How do you teach when school is shut down? Millions of teachers like myself are answering that question right now. Schools have closed during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, to minimize spread of the virus. While some places have cancelled school altogether, in many places, school has transitioned to an online platform.
The hardest part of this change, for me personally, has been letting go of things I had been anticipating. The week after Spring Break we had a school-wide event scheduled. My lesson plan for that week was built around preparing for that event: a fair in which each of my service-learning groups could tell the public (students and their families) about what they were doing to make a difference about a chosen topic. It has always been a highlight of the year. Last year my students raised over $1600 for worthy causes during the 2-hour event, and learned valuable skills about marketing, public relations, promotion, and public speaking. When I surveyed my students about our new situation this year, I gave them a link to my cancelled lesson plans for the week, just in case they were curious about what they would be missing.
While mourning my plan, I realized the students would also be sad about their own plans. So I gave them an opportunity to give voice to those disappointments in my first Distance Learning assignment. Our district has been strict about the types of assignments we are allowed to make; these limits have been helpful, because it frames our expectations and helps us be consistent across the board. My first assignment was very much like the examples they gave us: read this, do this, answer these questions, and the whole thing should take about an hour. (In addition to the one-hour weekly assignment that will be graded, we are encouraged to post optional enrichment activities.)
While I was planning my lesson, my local online newspaper published a story about how people were helping their community while following recently-imposed social distancing guidelines. I linked the article in my assignment, then asked students to consider how the current situation may have affected their service learning topic. My Digital Media standards say students should “collaborate using various electronic technologies such as email, blogs, chat rooms, discussion threads, and wikis.” So I decided to use Flipgrid.
With Flipgrid, teachers make a video and students post video responses. They can also respond to each other’s videos. They can use a computer or a phone (there’s an app, but it works just as well on a browser). After a week, my 123 students had posted 103 responses (a few students opted to do a paper version of my assignment, which did not include this part). There were 129 replies, 5190 views, and 70.4 hours of engagement. I responded to each message with a video, asking questions to push their thinking even further. If I were to do this again, I would limit the students to less than the maximum of 90 seconds, to discourage rambling. Replying to these videos gave me something meaningful to do all week, besides checking email, texting my colleagues, and one or two Zoom meetings with faculty. It was refreshing to see familiar faces I had not seen in two long weeks, and to hear their voices expressing unique opinions and ideas.
The portion of my assignment that was for a grade involved 5 simple reflection questions on a Google Doc. Since my students have been using Google Classroom all year, this was logistically very easy. A handful of families picked up paper packets at school, and I will receive their work later. Throughout the week, the other four freshman teachers and I sent out reminders via Classroom and Remind, and we put together a spreadsheet of student work that had been completed; if we didn’t have work from a certain student, we contacted the student or the parent to find out what was going on. By the due date, over 90% of my students had successfully completed all the questions.
I checked in with families mid-week, by sending a Remind query to parents. The responses I got back were all favorable, but one parent requested some face-to-face online time so his student could socialize. So the next day I set up a Zoom session and announced it on Classroom. About 20 students popped in to talk; it was fun, but a bit awkward because there was no agenda and we had trouble thinking of things to discuss.
Next week, my lesson will build upon the feedback I’ve received this week. Our principal sent a survey to parents to ask for general ideas. One suggested “a wider variety of learning experiences.” Another asked for “interactive group-based learning.” A third asked for scheduled classes, during which students would log in and meet with their teacher.
Scheduling classes would pose difficulty for large families who have to share devices, or those for whom internet is not reliable. In my socializing Zoom meeting, I asked students how many people are quarantined with them in their houses, and answers ranged from 2 to 8. But I think I can make this happen. My students are already assigned to groups of 4 or 5, and have been working with these groups since the beginning of February. My expectation for next week is that they communicate with each other (their first group Contract had them share contact information), and make an appointment with me for a 30-minute meeting. I gave them a link to my class Google Calendar, and changed the settings so it would accept invitations to appointments. I created a video tutorial showing them how to do this, and how to invite all the members of their group and also me.
Once the meeting is scheduled, Google automatically creates an online digital hangout (it used to be called Hangouts, but now it’s called Meet), so on the day of the meeting they will be able to click on the link and join. To ensure that our meetings are purposeful, I’ve created a Google Slides presentation that I can send to all our screens.
Looking forward, the one big project I have not yet done with my class is a podcast. They did podcasts in groups last semester in a different class, so they are familiar with an app (Anchor) that will make it easier than the way I have traditionally taught it, but it will still take a long time. I think the best thing to do is stretch it out and ask them to write a script one week, then record it the following week. The time will need to be shortened. Making compromises is par for the course when it comes to distance learning, I suppose. We have to do the best we can under the circumstances.
So far I am pleased with the way distance learning is happening. While I miss meeting my students in class every day, picking a song of the day for passing period, facilitating club meetings, and planning with my colleagues, I realize why we have to do things this way. I just hope we can get back to normal soon.
How is the coronavirus global pandemic affecting you?