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October 9, 2020

Am I the Only One Struggling With Online Instruction?

By now, we all should have made the shift from crisis teaching to intentional distance learning or a well-defined hybrid approach. Am I the only one still figuring it all out?   

In March, there was an abundance of forgiveness for our missteps with distance learning and a generosity of understanding as we all leaned in together. We flocked to instructor collectives (like this one created by a friend I went to grad school with at UVA) to exchange ideas and troubleshoot our technology.  We used a sense of humor when forgetting to unmute during video calls. Everyone shared in the uncertainty of navigating numerous applications and learning management systems (LMS).  The 180-degree pivot seemed, well, temporary. I wondered, was I alone in liking the transition from face-to-face to online teaching? I mean, it meant more time in my day without a commute and an opportunity to pause and rethink how I could leverage instructional technology to facilitate and personalize learning.   

Teachers were students’ and families’ lifeline in March– we provided the consistency and care students needed during an uncertain time.  We witnessed numerous social media posts showing the abundance of stress families faced helping their own children learn while they also worked from home. Our nation suddenly appreciated teachers’ ability to engage, monitor, encourage, differentiate, and inspire kids.  After a summer of continued isolation, memories faded, and families came in with higher expectations for this school year’s instruction.  Targeting strong content area instruction was only the beginning. Due to increased expectations and accountability, teachers are now required to establish virtual norms, build an online community, meet the social emotional learning (SEL) needs of the students at a distance, uphold behavior standards and, oh, did I mention measuring engagement and delivering feedback for learning…through a screen?  All while being watched and monitored and critiqued by students, families, and the public. 

The new school year has begun following a summer of discussion weighing distance and hybrid learning options and developing plans.  Teachers spent much of their summer investing in professional learning, combing the web for resources and ideas, and modifying lesson plans for a virtual classroom.  Somehow, we were all supposed to be ready for this Fall leaving out much room for improvement. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I attended some highly informative webinars this summer (my favorite recordings), devoured books and articles (my favorite reads), and identified my top 5 effective ways to engage students online and increase participation.  

Still, classes started a few weeks ago and, like author Nancy Frey described in the Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12, I feel like a first-year teacher again.  I have the expected teacher-y tools: my syllabus, my modules, my rubrics, and my instructional strategies at play.  I know my content and have curated great materials (especially these favorites from my graduate course on Cross-Cultural Education for Diverse Learners) but I’m still questioning each of my virtual instruction decisions as though I don’t have nearly 30 years of teaching under my belt. 

However, what I am building upon as a new-to-distance-instruction teacher, is my educator sixth sense that I use to stay a step ahead and to anticipate student actions. What I’ve lost is the capacity for mitigating distractions since my students are out of hands’ reach.  Fortunately, what I’m realizing is that the ingredients for good teaching remain unchanged regardless of the shift in delivery mode.  Good teaching is still about student-centered thinking, recognition of the funds of knowledge that each student brings to class, attentiveness to relationship building and positive climate, clear learning objectives, and meaningful feedback.   

I could get distracted thinking that everything about teaching and learning has changed. It hasn’t. Instead, I acknowledge that the important things have stayed the same and that teaching is still a vocation that calls us to meet challenges. We’re doing the good work and continuing to support all our students. Plus, there’s a bonus this year for educators: we get to learn more than ever.

P.S. I’ve also compiled a list of a few of the strategies I’ve found to be the most helpful to maintain online student engagement as well as a few of my favorite resources. What are your favorite online teaching tips and tricks? 

5 Effective Ways to Engage Students Online and Increase Participation

  • Ask a question and have students all answer in chat without hitting ‘send.’ When a moment has passed, have everyone hit ‘send’ at the same time. Take a moment to allow everyone to scroll through a little bit. You may not read and comment on each one, but you’ll have full participation and can save the chat to your class page on the LMS.
  • Reduce lost time by creating established groups for breakout rooms. Use the same groups for a month or longer.
  • Allow students to submit their work by uploading a photo of what they’ve written, made, or worked on. This gives students with differing access to resources some flexibility in how they complete their work and demonstrate mastery of the learning objective.
  • Send video links in chat and invite students to watch on their own, paired with a break. For example, share a link to a 3-minute clip and invite the class to be back on with you in 7 minutes.
  • At different points in the lesson, edit your name to display a key vocabulary term, the day’s topic, or a fun fact.

My Favorite Recordings

My Favorite Reads

My Favorite Cross-Cultural Education Resources


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