How to Teach Online, Part 1

Years ago, I asked one of my high school teachers if he would consider teaching a course online. “Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “I come to work because I love being around kids. Online classes would keep all of the annoying parts of the job and get rid of the fun part.”

Point taken. Educators are not really drawn to the profession because they have a deep desire to impart wisdom to future generations. They’re there because they love kids. That’s part of what makes this COVID-19 crisis so devastating. Our students miss school. They miss their friends. They miss the routine. But our teachers really do miss the students. We’ve lost the rest of this school year. And next year seems very uncertain at this point. That’s hard on everyone.

It’s possible that we’ll all be back in school in the fall and everything will be back to “normal.” Nobody is counting on that. It’s more likely that we’ll be practicing social distancing guidelines. We have to maintain six feet between people. We have to wear masks. We can’t get higher than 50% of the fire code capacity for spaces. So maybe half of the kids come to school on any given day. On the other days, they’re home doing remote learning. And that’s the optimistic plan. It’s entirely possible that we won’t go back to school in the fall, and we’ll be doing remote learning indefinitely. We don’t really want to talk about that. But we should be talking about that.

We’re going to need to come to terms with the fact that our teachers will be seeing our students a lot less. How much less is a variable, and it may change quickly and often. We need to be prepared to move back and forth between online and face to face instruction seamlessly. And that means getting a lot better at the online part.

I’ve been reading a lot and discussing a lot and listening to podcasts and participating in Zoom conferences and watching smart people’s videos. There are a lot of good ideas out there. There are a lot of people who know a lot about this stuff. And it’s not new. They’ve been working on it for a long time. We should listen to them. Here are some of the things they’re saying.

I used to have a coworker who had a sign in her office that said “Be kinder than necessary.” In times of disruption, our students need to know that we care about them. We have to make an extra effort to connect with them. Their world has changed dramatically in a short time, and they’re understandably nervous about it. It helps for them to see you on video, or hear an audio recording you’ve made. Even reaching out to individual students to see how they’re doing can have a tremendous benefit. We get to carry each other. Be that person who makes a difference in a student’s world. Starting with that mindset makes everything else so much easier.

That also means giving them the benefit of the doubt sometimes. They’re going to miss some deadlines as they struggle to stay organized and manage their time. They’re going to have challenges that are out of their control. They have little brothers and annoying moms and just as many disruptions as you have. Cut them some slack.

In the classroom, you set up routines. At the primary level, those are things like lunch counts and calendar and weather. The students count on those as “the things we do to start the day.” They find comfort in routine. As the students get older, maybe there’s an entrance ticket, or they have to copy homework assignments or turn in work they’ve completed. Maybe the teacher stands at the door and gives a high-five or a fist bump to students as they come in. After the first couple days of school, students know what to expect when they walk into your classroom.

We need the same kind of predictability in online spaces. Because we’re not physically in the same place, it’s even harder to keep everyone on the same page. You can do that by setting a routine. On Tuesdays, you’re going to get new assignments that are due the following Monday. We’re going to use Google Classroom. Our schedule is there, so you can see what’s coming up, and you’ll turn in your assignments there. Video conferences will be in Zoom. On Wednesdays and Fridays, I’ll be available for virtual office hours during these times. Ideally, you can coordinate this as a team or a school so you’re not overwhelming the students. Try not to have every assignment in every class due on Friday afternoon. Maybe Language arts assignments can be due on Tuesdays and Science can be on Thursdays. If you can set up expectations ahead of time, it helps the students better plan their time, and it helps them get over the anxiety that they’re missing something.

Synchronous means “at the same time.” Asynchronous means “not at the same time.” A phone call is synchronous. Both people have to be available at the same time to have the conversation. An email is asynchronous. You send an email, and the recipient reads it and responds at their convenience. As the person in a position of power, you control the time for synchronous meetings. We’re going to have a Zoom video conference at 10:00 AM on Wednesday. You’ve just told your students to arrange their schedules in such a way that they’re able to get on that conference at that time. Most of the time, that’s not a problem. But in some houses, there are multiple students, maybe sharing devices. Parents are working, either at home or at their jobs. Connectivity may be spotty. Quiet is at a premium. Your conference might be inconveniencing a whole household.

So if that Zoom call exists so you can explain the importance of the Battle of Lexington in the American Revolution, maybe you don’t need all of your students to rearrange their schedules to do it. Maybe you could send them a 7 minute video — created by you or someone else — and then ask them some questions in a discussion forum that encourage them to analyze the events of that day and form hypotheses about how the loyalists and the patriots would react to the events on Lexington Green that morning. Give them a few days to watch the video and participate in the discussion. Then the students get the same content, interact with and respond to it, and they do so at a time when it’s convenient for them within the time frame you set.

Save the interactive video conferences for times when you actually need students to interact with you, or with each other. There may be cases where they’re setting up their own conferences because they’re working collaboratively. Let them set those times and conduct those meetings. There may also be times when you want to be available to students, but not require them all to show up at the same time. I’m a big believer in office hours. Maybe you set 2-3 times each week when you’re available to answer questions and discuss topics the students may be struggling with. Let them drop in if they need your help. Follow up with the ones you never hear from.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever have a whole class Zoom call. But think carefully about why you’re doing it, make sure you actually need everyone there at the same time, and give them plenty of notice.

Teaching online is overwhelming. The good news is you’re not alone. There are hundreds of people doing the same thing you’re doing. They’re not doing it the same way. They don’t have the same priorities, or the same rapport with the students, or the same approach to teaching and learning. But when it comes to content, we’re mostly doing the same stuff. Ninth grade English only comes in so many flavors.

So you can record videos and share them with your students. That’s a good idea. It helps you connect with them. It allows you highlight the most important things and put the emphasis where you want it. But you can’t do that with every topic in every class every day. So use some of the stuff that’s already out there.

If you’re using a textbook, or a digital resource that used to be called a textbook, there are lots of resources available to you. Use them. There are also open educational resources (OER). These are things that other people have assembled and shared openly and freely to help teach all kinds of things. Do a Google search for “open educational resources.” While they haven’t caught on so much in K-12, there are lots of colleges who are moving toward OER as a way to cut down on textbook costs. There are also educational resources curated by government agencies. In Ohio, we have the INFOhio resources that are ready to use. You probably have similar resources where you live. Your media specialist knows about these things and can help you and your students get access to them. Then, there’s always YouTube. There’s all kinds of stuff on YouTube. Some of it is garbage. But some of it is pretty good. You don’t have to use it all. Pick up little pieces of things and point your students to them. Wrap a little introduction around them if you need to. “Just watch the first four minutes of this video, and then come back here and do this activity.”

And, when you DO create your own stuff, put it out there in a way that other teachers can use it, too. If every 9th grade English teacher created one high-quality resource and shared it with everyone, we’d have plenty of materials to teach everything in that course.

You talk too much. Take a page from the first grade classrooms. First grade teachers change activities every few minutes. You should do that too. If you’re using a piece of instruction — video, text, whatever — try to keep it to five minutes. Sometimes, you’ll go over. Maybe give yourself another five minutes of grace time. Aim for five minutes. Settle for 10 minutes. Then, ask the learner to DO something with that new instruction.

We can get away with a 40 minute lecture in school because we have a captive audience. We made them put their phones away. They have to sit there and listen to us until the bell rings. That doesn’t work online. Get to the point.

As I write this, I’m realizing I’m 1700 words into this blog post. That means you’ve probably been reading for about 7 minutes. See how you’re already losing interest? That means we need a part 2. Go do something else for a while. Maybe think about or explore or apply some of the things I’ve already talked about. Come back in a couple days. There’ll be more for you then.


Image Credit: Matteo Corner/EPA, from The Guardian


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