Q&A: Distantly Learning from Our Colleagues in Hong Kong

Contributed By

Kellie Ady

Director of Instructional Strategy, Schoology

Q&A: Distantly Learning from Our Colleagues in Hong Kong

Posted in Evolving Ed | April 29, 2020

A Conversation with David Lovelin from Hong Kong International School 

Schoology, used by districts and schools all over the globe, has an amazing community of educators and leaders. We had the incredible opportunity to talk with one of those leaders, David Lovelin, principal of the Hong Kong International School, earlier this month. HKIS had to adapt to COVID-19 closures ahead of those of us in the US, so we asked David to share some of what he experienced and learned as they adjusted to distance learning. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. 

Want to watch the interview in its entirety? View it here 

Kellie: Thanks for being with us! If you could, tell us a little about yourself and the Hong Kong International School. 

David: Sure. So, Dr. Dave Lovelin. I've been at Hong Kong International School for the last three years and this is my sixth year overseas. I’m originally from Oregon. I lived and worked in Oregon my entire life before I decided to move internationally. As a school we're about 3000 students K-12. And at the high school, were about 800 students with around 80 faculty, and our school is incredibly diverse. We have students from all over the world, and when you walk through the halls of our campus, it represents a World Campus. 

Kellie: Because of where you are geographically, obviously, you had to deal with the shutdown and the shift with learning structures way before we have had to in the States. If you could talk just a little bit about when this started for you, as a school, and what that process looked like when it was imminent that you were going to have to shut down for a while. 

David: Sure. Well, in Hong Kong, it's been an interesting year for us because we started off the year with protests in a very peaceful city typically. And in the fall, we were shut down for five days. During that time, we went to asynchronous learning and it was hard. It was a challenge. After we were able to come back to school from that, I asked our associate principal to pull together a team of teachers and make a plan for if we ever had to be online, again, virtual, you know, for an extended amount of time.  

They had been working on that for a few months, unaware that we were going to end up, you know, really needing that that information. And at the end of January, when it looked like we were going to be closing, I pulled our team together on a Sunday afternoon—our admin team—and we pulled out that work, and we went through it. Some of the areas that we were debating on were, “was it synchronous or asynchronous? Was attendance to keep the regular Bell schedule?” And as a team, we sat and just said we were going to put some really hard parameters in so that we can get off the ground. 

I asked for one professional development day—Monday—because we were actually up against the Chinese New Year holiday, so everybody was gone when it was announced that school was going to be closed. That Monday, we had a professional development day. We pulled in all of our staff, who were either on campus or in Zoom, and I held the faculty meeting where we rolled out the expectations and the plan.  

Within those expectations, we had what the responsibilities of our faculty were, the responsibilities of everybody on the campus—from a secretary to a custodian—what learning looks like moving forward, and the roles and responsibilities of our teachers, our students, and our parents. I think putting those structures together really allowed us to jump off and continue with school as much as possible. 

Kellie: I'm wondering: when you rolled all that out, and you had those teams coming up with what your structures were going to be, were those things that were already in place because of the protests prior? Or were these things you just had to really kind of restructure on the fly? 

David: Yeah, so it was it was a mix. We'd been using Schoology for a number of years, as our LMS system, and it's been a good structure for us. But there were some areas that we weren't as tight as we would have liked to have been. We realized that had to be incredibly tight. Everybody's resources needed to be in the same places. Everybody's structures needed to look the same. As a parent, if you have a kid in different divisions—or even two different high schoolers—you’re now going to have to try to really track what's happening. If you're searching for stuff, it's not going to work. And so, again, my associate principal, Brett, went through everybody's pages in the school, and we gave parameters around that, you know, as reminders; because most of this we had in place, as far as our structures goes. 

When we talked about it, you needed to be explicit with what learning was going to happen; because we had about 40% of our students out away from the school. We told our community that we would maintain on Hong Kong time, and if kids were out of the country, they needed to let us know. We would record all the Zoom sessions, and they could do their learning that way. Or they could dial into the course. 

For the most part, we've been hitting over 90% attendance rate, so everybody's logging in and signing in. Leaning on we wanted this to look like, we found we needed to keep some consistency for our families. With kids that are traveling all over the world, it’s important for them to know that their class starts at a certain time, it will run a certain way. So, we were communicating out a bunch: to our families, about those expectations, and also with our teachers. So, it was more about pulling some structures together, tightening some things down; because you had to be really be prescriptive. I think being prescriptive, in the very beginning really helped us out. 

Kellie: You mentioned that you had the debate about: “do we do synchronous? Do we do asynchronous?” How did you kind of land on the decision that you made for your structure? 

David: What we learned when we held those discussions with our teachers was that it was difficult for kids to manage their home learning, so to go to an asynchronous model in a rigorous environment and keep kids moving through? You have to remember, they're still kids. Even though they look like big kids, and they're smart, and they're articulate, they're still kids. So making sure that we can put a structure in place where they can be successful. We went synchronous in the beginning, and we're still synchronized. However now, you know, we can loosen up a little bit. Whereas, if a teacher wants to make a video, they still have a check in. In the class that kids may watch a video. They may break out for a little bit and do some work and come back at the end. But our structures have all been put in place. And, still going to the fall, when we went to an asynchronous model, we had problems with attendance. We didn't know what kids were doing and what they weren't doing. And then when they all came back to school, we didn't know where everyone was at. So then, we had to try to cobble that together as well. 

 We thought if we can keep as normal learning as possible, whatever that looks like, then let's try to do that and try to put a system in place for that. Our teachers are working 24 hours a day, you know. They're working a lot right now. Because you can't just take what you normally do in a classroom and just do it online. You have to really think about instruction and engagement. And even, you know, even if you're really witty and have this great rapport with your class, when there's a screen between it, you can't have the same rapport. It's hard.  

Trying to work through all that with our faculty, and we also maintain regular check ins. We've been doing regular training. We have an ed tech coach, named Hamlet Lin. Throughout all of this our team would sit, and we're like, “okay, Hamlet. We need a video on Zoom, all the tips and tricks. Can you build that and send that out to a faculty? And do some training, you know, early on with Schoology?” We already had those in place. And we asked him to just pull those back out, remind us where they were, so that we can get on the same page. We had some people in different places that we leaned on, and that really helped us out. 

Kellie: We have schools and districts here that—when this hit us here—were on spring break. So, a similar situation to what happened with Chinese New Year. We already had people out, and then all of a sudden that was extended. So, thinking about where we are—we’re maybe two weeks in—what advice would you have for schools or districts that are just having to think about this pretty dramatic shift? 

David: Yeah, I think that one of the one of the things that I've noticed is, there's a want to comfort everyone in a situation like this. But you have to be cautious with that. I mean, there's a balance because you don't know how long it's going to last.  

In Hong Kong, we were seeing what was happening in China. And so when I started messaging out, it was supportive, but I was really careful with how I messaged around that “learning is going to be the same in a couple weeks” or anything like that. I pulled off of all that.  

I think you have to think of this as a long-term situation. You know, the idea that that everything's going to be fine within a week or two? It's just not a reality. And, and so, and I don't know that, that everyone, at least some of my colleagues that I was working with they, they weren't tracking that as much. And so those are some mistakes that they made early on was saying, “it'll be alright, you know, problem will go on, you know, it's still a month away.” And, and you just don't know that.  

And so it's, it's really hard, you know, so I think that that's, that's one piece is being cautious with messaging and you have to really message a lot. And I find that that I am spending, you know, three times the amount of time that it normally was spent with messaging, because I wanted to be really careful, you know, as it goes out, and really thoughtful.  

Also, I think being aware that there's going to be highs and lows with emotions. Parents and kids did not sign up for this. Parents did not sign up to be teachers. Kids did not sign up to do online learning. And so for some, they thrive in this environment. For others, they're really sad and they're missing their friends. And parents. Again, it's hard. It's hard being a teacher and you have to remember that you can't just hand over a curriculum and ask kids to go -- and expect them to be able to do it.  

You know, I think some of the things that we did that were really successful was we maintained increased office hours for our teachers, through Zoom. Our admin team every two weeks? I hold a three hour open session where parents can call in and we just get their questions. I just do my work. And as people call in, I pause what I'm doing and kind of talk with them and that's been really helpful. 

Maintaining your parent group advisory meetings? About every two three weeks, I have my group meet, and they tell me what's happening in the chat rooms and what's happening out there. And then I just I really try to address everything and then ask them to 1) remember that as a school, we want a supportive community, and that if people aren't behaving the way they should be in a chat room, that that's part of the responsibility for being on the advisory group -- to help bring those concerns to me so we can fix them, you know? So that's been a really nice support as well for our parents. When people are frustrated, they're reaching out and saying, “Talk to the school, don't do it in this forum. You know, this isn't this isn't the way we communicate as a school.”  

So, you know, those highs and lows of emotions are coming. And they come at different times for different people, different classes. I mean, we are an AP school. And so the stress around AP was very real. So we offered some extra AP work sessions, even though as a school, we were ahead of the curriculum and students are doing really well. We offered them just as a safety net, and more if anything else, just you know, something to help help people feel better about the situation they're in. 

Kellie: So you mentioned something earlier that I thought was interesting. And that is “you can't just do what you've done before and just do it online.” What would you say that people have learned instructionally through this process about what it means to be teaching online? What kinds of practices have you seen shift as a result?  

David: Yeah, you know, we've had a number during this time, because it's such an extended amount of time for us, we've been meeting with our teachers, you know, as a normal observation cycle, and talking about in this environment, what have you learned and what are you gonna bring forward? How is your practice going to change because of this? Because we've learned a lot of really great things. And so, you know, what makes sense to adjust to the future?  

And, you know, using Zoom as a tool to break out students into different ways. When you look at the breakout rooms with students, they're communicating and working in different ways. Our teachers pop in, and sometimes they're totally silent. And the kids are just working on a shared Google Doc. Well, the problem is, is that in class, if that was happening, you'd see that and you go and talk about it. So I've asked, you know? Like one teacher was telling us and I said, “What are you doing?” She goes, “Well, what I've done now is that I've asked students to record their breakout sessions. And then so one person has a recorder, and then just sends it to me at the end of the class.” And so she goes, “Then I pop in and out. And then afterwards, I can go back and just kind of touch base and see what those conversations were, and be able to move on.”  

You're able to do entrance and exit slips in real time. They've been using the chat, the chat tools. And you know, typically, we would just do that in class, you know? You would ask to start out the class that way. But she said, watching the students interact in a chatroom as a quick check in -- and also as a checkout each day -- she's seen that they're answering each other really well, you know, all the way through. And so and so that's something she said that I'll maintain. She said in some form or some way, we'll maintain those chat rooms when we come back into school because it's been a really nice check in and check out.  

You know, I think the other thing is, is that I'm really evaluating what is essential. You know, there's some key pieces to your core program that you have to get through. But then there's also some pieces that are just really nice to do or maybe as a teacher, I love that unit. But we've asked for people to move those away. Make sure it's stripped down, get down to the basics right now. And help kids get through those.  

And you know, we got to be really supportive .Over communicate, I think. We have to have a lot of individual meetings. One of the things I just asked our faculty to do is before the end of April, I want every kid to have individual meetings in every class, so they know exactly where they are, so there's no surprises, and that you can give some direct feedback and also where we're heading to, so that they know you know, where we can get going. And, I would say that the structures of our lessons, our faculty have done an awesome job of mapping things out really well. So a kid can go on and say, “Okay, I know what's happening this week or next week.” And, a lot of the resources are in there. So for that kid that needs the control and wants to be able to jump in ahead of time, it's all there ahead of time. And for that student that maybe struggles with the organization? They don't have to be organized. They can just go to the place where it is organized. And so, I think that those are things that in a day-to-day, when you see kids face to face, you may not lean on as much, you know, but those have been really, really good for us. 

Kellie: So, you also talked about the giving of work: synchronous versus asynchronous. Would you say that when students are working -- having to work at home online and in some cases self-directed -- is it taking them longer to do things? I've heard online teachers say, “Less is more.” Has that been your experience as well? 

David: Absolutely. Yeah. And actually what we've asked our faculty to do is that when they do assign work, make sure they put a time on it, so you know what it's supposed to be. And then, if it's supposed to be 30 minutes, and it's taking a kid an hour, hour and a half? Make sure you're checking in with your class, so that they tell you that. And our kids are really good about that because they're used to it.  

But I think that, in the beginning, one of the things we did early on (which I think was also really, really, really good) was we -- every week to 10 days -- we sent out a survey to our students and our parents about online learning, and struggles. You know, how's it going? All those kinds of things. The miss was -- as a school -- is that we didn't start doing that with our faculty until about three or four weeks down the road. So we should have done it at the same time.  

You know, going back, that's something that I would urge all school districts to do and -- do kind of two different ones. You have one that is just talking about the learning and the systems and what it looks like and what are those struggles. And then the other piece is talking about the wellness of students, and wellness of teachers and families. But those are really important to keep track of as you go through this.  

But when looking at time, right in the very beginning, I would receive feedback from parents saying, “You know, my student is spending six hours a day at school -- six hours a day doing homework.” And I had to remind our families that typically, that happens at school, you know, and so we have shift our mindsets a little bit. And what we asked our faculty to do is that if a student typically has homework, to embed it into the classroom time. The last thing you want is a kid to be online for six hours and then do another three hours online afterwards. So the screen time is a real challenge.  

This last week, I followed suit from our middle school. And we did a non digital day on Wednesday. I asked teachers not to assign any work, and I asked students to go use the day for themselves to get organized -- to go for a walk, to read a book, but turn off tech and it was good for our faculty and our students. And so I think that all came out of those surveys. You know, I saw that that people were struggling. Our spring break is coming up this week I didn't know that we were going to make it. So getting everybody that break was really, really important. 

Kellie: So because you mentioned the parent component, and you're obviously a parent, and you're having to also manage the online learning as well. Can you talk a little bit about how you made parents aware of some of these changes, and what kinds of things you had to do to train them? How did you help get them acclimated to this new kind of world we're living in? 

David: Yeah, and I think it's different in each age. I would say that our elementary schools have done a really great job here. They've put together learning grids that have all of the information for the week on there. You know, in the beginning, they were asynchronous. And now, my kids are doing about one or two, probably two or three Zoom calls a week now with teachers, whether it's in reading groups or different things. 

And so in the beginning, you know, for high school students, they actually did pretty well. Up front, you know, and more than anything else, I heard the concerns of parents that they were just afraid of, you know, does this mean that my kid doesn't get credit for the year? What does AP look like? What about college applications? And so, trying to talk through those, every week I sent out (well, we, as a school) sent out on communication. And you know, we had we had those trips, those interim trips, and we had to cancel those and so refunds on over $13 million (in Hong Kong dollars) of these trips.  

And so trying to manage all of those pieces, the communication and regular communication has been critical. And then hearing from parents.  

When I started doing some of the Zoom sessions, I had parents get on just because they felt like they needed to know what Zoom is and how it worked. And so they had to say, “I really don't have any questions. I just felt like I'm out of the loop -- that everybody knows how Zoom is working, and I need to know how it works.” And so we were doing some of that, but I think what really helped is sending out some trainings early on that our ed tech coach did for students.  

And what's really interesting now is for middle school and high school students, you have parents working from home, and across the table they're listening to class, you know, and so when we shared with our faculty members who said, “You know, this is a very interesting, new world we're about to go into, because your parents are now in your class with you. And so, everything that happens within a class, they're going now are seeing it. “ The good and the bad. And so, it's been an interesting dynamic that way and, and I think that there's been a new appreciation, I think, for what it is in that world.  

But I think that having times that are open to help train parents. I know that with my own kids, you know, there's times where we're trying to manage that -- my wife for sure. My wife's also a school nurse. And so she's been there helping manage with our kids. And I've been, you know, doing the same. But you know, where she's like, “Okay, I can't I don't know how to get it. Where's the zoom link? I can't find the zoom link.” And so she messages the teachers, and the teachers are really responsive.  

And I think the key though, is that our faculty right now are on from 7:30 to 4:00. They are available and they're teaching from home, whether they're teaching from home or on our campus. And so it's okay if something's slipping or falling apart, because I can always get ahold of them. And I think that's a really important thing. 

Kellie: Is there anything else that you would like to share? Either like lessons learned -- like you mentioned that one thing you would have done differently is surveying teachers when you were surveying your students. Is there anything else that you would have approached differently looking back? 

David: Yeah, for sure. We have our other associate principal, Lauren. She works with student life. So she's been working with Student Council and our ambassador programs. And about a month ago, maybe six weeks ago, it was coming across in the surveys that our students were sad. They were handling the school part, but they were sad. And, some parents were letting kids go outside, other parents weren't. And so it was, you know, trying to manage that. But our students came together in those leadership groups and started doing daily challenges to kids. Like, “Take a picture of your lunch today.” “Here's an open Zoom session for everybody during break,” or, you know, they just did a tic tac toe this week of things that that they've experienced. But they're doing a really great job of these challenges to try to just bring our kids together.  

We usually have a really interactive campus. It's a fun school, and how do you bring that together and not lose that? I think that's very different. When you sign up for online school. you don't expect to have assemblies or to do home rooms. You sign up for classes. And those classes a lot of times are self-directed with some instruction or some pieces of communication with maybe a group of people or not.  

In this environment, we're trying to keep our school a cohesive community. And it's different. And so we're continually trying to figure out ways to do that. And that's with keeping the well-being of our families, including our faculty, in mind. And so having somebody with a lens to that -- that can really continue to look at that -- has been really important. And I think it would get lost. Because, you know, one of the things I do -- I am concerned about it with some of my own family in Oregon -- is with a couple of school districts, they've been given a couple packets of work for a couple of weeks. And so that's going to end soon. So then what? What's next, right? Is it going to be online? Is it not going to be online, but regardless, now you're going to be dealing with grief of your kids. And with parents, the stress of trying to manage your finances and work and your kids schooling. And the minute that your kids schooling takes a dip, you have this huge guilt associated with it. And you know, that I'm not doing what I'm supposed to for my kid. And so having this school kind of really try to wrap their hands around everybody, and try to give outlets for communication, but also some some outlets for fun, you know, because it's a really serious situation. You don't want to make light of it. But at the same time, the emotional well-being of everyone in this is really important. 

Actually, one last thing I wanted to share with you. So one of the things we did early on -- and I think that this would be really important for schools to do -- is that we created a virtual learning group. And so from day one, we put all of our resources and expectations in here and we've been gathering and sharing out exemplars as well, both from other schools, but also from our own.  

And so we created this and it has been shared out to all of our faculty. And we've been sharing it out to other schools: effective lessons, how to do summatives, what Virtual Learning looks like, and what our policy guidelines are that we continue to send out. But creating a landing page for everybody that we keep directing to has been a really good thing. 

Kellie: So that’s a fantastic thing to share. Are any of these things publicly available? That we could share with the greater community? I’m noticing that some of this is available in our Public Resources area? 

David: Yeah, so we just did that in the last couple of weeks. So we made sure that these were all good to go. And so, but also, I would say that if any school wants to talk, you know, me and my team are available. And we've been sharing different resources. In the international community, we've all been sharing since day one. I've been hosting a couple different webinars with different schools around Asia, where we're just sharing our struggles and you know, kind of like the decisions behind synchronous, asynchronous, so they can make their decisions. 

If you want to see what David and his team have shared with other Schoology users, check out the public resources area: https://app.schoology.com/resources/public/2419679317/profile 

Watch the entire interview with David here.

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