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Adapting to a virtual high school classroom: how I handled the sudden shift from physical to distance learning

As a high school teacher, I knew I was lucky in that I could keep my job and work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, trying to manage my newly virtual classroom and figure out what my new work day should look like has not been easy.

In addition to my job as a teacher, I’m also a mom with an active preschooler at home. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to balance my work and his needs (physical, emotional and educational). This is likely a difficulty faced by many working parents, and furthermore, one that existed before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on our communities.

But in my case, there was no time to plan or prepare, or to figure out how this new normal should look.

The difference between online courses and suddenly virtual classrooms

Adapting to this virtual classroom is not the same as designing an online course. The latter requires a full curriculum intended for an online audience. That includes planning for and incorporating multimedia lessons and assignments.

The challenge that we educators faced now was different. We were asked to deliver meaningful, rigorous instruction–with little to no planning time–during a pandemic. Face to face instruction in a traditional classroom does not just transfer to a virtual space–even under the best conditions. It’s not seamless. It takes planning and planning takes time. Time is what we did not have as we prepared to provide educational continuity.

I was lucky enough to work for a school district that had already embraced technology in and out of the classroom and had had a plan in place before schools closed in March, working to distribute tablets and electronic devices to students and teachers.

But even with the push to get all that equipment into students’ hands, it was and remains difficult.

In many ways, I see teaching as a sort of performance art. Yes, there are exams and data, facts and figures, but teaching involves a human element: reading a room, gauging body language and making eye contact. Teachers manipulate the classroom, often subconsciously, using facial expressions, gestures and their proximity to students. How could I do this virtually?

The blurred boundaries between work and home

In addition, the physical act of going to a separate place to work is no less important than the psychological compartmentalizing that we do when we leave our homes and enter our workspace. When work and home were in the same location, it was difficult to transition between roles, to resist the urge to work at all times and to eliminate distractions.

During what was supposed to be spring break, I pored over educational sites and learned about learning management tools, in an attempt to prepare as best as I could I searched for online copies of the texts I would teach and created new assignments. In short, I overdid it.

Lessons learned

I did learn a lot in the process. I learned that creating a schedule is vital, and that emails, texts and phone calls will come in at all times. I turned off email notifications and set aside specific times for sending and answering emails. I also set aside a special time for grading–during my son’s nap time and after dinner, when I could focus.

I learned to create a “clocking-out” time. Teachers are not good at maintaining work/life balance as it is, and for me working from home blurred those lines even further. 

I had to avoid opportunity overload and tell myself to tackle one thing at a time. Every textbook and educational software company was suddenly interested in communicating with teachers. Everyone suddenly had some level of insight and expertise on how teachers should approach this latest challenge. And although it was great to have options and to learn about new programs, the sudden onslaught of emails and information I received was just too much. There just wasn’t time to vet all these programs and then redesign a curriculum to fit them.

What I quickly realized was that these tools were meant to facilitate lessons and enhance learning. Overdoing it is gimmicky, leads to superficial results or wasted time trying to learn platforms that may not work well.

I also learned to let go of perfectionism, perhaps one of the biggest obstacles facing teachers as we continue to transition to the virtual classroom.

I was working non-stop. From the moment that I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, I was working: preparing assignments, answering emails, grading and hosting Zoom class meetings. At the same time, I was also teaching, caring for and entertaining my preschooler who was now also home, away from his friends and nursery school lessons. It was not possible to keep this up, and so I forced myself a step back and reevaluate what I was doing and how I was doing it.

In addition to these challenges, teaching can be, paradoxically, lonely. We are surrounded by students and totally alone. From bell to bell, our classroom doors are closed and it can be difficult to find time and energy to interact with our colleagues. But now, when everyone was trying to figure out how to make their virtual classroom work, I realized how important it was to connect with other teachers and to pool our resources.

I also experimented with how I was going to use my resources. I was careful not to drone on, especially on video calls. Could some information be emailed or posted online? Could lectures be recorded? I tried both. 

Everyone remembers that one professor that talked and talked and talked. That was certainly not an effective method. Imagine listening to that on a web call. Studies indicate that video conferencesare draining and people have a more difficult time retaining information disseminated in them. Effective communication is also important in face-to-face teaching, but in a virtual space, it was especially important to make that communication meaningful and succinct.

We’re human, and so are our students

I also reminded myself to consider the human component. These were not normal times. I knew my students were missing their school routines, their friends and their lives before quarantine. 

High school students are teenagers, just learning to understand their own tumultuous emotions. They’re already at a higher risk of experiencing and developing anxiety, depression and mental health issues

Just as I struggled to juggle my home life and work life, while also dealing with the anxiety of the current moment–so too were my students. Their lives were out of whack. They would miss out on milestones like prom and graduation, and they, too, had to figure out how to balance their home lives and school work. And they were just kids.

I practiced flexibility and empathy. One student might not have reliable internet service or may need to share their devices with their family. Another might not have a quiet space to work and study. Yet another might also have to juggle responsibilities at home–caring for family members or helping younger siblings with their school work. 

This didn’t mean I did not hold my students accountable. I graded their work and provided feedback on their progress. But I found that providing extensions or flexible deadlines not only helped students that were facing personal and technical hardships, it also encouraged them to complete the assignments. 

I also had to accept the fact that I couldn’t totally separate my home life from my teacher persona in class, either. My toddler might crash a Zoom lecture to show my students his action figure. My faculty meeting might be scheduled during my son’s lunch time.

Teachers aren’t just teachers. We’re also part-time parents, financial advisors, friends, disciplinarians and life coaches. Given all of these responsibilities, it wasn’t easy to adapt to a virtual classroom environment. But by acknowledging my own human limitations, while remaining flexible and empathetic to the needs of my students, I am learning to face these challenges as an opportunity.

This post was written for and published on Toggl, link to the story here: https://toggl.com/blog/virtual-high-school-classroom posted on August 26, 2020

YOLO is So Last Year, ‘selfie’ is in the dictionary

post-it of new words

Language is not static. It is alive, always evolving. So, srsly, don’t worry!

For a few years now, teachers and English purists have bemoaned the slow, painful death of language.  It was bad enough, when they had only rock music and television to fight.  Now, they face an even greater nemesis: Smartphones.  In fact, a recent article, a professor tells The Telegraph that Twitter is causing students’ writing skills to “go down the plug hole.”

Many a high school teacher can point to at least a handful of instances where LOL or j/k or OMG have popped up in student essays.

And, to further prove that there is — in fact — a dark, nefarious force infiltrating our minds and our vocabulary, enemies of “text talk” point to the Oxford Dictionaries Online’s (not the OED) newest selection of words which include enemies of eloquent language like: twerk, selfie and badassery or condensed forms of words and phrases like srsly and FOMO.

To the doomsayers I say, calm down.  Remember that the ODO is not the same as the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford’s online reference is more adaptable, a little faster and a little looser with the words that they include. After all, their mandate is to focus on current English and modern meanings.  And, I’d add that many of the new words are necessary to address new and growing technology.

Are the words silly?  Yes.  Have they infiltrated teens’ lexicon?  Certainly.  But, is this new?  Have teenagers suddenly discovered slang or colloquial speech?  The answer is certainly not.  One need not think too far back to find, now obscure, words that we may be embarrassed to have uttered.  Remember cowabanga? Or tubular?  Or psych?

Yes, journalists and “totally bogus” grownups hated those words too. Hashtags, text messages and social media are here now.  Soon enough, they too will be old news.

So academics take heart. Language is dynamic.  It is alive and changing, evolving, adapting.  Most of these new “words,” if we must call them that, will soon fade into obscurity.

Cyberbullying Law Gives Educators Power To Intervene Outside Of School

Gabrielle Molina was a seventh grader in Queens, New York.  Her friends and parents say that she was smart.  She was ambitious and loved science. Her father said that she wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and then study law.

cyberbullying chartOn May 23rd her 15 year-old sister forced open their bedroom door and found her lifeless.  Gaby hanged herself.  She was 12.  In her suicide note she apologized to her family and said that she was bullied.

Her classmates harassed her, calling her a slut, and teased her about looks. They even posted a video on the internet showing the 5-foot tall girl getting beaten.

Cases like these have become all too common and have prompted legislative action.  Governor Rick Scott signed HB 609 into law, expanding Florida’s current anti-bullying law to include “cyberbullying.”

The new law, which went into effect on July 1st, gives schools more power to intervene in cases of cyberbullying which take place outside of school.  In the past, administrators’ ability to act was limited. They could only intervene if the bullying occurred on school property, or in the course of a school-sponsored program, or on a school bus.

Now if cyberbullying “substantially” interferes with or disrupts the educational process, administrators may regulate and punish it — even when it originates on a computer or device off campus.

“As an educator and legislator, I’m pleased to see that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle came together to bring this bill to law,” said Senator Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber. “In our digital age and society teachers and administrators need the ability to protect our Florida gems from the unwanted attacks students receive online.”

Bullying is not new, but the far-reach of 21st century technology is.  This is the age of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the ever-growing world of social media — where insults and names and embarrassing moments no longer live in our memories or slam books or notes, but they have the potential to live forever in cyberspace.

And teenagers are hooked on technology and more connected than ever before.  They text, they tweet, instagram, snapchat, facebook and vine.  Yes, these are all verbs now.  And it is almost impossible to monitor.

According to a 2012 Pew Internet Project survey, 78% of teens now have a cell phone and send an average of 60 text messages per day.  About three in four (74%) teens ages 12-17 say they access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

kids_and_social_media

78% of teens have a cell phone and send an average of 60 text messages per day, and bout three in four teens access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

The need to socialize among teens is nothing new.  I can remember spending hours on the phone with my friends when I was a kid and passing notes in class.  What teenaged girl never feared the teacher apprehending a note and reading it out loud to the class?

The notes have disappeared.  But the messages have not.  Teens, more acutely aware of their popularity – quantitatively measured in the number of friends, followers and/or likes received on their social media sites – and reputation than any other segment of the population, are constantly communicating and grooming their online presence.

Between classes, during lunch and any chance that they get, kids are on their phones or tablets.  And with the ability to photograph and videotape just about anything, at any time, anyone can be victimized.  And one mistake can live forever online.

And, very often, they do.  Gone are the days when the worst thing that a bully did was steal your lunch money.  With the prevalence of the internet in teenagers’ everyday lives, it may become very difficult – even next to impossible – to escape the torment.

Cyberbullies send mean text messages or emails, spread rumors on social networking sites, and send or post embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or create fake profiles.

A bully’s torment is no longer restricted to school; it is a constant onslaught of cyberattacks that reach kids at home, and on their most precious device, their cellphone.  And because quite often the attacks are posted anonymously, the origins are difficult to trace.  And once something is posted online, it can be difficult – sometimes nearly impossible – to remove.

The results can be tragic, like they were in the recent case of 15 year-old Monique Griego of Maryland who committed suicide after online bullies assaulted her with messages like, “I hope you die.  Go kill yourself.”

Or the case of the 15 year-old Audrie Pott, a California teen who was a member of a middle school marching band that performed at President Obama’s first inaugural parade in 2009.  Who, like Rehtaeh Parsons of Canada, committed suicide after allegedly being raped and then cyber-bullied after the attacks.  Having photos of themselves — during the attacks — go viral.

Or Jessica Laney, a popular 16 year-old soccer player in Pasco County, Florida who received constant anonymous messages telling her that she was fat, she was mean, no one liked her.  Messages telling her that she should die.  Jessica hanged herself.

These are the senseless tragedies that this new law seeks to avoid. But alone, it cannot end cyberbullying.  Kids live their lives online.  They are constantly connected.  More than ever, it is important for parents to keep track of what their kids are doing, both in the real world and the cyberworld.

This new law can be dangerous because it could give parents a false sense of security.  In most cases, school officials were already intervening in the case of bullying.

In the case of Gabrielle Molina, after the video of the fight went viral, a school counselor set up a meeting with Gabby’s parents and between the two girls.  No one knew the extent of the cyberbullying, except Molina’s friends and older sister, who did not speak up until after the girl’s death. The same is true in the Griego, Pott and Laney cases.  No adult in those girls’ lives knew about the cyberbullying that they endured.

Parents are a child’s best advocate.  More than ever, it is important for them to know what is going on in their lives and to monitor their cellphone and Internet activity.  And kids also need to know that it is important to come forward and ask for help when they or a friend are in danger.

Schools, administrators and teachers are doing everything they can to keep kids safe, but we don’t go home with them.  And we cannot police kids’ ever-growing online activity outside of school.  Too often, we do not discover what is going on at home, until something tragic happens.

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Originally published on WLRN.com in July, 2013: http://bit.ly/1oXF5bo