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Our Journey through Online School

All schools in Hong Kong are currently suspended until April 20, 2020, but that does not stop our students from learning. Teachers use apps like Zoom not only for direct instruction but to run Socratic Seminars or fishbowl discussions virtually. The observers are paired with a specific student that is speaking. Halfway through the discussion, students are separated into their pairs via the “breakout room” function, allowing the observer to offer important formative feedback based on established criteria. Shyer students can use the “nonverbal cues” like “raise hand” to indicate they want to add to the discussion without feeling like they have to interrupt, and the optional chat box provides the possibility for a back channel for questions, comments, announcements, and even humor to build classroom community.

This is just one of the ways in which educators at the American International School (AIS) of Hong Kong inspire and empower Online Learning experiences during extended school closures and suspensions.

The Closure of Schools due to the Coronavirus

While AIS was away on its Chinese New Year holiday from January 24 to February 2, the Hong Kong Education Bureau (EDB) announced that due to the increased number of confirmed and suspected Novel Coronavirus infection cases, the Chinese New Year holiday would be extended to February 17. As the end of Chinese New Year approached, the HK EDB reassessed the situation and pushed the return date back to March 2, then March 16, and most recently until April 20. What originally began as a two week temporary virtual substitution to teaching transformed into the reality of Online School.

Online School Policies Established by the Leadership Team

AIS Leadership Team: Anita Simpson (@asimpsonEDU), Head of School; Mike Wing (@wing_mwing), HS Principal; Zachary Post (@zpostedu), MS Principal; Cami Okubo (@CamiOkubo), ES Principal; Dave Han (@mrdavehan), ES Assistant Principal

In response to the HK EDB’s announcements, AIS’s Leadership Team (LT) meets regularly to develop clear policies for Online School. The LT was intentional about keeping equity and AIS’s Core Values at the center of all decision making.

One of our Core Values is “love” and so the LT created a Padlet to share gratitudes online, a ritual held during onsite faculty meetings in order to celebrate the successes of Online School. Faculty meetings are also held via Zoom during normal meeting times.

After two weeks of data from teacher, student, and family surveys, three central themes emerged which included the need for:

  • Standardization of methods, tools and applications
  • Clarity and simplicity of instructions
  • Connections and contact time with teachers

With that feedback, the AIS LT developed a consistent but differentiated Online School schedule. This consistency allowed all educators to work within a framework that was vertically aligned while still malleable enough for educators to teach in their own creative and innovative ways.

Online Learning Toolbox

Contributed by Matt Wise (@wisemrmatt), Ed Tech Coordinator

To facilitate clarity and simplicity of instruction as well as connections and contact time with teachers, the Ed Tech Coordinator developed an Online Learning Toolbox that offers a plethora of suggested apps, instructions for set-up and use, and legal considerations.  By gathering common tools, support videos, requirements and advice into a single area, AIS was able to effectively manage rollout and training in new tools in a short time with widespread adoption and expertise. Selecting a single “recommended” tool in each area of need such as screen recording, collaborating with colleagues, meeting with students greatly simplified and streamlined training and adoption of tools, and facilitated greater collaboration and peer support in learning the new tools required.  Key tools selected initially were Zoom for video conferencing and Loom to support teachers with recording.

Hangouts Meet seemed like an obvious choice at first, however to meet our child protection policies, all meetings with students needed to be recorded, something that is only supported with a paid GSuite Enterprise for Education account (Google has since begun rolling out free access to premium hangouts video conferencing for educational institutions as of March).  AIS first explored the use of Zoom with free accounts, but later made the decision to roll out paid accounts for all teachers to remove limits on their time, greatly simplify configuration and standardization of required settings, and to support with tools and practices such as breakout rooms and co-hosting. Initially, recordings were done locally and uploaded to Google Drive, however, another benefit of moving to a paid account is the ability to utilize cloud recording directly from the meeting itself.  This was found to be of great support to teachers with limitations on their bandwidth.

Screen recording was the first major tool used to address the need for students to see and hear their teachers as our school was developing the ability to host live sessions and decide what format of session would best meet the needs of our students.  Loom was selected as a recommended recording tool because it was free, easy to use, and had integrated support for editing and sharing videos. Since adopting Loom, Screencastify has offered free pro accounts for educational users, and it has also been adopted by some members of staff and students.  With several good options to meet the need of screen recording, the most important decision made was to focus on a single “recommended” tool as it minimized confusion and simplified learning. Screen recording has also been a crucial tool used by leadership and other staff members to demonstrate and model best and expected practices for large portions of the community at once.

Online Teaching Strategies

Under these established criteria, AIS educators’ innovative teaching strategies began. Below are examples of ways AIS educators engage with their students virtually.

Virtual Read Aloud Library via Loom
Contributed by Rosa Gi Youn Park, ES Library Specialist

As online learning progresses and families lack an ongoing supply of fresh reading materials at home, AIS created a virtual read aloud library through the app Loom to support these needs. ES students continue on with their routine of reading for at least 15-20 minutes a day. Students access this online treasure trove of stories read by familiar faces and voices anytime, anywhere, as their ES Principal Cami Okubo has done, pictured above. This library, which was  initiated in response to World Read Aloud Day, evolved into becoming an independent, learning center of its own. Benefits include increased vocabulary, improved word/sound recognition and pronunciation, and enhanced fluency. Teachers use it as an instructional resource to support lessons. It also nurtures and strengthens the connection with teachers and the school community, while learning remotely. The virtual read aloud library is an important tool that is not just useful for online learning but worth continuing once schools reopen.

Formative Assessment via EdPuzzle
Contributed by Allen Lee (@MrLee427), Grade 3 Teacher

Grade 3 teachers use EdPuzzle to connect with their students as they would in the classroom. Teachers are able to ask open ended questions which require responses from all their students, giving students a voice to share their thoughts in a safe environment.

Questions of the Day via FlipGrid
Contributed by Emily Machnicki (@MissMachnicki), Grade 4 Teacher

Grade 4 used Flipgrid to post daily “Questions of the Day.” Flipgrid is a great platform for elementary students to use because it is very user friendly. The grade 4 teachers keep it engaging by asking new fun questions such as share what you did this weekend, show off your best talent, and draw your teacher.

Students answer the question of the day in the form of a video. The students can watch and reply to each others’ videos as a way to see and interact with each other while we are apart.

Topic Tuesday via Padlet
Contributed by Candy Lee (@Ms_CandyLee), ES Student Support Teacher

As the ES Student Support Teacher, one of Ms. Lee’s responsibilities is to promote social emotional learning within the ES community. She shares daily morning message videos focusing on themes such as wellness and mindfulness. She creates opportunities for students to interact with others outside of their class as they would during lunch or recess at school. On Topic Tuesday, for example, she shares a question on Padlet and invites students to respond. Older students type their responses and attach a photo while younger students write and draw their responses and have parents upload them. In addition, students get to earn house points for their responses, and it is a great way for AIS to maintain a strong sense of school community while learning from their own homes.

Morning Message via Loom
Contributed by Canaan Lee (@kaynan_lee), MS Counselor

Having experienced the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003 herself, Ms. Lee remembers when online learning platforms were not as developed, and she experienced a hybrid of paper-based and limited online learning instructions that left her overwhelmed. Her inspiration to create videos to support students stems from this personal experience and her knowledge of the importance of mental health care. She creates topics surrounding personal hygiene, time management, digital citizenship (ex: privacy and intellectual property pictured above), wellness and mental health. She uses her announcements to integrate some at-home challenges (ex: 100 sit ups) for students to win points for their houses. In an attempt to simulate social interaction, she encourages students to join their homeroom forum on FlipGrid to discuss non-academic topics.

Reading Comprehension Assessment via FlipGrid
Contributed by Keren O’Connor, MS Humanities

Assessing students online can be a daunting task working out whether one’s response is his or her own or someone else’s. Ms. O’Connor uses FlipGrid as a way to assess students’ reading comprehension as well as the knowledge of the vocabulary in the novel. Students were given 4 questions and had to choose 3 of the 4 to answer. They then had to correctly use vocabulary words from the text in their answers. They were given a choice of 15 words. They had to complete and turn in the FlipGrid quiz within the 70 minutes of the class. She found this to be a great way to not only learn what the students knew about the text but also how confident they were discussing it. Having the time limit helped make the students responsible for their own answers.

Weekend Chats via Placemats
Contributed by Megan Straube (@ProfeStraube), HS Español

Zoom has been very useful for maintaining and meeting the interpersonal communication standard that is such a foundational part of Profesora Straube’s Spanish courses. She does daily Q&A check-ins — weekend chats through “placemats” (pictured above) created by Bethanie Drew and Dustin Williamson that she screen shares to scaffold and level up, and other chats about travel/family/activities outside of school work. They discuss, “Would you rather…?” questions from slides. These activities allow her class to continue building community through personalized and differentiated experiences as well as build proficiency in the area of interpersonal communication.

Music and Drama Rehearsals via ROC ShowReady and Zoom
Contributed by Kimberly Williams (@KimberlyW08), HS Drama and Shawna Grimes (@smgrimes85), HS Music

While preparing for the upcoming production of Grease, the Drama and Chorus classes combined to work together to go over the words to, “We Go Together”. With the song being fast, and the lyrics being nonsense syllables, the students were having difficulty knowing what to say and when to say it. Chorus joined the Drama Zoom conference call and worked with Ms. Williams to break down the syllables into digestible chunks. After the initial laughter caused by over 35 people trying to say the same thing at the same but different time, everyone was able to make it through the entire song using ROC Showready software with a deeper understanding of the pronunciation of the lyrics. Ms. Grimes then went over the musical aspects of the song to make sure all students understood when the words were to be sung or spoken.

Contributed by Emily Hill (@EmilyHillVAEd), HS Visual Arts

The suspension of face-to-face teaching challenged Ms. Hill’s rapport and socialisation with her students, which often helped them be motivated as well as persevere through barriers. It was important to her that she find an alternative way to try to keep a positive tone to her teaching. She simply began adding GIFs or Memes to her emails to students to add a sense of humour and enthusiasm. There is a GIF for any situation from motivational animal memes to popular culture that will cause even the most studious student a small smile. Students have often then replied back with other GIFs or playful emails helping establish a rapport that is not centred around deadlines, academics or missing submissions.

The Limitations of the Virus

While the unfortunate reality is that the Novel Coronavirus has closed AIS, it does not have the ability to stop learning. The AIS community continues to develop new strategies to teach and learn virtually. MS science teachers do virtual labs, ES Classroom teachers provide feedback on iterations of students’ writing, HS social studies teachers debate over conference calls and the love for learning is the only thing that spreads while being quarantined at home.

Josefino Rivera (@josefinor) has over 10 years of experience in international school settings. Originally from the Philippines, Josefino grew up in California and received his BA in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara and MA in Education at Stanford University. Currently he teaches HS English, and next year he is excited to take on the new Learning Activator role serving students and faculty from EC-12. When not teaching, he enjoys attending the theater, playing the cello, and traveling to foreign lands.