Reflections on Distance Learning, Day One

The first day of distance learning is officially in the books.  I promise that this topic will not be the only one I write about for the next two weeks, but I am going to give updates periodically.

Being the first day, it was certainly the busiest.  Yesterday students came to school in the morning to collect whatever materials they may need for the next two week, and teachers spent the day buzzing away at recorded lectures, digital lesson plans, etc., so we’d be ready to hit the ground running at eight o’clock this morning.

A great deal of teaching is staying one or two days ahead of the students, especially when you’re first starting out.  I had a bit of that sensation—the first-year teacher drowning under a Herculean load of preps—yesterday and today, but where I’ve been lecturing on US History and Government for so long, I can riff almost effortlessly with just a few cues from my well-worn lecture slides.

Prepping for Music, ironically, has been the most difficult.  We’re using Google Meet to livestream and record lessons, which makes it pretty easy to record audio while also sharing slides with students.  With my two Music classes, though, I had to get a little creative.

They say that “in times of trouble, you go with what you know.”  Whoever “they” are—the Deep State?—they’re right, and what I know is old-school MS Paint.  I found a JPEG of the grand staff—the treble and bass clefs—and set Google Meet to “present” the MS Paint window.  Then, with my voiceover, I wrote the names of the notes on the staff, and typed or drew little notes as needed.  [The final product is the featured image for this post. —TPP]

It worked out remarkably well, and managed to capture the whimsical, primitivist quality of my doodles, which $5 or higher SubscribeStar subscribers will recognize from Sunday Doodles.

And now, I have about ninety-minutes worth of lectures spanning from the Versailles Peace Conference (1919) through the election of FDR (1932).  That full series—available to my students, of course, for free—will likely end up as a SubscribeStar perk, possibly at the unprecedented (and unsubscribed) $10 level.  Or you could just read Wikipedia.

The way my school is approaching distance learning is as follows:

  • Students follow their regular rotation, and need to have some kind of lesson each day with a way for teachers to confirm attendance.
  • However, teachers can pre-record lessons, and allow students to finish them by 3:30 PM each day (a normal school day for us runs from 8:10 AM to 3:25 PM, with six one-hour blocks, but I have everything post at 8 AM and close at 3:30 PM).  Indeed, if a teacher livestreams but a student does not attend, teachers are to upload recorded livestreams; as long as the student views it and confirms attendance by 3:30 PM, they’re golden.

The problem with that last little bit, I’m finding, is that it can take a long time for Google Meet to process a recording for viewing.  Yesterday I was not having any difficulties, so it could be my slower Frontier Internet connection at home, but this morning it took at least two hours for a long-ish lecture (around forty minutes) to process, while a short Music lesson (about twelve minutes) still took over an hour.  If a student misses an afternoon class, 3:30 PM may have come and gone before the teacher can upload a viewable version.  I’m still waiting a recording of a livestream of my HS Music Ensemble class from 2:30 this afternoon.

To avoid that conundrum, I’m conducting almost all of my classes with pre-recorded lectures.  I’m then asking students to answer four or five questions that they can only answer if they listen carefully to the lesson.  I’m already detecting some surreptitious Googling in their answers, such as my Government students who claimed the last congressionally declared war was with Romania and Hungary (technically true, but just put the Second World War, kids, geeze).

Kids will use almost any lame excuse to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do, even when it’s easy, so I’m over-communicating with them: e-mails, posts to Google Classroom, e-mails to their parents, etc.  It seems to be working.  It also means a good chunk of my day has been spent writing.

I did start the day with a shock.  I’ve been helping one of my elderly colleagues wrap his mind around distance learning.  I gave him access to one of my AP US History classes so he could see how I structured mine.  Apparently, sometime this morning he accidentally “archived” the entire section, denying students access to the coursework.  I was in a cold panic for about thirty seconds as a couple of student e-mails rolled in noting the problem, but it was fortunately an easy fix—just restoring the course and reposting one assignment.  Yikes!  It was an accident, but… let’s just say he’s not in that course anymore—ha!

Otherwise, there have not been any major glitches on my end—yet.  I’m still waiting on my Music video lesson for Thursday to process, but it should have plenty of time.  I can now kick back (at least as far as prepping goes) and let everything pop when it schedules.

Of course, one takeaway from all this is that there is a lot of “fluff” in the school day.  I wrote about this yesterday, but it bears repeating.  So much of the content delivery can be cut in half, or even in a third, when you’re away from the distractions of the classroom.  Of course, I have literally worked consistently from 8 AM to about 4:30 PM (like a person with a normal job—ha!), but that diligence reduces the chance for errors—saving time later.

One final note:  I have really enjoyed the experience; the only thing I miss so far is the interaction with the students.  My HS Music Ensemble and I had a livestream to go over some material for the two week closure, which was fun—they’re a great group of young men (and one young lady), and we have a very jocular, agreeable relationship.  Otherwise, working on a loose schedule—that still has concrete, but predictable and well-spaced, deadlines—has been amazing.

Like I said, I worked pretty consistently throughout the day.  But I was able to have a shower and shave around 9:30 AM.  I enjoyed a leisurely lunch—ribeye steak with rice and beans—around 1 PM.  I can get coffee when I want, and I’m not on my feet in front of disinterested youths.  Instead, their disinterested faces are somewhere distant.  Yes, I’m eager for some human connection, but there’s time for that.

All in all, I have the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, but I’m not nearly as irritable or exhausted.  Let’s hope this sensation keeps up.

Stay safe out there, and God Bless!


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