A Long Thing About Schooling

There’s a big discussion happening in the local working moms group about schooling, including a lot of critique of teachers and a lot of bewilderment about why they aren’t just doing Zoom classes all day. I ended up writing a long thing:

A few thoughts, as a UIC professor, and as the parent of a 4th grader and 7th grader (Holmes and Brooks):

a) There’s a real problem generally with synchronous teaching (‘live’ via Zoom or anything else, even online chat).

A lot of students have tech or family challenges (one device for a family of five, for example, two of whom are working remotely and three of whom are in school) making it impossible for them to participate synchronously — equity recommendation is thus that NOTHING significant be done synchronously, because otherwise, you are privileging students with more access to tech. (One of my students could only do Zoom on a phone with no video or voice capacity for him — just texting into the chat window to participate.)

At the college level, the way that plays out in my classroom is that I:

– give hopefully engaging assignments, including requirements that they comment in a shared Google doc on their classmates’ work within 24 hours, which helps to create some of the engagement you’d see in a normal classroom

– I do some recorded lectures (note that there are serious concerns with recorded lectures as well, having to do with privacy, intellectual property rights, potential for harassment, and more)

– and I also host optional Zoom meetings during regular class time

But if I have a class of 30 and 2-4 students actually show up for the Zoom meeting (which has been typical this spring), that’s a significant portion of my time being given to those 2-4 students, time I could be spending on generating better assignments, responding to student work in the shared Doc file, etc. After a few weeks, I ended up dropping my Wednesday synchronous Zoom class in order to free up enough time to do some work that benefited more of the class (though I kept Mon and Fri).

College students are obviously in a different situation — some of mine have gone home to other countries, so our classes are being held in what’s the middle of the night for them now. Others are working full-time and supporting their parents who have been laid off. But the tech issues are common throughout the population, and many high school students and even older middle school students have been pressed into childcare responsibilities to help make it possible for parents to continue working remotely.

Zooming with my students is actually MUCH MUCH easier than pretty much anything asynchronous; I’d so prefer just dropping in to talk to them over recording a lecture or generating shared doc assignments. The latter takes me three times as long, usually. But consensus in the teaching forums is clear that synchronous at the moment creates real equity problems.

b) That said, the fall will look very different, and I expect to be doing much more synchronous teaching then. Over the summer, UIC is asking us to put in 8 hours / week on learning how to teach online (which is very different, when done well, from emergency remote teaching). A few aspects of that:

– we’ll be learning and using a single cohesive digital template for teaching at UIC (it’s unclear to me at this point if they’re actually paying us for this, or expect us to volunteer our time). In this emergency situation, a survey of the students made clear that the biggest challenge for them was that their professors were using all kinds of different tech, requiring them to learn and adapt, and it was very hard. I think a cohesive approach will help a lot, and I hope the university can find the funding to compensate us for the massive amount of extra work involved.

– students who enroll in synchronous classes (in-person or otherwise) will know that in advance, and will be able to adjust their schedules and tech to participate fully

– students will not be cross-scheduled against other classes for synchronous activities (which was happening a lot this spring — some of my students had to miss my Zoom class, held during class time, because another professor had decided to hold his exam them, and was requiring twice as long as normal, for some reason that I don’t understand, sigh)

– a lot of us, whether the university pays us or not, will be studying online education and how to do it effectively; a friend who works in the field recommended this book, which I have bought and plan to start reading as soon as the semester is over:

https://smile.amazon.com/…/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_d_asin_title_o04…

It’s really a different thing altogether from in-person teaching, even at the college level, and I can’t imagine how much more different it must be if you’re working with little ones.

*****

Final thoughts — some teachers have adapted to emergency online teaching well, some haven’t. Please do keep in mind that some of the factors affecting those having difficulty may be:

– inadequate tech in their own homes

– inexperience with tech, especially among older teachers; some seniors are really only comfortable on the phone, for example, and need quite a lot of reassurance and handholding to even participate in a Zoom call

– greatly increased childcare responsibilities (especially disruptive if you have little ones, and if your kids are older, you may be forgetting just how hard it is to work when a toddler is climbing on you or screaming bloody murder)

– illness (one of my employees had Covid-19, and has been basically knocked out for six brutal weeks; she keeps trying to work, and I keep telling her to please rest)

– increased caregiving responsibilities for elders

– unsupportive partners (I hate to say it, but a lot of teachers are women, a lot of them are married to men who don’t take their work seriously, and don’t support them in it)

– economic hardship making additional demands on their time and mental capacity (if their partner has lost his job, for example, or if parents are suddenly in greater need)

and perhaps most importantly:

– trauma response and PTSD: we are living through a worldwide disaster, we’re only two months in, and while some people are able to adapt quickly, many are not, and I would argue that the majority of us are experiencing mental health issues as a result of this.

I would say that it’s only last week that I really started coming back to normal in terms of my own ADD-affected mental capacity — before that, I was having huge executive functioning difficulties. It took me two hours to just lay out the remaining deadlines for the semester for two classes; that task would normally take 15 minutes. Sometimes I would just read the news and burst into tears. I’ve had three big fights with my husband in the last six weeks about differing assessments of risk behaviors, and we basically never fight — this is more fighting than we’ve had in the last six year, I think. (We’re fine now, thankfully.) Also, masses of my time has gone to sewing masks for healthcare workers and trying to help set up a mutual aid network. There’s just SO MUCH to cope with right now.

I know we’re all worried about our kids, and while my ADHD son is delighted to enjoy the freedom of home and couldn’t care less if he never progressed beyond 4th grade math, my middle school daughter is seriously missing her friends, the classroom environment, and is struggling to maintain motivation to complete schoolwork. It’s helped her a lot to do schoolwork with her friends while Facetiming, by the way; she needs the social aspect, so ‘study groups’ might be a really good approach to supporting kids going forward.

We are all still in the midst of a disaster, teachers and administrators as well as parents and kids. Everyone I know in academia is working really hard, to the best of their capacity.

Sometimes, that isn’t very good work, I admit. But I think by the fall, we’ll be doing a lot better, especially if the community can support us in our efforts, and have faith that we’re really, honestly, trying. I worry so much about my students, you have no idea.

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