Mrs. Hebert’s English Class: ONLINE EDITION

On this blog, I’ve reflected on the successes and failures surrounding my teaching career. I’ve written about the activities and assignments I’ve designed and redesigned. I’ve written about my own views and feelings relating to education and technology. This blog started as an assignment in my first masters class three years ago. I’ve been striving to continue posting here because I believe it’s important to reflect in this profession, on the big things and the little things.

It struck me pretty hard when I opened up this blog and saw that my last post was one from the first week of school, when I had the privilege of seeing Nic Stone speak. How far we’ve come since the start of the school year.

Just a few years ago, I wrote about the heartbreak of starting the school year late due to Hurricane Harvey. Now, I sit here thinking about the heartbreak of closing our school early, and the struggles and successes of moving to fully remote instruction.

Once again, a natural disaster of sorts has drastically affected our school year. The Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has shut the doors on schools across the country, but that certainly does not mean that the school year is over.

Just this morning, I posted the handout and assignment for our seventh week of online instruction.

My district was on spring break when things started to shut down. The week before break, I drew a huge calendar on my whiteboard to lay out the days between then and the upcoming STAAR test. My students cracked jokes about coronavirus shutting down the school for two weeks, and I assured them that it probably wouldn’t happen. I was certainly wrong, and I think many of the same students joking about two weeks off wish we could be back in our classrooms.

We ended up with an extra week of spring break for the students and rushed trainings for the teachers, and we’ve been teaching online with Google Classroom ever since. Thoughts of a two-week quarantine quickly became two months of online learning.

I also have the privilege of teaching an educational technology course at the University of Houston. It was the same timeline – an extended spring break followed by all classes moving to fully remote instruction.

As I look back over the past seven weeks, I have to say that the transition was easier with my university course. Of course, that was one class of twenty-three adult students. There were struggles for sure, but they were, as students, better prepared for the shift than eight graders.

I could reflect plenty on those struggles and the difficulties of the transition, but I don’t think that would be appropriate right now. There will be time later to think about what didn’t work, what we could’ve done better, what I could’ve done better. But now is the time for thinking about what is working and why.

After much consideration and reflection, here are my own personal keys to success in pandemic teaching.

#1: Collaboration

We are all in this together. I mean that yesterday, I mean it today, I will mean it tomorrow. Education is a difficult career under normal circumstances, and it so much harder to do alone.

Collaboration can be difficult to accomplish when we’re not allowed to be in the same room with each other, but there are so many tools that make it easier.

Google Drive and Google Docs allow instant and easy sharing of documents that can be edited simultaneously. Even Microsoft Office allows shared documents and simultaneous editing, though I’ll say that it isn’t as seamless with Word as it is with Google Docs.

As an 8th grade teacher, everything I do is a part of a professional learning community, or PLC. There are five of us that teach 8th grade English, plus an administrator and a campus academic success specialist. Even without our weekly meetings in my classroom, we stayed a strong PLC through everything.

Instead of chatting in the hall between classes, we texted each other jokes and questions and comments. We supported each other, both in our instruction and for our mental health.

The University of Houston didn’t call it a PLC, but there were still two of us adjuncts each teaching a section of the course, along with the professor who oversees us and the instructors of the pedagogy class that pairs with our educational technology class.

Even if it’s not required, collaboration is what I believe to be one of the most important aspects of teaching under any circumstances, and having a team of educators that are in the exact same situation that I was with both of my roles made the entire situation so much easier.

It’s so much more than splitting up the workload, though that’s certainly a benefit. It’s having someone to bounce ideas around. And it’s having people to commiserate with when things get hard and who will then pull you back up and help you keep going.

#2: Consistency

In both my 8th grade English class and my UH class, the biggest successes were where we built on existing procedures and tools.

For my 8th graders, I used my existing Google Classrooms. Because I’d used Google Classroom throughout the year for assignments, information, and quizzes. Students earlier in the year collaborated to write their own informational articles about their choice of topic, which they turned in through Google Classroom and then posted a short video description in Flipgrid. Another activity had them completing stations by filling out Google Forms that corresponded with the physical stations in my classroom.

We already had our issues and struggles with these tools in class with me there to lead them through troubleshooting. I’m not saying all of my students could use these tools from home with 100% confidence, but this familiarity helped smooth the transition to completing their work from home without my physical presence to help and guide.

Similarly, in the UH class, we built on the tools already in place. From the first week of class, we had a combined GroupMe chat for both sections of the course to post questions and answers about the class. We adapted many of the assignments and activities that we would have done in class to be done through GroupMe discussion. The students who signed up to start our face-to-face class with an activity, was now tasked with creating an edtech game to share in GroupMe.

That class was already designed as a flipped classroom, where students had approximately an hour of online readings or videos to complete before our weekly two-hour face-to-face class.

#3: Simplicity

My background in educational technology and my interest in distance learning put me at an advantage during this difficult time. I was able to embrace this shift and apply what I know about online instruction to do the best I could.

But in a situation like this, expertise in online learning wasn’t what was most important.

At the start of this post, I said that this blog began as an assignment three years ago. That very first post started like this:

Dear World of Educational Technology,

STOP BEING SO CRAZY.

Utilizing technology does not have to mean using the flashiest, fanciest, floofiest of websites with all the bells and whistles. It doesn’t have to mean spending tens, hundreds, thousands of dollars on software or tools. 

I think this foray into emergency online instruction taught me this lesson all over again. The key to success during this time was keeping things simple and consistent. For my classes, that did mean a number of online tools, but they were all tools my students knew how to use and had used on a regular basis prior to the pandemic.

For others, keeping it simple meant only using handouts created in Google Docs and assigned in Google Classroom.

As much as I get excited about trying new tools or games with my students, I knew from the start that this was not the time. The transition was difficult for students and teachers, and piling on new resources was not the solution.

#4: Communication

Teaching a flipped class that required students to study information before class required strong communication. Flipped classrooms only work if the students know what they need to do to be prepared for the activities and assessments in class.

To that end, each week, we had a handout that outlined all of the week’s requirements and upcoming deadlines. When we moved instruction fully online, those handouts became even more important. Without a face-to-face component, they were the best way for students to know exactly what needed to be done throughout the week and if there were any changes to existing assignments.

I attempted to apply this to my 8th grade class as well. I created a weekly handout with updates on grades, a checklist of activities to complete throughout the week, and a list of methods to contact me. I posted the handout in Google Classroom each week.

The first week, I also emailed the handout to parents and students, but I didn’t stay consistent with that. I should have continued emailing it each week. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I communicated well with my UH students, through email announcements and reminders in GroupMe. 8th graders aren’t as skilled with using email.

I’ve already started to plan a few mini lessons for the first week of school in August. I want to start the year by teaching students how to access their school email accounts, how to write a proper email, and how to use their Gmail calendars. I’ve always known these were important skills, but this time teaching remotely is highlighting that importance more than ever.

It’s also highlighting something else I’ve always known but haven’t addressed well enough, and that is communication with parents. I teach my UH students how to create a parent newsletter using Smore, and I plan to practice what I preach next year with monthly Smore updates for parents.

As my UH semester wraps up this week and I look at the final couple weeks of instruction for my 8th graders, my mind is clearly already looking forward to next school year.

We faced, and overcame, significant challenges this semester. There will be repercussions of this semester for years to come. There will be gaps in learning to be filled in. There will be trauma to heal.

We know now that we are capable, we are strong, we are teachers. And we will do what is necessary to educate and love every student that walks into our lives.

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