School Online – Journal – Day 25

Day 25 was Friday, and Monday is World Teachers’ Day, so I have waited until Sunday to post this blog.  I have been recognizing World Teachers’ Day in many ways over the past couple of decades, but this year has me stymied.

How do we recognize how challenging this past year has been for our teachers? How their relationships with their classes were challenged when they pivoted to Emergency Distance Learning in March? How they rose to the challenge, keeping their students connected and learning? How they worked with their schools to bring computer hardware, connectivity, and support to families? How they had to learn an entirely new skillset, in order to continue as teachers?

In one of my previous roles I was responsible for supporting the use of Instructional Technology in our school district. When we considered the possible use of LCD projectors in classrooms we planned a 5-year process of pilots, assessments, and then staged implementation.  But this past March we compressed that entire process into a couple of weeks, and implemented across the entire system an entirely new means of instruction.  It wasn’t just the hardware that changed, but everything we know about F2F instruction had to be modified and augmented to meet the needs of our new reality.

Taking attendance? How to you record that a student was late because their Internet connection dropped? What if a student doesn’t actually own a webcam, and you’re only able to hear their voice? What if they have to share a computer, and so they might have to log in, find out what to work on, and then hand back the computer to let Mom or Dad attend a crucial meeting at their work?

Access to resources, while richer due to the Internet, is limited by copyright.  All those textbooks are still sitting on the shelves in classrooms, inaccessible by students.  Copyright laws permit reproduction of up to 10% of a text, or a single chapter, so teachers are having to choose carefully which resources they may use with their classes. Teachers are doing their best to share, but all resources require editing and clear presentation, in order to match the reading level needs of their students.

Interaction is limited by the platform.  While Zoom has been most prominent in the news, it is not permitted for use in our classes.  Instead teachers are having to learn how to function with MS Teams and Google Meet, both of which are structured for large group meetings, not group or independent work. Cooperative and collaborative learning is a challenge within a tool that is structured more for a single meet chair or instructor, with the rest of the participants limited to the use of “chat” to interact.

Organization of class materials requires significant writing and uploading on the part of our teachers.  In the past one might write on the blackboard or overhead projector, or prepare a PowerPoint presentation.. Now there must be a file uploaded, and in most cases it needs to be in a PDF format, requiring additional steps. While video has become a key component in our F2F classrooms, teachers are now limited by bandwidth, knowing that many of their students won’t be able to stream without lagging.

And building community has been a challenge.  Much of the time our students have their webcams and microphones off, so when we speak it is into a “void” of silence.  No nodding heads. No excited chatter.  And creating opportunities for students to interact with each other is a complex and time-consuming activity. 

And added to this is the anxiety related to the safety of our students.  We can no longer listen for signs of bullying.  We can’t see if our students appear tired or stressed. We can’t whisper in their ear, and ask if they are “OK”.

Despite all of this, our teachers are doing an amazing job.  They are juggling the demands of curriculum against the need to support the mental health of their students. They are working in isolation, and then reaching out to support each other through subject- and course-based networks. Social media is connecting teachers, and shared drives are allowing them to divide up the work, and reduce their load.

I am excited to hear what our teachers have learned through this process.  Will they adopt a hybrid approach, integrating more media and technology tools into their teaching? Will they choose to work online, having developed strong skills that support learning by students who need to work remotely? Will our models of “school” finally shift from desks in rows?

Tomorrow, please take a moment to recognize the extraordinary efforts of our teachers over the past seven months. And please continue to support them as we face the challenges of the months ahead.

Happy World Teachers’ Day!

School Online – Journal – Day 18

Our classrooms have changed…..

It’s day 3 for our online classes, and there remain several classes who don’t yet have teachers assigned. We have no system to communicate to students and their families, so as their anxiety grows, so does my inbox.

My morning was spent teaching online: two classes of 38 students each, with a 10 minute break between the two-hour classes. Near the end my webcam failed, and so I was a disembodied voice to bring the class to conclusion.

There was a theme of similar “technology fails” throughout my afternoon correspondence. And this has me thinking about how this new “classroom” is so different from what most people think of when they think “school”.

Rather than hallways, where students wait to enter the class at the bell, we have “waiting rooms” for our MS Teams or Google Meet class. A login gets a student in easily, but there are students who have forgotten their passwords, and so they request to enter as a “guest”. Most are supposed to be there, and gaining entry allows them to join their classmates. But occasionally a student has shared the class link with a friend, and he or she enters anonymously and creates chaos. When the teacher shuts down the class, and reopens a new session without the intruder, that might be the end of it.  But, if the friend sends the new link, the “guest” arrives again.  A wise teacher refuses to allow them to enter. So the “guest” changes his name repeatedly to profane or racist words, which pop up as messages like “F…Y… is requesting to join”, or worse. Were this a student in a physical hallway we could address the behaviour, but on the Internet they act with impunity.

In the digital classroom we have tiny images of faces, or nothing at all if the cameras are off. We speak without seeing reactions, and can only trust that they are listening.  The students, by contrast, have no choice but to see our faces, up close. Or maybe they’re not watching or listening? But how would we know?

Rather than a show of hands, we ask them to “react” with a “thumbs up”, or “applause”. Not quite as revealing as a facial expression, but immediate and clear. If they aren’t paying attention we get no reaction at all.

The chat tool is a step above having everyone shout out an answer.  And they can carry on side conversations with each other in chat without disturbing anyone else.

Rather than working on chart paper on a table, they’re working in Google Docs or Slides. And if they each have a slide, we can see what they’re working on in real time.  Their “bubble” appears in the slide sorter, so it’s easy to see if a student is on the wrong page, or missing. At the end of the session everyone can move from slide to slide, together. The entire slide stack remains as a record, with 24/7 access by everyone in the class. (Unlike all the chart paper I would roll up and stack at the back of my classroom.)

While they’re working, they’re in breakout rooms.  They can speak as loudly as they wish, and with much more privacy than in a regular classroom. The teacher can pop in and out, sometimes without them noticing, but most times with camera and microphone on.

Bringing the entire group back together results in a cacophony, that ebbs quickly. Rather than a shouted “5 more minutes”, they will have seen a message pop up on their screen with that message. As a teacher, it is a relief not to have shout to get their attention.

What is missing from an online classroom is the chatter as they leave class at the conclusion.  It’s a rather abrupt ending, with almost no time needed to get to the next class. The casual conversation that provides a mental break between intensive work is not easy to recreate online. There is no “app” that can connect people without deliberate action, so it’s unlikely that new friendships will develop outside of class.

While teachers in physical classrooms might place independent work high on their priority lists, that now needs to change. Online we need to create deliberate opportunities for social connection; our classes are the only place they will meet new people and develop new relationships.

If we want to nurture our students’ mental wellness, we need to ensure that social-emotional learning is a priority. And we will need to learn and develop new classroom routines for our new digital classrooms.

Please share here what’s working for you. How are you making your classroom a place of connection as well as learning?