Saturday, August 1, 2020

Ten tips for online only teachers

Unsolicited advice.

People don't want to hear it. Especially teachers. So with this blog post on 10 tips for better online classes, I have a feeling a whole bunch of teachers will roll their eyes, move onto the next post or continue binge watching shows involving killers.

However, before we scroll too fast, let me say that I have a little recent experience that is relevant. I jumped into live online Zoom classes the week of March 16 and conducted them until the end of the spring session. Then, I taught live high school summer school and have become "Mr. Zoom" with close friends and family (as many of us have).

Live online high school is a different animal than previous online classes and asynchronous classes. Have you ever been in any high school class that never met in person? Well, uh, has anybody? At least I have the eye-opening summer session as reference, but let me say that this is a work-in-progress learning experience.

I don't think teachers, or administrators, will fully understand what they are undertaking until they actually do it, but maybe this advice could help. Some of this might appear too basic, but some may not. And feel free to share online engagement strategies with me, or others, like this one.

Full disclosure: I'm a high school English teacher in Southern California. Most of these tips apply to all levels of teaching (K-12).

1) Have a quiet, dedicated space for teaching only. For real. I find kids sitting on the teacher's lap while running a class as unprofessional. I understand that childcare may be an issue, but during direct teaching or interactive time with cameras on, children need to be out of the shot. If the teacher can't give his/her/their direct attention to the class, why would the students?

2) Check out your computer from school. Even if you believe you have tech covered at home, check out your school desktop computer. Chances are, it is better than your actual computer at home anyway. You're going to put major wear and tear on the computer used, and it's better to use the school one.

3) Cameras on during lecture and interactive time needs to be the norm. "My camera doesn't work" will be said on Day 1, and that must be called out as unacceptable. I say give the student three days to go to the school and get a properly working device. If one student has the camera off, then it says cameras are optional. Camera optional classes, and meetings, do not work — if you're looking for genuine interaction and trying to run a real class.

4) Cameras may be off other times. If students are doing an activity that involves reading or the Internet or anything else, there is no need for the camera then. Be clear about when it's OK, and when it's not, to turn off the camera. Also, if you do have your own children, you can embed camera off time for your own benefit or situation.

5)  Dedicate Week 1 (or more) to classroom building and inevitable tech issues. It's totally different to be meeting your class for the first time via Zoom as opposed to an actual classroom. It takes A LOT to get a sense of who these kids are and their idiosyncrasies. Take the time to do that; it's a major time commitment.

Because it's online only, I suggest devoting much more time to classroom building and social interaction than a normal classroom. If students have any tech issues on Day 1, those need to be addressed ASAP.
6) Establish a routine. But be open to tweaking it, and do what works for you. Find your own routine that works. It's not one size fits all. If you're interested, this was my routine, but I diverted from it at times to keep things fresh:

1. ICEBREAKER each class. At first, I did get-to-know-you icebreakers that involved students interacting with each other, but then I did icebreakers connected to the class. All of the icebreakers had students interact with each other first and then the class as a whole. (CAMERAS ON, obviously)
2. PPT on the day's lesson or concept(s) (CAMERAS ON, but they can be off it's only straight lecture.)
3. BREAKOUT ROOMS to explore the lesson or concepts (CAMERAS ON)
4. A WRITING or READING activity. I'm an English teacher, so these are obviously crucial skills that need frequent practice. Having students post their writing on Google Classroom, so that their classmates can read and comment works extremely well for me. (CAMERAS OFF)
5. BRIEF CLASSROOM DISCUSSION on the writing or reading activity. (CAMERAS ON)
6. REFLECTION asking "What might you remember from today's class?" (CAMERAS ON if it's verbal; CAMERAS OFF if you're asking for a comment in the chat box or on Google Classroom)

7) If you must lecture, keep it to 15 minutes max. Look, many teaching truisms still hold true via Zoom. We all know (or should know) that lecturing isn't really teaching and is, by and large, ineffective. Keep this to 15 minutes max. Also, I would keep interactive direct teaching to that length as well.

8) Strive for a socially positive, emotionally supportive classroom. Much less material will be covered in an online format, and that's the nature of this beast. Accept it now, or forever be frustrated.

However, let's take a step back to understand that it is more important to provide students a safe social space and to be emotionally supportive of them. This takes deliberate action. Please understand that we will cover more curriculum if we create a space that does not gloss over, pretend not to or simply deny the importance of being emotionally supportive of our students during this unprecedented time.

9) Promote a positive, interactive breakout room culture. Before I dispersed my class into its first breakout rooms, I did the day's lesson on how to improve conversations. I also had my classes reflect on what went well and what did not, post the breakout sessions.

Breakout rooms is (or will be) a crucial element to online learning, and it's OK to have students simply introduce themselves and find commonalities in the first few breakout room sessions. Then, once students understand how important their voice is and how to actively listen to peers, more curriculum can be covered.
10) Only give assignments that can't be Googled. Finally, I have been saying this for years, and I'm hoping the shift to online education makes all teachers stop with their complicity for assigning thoughtless assignments and then accepting inauthentic, Googled "work."

Pretty much all the questions in our textbook can be Googled, so assigning those is a waste. My students' reading levels are staggeringly lower now than five years ago, and I believe the main reason why is that they have not been reading on their own or in school, yet they still get their A's by finessing the system.

OK, now, let's breathe. That was a lot to take in!

A few years back, I heard that "teachers should treat their classrooms like their dojo." That means new things need to be tried, chances need to be taken and to remember that teaching/learning is the ultimate work in progress.

Being online only is not the situation any of us want, but under the pandemic circumstances, I believe we understand and accept it. Because all of us are newbies at live online teaching, our classes are now our dojos, whether we like it or not.

If you asked me what three qualities would prepare students best for their 21st century lives before Covid, I would have said adaptability, resilience and creativity. Hey, teachers, it's time to put those skills to use. Please join me in doing our best to model adaptability, resilience and creativity.

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