Connecting In the Time of COVID-19

Today’s Contributor: Helen Wilson teaches PreAP Chemistry and Scientific Research & Design at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA). She is honored to serve as LASA’s Campus Innovation Connector.

Online learning and teaching are more than just making your in-person course digital.  Feeling comfortable with BLEND (Canvas LMS) and edtech tools was the first step. So I wasn’t daunted by the pure instruction pieces of it all; what took me much more time was considering how human interaction would play into our new ways of instruction.  I still wanted to replicate, as best as I could,  the feeling of immediacy and trust that I’d built with my students over this past year. I wanted them to know they could still count on me to answer their questions and keep up with their friends.  Figuring all of this out was just as much an act of therapy for myself as it was for my students. I didn’t want anyone I knew and loved at school – my students and my work colleagues – to slip away from my everyday life as well.  I worried about the inevitable isolation we’d all feel – and not just because solving this problem would also help me feel less isolated too; more connected to them, too.

 Nobody should fade away just because we are not all here in the same time and place.  But, in order for this to (sort of) function in a distance education framework I was going to have to take less things for granted.  I would need to set up very clear ways for students to access me and each other more often, not less.  Give students even more ownership, not less.  Connect to students and my peers more richly, not less.

 I knew I was going to keep up with a playlist format, consisting of screencasts, checks for understanding that students could use to gauge their own knowledge, and collaborative pieces;  Must Dos and May Dos selected because students had voice to express their learning needs.   I knew I was going to keep talking with kids through Zoom and reply to emails quickly.  What I came up with isn’t perfect and will get tweaked even more as the weeks go by.  But, for what it’s worth, here are the changes I’ve made to better fit a way of online teaching and learning that will help grow our relationships with our colleagues and students in this very strange new world we’re now living in.

  1. Tweak (or begin?) BLEND Discussions.  These were, far and away, my favorite tool in Canvas anyway.  Students who hesitate to speak up verbally in class do wonders in a medium where they can write or draw, their responses instead.  We had previously used individual BLEND Discussions to gather student May Dos work.  Setting each student as their own “group” in a group BLEND discussion provides a two-way communication channel between the teacher and the student.  I would offer feedback on their May Dos work in a way that clearly showcased the entire body of student understanding about a topic – a digital portfolio, if you will.  In our current online modules,  we are using individual BLEND discussion boards as a weekly check-in.  Students post their questions, mood, or thoughts in the board and I can easily reply to them back.  It feels more like an in-person conversation this way.  Most of my students continue to type – I still want them to be comfortable! –  but I’ve also received amazing photo, video and audio responses too.
  2. Respond to your students using BLEND’s media/audio recordings feature.  Let them see you. I have found you have to balance the length of time it takes you to craft effective responses through speech, so this approach may not be practical all the time.   But, I think the more times they actually get to see and hear you, the better!  Video really brings you into the room with them, so to speak.  (Also:  being on Zoom all the time gets you used to seeing your face.)
Along the same lines, if you are screencasting your direct teach sessions, turn on your webcam so there’s a mini version of you there talking to them as you go through your content. Screencastify (my favorite tool outside of BLEND) allows you to do this easily.
  1. Give students more ways to showcase mastery and have input in your course.  I had already switched over to digital choice boards for the May Do portion of our playlists;  it’s not a surprise that students love them. We are now in a time when life is more uncertain and unpredictable than ever;  I knew as soon as all of this happened that I’d need to give kids even more control over their learning than usual.   We had many students comment that it was nice to create digital and non-digital products to demonstrate mastery, and the kids that love to solve problems still had a chance to do so (and also said they appreciated it!)  And we kept on with having kids tell us what they wanted to see in their lessons through the use of BLEND’s New Quizzes.  I so love it when kids can verbalize why a group BLEND discussion was better than using Flipgrid for a specific activity.
  2. Make time to see your colleagues.  Our chemistry PLC has set up “virtual coffee hours” outside of our new work hours, and we come and go as we need to.  It’s a very small, simple routine, but being able to see them and catch up on a regular basis is so helpful.   We teachers see each other a lot when we’re teaching in a physical building, and you end up really, really missing those minutes upon minutes of contact and conversation.   Visiting virtually isn’t, of course, exactly the same experience as visiting in person.  You don’t get the body language, the tones of voice, or the same level of energy.   Still, it helps you feel like you’re part of your little community at school, and you maintain the friendships you’ve formed.   No teacher is an island, not even this self-described “queen of the introverts.”

No doubt I’ll be tweaking and making changes to these ideas as I keep on through the next weeks of online teaching.  However, I can honestly say that these have really helped me feel part of our new online school and class community.  Crafting playlist lessons that would feel familiar to our students, maintaining a positive classroom culture of voice, choice and constant feedback, and increasing the quality of our digital interactions with each other (as much as we can) are getting us – me –  back into a new kind of routine.   I’m really encouraged by reading my students’ responses and new evidence of their learning in BLEND and out of BLEND.  I love being able to connect with my students and colleagues on Zoom. And as we move forward, I am now looking forward to figuring out more ways to connect online until we can all be together again.

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