Online Teaching Week 1
It’s now Tuesday September 1, and I’ve been teaching fully online for a week. My class is a competency-based, Project-based learning school, and this is only our third year even existing as a school, so it’s been completely novel preparing to do school this way.
I teach two classes of middle school math in the morning, and then our venture block in the afternoon. Venture projects look a little more traditional in the beginning, but as we progress through the class, it becomes more individualized and problem-based and eventually we fold in the design process and turn it into a project. My venture class has a theme of “The Internet Age”. We’re exploring the technical and social/cultural impacts of the internet, and then each kid will be responsible for coming up with a problem statement and doing a design project. I love the topic and am really enjoying teaching it so far.
I just wanted to throw out a few thoughts on things that are working and things that are challenges so far, in case it’s helpful to anybody else.
It’s HARD work. I am up late every night planning, re-configuring lessons I used to have and writing new lessons. Part of this is my prep load and part of it is that even the stuff I do know how to teach, I need to revisit all of it.
It’s exhausting. I am having a hard time telling whether first-week-teacher-tired is really that much worse than previous years. I think it *feels* more exhausting because you just never get away from it. You never get in your car and go home. I’m just at work all the time.
It’s not as soul-crushing as I thought it would be. I enjoy seeing the kids. I can still listen to their funny stories, I love seeing their pets, I love our little routines that help us get to know each other. I start each Zoom session with music, usually Broadway show tunes, and I change my background so it matches the music, and the kids guess what it is. I change up the daily attendance prompt every day so every kid gets a chance to speak and tell me more about them. I dedicate a little time twice a week for me and the kids to do a little tech troubleshooting together, and we are learning together the best practices for managing all the tools.
I have a short chunk of advisory time with my students, and for the first week, I decided to dedicate that time for us to get to know each other. So I had each student write a 10-question Kahoot quiz about themselves, and we take a couple of quizzes every day. To me it feels like a lot of Kahoot, but I think the kids love it – they ask about it as soon as they log in. “Are we doing another Kahoot? Can we do mine?” They’re freshmen in high school but soooo excited about sharing and playing their Kahoot quizzes.
For math, my favorite tool is Desmos. I feel like I have a better idea where the kids are in math than I even do when teaching live. I’ve assigned work in Deltamath and Khan Academy and I’ve also assigned Desmos activities, and with the Desmos activities I can look at the kids’ sketches and what they wrote and I know whether they understand or not. With the other tools, I see what they got wrong, but it’s really tough to tell whether or not they get a concept.
I look for problems in the old Connected Math Project textbooks, the Illustrative Math textbooks, Robert Kaplinsky’s problems, Geoff Krall’s Emergent Math curriculum, and wherever else I can find good activities. I put them onto Desmos slides, make any images into sketch-area backgrounds, add a block to enter a math formula and an explanation, and voila, it’s an awesome formative assessment, individual activity, or group activity. Here are a few of the activities I adapted. They’re for 6th grade math.
For venture, I have decided I love Mural. We do a lot of reading and discussion – and discussions are so, so hard in this virtual medium. SO HARD. Kids are so shy, they turn cameras off, they type one or two word responses in the chat, they say the bare minimum and then turn off the microphones. But if we read an article and then I give them a canvas with an unlimited supply of sticky notes, they have a lot to say. Mural has a timer so the kids have their timer in front of them at all times, and it has anonymous voting tools – so at the end of a sticky note session, the students can vote on their favorite discussion points and then they’re displayed for everyone and the conversation can actually get going.
I created a lesson on the impact of the personalized news feed on how you view the world. I really liked how Mural helped to facilitate this discussion – when we processed what we learned the next day, it was apparent the big ideas of the lesson were still percolating. In the Mural, we first read together the article in the top-left about Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook would be changing its News Feed algorithm – and then I taught a little bit about the events in Kenosha Wisconsin – just factual information – and I had the kids split into two groups, and one group read conservative analysis about the events and one group read liberal analysis. I asked the students to imagine what they would think about the killing and the protests in Kenosha if the majority of their news feed was like the articles they read.
Here are the links to the lesson.
I do random breakout rooms. Setting up premade breakout rooms is really time consuming, but I will do it when the need comes up. So far my strategy is to just apologize for making it random and remind the kids to tell each other their names and about the basic norms of group work. Some breakout rooms work really well (I had the 6th graders do flash cards in groups of 3, and it was awesome, and the 9th graders played win/lose/or draw, and that was great) and some are completely silent and unproductive, so I am still working on how to find the magic sauce that makes breakout rooms successful more often than not.
In general, the hardest part of this teaching is student engagement. It is really easy for the kids to turn off the camera and mic and just disappear. I don’t shame them for it, but it’s awfully hard to feel like you’re teaching into a void. So occasionally I will prompt them to engage “Can you still hear me? Is this thing on? Give me a quick thumbs-up or tell me your favorite sandwich in the chat so I know you can see my screen.” Or “On a scale of 1-5, 5 being the MOST confused, how confused are you right now? Hold up fingers or type in the chat.” Desmos and Mural activities are so far the best ones to foster engagement, but I hope to add to the toolbox as the quarter goes on.
That’s pretty much what I know. Soldier on, everyone. We can do this.