One week in, a conversation with myself about remote learning

In this time of sun-deprived isolation, pardon me as I indulge in a much-needed conversation with myself about remote learning.

Me: So, you’ve been doing remote learning for a week. How’s it going?

Remote Learning Me: I don’t like it. No matter how excited I am about breakout rooms in Zoom, being tethered to my MacBook and staring into a little green light for hours on end is torture. I’m buoyed by the details of personal interactions. A brighter-than-usual smile, a new backpack, a pair of slumped shoulders; it is the minutia that drives me and my teaching. Not having access to these subtleties have blinded me from my kids. I don’t see them and I can’t stand it. But it does present my teaching with a new challenge — which I am learning to savor. Plus, it beats sitting around refreshing the NY Times homepage 23 times a day. My apartment is a mess, but I need the structure, and so do my students. That said, my days don’t feel organized or even separate. They’re bleeding into one another, creating a very strange experience.

Me: Given the strangeness of it all, how are you approaching things?

Remote Learning Me: I let go a lot. While I’m fascinated by how I might reinvent learning for my students, hoping along the way that I’ll become a more robust teacher when this is all over, I’ve relaxed my curricular expectations. I’ve embraced that, at best, I’ll probably accomplish 40% of what I would have in a normal setting. We’ve been yanked in all directions by this virus. We’re all overwhelmed. There’s no way I am going to make the situation worse by shoving Common Core in my students’ faces.

Me: OK, then. What’s working?

Remote Learning Me: Nothing, yet. I don’t get my kids to work hard for me in person, so how am I supposed to work my magic when they’re concealed behind a screen, wrapped up in a blanket, eating cereal? That’s another reason why I’ve become far less aggressive with the curriculum. Anyway, pre-corona, I structured our Algebra 2 course to revolve around interleaved problems that I asked them to complete prior to class, which we then interrogated during class. The problems surface key ideas. I have no plans to abandon this structure, but helping my students have meaningful conversations is proving to be hard on Zoom. On more than one occasion this week, having asked them to talk about a problem, I entered silent breakout rooms, with every kid having muted themself. I couldn’t help but wonder what cereal they were scarfing down.

Me: How might you improve this?

Remote Learning Me: I envision using a lot of student work to guide their discussions. In person, we did this using giant whiteboards around the room. On Zoom, many students are working from computers, and holding up their work to the webcam is awkward and clumsy. So towards the end of the week, I began having students scan some of their work using Genius Scan and upload it to Google Classroom.

When we meet on Zoom, I want this bank of student work to be the backbone of class. Before we meet, I imagine sifting through their work and pasting a few of them in a Google Doc. I would then put kids in breakout rooms to debate the work, discuss errors, and agree on a correct solution. Ideally, then they have something tangible to latch on to even if they didn’t do the problem (all the while enjoying their cereal).

Me: So everything will revolve around the work they scan and upload before class?

Remote Learning Me: Nah, I don’t think so. I plan to leverage the work-based discussions often, but I’m also making short videos to overview certain problems that are less complex. Students would watch these on their own outside of our virtual class time. There are also problems that will require direct instruction. I hope to keep it to a 10-12 minute lecture, with time for the kids to practice an example or two in breakout rooms. This may also come in the form of a YouTube video (not me) that I direct them to watch before class. I’m also relying a lot on Desmos and DeltaMath — which now has instructional videos.

Me: Any thoughts on formal assessments?

Remote Learning Me: Well, stressing academic honesty, I “administered” a quiz on Friday. I posted a problem on Classroom and gave students a six-hour window to scan their work and upload it. Glancing over their work on Friday Night, I provided meager written feedback as a private comment on Classroom. It’s not perfect, but the quiz served its purpose: to put me on to what they know and what they don’t know. The results were typical of what I know of about students and I plan on making it a routine until something makes me change my mind. It’s not the best solution to the issue of asynchronous, at-home assessment, but I don’t want to give up and say that we cannot formally assess our students anymore just because we can’t do it in a controlled environment. Benjamin Dickman’s thinking around take-home exams comes to mind.

Me: Anything else?

Remote Learning Me: 



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