Teaching online when school re-opens will be extremely challenging; that is, much like teaching in the classroom. There are some important things we can do to prepare.
I have learned these lessons the hard way — from teaching summer school via distance learning. It’s important I share them because teachers and teacher-allies sharing what we’ve learned is a primary way we can be ready to teach effectively in this new pandemic environment.
(Note: My expertise is in teaching high school. If you’re teaching younger kids: thank you! Some of this might still apply; in any case, you’re welcome here.)
Eliminate screen clutter. When teaching online, what’s on your computer screen matters. You want to be able to show students what you want them to know and to avoid wading through irrelevant pages, such as your searches, your e-mail and the YouTube video you played at lunch. That stuff will slow you down and corrode student engagement. Keep a tight screen.
Be relevant. Assume teens are veterans of street protests as well as the pandemic. They have seen things. Relevance will involve presenting balanced news and analysis along with texts related to issues of racial justice and public health, as well as considering what our students know and what they want to know about the history they are in the process of making.
Get nimble with the programs. On Zoom, be able to use breakout rooms and share screens. Kids will like it if you can change your background screen to show their favorite teams and bands. If you’re not already able to upload and share files on Google Drive, teach yourself that skill pronto. If you want to be able to share with other teachers (you do!) and have a dependable workflow system for student assignments and your feedback (ditto!), then you will want to be on Google Drive and Google Classroom.
Give quick written feedback. We are going to be away from our students. That is sad. One way to overcome the sadness is to let students know you care, and nothing does that as well as timely written feedback. Say their name, write something they did well and something they might work on.
Focus on the work getting done. Some of the best teaching advice I ever heard was not to obsess too much about the one or two kids who might not be doing an assignment. Work behind the scenes on that stuff. Meanwhile, give class-time attention to what is being done. Emphasize what’s right. Phrase potential improvements as choices: “You might think about how you want to use paragraphs.”
Say ‘hi’ to each student. Most of my summer school kids liked to keep their cameras off. It’s unnerving to me, but I take some comfort in knowing I’m respecting the boundaries they are very clearly setting. Also, when I say howdy and ask them to turn on their cameras for a moment of face-to-face, they generally do. I wave to them, they wave back; we know that — video or no video — we’re in this together, and onward we go.
Put together a good teacher group. The best support for teachers always has been other teachers. Now is a good time to reach out to those you respect and form a band. You know who these teachers are — they’re the ones who never blame their students or administration or families or anyone for anything. No-blame teachers can help you master the programs, develop curriculum and share funny stories. We need each other now more than ever.
While it’s essential to prepare for opening school online, we also should be aware that whatever we do is not going to be enough. Students and their allies are going to demand more from schools than even the most skilled teacher can offer. It will not be enough merely to repair a system designed to produce achievement gaps that widen grotesque economic inequalities. We’ll have to replace it entirely. How to do that is another conversation.
I anticipate this conversation happening in earnest sometime between when we’d typically be holding Back to School Night and the Halloween parade. In the meantime, I’m doing what good teachers all around the world are doing right now: getting ready to persuade students that our work together is a worthwhile complement to street protest.
Mark Gozonsky is a UCLA Writing Project fellow and an 18-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he teaches high school English at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. Reach him @markgozonsky.
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