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Distance Learning: Online Student Morphs into Online Teacher

by Molly Leahy

Flying to Chicago, touring Wrigley Field and walking along Lake Michigan were the perks I dreamed of when I signed up for a week-long training session for a new course I’m teaching, AP Research. When events this spring converted the training to online learning, I mourned the loss of my travel opportunity, and I panicked about taking my first synchronous online course. What perks could there be from learning online by myself at home? Instead of strolling down Michigan Avenue, dining on deep-dish pizza, and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, I only moved to wherever the strongest wifi connection streamed in my house, so I went from my standing desk in an unair-conditioned bedroom to the kitchen table with a view of the front door. By the end of the course, I realized I didn’t need to travel through O’Hare Airport to arrive at a new destination of understanding; I did find perks to this online course–I observed and experienced really good online instruction. These take-aways eased my anxiety about synchronous teaching this fall, if remote learning becomes the path for our district. 

  1. Handle the unusual circumstances that will occur when school intersects with home life with a sense of humor and understanding. I needed to let my instructor know that there might be a few minutes when I would have to step away from my screen to let in the HVAC repair guy and the dryer delivery guy, and deal with household issues. My instructor’s response was “No problem. I’ll add AC Repair guy to Zoom Bingo, along with kids and pets entering participants’ screens.” Her understanding and good sense of humor helped put me at ease, and I need to remember to approach situations with teenagers at their intersection of home and school with a similar attitude. As I sat in my kitchen, all of the exposed drywall appeared in the screen behind me. It must have been obvious that this course interrupted much needed kitchen renovations. While I fretted and fixated on what my classmates might think of ripped drywall behind me, I realized I was acting like an adolescent–worried about one hair out of place that others don’t see. I may have to help students work through any self-consciousness issues about appearing on camera in front of their peers, so again, humor and understanding should help. 
  1. Create a template or graphic organizer for classmates to take notes during introductions. How will students get to know any of their classmates from home? When we began introducing ourselves, I instinctively took notes to match people’s names with what state they were from and what classes they teach in case I needed to know that for later conversations and group work. I’m not sure it will occur to my students to do the same. Since I teach 9th grade classes, my students will not know half of their classmates who come to the high school from the other middle school. Helping students find ways to connect with each other is necessary and a task that I will have to be more explicit in creating activities or graphic organizers for students to replace organic connections that happen in the classroom setting. We will have a stronger classroom community online if students have a charted or structured way to remember each other. 
  1. Make sure digital copies of all texts are available online, and help students navigate the tabs. The two books and materials I needed for the course never arrived, but at least links for online digital copies were provided. Having multiple tabs open for the digital versions of the books, Canvas, and Zoom was tricky for me, and I would have preferred to have had the two books in front of me with fewer tabs open. From my experience, I hope to remember to provide students with the digital copies, but also to try and find ways for them to access a hard copy, or at least streamline the tabs and windows open for them. Other group members felt sorry for those of us who still had not received the books, so they volunteered to be the group recorders to save us from having to open yet another tab. In appreciation for our group members typing on the slides for us, we would take on the role of speaker. With my students this fall,  I must take into consideration the number of tabs they have open and their ease of switching from one to the other. I may need to suggest roles or accommodations based on how well students can navigate with the open windows and apps. 
  1. Effective group work and team writing conferences can happen with Zoom breakout rooms or the Google Meet equivalent. We logged onto Zoom every day from 9AM – 5PM. Having attended a few Zoom events with family and friends during the spring, I knew about Zoom fatigue. How could we ever survive 9-5 synchronous learning via Zoom? The Zoom breakout rooms with group slides to record our key discussion points allowed participants to have smaller conversations and get to know each other better which varied the pacing of the lesson. The active Google Slides allowed the instructor to monitor each group’s progress, and she could send us chat messages in our separate groups. A special help button appeared in the breakout room which brought the instructor into the smaller group conversation if we had a question. The first time we broke down into the smaller group, I couldn’t follow the slides, Zoom screen, and the other tabs. I volunteered to be the recorder for our group, but I wrote our notes on the wrong slides that belonged to another group. Note to self–maybe color-code the group slides and group numbers to help students as challenged as I was. Sometimes, I could feel my anxiety level rising just knowing the next lesson on the agenda was a breakout room. This was a good reminder for me about how some students can be intimidated by group work. The Google Slides for each breakout room is a great way for groups to be held accountable for producing work, but also for the teacher to monitor what happens in the small groups. Next on my to-do list is to experiment with Google’s version of breakout rooms. 
  1. Maintain a consistent structure with clear expectations to alleviate student anxiety. At the end of each day, we completed a Google Form exit ticket with 4-5 reflection questions, and then we began the next class with the instructor answering our questions. This next morning review helped reinforce key ideas and provide a springboard for the day’s new lessons and material. The slides for this class had a very consistent format with a defined icon or image to represent each book for further clarification. We knew what to do based on the consistent organization of the slides. Our instructor also set clear expectations that our video cameras must be turned on for attendance purposes, so this let us know how we needed to be present in our digital community. When the agenda allowed for workshop time, because the work assigned to us was so meaningful to us, we did not waste our independent time or become distracted; instead, we reached out to our instructor when we needed help since she remained on the Zoom call for coaching.  By crafting meaningful writing assignments and creating purposeful time for students, I can increase the chances that they will want to write and conference with me. While in school under normal circumstances, I look for ways to vary the lessons, room, groupings, etc. However, in an online setting, consistency and simplicity become more important. The small details matter in making sure the learning proceeds smoothly. 

One week of online learning doesn’t make me an expert, so I know I have more homework to do. Leaving politics aside and knowing myself best, I will feel better being prepared for whatever scenario develops. I signed up for a webinar this Friday sponsored by the National Education Association, “Safely Returning to In-Person Instruction” to help me think about issues that I haven’t even considered yet if we return to brick and mortar school this fall. No matter what our district decides, I should definitely read this article from edsurge.org “How Brain Research Helped Retool Our School Schedule for Remote Learning” so I continue to upgrade my tech skills. While I probably won’t be most concerned about assembling bulletin boards or brain break activities in my physical classroom, I can certainly do more reading and research lounging on my porch in the shade. 

I keep having to remind myself that this is a different summer, and just so, preparation for the next school year also looks different. Wrapping our heads around so many unknown factors can be frustrating for sure, but time spent thinking about a foundation with a solid structure and organization that promotes stability is key. The best elements of in-person instruction like group-work, clear directions, consistent structures, and simplified organization can be implemented or altered slightly to fit digital, synchronous learning. 

And here is the best news–Clorox wipes are back on the shelves again at my grocery store which means whether we teach from home or in the classroom, we got this!

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What did distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? How will distance learning change or enhance your brick and mortar routines and best practices? What does Fall 2020 look like for you, your classroom, your school, and/or your district?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.