Idaho Council of Teachers of  



The Messiness of Learning New Things Remotely

by Jana

Today I hold my second ever middle school Zoom learning session. It comes twenty-four hours after the sting of knowing that I will never hold class again in-person with these students.  It comes as a sweet distant friend crawls out from under the pall of two straight weeks of Covid sweat, fever and lonely labored breathing. Collectively, we sigh and hope we will make it.  And we learn to be in ways we have not been before. This is a moment. 

I hosted my first Zoom lesson a week ago. I wrote a lesson plan as though it were the first day of school and I was a novice teacher. I developed a task. I practiced Zoom tools for an hour across the table with my quarantine-mate. I thought about everything I thought I knew about teaching face-to-face that might apply. That Zoom lesson turned out to be  a thrilling reminder of the messiness of trying new things. 

At the end of that first lesson, I asked anyone who thought they’d like to learn math together over spring break to stay on. As I described three sessions, journal assignments and homework, I still had twenty-six faces on the screen. I reported to my principal and he gave me the go-ahead.  Today begins the Great Distance Math Experiment. I get to test what I think I learned from the that first meeting along with learning things I don't yet know I need to learn.  

These are really my students, but you get the idea.

Limit the numbers. For that first session, I expected only a handful of my most eager students. In place of the surety of face-to-face good mornings, school buses and the bell schedule, I invited using email, Schoology messaging and Remind texts. I included the opportunity on my grade level’s enrichment menu. And I posted the invitation directly into every communication I sent.  Instead of my hoped-for dozen, fifty-two students showed up, ready to connect. With my single tiny laptop screen, my novice Zoom skills and the goofiness of eighth grade, fifty-two was too many.  In order to learn to teach in this way, I have collected a group of just ten students who know they are part of a learning experiment that will support their whole school to connect and learn together in new ways.  

Direct transfer of classroom expectations to Zoom failed.

 Adopt new ground rules. My expectations, for the first meeting were direct translations of those I use in my classroom. This didn’t work.  Distant from the adult in charge some middle school students can be extreme goofballs. One chose to use his laptop to video tape Fortnite from his game console. I turned off his camera.  One started in on lewd gestures. I removed him from the meeting and locked the door.  Another turned off their camera, changed their name and identified themselves as ‘the hacker.’ I removed them too. The other forty-eight, on the other hand, followed expectations in roughly the way I had imagined. Only three wore hazmat head gear making them unrecognizable. I privately texted them to remove the masks. They did. And then there was the one who lounged in bed, eating Red Hot Cheetos. And then there were the two who repeated the same irrelevant chat over and over again. Busy enough with tracking the rest of meeting, I let them be. For meeting number two, my expectations look  different. 

I adapted these from Teresa Wills' YouTube session Modeling the 5 Practices Remotely.

I posted the ground rules  in advance and will return to them throughout class. Most important of all I think is “be yourself.” Virtual learning cannot mean virtual presence. I also will hold tight control of chat and mute and unmute and only open those features fully during a break and at the end of the meeting. 

Find a partner. I am newly a novice. And as I make may way into new territory I need extra eyes and ears. Lucky for me, I share students with a paraeducator who offered to join me after my initial report to colleagues about this shaky new teaching territory. Today, he will be my co-host.  Already he is helping me think about how to make things more interactive even as our view is limited to 2-inch by 3-inch moving headshots. 

Learn from others. The day after Zoom Number One, I attended a session hosted by NCTM president Robert Q. Berry. It was the opening of NCTM’s 100 days of learning. He thoughtfully focused on the  teacher’s role in facilitating social and cognitive presence on-line. His talk inspired me to strive for supporting students to engage in real mathematics with me and with each other even as we learn to do so in dramatically new ways. He also introduced me to the work of Theresa Wills.  I have only scratched the surface of her YouTube channel, but my takeaways so  far are:

  • this is possible;
  • keep it simple and; 
  • make it interactive.

We will see what today’s Zoom meeting brings.  For now I am grateful to be able to relax into learning with 10 other souls under quarantine. Learning new ways to connect through mathematics will never be a total bust. 

Jana | April 7, 2020 at 6:39 pm | URL:

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