Building the Bike While Learning How to Ride It — Lessons in Distance Learning…and Running With It
Yesterday, I celebrated two (or is it three? I can no longer remember) weeks of distance/remote/online learning by crawling into bed at 4pm, defeated and deflated. As I pulled back the covers, I was a little surprised to find my two year old snuggled somewhere in the middle of it all. We had put her down for a nap three(!) hours prior, shut the bedroom door (that all four of us share), and heard her belt out Frozen songs at the top of her lungs for hours through any possible gap between doors and floors. At some point she finally knocked herself out, apparently in our bed, and turned out to be the best possible bed heater I could’ve asked for. I stared at her adorable, squishy face for too long thinking about nothing else before I remembered that I came with the same goal to 𝚜̷𝚒̷𝚗̷𝚐̷ ̷𝙵̷𝚛̷𝚘̷𝚣̷𝚎̷𝚗̷ ̷𝚜̷𝚘̷𝚗̷𝚐̷𝚜̷ temporarily check out from life.
To get us up to speed, let’s do a quick recap of the beginning of the end. March began, and I had just transitioned out of a long-term job and had taken a short but intense admin role at an all boys independent middle school to cover for someone out on maternity leave. The timing worked in a way that I looked at this short stint as the perfect segue way to move from years of non-profit education work in low-income, under resourced, struggling Oakland public schools in a broken district and system to a single school with a contract that had both a beginning AND end date to switching careers toward a brand new design job (another story for another time). Easy, I thought. I knew the head of school, was familiar with the school community already, actually missed being in a school everyday (but didn’t want to teach again!), and there were LESS THAN 100 students at this school. So…
Our understanding of it early on was poor at best. Kind of like this:
But then quickly, as if overnight, it was more like this:
And there we were, all running straight home, locking the doors, and locking ourselves in. At our school, we packed all our things with no idea when we’d return (I sure hope someone cleaned out the fridge as I surely did not), and same for both of my daughters. The grossest corners of the cubbies were cleared out, supplies were bagged up, and it was time for quarantine to begin.
At home, the beginning of it all was a hot mess: establishing new norms for our family of four in a 900ft one bedroom apartment with a 2 and 7 year old with two parent school administrators who aside from their family priorities had a job to shift their schools into distance learning as quickly as possible. It was the perfect storm of chaos (with no control), household disasters, and the serious need for a sense of humor as the world was crashing down on us, fast.
At work, which was now also at home, we knew a few things leading up to the increasingly impending school shutdown: we couldn’t spend a lot of time while our school was open to prepare for an if/when situation. Simply put, when our school was to shut down, we would take two days as a staff to strategize, work our asses off, then launch.
Let’s be real: two days is not enough time to take into all the considerations for the myriad of needs that show up in very different ways with distance learning- technology access and tools, taking into account the range of different learning needs, and the unique circumstances happening in everyone’s home just to name a few. If equity was hard to achieve before, how were we to do it now? We were designing in the dark and every day without school was another day for anxiety to build for our students and families in such dire and uncertain terms. The desire to return to school and ‘business as usual’ had never been more needed for our school community. We all needed some relic of our past as we stepped into an unknown future.
Lesson 1: Do Something. Anything. Anything is better than nothing.
We could have gone back and forth much longer deciding between the pros/cons of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning, how much is too much, how little is too little…or… we could just launch, expect some kind of shit show, and use that learning to our advantage. We took a deep breath and chose the latter.
In the best of ways, school became…school. Students showed up in all the ways that they do — annoying their teachers on Zoom by abusing every function while forcing teachers to become Zoom experts faster than they comfortably would have. They turned their work in on Google Classroom — some on time, others late, much of it to no surprise. And like usual, no human could seem to get PowerSchool to work.
I re-opened the Student Life Office as a casual Zoom room where students could show up with the virtual background they had been wanting to show off with all day, not have their mic shut off, draw on the screen, and be their usual selves, even in 2D. This quick return to some normalcy that teetered on underwhelming had never been so valued and appreciated before. It was almost a relief when we had to have some hard conversations with students about discipline issues — like in some ways, it was an indicator that we were on some kind of track that was more right than wrong when we could see our students show up in ways that were not that indifferent to how we already knew them.
Lesson 2: Ask for feedback and iterate rapidly.
At the end of the first week of distance learning (something we collectively had zero experience in designing), we sent out a feedback form asking our community to evaluate us on…nearly everything. This would surely go well.
Surprisingly, while there was surely well-deserved critical feedback, overwhelmingly the tone was positive. And ENCOURAGING. Parents telling us that simply by doing something, we were doing the right thing. Their students felt supported, and in turn, the adults did too.
One thing was also clear: despite our best efforts, we were not, and will not, ever be able to please everyone.
When asked about the workload, the response was almost equally threefold: too much, not enough, and juuuuust right. And this — this was ok! By getting feedback, we were able to identify trends and patterns and hear directly from the people who mattered to us most. It was up to us to adapt to this new, immediate knowledge. We had asked so much of our students in such a short amount of time, and now it was up to us to demonstrate that we too were able to be responsive to their needs while recognizing the sheer constraints and the opportunity moments within all of it.
Some of the big decisions at this point in time were tricky — do we simply move forward with some very imperfect, albeit working tools (like the daily punchlist, and endless scrolling google doc of each student’s daily class/assignment structure) since students already had a week’s familiarity with it, or do we completely redesign it, meaning yet another learning curve, along with the dreaded possibility of…what if the new tool was worse than the first one?
With no choice but to move forward, we ultimately decided to use the existing tool for one more week as-is since it was the last week before spring break, while continuing to crowdsource feedback from the staff for the new tool. The new version of the punchlist would be polished internally over spring break, and launched to students fresh upon their return.
And since home was work and work was home, I also had to tune into my own child’s needs for support (wait, I actually have two). She too, had a daily punchlist of first grade learning things that was thoughtful and in short, simply…too much. An experiential designer for education I was, but a homeschooler I was not. I actually sucked at it! Between us two parents, we had to get very creative trying to actually work from home, and had to be physically far apart enough from each other so our Zoom meetings wouldn’t sound pollute. Virtual backgrounds really were invented for a reason.
Having this tandem experience in distance learning with two very different lenses was a priceless goldmine into some real deal user experience research that could inform on both ends how we made critical design decisions, but in reality, I was starting to feel cross-eyed and overwhelmed at the sheer intensity of it all and could no longer tell what was a ‘must do’ and what was an ‘above and beyond’ ask. If we could not fully sift this out ourselves, how do we ask this of our students?
Lesson 3: It’s a Marathon…Just at a Sprint’s Pace
While it certainly feels like all the decisions must.be.made.now, in reality, like all things, there’s prioritizing and pacing that is essential in order for everyone to succeed. After week one, it was clear that the staff and students were on Zoom overload, but it was also very unclear what other options there were, if any. The staff needed Zoom in order to be together, talk about our experiences, challenges, and strategies while students needed real-time Zoom connection moments in classes, office hours, student support hours, parent meetings, all while realizing that one Zoom minute equals 5x real life minutes…see what I mean when I talk about the pain of Zoom overload?
As the hours stretched into days and the days now into weeks, one release I’ve gotten in all of this is sanity saving running, outdoors, near no one, for as long as I possibly can. Through this, I’ve gotten to learn more about my habits and motivations as a runner and learned to tune into an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) generally in the range of 3–7 on any given run. 3 is considered moderate while 7 is very heavy, so you can imagine what the ratings are outside of those numbers.
What I’ve learned is, all of this is perceived based on how I’m feeling, and that there’s no one to judge and decide that but me. During the course of a run, I am making constant micro adjustments and decisions about what RPE I want to be expending on my run. Through these runs I’ve found that when I stay within that 3–7 range, I can run longer distances for longer periods of time with less chance of injury or soreness afterwards. Once I started dialing into that intentionally, I found running to be something I looked forward to simply as a thing to do, to be with my mind (but not for too long!), and to be doing it at a pace where I could be challenged but not so much that I was no longer able to carry on with myself afterwards. In fact, once I adjusted my running, I found out that I had more energy after my runs. This RPE biz was teaching me something!
Most importantly, I learned not to overexert myself at the start. This has long been my biggest achilles heel in enjoying distance running, and it’s only now as I’m writing this how I’m able to come together and connect this metaphor between understanding my RPE as a runner and my RPE as a team member in a distance learning design sprint who got a school running after two days and found myself crawling into bed at 4pm on a Friday.
Now that spring break is here, we can use this time to be family and health focused, go offline (so to speak) for a moment, take a much needed deep breath, and simply take a break.
As we continue to redefine our parameters as a school, we will be constantly revisiting these lessons. We will have to continue to launch the things before we are ready. Internally, I will continue to challenge my inner Bluth mindset and ongoing self-narrative of constant failure in work and parenting and try remember to have second lunch ready for my kids before they ask (pro tip: just make one big ass lunch and set half aside).
As a school, we’ll continue to learn from the feedback and make decisions accordingly. There will be ouch moments, and there will be wins! We’ll learn from our mistakes and figure out when to make those turns around the bend(s), shift gears, and recalibrate. We’ll do our best to collectively settle into an RPE that helps us work best together while supporting our students at the center.
As an empathetic educator and parent thinking about all the kids stuck at home out there (oh yeah, and mine too), trying to do some version of homeschooling, I leave you with this: