This is week eight of virtual learning for my school community. It has been a hectic time, with not much room for reflection. But, I felt I needed to carve out the time I needed to make sense of all that has been going on.
The first thing I thought about were the issues flying around the education-related social media world/Twitterverse that were NOT a surprise. Here are a few non-surprises:
1. Educator Awesomeness
Throughout this crisis, teachers around the world have really stepped up in terms of their creativity and compassion. I wrote about this at length in my last post – teachers going over and above to ensure their students’ needs were being met. What I failed to note in my last post, however, was the amount of time that busy educators were devoting to professional growth and development. It seems like there are online chats and best-practice discussions popping up all over the internet. It has been amazing. I shared a pretty neat (but rather innocuous) time capsule template (that I stole from Twitter) onto a global educator’s community on Facebook. Normally, when I post anywhere the results are unspectacular. But, this post garnered over a hundred likes (and dozens of comments) within 24-hours of being uploaded. I am looking forward to a time after the coronavirus when the ongoing reflection and professional growth habits developed during VL will transfer into the brick and mortar classroom.
2. Platform Pushing
Since the beginning of this virtual learning roller coaster ride, there has been megabytes of chatter about technology platforms. It seems like every minute, a company (or one of their shills) is promoting the next great app or program. It was amazing to see how quickly talk of fundamental teaching practices was swept aside for gushing reviews and promotion of the latest technology. I am not saying that technology didn’t play a HUUUGE role in making VL happen, but technology needs to be aligned with, and in support of, student needs and sound teaching practices. We shouldn’t begin with product features – we need to begin with our education objectives and how new technology will help us to achieve those goals. It’s got to start with us.
3. The Need for Flexibility
Online learning is not new. But, online learning on this global scale is very new. And, it is evolving regularly and rapidly. This means that in order to best meet the needs of students and parents, lots of elements have to be open to adjustment in terms of how instruction and assessment are delivered. Your school began VL with a synchronous approach? Well, now you’re switching to asynchronous learning! Getting used to this particular platform? Good, because now we’re adopting that platform. Fixed due dates are now sliding due dates. And don’t get too comfortable with the way you are grading, or how to meet the needs of ELL and special needs students, or how we work with parents. So many options were up in the air. And, whatever administrators directed and redirected, educators responded to quickly and professionally.
Surprise! I began to think about an aspect of this VL experience that has been surprising: I can’t believe just how freakin’ needy I’ve become during this corona crisis.
I feel like I am in constant need of feedback and validation. I guess I was really accustomed to, and dependent upon, my day-to-day classroom interactions with students. Every day, as I moved around the room, kibitzing with the kids and monitoring their progress, I was also provided with an opportunity to monitor my own performance. Every minute of every class, thanks to the students, I knew exactly how well I was doing my job.
And now? I have to make do with emails, chat conversations, Zoom meetings (where most students turn off their cameras), and perusing formative work that is often (due to relaxed expectations) submitted many days after being assigned. I am gathering useful data, but, whether it is due to the lack of immediacy or face-to-face connection, it just ain’t the same.
I am so needy that I am craving any kind of interaction with my peers. I have become the guy who is posting best practice ideas in the social WhatsApp chat to provoke dialogue. I’m even posting trivia games and lame jokes on our feeds to get a positive buzz of any kind going. And, I am fawning over my administrators in a kind of flesh and blood manifestation of the well-known Overly Attached Girlfriend meme. I eagerly open every email from my administrators in anticipation of some sort of feedback. I am glued to the computer monitor during staff Zoom meets hoping and praying for a shout out from my principal!
If I am feeling this needy, what about students? Do the kids miss our instant and personal feedback and regular encouragement and support?
A January 2020 article in Positive Psychology reported that there is a significant link between teaching and student well being. And, the article goes on to explain, this sense of well being is, as illustrated in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, “a sort of prerequisite to higher-order functions such as learning”. So, rather than choosing between well being and academic achievement, it is more accurately “a focus on mental health in order to set the stage and give students the opportunity for academic achievement.” (https://positivepsychology.com/positive-education-happy-students/)
What this tells me is that we need to ensure that our VL interactions with students are constructed such that they first target student confidence and happiness. Once a foundation of emotional health has been established, the academics can begin.
In fact, just this week I was looking at an ad for an online virtual learning course for educators. The list of course descriptors began with a promise of regular “live interaction” between participants. Number three on the list is one-on-one mentoring. So, it’s clear that we all already know what people want and need when it comes to online learning. Positive human connections matter!
Although I didn’t have the above research hand when developing my own VL Social Studies program, like any experienced educator, I knew that positive engagement was step one. Here’s how I ensured every day started positively:
- My first post of each day is a This Day in History announcement. Although there were always lots of historical highlights to choose from, I always opted for things that were fun or connected to student life experiences, such as the founding of YouTube, or the first sale of Coca-Cola. I even contrived to post old class photos of myself and challenged students to locate me. The best part is that I would post them on my Google Classroom stream with student comments active – the chatter some of these posts initiated were epic!
- Every lesson begins with a link to an introductory video. I create the videos myself and they star me – there is no way I am going to let someone else teach my students. The video is my bridge to them. My videos provide clear directions (with helpful lists and images superimposed in the shot) but the learning takes a backseat to the engagement. My videos are funny. And, if I can shoehorn in a costume or a prop, all the better.
- I have started encouraging students to bring up our lessons at their family dinner table. I created intriguing essential questions and then asked students to get their parent’s opinions. I used questions like: ““Is it bad for people in one country to buy products made in another country?” and “Should doctors and nurses receive reparations for the sacrifices they are expected to make during this pandemic crisis?” Some students handled it like an assignment and reported back to me matter-of-factly. Others, however, ended up having full-on debates. Talk about bringing history to life!
Anyhow, there are still weeks and weeks of virtual learning to go until summer vacation and, I am sure, there will be many more surprises to analyze and respond to. I plan to continue to put student emotional well-being at the top of my objectives for the remainder of this unprecedented and overwhelming school year. And yet, even though this has been an exhausting experience, for the first time in my career, I am actually excited for summer to happen, and then end, so that I can get back into my classroom and reconnect with my students in person.