Remote Teaching: Some Things That Are Working

[Preface: This is a very, very long post about teaching and what's going well right now. It also has a very, very long, possibly unnecessary, introduction. You've been warned]

No one likes a Braggy McBraggypants, so I hesitated about posting this, initially, but then I remembered that thing about how society treats women like they should never be proud of their accomplishments, so here we are. I am by far not a perfect teacher (just ask any student I've ever had), but I'm also dedicated to making distance learning work for my students (and me!). 

I teach four sections of IB English and one of IB TOK, which means many of my students (not at all,  though) are at least somewhat motivated. That being said, they do naturally struggle with procrastination, focusing, and even asking for help, which happen in real-life teaching and is magnified by the situation we are in. I think there's a natural tendency to think teachers who teach higher level kids have it "easier," which I understand on some level. I've taught non-advanced classes, though, and at the end of the day I feel like what I am doing currently has actually been more of a challenge for me- I create my own curriculum, I have the pressure of huge tests that cost money hanging over me, and my kids do a lot of work that needs to be graded in a timely manner with feedback, most of which is heavy writing/analysis (not that this isn't the case with all teachers; it's just that my kids are the ones who are going to email me at 2 am asking why they missed a point on #3 and when I'm planning to grade the essay they wrote yesterday). Like anything in education, it's hard and takes a lot of work. But I'm up for it!

All students deserve the best possible education they can get, no matter what the format may look like. Right now it's through a computer, so it's literally my job to provide that. This is my fifteenth year of teaching and it's also been the hardest- I've hard to dig deep and really figure out what's working and what's not, just as I did as a beginner. I am constantly reflecting, improvising, changing, and adjusting. Now that we are a month into our second semester, I've finally figured out some things that are visibly working for me and my students, so I thought I'd share. Typically, I'm not really good at sharing- I hide food in the pantry I don't want my family to eat, I don't do a lot of collaborating with colleagues, and I only allow carefully vetted people borrow my books. But, these times are different, right? Also, for purpose of reflecting, I've also included some areas I need to continue to work on as well. 

- Song at the beginning of the period- Super easy and silly, but the kids can guess (errr Shazaam) the song in the chat for one solitary extra credit point. It's just nice to set the tone! I play a lot of classic rock and stuff from the 90s. 
- Chat question at the beginning of the period- Usually this is something pretty low key that can be answered in a few words. Sometimes it's random ("do you like candy corn or are you a normal person who thinks it tastes like trash?"), but sometimes related to content ("When reading Plath's "Bitter Strawberries" poem what did feel was the primary tone?"). It's up a minute before class starts and remains for a few minutes while everyone trickles in.
- Instagram presence- I've done this for awhile and it's just a fun way to seem more human to the kids. There's a lot of pictures of my dog, son, things I'm reading, etc... I also do a lot of interactive "would you rather" polls, question boxes, etc... 
- Extra credit 1 point opportunities- I do them for participating in breakout rooms, offering to be a group spokesperson, guessing a song title, turning something in first, etc... I keep track of them by hand on a blank class roster and add them in to their grade once a week. 
- Visiting work-in-progress on GC and leaving comments- It's the virtual way of walking around the classroom! 
- Camera breaks- 80-90% of my kids have their cameras on each class, which is pretty awesome! Starting on the first day, I told them I expected them on and if it went well I'd give them a 5-10 minute no-camera independent-work break at the end of the 80 class session. 
- Popping into breakout rooms with my mic and camera off- My students meet in breakout rooms once or even twice a week right now, and I make it a point to visit each to listen in. Whoever participates when I am there gets one extra credit point, plus I try to write something complimentary in the chat
- Be as workout instructor-y as you can- I am not a natural cheerleader, I'll be the admit. I've worked super hard on being positive and thankful every day with my students, though, since I know they need to hear it. Think about it- no one wants to go to a workout class with an instructor that is flat and never pumps you up! I'm not going to ever be invited to teach a Peloton class, but I try to keep up with verbal the positive reinforcement 

(*the kids can only earn up to 5 points extra credit from these sorts of engagement activities a week)

- Follow-up email list- I have started keeping a secret list of students who mention they have concerns outside of class to follow up with. When we are in person it's super easy to ask a student to stay behind for a second to ask him or her how it's going after a relative has passed away or whatever- it's really hard right now. I try to keep notes on who I have followed up with when. 
- At least five positive emails to students every Friday- This might be about improvement, all-round good work, or even something silly, like I like a poster in their background. It's really, really fun to send out cheery messages, even if I don't get any sort of response back (although I usually do! The kids are missing so much positive reinforcement and acknowledgements, so I think this makes them happy).
- Keeping the same breakout rooms (virtual groups)- My students were a little reluctant in breakout rooms at first, but I keep the same ones in each and now they are doing pretty great! When we are in class it's the same way- they sit in table groups and become one little family for the year.

- Rubrics- Creating rubrics in Google Classroom for as many assignments has helped me move through things faster. My students have to do something I made up called "The Poetry Protocol" right now, every day, for a few weeks. A rubric that I can keep using in GC has helped a ton.
- Grading calendar- I assign myself assignments to grade each day with a color-coding system that helps me visually see what I need to do each week
- When I grade what- I've worked really hard on being strategic about what I can grade when. If I am helping Sawyer with his work it's not the time to grade writing of any sort. I can, though, work on checking off a short assignments or the weekly attendance question our district requires
- Chunking grading- Often I'll tell myself that while I don't have time for the entire "stack" I just have to do five or ten assignments at once. Doing this a few times a day on the weekend helps me get through things

- Analysis worksheets- I created this quick worksheet/graphic organizer that calls for the kids to annotate a short passage or quote and then write bad, mediocre, and great analysis. The score is out of 15 and when they start reaching 13 they can quit doing the bad and mediocre sections, and just the great (I call them something different). It has resulted in a lot of improvement and I will use it forever! 
- Emailing kids with Ds and Fs- No on like a weekly(ish) reminder of not-the-best grades, so I think my little notes help some of them get work done. 
- Inviting specific kids to come to office hours- It's hard for them to say no when they are being singled out in a nice way. 
- Options with projects to meet needs and supply availability (example: a Flipgrid, a writing project, or an art project)- I did a project for each book while in-person, so I am trying different ways to do it now. I did it last semester and I got the coolest results! Diorammas of the set of the play we were reading, scripts for additional scenes, monologues, etc... 

- Stop checking student email by 9- I have had to really work on this, since there have been many nights that I a lying in bed at night replying to kids before I sleep.
- Working for 3 hours alone upstairs on Fridays, since I am not going into work- We don't do any live teaching on Fridays, so for the first semester I was going in to my classroom those days. We've had a lot of COVID-19 cases on our campus with staff members that are still required to be at work, so I've opted to stay home. I head upstairs after I get my son on his Zoom meeting and work for three or so hours straight (I work all afternoon, too, but I do it from downstairs, which opens my grading/planning up to interruptions). 

Things to work on: 
- Getting in more timed writes- Back when things are normal, my students do a timed write every other Friday. Now that I only see them twice a week I have cut way back, which is bothering me. I don't think there's a good solution, but I need to figure something out.
- Not being so reluctant to bring tech- I have mixed feelings about this. I think a lot of teachers were a little obsessed with all the techy bells and whistles at the beginning of the year, and it ended up being a waste of time. That being said, I could do a better job of implementing a few more tech-based components into my class. 
- Contacting parents- This is so hard when you have, like 150 (or so) kids. I am making it my goal to reach out to certain ones at the end of each grading period. 
- Grading- This is a huge battle for English teachers no matter what kind of teaching we are doing. The fact of the matter is out kids write a TON and it takes a lot of time to grade it. Now, with having to do it on Google Classroom, it takes even longer. I have gotten better, but grading will forever be something I'm dealing with.
- Bringing in some past alumni to make some videos or something else that's inspirational for me current students (I've had this on the back burner since August!)
- Ignoring the (metaphorical) background-pandemic chatter- There's a group that doesn't want to go back until everyone is vaccinated, and there are people who think we need to go back right this second. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what they think. What matters is what our county and district is deciding is safe and whether I am doing my best to educate my students (I am). The negativity of others is their problem, not mine- I've worked hard to stay positive and do my best.

So, that's where I'm at! This isn't ideal- teaching in the classroom is better for delivering content, assessing student needs, and building community, but this is what we have to deal with right now. Instead of spending my time wallowing and being mad at the universe at the cards we've been dealt I've decided to channel my energy into making this best experience that I can for my students and myself. 

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