Summer plans

One of the first things I do, or at least try to do, in the transition from Spring Term to summer is sit down and make a concrete work plan for the summer. Doing so prevents me from falling into the trap of “It’s summer and I am now going to Do All The Things!” and then hating myself at the end of the summer for doing None Of The Things, or Only A Small Portion Of The Things. I still tend to overestimate what I can do, because that’s my nature, but over the years I do think I am getting better at being realistic.

(As a semi-related aside: Those of you familiar with Sarah Hart-Unger — blogger, host of the Best Laid Plans podcast and co-host of the Best of Both Worlds podcast — know that she plans in quintiles instead of quarters. I just realized that I, too, have a de-facto quintile planning system! Three of the quintiles match up with our 3 academic terms (Winter, Spring, Fall), and the other 2 are summer, and winter break, our 5-week break between Fall and Winter Terms.)

I was a tad late with the planning session this year, because it didn’t happen until the end of my first week with my summer research students. But hey, better late than never!

What does this process look like for me?

Step 1: Capture. I always start with a brain dump of everything in progress, everything I meant to get to but didn’t, every “hey, it would be nice if I could do X when I have a bit more breathing room”. I do a pretty good job of keeping track of things that fit into this category, although they’re not all in one place. I go back to meeting notes, look through my notebooks (paper and Evernote), look at my research Trello boards, review emails I’ve flagged, and glance at my yearly goals list. This year, I’d already done a bit of this processing before sitting down to plan. One of the productivity tools I was using to keep track of projects and tasks no longer worked well for me for that purpose, so I’d already transferred all of that information into a paper notebook while I figured out a new system. And, as I transferred info, I did some organizing and re-evaluating and triaging of tasks and projects.

Step 2: Summarize. Once I have this all on paper — writing things down helps me process them — I look for larger themes. Do distinct projects emerge? What concrete things are due, and when? I make a list of things that are due, projects in progress, workshops or conferences I’m attending, and so on.

List of things that are due and projects in progress
Second step: organize the brain dump.

Step 3: Confront the calendar. I didn’t have my trusty big-ass desk calendar handy during my session, so I printed out regular-sized blank calendar pages for June-September. Referencing my Google calendars, I wrote down all of the big stuff happening this summer: kids’ camps, trips, conferences, due dates, and so on. It might seem a bit ridiculous to write things down that are already on a calendar, but again, writing helps me process, and having things on paper that I can then spread out on my desk helps me see the bigger picture of the summer more clearly.

Step 4: Schedule in the projects and triage. To the whiteboard! Armed with a list of projects and the reality of schedules, my next move is to assign projects to weeks. Doing so forces me to be realistic about what can get done in a summer by looking at how many weeks I have and thinking about what I can reasonably accomplish in any given week. I try to do this in order of priority, starting with the project(s) I deem most important to do now. If I run out of space before I run out of projects, I might re-prioritize, but whatever’s left over at the end gets moved to the fall (or even further in the future). I also try to have a mix of projects each week so that I’m not spending weeks “bingeing” on a particular project. (Gradual progress for the win!)

Since making this chart, I realized that textbook orders are due a week earlier than I thought. Whoops.

Step 6: Transfer. My final step is to make sure my project grid is somewhere accessible to both work and home. Evernote is my organizational tool of choice right now, so I repurposed a yearly goal-tracking template to store my summer project grid.

Grid in Evernote of my high-level tasks for the first few weeks of the summer.
Final step: transfer to Evernote so I have access at work and at home

Of course, the most important step is the step that follows all of this: actually doing the work! So far, the grid has kept me on track this week, and while I might not fully complete everything, I’ll have made really good progress on each of the focus areas for this week. The act of putting this grid together also helped me get out of a really bad headspace and restored a sense of (at least a bit of) control over my work to-dos. And finally, the act of putting the grid together helped me solidify my summer goals. For instance, what exactly do I mean by “finish Card Sort 2.0 draft”? (Answer: Finalize the results and analysis and write enough of the supporting sections to form a coherent story, so that I can start figuring out which venue(s) we should target first.) How about “plan A&I seminar”? (Answer: Finalize the learning outcomes, the central course question, and the major assignments / due dates, before September.)

How do you keep track of your summer projects, or projects during less-structured times in general?

Fridays off

Even though it’s already summer — spring term is done, graduation happened, grades are in, and my research students started this week — I’m still digging out of my spring term hole. Which means I haven’t had a chance to set my summer goals, figure out my summer schedule, and do my normal summer / Q3 planning. (I should be able to do all of that this weekend, fingers crossed!) That said, there is one key part of summer that’s already penciled in:

Fridays off.

I’ve been taking, or at least trying to take, summer Fridays off for quite some time now, as I explain in this post. I do it to stave off burnout and to nurture the non-academic parts of my life. I do it to spend time with my kids — or, at times when the kids are in some kind of camp program, to spend solo time doing whatever I want. I do it so that I can spend time outdoors, where I’m happiest.

This summer, Fridays off seem more necessary than ever. I did not get much of a break last summer, or really since the pandemic started. The end of spring term was very difficult for me, for various reasons (some family, some professional). And an already full summer plate became even fuller when the person I work most closely with in my STEM Director role, the STEM Program Manager, left at the end of last week, leaving that position vacant for the foreseeable future. I need this type of a regular break more than ever, if I don’t want to start the next academic year depleted.

There will be a couple of Fridays that I won’t be able to take completely off, but outside of those I will do my best to keep those days completely free. Both kiddos are (mostly) unscheduled on Fridays too, so there will likely be lots of adventures with them. We bought a season pass for a nearby amusement park towards the end of summer 2019 for summer 2020, which is now good this year, so I’m sure we’ll spend at least a few of our Fridays there. We have a state parks pass and will likely explore some old favorites and some new-to-us places. I can usually convince one kiddo to go on bike rides and the other kiddo to go to the beach. And this might just be the summer we make a bucket list of ice cream places to try….

Of course, now that my kids are in the teen and tween years, they (shockingly!) don’t want to spend every waking moment with me. So I’ll likely have some time for solo fun, too. I’m looking forward to revisiting my favorite local lakes on my kayak, and maybe exploring a new-to-me lake, too. I plan on spending plenty of quality time curled up with a book on our back deck in the heat of the afternoon.

Do you take time off in the summer? How do you spend that time?

5 Pandemic Teaching Practices I Plan to Keep

As Spring Term wound down and hints about the structure of Fall Term (and the summer) emerged over the past few weeks, I found myself reflecting on the past year+ of pandemic teaching. I talked in my last post about returning to some of the normalcy of interacting in person, and how much I’m looking forward to little things I used to take for granted. At the same time, I recognize how much grief and trauma we carry forward, individually and collectively, and wonder / worry about what that will look like and how we will deal with it, next year and beyond.

Somewhere in the middle of those two spaces lies pedagogy — what it was in the Before Times, what it became in Pandemic Times, and what it will look like henceforth. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the “henceforth” part. What have I learned in the last 4 terms of teaching online? How will this carry over into my future courses? What’s going to “stick”?

This, of course, is not a one-time reflection — I’m sure my thoughts will morph as we settle into whatever becomes our normal. But at this point in time, I keep settling on the same 5 things, which makes me think these will be the most likely to “stick”.

1. Weekly grid

I first saw this idea in a Resilient Pedagogy workshop last summer (and blogged about it here). The grid communicates expectations to students about what’s going on in class in a particular week, in what mode, and how long each item should take them to complete. I’ve found the grid invaluable for planning out each week. It shows me whether activities are balanced across modalities or whether I have to switch things around (e.g., do I have too many asynchronous team activities planned?). It keeps me honest in my expectations of students — I can quickly see if what I’ve planned will take 8 hours or 16 hours, and adjust accordingly. And I find it much, much easier to parse than looking at a list of activities on a Moodle page. So much so, that I embedded the grid for the week into that week’s Moodle page.

Screen shot of Moodle page for Week 6 in Software Design, highlighting the activity grid.

I’ll continue this because: It makes planning easier for me! And it has all of the key information for the week in one place for the students, including when office hours are and how to access the lab assistants.

2. Sunday night videos

I’m pretty sure I got this idea from Small Teaching Online, by Flower Darby and James Lang. The Sunday Night Video, so named because I often ended up recording and/or posting the video on Sunday night, is a short, 5-10 minute video which presents a high-level review of what we did in class last week and what’s coming up this week. The review and preview focus on how the course activities, concepts, skills, etc. fit into the learning goals and the larger arc of the course. Similarly to the grid, it provides orientation and context within the course — why are we doing this set of activities now? How will this get us closer to achieving the learning goals in the course?

Screen shot of the weekly review/preview video, a.k.a. the "Sunday Night Video"

I’ll continue this because: It’s a quick and accessible way to remind students of how all of the pieces fit together. It shows students how we’re progressing towards the learning goals for the course. It helps them connect the dots.

I might modify this by: Instead of recording a video, I could start off the first class meeting of the week with this content. I don’t know if that’s the best use of limited class time, but I could probably do a variation of this in a shorter amount of time. I may experiment with this in the fall, when I’m teaching a first year seminar.

3. Collaboratively annotated readings

I’ve posted previously about my use of Hypothes.is in my Computer Networks course (also written up here), and I’ve also used Hypothes.is in Software Design. When I first experimented with it, I thought of it exclusively as an asynchronous team tool, for students to label and highlight course concepts together. (For instance, in Software Design I have students apply Steve Krug’s Trunk Test to a web site, finding and highlighting answers to each of the Trunk Test questions.) The more I used it, the more I realized how I could use it to focus students’ attention on key concepts in particularly dense readings, or guide students through reading a recent paper related to course concepts, or (in the case of Computer Networks) walking students through a protocol specification. The example below shows my annotations in our online textbook for a particularly tricky topic.

Annotated text using Hypothes.is, explaining the finer points of TCP Congestion Control in a Computer Networks course.

In turn, students can add their own highlights, comment on my annotations, and so on — which leads to a dialog about the material before we even get to class!

I’ll continue this because: It’s an effective way for me to communicate how students should read a particular selection and what to focus on, and help them be more effective readers of technical content. It allows students to communicate with me as they are reading so that I can get a clear sense of what’s confusing and what’s piqued their interest. The act of annotating a reading also serves as a valuable check to me — I can hone in on what’s really important, and cut out sections that I may have assigned in the past but that don’t carry much weight in terms of student comprehension of a particular concept.

4. Using Google Docs during small group activities

When we moved to online teaching, I lamented the loss of in-person group work and of teaching in my favorite classroom space, a large room with tables and walls of whiteboards. How would I reproduce the collaborative brainstorming, the collective question-answering, the creation of communal artifacts, and my walking around the room to answer questions and redirect the wayward group?

Answer: collaborative editing of Google Docs.

Example of a collaboratively edited Google Doc from Software Design, where teams analyzed different websites.

Collaboratively-edited Google Docs allowed me to reproduce the spirit of all of those things. Student teams either had their own document to edit, pre-populated with the discussion questions and prompts, or had a section of the document to edit, also pre-populated with the questions / prompts (shown in the example above). I’d send student teams to breakout rooms after setting up the activity. Sometimes I’d travel from room to room, but because I found this more disruptive than helpful, I’d usually just monitor the activity on the document(s). If I wasn’t seeing any typing for a while, I’d stop by the room. If someone in a team wrote a particularly interesting, insightful, or good point, I’d add a comment. I also used comments to ask guiding questions if a group seemed to be heading off-track or in the wrong direction. The document(s) provided a record of class discussion, which students could revisit or, if they’d missed class for whatever reason, use to catch up. (This was particularly valuable when I had students literally on the other side of the world for whom class met in the middle of the night and who rarely attended synchronous class meetings because of that.)

I’ll continue this because: In addition to providing students with a record of what each group produced, this provides me with a record of what each group produced. Even when I walk around the room, I miss things.

I might modify this by: having students take pictures of the whiteboards and post those to Google Drive, when we use the whiteboards in class. (It might also be an interesting learning activity to have teams annotate the pictures after the fact, as a way to consolidate their learning from a particular class session!)

5. Instructional videos / walkthroughs

I tried, as much as possible, to avoid lecturing in synchronous class meetings, instead opting to record smaller-sized lectures and posting those along with targeted readings. As the pandemic wore on, I found other valuable uses for instructional videos:

  • Walking through worked examples of problems.
  • Providing feedback on things that many students missed on an assignment or exam, to help students who wanted to revise figure out how to approach the revisions.
  • Walking students through the steps of a lab activity — showing them how to do something, and then asking them to stop the video and do a particular section of the lab (shown in the picture below).
  • Providing feedback to individual students and/or teams on an assignment, when it was easier to show them where they went astray instead of trying to put it into words.
Screen shot of a video walking students through a lab on Flask.

I’ll continue this because: Not every student is going to catch everything in a lecture or demonstration the first time around. Allowing students the opportunity to review and rewatch things at their own pace provides more opportunities for real learning — particularly if the students work the example, step through the problem, etc. along with the video. And the students who received video feedback indicated that they found this form of feedback particularly helpful, because they could see what part of the assignment particular pieces of feedback matched.

I might modify this by: finding ways to record the lecture / problem examples portion of class, maybe not all the time, but when I’m teaching a particularly difficult concept.


In reading over this list, I’m struck by the fact that all of these pedagogical practices increase transparency. They expose how students approach and apply the course concepts, and the work of small teams. They give students a glimpse into how I think about the pieces of the course and my expectations for their learning and engagement. They make more of the construction of the learning process visible. And hopefully, by being more transparent and not assuming students know why I’m doing what I’m doing, I’m also being more inclusive.

If you’ve taught during the pandemic, what new practices do you plan to continue?

Emerging

Spring Term wound down this week in its usual haze of academic year exhaustion and frenzied race to the finish. Amidst all the usual chaos — the grading, the last-minute meetings, the grading, the discussions with students and the Dean of Students office about extensions, and did I mention the grading? — there were glimpses of a return to some sort of, well, normal.

Carleton modified some rules around gathering sizes outdoors, which allowed us to have a casual outdoor gathering for our senior majors who are on campus, in and around one of the classroom tents. I didn’t expect the extent to which seeing people “in 3-D” would be a source of joy and relief. I talked and laughed and ate with faculty I haven’t seen since last March! (Some of whom have not been back on campus since then, or have only been back once or twice to pack/unpack last summer when we moved into our new space.) I marveled at how tall students I hadn’t previously met in person are in real life. I caught up with students who used to stop by my office semi-regularly and, again, marveled at how tall they were in real life. (Zoom has really messed with our perceptions of height!) I talked with one of our early graduates from one of my Comps groups who returned for graduation. I realized how much I missed the flow of conversations in a group, a flow that is quite different than on Zoom. It was a bit bittersweet, too, as I realized what we’d missed this year with our classes and interactions with students being completely virtual (save for a few Comps groups who met in “mixed mode” in the fall and winter).

My family developed a “Takeout Tuesday” tradition during the pandemic, a tradition we plan on continuing, where we get takeout from a local restaurant and everyone takes turns selecting the restaurant. Due to unusually busy evening schedules, this week I ended up taking the kids to a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where We Ate Indoors on Wednesday, in lieu of our takeout day. The last time I’d been in a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where You Eat Indoors was March 13, 2020 with the resident 4th grader. Our plan was actually to eat outdoors, but with an hour+ wait the kids decided that indoors was ok, even though one is unvaccinated and the other is halfway vaccinated. It was…fine! A bit weird at first, but fine. Our family rule is that we wear masks when we’re out together since the 4th grader can’t get vaccinated yet, and so we all wore masks when we weren’t eating and drinking. We were the only ones in the restaurant with masks on, but we didn’t get any dirty or strange looks that I could tell. I very much miss eating in restaurants, and the kids do, too, so on many fronts this was a really nice way to dip our toes back into “normal”.

Finally, I got to see the research spaces my group will be using this summer, a surprisingly emotional experience.

To be honest, I’m still a bit giddy thinking about filling the whiteboards with sketches and ideas in a space that’s entirely ours, and remembering how just being in the same room together facilitates the flow of ideas.

What ways have you found yourself emerging out of the pandemic and back to some sense of normalcy?