For three weeks this past August, a group of twenty-seven emerging creative leaders, from five districts in the Boston area, met in daily Zoom workshops to learn from one another, the PSi faculty, (Carmen Torres, Sung Joon Pai, Will C, myself) and a host of guest presenters. Now that we have had some time to reflect, we wanted to share out some “best practices.” Many of these are also best practices in “real time,” but even more critical on Zoom.

Building in breaks, both physical and mental, is essential. No one, and we mean NO ONE, should go longer than 90 minutes on Zoom without a 30 minute break. fifteen minutes isn’t enough. It’s just too short a time to re-charge, eat something or take a walk. five minutes is pretty meaningless. It is not really enough time to rest your eyes. When you are on Zoom all day, these breaks are critical to your health and wellbeing.

Group energizers or stretches are also important after a break. We had a couple of our participants lead some of these. That helped build community and kept the blood flowing.

Just because we were online, that didn’t stop us from making art together. We synthesized and made sense of our learning through sketches, musical interpretations, dances, digital art, and collage-making. We wanted to learn through doing, not only by reading, writing, listening, and watching.

We also practiced theater together. This wasn’t easy on Zoom. It sounds simple to say, “The scene takes place on camera. Begin by moving outside of the range of the camera. Now, come back into the frame and begin the scene.” Our purpose was to learn beginning steps of storytelling through “Playback Theatre.” We began with the simple question: How are you feeling? The “teller” shared an emotion and then we, as actors, created a theatrical scene on Zoom responding to that emotion.

We used breakout rooms–sometimes in pairs, sometimes with as many as seven people. We found that more than about seven makes discussion difficult. Sometimes groups were assigned randomly, but sometimes we made purposeful groups ahead of time.  The strategy depended based on the issues we were tackling. If participants were working on their Capstone theory of change, we tried to keep those groups stable over the three weeks; however, if we wanted to ensure a broad mix of interactions, we randomized groups. And midway, we asked if anyone had not yet been in a group with someone and purposely formed groups to be sure that happened. When participants arrived in their breakout rooms, they needed a few minutes to get settled and think through these questions:

  • Who is the notetaker?
  • Timekeeper?
  • Who’s monitoring the chat in case of questions?

By spending a few minutes on these decisions, conversations went smoother.

Google Docs worked well for us–both inside and outside of the breakout rooms. We created separate documents for each breakout group, and these gave us, as facilitators, an opportunity to read, in real time, the notes being taken on the live discussions in each group. We also created shared Google folders so that individuals could upload their work for everyone to review collaboratively. We didn’t have to barge into the rooms and ask clarifying questions. We could give immediate feedback on the document or read alongside the participants and better understand where there was lack of clarity or comprehension in what we thought we were teaching.

When participants were deeply engaged in break out rooms, they sometimes lost track of time—even with a timekeeper. Blasting out announcements into the breakout rooms helped. “In 3 minutes, we are all coming back to the main room.”

One day, we had five different Zoom links open from five different accounts. Participants chose which discussion they wanted to be part of and, then after fifteen minutes, they rotated to another room. We were learning how to do a  World Cafeon the internet. It was a nice change from breakout rooms which are very “controlled.” As facilitators we could visit those Zoom rooms, too!

What worked in terms of facilitating these professional development sessions?

  • Be intentional about front loading material. What can be done ahead of time (asynchronously), through videos or readings?
  • Graphic organizers are helpful in certain lessons. Those need to be made ahead of time.
  • Use of protocols. We relied on the many good ones from NSRF. These helped with discussions and giving critical feedback.
  • The chat presents both possibility and headache. Norms need to be set. When is the chat used to build community and extend one another’s ideas?  Or, when is it there to lighten the mood and say, “Hey, I see your cat?” Decide which format appropriate for what circumstances.
  • Sharing air-time is a challenge. We actually kept a Google doc of which participant spoke when, especially during our opening Connections, and we sometimes called on people who had been particularly quiet. We tried to be explicit about when we were going to cold call someone.
  • We had clear agreements (sometimes called norms) about how we would use our cameras. The default was: cameras are on unless you tell us otherwise. We revisited our agreements more than once.

One of the most important takeaways of the three weeks session was the value of having multiple facilitators on Zoom and the role of co-hosts. It was critical to our success that one member of the team was dedicated to the “back-end,” developing and linking shared Google documents, sharing screens, assigning breakout groups and easily readmitting participants when they fell out of a room for some reason. Equally essential, is having one facilitator monitor and respond to questions/concerns posed in the chat, while another facilitator leads the lesson. Doing all these tasks is nearly impossible for one person.

In terms of co-teaching/facilitating, we were most successful when we decided ahead of time which facilitator was leading which section.  When we forgot to be explicit about that on our planning agenda, we tended to talk over one another and that didn’t work. That happens in real time, of course, but in real time, you can catch one another’s eyes and say, “my bad.” In Zoom, that all gets lost.

Finally, pay attention to how people learn best. Zoom is often a very passive aural medium. Just like in real time, people can only listen for so long. Most people also learn visually. While the presentation is occurring, make sure that you are screen sharing or encouraging participants to look at their own agenda. Anytime, you can both speak and show in print, learning is increased. Some participants appreciated the online agenda a few days ahead of time so that those who had access to printers, could make a hard copy of it and all the linked material. Each agenda was structured with key questions and learning outcomes. Again, we didn’t always hit everything, but at least it was clear where we hoped to go.

We also acknowledged that participants may have distractions in their own learning spaces, and we recognized that we had no control there. We learned to assume that our participants’ attention might be split many ways at many different times. They may need to look away, to stop listening, to exit the room for a moment to give a child attention, or just run to the restroom. Sometimes participants were actually driving and still involved! Then, when they got home, and missed a few minutes logging on, how did we help them quickly re-engage? That became an important feature of our work together and one of the huge pluses of having co-facilitators and a “back-end” person.

We maintained the rhythm of ending each day with written reflections, which we read carefully each evening so we could retool if need be. Most importantly, we didn’t assume that all things “were going as planned by the team.”  We made sure to ask the cohort about what they needed to learn and grow from the sessions.

We also began each day with Connections, often using a quote or something from the reflections from the day before. We wanted to bring everyone into the space together, as if we were standing in a circle, shoulder to shoulder. In this way, we created an opportunity to build a bridge from what each person arrived with to the session and where we are all hoping to go together. Connections led us into the agenda for the day.

Although I think we did a good job learning and building community on Zoom, we were also grateful for the day-and-a-half we spent outside, with masks, and physically distanced at Hale. Nothing can replace in-person human interaction.

Dr. Mahiane, CEO of Lynn Community Health Center, meets with PSi to talk about leadership and learning in a time of COVID