Dispatches from the Distance Learning Trenches

Spring semester 2020 forced all of us, very suddenly, onto the roller coaster ride that is living in a global pandemic. Schools across the country made the effort to pivot to distance learning using a variety of methods, with teachers being on the frontlines of making the new systems work as best they could. It’s been a learning curve for everyone involved, to say the least! We asked a few of our DCPZ educators to tell us about their experiences so far, and we will continue to add their stories as they arrive. We hope you’ll find solidarity and maybe even inspiration from these tales of trial-and-error and also some triumphs.  We’d also love to hear from you about your experiences! What fundamental shifts have you made in your approach to teaching and learning? What has been your biggest obstacle to date? What creative twists have you put in place? How are PZ ideas helping you and your students to adapt to the distance learning environment? How are you addressing equity and access issues?  Click here to share your story with us!  You can also share your experiences on social media with the #LearningLessons. Remake Learning Days is collecting stories of teaching and learning in the epidemic from around the whole country!

October 13, 2020:

“We Wear the Mask”

From Karin Tooze, Upper School English, Washington International School (Adapted from the Washington International School’s “@WIS” community newsletter.)

Karin Tooze, a new Upper School English teacher at the Washington International School, used making as a way to help her grade 10 students create an authentic connection to a poem they were studying, while also building a foundation for establishing relationships in the classroom–always a key part of the first days of school, but even more important in this time of distance learning.

As an introduction to their study of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, Karin and her students read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” which focuses on former enslaved people hiding their pain behind smiles. Karin, inspired by her colleague Nick Loewen (an active member of our DCPZ network), asked the students, “What kinds of things does the speaker keep in front of, or ‘wear,’ on the mask, and what does he keep behind his mask?” She then asked the students to consider these questions for themselves: “How many times do we hide behind things? What sort of masks do we wear with others? What do we keep on the inside?” Then, as a way for the students to introduce themselves to each other (and to her), Karin asked them to answer questions about themselves, their place in history, the way others might view them, and something few people know about them.

From the answers to these questions, Karin asked her students to create their own mask: “They used their creativity to color and put things on the outside of the mask that they thought represented them or what people knew about them. Those could have been words, images, whatever. I also asked them to decorate the inside of the mask with things that they didn’t show the world, but I said they didn’t have to share those images publicly if they didn’t want to. Also, I wanted them to physically create this mask to give them time off their screens!” After they uploaded their masks to their class Padlet and discussed them as a class, each student was asked to write a poem about oneself, using the answers to the above questions and their mask as a guide.

While in the past she might have used a different template, this year Karin thought it was appropriate to use a template that looked like the masks we have all begun to wear as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a clever way to tie this older poem to our present-day reality, and also served to help Karin learn more about her students as individuals.

“Making with Our Feelings”

From Monica Caetano, Kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher, Washington International School

Monica Caetano also used making in a virtual setting as a way to build community in her Kindergarten classroom. In a conversation about feelings, she invited her students to share “happy experiences.” She said this helped students start to explore varied perspectives among their classmates, and ensured that everyone participated and got to know each other in a positive way. 

She then gave them the instruction to make “our happy face” with materials they had at home. “We had a lot of fun, listening and making our free design of our favorite feeling!” she said. Below are the results!

June 8, 2020:
“Empowered to Hope: The Power of Making” 
From Agnes Gómez, 5th grade teacher at the Sacred Heart Bilingual School in Washington, DC

At the beginning of the school year we had planned a collaboration with PEN/Faulkner, a literary non-profit organization, to schedule an author visit for the beginning of May. If you had told me we would end up hosting the author visit online, I would have never believed you!  During the first week of March, we began learning about Puerto Rican history and culture in preparation for our book study on La Borinqueña, a comic book about a Puerto Rican superhero written by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez. Our 5th through 8th grade students had just started reading the La Borinqueña series when all of a sudden, BANG! our world was turned upside down. We were now tasked with making our plans work on a digital scale and planning a virtual experience — something none of us had done before. CRASH! Throughout March and April we read the books and invited our students to design and write their own superheroes and comics. As our lives changed rapidly during the first couple of weeks of distance learning, and so did our students’ interests. WOOSH! Almost instantly, they expressed an interest in learning more about COVID-19, what it does, and what is being done to stop its spread. When we heard this, we knew what we had to do. Their superheroes wouldn’t be fighting ordinary villains; instead, they would be tasked with defeating the Coronavirus. BOOM!

After a lot of hard work, their final products turned out absolutely stunning, and we were excited to share their work during our first ever virtual author visit. During our hour-long Zoom call, we not only shared our work with Miranda-Rodriguez, but we heard from him about his inspiration for writing this series and asked him our burning questions. As part of the Making Across the Curriculum cohort, I realized that this is what making is all about. POW! In listening to our students’ voices, we explored issues that matter through a literary lens. We looked closely at what makes a superhero, explored the complexities of the new situations we are living in, and found opportunities to share our worries and experiences; but most of all, we envisioned – and created – a future without the Coronavirus. BOOM!
April 21, 2020:
“Crazy Hat Day”
From Teresa Baeza, Middle and Upper School Spanish Teacher and Middle School Advisor at Washington International School (WIS) 

It just so happens that Spirit Week (a week dedicated to expressing school pride) in our middle school coincided with the first week of distance learning. The first day of using Google Meets with my advisory class was “Crazy Hats and Hair Day.” Knowing that students would be filled with uncertainty about the state of the world during the pandemic, I wondered what to do to start our session on an optimistic and funny note. I then remembered that a resource called Padlet had been introduced in one of our distance learning preparations and thought about how to utilize it in Advisory. After exploring the possibilities, I discovered that there was an option to create a virtual wall on which students could post their photos, comments, etc. I decided to ask them to take a selfie with a hat or crazy hairstyle and hang it on the “wall”. Thinking that some of them were probably going to feel a little embarrassed, I put mine on first. They were surprised. Some joined in quickly, others hesitated a little before doing so. They put the first thing they found on their heads, and the result was a lot of fun! At the end, they voted for the best hat. It was a good experience on our very first day of distance learning that helped create an atmosphere of closeness and community through virtual contact.
“Environmental Science Goes Indoors”
From Aleah Myers, Environmental Science teacher from Roosevelt High School (DCPS) Springtime in my Environmental Science class usually equates to outdoor experiential learning: from going on field trips to test the water quality of the Potomac, to hiking from our campus to Rock Creek Park to plant native trees and remove invasive species, to taking advantage of our outdoor classroom and identifying the denizens of our school’s grounds. Teaching and learning about our planet as it is reborn each year is an experience unlike any other!  During the initial weeks of teaching from home, I struggled to redesign my curriculum in a way that best served all of my students, many of whom entered into distance learning without Wi-Fi or a device with which to learn virtually.  As my district has worked to connect all students to technology and provide access to the internet, I am now facing a new challenge: How can I design lessons about our planet that can be presented asynchronously, are aligned to the learning packets being provided by my district, and are engaging so that students actually want to spend their time on them?  To address this question, I’ve found myself turning to what have always been my go-to resources: The Smithsonian Learning Lab and Project Zero Thinking Routines. In the coming weeks, we will See, Think and Wonder about coral reefs and plastic pollution; craft and support claims and Headlines about the invasive nutria’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay; and Imagine If… our neighborhoods were more sustainable.  Even though the current circumstances are not ideal, I feel that I am still able to provide my students with equitable and meaningful independent learning experiences. My hope is to continue to foster my students’ creativity, critical thinking skills, and love of nature, even though Environmental Science class has been moved indoors.  
April 7, 2020:

“Virtual Preschool”

From Georgina Ardalan, Kirsten Gnau, and Elizabeth Wyrsch (J. O. Wilson Elementary School, DCPS) “Virtual preschool” seemed like an oxymoron two weeks ago, but has since become a reality. At the start, we had a lot of questions. Honestly, we still do. How do we instill the most important lesson of preschool–socialization–without actually being physically present with a group of students? How do we best support our families in providing authentic, open-ended learning opportunities for their children? Through trial and error, we’re beginning to identify strategies that address these questions.  On Mondays, we’ve hosted live morning meetings to ensure that children are maintaining close relationships with their friends and teachers and to introduce our weekly provocation. Last week, we invited children to write thank you notes to all of the helpers in our city, like health care professionals, grocery store clerks, and mail carriers and post them in their windows. We’ve sent frequent check-in emails to families, linking them to exciting resources, sending YouTube videos to pre-recorded read alouds, or just seeing how everyone is doing. We’ve also video-chatted with individual children who are missing their teachers and facilitated Marco Polo playdates for children missing their friends. Throughout the week, we’ve invited families to send us updates, pictures, or provocations of their own. And, on Fridays, we’ve sent out a newsletter recapping the week. Since beginning “virtual preschool,” we are constantly adjusting, collaborating with our colleagues, asking for feedback from the families, and adjusting again. Having received massive support from our preschool families, we know that maintaining a successful virtual model will rely heavily on our partnership with them.  We miss the children and their families. We miss school. But, we understand the importance of why we are staying home. For now, we’ll continue to try out ideas that support relationship-building and authentic learning and that work well for our children and families.

“Homeschooling during a Global Pandemic”

From Steve Eno (former Science and Engineering teacher at McDonogh School in Baltimore, MD, now a homeschool teacher for his two sons)


Our family has been extremely fortunate during these challenging times. We made the transition to homeschooling on January 1. Therefore, our boys (in grades 1 and 3) are used to the daily routine of learning at home. When COVID-19 hit in force and social isolation/self-quarantine became the norm, it seemed like another normal day to my kids, though their parents were a little more stressed than usual. The biggest realization we have had is that we can’t take the nearby resources for granted. For example, we were planning on taking trips to the Smithsonian museums in March. Now, with museums closed, we have realized there is no reason to delay the best learning opportunities when they are available. (Editor’s Note: Click here for the PDC’s list of links to wonderful online museum resources.)


Throughout the last few months I have found myself using Project Zero Thinking Routines more than anything else. There is an endless mountain of content resources available throughout the internet. What is more important to me is to help my boys develop a mindset to think deeply about what they are learning. There isn’t anything out there that I have found that does a better job teaching my kids how to approach learning than the tools I have learned at WISSIT. Whenever anything breaks around the house or we see something cool a neighbor has thrown out we immediately take it apart using Parts-Purposes-Complexities to analyze what we are seeing. We use slow looking every day on our hikes and when we come across a new picture in the illustrated Harry Potter series. Whenever our daily routine seems a little stale I simply pull out an appropriate Thinking Routine to give my boys a new way to look at learning. Every day brings new challenges working with my boys and new doubts whether or not I am doing enough or the right things. If you can identify your family values and make that a priority each day, everything else is icing on the cake. Great relationships with each other and a joyful attitude towards learning can go much farther than any website, workbook, or test score/grade. **** Steve also keeps a regular blog about his journey as an educator, and you can read more about his thoughts on teaching from home during this global pandemic here.