This is What Online Learning Actually Looks Like

We’re on week three of online learning. Me, as a high school teacher, and my children, as 1st and 3rd grade students.

Everything is crazy and takes longer than usual as all three of us are utilizing every possible mode of technology during every single minute of the school day. I’m Zooming, screensharing, document cameraing, backchanneling, emailing, snapchatting, texting, recording, creating, saving, and feedbacking all at once. We’re all clicking and dragging, and unmuting and muting. We’re getting kicked out and logging back on, we’re freezing and then repeating. We’re snacking while sitting and atrophying.

Someone is always on mother-loving MUTE who shouldn’t be.

Even though we’re all working in the same room, keeping an eye on what they’re doing while I’m working is almost impossible. Today about half an hour after school started my husband walked into the kitchen and looked around and said, “Aren’t the girls supposed to be in school?”

“OH! CRAP!”

Usually they set an alarm on Alexa to let them know when to log in to their computers but apparently today they forgot and I didn’t think to check. And I didn’t notice when they didn’t show up in our dining room classroom. The silver lining here is they (we) are getting some real-life training about time management and using tools to remind ourselves of tasks.

They log on and back to work I go. Every once in awhile when I look away from my screen I can catch a glimpse of at least part of one of them. That’s about the extent of my involvement in their online education.

Sometimes I do have to teach one daughter how to add a browser tab, or the other how to toggle between her Zoom video and her online reading program in the web browser. They might not be making a whole lot of gains in reading and writing quite yet, but their technological literacy is SKYROCKETING.

Today I got a frantic, “Mom, where’s my writing journal?”

“Which one?” I ask. “This one?”

Reading and writing go together. Is it an ENGLISH journal?

Or this one?

Do they write in the mornings?

This one?

This is writing too, right?

She doesn’t know.

“WHAT COLOR IS IT?!” I scream at her, probably loud enough to make her teacher flinch. I’m starting to regret emailing her from my work email last week. Maybe it would be better if she did not know I’m a teacher in the same district.

I tell my daughter to go look at what color journal the other kids have in their hands and figure it out (this should have been my first response). I point to her pile of school materials in the corner and remind her that her pile is the one on the right.

Those are the music supplies in the basket. And yes, that is a wine fridge right there in our classroom.

I go back to my own classroom. I’m in between class periods so I check some emails and listen to a few student video submissions. I close a tab and OH MY GOD my class is STILL THERE! Ten minutes past when class was supposed to end. Apparently I didn’t say goodbye like my ADHD brain thought I did before I got distracted by the writing journal fiasco. Even though 99% of the time I’m ignoring my own children, the 1% of the time I am focusing on them everything else in the world goes out the window.

All of my students’s faces were right there in their own little rectangles, waiting for me to tell them they could leave. Bless their little rule-following hearts. I apologize for cutting into their lunch period and say goodbye and off they go. Blip. Blip. Blip.

In the meantime, my oldest daughter starts asking, “How much longer do I have to be on here?” and adds a few minutes later, “I want to get off now!” followed by “Uhhhhhggghhhhhhhhh”. When I ask what feels so difficult she tells me, “I never get to talk at all. I need to talk to learn!”

I try to teach her how to self-advocate in an online classroom. “Unmute yourself,” I suggest.

“Action disabled by the host,” her computer responds.

“Send her a chat,” I try again.

“Action disabled by the host.”

I’m starting to get agitated by this computer’s tone.

“Is there a raise your hand button?”

The computer ignores me.

“Hold up a sign,” I give a final suggestion. She writes a note on a piece of paper with a purple marker and holds it in front of the camera. Her teacher doesn’t see it.

My daughter probably isn’t even visible on her screen. I don’t know what the maximum number of people is who can be seen in gallery view on Zoom but apparently it is less than 27. I teach her to set a timer and take a two minute break.

Later on, my 1st grader shuts her computer and told me school was done for the day. I look at the clock and she still has an hour left until school ends. I have her log back in and lo and behold all of her classmates are in there doing something!

She has no clue what they’re doing, obviously.

“Ask your teacher what you’re supposed to be doing,” I demand sternly. “Unmute yourself,” I suggest.

“Action disabled by host.”

MOTHERF—ER!

I don’t waste my breath, I check myself to see if she can chat. Nope. Is there a raise your hand button? Nope.

Now I equally frustrated with technology and my daughter.

Through my teacher lens, I get it, because this is the kind of message a 1st grader sends her teacher:

“Wave your hand back and forth in front of the screen until she sees you,” I hiss.

The teacher doesn’t see her.

My daughter starts complaining that her arm is getting tired. I have no sympathy.

“I don’t care if you have to wave your arm back and forth the whole time, you’re going to keep doing it until you get an answer or until this activity is done!”

She waved and waved until the activity was done.

It’s not all bad though. There are actually quite a few things going well.

Like the flexible seating.

Like small group Flipgrid video conversation groups where my students are having back and forth conversation with each other and with me. They’re not LIVE conversations, but we are still listening to each other and responding to each other. One of my students today said she enjoyed those videos because it really did feel like we were having a conversation. She enjoys that connection hasn’t talked much with some teachers this year, at least so far.

This site where I’ll send my 4th hour kids a personal video telling them I’m sorry they heard me yelling about what color my daughter’s writing journal was when they were watching a youtube clip and thanking them for being so amazing. This is also when I’ll remind myself to give them grace for showing up late or not getting an assignment turned in on time.

I love watching their videos!

Like giving my students a short video clip to watch and being able to watch them watch the video while watching them write notes from the video live on a Google doc. It’s also being able to pull a kid aside via breakout room who is struggling to stay awake and arrange for them to go take a nap and complete your assignment later.

Like helping a student figure understand the next step to solve a math problem by writing it on a sticky note and holding it right up close to the camera and having that work just fine. It’s faster than adding the phone as a document camera and just like in real school, in online school every minute counts.

Even better is having this kid – who complained EVERY SINGLE DAY about having to come to school when we were in person, show up online and even stay after the non-existent bell dismissed class so he could finish learning how to solve that problem.

Yes, that is more wine in another corner of our dining room classroom. GUESS WHAT YOU CAN GET YOUR CHILD’S TEACHER THIS YEAR AS A THANK YOU GIFT?!

Like watching my first grader work on her reading with her online program and being able to give her a high five when she gets through the whole thing. I’m pretty sure she’s still going to learn to read, you guys.

Like being able to put kids in breakout rooms to work in small groups and being able to take a 30 second breather before you enter one of the groups.

Blue light blocker glasses are all the rage these days.

It’s amazing how breakout rooms work just like pulling a kid aside or talking to a kid 1-1 in the regular classroom – but maybe even better because there aren’t a million other students who are able to hear the conversation – making real honest and open connection with students very possible.

It’s crazy, but we’re doing it. And I’m pretty sure we’ll all come out the other side. We might even all gain a ton of valuable new skills and ideas and become better teachers and students because of it.

The One Question Every Teacher Needs to Ask Their Students

When I completed my year-long student teaching internship, in a 10th grade biology classroom,  I was lucky enough to be paired with a true master teacher.  She had previously worked as a researcher for NASA, and while her extensive knowledge base, her meticulous nature, and her steadfast attitude made her more than a little successful on the job, she found the work to be too mundane, and too unfulfilling.  So she brought her expertise, her limitless patience, and her diligence with her to the high school setting.

While I learned a great deal from her in terms of the content (she had so much to offer!), I learned even more from her in terms of character.  I remember her sitting me down one day and telling me that while she could tell my understanding of the material was sound, my lesson plans were well thought out, and my delivery of the content itself was smooth and efficient, there was still something missing – and it was resulting in my students not learning.

I was missing a connection.

I was so caught up with making sure I knew the material and was delivering it the best way I knew how, I wasn’t directing enough attention towards who I was delivering the content to.

As soon as she gave me this honest and direct appraisal, I realized I had been neglecting to work on the relationships I was establishing with my students, so I began to actively include this focus when I worked on planning and delivering my lessons.  It paid off.

I distinctly remember one of my students coming into the room in a huff, a couple of minutes after class had already started, slamming her books down on the desk as she looked up at me and said, “this school is bullshit!  This class is bullshit!”  I had never been in a situation like this before, and the whole class was waiting to see my reaction.  A few students leaned back into their chairs, excited for the potential of a drama full of screaming voices and reddening faces to play out before their eyes.  But, thankfully, I had listened to my mentor and had been working on making connections with my students.  Instead of yelling, writing a detention or demanding that she speak to me in a respectful tone, I asked the girl a question that changed everything.

 “Are you all right?”  

Before asking, she had been standing with her shoulder blades pinned back tightly, her chest puffed out, her chin jutting high, her hands at her hips, clenched into fists.  A fighter’s stance.  After the question, her fists uncurled, she let out an audible exhale, shoulders and chest deflating. And she answered me, “no, I’m not”, and proceeded to tell me how unbearable her day had been and how stressed out she felt.  I told her I could tell that something was bothering her by her behavior, and that I hoped the day turned around for her.  She thanked me, sat down and pulled out her notebook and pen, ready to start the day, and the rest of the class followed suit.

That was the day my students started learning from me and my well-thought out lesson plans.

Character, it turns out, is the most important aspect of teaching.  

No one is denying that content-area knowledge is a must when it comes to being a competent instructor, but simply having and dispensing knowlege in itself does not make one effective.  No matter how good the presentation, the worksheets, the technology or the wealth of knowledge a teacher may hold, without inspiring, supporting and connecting, there can be no learning.

And many of our students are in dire need of inspiration, support and connection.  Many of our students are not all right.  They’re children dealing with adult fears, anxieties, abuse, neglect, intense pressures, a whole magnitude of grievances beyond our scope, and they often don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with their situations.

My fellow blogger and colleague, Sandwiches and Psych Meds recently pointed out that students can pull up information at the touch of a button, via Google, YouTube and Wikipedia.  We are no longer the only vehicle available for students to obtain information from.  She makes the statement, in regards to the future of the teaching profession and the teacher evaluation process,“If content knowledge … is all we care about as a society, then Google might as well be nominated Teacher of the Year”.  

Students, especially those who struggle, need to know we care in order to allow the possibility of learning to occur.  Master teachers understand this, and are sure to check in with their students periodically, asking if everything is all right.

Education, Qualities of a Good Teacher
The One Question Every Teacher Needs to Ask Their Students

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