A Turbulent Flight into a New World of Learning

Daniel Vollrath

Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Institute for Habits of Mind. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centered around the Habits of Mind. Infusing dispositional thinking and strategies into IEP procedural formats, behavioral plans, inclusive environments, and developing 21st-century skills into students with learning disabilities is paramount to his beliefs and values as an educator. Daniel provides extensive workshops custom-fit to the needs, visions, and goals of any school district.

Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics – danvollrath44@gmail.com. In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


It was July 2007 and I was on a red-eye flight from Argentina to San Antonio. Halfway into the flight…BAM! A loud noise ignited causing the plane to shake. Instantaneously, passengers awoke in a panic and unconscious state of mind. As I awoke my first thought was, “Please let this be a dream.” To my displeasure, it was not. As I braced for the worst, panicked and dysregulated, I tried to keep a level head. Immediately my focus shifted to calming the emotional state of mind of the passenger next to me. She was in tears, gasping for air, and trembling like a leaf. I took her hand and said, “We will be okay…just breathe and stay positive.” In that situation, a comment like that may seem a bit cliche; although, I meant every word of it by modeling and displaying this behavior with her. After fifteen minutes we were free of trouble and on our way to a safe landing.

In hindsight, this experience left a momentous imprint on my life. First, it forced me to recognize in the midst of fear I was able to regulate emotions in order to better suit myself and others. Second, by exhibiting productive behaviors, such as managing impulsivity, thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, and persisting, offered a positive state of mind in myself as well as the passenger next to me. We were both fully engrossed in a discussion about our families, job, and upcoming travels—all optimistic thinking. Last, by experiencing a life-altering situation, I was able to reflect on life and build a growth mindset. If I could emotionally and mentally make it through that experience, I could take on any change in life or setting.

Fast forward to now and how schools have responded to COVID-19. Virtual learning has taken over the landscape for teaching and learning. For all educators, children, and parents, this drastic change and learning curve is one we all need to figure out together. Moreover, it is important that we embrace this endeavor with optimism, productive behaviors, and reflective approaches for improving the process day after day.

So, how can educators assist both parents and students in taking on this challenge? Over the past two months of virtual learning, I have offered many strategies to students and parents for making the transition more fluid and individualized for success. Below I am going to share five strategies that I have found most impactful with my students. What is so unique and powerful with these strategies is that each one focuses on the individual learner discovering their productivity potential and habits. Whether it be in the last few weeks of school, independently in the summer, or for the opening of school in the fall, these recommendations can influence the true meaning of what it takes in becoming a personalized learner.

Strategic Procrastination

Let’s face it. When faced with a deadline to complete a project it is very easy to push it off until tomorrow. Or the day after. And, why not the day after that? Before you know it the due date has come and gone…and you have nothing to hand in. You feel unfulfilled, unsuccessful, and regretful about not putting forth effort earlier instead of waiting. Procrastination wins and productivity loses.

Although, what if I told you that procrastination can be advantageous…would you believe me? In a piece called The Perks of Procrastination, Adam Grant, a prolific author, and professor at the Wharton School gives a TED Talk about original thinking and writes about strategic procrastination. Grant explains how procrastination leads to divergent thinking and creating new ideas for projects and assignments. It does not mean that you wait until the last minute to complete a task; instead, you allow the gears in your brain to work by conjuring up thoughts, ideas, and new insights on how to make the project more creative.

The habit of thinking flexibly comes into play within this strategy. By allowing yourself to generate alternative thinking about how to approach a project offers the opportunity to procrastinate effectively. Strategic procrastination offers one to think outside the box and develop something original and creative.

To gain an understanding of your procrastination check out this self-assessment. It will provide you with what kind of procrastinator you are, how to improve this behavior, and how thinking flexibly can play a role in your virtual learning success. Self-discovery is a significant key to developing learner agency.

The Power of When: Discovering your Chronotype

Talk about Metacognition…this is it! By identifying your chronotype you are able to better recognize feelings, strategies, thoughts, and actions. Moreover, identifying the “when” of your most effective self—that being the “peak”—the more you can adapt your schedule for a better you. As everyone is figuring out this new wave of virtual learning it is equally important to solidify a schedule that sets you up for optimal success.

Figure out through this quiz which animal you most represent when it comes to sleep and setting yourself up for the best you. Are you a bear, dolphin, lion, or wolf?

Mindful Hyperfocus

When mindful in displaying the habit of persisting—one’s ability to stick to a task until completion—ultimately could determine success or failure. Yes, taking breaks and strategic procrastination is important; although, when in actual work mode your mind and energy should be focused on one thing only: The task at hand.

Keep it simple and straightforward. Here is the process:

  1. Select an assignment/activity you believe calls for complete focus and commitment in order to be successful.
  2. Select a time reasonable where full mental and physical energy can be devoted.
  3. Set a timer for start and stop point. Here is a great online timer to utilize.
  4. Get all distractions out of sight and out of mind. Take a minute to get focused, find a spot in your house for most effective output, get set…and begin.
  5. When time begins you solely focus on this one activity/assignment…nothing else!
  6. When time ends, take a break. Then, transition to another activity.

To gain a better understanding of your persistence take this quiz.

The Walking Classroom

By physically changing a learning environment one can eliminate distractions, increase focus, and offer opportunity to engage in a different way of thinking. A simple walk around the neighborhood, or a nature trail, along with some material to review can make for a unique and effective learning experience. Research shows that incorporating movement into a daily learning regimen increases retention of information, keeps the mind active and clear, and boosts energy for learning. Below is an example of incorporating the Walking Classroom into this at-home learning experience.

  • Select a topic for the walk
  • Set a time limit for your walk and keep it intentional
  • Make expectations clear and direct for yourself and a partner (if they chose to join you physically or by phone)
  • Have questions ready for asking yourself or a friend
  • Keep the habit Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision on your mind
  • Great activities for this walk include vocabulary review, brainstorming, comprehension questioning, and listening to teacher lectures. Once a week I assign a 20-30 podcast for students to listen to on their walk. Later in our Zoom meeting we discuss and reflect on the ideas, themes, take-aways, and share perspectives.

Enter and Exit Reflector

An opportunity for reflection opens the door to deeper thinking and connections within learning. By working with students to structure a time to reflect before their learning day begins and ends can make a world of difference in productivity. This is a great opportunity for students to begin Thinking about Thinking (Metacognition)—being aware of their awareness when it comes to learning. For example, over breakfast have students share how they are feeling for the day, what they need to get done, ideas for how they want to spend their free time, and strategies that will help them stay motivated. This sets them up with a self-constructed schedule for the day. At the end of each day have students take five minutes to exit learning. This is where they review successes and strategies that may need altering for the next day. This can be shared through a Google doc or through an email.

Here is a great article about putting students in charge of their own learning. Ultimately, this is the direction and mindset students must build in order to be reflective and focused on the expectation that lies ahead of them each day.

Finding a Safe Landing

Pilots need to do everything in their power to land the plane safely. In order for this to happen, the foundation of the plane needs to be intact, built securely, and precisely, with no room for mistakes. Although, problems will arise, components break down, and turbulence will eventually enter the picture…throwing everyone on a flight into a tailspin. This is where a shift occurs in thinking and behaviors. Pilots need to adapt and take control (just as educators are doing at this point in time); whereas, passengers need to trust and personalize behaviors and actions for remaining calm, focused, and strategic (just as students are currently doing).

The most important pieces I have noticed in navigating this turbulent flight to a safe landing are the abilities within students to be self-directed, productive in behaviors, reflective, persistent, and individualistic in the learning. By learning more about themselves and learning styles they have provided nothing but success. I am grateful and enamoured by my students behaviors and self-exploration of themselves as learners.

Just as the flight in 2007 turned out to be a life-altering experience for me, so too is overcoming and stepping up the challenge of teaching and learning during this time of uncertainty. By offering opportunities for students to continue to have more voice in their learning experience it is hopeful that they will become more self-directed as they navigate toward success. Not just success on the learning outcomes but also discovering themselves and responding with wonderment and awe along the way.

Stay safe, productive, healthy, mindful, optimistic, and most importantly, find the pieces that fit you as a learner.

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