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The Challenges of Engaging Students new to Distance Education with Ed Pelfrey

April 20, 2020 Josh Britton and Derek Maxson Season 1 Episode 3
The Challenges of Engaging Students new to Distance Education with Ed Pelfrey
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Get More Math Podcast
The Challenges of Engaging Students new to Distance Education with Ed Pelfrey
Apr 20, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
Josh Britton and Derek Maxson

This episode is from the perspective of a high school administrator, Ed Pelfrey. Like all of us, Mr. Pelfrey has never had to quickly create a distance learning system before. In his interview with Josh, Mr. Pelfrey shares with us how his students were set up to succeed in distance learning because of the initiatives set in place before COVID-19 and how he is supporting teachers as they connect with their students.

In this episode we discuss how Mr. Pelfry is: 

  • setting enrichment expectations for what the students have already learned
  • committed to maintaining a positive mindset shift with students and faculty
  • how they leverage positive behavior reward at his school

Helpful Links and Resources

We hope you enjoy this interview! We would love to hear from you as you continue listening to our show. If you are a teacher, parent, or administrator, reach out to us a and let us know what you're doing to adjust during the COVID era. 

If you’d like to know more or see what it’s all about, we’d like to give you a free trial! Go to to learn more

Show Notes Transcript

This episode is from the perspective of a high school administrator, Ed Pelfrey. Like all of us, Mr. Pelfrey has never had to quickly create a distance learning system before. In his interview with Josh, Mr. Pelfrey shares with us how his students were set up to succeed in distance learning because of the initiatives set in place before COVID-19 and how he is supporting teachers as they connect with their students.

In this episode we discuss how Mr. Pelfry is: 

  • setting enrichment expectations for what the students have already learned
  • committed to maintaining a positive mindset shift with students and faculty
  • how they leverage positive behavior reward at his school

Helpful Links and Resources

We hope you enjoy this interview! We would love to hear from you as you continue listening to our show. If you are a teacher, parent, or administrator, reach out to us a and let us know what you're doing to adjust during the COVID era. 

If you’d like to know more or see what it’s all about, we’d like to give you a free trial! Go to to learn more

Derek Maxson:   0:01
Welcome to the Get More Math Podcast, where we support teachers in their quest for long term student gains. This is a podcast for teachers to share their passion for math education, learn best practices from experts in the field, and swap ideas for student success. This is community.. This is Get More Math. Welcome back to the Get More Math Podcast. I'm Derrick Maxson, the president of Get More Math and I'm here with Josh Britton, the founder of Get More Math. How you doing today, Josh?

Josh Britton:   0:33
Doing great. Thanks,  Derek.

Derek Maxson:   0:36
We've got another interview today.  I'd love to hear from you on what we're gonna be expecting today.

Josh Britton:   0:42
We thought it would be really interesting to talk to an administrator and get the perspective from a leadership position of ways that the school district can support the teachers and support the students and keep things going, even at a remote distance. So we'll be interviewing Ed Pelfrey. He's an administrator at Ceres High School in California, and he's got a lot to tell us about how his high school has really tried to engage students in the past and what they're doing now when they can't be in person.

Derek Maxson:   1:12
That sounds great Let's go straight to the interview.  

Josh Britton:   1:21
Well, welcome, everybody. We're here today with Ed Pelfrey. He's the assistant principal at Ceres High School in sunny California. Ed has been there for five years as an assistant principal, and he has an extensive background in education prior to that assignment. Ed, thank you so much for being here today.  

Ed Pelfrey:   1:38
It's my pleasure, Josh.  

Josh Britton:   1:40
Let's start with just a little bit about your role and your school. Could you tell us about what you do there?

Ed Pelfrey:   1:45
I'm an assistant principal at Ceres High School, and I run our career technology education programs. I evaluate teachers in all disciplines, and I'm primarily in charge of student behavior in attendance of high school.

Derek Maxson:   2:01
You know, we're all looking at this incredible new demand of all of a sudden, 180 delivering distance learning instead of in the classroom. My first question really is going to be, before this happened. did you already have any distance learning programs or responsibilities?

Ed Pelfrey:   2:20
Well, I'm monitoring teachers primarily in my discipline, but we also are working, which is career technology education. But we're also, uh, breaking up some of the larger departments. So I'm helping out with math, English, social studies to make sure that we're getting frequent contact between teachers and students. And the teachers have all the resources they need to be successful during this time.

Josh Britton:   2:46
So what are some of the best ideas you've heard thus far from teachers to try to get kids involved to keep them rolling?

Ed Pelfrey:   2:54
Well, our goal is to ensure that all students have, uh, have a more structured learning environment in this time away from the classroom as that time increases. We're trying to focus on essential learning that has already been taught in class for for high school students our primary priority is to support them and earning high school credits and meeting college entrance requirements, and that we keep in mind that we're not going to be able to replace face to face learning that students would have received, but we want to do the best we can beyond that. We communicate with parents, via parent square, which is a digital contact platform where we can text, phone call or email parents. We keep in touch with students, mostly through Google Classroom. We are what we call a one to world school district. So every student has a Chromebook and every student is connected with Internet service. We give what are called Kajeets, which are mobile hot spots to any students who don't have Internet service at home.

Josh Britton:   4:00
What have you seen early on? That I guess, would present issues you haven't been able to overcome yet and you're still troubleshooting?

Ed Pelfrey:   4:08
Well, it's really contacting those students who aren't logging on. You know, we've got large numbers of students who are not in contact, and when I say large. I mean, we're talking maybe, a  quarter of our students that were not getting consistent contact with. I think that's the biggest challenge. Our district has made it clear that teachers should have contact with every student once a week, six teachers contacting a student once a week, and that if we can't do that, we have ah, learning directors and administrators such as myself that are working to make sure we can make contact with those students.

Josh Britton:   4:45
That that sounds like a lot of a challenge. Normally they have to be in your building, so you've got them to make contact right there. I'm curious about like the words requirements and words like optional exercises. As you guys think about trying to get your high schoolers through, you know, required courses and prepare them for, I guess, especially seniors, juniors get on to college. Is your district laying out any required distance activities for students or is it more along the lines of, we're trying to support you, but you don't have to do these things?

Ed Pelfrey:   5:23
The words we use on this have been carefully chosen, okay, because it is a challenge and it is very hard for teachers to some to understand and some to implement. The way we've said it is that students should be expected to complete assigned work but are not penalized for not doing it. We need to remember that, so we've worked with words like enrichment and extension as the type of things we're trying to give students based on learning they've already had, we're emphasizing the need for access equity and support for students during the school closure, and that grading shouldn't be punitive during this time. The messages that student work submitted during school closure should be for the purpose of determining levels of student understanding and for informing future instruction similar to the purposes of formative assessment. That's a that's a read, not off the top of the head.

Josh Britton:   6:23
It's very exact. And the more you said, the more rounded out the picture became for me. If I were to rephrase it sounds like you're trying to encourage, you're trying to support, you're trying to even assess. But the assessment isn't like and here's the grade you got, but rather let's make sure we know what you know. We'll do all we can to extend that or improve that. You know, one thing you said. It sounded like you're focusing mostly on content that they have already learned. Is that correct?

Ed Pelfrey:   6:56
Extending what they've already learned, yes. We're trying to extend what they've already learned and focus on essential learning. A big focus of our district with the PLC process, Professional Learning Communities has been really focusing on what are the essential standards. And when we talk about the essential standards, we're talking about standards in a math or English class, which would be maybe 5 to 6 a semester. Focus on this is what you need to know to move to the next level. And so what we're focusing on now is we've given them most of that information. Now, how well do they do that? And how far can we extend their mastery of those essential skills?

Josh Britton:   7:37
Do you anticipate introducing previously uncovered essential skills? Say, you know, maybe there was something that was targeted for April or May?

Ed Pelfrey:   7:46
Yes, we are. And that's been the focus. Just making sure it's the essential materials, not just all materials. So as much as we were wary because if you don't have everybody participating and we still don't know if we're coming back or not, you know we're under the assumption our district is that we're coming back May fourth, but with state super intendant with of instruction, Tony Thurman's statement last night that didn't anticipate us coming back. You know, this morning we had our administrative Zoom meeting. We said, Hey, look, that is what the superintendent said, and that may be true, but this is a fluid situation, and we're working like we're coming back May 4th.

Josh Britton:   8:24
I wonder what, again this is early days, and, we're just projecting, but it's it's gonna be interesting to think about how to prepare for the next school year, especially for kids who are highly dependent on the day to day structure of the school system. I guess I'm probably thinking about the 25% that you're really trying to reach that are, you know, unreachable or haven't responded. It may be that we end up with and depending on your system and your clientele, some chunk of kids who have had zero or almost negligible school involvement for five months. I mean, in a kind of a dark scenario. And then they show up in late August or early September. You know, I'm a former math teacher. I taught math for 20 years and already overcoming this summer sort of downtime was very difficult. I worked with fairly challenged kids. They'd come in in September, having forgotten what little they already learned. Trying to think of the same kids after five months of complete release. I don't know. Have you already started thinking about what that might look like?

Ed Pelfrey:   9:36
Yeah, Luckily, it fits in with a lot of things that we were working on already, new initiatives. One of the things that we've looked at is building student capacity to control themselves and to work well with others. So our school behavioral expectations are to be safe, be respectful, be responsible. And we've really focused on the idea of being responsible is that you control yourself and we're putting together days of lessons that will be given to initially. We're talking about all freshmen, but it may be necessary that we do the school wide. It may look different in each grade level, but working on what does it mean to be responsible? That you're proactive, that you set your own goals, that you control your own time, and your own behaviors and really trying to dig deep on that to give students a real feeling of what it means to be responsible, and to motivate them to want to do that. And the next one is how to be respectful, which is you know, how to be successful with other people, listening to one another, thinking win-win, working on those skills with students. So working on those student behaviors which I think may be as equally as hard as the curriculum lag, maybe that self-control and social control. That's that's one big piece. The next piece is being at the high school. I started off in the high school at Sonora High School, and then I went to the elementary, the K-8 level at Columbia. And when I went to Columbia, the thing that got me was. you were asking entirely different questions. So when a student struggles in high school, the answer is he's not doing his work. When a student is struggling in elementary school, we say what skills does the student lack? And we're starting to see that, I think now move to high school. We're working on that. So the first thing that happens in every elementary school is universal screeners for math and English, for reading and writing and math. And that doesn't happen in high school. And so we are changing that where one of the things working right now is finding the best tools available to do that, so that when kids come back to school and initially we talked about it just being freshmen. But now we realize especially with this closure that we need to screen all our kids for those skills. We were also just working with our California Partnership Academy. We were talking about students who weren't going to be able to go on from advanced math to integrated math, to an advanced class to Ingrated Math 3 because they're not passing. And we we worked on  is it will or skill? We eliminated the will problems. We had kids who were really working and they said, Well, skill on And I was really struggling with that. And then one of the teacher said, Well, it's because they don't have basic math skills and I went to the teacher in our group. We talked about it and she said, No, that's it. They struggle with formative math skills. We said, So what we need to do is focus on those skills to move kids forward, and that was kind of exciting that teachers didn't look at something that was outside or out of their control. We said we can teach these kids better skills and they'll be more successful. So the first thing we're looking at is this the, the social behavioral expectations and focus on that coming in the next year. The next one is universal screenings and filling skill gaps in math and English, which we think will be really important for success everywhere. The third thing we're looking at is engagement. How do we get students engaged in school? And that's something that our district is always focused on, but it's been engagement and instruction, and what we're trying to do is focus on what's gonna make kids want to be a school and make school a place where they want to be. Hopefully, students being away will make them want to be a school more because of miss friends. But that will go away quickly. So how are we going to continue to increase that? So those are the three focuses we have coming back.

Josh Britton:   13:26
That's fantastic. It sounds like you're beautifully positioned for really what could be a very difficult stretch of time with your pre-existing initiatives. So you're already deeply invested in helping kids with greater needs, and the three-pronged approach you just outlined is just gonna be that much more valuable. You're gonna have more gaps to fill in your screenings. For example, um, the behaviors you're aiming at might be a little bit harder to reach or the kids might have kind of come, come become a little loosened, little unconstrained with that much time away from you guys and might be harder to engage. But I love that you're already pushing hard to succeed in those areas for those kids. That's really neat. You know, we just met about a month ago for the first time in what seems now to be, ah, a whole different world to me, where we were at a big conference, lots of people rubbing shoulders, and we had a conversation then about some of your initiatives. And I wonder if we could just gonna go off are beaten path a moment because there's one metaphor you shared with me that, at least for me really, really stuck with me. Any time I can remember something a month after a random conversation, it's a good sign. So I wonder if you could bring out the sailboats?

Ed Pelfrey:   14:44
So the metaphor that we've used is that there are students, who are all students or sailboats, is the metaphor, and that some of them have rudders so that when the wind blows, whichever way the wind blows, they know how to use their rudder to go where they want to go. The majority of our students, 60% of them, want to go the right direction. They have goals, they understand right from wrong and they want to do the right thing. So even if something negative happens, they can use their ready to go in a positive direction. We also have a very small group of students who are also sailboats with rudders. But they want to for whatever reason, they want to go the wrong direction and those are students we need to provide a lot of individual life support. But the group that we focused on was this middle group that 20 to 30% of students that are sailboats without rudders, they go whichever way the wind blows. So if there's a positive win, they do the right thing. If there's a negative win, they do the wrong thing and what we want to do is create a positive wind at school to get those students going the right direction, and when students get the positive feedback for doing the right thing frequently then it becomes something that they can internalize. And then we can teach them, the right goals, the proper ways to move forward. And then they can start to have their own rudders and so that they can grow up and choose to go the right direction even when there's a negative wind.

Josh Britton:   16:09
Well, thanks for sharing that. I've loved that metaphor, and it speaks to several things that I think are important to me, and they capture hope for making a real difference in your school's overall climate. I love the way you think it's not just there's like good kids and bad kids. There's lots of kids who are conforming to your expectations and then their kids who aren't. But among those kids, there are these kids that you could influence, and maybe not simply by like punitive measures, but rather by changing the direction of the wind. I love that part.  

Ed Pelfrey:   16:45
Yeah, and it's working on culture first. You can build systems of positive and negative reinforcement, but it's building a culture that that is always reinforcing doing the right thing.

Josh Britton:   16:58
That's a good phrase too. Now, I mean, we may be a little bit out of field here in our topic. but I'm fascinated by the work you've done there, and I think there's a lot of quality in it. Let's drill down just a tiny bit. Can you tell me some of the things you guys have done to make it easier and more pleasurable to choose the right path?

Ed Pelfrey:   17:19
Yes, Well, the first thing you've got to do is we spent a lot of time on on the instruction of what is the right thing in the wrong thing. And we talked about like being safe. If our behavior expectations are to be safe, be respectful, be responsible. First they're safe. And and we told them, you know, well, in elementary school, we tried to do engaging lessons. Was the first thing with this done by their classroom teachers, where we said, uh, in elementary school, being safe meant not running with scissors and, not punching one another. And while those air still good rules when were in high school or time about something different. We're talking about taking care of one another emotionally and physically, and we focused on that, that looking out for one another, letting people know who can help when people are having difficult times emotionally. And then also the whole idea of safe. See something? Say something when we're talking about drugs, alcohol, weapons, things like that. So those types of very specific lessons that engaged students and actually touch them was what was important. And then we put together real rewards every day that students would get in class, that a student couldn't walk out of class and have something. So for kids who have goals and can't forgo pleasure in the moment for pleasure in the future, we don't need those tools. But we've got that group of kids in the middle who just need the positive wind to blow in the right direction. So if a student is responsible in class, which means, for instance, they did their classwork, then we are teachers would issue them what we call the hero point and hero is a digital platform for reporting these points. So this teacher, can use their phone or through their computer, can give the student a hero point. With that hero point, the student could walk out of class right, then go to our hero booth and at the very least, they could get a red rope or a treat for one point. At the highest end a student could accumulate many hero points and have free prom tickets or free senior trips or spirit clothing. So we used Hero. And so what's nice about hero is the teacher can issue these points to students. Students can keep track of the points on their phones and their Chromebooks, their parents getting also keep track of them. And, then we can see what did the student get rewarded for? What did they redeem their reward points for? And then we can measure real-time what's working and what's not working in our initiatives. So if a student was respectful in class, and that could be just, you know, and teachers do it many different ways and we've given them broad, broad latitude to decide how to reward students in their classes. If they say students been respectful in class. Fantastic. And then the teacher may stay. Okay, you, I've issued you. You've been issued five points and we're giving away. I'm gonna let you use your ear buds in class during independent work.  So whatever it is. And let's say everything from in-class rewards like that they can redeem for those types of things. Bathroom passes to big-ticket items, uh, like proms, clothing, things like that. And we've used that in our school to really set a positive tone. At first with the first year we did it, it took a lot of prepping with our teachers. One of my teachers came out to our hero Booth, and he was standing there and he says, Man, what a great start to school. Yeah, it really has been I said, Why do you think that it looked at me like I was stupid? He said, Well, Hero. I was like, Oh, it's really making that big a difference. You see it here I absolutely see it that students know that when they do the right thing, there's a reward. You know, at schools, for instance at my school, I am in charge of behavior and attendance. I have a secretary who was called the discipline secretary, so that's a full-time position for negative consequences. There's another position called administrative assistant, who works almost entirely in the past on student discipline. We had not a single person in charge of student positive rewards, positive kind. And so we've really shifted that. So that now my A.A. and I and my secretary probably spend more of our time working on devising positive rewards and positive consequences for kids and tracking them to see if our initiatives are working. And it's made a big difference in school. And it's changed the mindset. Four years ago, we suspended 25% of our students at least once. Last year, we suspended less than 5%. That's fantastic. And that is the difference in time from those initiatives. When my principal asked, do you think you think hero has done this and I'm thinking to myself and hero was what were we broadly call our entire positive behavioral support system. I said, I can't see that that made a difference and she said, No, but it's the mindset from negative consequences as our only tool to positive consequences as a tool for getting the right thing. We focused on teaching and on rewarding kids who met our expectations.

Josh Britton:   22:31
Those are really good examples of particular, specific and I know roll up your sleeves and do a bunch of work initiatives that overall are building towards this larger cultural shift. And I love it. The longer you talk about that, the more delighted I am. And I just have to say kudos. And, uh, you know, in a way, you didn't know that, but you were preparing yourselves for, I think, a difficult, um, recovery period where you're already putting in place a community that can take some hits and, bounce back with so many specific pieces of hard work. Thoughtful, hard work. Well, and I thank you for your time today. You really have a lot of great content. I love the deep thinking that the folks at Ceres are doing, not just you,  but I spoke to several of your teachers and, um, it's beautiful. How integrated, How thoughtful, How thorough. How wide-ranging your specific efforts are. I expect the cumulative movement to just get better and better. So I look forward to talking to you in years to come.  

Ed Pelfrey:   23:42
Great. Thank you, Josh.  

Derek Maxson:   23:50
Welcome back. Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Ed, for being a guest on the Get More Math Podcast. Josh, Help to summarize this podcast and to give us a picture of the takeaways that we could each have from your time with Ed. 

Josh Britton:   24:04
Well, for me, the greatest value of coming out of talking to Ed, is his emphasis on mindset. You hear it in any topic he addresses. So we go back to the beginning of our conversation. He was talking about how they've worked really hard on the message of being safe, respectful and responsible from the elementary age on up through the high school and what that means for those various ages. Always, I'd say explicitly and thoughtfully and thoroughly working towards building student mindset, shaping student mindset. And then, if you think about, how they're addressing their expectations during this time of remote learning, how they carefully phrased that students are expected to complete the assigned work, but not penalized for not doing it. What a nice balance. So they're acknowledging the difficulty that students find themselves in and not penalizing anyone. But at the same time, they're still working towards a mindset of well, we are all together with a, learning community. And we have work. The kids can do exercises. They can engage in and they can push forward, and we expect them to do that. That's what students do is they learn. So it's a beautiful balancing act. And again you just see that same emphasis on who kids are and how they should be thinking as they go through, gosh, the challenges that we're in now or the normal challenges of a regular school pattern.

Derek Maxson:   25:47
Josh, when we were talking a few minutes ago before the podcast, I said, I think it would be really great, Josh, if you talked about some ways of positive engagement outside of the classroom during COVID  and just give some tips to the teachers And you said, Oh, I don't know if I know what to tell them. Where's this coming from, Josh? How are you feeling about how we can learn about engaging students outside the classroom now?

Josh Britton:   26:17
Well, it's very strange to have 20 years of expertise to become to some degree relatively useless. I have so many tactics for connecting with kids just and motivating them that are not very useful right now. They're almost always based on in-person interactions. So when you asked me hey, you know, how can you motivate and encourage kids from home? I found myself kind of scraping the bottom of the bucket. I don't have a lot of specific techniques, and I'm guessing that those of you who are listening are to some degree the same in the same situation. And you're in a place where you can do what we all do to, learn, which is, brainstorm and then experiment and then see what works. So we're kind of hoping that as you are experimenting and your finding great ways to connect with kids and encourage them and even promote engagement, that you'd be willing to reach out to us and share those ideas. If that sounds like something you want to do, we are at podcast@GetMore math dot com and we would love to hear from you.

Derek Maxson:   27:28
Well, thank you, Josh. And and thank you for helping me to understand just how difficult this is for classroom teachers right now. And what a challenge it is. Too completely learn new ways of teaching new techniques, overcoming new issues. This is a highly collaborative thing that we're wanting to work on. That's why this is a community in the get more math podcast. So do email us in with your tips about how to increase engagement with students again. That email address his podcast to get more math dot com. Thank you for listening to the get more math podcast. We would like to invite all our listeners to visit our website at Get More math dot com, where you'll find helpful information about how get more math can help you transform the math education experience through targeted mastery and cyclical review. We would welcome you to take advantage of our free trial, which is good not only for the remainder of this clear but also for the 2021 school year. If you think this podcast would be helpful to others, please share it posts on social media or leave us a rating interview wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have any comments or suggestions for future episodes, please send an email to podcast at Get more math dot com. See you next time on the get more math podcast