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My struggles with social distancing and remote teaching have led to silence, at least on my blog. I have found it really difficult to think of anything to share that could be helpful to other teachers at this time. Even after six weeks, I have nothing. I am at a loss. Everything I know about teaching is nullified. Every strategy I would normally use has gone out the window, with the closing of my front door and opening of my laptop. None of it supports the way I develop and deliver lessons, support and engage students, organize my data, my day or my teaching space.
My thinking is only now shifting, after a month and a half of remote teaching. As I begin to get over the shock, grief and loss of human interaction and the comfort of a daily routine. Only now, can I think clearly and creatively about how to approach this new situation and uncover the possibilities.
Part of the reason it has been a hard adjustment to social distancing and remote teaching are the many – sometimes contradictory – guidelines imposed on my teaching by different organizations: the ministry of education, my union, my school board, my subject council, my school, my department and my own expectations.
Like many organizations, my teachers’ union is trying to stay afloat in a situation that is continuously changing. Usually, the union’s position on emailing is don’t, not ever. Given the uncertainty of eLearning and the need to contact students and their parents, the union’s policy changed. Teachers are now able to email parents and students through their school account, but only to parent accounts or the student’s school account.
The union instructed teachers that they were NOT to call home using their home phone unless it was a last resort, and the teacher hid their number using *67 or #31# – what constitutes the last resort was not outlined.
The union has also advised teachers to avoid using video conferencing to teach, but if they choose to use video conferencing they were told to record the session.
Although these measures are in place to protect teachers (and with good reason) they do have an impact on how I teach.
The Ministry of Education:
We expected to be out of school for only a few weeks. The ministry of education has repeatedly extended the return to date, for the continued safety of all involved.
After the first two weeks, the ministry indicated that eLearning would include two phases. The first phase lasted two weeks and included ministry provided content. Phase two involves having students access eLearning lessons and assessments developed by the teacher and is ongoing.
The ministry of education has limited the amount of time students can work on each high school course to 3 hours. This is a reduction from 6 hours and 20 min (76 min a day) of class time and 2 hours and 40 min (20 min a day) of homework time. This time limit has been more difficult for some courses which have less flexibility in content and delivery than others.
It was announced early on that student marks would remain the same as they were before social isolation began. This has led to a decline in student engagement. As teachers, we know that there are two kinds of learners, those who are intrinsically and those who are extrinsically motivated. As a student, if you were doing well before and are extrinsically motivated, there is no incentive (without the risk of a lower mark) to continue to attend.
The School Board:
The board attempted to mitigate the problems caused by the ministry of education’s decision that marks could not be lowered, by announcing that if a student:
- engaged in online learning, their mark would remain the same;
- engaged in online learning and excelled, their mark could improve; or
- did not engage at all, their mark could go down.
They retracted the last policy a few weeks later. The threat of lowering a student’s mark due to non-engagement opened up equity issues (i.e., accessibility to tech and wifi).
The continuing changes in assessment policy make it difficult to maintain consistency in my own policies and it doesn’t ensure consistency between teachers.
The English Subject Council:
The English subject council (ensures constancy between departments) has decided that to attain the credit for an English course during the pandemic, all students must read either a novel or a play. But Grade 9 and 10 courses start the year with a short story unit, to allow for literary terms and persuasive paragraph writing review, so none of these courses had studied a novel by the time we moved online and many students were not given novels before social distancing began. Luckily the subject council has been working diligently to provide teachers with online resources and access to eBooks to facilitate the teaching of a longer text. Given the time constraints however it may be difficult to meet these demands.
The school has kept the student body and their parents informed via phone calls and emails. They have informed students of ministry updates, how to access their email, how to rest their passwords and how to check the platforms their teachers are using (e.g., Google Classroom and Brightspace).
The school has been encouraging teachers to take it easy and consider equity issues in the development and implementation of their teaching and assessments. They also asked teachers to try to contact non-engaged students and encourage them to access courses online.
By the end of April, the school ensured that all students would have access to a device and wifi, by which time we had been in phase two and creating new online material for four weeks.
At this point teachers are being asked to inform the school if students have yet to engage.
Students have been starting to attend online courses at varying times over the last six weeks. Making it difficult for a teacher to support students to catch up on missed assignments.
Social distancing and eLearning have also led to a change in the readily accessible support systems that students would normally receive and the resources teachers would often leverage to support at risk students: the social worker, special education teacher, student success teacher, guidance councilor and chaplain.
The English Department:
The English department at my school normally meets regularly to ensure consistency between teachers. We come to agreements for each course: units, subject matter, length, and assessments. Going into eLearning we were told that students would need to complete the large writing assignment required for each course (a persuasive paragraph or an essay, depending on the course). Given the time constraints however this too may be difficult to accomplish.
Moving online to teach is like being a first year teacher without any resources, experience, or training. Teachers have had to decide:
- What to teach:
- evaluate the curriculum and content they usually teach and narrow it down to the bare necessities
- do this with few or no resources
- How to teach:
- re-access all lessons they usually use
- alter them into something that can be done independently and online
- use technologies they may never have used before
- How long it will take:
- gage how long an activity will take, without being able to watch students complete it
- adjust for different students, not all students work at the same pace, 3 hours of work will differ depending on the student
- adjust to an end date that keeps changing
- How to support at-risk students:
- no face to face interactions makes it harder to:
- realize a student is struggling or disengaging
- help a student who is struggling with the material
- develop and maintain relationships with disengaged students
- no face to face interactions makes it harder to:
- How to manage tasks:
- get in contact with students who have yet to engage in the online class
- support students who are struggling with the material or the technology
- create worthwhile lessons and assignments, without knowing the situations in which they will be used: home environment, the device being used (a video may work on a laptop but not a phone or a tablet), quality of wifi
- give meaningful feedback and access assignments – use this time to make a connection and let the student know you are here to support and champion them
As we move into week five of phase two, things are getting better. I have developed an online course that I am ok with and which is set up to meet the expectations of the subject council and the department. Everyone should be engaged and caught up soon with my support, the distribution of tech and the tracking down of missing students by the school. We are set up to survive, and possibly thrive, for as long as this remote learning adventure continues.