Zoom Guidelines

I’m sort of glopping together various Zoom guides I see, will keep editing this to make something that works for my classes:

During our optional (but likely very helpful) Zoom calls, it’ll help if you stick to the following guidelines:

1. Log on to Zoom at least 5-10 minutes in advance in case of any technical or logistical issues, and also to enable assignment to breakout groups prior to the beginning of class.

2. Add your pronouns next to your name in your Zoom window

3. You’re encouraged to turn your camera on (when possible / comfortable); it makes for better class interaction if most cameras are turned on. Feel free to use virtual backgrounds if you like.

4. Decide how you will take notes while keeping the Zoom screen open; remember to have the chat window open too, and please feel free to converse with your classmates there.
(Note: All Zoom chat with the host is public and recorded in the transcript, even what appears to be private, and private chats are sent to the host.)

5. If you are having technical difficulties, or know you will be late, make sure to send an e-mail to the professor BEFORE class begins.

6. Mute yourself unless you are speaking. (Your host also has the power to mute you.)

7. You hopefully won’t need to purchase any additional equipment. Your phone or computer’s built-in microphone is typically sufficient. A set of headphones with a microphone offers a slight improvement in microphone quality.

8. Try to not to walk/move from room to room. If you must do so, turn off your video while you relocate. Once you’re settled again, you can turn on your video again.

9. If you arrive mid-discussion, try not to interrupt.

10. If you click participants, you can see a list of who’s there, and that also will let you click ‘raise hand’ or ‘lower hand’. I’ll try to keep watch for that, but you can also raise your actual hand, if you have video on.

11. We’re all responsible for maintaining a functioning video call. No one is criticizing you when reminding you of meeting etiquette – mute your mic, wait your turn etc.

12. Any pets or children that interrupt should be introduced. You are encouraged to call them your coworker.

Major Negotiations

Cut-and-pasted from a local mom group: “This week the US House and Senate will be in major negotiations about the next phase of COVID relief, and stuff on the table includes funding for school COVID safety expenses, continuing the unemployment insurance expansion (currently due to expire 7/31), increasing food assistance, and expanding some tax credits that particularly help lower income families with kids.

So if this is stuff you’re worried about, call Congress now (they have another break coming up and of course it’s an election year so there’s pressure to get this done fast). Tell your friends and families.”

Small Teaching Online

Hey, parents. I know you’re not teachers, but I also know that a lot of you are super-frustrated at the dearth of information many districts are providing as they scramble to plan and re-plan their fall semesters. You have decisions to make, and it’s very hard with so much uncertainty.

If you’re the kind of person who likes lots of information, and you WANT to know what good online education looks like, I’m finding  “Small Teaching Online” to be very readable, and I think totally something a parent could skim to get a better sense of what good online classes might look like.

Quick Question

Organizing classes takes time and executive function, and there is only so much of it I can do. If I were going to offer some online classes in the next month, which of these are you interested in? (mark all that interest you)

a) 45-60 minute cooking class (through Maram Makerspace)
b) 45-60 minute textile arts class (through Maram Makerspace) — beginner crochet, beginner knitting, mask sewing, etc.
c) 45-60 soap-making class (through Maram Makerspace)
d) 45-60 minute writing class (through the SLF)

e) 45-60 minute business-of-writing class (through the SLF)

$10 – $25 / class, sliding scale (no one turned away for lack of funds) I’m envisioning these as a mix of active instruction and everyone working on their own, asking me questions. I’m tentatively planning to pair them with a social hangout time afterwards, to mimic the convention experience, also for more Q&A, group bonding, etc.

This will be good practice for my fall classes too, and I’m hoping it’ll help me work out some bugs in advance of the semester starting.

Thoughts from an Instructional Designer

So grateful my instructional designer friend Amanda Chablani took the time to write this guidance up for those of us looking at fall semester — parents, teachers, students:

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“I’m an Instructional Designer in my professional life and a parent to two kids in D97 (one rising K, one rising 4th). I was asked by Carollina Song to put together some notes for parents to consider while we’re all discussing the plan for hybrid instruction in the Fall. I’ll do what I can. Please note, I’ve focused my work on adult learning and mostly in higher education. I do think some things are generalizable but, more importantly, we have a lot of teachers in this group who can speak to the issues that are K-12 (and grade level) specific. Teachers, please weigh in! You know what’s possible and you know our kids.

The first thing I think parents should know is that I work with instructors for at least 3 months, more often 6, and sometimes up to a year in advance of a new course going online. I provide the instructor with a course template, I explain and support the technology, and I walk them through best-practices several times. I build the content into the platform (so Canvas or Google Classroom in D97) for them because they don’t have the tech background.
None of that support is being provided to teachers right now. Much of it should be, or at the very least, they should be fully trained so they can do what teachers do best – figure it out 

(With that said, I don’t know how much teachers can be asked to do over their summer according to their contract. I am absolutely sure teachers are trying to learn what they can, but the district may not be able to mandate 40 hours of training in July.)

Short recorded modules of 5-minutes or less can be used effectively to deliver specific lessons. Teachers will need some technology support (mic/headset, computers with cameras, and, most importantly, the lecture capture platform).

– This type of recording can be super time consuming. I’ve had instructors complain it takes 4 hours to record 5 minutes of content. That seems excessive, but let’s be honest, a lot of educators don’t want to produce less-than-perfect recordings. Keep in mind, too, that Khan academy does this type of thing very well as does Zern and other vendors that the district already uses. These external tools do not increase instructor presence in the same way that a teacher-recorded video does. They do provide students with very effective modular (and Common Core aligned) online learning.

An important element of an online or hybrid course is interactivity, and this is something parents had serious complaints about in Spring. All courses should offer opportunities for students to interact with each other and with their instructor. With that said, not all interaction should be synchronous. Live Zoom calls make for exceedingly poor instruction for so many reasons. Many students cannot comfortably or effectively participate in live discussion (this is true in classrooms, too, which is why teachers use so many other face-to-face techniques). Live synchronous online sessions can effectively be used for questions/answers, check-ins, office hours, small group discussions. Students tend to tune out during online lectures and presentations. The average attention span for online delivery was traditionally estimated to be 10-15 minutes. Research suggests it is more likely 3-4 minutes.

Engagement in synchronous classes can be increased with the use of breakout rooms and polls, but at that point, facilitation by a teacher becomes far more difficult and, again, teachers will need tech training to use these more advanced tools. A lot of the security problems occur in breakout rooms and shared documents, too.

Also – Offer students the opportunity to respond to their teacher or another student in a discussion forum, a chat room, or to collaborate with classmates on a paper or project. (Obviously this isn’t going to work for the K-2 set, but perhaps teachers can weigh in on shared drawing apps or other tools that build community online with the littles.)
I’ve seen teachers make recordings to give feedback. “You all did this thing great but here’s something a lot of you missed that I want to discuss”. Those more casual recordings can be both useful and will bring teachers into contact with students in a low bandwidth way. Reflecting on assessments is also a great practice for students, generally. Allowing students to retake a quiz after listening to feedback or discussing model answers with teachers – that’s a gold standard. Most online quizzing tools allow for retakes any specified number of times.

Teachers should focus on clarity. What is lost from classroom learning is the ability for teachers to physically see if the students understand instructions. Making sure that instructions are extremely concise (not a lengthy email; no one reads their emails anymore) in an accessible place, where students can view the instructions repeatedly while completing the work.

Each lesson should be outlined in a straightforward and familiar way. A daily bullet list works! Then, give each lesson’s objective (After you complete this lesson, you should be able to articulate why, compare how, explain who) the activity (read this account) and the assignment (answer these questions/write a response to). Students often benefit from knowing how the assignment meets the objective – reiterating why they’re doing this can be helpful.

It should be mentioned that hybrid is often considered the hardest mode to teach. Figuring out what content to do in-person and what to do online is really tough. Scaffolding learning across multiple modalities is challenging and can take years to perfect. Most often, instructors use the flipped classroom model which works pretty well (again, we use Zearn this way in the district). A flipped model allows teachers to use the online instruction for the codified materials and the face-to-face instruction for active learning.

However, what we’re doing in the Fall is not that. We’re doing something called hyflex. Teachers will have to teach one group of students who are at home but will be in the room later in the week, another group who are in the classroom but will be at home later in the week, AND some students who are choosing entirely online. This is new, pretty much untested, and certainly not great. There is no real literature we can go to what works best with this setup and so we’re borrowing from what we know about hybrid and online and sort of mushing it together and crossing our fingers. But, because of the whole global pandemic thing, this is the plan for a lot of universities and districts.

And finally, I realize that none of this addresses the child care needs of working parents. I think it is vitally important for us to decouple education from child care and then work as a nation to find workable and safe solutions to both.

Same info in a doc file, with some useful links embedded:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sS3O8BLVXvuvn5ELV5bGPOpFbfeeM4Np9sdkQYI0s0M/edit?usp=sharing

Shaking Up the System

I am more and more seeing parents thinking about alternatives for their kids for the fall, some kind of version of unschooling + remote learning from the school. That won’t work for all kids, but for some, that might be a good option.

But it’s all reminding me that the American school system really has never been set up to serve kids as well as it might, especially kids who aren’t neurotypical. Overcrowded classrooms with overworked teachers, a factory-style one-size-fits-all approach out of sheer necessity, given the lack of funds to do more individual, differentiated learning, an overemphasis on rote learning and teaching to the test, requiring that small children sit still for far longer than is developmentally appropriate…

Here, we’ve mostly been unschooling Anand since March, and while I think his teachers tried their best, I’ll say he’s been happier and probably learning more, month-by-month, just on his own at home, following his own interests, and with good access to books and devices and internet.

He’s a bright and curious kid, and will happily watching YouTube history videos or read history graphic novels for hours. Science experiments are fun. Obsessively building structures in Minecraft and doing simple coding –> career in video game design, maybe? We’ll see.

If the school can provide some benchmarks for Anand to hit in the fall, and guidance on some supplemental materials that we can encourage him to do if needed, that’ll probably be all we need for him in terms of a minimal 5th grade education during a time of global pandemic. If there’s a teacher or aide or bright college student available to talk him through the hard spots (like what we offer with university office hours) even better.

For some kids, school-as-it-was was never a great option. Maybe we’ll come out of this with some real shake-ups of the system.

What Should Schools Do in the Fall?

What should schools do in the fall? Three years ago, I decided to run for office, the smallest of local offices, library board. I almost ran for school board instead, and, not knowing much about either, mostly picked library board because an elected official I talked to told me that the school board meetings sometimes ran past midnight, and I’d have a lot more parents yelling at me.

This is not the best way to make that kind of decision, in retrospect, but as I told Kevin last night, if I’d run for school board and been elected, I would have spent the last few months drowning in trying to solve the fall school problem. And I’m not sure I’d be any closer to a solution than I am right now, but even if it’s not my job, I can’t help thinking about it.

School-during-pandemic is a huge problem in America, and I honestly don’t even know what to advocate for at this point, despite having read a fair bit about it. It’s a problem we shouldn’t have to face, as we can see in all those countries, from Sri Lanka to Switzerland, who have pushed back Covid-19 sufficiently that they can re-open schools with relative safety.

But “shouldn’t” is much use to think about now. Most American states (and certainly the national level) didn’t give strong direction on appropriate disease-spread-reduction behavior, and now here we are — my own state of IL is in stage 4 of reopening, but I suspect we will need to fall back to stage 3 in not too long, since we’re surrounded by states in worse shape, and there’s a lot of interstate traffic. We could easily slip back to stage 2, honestly, upsetting as that is to think about, and of course, even if IL manages to hold the line, much of the rest of the country is on fire.

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I wonder if it’s different in a war — specifically, if there’s less denial of the severity of what’s going on. This has been such a quiet disaster. I imagine it depends on the war, and whether it’s being fought at home or abroad, and how long it’s been going on. The Spanish flu was so long ago, and polio, and most of us in America haven’t had to contend with malaria or ebola or SARS, and so the word ‘pandemic’ just doesn’t hold the same reality to us as it does to many others.

Back in February, when I was I was first reading the accounts from the Italian doctors, the broken-hearted misery of their inability to care for their patients without sufficient ventilators and trained ICU staff (and to clarify, when we say ‘beds,’ we don’t mean actual beds — we mean the tech and the staff who know both how to operate the tech and how to treat the patient, not training that can be done overnight, unfortunately), I started worrying that Covid-19 would come here. But I didn’t really believe it.

And even in March, when I flew back from a Bay Area conference, I felt a little ridiculous e-mailing my students and telling them I’d be teaching remotely the next week, because I’d flown through two big busy airports, and I had a cough, and I didn’t want to risk bringing something into the classroom. I felt like I might get in trouble for doing that, even though I was pretty sure it was the right thing to do. Pretty sure.

It was maybe April before “pandemic” started to feel real. And that was when I started thinking of this as a ‘lost year’ academically. That happens in wartime, you know. Buildings are blown up, people are displaced, the power goes out, older students are drafted, and everyone’s education is interrupted, in one way or another.

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I’m reading the mom discussion threads, and the note of panic is clear. What’s also clear is that there are two very distinct issues: education and childcare.

Many other countries aren’t facing these issues the way we are, because America has such a weak social safety net by comparison. In some countries, the government is providing pandemic funding so that if you need to be unemployed for three months, or six months, or longer, you still get at least 80% of your salary, for example.

That eases the childcare issue considerably, because if you can afford a nanny share with maybe a college kid studying remotely this fall, who supervises your kid through a half day of e-learning and just keeps an eye on them for the other half-day, so two parents can keep working at their jobs, it’s manageable. Hard, as you’d expect during a disaster, but the sort of hard that you can manage, the way you’d manage suddenly needing a new roof.

But that’s not where we are. In Oak Park, where I live, 20% of families are food-insecure. 1 in 5 of my kids’ classmates. And I’m sure a much larger percentage of our families are living at the edge of their means already — they scrimped and saved to afford a condo, perhaps, and now a parent is laid off and maybe unemployment is ending (because the government chooses to end it), and we don’t have a national mortgage freeze or a rent freeze (and we should, and why don’t we?).

A worldwide disaster is painful. A mismanaged one is far more so. And in America, it’s clear that the lower you are on the economic ladder, the harder this is going to hit you. (Of course, people of color, especially Black people, will be on average hit even harder, and disabled people, and the elderly, and all marginalized populations.)

We haven’t set up our government to take care of the most marginalized first, even though simple logic tells us that if, say, 25% of our workforce falls off a cliff, it’s a disaster for all of us. When the grocery store worker can’t come to work, or the meatpacker, or the Amazon shelver, how will we feed our families?

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As a professor, an educator, I hear a lot of concern about the lost learning — the months of terrible haphazard hacks in the spring, and a fear of that in the fall. Honestly, there’ll be some of that, with remote learning. Some teachers will have trouble adapting, including teachers who are excellent at face-to-face. And some teachers weren’t great to begin with — not to knock teachers, since I am one, but over the years, I’ve had my share of bad teachers, and I know you have too.

In education, we’re all doing a new thing. I’m enough of a positive thinker that my default is always going to be to think about how we can use remote learning to advantage: for example, I had one college student spring semester who told me that he’d been about to drop out of school, because his social anxiety was so crippling that he couldn’t bear to be in the classroom — he finished the semester remotely, with a solid B. But at the same time, I know that for some, maybe most, students, remote learning is much more difficult than face-to-face, and not all their teachers will be able to figure out how to best support them through that.

That said, I’m honestly not most worried about the lost educational time. I’m really not. Kids lose time in school for all sorts of reasons — maybe they get mono, or have to move across the country unexpectedly, or they’re having trouble with regular school, so they transition to a different kind of environment. Right now, kids across America are all having their education disrupted somewhat, and you know, they can survive that.

I’m more worried right now about what we can’t survive, on the health and the economic front.

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Maybe it won’t be a lost year. Maybe it won’t be quite as bad as I feared, back in April; a lot of teachers are adapting fast, myself included, and I do think remote learning in the fall will look quite a bit better than it did in the spring.

But American elementary education is in for a long haul, it looks like, a slow grind of being caught between the twin millstones of:

• parents’ need for affordable childcare and

• unwillingness of government to do what’s necessary to stop the spread AND economically support families through this time.

I don’t have answers for you. All the options I can see have downsides, and I’m not here to advocate for wholly remote learning, or a half-week split, or a half-day split, or a full return.

Okay, that last seems extremely unwise, given current conditions, I’ll just say. I think the death toll would skyrocket, as kids carried the disease to teachers and nurses and therapists and older siblings and parents and grandparents and childcare folks. In America, we are tragically not at a point where full return to standard in-person learning is feasible.

But I do think we need to look at the money piece of this seriously. America has treated schools as de facto childcare, but they aren’t actually the same thing. If the lack of childcare is the driving force leading parents to send kids to classrooms that aren’t reasonably safe yet, then THAT is the problem we need to solve with money, and safe childcare for half the week really should be much more affordable than fully-qualified teachers for that time.

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What would it look like if we had the teachers teaching for half the time, in a dedicated fashion, using the other half of their paid time to continue the hard, adaptive work of converting their courses and lesson plans to this new format?

And then in addition, to solve the childcare portion, we had small pods led by aides who met the rest of the time, leading kids in some e-learning from their teachers, but also social activities, art, music, outdoor exploration? We don’t have a name for that (not nannies, not TAs, not babysitters)– what should we call it? Pod leaders?

More importantly, what would that cost? I’m talking about adding a large workforce to the community, people we should be interviewing and hiring now, if we want them up and running in the fall. 50 classrooms in a school, say, each with 25 students, so you’d want 1 adult per 5 students in a pod, that’s 250 pod leaders, say $10K each for the fall semester (working 3 days / week for 3 months) that’s $250,000 for the school in additional cost. It’s a large number, but not an impossible number.

Can the money come out of school reserves, dropping the fund balance dramatically for a year? (What is a reserve for, if not for helping to cope with a disaster?) Some schools yes, many no, so then we turn to government and major corporations and nonprofit foundations to shoulder the additional cost.

I’m not on the school board, and these aren’t my decisions. And of course, even if I were on the board, I’d be working with school admin staff, and working under state-level directives, so it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘do this.’ But this is the problem, as I see it, and these are the questions I’m asking right now.

Arguing on Asynchronous Learning

So, I’m continuing to think about how we maintain student engagement in a primarily or entirely asynchronous online learning environment. This is going to be long, but hopefully helpful to teachers, students, and parents looking ahead to the fall semester.

THE ARGUMENT FOR ASYNCHRONOUS

Asynchronous courses are more equitable than synchronous, because they allow students who have additional work or care responsibilities to still participate fully. This may be less of a concern at elite institutions for the majority of the students, but for my own state school, research 1 university, I have a host of students who have had additional work land on them due to the pandemic.

They’ve had to take jobs to supplement family income after parents were laid off or became too sick to work, they’ve had to take on childcare responsibilities for younger siblings not in school, or for their own children when daycares / schools closed. Many of them simply cannot attend synchronous classes this fall, or can only attend 1 or 2 of them, and since financial aid is often tied to being enrolled in a minimum number of classes, asynchronous course offerings can make the difference between staying in school this fall or not.

I admit, for my own daughter, if she were an entering freshman this fall, I’d seriously consider counseling her to take a gap year and do an internship / intense volunteer project instead. But for many of my students, with different family circumstances, dropping out for a semester too quickly leads to dropping out of college entirely. So I’m arguing that if you CAN make your online courses asynchronous this fall, you should seriously think about it, for equity reasons. (It’ll be some work, I know. That’s addressed further below.)

My courses are going to be primarily asynchronous, in the sense that ALL the required work will be done when the student wants to. Although even there, I’ll add a caveat — that’s mostly asynchronous just on a weekly basis. If I assign something small, they’ll often have 3-7 days to get it done, so it’s not asynchronous over the whole semester, just over that time stretch. Every week, students (and me) should be able to tell whether they’re keeping up or falling behind, and we should be working together to catch up the ones who are having trouble. Those benchmarks are a kind of scaffolding that will be important. More on scaffolding below.

(CAVEAT: All online education (synchronous or asynchronous assumes that students have decent access to computers & WIFI; if they don’t, it is on the school to address that gap. If the gap still exists, synchronous teaching can offer some predictable times when a student can make the case that they ‘need’ a shared family device; conversely, asynchronous can offer some flexibility to do work at times when that same device is not otherwise needed.)

THE PROBEM WITH ASYNCHRONOUS

It’s not as simple as just offering the asynchronous elements and letting the students put in (or not put in) the optional additional time as they choose. Because of course, while some students will opt into that, others won’t, and we want to encourage students to do as much as they can reasonably do (and that they need) to support their learning goals.

I’ve only failed two classes in my life. One was a calculus class, and I can directly blame having a boyfriend for the first time, fall semester freshman year, realizing no one was making me go to class, and choosing to spend mornings in bed with him instead of dragging myself to an 8 a.m. class. Tip for freshmen: don’t schedule a class you’re not excited for at 8 a.m. if you can avoid it. My B at the start of class quickly dropped to an F by the end. (Sorry, parents. Not too sorry, though; I was in love for the first time. What can you do?)

The other was a C++ programming class, which I tried to take online, asynchronously, from Berekely’s continuing ed program when I was living in the Bay Area as a 27-year-old adult. By the third session, when it started getting difficult, my intrinsic motivation had fizzled out, and my having paid for the class wasn’t enough to keep me struggling with the assignments. I just stopped doing it, and failed out.

Without the reinforcement of in-person supports, asynchronous classes risk students losing engagement, and thereby failing. So if you’re taking out the in-person support element, I think teachers HAVE to think about how they’re planning to build in different supports for asynchronous classes.

NOTE: Not all students will need those support. Some will be sufficiently intrinsically motivated to do well regardless. (Kevin, my husband, famously coasted through Berkeley not showing up to his math classes and just coming in to take the final exam and pass with flying colors; he ended up a mathematician, unsurprisingly.) But I’m assuming here that as a teacher, you want to teach the whole class, even or especially the reluctant or challenged learners, and this is primarily geared towards supporting them.

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MY LEARNING / TEACHING BACKGROUND

I’ve taken / taught English / lit. classes at various levels:

– at Miss Porter’s high school and U Chicago, I was a bright kid at a fairly elite school, with high expectations for academic skills on the students’ parts

– at Mills College, I was tutoring in the writing center and TA-ing for traditional college students at a private school

– at Salt Lake Community College, I taught mostly highly-motivated returning students (who tended to do well) and students who found traditional college classes extremely challenging (who often struggled to get C’s); many were ESL learners as well

– at University of Utah, the student population was similar to Mills in many ways (though overall notably more conservative)

– at Roosevelt University, 70% of the students were the first in their families to go to college, and often had to argue with their parents to even be allowed to go to college; many found college very challenging, even though they were generally hard-working and motivated, because they were underprepared by their previous educational experience

– at Vermont College (low residency-MFA), I asynchronously taught returning students who were strongly motivated

– at Northwestern University, the undergrads were similar to my classmates at U Chicago, and possibly a little more focused on getting good grades — (for example, the entire class did not just all the reading, but also all the optional reading I assigned, for the first two-thirds of the semester)

– I also taught in Northwestern’s continuing ed creative writing program; returning adults, very self-motivated; they also did all the work, generally

– at UIC, where I’ve now been for over ten years (eep), I teach mostly traditional college students, but at an economically diverse mostly-commuter campus, and one where many of the students have outside jobs or care responsibilities (not typical of Mills / U Chicago / Northwestern residential students)

– and I’ve taught a host of writing workshops, generally single day, long weekend, and week-long sessions — again, highly motivated students, on a tight timetable and trying to get as much as they can out of it

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DIFFERENT LEARNING NEEDS

The point I’m trying to get to here is that ALL of these student groups had different learning needs, and that means that as a teacher, I’m always going to be trying to adapt my teaching approaches to meet those needs. For one concrete example:

– as a student at U Chicago, I had upper-level English classes where my only grade was the final paper at the end of the semester; the professors were mostly able to get away with that little evaluation because the students in those classes were generally highly-motivated, and were keeping up with the reading and participating in classroom discussions

(U Chicago, I’ll note, tilts towards the ‘less support’ end of universities, since many of the faculty are more interested in their own world-class research and their graduate students / apprentices, than their undergrads. That works okay as long as those undergrads are self-motivated and not dealing with other challenges (physical and mental health issues, family crises, economic crises, language issues, etc.); otherwise, students start falling through the cracks, and at least 25 years ago, U Chicago didn’t have a lot of structure in place to help catch them before they fall too far; I knew several people in my class who either never finished or flunked out, which to me, is in large part a failure of the institution. I loved that school, but I hope they’re doing better at that now.)

– by contrast, at Roosevelt University (and this took me some getting used to, and I’d like to take a moment here to apologize to my colleagues there who had to put up with my resistance in department faculty meetings to what seemed to me at the time to be unnecessary busywork), the professors were very invested in their undergrads’ success, and knew that their first-in-the-family-to-go-to-college students needed a lot of support, what we’ll often call ‘scaffolding,’ to help them acclimate to the college environment. They needed help to understand what was expected of them in writing papers, showing up and participating in classes, doing the reading homework, etc.

SCAFFOLDING:

That scaffolding generally shows up in a variety of ways, such as:

– reading quizzes

– 4-5 shorter papers over the course of the class instead of 1 long one at the end

– in-class and homework assignments designed to demonstrate understanding (and let professors see where there are gaps that need additional support)

– requiring that students come in to office hours early in the semester — we did this in the basic composition classes at Utah as well, cancelling a few classes early on and using that time for 10-minute student appointments in office hours, to get them accustomed to the idea, get past the intimidation of being alone with the professor (lots of potential social class-related issues here), familiarize themselves with the practice, and habituate to coming on their own later — every single time I’ve required this, it’s led to a dramatic uptick in students coming on their own to office hours later

ISN’T THAT A LOT OF WORK?

I know some teachers reading this are going to be thinking — that’s a lot of extra time you’re asking of me, to generate all those extra assignments, to grade all those extra papers, to spend all that extra time in office hours. Yes it is, and I have a few additional thoughts on that:

a) there is a hard limit on time that correlates with how big your class size is; my best classes as a student have pretty much all been 5-12 students in the class; when it gets larger, it’s just impossible for even the most dedicated teacher to give individualized attention to every student, and if you add in students with learning disabilities or other challenges (students from poor communities with very limited access to tech and books, for example), that multiples the problem — the only real solution to this one is money, since you need to spend more money to hire more teachers and aides, to make class sizes smaller; that’s mostly beyond the scope of this piece, but I’d argue that if your university is spending a ton of money on adding fancy tech to classrooms to let them record lectures to be broadcast to students, that money might be better spent on simply hiring more adjunct faculty so class sizes can be half as big. But putting that aside for now…

b) It’s a balancing act, assessing how much scaffolding your students need, and how much time (in class or out of class) you need to give to the scaffolding; that time will necessarily come out of in-depth instruction. If 95% of your students need reading quizzes in class in order to make sure they actually read Act II, scene 3, that eats time that might otherwise go to a deeper dive into the character of Othello.

This is why we do roughly group students — why I have intro fiction students and advanced fiction students, and why I run those classes VERY differently. The intro classes have tons of exercises, for example; by the advanced level, they’re usually working on projects of their own, and don’t need the same kind of prompts. When I was teaching at Northwestern, and the students just did all the reading and the optional reading, I didn’t need to give reading quizzes, which gave us more time for discussion.

(SIDE NOTE: At our local schools, we’ve made an equity move recently to put gifted education materials into all the classrooms, rather than having a gifted ‘track’, and while I support that on equity grounds (it’s not fair that statistically, black students are dramatically under-selected for gifted programs despite many being well suited to do the work), the correlation is that unless you hire more teachers or at least aides to help with such differentiation, you won’t be able to do it as well as you might.)

c) You need (for your own sanity, and for your students’ sake) to think about how you can do additional scaffolding that DOESN’T take an unreasonable amount of time on your part. Some options:

• your first and second papers are shorter, 3-4 pages instead of 5-6, so you can grade them quickly.

• you type up a list of the five most common issues, so you can cut-and-paste them into responses (and you do that instead of handwriting responses).

• you amend your own teaching practices, putting down the compulsion to red-line their whole paper (which won’t serve them anyway; studies show that students get discouraged and stop trying when there’s too much red ink on the page), and instead focus on the 1-2 elements you’d like them to work on improving for their revision or next paper.

• more group work early on (which significantly cuts down on grading time) and yes, I know some of you are groaning at the idea of group work, but there are ways to do it well and fairly, I swear

• you have the students use a shared Google doc to generate class notes for everyone (assigning 1-2 students as rotating notetakers), freeing up the need for you to produce lecture notes in advance, giving more of them the time to engage in class discussion rather than frantically scribbling notes (I remember one freshman class where I literally could not keep up with the speed at which my music composition professor spoke, and I ended up dropping the class immediately)

• I’m sure there are ways to use tech to automate grading of quizzes, saving us time in the long run, though I haven’t used that yet myself

• there are lots more approaches, and teaching forums online are great places to brainstorm other options

THAT’S A LOT OF WORK, MARY ANNE

I know. Revising your teaching practices isn’t easy, especially if you’ve gotten into habits over decades of teaching (I’ve been teaching for 20+ years now, so I sympathize), but changing to more effective practices can honestly:

a) make your life much easier, which will make you a happier, less stressed-out teacher, and

b) improve the quality of your teaching too, leading to better results for your students.

Right now, this summer, is the PERFECT time to invest in a serious, hard look at your teaching practices, and think about which ones really serve both you and your students. For myself, I’m putting aside a book project in order to make the time, which on one level sucks. But on another level, we’re in the midst of a global disaster, and this is not a normal time. I’m hoping that it will pay off in not just a good fall seemster, but in more effective, happier teaching for the next two decades of my teaching career (and thereby, time to write more and better books).

(And yes, if I were queen of the universe, I would insist that teachers be compensated for this massive sudden unexpected workload. At the very least, I’d like to see written acknowledgement from my university that normally, we’d get a course release for converting a course from in-person to online, a course release worth about $10K, and that if they can’t fairly compensate all faculty that amount right now, in the midst of pandemic (I know some colleges can afford it, but others are facing the possibility of closure), they should distribute as much of those funds as they can, eating into the fund balance if need be (what is the fund balance for, if not for disasters like this?).

AND they should establish that $10K / class as the baseline worth of the labor for the future, when we’re not in the midst of a global disaster. Our own UIC union is arguing hard with administration about this right now, and I strongly encourage other faculty to take this seriously, join or form a union, and organize and fight for the value of your work. Unfortunately, the neoliberal university will not simply give you fair compensation because it’s the right thing to do.

Okay, back to the work itself — for now, I’m mostly accepted that I have to put in a bunch of extra work this summer, with the hope of having a fall amount of work in the fall AND a productive and happy semester.)

BACK TO THE VIRTUAL:

So the question I’m left with is simple — how can I build scaffolding for my virtual asynchronous classes that is:

a) reasonable for me to do, mostly within the time / effort expectations of a normal semester

b) strongly supportive of my students who need or want the extra support

I’m going to be working on that in a lot more detail going forward, and will post here as I do, but I’ll give you a hint now — along with lots of asynchronous threaded discussion (like this Facebook post) and optional Zoom-like sessions, I’m going to be looking to incorporate at least some elements of gamification into my courses to help.

GAMIFICATION:

Here’s an example of what I mean: The graphic below is from this morning’s walk with my son — he’s been much more sedentary than usual during the last three months of shelter-in-pace, and I’ve been worried by how much condition he’s lost. So we’ve started doing an early morning walk together, and what makes it extra fun is that we’re listening to a story as we go, using the “Zombies, Run!” app.

Neither of us have any intrinsic motivation to run, especially on a humid Chicago morning while wearing masks. But you see those areas of red and lighter green and orange? That’s where the app told us that there were zombies chasing us, and we needed to run. Sometimes we ran, sometimes we jogged, sometimes we just walked a little further. But three days in, we’re already covering an extra block in the same 20-minute amount of time, and THAT is the power of gamification, that I want to try to harness for myself and my students.

One could argue that the basic point system of the semester, 100 points = A+ is essentially gamification too. But mostly, there’s very little fun in that! If we want students and ourselves to engage virtually, without the inherent pleasure and support of in-person community, then I think it’s worth putting in a little time and thought this summer on how we can structure more fun engagement in the virtual classroom (and that applies to both synchronous and asynchronous work).

Okay, before I come back with more concrete details, I’m going to go off and read some of a book that an instructional designer friend strongly recommended: Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classrooms.

(Also watch some TV, sew some more masks, putter in the garden, play some video games, read some books for pleasure, and maybe write a little something. I can’t think about teaching ALL the time, and shouldn’t.)

Onwards!

Learning From Home

I have to say, I think Anand is learning more at home being unschooled than he was in school, and is much happier.

Which isn’t to say that he isn’t missing some things that could use more disciplined teaching, and I’m hoping Kevin and I will have more time to do that this summer after the semester’s done and grades are in. Math has kind of fallen by the wayside, for example, and his handwriting is still terrible.

But Anand is really into history, and he’s spending a lot of his time just reading history comic books (Nathan Hale is a HUGE hit with him) and watching history videos. Periodically he’ll come in like he just did to declare to me, “Harriet Tubman was AMAZING.” Yes, yes she was. Nice to see you’ve moved on from World War I military trivia. “It doesn’t seem real, everything she did.” I know, baby.

I think we may need to seriously consider unschooling him next year too, though, for his last year of elementary school, and hope to reintegrate him into the system in sixth grade, starting middle school. And of course, it’ll be easier to hold back the spread if fewer kids are actually in school….

 

….But it’s complicated, because I also don’t want the schools to lose money from the state if a bunch of kids aren’t in the system for a year. I don’t know that advocating for parents to keep their kids home if they have the option is the best idea either? Let us not dismantle the public school system!

And I imagine that it’d be mostly wealthier parents who have the option to keep kids home and will take advantage of it. If the schools lose their tax dollars, everyone who is more marginalized will suffer with cuts to teachers, etc. 

But on the other hand, it’s not as if the schools would stop collecting property taxes if kids were out — maybe it would actually ease the burden on overcrowded classrooms? And/or help make it possible for at-risk teachers to teach remotely?

All very unclear to me. But Anand is happier and learning more at home. Sigh.

Kavi misses school a lot, though, and will be eager to go back. She’s generally keeping up with her e-learning, but she’s much happier in the classroom with her friends. I think she’s a little prone to depression and anxiety, and this is not helping.

She’s doing fine, but we’re keeping an eye on her, just in case, making sure she gets exercise and out in the sunshine; left to herself, she’d just spend all day lying in her bed. (She does sometimes really get into her art though, and spend hours on doing something like drawing a very realistic eye. That’s cool.)

Tough all around.