Distance Learning

Lessons Learned During School Shut Down

Opportunity is presented in times of trouble.  When things go wrong, there’s something to be learned, a new path to follow, a way to grow. 

What I am going to share with you here are the things that I learned were effective in running a virtual classroom, and why I believe they were successful.  Here’s why I think it is worthy of exploration and sharing.

1.  The experience of running an impromptu virtual school can inform, and potentially improve, our pedagogical approaches in a traditional classroom. 

2. Should we face a blended population (some on-line, some in person), or a rotating group (1/3 of students a day), or a full school closure, we’ll be better prepared.

If we can explore how the virtual classroom was set up, and how students engaged successfully,  we can answer the question:  What about this made students want to engage and learn?  

The answer to that question can inform our traditional classroom instruction.

If you’re a teacher, you already know the story.  You very likely went on spring break in March of 2020, and never returned to the classroom!  We all have wished for an extended spring break, can’t I have just one more week?  Well, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

The virtual classroom presented too great of a learning curve, and too many technical obstacles for many teachers, schools, and families.  My school wasn’t ready for teaching remotely, I wasn’t ready.  The technology wasn’t there, the pedagogy wasn’t right, and … you know the rest, you lived it, too. 

But, having a virtual classroom presented a great opportunity, and one with impunity.  Everybody knew that the education system was largely ill-prepared and poorly suited for distance learning.  If you tried something and it worked, great.  If you tried something and it failed, nobody would bat an eye.  Hey, at least you tried something, right?

Here’s my situation, so you understand what follows.  My school has a subscription to a self-paced computer program that offers dozens and dozens of courses.  I chose not to have my students use that program in favor of trying to teach them as best as I could remotely.  I wanted the challenge!  

The technology I had included: a WIFI connection, a computer, document camera, web camera, printer and a microphone.  The majority of my students had at least cell phones at their homes, most had WIFI.  For communication I used email, Google Classroom and Google Meets.  My school used Google extensively already, so that communication part was already in place.  

Time to Invent the Wheel

As is usually the case when trying something new, my initial approaches were misguided.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  But over the first few weeks I came to zero in on a type of flipped classroom approach.  It had a cyclic design.  Here’s how we’ll explore the final product.  First, I’ll give you an overview of the cycle.  Then, we’ll dive into each component of the cycle.  Last, and perhaps most important, I’ll share with you what I believe is important, what made each component successful.  Those are the ideas and practices that we can bring with us back to the classroom, if and when we return.  And if we don’t return for an extended period of time, we are armed with a deeper understanding of what’s at play. 

Virtually Flipped Classroom

The Cycle

Here’s the Reader’s Digest Version:  One cycle takes between 3 and 5 days, depending on how involved the topic is, if there’s an accompanying assessment, and other factors that arise in teaching.   The cycle would begin with the teacher, me, uploading a set of resources, problems, and key as an assignment in Google Classroom.  Students were instructed on how to use the resources, how to seek help, and there was a strict procedure involving feedback from the students when submitting their work.  Once the assignment was due, we would hold a whole-class debriefing session.  Following the debriefing session, either remediation, extension, assessment, or moving to the next topic would follow.

What follows is a breakdown of each component, how the role of the teacher promoted student engagement, and a reflection of each.  If you’d like to see the evidence I have to vouch for the efficacy of this system, please click here.


The Structure

Click the link in each step to explore the student expectations, teacher expectations, and a review of what it worked and what lessons can be applied to a traditional classroom.

Students were assigned reading, and at least one video to watch.  They were instructed on how to take and use good notes and how to monitor their progress.  

This was basically homework, but in a virtual classroom setting, that just doesn’t sound right!  Students were given a set of problems, some problems were procedural, some involved problem solving, some challenged conceptual understanding.  

With coaching on purpose and approach, students graded and reflected upon the work they’ve done.  They reported back to the teacher their score, and a brief reflection on what was initially confusing, or what remained confusing.

The Town Hall Meeting was a video conference held after the homework assignment was due.  Typically, resources and assignments were posted the previous morning, and these meetings took place in the following afternoon or late morning. 

I used Google Meets, but any video conferencing platform would work.  Often, there was a prompt that students had to respond to in the chat window.  The prompt was non-academic, sometimes humorous, and designed to provide a welcoming talking point for me once the meeting began.  An example could be:  What’s your favorite kind of ice cream, or, What’s more blue, the sky or the ocean? 

The meetings would take anywhere from 30 minutes to just over an hour.  The objective of the meeting was to address common problems and points of confusion, build community and get all students on the “same page,” meaning, at a minimum common understanding.

This is essentially the end of the cycle, where things are tied to whatever is coming.  If students are sufficiently prepared, we simply moved onto the next thing, incorporating the previous practices and ideas, and tying in student conceptual understanding as much as possible.

If, however, it was time for an assessment, or for remediation, the last step, the review and debriefing which we call Town Hall Meeting, was be repeated before moving on.  This provided students opportunity to reflect and also provided the teacher with the opportunity to both gain insight and support student progress. 

Initial Exposure

In a traditional classroom we use lecture or an activity to introduce new concepts.  A different setting required a different approach.


Students were assigned reading, and at least one video to watch.  They were also given a short homework assignment, along with answer key.  They were to engage with the material like they would with a classroom lesson and homework assignment. 

Student Expectations

Students were expected to take good notes when reading the text and watching the video(s).   They had to answer questions and prompts in Google Classroom, reach out via email, and attend video meetings.

Good Notes Include

  • Writing formulas
  • Writing concepts
  • Writing conjectures/predictions
  • Writing and highlighting questions
  • Trying example problems on their own

Teacher Expectations

Teachers need to provide quality, aligned reference materials for the students.  It is important that students develop conceptual understanding, not just procedural proficiency.

Teachers will also need a set of problems (or more), that will help students develop procedural proficiency, but that will also challenge their conceptual understanding by addressing commonly held misconceptions.

The role of the teacher is different here.  In a virtual setting, we can best direct behavior and engagement with encouragement and powerful leadership.  The use of authority and punishment is not very effective in a virtual setting.  The role of the teacher throughout all facets of running a virtual classroom must change.  I’ll describe how my approach in detail below.

As a side note:  Math Connected has been designed to fulfill the need for materials as described above.  We are a scratch your own itch, type of organization.  We feel there’s a need for such materials, and are working to produce them for teachers.  

Teacher Leadership and Coaching

The most important job a teacher has during all facets of this cycle under a virtual classroom setting is one of coaching and drawing a bit of a road map for students.  I felt it was important to prepare students for their experiences.  I wanted them to understand that frustration and confusion, and the lack of support they would feel were not only normal for this type of learning, but also can be dealt with and become part of learning.  Armed with understanding, they would be more patient, which would make them more receptive to direction and coaching.

I explained to students that in a classroom setting there are a lot of social supports to help individuals deal with frustration.  In isolation, that frustration can come more quickly, and can be more powerful.  Also, the frustration in math comes from confusion.  Confusion is good, it comes right before true clarity!  I wanted students to know, well, that the precursor to understanding was confusion.

In a classroom setting, students can be much more passive.  They can write down what the teacher writes down.  They can ask a friend for the highlights of what’s just happened, and they can get one – on – one tutoring from experts, in person!  All of those elements slow the rate at which students are expected to integrate new information.  At home, when reading and watching videos alone, students need to modulate this speed by monitoring themselves.

In the classroom, when students are disinterested or frustrated to the point where they wish to avoid the new information, they often engage in distracting behaviors.  They’ll talk, ask to go to the bathroom, sharpen a very sharpened pencil, look at their phones, draw a picture, or just day-dream.  Some even pretend to pay attention and try!  In a classroom, the teacher can monitor and re-direct these behaviors.  It is important that students understand the purpose of such a re-direction.  Without discipline, the difficult task of learning will never be accomplished.  In a virtual classroom setting the responsibility for that discipline is shifted, almost entirely, to the student.  But, the upside is that they are engaging because they want to, they are choosing self-discipline instead of falling in line with obedience.  This is very appealing to teenagers!

It was also important to explain how much time needed to be spent on read and digesting new information.  To help them how to test their understand, monitor their own progress and I explained the purpose of each note-taking expectation.  Students were being trained on how to be self-directed students that owned their learning.  

Keep in mind, these lessons were not a one-time only speech.  In group settings, and tailored to individual needs, these messages were continually delivered and reinforced.


A Word on Confusion and Perseverance

It is important that students develop some emotional intelligence as it applies to emotional responses to mathematical learning.  I taught them that confusion is often the trigger for frustration and anger.  The most common, and inappropriate response to frustration and confusion is avoidance.  We don’t like to face things that we find confusing, because they’re threatening.

Now, the confusion could be a result of fatigue, or perhaps the student went too fast through the materials, or maybe the information is just complicated and they need some time and perspective. In either case, that confusion is an integral part of, and inseparable from, learning.  That’s because confusion occurs when we are confronted with information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs.  Common emotional responses to such experiences of confusion include feelings of inferiority, and feeling vulnerable.  These can often turn into anger and frustration! 

The purpose of education is to develop the mind, to learn about ourselves and learn to better manage ourselves.  An educated person should be empowered!  By helping students learn how to deal with and confront confusion and it’s baggage, we are serving the purpose of education, while also helping them be better math students.

I made this a mantra during the virtual classroom setting:    Confusion leads to understanding.

Why it Worked for Distance Learning

There is a combination of two things at play here.  First, is the quasi cognitive – behavioral training students are given by the teacher.  Students become good mathematics students when they can identify when and why math makes them feel insecure, and then have both the courage to face their insecurity and the emotional intelligence to understand how their feelings can divert them from their objective.  At the same time students are learning the role confusion can play, and in many cases, must play, towards the goal of understanding.  As they better understand confusion, they will either have a diminishing negative emotional response to the confusion (feeling less insecure), or they’ll better cope with the insecurity, or both.

The second component is the access students have to quality reference materials.  If the materials do not challenge student understanding and force students to think critically, then the coaching has no foothold.  It would be as useful as talking about how to be a good swimmer, without ever diving into the water!

What We Can Take to the Classroom

Every student, at some point, has to make sense of new information for themselves.  Assuming we have students interested and willing to participate in their educations, the biggest hurdle is emotional (at least for High School mathematics).  Good teaching isn’t good explanation of the procedures which will serve to relieve a student’s anxiety.  Good teaching is helping students identify the source of their anxiety, and contextualizing it in the process of learning. 

Good teaching empowers students, helps them to understand the purpose of education, and what it feels like to go through the process of learning.  Good teaching makes the students increasingly independent of the teacher.

This can become a greater focus in the classroom.  For example, if by design we do not allow immediate collaboration between students as an exercise, a teaching technique.  Specifically, have students either read a short section, or watch a video silently.  Then have them respond to a question or a try a problem, alone.  Instruct them to think quietly and write an observation or question, in addition to the prompt, before collaborating with their neighbors.

After students collaborate, hold a debriefing conference.  Discuss how students felt during the activity.  How did they deal with the confusion?  Was it tempting to avoid the source of confusion?  (When being forced to work alone, in silence, it is a lot harder to avoid that source of confusion.)  Then, you can coach them on how to address such situations. 

Testing Understanding
Reflection and Feedback


This is basically homework, but in a virtual classroom setting, that just doesn’t sound right!  Students are given a set of problems, some are procedural, some involve problem solving, some challenge conceptual understanding.  Students are provided a key and must grade their own work and report back to the teacher two things.  First, their grade and second, a guided reflection (brief), which will be described later.

Student Expectations

Students are expected to work on the assignment.  When stuck, they need to review their notes and reference resources.  If still confused, they can email the teacher with a question.  When they’ve exhausted those supports, they can look at the answer key for a clue, but must count the problem as wrong.   If they’re able to figure out the problem, they must write a brief reflection in their notes about what it was that they misunderstood that was key to understanding the problem.

When students have finished the assignment, they grade it and make corrections, if possible.  This doesn’t mean erasing their work and writing the correct answer.  It means, finding their error and noting if the nature of the error was procedural or conceptual, and then annotating on their assignment what they learned from the exercise.

When this is completed students must report their score to the teacher via Google Classroom and one of the following statements:

1.    Initially, I found _______________________ very confusing. 

2.    I am still confused by _________________________.

Teacher Expectations

The teacher’s job is to answer questions as students work, maybe host unplanned video conferences, or upload simple How – To videos for the students.  These videos are often connecting the concepts to the procedures, or can take a common misconception and expose it.  This is an incredibly effective approach for learning through videos.  Derek Muller wrote his PhD thesis on the efficacy of science videos for teaching students.  Watch this short video if you’re curious about his findings. Click Here for Video.

In responding to questions and emails, it is important to remember the coaching!  Help students develop the metacognitive piece that will make them better problem solvers and increase their emotional intelligence as well.  This is where the art of teaching begins!

During this time, the teacher is essentially collected feedback as from a formative assessment.  It is from this information that the teacher can design and direct the upcoming Town Hall style meeting.


Testing and Feedback

Why it Worked for Distance Learning

By forcing students to reflect, both internally, and formally (when submitting their grades), we are encouraging thinking. Also, when offering remediation that focuses on misconception instead of most effective procedure, we address understanding and concept, not answer-getting techniques and tricks.
When discussing addressing misconception versus most effective procedure, we are approaching the difference between education and training. When training someone, the trainer knows exactly what the trainee needs to know, what they need to do, and when they need to do it. By contract, when educating someone, the educator does not know what the student needs to know, when they need to know it, and how it will be applied. The end result is that a trained person is inflexible, while an educated person is adaptive. If we expect the students to do the same exact problem in the future, then reviewing procedure is great. If, however, we want students to solve different problems of similar complexity in the future, we need to help them with a solid foundation and problem solve skills. Also, by addressing misconception and having students thinking about their own thinking, we are placing all interested parties (teachers and students) on the path of education.
To summarize why this worked, consider that there are two key components at play here. One is the expectation and behavior of the student, the other is the way in which the teacher offers support.

What We Can Take to the Classroom

By changing the way in which we expect students to engage with assignments, and the supports we offer them to increase perseverance, we can improve student learning. A potential practical application of these things could work as follows.
When students are working on independent practice in class, or homework, they need to be coached on what to do when they don’t get it. They need to be coached to identify what it is they don’t get through reflection, and then coached on what to do about it. That is, they need to be taught to use their reference resources (notes, book, text, etc.). Once they begin to experience success with this, their note taking will improve and they’ll be more willing to take ownership of their own learning.
Remember that these lessons will require constant support, as it is likely in direct conflict to how the student expect you to help them. Also, look for students that develop these skills in real – time, in the moment. Then, call them out publically. Be sure to acknowledge the benefits of the students’ efforts for all levels of student, and provide that praise and encouragement publically. “Johnny, you just made my day! I saw your face, washed with confusion. I almost expected to see you engage in some sort of avoidance behavior … phone, drawing a picture, looking at the ceiling, pretending to work. But you didn’t, you wrote a question, rifled through your notes, re-read something and then came back to the problem. …”

Town Hall Meeting

The Town Hall Meeting was a video conference held after the homework assignment was due.  Typically, resources and assignments were posted the previous morning, and these meetings took place in the following afternoon or late morning. 

I used Google Meets, but any video conferencing platform would work.  Often, there was a prompt that students had to respond to in the chat window.  The prompt was non-academic, sometimes humorous, and designed to provide a welcoming talking point for me once the meeting began.  An example could be:  What’s your favorite kind of ice cream, or, What’s more blue, the sky or the ocean? 


The meetings would take anywhere from 30 minutes to just over an hour.  The objective of the meeting was to address common problems and points of confusion, build community and get all students on the “same page,” meaning, at a minimum common understanding.

Student Expectations

Town Hall Meeting

Students were expected to attend the meetings, and be on time.  Sometimes, they could not be for various reasons.  In those situations, students were expected to contact me and explain their situation.  (The conferences were recorded and posted for future reference, so even absent students could at least watch what was discussed.)


Students needed to have their notes, questions, and a willingness to both participate and perform and practice assigned questions during the meeting.

Before the meeting, it is important for the teacher to dig into the feedback students provided.  It might be beneficial to print a copy of the assignment and work out and discuss select problems.  It is important to be armed with pointed questions for each problem that will be discussed.  The questions should address what clues or information existed all along that were missed by students, making the problem difficult.

What was there the whole time that you missed?

It is incredibly important, but equally difficult, to build rapport in these types of video conferences, especially with teenagers.  However, the efficacy of the meeting will largely hinge on the rapport developed.  If students don’t feel involved and included, they’ll be hesitant to ask questions.  Without that feedback from the questions and participation, the meeting will turn into a lecture, which is not ideal.

The reason this is called a Town Hall Meeting is because it should be a time for students to express concerns, note successes, ask questions, and be heard.  It is the job of the teacher to facilitate that and ensure, through questioning and explanation, that all students have arrived at a common minimum understanding.

Teacher Expectations

Town Hall Meeting


Town Hall Meeting

Why it Worked for Distance Learning

The Town Hall style meeting was effective because it was student driven.  Even if the initial path was determined by the teacher, that direction was in response to feedback from students, which they provided with the reflection of their assignment. 


By directly engaging with what students were saying and doing, the information was incredibly pertinent to the students.  They both felt engaged and well – served.  

What We Can Take to the Classroom

When offering remediation or review, it might be best to collect feedback from students before beginning!  A great method that does this is the activity called, “My Favorite No.”   If that’s unfamiliar, you can read about it by clicking here.

An unscripted but focused discussion about where students are, what it is their struggling with, that incorporates and reinforces those cognitive-behavior techniques, is incredibly powerful.  It is something that all good teachers do on occasion, sometimes daily.  But, we can formalize it with this potential approach.

To start a class, the bell work could be that students write a reflection about the previous day’s homework. It could be the two questions, “Initially I was confused by ___________________,” or “I am still confused by ____________________.” 

After enough time for student to have considered and answered those questions, the teacher could do a pop-corn style survey.  The teacher picks a student to answer and records their reflection on the board. Then, that student has to pick another student to share their reflection.  (This picking can be guided … pick someone you don’t usually pick, pick someone who you think would have helpful insight, pick someone on that side of the room, or pick someone wearing a red shirt.)

Once the list is created, ask the students if they have something not yet on the board.  Once satisfied that you’ve gained sufficient insight to where the group is, how they’re doing, you can conduct a Town Hall meeting.

Focus the discussion on what students have missed, look for examples where students took ownership to arrive at clarity and understanding, and provide examples that expose misconception as much as possible.  Save the procedure review for only the most technical issues.

What's Next

This is essentially the end of the cycle, or where it starts again.  If students are sufficiently prepared, simply move onto the next thing, incorporating these practices and ideas, and tying in student conceptual understanding as much as possible.

If, however, it is time for an assessment, or for remediation, the last step, the review and debriefing which we call Town Hall Meeting, must be repeated before moving on.  This provides students opportunity to reflect and as well as provide you with the opportunity to both gain insight and support student progress. 

Pull it all together


In a virtual classroom setting many of the practices we employ are simply inappropriate.  A teacher cannot regain control of a class with a signal like a chime or bell, nor can a teacher improve participation by proximity (standing by distracted students).   And one of the most powerful classroom management tools, removing all sources of distraction, leaving only the task at hand to occupy the time for disinterested students, is an absurd proposal in a virtual classroom.  Teachers simply lack the authority and ability to do so.

By appropriately addressing two things, students were willing to engage in the virtual classroom program, from which they received a quality mathematics education during the school shut down. The first component is student autonomy.  Their drive and willingness to work will either be the primary driving force or the limiting factor, in their success.  The second component was helping them to understand, and appropriately respond to the emotional struggles of learning.

My working theory is this:  By empowering student autonomy, creating community and buy-in, and by coaching students on both the mechanics of what makes them feel insecure in mathematics and what they can do about it, while teaching them what roles things like confusion and frustration play in learning, we can become better teachers.   As a result, our students will have better educational experiences.  A quality education changes a person, for the better.  Ultimately, our success will personally benefit the lives of our students.

I shared a few potential applications of these experiences.  However, I am excited exploring them myself, trying them out, and reflect on the future failures to zero in on streamlined success when we return to the classroom!  I hope you’re willing to do the same and share back with me your lessons, experiences and take-aways!  

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and about your experiences!  Just leave a comment below!

Evidence of Efficacy

Before we get into what happened and why it worked, let me share how I know it worked.  This largely anecdotal, of course, and even test scores are questionable because of the lack of true test security.  I’d love to set up some external tests to validate efficacy, but this was of course, unplanned. 

The principal was monitoring what I was doing, because I chose not to use the online, self-paced course.   He was enrolled in my Google Classroom, and attended a few video conferences. He was very impressed and had the superintendent of instruction take a look.  I received high praise from both people because of what seemed to be happening in the “classroom.” 

Now, typically the only thing administrators know about math is that it is hard.  They’re often wowed by low-quality, answer – getting and procedural focused lessons.  But, at least this did look good enough to them to allow me to continue!

Student results and feedback are far more meaningful.  The number of students I had participating on a daily basis continued to increase as word got out that this was engaging, meaningful, and in a way, fun.  Dozens of my students, literally, sent me emails thanking me for putting together the lessons and developing the routine.  They reported that they felt connected and that the work they were doing felt meaningful and productive. 

I finished up the third quarter calendar material for each group of students, and then decided it would be best to introduce them to what they’d be learning next year.  So, I was teaching polynomial functions, including graphing, end-behavior, a dumbed-down version of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra to the Sophomore students.  To the Freshmen I taught the foundations of Trigonometry, which included a lot of foundations in Geometry. 

The questions students asked told me that they were generally really trying to learn.  They weren’t going through the motions. They asked the types of questions that an earnest student would ask when they’re learning something new.  They were asking questions about connections to other topics and about conjectures and predictions.  The test results were fantastic, which of course must be taken with a grain of salt.  But, when examining all of the evidence, the reports from students, the increased engagement, the number of emails I received from students, and the nature of their questions, I’m confident in saying that the overwhelming majority learned at a level at least comparable to what would’ve occurred in a traditional setting. 

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