Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Teaching Online - a Month in Review

A recent poll of Canadian students aged 10-17 found that,
"When it comes to online classes, most say they’re keeping up (75%) but are largely unmotivated (60%) and disliking the arrangement (57%). It stands to reason then, that one of the biggest worries for Canada’s young people includes missing out on school. Three-in-ten (29%) children identify this as their most major concern, a number that rises among teenagers 16 and 17 years of age."
I think you'd get similar answers if you quizzed teachers, too, keeping up but largely unmotivated and definitely disliking the arrangement! Prepping for online courses makes me think of that old movie with Martha Plimpton, 200 Cigarettesabout a 20-something hosting a New Years Eve party and getting drunker and drunker as she waits, alone, for people to start showing up. Then she passes out before the party of the decade happens around her. Even Elvis Costello parties in her living room!! Teaching online is like planning for an amazing party. You've got all the food and all the decorations done, and everything's perfect, but it's 9:00 and nobody's here. And you fret because you've gone to SO MUCH WORK to make everything just right, and nobody's here and you're just sitting alone staring at a document or a message board or a forum waiting for a sign that someone's logging in. Those three dots or a flickering tiny icon in the upper right corner.... Something.

And you start thinking, why would they come? Thanks to the Ministry's suggestion (and then policy developed by most boards) that, "The mark on any learning task will only be used in the final mark on the June report card if it improves the student’s overall mark from March 13," students know that their marks can't go down from the pre-pandemic place, so, for most, either their marks are high, and they're happy with them, or, if they're low, they're happy just to pass. A few might have reached the pinnacle of 50% who didn't quite do that level of work! There are only a few that hope to raise their marks, the ones between a 79 and 89 maybe. They might give it a shot. Some might be convinced, for a while there, that it's possible we'll be back in June, and then everything will count again. And then there ARE some who want to learn something about the humanities and social sciences, right?!?  I mean, it is their very last chance at getting some free education.

We've been told to "leverage your relationships" in order to get kids more involved in learning since we can no longer use the rewards of marks to entice them. The idea is that they'll do the course because they like us and because they feel like we care about them and their learning. I have three concerns with that framing: first, it makes it sound like our connections are commodities to be exploited. Second, it makes it sound like kids work for the pleasure of our company, which is an arrogant assumption at best. And third, it puts the onus on personality to engage students and implies that disengagement is due to a lack of teacher warmth or connectedness instead of myriad other factors.

And, with my new civics class, a half credit course that didn't start until April 16th, I've never met them, and it looks like I never will. I'm expected to create relationships online and then leverage that relationship to convince them to do some projects. A few in this group are making it clear that they're not pleased with me. First, because of their misreading of the ministry's messaging, they believe their mark can't possibly diminish from online learning at all, so they think not submitting anything can't count against them despite not have a mark yet that could diminish, and then I come along and tell them that they'll get a zero if they continue to avoid the work. AND, since they've never met me and it all feels anonymous, I'm getting some very reddit-worthy comments. AND many grade tens hate politics to begin with.

I mean, a few, every year, angry-hate politics, no matter what I do to introduce it. In any civics class, I'm sure there are a few kids thinking this on the first day - I see their eye rolls - but I've enough hubris to believe I can turn them - many of them at least, because government scandals are fascinating - and we're all involved since we're all paying their salaries - and let's check out what people have done that actually DID change the world!! It's all stories, and I can tell a story well enough to keep them actually making eye contact (or I would have long ago walked away). But not this year - not without in person discussions and the ability to address each concern immediately and with examples and letting other students address concerns so it comes from their peers. Not without facial feedback that tells me when to switch gears or slow down - I'm teaching into a void. Not this year. I've heard the 'r' word and the 'i' word and the 'b' word a few times and now I'm just waiting for the rest of the alphabet to be tossed my way.

I go full Cartman's mom on the haters:

"Of course, I'll do absolutely anything to help you learn. If you missed the instructions the three times I posted them because posting lessons doesn't work for you, I can email them directly to you, personally. I can even print them out and hand deliver them to your front porch, but then you'd better let them cool for a day in case I'm infected and don't know it. I wouldn't want to do anything to make you sick!"

Teachers and parents, the grown ups, have to be concerned with the children's well being, especially in the face of vitriol. Working 16-hour days for a few weeks without a day off in order to deliver content that is clear yet still entertaining without in-person contact isn't grounds for ever, even for a second, questioning their work habits or time management decisions while they're at home. The go-to assumption is always - must always be - that they're struggling at this difficult time, which very well may be the case. These are extraordinarily difficult times. Yup. If they're saying bad words, it's because they're scared. Okay.

We're all about engagement now. "How's your engagement?" is a question I never thought I'd ask or wait on tenterhooks to hear the answers. Some teachers are just not telling students their marks in order to keep them motivated by keeping them guessing. I told mine theirs, but suggested we might be back in June, which, at this point is clearly untrue. Well, I hope it's not going to be the case! But how else do we get more than just a handful to come to class??

And then...all of a sudden, there they are!! My other classes. The ones who can safely rest on their laurels. By 12:00, or even 2 or 3, like magic, they're commenting and discussing and asking questions about the ideas being presented. Intense discussions about political philosophy and discrimination are happening in writing on my docs. The big push right now from Lecce is to have synchronous video, but he seems to have no idea how many of these kids have daytime jobs or are babysitting or their parents need the wifi or they're no longer waking up when it's daylight out or that I don't want to see their bedrooms. So I elected for open, freely editable documents where students can respond to prompts and argue with one another on a different topic each day. I soon realized the problem with my set-up, though: students can pop in for ten minutes to have a little argument on the topics, but I have to moderate it for 16 straight hours in case someone says something inappropriate.

Of course a few outrageous comments happened the very first day, and, instead of calling them on it, I got into the fray like it was a message board. I forgot myself too. It reminded me of Zimbardo's prison experiment, on the second last day, when he actually tried to get the 'prisoners' to be transferred to a real jail. The researcher got totally sucked into his own experiment and thought he was a warden. The next day, once I came to my senses, I posted some rules, reminders that it's all an extension of the classroom, and I had to pull back on the number of hours the docs were 'open.' Hopefully that doesn't cost me any followers - I mean, students.

There are a few benefits from this system: the kids who typically derail conversations can't do that online because kids are mainly reading my prompts and responding without many willing to read lengthy paragraphs from others. The long-winded types are learning to be concise if they want to be heard. And I'm there to squash any fallacies or misunderstandings. I actually sometimes hope it all goes on until February so I can make the online courses even better! That's very much a teacher thing; nobody likes to teach something only once without the opportunity to improve on it.

It can be difficult to separate work time from not-work time, though. I'm online all evening with kids who work during the day. Does that mean that I can go for a bike ride mid-morning, like I have flex time? Or has my work day basically doubled in duration? We're encouraged, almost mandated, to allow for access beyond school hours for this very reason, yet we're still cautioned not to respond to emails too late at night. It's as if responding to an email at 2 am is too personal. I'm typically up around 4:30 or 5 am, so I regularly send back marking at that time, when my house is silent, but it's against the guidelines. It's also curious that we email students, and all my email notifications come to my phone, but I'm not allowed to let students text me, even though it's faster and easier and it also comes to my phone. We have really funny little boundaries set up now. The idea somehow seems necessary, but the execution is entirely nonsensical! Current guidelines are like smoke, though. And I kinda like it. There's a freedom that comes with weird times.

There was that one year that there was a huge renovation in our school, and classrooms were randomly moved without notice, and people recognized that the regular curriculum couldn't be managed with all the moving around, and people knew - and this is important - that they couldn't really be judged in the same way - and everyone relaxed and enjoyed their time teaching. There's a bit of that happening right now too. But just a bit, because we're also completely OUT there, watchable by anyone with the right link.

I think of that and think I should relax because nothing really matters, but the task set before me, redesigning all my courses to work without me there to explain and answer questions in quite the same way, is SO daunting that I can't possibly relax and enjoy the new normal. But if we did it again...

The universities have been talking about how to roll out online courses in the coming September for about a month now. They're tucking in for a long haul. One idea that I think the high-schools should try is block teaching: teaching one subject at a time for 5 weeks instead of teaching 4 courses at once for 20 weeks. Then, students and teachers just have to focus on one course with 30 students, AND, if we come back, we're only interacting with 30 people each day instead of 120 people! That could make a huge difference in transmission rates. That could be mixed in with another good idea to consider in the fall (and in workplaces where people are in an enclosed space together): Students attend 4 days in a row every other week, in a rotating fashion, with online work continuing as well - so HALF the students are in the school at any time - just 15 students in the room!! If we do that ON TOP of block teaching (teaching one subject at a time), then I'll feel very confident in our ability to delivery curriculum without risking lives. Students would only have to be in class for the mornings, just 3 hours/day in one classroom, so no food would be consumed on site. Then they'd be expected to do their assignments in the afternoons at home while teachers mark and prep.

Because, as I wrote previously, almost two months ago, this is a marathon not a sprint. And nothing would be worse than opening up the schools for business as usual too soon.

ETA: This is what my screen usually looks like (on the right) - prepping a lesson while watching if anyone's on a discussion doc so I can monitor it while also keeping an eye on my email in case anyone has a question or concern (or if 50 people want to say "cool" on someone else's post), with a borrowed laptop to watch Trudeau at the same time!

BUT, this is what lunchtime looks like:

1 comment:

Owen Gray said...

Online learning has its advantages, Marie. But most kids are unprepared for it. And it can't recreate what happens -- or should happen -- in a classroom.