(This is the seventh post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, and Part Six here.)
The new question of the week is:
How can we best support students when we teach online?
In Part One, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contributed their experiences.
In Part Two, Amy Roediger, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler shared their reflections.
In Part Three, Matthew Johnson, Joseph Jones, T.J. Vari, Deb Blaz, and Cindi Rigsbee offered their ideas.
In Part Four, Nick Fotopoulos, Helen Vassiliou, Cornelia Okraski, and Sam Olbes discussed specifically how they were teaching their ELL classes online.
In Part Five, Maurice McDavid, Holly Spinelli, Ashley Wallace, and Kristen Koppers talked about what they were trying to do with their classes.
In Part Six, we revisited teaching English-language learners, with commentaries from Sarah Said, Sandra Mings Lamar, and Linda Heafey.
Today, Sarah Cooper and Susan Scott use their very recent experience to write about what to do—and what not to do—when transitioning to online classes.
You might also be interested in my just-posted Here’s The Revised Online Teaching Plan I Hope To Implement Next Week.
Here’s a new radio show featuring the educators who contributed to Part One in this series:
Look for the Silver Lining
Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9 (Routledge, 2017):
Here’s how my second meeting with one class started last week, when three students opened up a chat on Google Meet:
can i go to the bathroom
we didn’t have to turn in a current event today right
Basically, it was just like any other day with these 8th grade history students, except we were online—very comforting!
My students have laptops as part of our BYOD program, and most also have pretty consistent Wi-Fi. As a result, for the most part so far, I’ve been doing synchronous Google Meets, both entire class and small group, to keep the human connection going
Of course, not everything felt like it did in person. Here’s what worked in the first week and what I’ll still be working on for the weeks to come.
What Has Worked
1. Focusing on the positive.
Usually in my classes, we start each day with five minutes of current events. With our online learning, which is following an alternating two-day block schedule, I knew I would need to expand this time to hear from everyone. So far, this 25-minute full-class discussion has been a highlight.
On Day 1 everyone shared by voice a “silver lining” from being at home. Although I thought playing video games would be the most popular response, many instead mentioned time with their families having dinner, watching movies, and playing board games.
On Day 2, I asked kids to brainstorm, in response to an article about celebrities and sports stars helping those most hit by the pandemic, how each of them personally could help people over the coming week. In the chat, the students’ answers included practical responses, such as “follow the government direction” and “stay at home.”
And they quickly moved beyond the basics to actions such as “support family-owned stores,” “make care packages using my leftover gs [Girl Scout] cookies to deliver to neighbors,” “call people who don’t like to talk to anyone and may be lonely,” “bake for others,” “talk to grandparents on phone,” “help with the baby,” “buy the next books I want to read from a local bookstore online,” “make sure people know the facts vs. fake news,” and many more. I was inspired just listening to them, as was a drama teacher who was hanging out with me in the Meet to get ideas for her classes.
Later that period, as part of an exit-ticket email about a group project, one girl wrote: “Class was fun and uplifting today, and to close it off, I have a progress report for you!” Just the tone I had hoped to set.
- Asking for constructive, not depressing, analysis of current events.
Even when we’ve considered more serious articles, I’ve tried to focus on what we can understand and analyze rather than what we can’t. Charts about flattening the curve of COVID-19 may be interesting, but they can be scary, for adults and for middle schoolers. Also, I don’t feel qualified to answer everyone’s questions about what comes next.
Instead, in one class last week, we looked at this article about keeping millions of Californians at home in the Bay Area. (This was before L.A.'s “safer at home” edict, affecting my school, came out a couple days later.) I asked students to list in the chat who they would consider essential and nonessential workers and then I called on individual kids to unmute their microphones to explain particularly interesting answers.
Responses for “essential” included doctors and nurses, farmers, grocery-store workers, police, firefighters, paramedics, prison guards, news teams, and “nonprofits that might help people who wouldn’t receive help otherwise.”
For “nonessential,” kids listed TikTokkers, hair and makeup people, actors, baristas, music teachers, artists, and athletes. This started an interesting thread about whether the arts and entertainment are more important than ever at times like this. I was reminded of John Adams’ quotation from a letter to Abigail in 1780:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
- Meeting in small groups after an opening discussion.
When my school transitioned to online learning on March 18, the 8th grade history students were already in the middle of a reformers project. Last week, after up to half an hour of current events conversation during each period, I met with each small group for five to eight minutes during the rest of class. These Google Meets served the double purpose of checking in on how students were doing personally (who they were at home with, how their parents are faring in this economic climate) and seeing how their project was going. I thrived on the face-to-face contact with a handful of kids at a time.
What I’m Still Working On
- Hearing from everyone during a class discussion.
Thus far, I’ve been asking students to write “raise hand” in the chat if they have a question or comment, which is working pretty well. In addition, I’ve been following up on responses kids write in the chat by cold calling some to explain their comments by voice.
Still, though, the online interface is not as fluid as interacting in person, and I’m looking for ways to make the flow better. I may also migrate to Zoom, which I know has less lag time and allows you to see everyone on screen at the same time.
- Laughing together.
Informal chatter and laughter may be what I miss most. At the beginning of class, I’ve encouraged students to keep their mics on as they join the Google Meet, just so we can hear and see them getting ready for class and enjoy the “hellos” as we all come together. Yet, beyond that, it has felt too chaotic to keep on everyone’s mics for very long.
At one point, one of my students or I made a joke, by voice or on chat, and I actually said, “I think you’re all laughing right now!” That was awkward and not very satisfying. If I can figure out a way for us to laugh together regularly, I’ll feel a lot better.
Final Thoughts on Week 1
Throwing myself into online learning has been exhausting, for sure, especially amid the stress of shopping in sometimes empty grocery aisles and keeping my own kids entertained and schooled at home. I would venture to say that every adult in our students’ lives is under strain right now in some way, some far more so than others as their livelihoods are threatened.
If I can keep my classes constructive and positive, helping students feel that they have a community to join every other day, and that they have at least a little agency, then these weeks or months will have been a success.
We as teachers may not always recognize it while interacting with a screen for hours on end, but right now, we’re as lucky as ever to be on the front lines with kids—not least because they can inspire us to be our best selves at a time that is testing us all.
Ten things NOT to do
Susan Scott has been teaching for over 15 years and currently works at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City-American Academy teaching and supporting grade 10 students. Her school moved to distance learning Feb. 4 due to coronavirus. This past Monday marked her eighth week of online teaching and learning:
I don’t always know WHAT to do, but now I think I’ve figured out what NOT to do. In Saigon, week 8 began this week...
Don’t give too much work. If you think it will take them an hour, give them two. They are learning, just as we are, what works for THEM.
Don’t expect them to hand in work on time. Especially if you give them too much. Be generous with your expectations. Remember, some of them are sharing computers with siblings and parents.
Don’t be stingy with choices. Give them three options. But not 10.
Don’t expect students who are shy, have few friends, or who have problems socializing to reach out. They won’t. Be there for them.
- Don’t be wordy. Pare down instructions. Bold important words. Give them a checklist to follow. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. And that’s it.
Don’t forget that they (and we) are living through a historical period of time. Invite students to share what they are thinking. Encourage their creativity and optimism.
Don’t teach curriculum, teach students. Find out what they’re interested in and make it work. You know them. And if you aren’t sure, ask them. I use Google forms, but you could try Survey Monkey.
Put them in study groups. Make sure they are reaching out to one another. Don’t make the groups too large.
Don’t forget that parents are overwhelmed. Help parents by scheduling meetings or by creating study groups for them.
- Don’t forget to put your own oxygen mask on before you head into the virtual world. Get enough rest, practice mindfulness, eat good food, get some exercise every single day. You can’t help THEM if you aren’t well yourself.
Thanks to Sara and Susan for their contributions!
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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts
Best Ways to Begin the School Year
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Look for Part Eight in a day or two ...
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