It has been an interesting couple of months in the world and in education. While I realize the amount of time that we have been out of our classrooms, sometimes it takes a moment for it to really sink in. The other day I went back to an earlier email to follow up with someone, and I was completely shocked when I realized that six weeks had passed. I took a few minutes to think about all that has happened since that initial email had been sent. Schools closed. States are under stay-at home orders and countries are on lockdown. My daily routine of going to work, interacting with my students, and planning for each day, plus joining in professional development events throughout the weeks had stopped. As a teacher, what could often be an unpredictable, but yet a very comfortable, part of life suddenly stopped.
Across the country and around the world we saw life as we know it change. Life is still changing. Unlike anything that we have ever experienced before and I hope that we don’t have to experience again. Educators and families everywhere are still experiencing the struggle and looking for ways to balance all of the responsibilities in their personal and professional lives. Asking questions such as: How can we do the work that we are so passionate about from our homes and away from our students? What if we have to continue like this for extended periods of time? What if this becomes the new normal? What have we learned and where do we go from here? These are questions I ask myself each day.
When I think about it, it’s like the pandemic was the noisiest and biggest wake-up call on so many levels, one that we didn’t want, at least not in this way. It has pushed us to think critically not just about our daily lives, but also about what we are doing in our classrooms and in our schools. When processing thoughts and feelings about this pandemic, something that is so negative and has disrupted our lives so greatly, I think it’s important that we find a way to leverage our experiences to our advantage. What is something positive that we can take from it and how can it guide us as we move forward?
Looking back at the first few weeks of remote teaching, I was trying to do what I would normally do during the forty-two minute class periods in our classroom space. I still wanted to use our class materials and do the same activities and make it all fit somehow, in the online space. I spent more hours planning for all five of my courses than I had been in the past few years. I was becoming frustrated and feeling overwhelmed because I could not decide on a plan that would enable me to keep doing the same thing.
In the first two weeks, I quickly found out that I was overthinking my plans. Many students did not have their books at home, some students did not have devices or access, and it took a few weeks to be able to reach some students. There are several that I’ve not been able to connect with more than a few times. The biggest lesson that I have learned is that in times like this, we need to make sure that we focus on relationships and knowing our students and their families first. We need this connection so we can provide the support they need in the event that we experienced something like this again, although I certainly hope that we do not. But if we do, having those relationships and connections in place will make a huge difference.
Moving to remote learning means technology and for many educators, that was something entirely new. I truly believe that your level of expertise or comfort with digital tools or teaching online, made little difference during this time, especially at the onset of school closures. While I have used a lot of different digital tools in my classroom and have participated in and led sessions during webinars, conferences, and other events, I have never tried to teach a high school language course online. Moving instruction online is difficult and I have not talked to anyone yet that found it to be an easy transition.
After those first two weeks, rather than trying to make the materials that I had fit into this new learning space, I tried to think about what I could offer to make it more meaningful and accessible for students. Class meetings could not be mandatory but of course I hoped that many would attend and encouraged them to do so. I relied more on technology to open opportunities for students to explore, but more importantly, to have a way to connect with them. What I found is that many students joined in each class because it was a period of time they could count on, where they could feel like something was normal about the day when it came to school and learning. I am thankful to have technology available that enables us to connect with students and be available when they and their families need us.
Once I made that shift, I felt less frustrated and looked forward to teaching classes and being able to check in on students. For students, hearing each other’s voices and having a space to interact is making a difference. Of course there has been a lot of conversation out there about the security of using Zoom and the other platforms, with students sharing the links and classes being interrupted, but taking time to set up everything to avoid that made a difference.
About midway through, I started to seek more feedback. Everyone wants to keep learning going and provide all that we can for students, but I think many quickly found out that we couldn’t. Not for lack of trying and not because we don’t want to put in the time. But because all of those things that we can’t control or that we don’t know are part of our students’ lives and experiences. Things like access to devices, added responsibilities, or even the jobs that they are still doing. We also don’t necessarily know about the amount of support available with parents who may be in the home doing their own work or are essential workers and leaving home each day. So I think it was a good point for everyone to focus on doing enough to keep learning going, but doing more to make sure that our students and their families are okay. We can catch up on learning activities, but we can’t catch up on missed opportunities to provide for the welfare and well-being of our students, ourselves, and our own families. Checking in is vital during this time.
Encouraging students to do work when perhaps they are not receiving traditional grades or are on a pass-fail scale is another area that challenged me. I used a Google Form to ask students how they were doing, what could I help with, and how was class going for them. Was I giving too much or not enough? How were they handling all of their coursework?
What I learned is that we need to be mindful that not all of our students are working in a space where they have their own device or it’s quiet. Many students have added responsibilities that they are balancing now with a full online class schedule. It has been tough to break away from knowing where I want them to be with the content and instead find that balance and give them enough to engage them in meaningful and purposeful learning, that does not overwhelm.
It has led me to really think about what I am doing in my classroom and with each passing week, I found myself moving away from the books and other materials that I have used before and instead relying on resources accessible online. I thought this would be a smoother transition and easier for students to work with. But there were still a lot of questions—how to do something or where to find a certain resource, how to submit assignments, when were assignments due. So I decided to take some leaps and pull in some different strategies that I had used in other classes and some that I had not yet used but had thought about trying for a long time. I asked myself: What matters the most? That they all complete the worksheets and they all can speak Spanish? Or that they feel supported as they learn, comfortable making mistakes, and can create their own learning path? How can I use this moving forward?
It is time to think about how many changes we’ve made in the short period of time we’ve been teaching online, and consider what we would be able to do if we had to quickly transition back into our physical classrooms tomorrow. With a large part of the academic year lost, and with everything that we are reading now, there is the likelihood that school won’t look the way that it did when we were last in our classrooms. We may need to continue remote teaching and we may need to do so again without much notice. We need to have something in place. We are capable of having something better than we did this time because now we have experience.
With many schools around the world facilitating remote learning for the remainder of this academic year and possibly longer, we must find ways to provide more than just the content for our students. We need to consider how we can use this time as an opportunity for students to explore and create more, in ways that meet their specific interests and needs. We also should think about the transition we will need to make when classes resume in our schools. What types of opportunities can we design that will help students to be flexible in learning, to develop a growth mindset, and become problem solvers, while also providing ways for collaboration and communication to occur?
Especially now, with social interactions limited, it is critical that we provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful learning and leading experiences that promote the development of social-emotional learning skills and empower them to communicate and collaborate regardless of the learning “space.” With technology likely used at an even greater level for learning and working in the future, we need to embed ways for students to develop the skills which are critical to personal and future professional growth.
Although this is a very challenging time in the world, it is an opportunity to do more for our students and in an individualized way. We can have our students engage in unique ways to go beyond just the content and the curriculum they might be learning if still in their physical classroom setting. By focusing our efforts on bringing in concepts such as project-based learning (PBL), place-based learning, STEAM curriculum, entrepreneurial ventures, and genius hour, our students will have more independence and the opportunity to drive their learning, now more than ever before. With these options, we provide opportunities not only for our students to explore new ideas, but also to create and build essential skills, regardless of when or where learning takes place. We have the opportunity to innovate and reimagine learning. But we must continue to reflect and share our experience with others, because we are truly better together.
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