Posted in Teaching

Flattening the Learning Curve: The Challenges of Online Learning

I am a middle school teacher. This means I’m on my feet 6+ hours a day teaching, talking, demonstrating, modeling, interacting, performing, and making grocery lists in my head as I repeat the same thing I’ve said five times already. It means I am managing the attention, behavior, understanding, and personally-accommodated academic and emotional needs of 128 students every day, and I’m doing it in 46-minute increments while guided by bells like a Pavlovian trained monkey.

At least, that’s what it used to mean. Now, I’m sitting in front of my computer for hours a day, responding to emails, creating online lessons, participating in Zoom faculty meetings, and trying to remember if I left anything perishable in my desk at school.

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There are positives and negatives to this new life. On the plus side, I take about 1,000 breaks a day to kiss my dog. On the down side, it’s a little hard to keep up with the ever-changing, ever-evolving requirements and tools that are coming our way.

Monday: “Here is an amazing new platform that will help you serve your students online! Hooray! Our company is your hero!”

Tuesday: “Due to the fact that you are actually using this amazing new platform, it is now being overloaded and doesn’t work. Therefore, please wait patiently while we try to figure it out, or upgrade to the paid version of our service which your district hasn’t given you money to purchase.”

Wednesday: “Teachers, your students miss you! They need to see your face and know you care about them! Set up online video conferences with your classes to enrich, engage, and promote social emotional learning with your students!” (Insert lots of hearts and thumbs up emojis here.)

Thursday: “Attention Teachers: Do not, we repeat DO NOT hold video conferences with your students unless you are following the 74 guidelines listed below.”

    1. Always wear pants.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

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Me waiting for students to participate in my online office hours…

Not to mention the fact that many teachers are also parents. The only dependents I have to keep track of are my husband, my dog, my two cats, and my Roomba (who, I’ll admit, has been acting out lately), but many of my coworkers have young children at home, which means they are trying to work and parent at the same time. I can only imagine how impossible that is. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it. I’ve seen toddlers interrupt video conferences like adorable little tornados.

Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. Elephant, thy name is coronavirus. We all go about our days holding our heads high, trying to pretend that everything is fine while our world gets smaller and smaller and the elephant gets larger and larger. The truth is, we’re scared of the long-term effects of this pandemic. We’re worried about the health of our friends and loved ones. And we—the teachers, the educators, the adults that kids are told to turn to in times of crisis—don’t have any more answers than anyone else.

I think that might be the hardest part of all this. The helplessness. Most of us feel like we’re falling short in so many ways right now.

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Me pretending everything is fine and that I’m not freaking out and going stir crazy…

So let’s all take a deep breath and admit that we don’t have it all figured out yet.

Let’s take another deep breath and allow that the people around us aren’t perfect either.

Let’s take a third deep breath and remember that we’re in this together.

(Oh, whoops. I hope you were exhaling after each of those breaths. Otherwise you’re probably a bit red in the face by this point. Sorry if that was unclear. I’m not a yoga teacher and should obviously leave this stuff to the professionals. Just breathe. In, out. You get it.)

The thing is, we all need a little breathing room right now. So let’s give each other some space, not just physically, but emotionally too. Let’s allow some failure and understand that everything comes with a learning curve. Even learning.

And if the homeschooling just doesn’t work because you have no time or the internet is down or your student is being a bit of a pill today (trust me, he never acts that way at school), DON’T STRESS. Even though I’m a teacher who’s currently in the process of creating online learning opportunities for my students, I still believe this message I posted on Twitter last week.

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To sum up:
* Always wear pants during video conferences.
* Allow yourself not to be perfect.
* Allow others not to be perfect.
* Make space for the elephant in the room.
* Worry less about your kids’ academics and more about their health.
* Remember that we’re all in this together.

So long for now. Stay home, stay safe, stay sane, and send me a message if you’re bored or want to say hello or have a question that I can’t answer.

Posted in Teaching

On Fire: A Completely True and Not at All Sarcastic* Look at Differentiation in a Middle School Classroom

* ok, maybe a little sarcastic

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Imagine trying to light ten different fires while simultaneously trying to put out seven. That’s what differentiation in a classroom of thirty students feels like.

I once taught a dynamic, interactive, differentiated lesson that included modeling, group work, individual accommodations, and a reflective recap of the learning objective in front of an intern, an observer, and my inclusion teacher, and it all went near-perfectly. (Once. I said this happened ONCE. It was like seeing a unicorn standing on the back of the Loch Ness Monster.) Afterward, my inclusion teacher told me, “Wow! You were on fire!” I said, “Thanks, yeah, that’s pretty much what it felt like.” Then I collapsed into a plastic chair for a full 30 seconds before setting up to do it all again for the next period, during which neither Nessy nor the unicorn made an appearance.

Accounting for every student’s distinctive learning style, individual accommodations, unique personality, and level of stress makes direct teaching difficult and giving inspirational speeches almost impossible. It seems like I’m always pressuring my students too much or not enough. I can never find the proper balance. I don’t think it’s my fault, though. Mixed-level classes and large class sizes and the amount of variation in accommodations make it tough for one person to address an entire group the same way.

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Consider this: What if Abraham Lincoln had been required to accommodate the Gettysburg Address? What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had wanted to inspire half his audience to action while also thanking the other half for all the work they’d already done?

Abraham Lincoln:
“Four score and seven years ago (that’s 87 years) our fathers brought forth on this continent (North America), a new nation, conceived in liberty (that means formed in freedom), and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (I’ll pause here for a moment while you think about that. Danny, here’s a paper copy of the speech. Yes, Betty, you may go to the restroom.)”

Martin Luther King, Jr:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. (Sally and Albert, you’ve done an excellent job exalting valleys so far this year, and Robert, you’re making good progress on straightening those crooked places. You should feel proud of yourselves.) Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. (Mississippi, I know you’ve been struggling with the whole freedom thing. You just keep applying yourself, okay?) Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado…”

I’m not critiquing the practice of differentiation. It is absolutely the right way to teach and the best way to help students progress. We have come so far from the days where every lesson was a teacher-centered lecture that left bright, creative, differently-engaged students behind. My point is only that individualized instruction is difficult, especially in large classes. You need a lot of matches and a lot of damp towels to concurrently ignite and douse the coals of each individual student’s motivation to the appropriate level, and if you do it right, there will likely be smoke coming out of your ears by the end of the day.

I think that metaphor got away from me. Sorry. To clarify, don’t bring matches to school.

 

 

 

Posted in Teaching

Mid-Year Crisis

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Thanks, Pixabay, for illustrating my internal stress and providing all images for this post.

Teachers, listen to me. No, seriously, pick your head up off that desk or out of that bucket of wine, and LISTEN. I get it. I really, really do.

It’s the end of February, which means…

  • You have six weeks until the STAAR test and eight weeks of lessons that you need to teach before the STAAR test.
  • Your TELPAS samples, NJHS applications, progress reports, and 504 data are all due at the exact same minute, but all of your conference periods are taken up with team meetings, parent meetings, and intervention meetings, so you barely have enough time to eat twelve Girl Scout Cookies (I’m pretty that’s the recommended dosage) much less get your paperwork done.
  • A quarter of your students have been absent for four days in a row (but not the same four days in a row because that would be too convenient), and you can’t figure out which ones have the flu and which ones are on a mid-month non-spring-break family ski trip, so you’re just Cloroxing everything and giving everyone the stink eye when they return to cover all your bases.
  • You have 47 more book projects to grade, which you should have handed back last week, and two days from now you’ll have 139 journals to grade, which are a lot more difficult to carry on field trips. (Not actual field trips. You know when you take papers back and forth from school to home and back again without ever actually grading them? I call those field trips.)
  • Oh yeah, and it’s about time for someone to bring up the fact that no one’s planned the field trip yet and for someone else to point at you say, “So-and-so is good at organizing things. Remember when she planned that potluck?” and then you will have to close your eyes and take three deep breaths before pointing out that asking ten people to all bring food on a certain day is not the same thing as organizing transportation, activities, insurance, and volunteers for 450 kids, but by the time you open your eyes to say that, everyone will already be voting for you to do it.
  • You are being observed by four different people from four different colleges, universities, internships, and countries, all of whom you are supposed to mentor into being a teacher, but what you really want to do is yell, “Run, run, run! Go get your engineering degree!” Meanwhile, all you can think about is whether or not you should use a personal day to catch up on grading. (Anyone else ever done that? *raises hand*)

I. GET. IT.

To prove that I get it, here’s the truth. That note about the 47 projects left to grade with 139 journals on the way? Those are my current stats. So what did I do tonight? I… ate cheese and Girl Scout Cookies for dinner, watched some old Star Trek episodes, googled lavish vacations to faraway places and then less lavish vacations to not-so-faraway places, then took a bubble bath where I tried to use speech-to-text on my phone for the first time in order to draft this blog post. But instead of actually drafting this blog post, I ended up trying out jokes for the stand-up comedy routine that I like to pretend would make it big if I ever got drunk and wandered in front of a microphone like on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Then, when I read what I recorded, I realized there wasn’t a single period in the whole thing because I didn’t know you had to say the punctuation, which is ironic because all week I’ve been making my students read their commas out loud during warm-ups to prove they’re in the right place. So, now I’m actually typing my blog post, still quite effectively avoiding all my grading.

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“That woman is CRAZZZZZZZY!”

THAT, my friends, is classic end-of-February behavior.

But have no fear. We’ve gotten through this before, and we’ll get through it again.

Those papers will get graded, or they won’t.

That field trip will get planned, or it won’t.

Those TELPAS samples will be turned in, or… well, in the fine print, I think it says you could lose your license or something, but IT’S FINE because those TELPAS samples WILL GET TURNED IN. (Do it tomorrow. During lunch.)

The point is YOU CAN DO THIS. WE can do this. Spring break (the real one) is just around the corner, and vacation or no vacation, you’re finally going to carve out some time for yourself.

Everything will be okay.

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[Insert calming music here.]
Now, take that half-empty box of Girl Scout Cookies to bed with you, and get some sleep. You’ve got kids to teach and papers to grade tomorrow. Maybe.