The first sign that we’d entered a new world came from the “What’s Your Mood?” survey that I sent to my classes at a north Brooklyn high school.
A student who routinely arrives late and spends his class time texting wrote, “School is an everyday thing to me so it’s a bit of an unusual feeling.” Another student with a tendency to skip class disclosed, “I am feeling flustered and extremely bored.”
It was Wednesday, Day 3 of the shutdown. Students who “hate” school are, in this crisis, showing their true stripes: when it’s not there, they miss it.
They are also eager to work. An assignment I sent, due on Friday, March 20, had already begun to populate my Google Classroom the night before. And it’s not just the high flyers. An early responder is currently failing all of his classes. He watched the EdPuzzle video and filled out the accompanying quiz, earning 10/10. I take his effort as a sign of a shift that has already taken place but that we teachers are only now registering: Students are more comfortable doing work online.
But it’s not a cold, impersonal world they are after. They still want the nurturing approval that’s best signified by a grade and a live teacher response. A typical email in my inbox goes like this: “I completed this form yesterday but it says missing but I did it already and it won’t let me redo it and I don’t want to get a lower grade when I did it on time so can you check and get back to me.”
Moving to remote instruction has made clear that students still need the proverbial pat on the back, the figurative check mark, and the corresponding grade in Pupil Path that they obsessively check.
Our job for the next few weeks — or months — will be to assign them engaging remote work and provide them a sense of routine. Just because they don’t have to huff up the five flights of stairs, and just because they can’t put their backpacks in the aisle to see if this time I’ll trip, doesn’t mean that they’re outside my purview. The mood survey taught me that that’s what they crave. In response to the question “What’s your least favorite thing about being at home?”, I got:
Staying at home
Not seeing my friends.
I can’t go outside as much
Repeat the same thing every day
my least favorite thing to do is watching the news
Sleeping too much
Ensuring the remote routine is effective has meant a quick ramp-up in virtual learning for teachers. The New York State Education Department recommended that schools continue the same class schedule, shorten classes to 25 minutes and shift to online instruction. Students will log in at the appointed time, attendance will be taken and the remote lesson will commence.
In our three days in school last week, teachers had intensive professional-development sessions about online platforms such as Google Hangouts, Meet and Zoom. In surgical masks and failing woefully to keep the prescribed six feet from one another, we tried to retool remote technology that was designed for the corporate world of adults for a younger and more mischievous crowd. We spent hours anticipating their tricks.
The settings that allowed conference members to share screens and annotate the host’s screen had to be disabled. Recording the host and chatting to one another behind the host’s back went, too.
Bonus points to the teacher who has figured out how to mute all and create a waiting room that blocks kids from jumping from class to class. But students retained the right to change their backgrounds. What’s the harm if they want to report to class from the Death Star?
If teachers spent the weekend worrying about the transition, Monday rolled around soon enough. Students logged on at the appointed time for class. We took attendance, and I told them a little about what to expect every day.
They would receive assignments through Google Classroom. These could include videos or PDFs, followed by a quiz to check for understanding. I had a plan to go over the nonverbal feedback buttons for most of our 25 minutes online together, but true to our age gap and chasm in digital capabilities, they were waving at me, clapping, raising their hands and privately messaging me before I could say “Google.”
Then we did what I felt they really needed to do: We took turns saying one nice thing to the whole class. Most hemmed and hawed; some said things that were more comic than appropriate. Outside it was raining, with a touch of snow. One student joked that we might get a snow day. Then another yelled what I took as the surest sign that they craved the comfort of school: “Hey, Miss, can you lend me a pen?!”
It wasn’t a perfect class, but we all hope that the sense of routine will at least brace students in this uncertain time.
This story about online learning amidst the coronavirus crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Luba Ostashevsky, a contributing writer to The Hechinger Report, teaches science at a high school in north Brooklyn.