This week marks approximately one month since schools shutdown due to covid-19. Because of this, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at how things are going for me and my students in my classes so far. Bear in mind, these are personal observations (for the most part) and may not be relevant to everyone teaching and learning through this crisis. And, while I know there are a lot of forces at work in all of our lives such as economic hardship and personal mental struggles resulting from stay-at-home orders across the nation, I will only address a handful of topics related directly to what I see as an educator. Unfortunately, I cannot solve every problem we experience.
I guess you can say that our students are lucky. Our school was already in the process of making certain that every high school student either already had or would be provided with some form of technology allowing them to access the internet prior to the covid outbreak. Although we were not quite finished ensuring this when the school system decided to shutdown, the goal was realized a very short time afterwards. Now, school administration and parents in our PTSA are working on the same assurance for our middle school students. This is awesome...though it holds some limitations for classes such as mine as the provided devices are all Chromebook based and cannot run the necessary software for the curriculum. So, I needed to find alternative software that can be used on a variety of device types and come as close as possible to the required software I teach to ensure continued learning of major concepts, if not the required tools. And, after considerable effort, I managed to succeed in my search for most of the software needed (graphics, video editing, animation and 3D modeling).
So, curriculum specifics aside, what else is new? Well, teachers and students have learned to interact in new ways using online tools. I have never been happier to have already prepared my students for curriculum distribution using a learning management system (LMS). Many teachers had to get up to speed with creating an online classroom as quickly as possible and I was already finished with overcoming this hurdle thanks to using an LMS for well over a decade. But, that is really where the advantages I hold as a tech ed teacher end.
On the personal note, I find myself working more frequently and harder than ever before to make sure my students succeed. I am busy converting lessons to focus more on concepts than software and find it hard to step away from work now that there is a very blurred line between my work-home lives. While I only need to work eight hours a day, I find myself working 10-14 hours. But, that work is typically far less stressful most days as I can select a single task to focus on, actually finishing it in one sitting rather than completing them in bits and pieces throughout a the week. I no longer live by an alarm clock despite typically start my workday at 6:00 am or earlier, walking from the bedroom to my office. I can delay the beginning of work, for the most part, if needed and continue later in the evening to accomplish the necessary tasks. And, most importantly, I can walk away to take a break any time I find it is needed without any consequences for doing so. I know if I take a needed hour-long walk or a mental distraction spending a TV show in the middle of the work day, I will make up the time that appears to be lost productivity later on in the same day, regardless of time, since there is no real punch clock or supervisor standing over me to keep track of clock-time physically spent with students. I am actually far more productive given the flexibility to accomplish the tasks I need to do when I am most focused on completing them.
Looking at general educational requirements, teachers are incorporating the use of video conferencing in place of face-to-face instruction using tools like Zoom or Google Hangout or Hangout Meets. As a result, I have flipped my classroom instruction. I typically use my hour-long weekly meeting with each of my four preps to provide a short overview of where they should be and where we are headed, update them on changes to needed school related information, and answer questions they may have regarding the activities I provide them. Most of the material that I would normally share as lecture in the past is now placed completely inside the individual pages and activities in my LMS as video content and/or reading materials. This allows me to focus on student needs as opposed to repetitive instructions, basic vocabulary and hands-on demonstrations during the short time I have with them in a face-to-face environment. I now see how I can change these regular classroom activities often resulted in an actual drop in student engagement during classroom instruction. For many students, lecture means tune-out and this flip encourages tuning-in. Flipping instruction is definitely one technique that will be retained once we return to the traditional classroom.
However, it seems that not every student flourishes under this model. There is a HUGE problem that has become abundantly clear as we move forward: apathy. Although I have reached out to the families of those students who aren't engaging in anything within my classes, regardless of whether it is participating in video conferences or submitting completed assignments, there seems to be a sense of being overwhelmed on the part of some students and/or their families. While I cannot say for certain the cause of this behavior in students (it could be caused by economic hardships, illness falling upon families, difficulty in sharing technology among family members, or personal difficulty in coping with the isolation resulting from stay-at-home orders in most states), it is a major problem that must be dealt with and overcome for students to be successful. Students need a supportive and encouraging home environment to help them navigate the now required changes to their normal daily routine. And sadly, it appears many lack this support structure, so they fall between the cracks and get left behind despite our best attempts for this to not happen.
On the other side of the equation are students who are heavily engaged/involved and who have that necessary support structure. These students are flourishing through the challenges and making every effort possible to be successful. They seem to be learning the importance of self-reliance and personal motivation, developing better communication skills, and finding connections between the skills taught in school and the world outside the educational bubble that they never saw before. It is a truly amazing thing to see these students develop as we continue doing our best to help all of our kids become successful both in and out of their classwork.
On Friday, I started a new tradition with my students: Friday Fun Polls. I decided that a simple poll to see where students stand on any number of topics could be an informative and a fun distraction, if only for a brief moment. And, I let them know that generally, these polls won't have anything to do with curriculum. To kick off this new weekly activity, I asked the students to respond to the following question:
Are you ready to come back to the classroom yet?
Out of my 110 students, I received a response from 42. And, while that is only 38% of my students, I found the results extremely interesting.
Think about this - 83% of students who are engaged miss school after only one month. Granted, that is most likely due to the social aspects school provides, but it still says something about students. Students generally want to be in school, despite everything families and teachers hear to the contrary from them.
In summary, I believe this crisis has exposed several weaknesses in the current educational model as well as those in the possibility of schools to be successful with remote learning. Personally, I feel we will not return to business as usual after this crisis ends, there will be definite and dramatic changes both inside education and our daily lives outside of the classroom. But, despite some of these changes relating to how we choose to live our lives, many of these changes can and should be for the better. Schools should be encouraged to truly embrace and close the technology gap both in instruction and student accessibility. Families should grow closer to one another and reconsider many of the commitments and time-burns they run their kids to and from on a daily basis, rethinking the importance of how they choose to schedule leisure time together outside of work and school. And, many people will learn the importance of thinking more before spending frivolously on things with less intrinsic value in improving their their lives. The world will definitely change around us, the real question is: how will we change both as human beings and citizens?
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.