a new Form submission. The first one is automatically created because we said we wanted to do something when the Form is triggered with a new submission, and then the second step is read the Form and stuff the results into “Response Details”.

Okay… we’ve got the data now… let’s use it to create an email and a chat (you can also just do one — both were overkill but I was showing off).

Click on +NewStep and this time, we want an Outlook option to send an email.

As you can see, there are a LOT of things you can do with Outlook — in my case, I choose to send an email (you’d have to scroll down in the list you see above to see SEND AN EMAIL (V2) that I chose.

NOTE: The first time you ever do this, Office may ask you to connect Outlook to your Flow account. This should be automatic (i.e. agree to every pop up).

Now, I fill in what is needed. The TO is filled in with the Student/Faculty ID that is from the Form. Click on the LIGHTNING BOLT icon that pops up when you click in the TO box and it will show you all the questions from your Form. In my case, I pick the Student/Faculty ID (because I had people filling in the Form for others buying donuts, I couldn’t use the Responder’s Email which would be the case normally).

I put in a Subject line and then I create basically a mail-merge document. In the Body of the email, I write an email and whenever I want content from my Form, I click on the LIGHTNING BOLT and then choose information from my Form. In my case, I want their name, how many dozen of donuts, and you can’t see it in the screenshot, but also the Notes were below my signature. Most times Notes were blank so I wanted them to stick out.

That’s it. Now, every time someone enters a response to your Form, they’ll get an email back.

Well, almost every time. If you use the Responder’s Email option, you’re likely safe, but because I used information that someone typed in, I did have two people mis-type and they didn’t get emails. (If I had done more work to struture my Form or clean my data, that wouldn’t have happened, but sometimes, spending more time doesn’t save time.)

Alright… now to do a Chat we do the same thing. Add a New Step and this time, search for TEAMS options. Choose POST A MESSAGE IN A CHAT OR CHANNEL. Again, if this is the first time you’ve ever used Flow, you might be asked to connect Teams with Flow; just agree to everything 🙂

I chose to Post as FlowBot (which is an automated Teams system) rather than myself because I didn’t want to get all the Chats showing up in my Teams — you may want to send them as yourself depending on your goals. And since this was an individual purchase, it went into Chat rather than a Teams Channel. (You might want to use a Teams Channel if your Form collected “Employee News” and you wanted to post the submission into your Employee News Teams Channel. Now, I know someone is saying “that’s a horrible idea; people will post stuff we don’t want” but you can add an 3rd person authorization step to your Flow to prevent that! It pauses the Flow until the 3rd person clicks yes in response to a question they get emailed/chatted!)

The Chat gets formed just like the email. I put the Recipient the same email address as the email and the Message is the same as the email body.

The first time you create a Flow, it take a long time but as with anything you get pretty quick at it — and the usefulness starts to increase. Plus people get the information they need when they need it!

Flow is part of the growth of citizen coding — allowing users to take power into their own hands to get things done that need doing. Grab some of that power for yourself! And if you need a hand, just holler!

Creating a OneNote Page in Flow

So yesterday I mentioned that from one Microsoft Form that our Peer Tutors fill out, I do a lot with the information posted (link). While the email that automatically gets sent about the peer tutoring session is useful to the Teacher and the student’s Advisor, as the co-administrator of the program, it’s the OneNote Page that’s useful to me, since it gives me an overall record of all the sessions that all the Tutors have run.

I was about to write “here’s the Flow piece” but that’s a lie. The OneNote Flow Connector has a bug that doesn’t show the “Title” portion of the OneNote Page after you write it!

To create a OneNote Page in Flow, you write HTML where the <TITLE> tag is the Name of the OneNote Page and the <BODY> is the text that appears on the Page. As you can see, my BODY just includes all the information from the Form. The missing <TITLE> tag still exists in the system but doesn’t get shown after you type it in the first time 🙁 I still works, because my OneNote Pages have the correct Page Name but it’s an irritant that it’s missing from the Flow as presented.

Now, when this Page is created, it’s stored in my own QuickNotes (everyone who has a Microsoft/Office account has a QuickNotes Notebook by default). At the moment, Flow doesn’t “see” a ClassNotebook. It can see regular OneNote Notebooks, but I’m a bit lazy here — if I had used another Notebook, I would have had to tell the Flow which Notebook & Section. QuickNotes is built into the Microsoft system, so it’s automatic. So then, after I get my mobile notification that a report has occurred, I flip over to the QuickNotes (my OneNote is always open) and I move the Page into the Peer Tutoring ClassNotebook, where each Tutor has a Section. That way I can see all the Tutors but they can only see theirs.

The other co-Adminstrator and I can now read through all the reports and give the Tutors feedback, first on how to write the report, and second on tips and techniques on how to be better Tutors based on what they’ve indicated happened and the results.

What I found interesting was that the Tutors have started to use these report Pages to build on to their next session by doing planning based on what they wrote on the last report! That’s awesome!

If you’re looking for a way to collect & collate anecdotal data from a Microsoft Form, consider using the OneNote connector. Yes, there’s that little organization hurdle with QuickNotes–>Other Notebook but it’s a minor bit.

Why not do everything?

So I was assigned the co-Leader of our Peer Tutoring Program at my school and, since I had nothing better to do, I set up a Flow to help collect, collate, distribute and store the information from the Program. After each session, the Tutor writes a short comment on the session and indicates the time/date and duration into a Microsoft Form. After that, the PowerAutomate “Flow” takes over.

One thing I like about Flow is that it’s really easy to quickly build a useful process to make things efficient AND it’s easy to Flowchart — the literal structure of the web-app sets it up and records what’s happening beautifully.

I’m going to dig into the aspects of the Flow over the next couple of days (and then move on to a larger one on a different project later) but I’m going to mention the last one today.

Why, Cal, would you want to get a mobile notification on your phone when a tutor sends in a tutor report? Well, because of one thing that Flow doesn’t do yet… Flow doesn’t “see” the ClassNotebook yet! And so the Page gets put in my QuickNotes file and I have to click-Move it into the correct Tutor’s Section in our ClassNotebook (each Tutor is encouraged to read over all their reports in advance of the next meeting to see what their next tutoring move is). So, Microsoft, if you’re listening, get on that!

Over the next few posts, I’ll go into each step to explain the hows and whys — and if you have any suggestions or feedback, please comment! The response from teachers has been favourable and it’s certainly been an efficient way of collecting and distributing a consistent flow of information to interested parties.

Accessibility gets easier

So November is NaNoWriMo – the month to write your novel. Well, I’m not doing that, but I’m endeavouring to write a blog post a (week)day this month just to get back in the habit.

One of the biggest pushes from Microsoft since has been Accessibility – making certain that Microsoft products don’t get in the way of those with challenges. Every product that goes out the door at Microsoft goes through the Accessibility department to find improvements.

For the user, something similar exists in Microsoft products — the Accessibility Checker.

How ubiquitous is the Accessibility Checker? It’s in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote … but it’s also in things like PowerApps (the quick-code option in Office).

For the Office Suite, it’s easy to find. In the REVIEW ribbon, click on CHECK ACCCESSIBILITY and then click on the Check Accessibility option.

It will go through the document/spreadsheet/powerpoint/page and link to every thing it finds that might make a reader stumble. In the example below, the “Hard to read text control” is where the author has used a light blue text to set the text apart — but the AC is right, it would be hard to read if you had poor vision.

A very common AC remark USED to be “Missing Alt Text” — when you have a picture in your document but, if the person is using a Screen Reader, they won’t get information about the picture unless you have the ALt Text. Fortunately, now Microsoft uses Bing Image Search (yes, everyone makes fun of Bing, but you’d be surprised how effective it is in the background of a lot of your apps) and it pulls in Alt Text automatically for you for your pictures. It should be on by default, but you can check by going to the Accessibility Options you see at the bottom of the AC menu (top pic above)

Of course, if you want to make the Alt Text of your image more precise, you can always do that by right-clicking the Image and choosing EDIT ALT TEXT.

If you’re interested in more Accessibility ideas, Microsoft has A LOT. In Canada, if you touch base with Fair Chance Learning http://www.fairchancelearning.com/ they have a great presentation for teachers on accessibility across Microsoft products, from Windows itself to the apps we use. I can’t recommend the session enough.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about increasing Accessibility is that it helps EVERYONE. And a lot of hidden accessibility issues get un-earthed when people find you’ve taken aspects into consideration. So, take a minute and click on the Checker and see where you could improve on your documents, presentations, spreadsheets & pages.

I shall find a way…

We are now forced to use Canvas (a web based LMS) for our courses. I won’t list the reasons why I dislike Canvas and think it’s a terrible thing for education generally but suffice it to say, it’s better for both me and my students to do our work in OneNote. So… how do I leverage OneNote and never have to visit Canvas? PowerAutomate (Flow) to the rescue!

PowerAutomate lets us take content from OneNote and “push” it into Canvas through a Canvas Office365 connector, and have it done automatically in the background so once you set up the “push”, it just repeats it on a schedule. It’s auto-magical!

To keep our students (and ourselves!) organized, we always used to have a daily Course Plan as the very first Page in our ClassNotebook. You can see examples here: Page One of your OneNote Class Notebook (continuousformation.blogspot.com) It’s quick & easy to keep things up to date. We’re going to take regular snapshots of this OneNote Page and make it visible in Canvas so that the administration-required Course Plan is available in Canvas.

Our first step is to make Canvas aware of Office365. To do that, we add an Office365 App — but first, we have to grab some security so that the two can talk to one another without anyone listening in.

Visit http://office365-iad-prod.instructure.com and you’ll get a button to generate the secret codes that will let the two talk. Leave that window open so that you can easily copy & paste into Canvas.

Now, let’s head off to Canvas and go into the course you want to push into (yes, you have to go to each course to add this connection… sigh. Canvas.)

Go into the Settings area for the course and click on the Apps heading.

In the Filter box, just type office and Office365 will show up. Click on the Office365 box and you’ll get a pop-up … which is where you’re going to copy & paste the information from the security window you left open (remember, you left it open?) Okay, now at least Canvas knows that Office365 exists.

Now, we’re going to go over to Office365 and create the information we’re going to push over. We’re going to ask PowerAutomate (what we used to call “Flow”) to look at our CoursePlan page (CP) in OneNote and save a snapshot that will be available to Canvas — and then repeat that every 6 hours or so and save it to Office365. Canvas will always see the most recent copy of the snapshot. Here goes!

Read through this first ... at the end, I'll give you a short cut to make this easier.

Head on over to http://office.com and log in with your school account. You’re looking for Power Automate so click on the Waffle (upper left corner) and see if it’s listed there. If not, click on ALL APPS and you should see it.

We’re going to create a Flow, so click on Create on the left-side and then the button Scheduled Cloud Flow. In the pop-up, give it a name and then schedule it for every 6 hours (or more depending on how many changes you think you’ll make during the day. I tend to put the course plan together and then make only minor changes in class.)

Once you click okay, you’ll notice you’ve already started the Flow! There’s a Recurrence box at the top. If you click on it to open, you’ll see the settings that you put in the previous screen.

Now we’re going to add the step where it grabs the OneNote Page. Click on NEW STEP and now we’re going to look for the OneNote (Business) collector (type OneNote in the search box) and then click on the Get Page Content option that appears in the box below (you might have to scroll down a bit). It may ask you to log in with your Office365 credentials, just to be sure.

Notice there are three boxes — which Notebook, which Section, which Page.

Fortunately, it’s smart … in the Notebook dropdown, pick which ClassNotebook you’re using and then the Section box will only contain the Sections from that ClassNotebook! Likewise, the Page box will only contain the Pages in that Section. So, make the right choices so that you can choose the CP Page in the last box.

Now, let’s add the step that makes the file that Canvas is going to show. Click on ADD STEP and then in the pop-up box, look for OneDrive for Business (yes, for Business… the OneDrive we use at school is business quality!) and then choose Create File as the action in the list that appears below.

Another 3 boxes to fill in! The first is where are you going to store your file? I usually just choose the first option you get when you click (called “The Root” or the top level of your folder) but you can drill down and pick another folder if you’d rather. You can quickly jump into your OneDrive and create one folder to hold all your Course Plans for all your courses if you’re really organized. (Okay, I did do that – you can see CanvasPublic in the screenshot; it keeps your OneDrive neater).

Then give it a name. Now, it doesn’t really matter what it’s called, but the students are going to see it, so I thought I’d call it something useful! And it has to end with “.html” I went with CoursePlanforMPM2D.html (MPM2D is the government’s code for Grade 10 Math).

Lastly, what is going to be in the file? We’re going to tell the Flow to go back and use the information from the previous step, so click on the lightning rod in the corner of the box – that brings up the “dynamic” content list – and choose BODY.

That’s it! When you run this Flow, it will snag the OneNote Page and save it in your OneDrive called that name (and overwrite the old version — but remember, OneDrive keeps previous versions so you can go back and look at your Course Plan over time!) and then it will repeat every six hours.

Phew! Last step! Let’s get Canvas to show our Page.

We have Office365 as an App, so whenever you’re editing content in Canvas, click on the APP button (it looks like an electrical plug) and choose Office365 and you’ll get your OneDrive.

Select your Course Plan file from your folder and click ATTACH and boom! There’s a link to your Course Plan. And that link is updated as soon as the Flow runs every 6 hours.

If you want to put it into one of your Modules, that works, too. You can click the + button and then choose EXTERNAL TOOL (why not keep the App name, Canvas?!?) and then choose Office365 and you’ll get your list of files and you can attach your Course Plan file as a Module item.

Now … that’s just ONE course. You get to connect the Office365 App, create a Flow to capture the OneNote and then make the link somewhere in Canvas to the file for THIS NEXT course. Now, I did make a Flow that does all five of my courses at once — the zip is here. You can import it by visiting PowerAutomate and clicking on IMPORT at the top and uploading the Zip file.

Using this five-courses-at-once Flow, you only have to connect the Office365 Apps to each of your courses and then make the links in each course to the correct file (notice in the 5-Flow you have to connect to the notebook, then give a filename for that course, and then a different notebook, different file name). If you have fewer course, you can delete a pair — if you have more, wow, my apologies, but you can add a pair just by following the steps above.

Caveat: When your password expires, you may get an email from Flow telling you that you need to re-connect things. Visit PowerAutomate and click the Fix Connection button and you’re done! PowerAutomate does keep track of every time things work or doesn’t work and will let you know if things aren’t working.

I shall either find a way, or make one. I’m so glad that Microsoft gives educators tools with which to make their lives easier. When impediments such as Canvas are placed in our way, it’s critical to find methods & routines that will minimize our stress and the demands on our time. And now that you’ve created one Flow, think of other places where you might want to automate things!

Respectful emails

Too often, I get emails in the evening and on weekends when I’m relaxing, working on a project or even doing school work but in a focused way. Now, if it’s a student question, well, I’m okay with that (to be honest, almost all student questions are now Teams Chat — kids don’t use email!) but colleagues and administration should have better knowledge of boundaries. Fortunately, Outlook now prompts your awareness.

When you go to type a message, Outlook now queries your recipients’ work hours (How do I set my own work hours?) and pops up above the message that you may be interrupting their down time.

When you click the DELAY SEND link in the pop-up, a pane opens to the left to let you determine when the message gets delivered:

And now the text above the message indicates when the message will be delivered.

Folks should be cognizant of when they send emails (and Teams Chat for that matter) but it’s nice to see Outlook helping to remind them of being respectful of their readers. For sure, you used to be able to do this manually (and still can) but it’s automatically prompted now and far easier to get to when it’s in your face.

Now this is on Outlook Current Channel as of this week — too often, though, IT departments delay roll out of changes to Office programs, so you may have to talk to them to make sure you’re on the right channel (your updates can be delayed by up to a year by IT!)

How do I set my own work hours?

Open Outlook and go to the FILE menu and choose OPTIONS down at the bottom. Then, click on CALENDAR on the list on the left.

You can set the hours on a weekly basis. I’m a little disappointed there isn’t more granularity given our present circumstances — or even a smarter version that looks at your Outlook to gauge your work hours on a refreshed-daily basis, but this is a good start.

Extra Help w/ Bookings

Given remote learning right now and students all around the world, I’m using Microsoft Bookings App to schedule student (online) math extra help. It’s an add-on that’s included with paid Office365, although you may have to convince your IT department to turn it on for you. (There are often a lot of apps that your school has actually paid for that your IT department either hasn’t turned on, or deliberately turned off!)

Bookings lets you set up time when you are free for Extra Help and lets the students (or parents) independently schedule a meeting with you during your specified free times (so you can say you’re open from 7-8pm for extra help, but if they want to book for 830, they can’t). And, if you already have a personal meeting in your Outlook, it will close that time from booking, too.

If you go to www.office.com and sign in with your school email, click in the Search box at the top of the screen and type bookings:

Microsoft Bookings icon is a style-ized “b”. If you don’t have the icon AND you can use the full version of Word, Excel, etc on your device from your school, then it’s very possible you can ask IT to turn it back on (Bookings is not available on the free Education plan, where you don’t get the full versions of Word, etc). There is no added cost to Bookings, and you are already paying for it if it’s there.

It is primarily made for businesses (picture “pet grooming” or “personal trainer”) so some of the language is a little non-academic.

You’re going to set up a NEW business … be sure to put your Name into the business name as this will be used in the Outlook appointments that get pushed out to both the student’s calendar and yours.

You could set this up on a Department or School basis (if not too large). You can then put all your staff in and students would have a one-stop-shop to arranging extra help.

First we’re going to set up our Bookings Page (where your students/parents will visit to book you).

A few pointers:

If you are going to include parents, do NOT click the “must have Office account from my organization” because then your parents can’t book. If you only want students, or if it’s peer tutoring, then you definitely want to have this option active (to avoid random strangers booking your students!)

Be sure to click “Send a Meeting Invite” so that your student gets a calendar entry in their calendar.

Pay attention to the very little “Set different availability for a date range” — this will let you remove Christmas or March Break from the calendar, or restrict booking to the weeks before/during Exams, say rather than all year.

The rest is up to you… I set it so they can’t book more than a week ahead of time, and they can’t book later than 2 hours before. You’ll figure out what works for you.

Save your changes!

Next, click on the STAFF option on the left side of the screen and then ADD STAFF:

Put in the teacher’s initials and then, in the box directly below the initials, use the lookup to find the teacher in your email system. I didn’t include a phone number and set myself up as Administrator — if you were doing Peer Tutoring with students, you’d set the students up as Viewers instead, so they couldn’t go in and play with the Staff information.

In the second column, set your general availability. Turn off “Business Hours” and then set up your weekly schedule — you’ll notice I’m free for math extra help on Mondays, Wednesday & Fridays from 7pm-8pm in my time zone. Remember — this is your GENERAL availability. If I accept an online Desmos PD and save the booking in my personal Outlook calendar on a particular Monday from 7:30-8:30, the Bookings app won’t let people book during that time on that Monday. So this space is your “maximum available hours” and you can still put aside your time by using your Outlook calendar to avoid anyone! And you can make any global changes here at any time and it will update automatically.

Be sure to hit the SAVE button at the top of the screen when done!

Now, set up the actual Service type (remember, pet groomer! Is it a big dog or a little dog or a cat?). In our case, there’s only Math Extra Help, but you could have them differentiate say, Essay Writing Workshop or Research Skills, if you’re an English teacher. Click on SERVICE on the left of the screen.

Be sure to click ONLINE MEETING so that you get a Teams Meeting set up for your appointment.

And I like having buffer time between meetings;, but that’s up to you.

And lastly, yes, set the price to Free! You could use this for a tutoring business but I’m sure your Department Head would want a cut.

Be sure to Save!

And then, get rid of the “Initial Consult” service that Microsoft has already provided. It’s only going to cause confusion.

Okay, we’re ready to go! Click on back to BOOKING PAGE and then click on OPEN PUBLISHED PAGE — this is what students/parents will see:

Notice it says ‘Select Staff” … in the dropdown, it only shows my name, since I’m the only staff. And at the very bottom, students who are remote and in a different time zone and change the time zone to see what my availability is in their time zone.

When they choose a time, they get an email (and a calendar invite, if you clicked on it) and you get an email and it automatically goes into your calendar as a booking, with the link to the Teams Meeting included! And, if you chose the option, the student/parent will get an email reminder in advance of the meeting to nudge them.

Let me know if this was useful. It’s a handy add-on that might prove effective.

That which doesn’t kill you…

And it’s done.

I wanted to make sure I wrote this as soon as I could, because as time passes, things will look differently.

This has been the worst academic year in my 25+ year career. People would ask “How are you doing?” and my response would always be “Well, it’s a pandemic, you know…”

The school moved to semesters, and I was given three different courses (as well as a weekly club and in November, a 3x week extracurricular and. new this year, weekly lunch duty). We had three cohorts (two who flipped day-by-day and a third remote-only, the latter which grew and shrank on a daily basis as students & parents chose to be remote-only or not) and taught the same schedule each day. The latter meant that my Grade 11 class had last period every day, and you could tell; many of them had phys-ed third period, which meant they came in tired already.

The physical arrangements, from a medical perspective, were excellent — there was plexiglass and tape delimiting student & teacher areas. There were anti-viral wipes every class, beginning and end (I introduced my Grade 11s to worker-health-and-safety as we worked our way through the official Material Safety Data Sheet for those wipes after there was a conspiracy theory that they were bleaching people’s clothes. They were not.) Although my classes were some of the largest I’ve ever had, less than half were in the physical classroom at any time so they were well-distributed with set-in-concrete seating plans. There were only 6 reported cases at my school over the 4 month period so we appeared to avoid symptomatic spread. There was a daily screening of everybody before they arrived at school (which had its own personal information & privacy issues, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The department office was problematic; it had little ventilation, the door was often closed and the room overly warm (for my preference) so during my prep period I tended to work in my car.

As a school, we were well prepared technologically for this hybrid simultaneous remote-F2F teaching — with everything in OneNote and everyone having a Surface device — digital ink meant we didn’t have to worry about paper or pictures or PDFs — the content and student work was easily created and distributed. However, the process of teaching and learning was, well, problematic. Everything hybrid (juggling F2F & remote simultaneously) meant everything took twice as long to prepare for, to do, and to assess. Just taking attendance was a constant struggle. (“Oh, Tim, you’re now remote only?”, “Jane, you came online 10 minutes late, that’s why your parents got an email, sorry, we were discussing a problem and didn’t see you come online after I did attendance…” etc)

There was no time, and little energy. I would come home and work for 3-4 hours and then try to get some exercise, fall in bed and repeat the next day. I would reach Thursday and I would be out of energy; I remember putting my feet on the floor coming out of bed Friday mornings and praying that I’d find the strength to make it through the day. Three preps meant a lot of work trying to find ways for students to develop understanding that were completely different than what I’d spend 3 decades thinking deeply about. Friday nights and Saturdays I mostly slept and took care of home things, and then Sunday afternoon & evenings were for prep. Feedback to students was minimal compared to a regular year; there was no time to engage a lot with their work.

I used a lot of self-checking materials to help students. DeltaMath and Desmos activities, and OneNote/Microsoft Whiteboard content that gave them feedback on their work as they did it helped to make up for the lack of my own feedback. When I think of how much feedback they would get when working up on whiteboards in a regular class… Breakout rooms and Microsoft Whiteboard/OneNote, as best-of-alternatives still don’t compare to groupwork on a whiteboard.

My students were incredible — they worked very hard (okay, there’s always a distribution on effort and some kids were on the opposite tail) and kept their positivity up through most of it — okay, that’s a bit of rose-coloured glasses. There were tears and students were often challenged by all the stresses they had to encounter. But we got through it, mostly. In particular, my grade 9 and 10 classes impressed me with their participation — for coming new into the school, the grade 9 students were a complete surprise. Compared to last year, I was working with twice the number of Grade 9 and I really enjoyed learning with them.

One thing I did do was encouraged students to ask questions any time — using Teams Chat they would message me after class and I wanted to make sure they stayed connected with the class and the content when it worked for them. Students who took advantage of it did very well (students who never asked a question for the most part did not). It did mean a lot of interruptions throughout the evening & weekend but given the dis-connected construction of the classroom, I felt it was important and necessary. Since we have to book our gym time ahead, I would often be at the gym in the evenings, swiping furiously on my phone answering student questions in the evening as students asked about quadratic word problems, or equations of lines.

I seldom saw any of my colleagues and any kind of pedagogical discussion was limited to brief discussions of tests and pacing. There was no time and little energy to expend. For some reason, my school decided to dedicate a week to “Imagining the School of the Future” or something like that — I hid the Team and deleted the emails. I was barely keeping going day-to-day and the thought of giving a meaningful response to such a deep question was just overwhelming. The school also decided to implement a new LMS and a new student information system in September, which meant entering the same information into three different systems until we managed to work out something more reasonable. There were times I questioned the tone-deafness of emails sent down from above but I tried to ignore them and keep going. Whenever any head or director asked how things were going, I always replied “I’m struggling” and they seemed okay with that response.

I worried a lot about my colleagues. There was only me at home but folks with kids had to juggle everything with them, too, along with the academic responsibilities. We had a new colleague join us and the ramping up was painful to watch on her. And then when their kids would get sick and they would have to stay home — which meant that the teacher had to teach from home, look after the kid and keep up with everything else, too. (I pulled my back one weekend and had to teach from home one day — it ended up more work than rest and so I just went to school the next day and suffered through it). I could at least collapse into bed and not worry about anybody else; they had to make sure their kids were safe, secure and happy.

I was absent on Twitter and Facebook and here blogging. There was no time and little energy. The worst night was when I was working on setting a test and I fell asleep at my desk — I woke up when my phone dinged with a student question. I remember writing up a problem situation and the next thing I knew I was sitting up in my chair with a start when the phone went off. (That said, I did fall asleep in my car during my prep a few times, too, but I had reclined my seat and set my alarm — there’s a difference between a nap and spontaneous sleeping.) I don’t know how I kept my emotions in check during the day but they certainly came out on the drive and in the privacy of my own home.

I saw my family once, at Canadian Thanksgiving in October. The concept of “bubble” was out the window once I started teaching so I kept away from my mom (elderly and immuno-comprimised) except for that one patio-dinner at a restaurant. Christmas is still in question, since we’ll only have a week between my last day teaching and the 25th; I’m not sure how comfortable I feel. As a single person, the house gets quiet and lonely even with all the technological access to the outside world. Alexa has turned out to be the conversation I often need.

I will look back at this like all the challenging episodes in life and both learn from it, forget much of it and remember the successes. We finished yesterday at 4 and I went to bed at 9 and have had a good night’s sleep and the future looks brighter. There are vaccines on the way, I only have 1 prep for two courses next semester, and I lived through this. I didn’t die, and that is a pleasant surprise.

I recognize that my situation was challenging from my perspective. I had enough food to eat (too much, in fact; it’s a way of coping). I had my job, so there was money. I never got sick. Believe me, I count my blessings every day, too.

Dominos – a self-checking activity

So if I were a trendy “influencer” I’d call this app-smashing — but instead I’ll just say here’s a cool way to use PowerPoint to make a self-checking activity for almost any subject area’s content knowledge (although in this case, there’s a little mathematical skill involved, too). My colleagues Thao and Seane were kind enough to do all the questions for me in this example for math review.

The students get a pile of dominos in their Microsoft Whiteboard, with an answer on the right and the question on the left and they re-arrange them into a square (or a line or whatever). They’ll know they’re right because every domino matches up!

So you start out in PowerPoint – you can use the template here and copy/paste or write your own questions on the slides:

On each slide, put a question on the right and the answer to the previous slide on the left. Now I did find it handy to create all the questions and answers on the same slide first — this let me re-arrange the questions into a reasonable pattern, as I didn’t want two Pythagorean questions side-by-side, but that’s up to you. Then, when I was ready, I shifted all the answers down one slide and moved the last one to the first slide. What’s nice is you can include text or images or graphs as necessary! Nothing interactive, though (yet).

Now, the template above I’ve set so that if you go to Layout, you get a nice mix of colours so your dominos will look more interesting than the mono-chromatic example above, but that’s up to you!

So add questions and slides until you’re done! If you want them to form a square, you’ll want 16, 25 or 36 slides, but you can also give them an early clue and have a START and END slide so they can just do it in a line. I also did an example where it formed an icosagon (20 sided figure — you can read about it here) but I was overly zealous and no one is going to be that foolish again.)

So, now you’ve got all your slides done! We need to make them into dominos. We’ll use a seldom-realized feature of PowerPoint — save the slides as JPGs! Click on FILE and then EXPORT and choose JPGs

It will pop asking you where — pick a spot you’ll remember. It will create a folder with the same name as your PowerPoint File and then put a copy of all the slides as JPGs.

Okay … ready to make the Whiteboard! Head on over to the Microsoft Whiteboard program and create a new Whiteboard.

Go to your folder and CTRL-A every JPG file and then CTRL-C to copy them all into the clipboard at once. Click into your Whiteboard and CTRL-V paste… boom! All your jpgs are now free-floating dominos! You can drag and drop and rotate wherever you want!

Now, you likely want to create a few Whiteboards, one for each group or students, but it’s as easy as CTRL-V paste the dominos into each Whiteboard and then using the People icon in Whiteboard to create a sharing link or to post on Teams.

This was a fun review activity to work in trios inside a Teams Channel meeting for our Grade 9s, and as I mentioned, I created a more intricate one for my Grade 10s earlier (link here).