I suck at distance learning. This is not me being self-deprecating. This is me just putting some truth out into the universe. There are things I am really good at, like writing 60 word speeches for graduation – I have that down, and there are things I am reasonably good at – making my sophomores get very excited about listening to podcasts. But online learning design is not one of my core competencies. This Spring proved that.
Hardest part: Sarcasm doesn’t work online. Heck, it barely works in class with sophomores first semester, when there are a number of them get legitimately nervous when they catch a glimpse of the “Ashes of Problem Students” urn from one of my dearest former students (who is alive and well and not in the jar… PROMISE!)
Getting into a rhythm with my students is a big part of the first six weeks of school. I figure out what their interests are, and they figure out that there will be no bloodshed. I have always felt most successful in my classroom when I am closest to my real self. I’m not going to get to say “Hi!” to kids in the hall or have them see me looking like every bad high school movie’s stereotypical English Teacher trying to carry 10 books plus my tea up the stairs (EVERY DAY). Having to be intentional about building an online community is going to feel really unnatural.
So, what does this mean for me? WORK… and a lot of it.
First, I am being trained on a learning management system, Canvas, that is used by Foothill College that I must be certified on in order to teach my seniors the English 1A and English 1B courses that they take through Foothill. It is hard, but educational, for me to slip into student mode. Canvas feels like the gazillionth learning management system I have trained on… and that being said, I’m still waiting for someone to figure out how to make a tool that works for teachers. It is functional, but will again require that I change my approach to teaching lessons to accommodate the required tools, rather than the tools working for me. Sigh… And I am relatively technology adaptive – I can start with something and quickly get a sense of where the roadblocks will be or what I need to brush up on. I feel for teachers whose careers have spanned decades and may not be confident in how technological tools are organized.
Second, I am engaging in conversations with colleagues. These are not “woe-is-me” venting type conversations, but practical conversations about how to change assessments so that I can better use them at a distance to understand what my students know and are able to do. While I always make this my goal and frequently revise assessments, those adjustments are based on having access to students and watching their faces as they grapple with a topic. I cannot count how many times a revision to an assignment came from a student looking completely confused as I worked through a task one on one with them, after I saw them staring at a screen doing not enough during work time. So now, I need to look very carefully at each assignment, cut down the (very important but hard to do at a distance) process work into smaller chunks and really think about what I want the final outcome to show me. And, forget anything that would be easy to cheat on. All those quick quizzes (with searchable answers) that would help give me a quick touch point if students got the main idea from a commonly assigned text go out the window.
And, as I have written about before and will write about again soon, we are constantly doing the work of anti-racism and cultural humility (a topic I will write on later). Right now, there is a lot of momentum for positive change, and weaving that through distance learning is going to take patience and finesse. Teaching is not just about the paperwork; the life work takes time and energy.
Third, but not last because this list could go on to infinity, I am considering how I am going to get my planning and grading done with three children in my house who need support, food and downtime. Even the most sympathetic and supportive of people do not fully understand the amount of time and work that goes into preparing for teaching well. I hold myself to a high standard, which I think any parent would want a teacher to do, but sometimes, it comes at a cost (usually in cutting corners on dinner (“Take out it is!”) or health (“That hour workout is going to have to wait.”)). Now, I have to add on top of it learning an entirely different way to do my job in real time?
It’s as if someone told you that you need to take the work you’ve done over the past year and record it in an entirely new language that very few people speak by next week and you have a limit on what letters you can use because the characters can only be used so many times. While you are doing your work, everyone and their second cousin fifteen times removed will have an opinion about where each letter is placed, even though they don’t actually speak the language but are experts in their own language, it it totally sounds better and was easier to learn, and they could certainly do it faster (in their memory).
I get some energy when I launch in a new adventure, and I know that I will make some new discoveries teaching online that will improve my work long-term. I am trying to bring a positive mindset to this change, because I will need every ounce of energy that I can get. In terms of how it will affect my job as a distance learning, parent. That’s for Part Two…