When I defended my dissertation in the Fall of 2019 I was certain that I would never be stuck on a zoom call again. I had spent three years taking classes from 6:00 pm until midnight every Thursday, writing a dissertation on the side, and also working full time, moving twice, and raising two children.
I was exhausted.
There was, however, a moment in December when my diploma came in the mail that I missed it. I missed logging in and seeing my cohort's faces, I missed the thrill of the unknown when you were thrown into a random breakout session and not sure who you'd be paired up with, and I missed hearing "Fight on!" at the end of every class from my professors. USC made me feel at home. Even when I was hunched over my desk after 11:00 pm rallying to stay awake on my fourth bowl of goldfish, it was always an environment where I was encouraged to learn and comforted by the engaging discussions with a truly impressive group of professionals.
Full disclosure: it is completely true that I am the student that will always volunteer to contribute, the first to raise their hand. I love asking questions and I view it as my professional responsibility to fill the empty air space in classes as an act of camaraderie with my fellow educators. But even the most motivated of students cannot sit still for six hours in a series of flat online classes without some serious engagement strategies on behalf of the instructor.
After nine semesters of learning online and dozens of professors, I've come to some conclusions on how to escape the monotony of a zoom class. I have compiled a list of the top five moves my professors made that kept learning engaging and, most importantly, kept me awake for those three years. I am going to be math-centric for a spell here, mostly because it's my wheelhouse but also because I find the structure of a traditional math class to truly take some work to retrofit into an online environment.
1. Front-load student learning
In the K-12 space you might be tempted to call this flipped learning, but I do want to emphasize that this is more of a Venn diagram between learning asynchronously and synchronously and not a complete divorce from live learning experiences. For my classes, much of the front loading was pre-reading to provide you with background knowledge for the week's lesson. Our professors elaborated, had us contribute to whole group and small group discussions on the reading, using the front-loading of work as a springboard for discussion. In K-12, we should be thinking thoughtfully about what it is our students can tackle asynchronously to help set the stage for the online lesson. As a mathematics teacher, I might do any of the following as an asynchronous activity for students:
Have students practice pre-requisite skills needed for the next lesson
Ask students, what do you already know about _______? Have students contribute to a padlet or discussion board to share what they know
Have students define key vocabulary terms, providing the definition in their own words and finding a visual or application that demonstrates the term's meaning
Give students three problems and their answers, ask students to come up with ideas on how to arrive at the solution, and have them share out their ideas in class
Have students work through an interactive slide-deck to preview upcoming concepts, encourage them to write down 3 takeaways, 2 questions, and 1 "muddiest point" to share in live class
Advice: Give them something to talk about, use front-loading to act as a springboard for discussion to help students build their math confidence.
2. Begin class with a quick check for understanding and follow up discussion
This is your opener or warm-up in a typical classroom setting, but it is a huge conversation starter in an online environment. In my classes, it was most often a two or three question poll that was connected to the pre-work. It is okay to deviate from your typical practice problem warm-up and ask students a more open-ended question too. The important piece is having students share out their ideas, asking if anyone has a counterpoint, and getting the group settled into online discourse. Here are some ideas:
Show students a solution to a problem and ask if they agree or disagree with the work
Ask students a vocabulary or conceptual question
Show students an image that relates to your upcoming lesson, ask them: what do you notice? what do you wonder?
Have students interpret a table or data representation
Advice: Now is not the time to be fancy, this is a moment to help your students get settled and focused on the day's topic. Keep it simple, low-tech, and accessible.
3. Prepare templates for group work ahead of time
Getting set-up for group work ahead of time was incredibly helpful. A few of my professors would email out the documents we would need for group work the day before so that when class began we would already have those windows open. As someone with anxiety, knowing the expectations for class and not having to search for materials during class time made me feel at ease and ready to learn. The format of these varied, but it was always using google suite. There was no need for additional software or tools, all we needed to collaborate well was a breakout room and a google doc template or a slide deck. Here are some ideas for how to collaborate with g-suite:
Have students practice problems together in break out rooms, submitting their answers with google form
Have students outline a solution strategy for solving an open ended task, use a graphic organizer in google docs to make sharing group products easy
Have student groups create summary slides for a unit or concept, providing examples and visuals to support their peers using google slides
Have students graph data in google sheets and develop the best representation for the data set to present out to peers
Advice: With these documents and structures prepared ahead of time, you can have each of the documents open as student groups work through the activity. This will help you with knowing which groups are stuck and need a breakout room visit from their teacher. Also, be sure to let students know ahead of time how much time they will have to complete the task!
4. Share your slides, make your expectations clear
Your students are going to need to figure out how to process information in a live class and how to take notes. Help make this easier by sharing your slide deck ahead of time. This can be done at the same time that you are sending out your templates. While you might be sharing your screen during class, when students have your slides they can easily refer back to them during asynchronous work to make sure they understand concepts and tasks.
With that being said, always include a timeline of upcoming assignments and expectations on your slides. As much as you might post on your website, google classroom, or send out communication through email, having a timeline of assignments and expectations for completing tasks with the lesson will give students that additional visual they might need to make things stick. I used these slides more often than referring to the syllabus because it was a concise and current visual for me to reference.
Advice: Make it a routine to share slides for your lessons ahead of time. Integrate some common slides in every lesson that outline expectations for students and layout upcoming assignments.
5. Care about your students, make them feel at home
I did not get my doctorate in a pandemic, but every person in my cohort had a good amount of personal and professional items to juggle. My professors checked in with us on how we were doing, gave air time for us to share our concerns on workload and upcoming assignments, and made adjustments based on our needs. We should be doing this for kids too, especially now when we do not know what our students might be juggling at home during this time.
Advice: Have compassion and make caring a part of your routine. If your students are stressed or overwhelmed, they're not meeting your deadline anyway and we should avoid the trap of being punitive. Instead, encourage your students to email you, offer support and feedback to help them be successful, and make sure that every student in class understands what their options are if they are struggling to complete assignments.
The secret to having a safe and positive classroom environment online is to offer structure and show your students that you care about making learning accessible for them. Sure, there are plenty of fancy tools and online resources that you could use in the classroom, but do your students really need that to learn or do they need a class that is interactive and supportive? My vote would be to keep the technology simple and focus on student support. And, of course, "Fight on!"