Teaching in a time of coronavirus

So many of my friends who are teachers are trying to find ways to teach their students well through unfamiliar online platforms, and are rather nervous about doing so. Different schools have different expectations about how you need to manage your time online with students. Some students may not even have internet access at home, or devices that work well with remote learning. And I do not want to be yet another voice pontificating on what you should or should not do–so please take or leave these thoughts as you will.

My background is in high school English literature, so a lot of these thoughts are coming from that experience.

  1. The essentials

There’s nothing like a crisis to get you to focus on what is essential and what is not. A couple of years ago I was asked to help co-teach an Algebra 1 class in March, since sixteen or so of the twenty-four students were failing. We really had to sit down and think about what really matters. What do they need to know in order to have a solid grasp of algebra before the end of the year? What do we need to let go of?

In the time of the coronavirus, this question is all the more poignant. What do kids need to know? What, in your subject, and in an age-appropriate manner, can speak into the abrupt changes in their lives? What wisdom, what love, can you offer?

And what do you have to let go this year? There will be a lot of that.

If you are a science teacher, what things could you be investigating with students that renew and deepen their appreciation of what doctors and medical workers do? In history, what are examples of human beings coming together in remarkable ways to help one another in movements of solidarity and courage?

I’m not saying that you need to bend over backwards in inauthentic ways to make content “relevant”… but, think about how your specific subject area can speak into your students’ lives in this time. I mean, that should always be a question teachers are asking, but the current coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for deeper revelation.

As Flannery O’Connor observed when asked why her characters have to undergo such violent and intense experiences, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.”

2. No busy work

Maybe this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. The temptation all teachers have at certain times, especially when trying to manage a tricky class situation, is to “keep the kids busy.” There is some merit to this idea (“get to work!” thank you, Harry Wong) … but not much.

The goal is not to lower your standards, but to consider how your assignments are inviting students to spend their time. Are you assigning a project that requires a lot of online research and scrolling? If so, is that the best thing to do right now, when all of your students’ classes are currently conducted online and many people are spending far too much time on the internet scrolling through New York Times articles in order to have a sense of control over an unpredictable and scary situation? (I’m guilty of this, by the way.)

Assigning practice problems (esp. for Math and similar subjects) is often very necessary — we learn by practicing! — but consider how many problems are really needed here.

Really ask yourself: is this just busy work? Will my kids see it as busy work? If I think it’s meaningful and worth doing, how do I help them see that, to the extent that I can?

3. Assignments that lead students away from the computer and towards the people and world around them (with appropriate 6 feet distances!)

As an English teacher, I would be thinking if I were teaching right now, “How could I get my kids to interview their parents or grandparents on pivotal moments in history in their time? How could I encourage them to have meaningful, truth-seeking, and frank discussions that enlarge and deepen their understanding of the past to give them some context and wisdom for the present?”

Maybe, instead of having them type up these interviews, have them do an audio recording of them to minimize screen time.

If they need to do a writing assignment for you, does it HAVE to be typed? Could they write some (shorter) assignments by hand, take a picture of it, and upload it that way? (If their family has only one computer at home but several kids in school, this might be really helpful).

Are there assignments they can do by going outside for walks in their neighborhoods with their family, taking pictures of beautiful things they see?

I’m thinking about those Italians singing out their windows to encourage one another. What are ways my students could make art to add more beauty to the world right now? Could they write music? Poetry? Draw? How might they share their art with you and one another?

How can your class become a place where engagement with the truly and deeply human things is encouraged?

4. Checking in with smaller groups

As a for-credit assignment, make a sign up sheet for them to choose a time to do a short video chat with you once a week (30m or less) in small groups. Depending on how many students you have, a good idea would be to make these smaller chats with 10 students or less, if possible. (When I had 120 students, this would mean 12 different chats a week… that’s a lot. Do what you can.)

These video chats (via Google hangouts or Zoom or whatever) could be opportunities for them to share assignments with you, discuss readings of course… but more importantly it is time for them to see your face, to see that you care for them, that you are involved and engaged.

If your school is trying to have you record lectures and teach that way, talk frankly with your principal about alternatives. Real learning happens in the context of relationships, of real-time interaction. How might you facilitate that with your kids?

5. Be flexible and gentle

Be flexible and gentle– especially with yourself! Just as you would be patient with a student learning something for the very first time, be patient with yourself as you navigate online teaching.

Be honest with your kids — “Hey guys, this is new for me too. We are in this together to see what works and what doesn’t.”

More thoughts to come.

If you are a teacher, what have you been trying? What’s been working well? What hasn’t? Or, if you are a parent, what have you seen your children doing with assignments?

And for all of you who are teachers, trying your best, making mistakes, spending time trying to teach your kids in new and challenging ways, God bless you.

Country Schoolhouse, 1879 By Morgan Weistling

2 thoughts on “Teaching in a time of coronavirus

  1. Thank you so much for this! I love reading your blogs (love the one on Thomas Aquinas), and your words of wisdom always inspire me to be a better religious sister, teacher, and person. Although I have TERRIBLE about writing, you are in my prayers. God bless you!

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