August 7, 2020 by Dr. Robbie Barber
This post is week 8 of 8 in the #8WeeksofSummer Blog Challenge for educators. (I can’t believe it, but I stuck with the program all summer long!) The prompt is: “How is your school/district operating differently this year?”
Really, the question isn’t simple and isn’t a single thing. Instead, the questions include: (1) How are you starting your school year?; (2) What are the plans or the tipping point to change the way you started your school year?; and (3) How will you implement changes?
My school district is starting online with no clear deadline. But to highlight the confusion, one of my teachers thought that meant the first week online and then face-to-face. Some districts in the Metro area have stated upfront they are going online for the first nine weeks. Our district is apparently going month-to-month board meetings. That is okay if everyone is clear on the rules, but most of us really aren’t. To be fair, none of us have ever experienced a pandemic, including our school boards and superintendents. We are all trying to figure out the questions, before we can move to the answers.
This vulnerability is what we can bring to our teaching. We encourage students to ask questions but we have been expecting answers. What if there is no answer? According to physicist Richard Feynman, by asking questions “you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications.” This is a video of Feynman explaining that you can’t answer some questions, in specific, why. It may be time for rethinking some of our teaching.
Online teaching is a new kind of vulnerability for both the teachers and students. First, if you, the teacher, take control of the screen to share a slideshow, a website, an image, or whatever, it is the same as if you stood in front of a class, put in your earplugs, put on blinders and turned around so that the only thing you can see is a small part of the board in front of you. You have no idea what is going on in the classroom. Can students see and hear you? How would you know?
Are there workarounds? Yes. First, if you have a co-teacher, you’ve won the lottery. One teacher can run the screen while the other monitors the student chats and can interrupt with questions. Another solution is to have a second device but you have to be careful that the second device has no microphone or speaker access or the feedback will be terrible. This requires practice. Another solution is to make a student your co-teacher and give them the ability and permission to interrupt and respond. One idea I had this summer with adult learners was to call on people every 5 min. They had to unmute and answer a question. Sometimes the question was “what do you see on the screen”. Sometimes the question was specific to the content. Everyone was vulnerable to being called on and only had a few seconds to unmute and respond.
By the way, when you saw the title “O Brave New World” did you think of Miranda’s wonder at meeting people (Shakespeare’s The Tempest) or did you think of John’s bewilderment (Huxley’s Brave New World)? If you are feeling too vulnerable, reach out to your colleagues, friends, and family. It may feel like you are isolated, but one truism is that we are all just a click away.