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Teacher's Lounge: Advice for Virtual Instruction         

One of the first lessons I learned as a teacher was not to fake expertise. Students asked me all kinds of things I didn’t know the answers to, and I quickly became comfortable with saying, “I don’t know - but I will find out and get back to you.”  If I tried to pretend I knew the answer, I would lead my students in the wrong direction, lose their trust, and have a much harder path to building a classroom climate that embraced the validity of all voices.

As we experience this pandemic and watch our leaders disregard the voices of others to serve any number of agendas, it is hard to believe that anyone really has the answers to anything.  Maybe we are all faking expertise to a degree, regardless of our training or profession. The idea that there is a smartest person in the room is a fallacy; it is the whole room that creates that collective intelligence.

With that sentiment in mind, as we continue to navigate this alternate reality together, I am happy to introduce “Teacher’s Lounge,” an advice column for virtual instruction. In this column, I will address any number of questions regarding challenges we face with the caveat that we are all, always and forever, learning.

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

When we went to virtual learning this spring, I felt confident with the technology aspect of teaching. I love working with online applications, and I poured a lot of energy into each lesson. But I got so frustrated every time kids turned their cameras off. I know I can’t force them to turn on the screen, but how do I make sure they’re with me if I literally can’t see them?

                                                                                                                           ~Newbie Teacher

Dear Newbie,

As I read your question I was laughing a little bit, mainly because I just left a meeting with a bunch of adults who also wouldn’t turn their cameras on. My first instinct is to be frustrated with this behavior, but then I try to think about a few things.

First of all, from a technological standpoint, some people do not have enough bandwidth to support video and audio at the same time. When my virtual classes or meetings start running into technical difficulty, turning my camera off will often save the connection. Depending on a student’s access and connectivity, staying in class with the camera on without being kicked off might be a fixable problem, or it might not.

A more serious consideration for camera visibility comes from a trauma perspective. People who have experienced or who are currently experiencing traumatic situations may prefer that their cameras remain off for a number of reasons, from the desire not to look at themselves consistently (it can be hard, particularly for children) or from a need to hide what is happening at home. Essentially, we don’t know enough about a person’s situation to assume that we can enforce that cameras be on.

So then the question becomes, what can we do to engage students that we can’t see?  Here are a few ideas:

Try and contact families to have a conversation about the student’s pandemic experience, and to establish the best means of staying in touch (phone, email, Google voice, and so forth). If students are still unreachable, ask for help from school counselors or case managers.

Use polls and surveys to gather voice feedback from students on a regular basis on a wide range of topics, from class content to ideas about remaining engaged. Asking for students’ opinions about how class is going gives teachers valuable information about next steps.

Encourage students to share thoughts outside of class content to help them be more comfortable in the space. For example, expressing one grateful thought each day or even sharing one word in the chat that describes a current state of mind is an activity that can take place with or without a camera.

In a virtual learning world, many students are feeling tacit permission from adults to be invisible; counter that by focusing on individual students. During class, allow time for providing feedback on an assignment to each student while others work, or follow up with individual students after class on a regular rotating schedule. If kids know we care about them, they will be more invested in letting us know they are with us.

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

As I plan for this year, I can’t help worrying about what grading kids will look like. Last semester we pretty much got rid of grades in those last months of school, but now my district says we are going to assign grades again. How can I be fair about grading kids at a distance? What are some strategies I can try that would be fair to the kids, especially the ones who have a hard time even coming to my virtual classroom?

                                                                                                                           ~Grading Guru (not)

Dear Guru,

I definitely hear this concern quite a lot. How do we hold kids accountable for what we assign when we are unsure about their personal circumstances, and when we cannot literally be with them to do the work? Grading at a distance is a challenge, but it is not insurmountable. Furthermore, I want to put an idea out there that is by no means revolutionary, but that is vital in reframing this whole grading concern. That thought is: feedback over grading.

When we grade an assignment, what is our purpose? Is it to slap a letter or a number on a piece of paper that translates to some level of success in a student’s mind, or is it to provide children with information about where they are in the process of learning? I believe it’s the latter, and for that reason, I worry about the quality of my feedback a lot more than the grade I assign. Say, for example, that students are learning how to write in complete sentences. If a kid turns in a list of sentences and some of them are missing parts of speech, are we more worried about taking off points, or about explaining why each part of a sentence contributes to a whole?

In a virtual classroom, we have the opportunity to provide feedback in writing, just as we used to, but that is not the only choice. We can record our voices using Screencastify or a similar tool as we scroll through a student’s paper, sharing ideas with more depth than we have in the past. We can build structures in virtual breakout rooms for peer review, or for small conferences. Essentially, any grading mechanism we employ during this time has to have a strong foundation in the “why” behind each assignment, and the feedback has to come before the grade. If we have those pieces in place, we will know just a little bit more (or perhaps a lot) about the students we are assessing at a distance.

If we can rid ourselves of the idea that any assessment option will be perfect, we can create responsive distance learning experiences in which grades are secondary to feedback. In traditional grading, a zero or failure represents a lack of information about what a student can do; with thoughtful grading practices that are grounded in specific learning goals, the purpose is to have information about each student so that we can continue to serve their needs.

Have a question about virtual teaching and learning? Send them to the Teacher’s Lounge  We’ll get through this - together!

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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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