Years ago, before I took my current teaching job, I interviewed for a position at an online school. As I walked into the office, I saw a group of teachers sitting at computers around a large, round table in the middle of the room. Something struck me as so impersonal about teaching through a computer screen, staring at names and words, while surrounded by your co-workers who you hardly knew.
I didn’t get that job, and I was okay with that. Online teaching clearly wasn’t for me. I thrived on interacting with young people face-to-face, and I couldn’t fathom being part of a teaching “team” that couldn’t openly share ideas cross-curricularly.
Fast forward seven years, and I’m a high school English language arts teacher at a local private school. I work with a fantastic team of teachers and I teach the most amazing group of seniors. We’re about to enter the final quarter of the school year when the COVID-19 pandemic hits.
At noon on a Friday, we are told to come in on Monday for training in how to use Google Hangouts, just in case schools were shut down. At 3:30pm that day, we leave school under orders from the state to close for the next two weeks. As of this writing, that was over three weeks ago. I’ve suddenly become an online educator, with the schools in Pennsylvania closed “indefinitely.”
At first, I tried to replicate a traditional classroom experience as much as possible. We read and discussed long, complicated texts like Beowulf. We answered analysis questions. We even took our regularly scheduled vocab quiz in a slightly different format. The kids were, for the most part, eager to go along with it. Seeing their faces that first week made things seem slightly more normal with the world, and I think I provided a sense of comfort for them too.
But I was exhausted, tired of sitting in front of my computer for six hours a day facilitating conversations with a tenuous wifi connection that could barely hold on for dear life. And as some of my students’ interest in online learning waned going into week two, I realized that they must have been having just as much trouble adjusting to an online learning environment as I was. All of my students are at our school because they learn differently in some way, but I was trying to put them in some kind of one-size-fits-all virtual classroom.
The truth is, not every student is motivated enough to get out of bed and log into a Google Hangout five times a day. Certainly not once they realize that grades don’t matter for the rest of the school year. Even motivated students burn out too. I realized pretty quickly that in order to hold my students’ interests and keep them motivated, I had to provide them with more independence and flexibility.
Although I’m still figuring things out as I’m going along, I’ve learned a few things that have made my life easier. I’d like to offer some advice to my fellow teachers who are navigating through online teaching for the first time.
First of all, keep it simple. I see so many teachers, schools, and entire school districts using multiple online platforms. I’ve heard horror stories about overwhelmed teachers attempting to learn and implement multiple new programs all at once. All you really need is a way to keep in touch with your students and a way to exchange assignments, I promise. If you already use Google Classroom or Schoology, make it easy on everyone and stick with it.
Consider diversifying your assignments. Don’t assign long reading assignments or only lecture every day. Now is the time to embrace project-based learning, if you haven’t already done so. For example, after my seniors finished reading parts of Beowulf, we discussed how monsters in popular culture are often a reflection of societal fears. Then I gave them an assignment to create a monster based on modern fears. As you can imagine, the results were creative and thoughtful. Teachers Pay Teachers has a treasure trove of projects if you don’t know where to start. Online learning doesn’t always have to involve technology, either. Most of my students drew their monsters on paper, took a photo of them, and emailed them to me.
Keep moving. One of my frequent mistakes that first week was staying in work-mode all day. Instead of taking breaks and using my prep period to eat or move around, I glued myself to my computer and attempted to complete all my prep work within that time period. I’m not used to teaching while sitting down, so my body hurt at the end of the day. I started doing dishes or sweeping the floor during my breaks, which made me feel more energized and happier.
Be creative. No one is expecting you to replicate a true classroom setting (I hope). Show more videos that are relevant to your coursework. Encourage your students to write or draw about what they’re experiencing. I have so many students who enjoy writing or art, so I’ll be working to incorporate more multimedia assignments into my classes. Hold online field trips to art museums, parks, or historical sites. Bonus perk: you won’t have to get permission slips signed. (I mean, free online permission slips are a thing, but I don’t think that’s what they were invented for!) Your kids are likely feeling as secluded as you are, so bring the world to them.
Finally, stay connected. I recently set up a Google Form for students to request a one-on-one virtual meeting with me during “office hours.” Students can set up an appointment if they’re feeling overwhelmed with an assignment, or if they just want to say hi. I’ve already had two students take advantage of it so far. I’d do anything for my seniors, and I want them to know I’ll always be there for him. The school psychologist and special ed teacher also use Google Hangouts to meet with students. Virtual conferences have been a great way to provide additional academic and emotional support.
If I had wanted to be an online teacher, I would have been an online teacher. If my students had wanted to attend an online school, they would have. Remember that none of us want to be here right now. However, teachers can do things to make the transition to online instruction easier and more fun for all of us.
We’re all in this together, despite being apart. Let’s be socially distant, but not distance ourselves socially.
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