Virtual Learning – Our Finest Hour

It’s been a while since my last blog post. Since March 4th, my world has changed a smidge. Kidding – things are completely upside out!

I’ve spent the last few weeks “Apollo 13ing” all of my instruction and assessment practices. I stole that Apollo 13 line from Ken Buck of the Lancaster County School Board. He recently posted a great Tweet reminding those who were complaining about online learning that teachers and administrators, with little notice (and often little support), were asked to “completely redesign what school looks like”. Like the NASA engineers and crew who saved the ill-fated 1970 moon mission (50 years ago this April 17th!!!), educators around the globe are working hard to transform this occasion into our own finest hour. 

There hasn’t been a lot of time to reflect about all that is being done, never mind write blog posts about it. This weekend, on the eve of my school’s Spring Break, I decided to pause and think about all that has gone on since going virtual, and what it will mean for the future.

Classroom Discipline

One of the first things virtual learning taught us is that the discipline strategies we employed successfully in the brick and mortar classroom, ain’t worth much in the virtual classroom.

  • That ‘teacher voice’ we crafted over the years?
  • That steely-eyed stare?
  • The use of uncomfortable proximity?

Pffft. All useless.

We suddenly found ourselves in a situation where we actually had to trust that students were doing their best. That was tough. And then, we had to motivate students to engage. Rather than going pear shaped, the situation has become a golden age of teacher magic – we’ve seen teachers writing math problems on student driveways in sidewalk chalk during morning jogs. We’ve seen teachers wearing costumes during Zoom chats. A math teacher in South Dakota went so far as to set up a white board outside a student’s front door to ensure the student understood an important concept. Some teachers are even participating in physical challenges. An IB Economics colleague of mine is participating in a 100-push-ups-a-day challenge with some of his students. Not to be outdone, I’ve unleashed my acting talents on my middle school Social Studies kids.

Student Self-Assessment

Prior to school closures, teachers depended on running records, notes, formative assessment scores, and observations to ensure students were on track. One of the first – and harshest – lessons of the lockdown is that these techniques no longer worked. Even technology was ineffective. So, you leave a comment on a Google Doc. You send an email. You post feedback on Hangouts. If a student didn’t want to deal with your feedback, they just… didn’t. 

After the lockdown, we’re going to need to fix this. One solution is student self-assessment. We need to get serious about helping students a) seize responsibility for their learning, and b) give them the tools necessary to measure their learning and their work independently.  In terms of responsibility, I use the word seize deliberately. We can’t just thrust the job onto the student with a sneer and a glib “Your problem now, bub!” We need to cultivate a sense of purpose and captivation in our students. We want them to become so excited about learning that students give us the sneer and a glib “I got this!” 

And, with respect to self-assessment tools, we need to ensure all educators understand the skills students need in order to assess themselves effectively. As outlined in Developing Assessment-Capable Visible Learners by Nancy Frey, John Hattie, and Douglas Fisher, students need to know how to accurately determine what they know and don’t know, where their errors and misconceptions are, and when they are engaged and not engaged. Then, we won’t need to chase after students and track their every behavior. Students can manage it on their own and, with a sense of self-purpose, they actually will. 

Human Connection

Human connectivity has emerged as an important factor in dealing with lockdowns. People have become more interactive. A March 28 article in The Economic Times reported that social media activity was 50 times higher since lockdowns began. In my own experience to date, students, who were usually too cool for school and audibly groan when a Zoom chat begins, are reluctant to sign off when the meeting ends – clinging on with countless “Take care, guys!” and last-second jokes/comments. My own administrator, who was always distracted by school bureaucratic stuff in normal times, is now suddenly touching base with faculty every morning. This situation has highlighted the importance – the necessity – of connecting personally. What will this mean when schools reopen? We can’t forget this moment. Moving forward, we’ll have to ensure we build connection and collaboration into learning. The days of the droning, sage-on-the-stage are well and truly over.  

Emotional Intelligence

I read a post on about a student who was crying in a class video conference about a parent who had just passed away. The teacher responded with something along the lines of “That’s what is so great about school work – it takes your mind off suffering.” Wow, talk about emotional UN-intelligence! Not all encounters with students will be so dramatic. But, all of your students will be dealing with some sort of grief. Educators need to keep this top-of-mind when developing lessons and assessments. The world has changed and our expectations need to change with it. It’s ironic that all this technology is reminding us that our students are human beings.

Time for Catching Up

Funny how only now, during a global pandemic, do we finally notice how busy students are. Just because kids are at home, they do not necessarily have all day to work on your assignments. As a parent, I was in a position to immediately see how busy students can be during virtual learning.  I passed this understanding on to my own students. I created the “Ketchup and Zoom” day and built it into our weekly schedule. During these days, we paused as a class and took some time to catch up on what we were covering and on any work that needed to be completed. Also, I organized Zoom chats – that were NOT work related – to allow us to catch our breath and reconnect socially. I did this regularly while physically teaching in the classroom. I can’t believe the concept didn’t occur to me while planning my virtual classroom.

Looking Forward

I finished my masters degree last year. To fast track it, I took two courses at a time. I hated the experience. It was such a struggle to manage all the readings and deadlines. And yet I possessed all the necessary skills, after a lifetime of school and workplace experience. And yet, here we are – expecting children, without the benefit of such experiences, to deal with an even bigger challenge. We’ve got high school students juggling a full load of courses. Younger students, stuck inside their homes, are also working hard and doing so without access to books, art or craft supplies, learning manipulatives, role models, or (during breaks) a playground. And, as educator Shawn Peck (@ShawnPeck6) recently pointed out on Twitter, students are doing all of the above while also having to share a device with a sibling, putting up with unreliable wifi, and dealing with a lot of anxiety. 

There is a lot to learn from this experience we are all undergoing. It would be a terrible waste if, when things returned to normal, we opted to return to the same old, same old strategies.  

Ed X!

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