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What's It Like to Teach Middle School Science Online?

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“How do you teach middle school science online?” I get that question a lot and answering it isn’t always quick, easy, or painless. I love my job teaching for Insight School of Kansas and Kansas Virtual Academy, virtual schools that are part of the K12 Inc. Network, and to me it is obvious why other teachers and students like it here as well. However, I am often faced with defending my schools, my students, and even myself as a teacher.

Admittedly, the transition from teaching for four years in brick-and-mortar classrooms to teaching science online wasn’t easy at first. But over my seven years teaching online, I’ve found innovative ways to connect with my students, including live synchronous classroom sessions. Using my webcam, I conduct just as many demonstrations in my virtual classroom as I did in a traditional setting, but now I do them from my kitchen counter instead of a school laboratory, using the same science kit as the one mailed directly to the students’ homes. I also utilize technology for virtual labs and videos as well. There are some amazing virtual labs and virtual demonstrations that I used even in brick-and-mortar schools.

In order to dispel misconceptions and preconceived notions about online education, I wanted to address some of the most frequently asked questions head-on in this article.

“Don’t your students miss being real kids?”

I think a very important practice for online teaching is to create a community in your classroom. Teaching live classes throughout the year makes this a little easier for me. I am able to start off with icebreakers or warm-up activities. I’ve found that middle school kids love sharing information about themselves. Giving them a few minutes before class to chat with each other goes a long way. Each of my students is a “real live kid” and I work closely with them to develop a close student-teacher relationship—in some cases we build stronger relationships than I did in a traditional setting.

I can also share stories about myself through webcam, pictures, or audio. I live on a hobby farm, which is very useful when teaching science. I can show them a new baby animal and use my real pets as examples when we learn about genetics. I can also teach from my greenhouse when we discuss seeds and plants. I couldn’t have done either of those examples in a traditional classroom setting.

“How do you keep their attention?”

Because students at home have a little more freedom, and at times more distractions, live virtual classes must be engaging. The use of video, still images, educational websites, and all of the Blackboard Collaborate whiteboard tools are a must to maintain their attention. I don’t just lecture. That was not my favorite way to learn, so I won’t do that to my students. I encourage them to ask questions, read, and share their own relevant personal knowledge as well. I also let them go into breakout rooms to work with partners or collaboration groups on activities. I’ll admit, keeping them interested is a challenge for certain topics, just like it was when I taught in brick-and-mortar settings.

“But aren’t they on the computer for too long?”

An important thing to emphasize is that my students also have many hands-on activities built right into my coursework. My middle school students each receive their own school science kit so as a class, we can look at different things under microscopes, measure the density of different objects, grow bacteria, and test acids and bases. This kit includes easy-to-use lab materials for the students’ grade level as well as safety information and a lab workbook. Often I go over directions and then get students started so that they can complete the lab on their own. Sometimes students need a few simple everyday items from home. I do find myself saying things like, “Ask your mom before you use her good cake pan for that,” and “That needs to go out to the dumpster ASAP or you will stink your family out of the house by tomorrow.” You know, things I never got to say when I taught at brick-and-mortar schools.

“How do you know if they actually do it?”

Most students like labs and hands-on activities. Normally, they can’t wait for me to finish explaining it so they can get their hands dirty. Also, there is a graded worksheet and assessment that goes with the lab. Students must complete the experiment to take the test or answer the questions on the worksheet. Many of us learn best by doing. My students do the lab, complete the worksheet, take the test, and then I know they are ready for the state assessment for that standard. No, I don’t require them to send me pictures of every single lab or project, but often they do. They’ve worked hard on their cell, atom, or ecosystem models and they like to show them off. When their petri dish, bread, or egg grows colorful mold, I’m the first person they tell—and I love it! When you tell them during the first week of classes that it’s hard to gross-out a science teacher, they take it as a personal challenge to try.

Normally at this point in the conversation I’ve won over most of those questioning my abilities and classes with my charm, and they’ve decided that students can learn virtually—even science. However, some of the time, I still get one last question: “Don’t you miss seeing students every day?”

Again, my students are real students. I see them every day, just in a different setting. When I squirted lemon juice in my eye during the “lemon battery” experiment they laughed, and then expressed concern; the exact thing happened to me in my brick-and-mortar classrooms. When I lost a close family member a few years ago, my online students sent me emailed cards and brought virtual cards to class. If another teacher is absent, the students let me know and are extremely curious as to where that teacher may be. Now, I do love our face-to-face events: "lunch and learn," field trips, and even testing. However, I don’t feel like I am missing any quality student time by being an online teacher.

Teaching for my virtual schools is a lot of fun. It really is quite comparable, in most aspects, to teaching at a brick-and-mortar school and in some ways it’s better! No matter how many times I’m questioned or criticized for my groundbreaking role as an online teacher, my answer will remain the same: the reward of teaching is seeing a transfer of knowledge and a passion for learning—and this can occur in any setting with a student who is eager to learn. Although learning with an unconventional method, online students are still growing every single time they attend a virtual class session. My hope is that as time goes on, online education will begin to receives more of the credit it deserves by continuing to produce a fun and practical learning environment for the extraordinary kids it serves.

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