Interview with Doug Lemov on “Teaching in the Online Classroom”

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Uncommon Schools Managing Director Doug Lemov, the author of “Teaching As Leadership,” returns to 50CAN for an interview with CEO Marc Porter Magee. Doug talks about his new book, “Teaching in the Online Classroom,” and the importance of authentic human connection as a baseline requirement for distance learning.


Marc Porter Magee: Well, welcome back to The New Reality Roundup video series, and we’re really excited to have Doug Lemov here coming back to The New Reality Roundup. He was our very first video interview right in the early weeks of when this all started for us, and we started figuring out how to do schooling without school buildings. And now I get to come back eight months later and take stock of where we are and where we go from here. So welcome, Doug.

Doug Lemov: Well, thanks for having me on again. It’s nice to see you. I hope everything is good with you.

So I know a lot of people know you as a teacher, a former teacher, a former principal, and instructor, and the best-selling author of Teach Like a Champion, but you are also someone who’s sort of been an accidental recruit into this world of virtual learning. And you have a new book out, which we’re going to get a chance to talk about, that is really kind of a survival guide for all of us in this new era of online learning. So maybe you could just talk a little bit about this decision you made, back when we were just starting to talk about jumping into this world and trying to make the most of the world of distance education.

Yeah. Thanks for– I like your phrase, “Survival guide.” I believe in the classroom. I love the classroom. I think what the classroom does and what face-to-face interactions do in learning are profound, and I think that most teachers feel that. We trained for a different world than we’re now asked to deliver, and we know we have to do it. We have to do the best we can for kids. One of the things that’s changed since we last talked is– the data has been pouring in, and the data is profound, and by that I mean profoundly bad. This is going to be a terrible year in the annuls in education for students. So we’ve got to do the best we can at this skillset that is mildly different, and the setting that is not the thing that drew us to the profession. So the book, which is called Teaching in the Online Classroom, it started– I don’t even know that– I say this sometimes about Teach Like a Champion – I think it was the same with this book – I don’t think I even knew I was writing a book, or that we were writing a book, because my whole team wrote it, until we were well into the process. Mostly we were just watching a lot of video and trying to get information out to people and trying to help them figure it out. And suddenly we realized the traffic to our blog and our web page had doubled because people just– they were desperate to see what it looked like.

And we started doing some webinars. And we would get teachers who– this is in September when we had all summer to prepare. And the thing they appreciated most about the webinars was just seeing other teachers in action teaching online, because many of them in September had never seen someone else do an online classroom. And so they had nothing to compare what they were doing to, which I think is– teachers deserve better. So if nothing else, we want to get them lots and lots and lots of examples of things that they can do and adapt and steal and strive for, etc., so they can do their best by kids. And honestly, this is maybe a nontrivial part of it, have them enjoy the– well, find the experience more gratifying. No one wants to struggle. It feels bad when you’ve done– and having run lessons and done trainings and workshops; it’s no fun to feel like you didn’t reach people and you’re not connecting, and to know that you can be doing better. And so people are going to have to work hard, and I would love to do everything I can to help them be successful at it.

Yeah. And I think that human side of it seems really important. This has been just an incredibly hard year for everyone, but particularly for teachers who thrive on being in the classroom with kids, who have a whole set of techniques they’ve developed, and experiences. Trying to switch that, and, to your point, the data seems to suggest that a lot of kids are struggling right now, and that doesn’t feel good. So I think providing teachers with practical tips that they can use to engage with students seems so powerful right now. And I’d love to maybe just have you jump in a little bit and share a couple things that you and your team found; the kind of things that people can find in this book, if they pick up a copy.

Yeah. I was really– oh, sorry. I started to jump in there, because I was just so struck by what you said. It’s easy to be distracted by the technology– by the technological aspects of it– by the fact that we’re talking via Zoom, and by the fact that all of a sudden there are all these– Nearpod and all these things I’m supposed to know about, and should know about, but it’s still a deeply human endeavor. And I think that’s just thing number one for me and my team, which is the key: if you didn’t have any of those tools, or if all you had was Zoom, you would still be able to do it and you would still be able to make a difference and teach really well, if you were intentional about the human side of the interaction, which starts with seeing and being seen. Watching a great teacher’s lesson the other day and– here’s how it started. The kids are coming online, and she greets three or four of them, “Hi, Marc. Hi, Ned. Nice to see you. Hi, Sarah. Good to see you.” Right? A little bit of that. Not 15 minutes of it, asking them about their weekend, just like, “I see you. It’s nice to have you here. You are an important part of this endeavor. Jasmine, would you read the opening question for us please?” That’s a cold call. Whenever people are online in any social situation, norms are established, whether you establish them or whether they establish themself by accident. And then the presumptive norm in an online setting is almost always pacivity. And so people will not speak until someone absolves them of the responsibility of breaking that norm of, like, “Are we in a speaking situation here?” It’s the same with adults.

I’ve had a few of those meetings. 

Yeah. It’s the same with adults. We all get on the call and we’re like– if we don’t turn off our cameras literally, we do it metaphorically, and we’re hoping someone will ask someone to jump in. So the cold call there just sort of breaks the ice in a way that absolves students of responsibility for it. And there are two or three little, quick cold calls, “Great. What’s the second part of the question?” to someone else, and away we go. And then the first thing the teacher does is says– they’re reading the novel Esperanza Rising. And she says, “Great. What’s evidence we’ve seen so far that Esperanza is a dynamic character– that she’s a character that’s changing? Enter your thoughts in the chat.” Right? So then right away, again, kids are active right from the outset. The norm she’s setting is this is not going to be a passive experience. Kids start chatting away, and as soon as they start chatting, “So interesting, Jasmine. Love what you wrote there. Carly, such an interesting thought. Thank you, Abraham, for weighing in as well.” Right? “So you do the work, you engage in the community that we’re trying to build online, and I thank you for it and I appreciate you and I let you know that you’re seen.” And then she takes her slides down and she goes to gallery view. Right? So simple but so basic. So she wants to have a discussion. What do you need to have a discussion? We all need to see each other. No one offers a heartfelt observation about the book or about history or about anything to a screen full of– blank screens with names on them. You need to see people looking at you, telling you that your ideas matter, smiling at you, whatever they’re doing.

So she goes to gallery view. She calls on a couple students to open the conversation. She calls on one student and says to another student, “Be ready to build off of his ideas.” And so she’s socializing the idea of listening and talking. And she’s really replicated–she’s done two things in those first three or four minutes: she’s replicated the classroom in a fairly low-tech way. There are no fancy tools. Mostly it’s about talking to each other and listening to each other and being actively involved; and she started to reframe a culture, which is if she does this three or four times when kids get on for a call with her– Miss Cha. That’s her name. When kids get on a call with Miss Cha, they’re going to know that it’s an active and engaged experience, and that they’re an important part of the community. Because she’s constantly telling them that she sees them, she asks them to speak, she asks them to participate, and so they don’t feel as disconnected. If you look at the data– there’s so much devastating data, but maybe the most devastating part of the data is just the number of kids who’ve disappeared– who’ve just dropped off the– they don’t show up to school. Attendance rates are devastatingly low in some places. And so every time we make someone feel like they are central to the community, that they’re important, “I’m glad you’re here. Your voice is important,” cold calling, asking someone to speak says to them, “Your voice is important in this setting. We need to hear from you.” I think those things are– it’s the human things, particularly around seeing and being seen that are the most profound.

Absolutely. Yeah. And I think there was a Bellwether study that came out a couple weeks ago that talked about 3 million kids that just have not logged on at all or are disconnected. We’re all running a little bit on adrenaline, I think, at this point, but we know we’ve got a whole school year left, so. After Thanksgiving we’ve got another month before the holiday break again, and then we come back for a whole nother half of the year. I’d just be interested in your research, as you’re engaging with teachers, what do you think it’s going to take for us to make the most of the rest of this year? Are there a couple things we need to apply? Is there a mindset shift? Are there supports that teachers need to make this happen?

Yeah. Those are great questions. And the short version is I don’t know. None of us have ever been through this before. But I do think that schools, classrooms, almost everything that we do that is important to us– those things are first and foremost communities. The thing that drives us as a sense of belonging– I think that’s what I’m describing when I describe this teacher, in the way that she starts class. Her message to students is a message of belonging, “You belong in this classroom. You’re important.” And I think that’s important for teachers too. I mean, I just can’t imagine what it’s– I got into a– I got into a bit of a dust-up on the internet for suggesting that it was really, really important that teachers should do everything they possibly can to get kids’ cameras on. And look, I realize there are a ton of barriers to that. Right? There’s glitchy internet. There’s non-existent internet. And then there’s this whole narrative of, “It’s embarrassing to kids because they won’t want to be seen, and there are things that are happening in their house, they’re humiliated about what their houses look like.” I don’t know. Can you tell where I am? I have a blank wall behind me. The first step when you see a problem is to problem-solve; it’s not to give up on the endeavor of see and be seen. It’s so profound to be able to see kids. Think about your own– if your child’s teacher, while you were away at work or working in the basement or wherever you work, said, “Yeah. It’s fine. Turn your camera off,” you know what your kids would do and you would not want that to happen.

If there are real issues in the house– the kid is babysitting two younger siblings and one of them is running around naked. Right? That’s real. That’s happening in some– or, “My house is a disaster and there are a bunch of relatives living with us.” “Okay. Those are solvable problems. Let me help you think about where you can set up your camera. And you tell me on days when you’re babysitting your little siblings, and then you could turn your camera, or you can turn it off for– you can let me know your status.” We can problem-solve around those things. But I think that it’s profoundly important for students to feel a sense of belonging, but it’s also important for teachers to feel a sense of belonging. I can not imagine what it’s like to be a teacher in a place that has given up on the idea of seeing each other and where you spend your days talking to blank screens and hoping that someone is listening to you, and just looking at the names of hypothetical people, or of the names of your kids, some of whom you’ve never met, across your screen. And I’m supposed to love this work and bring my passion to it? I just think, again, it’s the human things: seeing and being seen, and talking to each other, and building community. And so, look, I don’t have any easy answers, but if it’s painful to you as a teacher right now, the first thing I would say is connect. Do everything you can to connect. Connect through the work. I just finished reading– Adeyemi Stembridge is really great. This really, really great book, Culture Responsive Education in the Classroom, and he talks about how relationships– there’s this triangle– you build the strongest relationships by focusing on content together and exploring content together. And so I still want to teach – I want to be connected to it – but build community around content.

Yeah. That’s great. 

If the kid doesn’t have their camera on, call them on the phone and say, “How come your camera– Mac, how come your–? I would love to see your face in class. It’s so important for me to hear your voice and know how you’re doing and what you think about the things that we’re doing. What would it take for me to get your camera out? Is there some reason you can’t have it on?” I think if you feel disconnected the first step is to start building community and connecting, and connecting through content. If there’s one thing that I would say academically is read. Reading is the most important thing, but read together. Have kids read books. You can read aloud online. You can read aloud to kids. Sharing text in the oral tradition I just think is definitely powerful now when people feel disconnected.

Yeah. That’s great advice. And it’s interesting, because I think you and your team have found that there’s a blending of– there’s the academic side, there’s the rigorous content, the reading, but there’s the social and humanistic side on both ends: the teachers need to see their students; the students need to see the classmates and their teachers. And if we leave either of those out it doesn’t work. 

You can’t do one without the other, really, I think is what– one of my colleagues would say this. He would say, “I don’t know how you can build relationships with students unless you’re teaching them.” I’ve sat and overheard some lessons, because I have three kids. PS, teachers at my kids’ schools– I’m immensely grateful for all your hard work. Thank you. Thank you. But I’ve overheard the lesson where the teacher for my– one of my kids was on a call for 20 minutes, and the teacher was going around the room asking every kid awkwardly about their weekend. And the kids don’t really want to answer about their [weekend?]. It’s painful for everybody, “Doesn’t anyone want to talk? You guys aren’t going to talk at all?” You build relationships by engaging over content and doing work together and learning things together. I don’t see how you can– the relationship-building is profoundly important, always– 10 times so now. But you can’t do it without the other side, which is the teaching side. They have to happen at the same time and in conversation with each other.

Yeah. Well, I think that’s a great note to end on, Doug. Thank you for checking back in with us eight months in. I hope eight months from now we’ll have it all figured out, but I think it’s great to know that even someone who’s studying it every day is still learning. We don’t have all the answers. We’re going to have to keep learning and be adaptable. But I highly recommend your new book, Teaching in the Online Classroom, for anyone who wants to get all of those lessons all in one place under one cover. And I think it really is a lifeline for those of us who are trying to make it work this year. So I really appreciate you and the team taking time to put it all together. I know it’s not easy to write a book in general, and to get one done in a few months is extraordinary.

Well, thanks, Marc. I appreciate it. And so thanks to you and thanks to all those teachers out there. It is the hardest time to– it’s the hardest time to be a student, and therefore it’s the hardest time to be a teacher, but also, therefore, the most important time to give our best. So thank you to all those teachers out there listening.

Absolutely. We need great teachers and great teaching now more than ever. So thank you for everyone who’s doing this work, and we hope you’ll consider checking out the new book, because I think you’re going to find a lot in there that you find very helpful in the year ahead.

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