Periodically I’ve written updates and progress reports about teaching in The Age of The Virus. My September “Progress Report” detailed the difficulties of teaching in-person and online simultaneously (with most students in class, and a few streaming the class online via Google Meet), while also recording live classes for international students to view at a later time. Technical issues and glitches aside, it creates a number of additional tasks that eat up class and prep time, and overall increase our workloads by at least 20-30%—and often more.
My school’s approach has been to soldier on as long as possible, following stringent health and safety guidelines to keep the school clean. Students are required to wear masks pretty much all day now, which is starting to irk some of them. It really is a struggle to keep them on all day. Students have the option to switch to the live remote platform if they’re ill or have been in contact with someone with The Virus.
So far, that system has worked remarkably well; since the start of classes, we’ve only had (to my knowledge) one student and one staff member test positive for The Virus, and that was after the fourth week of classes. If that incredibly slow spread remains as such, we are far more likely to keep school going with some degree of normality for the duration of the academic year.
However, yesterday we ran a live remote platform rehearsal day to prepare ourselves in the event we need to transition speedily to remote learning only. Students stayed home and logged in via Google Meet to their classes, while teachers reported to school and taught from their respective classrooms. Students attended classes at their scheduled class times, and we continued to follow the usual bell schedule.
It was a useful exercise, to say the last, and I learned some of the possibilities and pitfalls of the format. Readers will recall that I loved distance learning in the spring. My approach then was to pre-record twenty- or thirty-minute lectures, and include four-to-six questions related to the videos, due by 4 PM each day. I would spend the day responding to student e-mails and grading their responses. It was a great deal of work, but it struck a good balance, I think.
Yesterday, every class was live, and it was much more difficult. I’m understanding now why so many of my colleagues abhorred distance learning—they were livestreaming the whole time. From my experience yesterday, the livestream approach combines the worst elements of classroom and online learning.
Every teacher knows the best and the most difficult parts of teaching are often the same: students. Working with students is incredibly rewarding and fun, but they can also be trying. The live remote approach makes interactions with students awkward (asking questions and participating in organic discussions is very difficult in this format, especially with the satellite news correspondent delay between them hearing you and you hearing their response), and it’s virtually impossible to assure all students are actually engaged, even if they show up as online.
There’s also still ample opportunity for disruption. One of my American history students yesterday was engaged in target practice with his hunting rifle while “listening” to our lesson on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. The other students began laughing and joking about it, saying they “felt threatened” (the sad thing is, some of them might have been serious—yeesh, get a grip). The student turned off his camera when I asked him to do so, but, c’mon—how much is absorbing if he’s firing a hunting rifle (his sound was muted, thankfully). It might be a good way to reenact Daniel Shays’ Rebellion, but he probably won’t know that.
Teaching music is particularly difficult. Playing together is virtually impossible due to latency issues, so we mainly stuck to music theory and music appreciation/history topics. My ensemble class watched old school concert footage, which made for some fun reminiscing about past concerts. As a one-off, one-day activity, it was great, but it wouldn’t sustain us for entire school year. I already have two students that livestream that class daily, and it essentially results in them tuning in and listening to the ensemble rock out. It’s a struggle to figure out how to get those two students to participate actively, much less an entire class.
These are problems that many creative educators are facing. I know many public school friends on the dreaded asynchronous “hybrid” system, in which one group of students is in class one day while another group is at home, viewing pre-recorded lessons and/or completing work for the class. That sounds like a nightmare of preparation of organization; I spoke with one music educator, a trumpeter, who said that he spends hours recording videos, and his planning time has shut up dramatically. It’s little wonder that public schools are hemorrhaging teachers at even faster rate than normal.
Hopefully we will not have to move to this system, as it is not ideal for teachers or students. If we do, though, I will be working hard to come up with some creative, fun ways to keep classroom instruction on-track and lively. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to drop a comment below.
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