Learning to Swim With Distance Learning

I’ve been a classroom teacher for 14 years and a distance learning teacher for 5 weeks.  Like almost everyone in the education field, I found myself tossed into distance learning unexpectedly, like a kid being tossed into the swimming pool and being told to swim.  I floundered and splashed, choking on the water, and at times I was certain that I was going to drown.  But, after the panic of that first plunge was over, I remembered that at least I knew how to tread water, and began to move my arms and legs just enough to keep myself afloat.

I was content with just keeping my head above the water and I was resistant to taking any strokes.  The participation of my students in the first couple of weeks was a fraction of those I had in my classes.  My classroom held anywhere from 25-35 students and 95% of them participated in my lessons.  In this new distance learning world, I had only 10% participation, and in some classes less than that.  I railed against learning to swim.  Why should I learn more about distance learning and put all this effort into my lessons when there was such a low participation rate?  The students aren’t even receiving a grade on their work. The time involved didn’t seem as though it was worth the effort on my part.

I grieved the loss of my physical classroom and missed my students terribly, never realizing that the daily interaction with my students was one of the components of my job that made it worth while to go to work.  I was resistant to this pedagogical change and did bare minimum in my virtual classroom on Google, mourning the loss of face-to-face instruction.  I knew many strategies on how to manage a physical classroom of 30 students but I knew next to nothing about managing a Google Classroom.  I clung to what I knew.

During a department meeting, using Zoom, something I never heard of two months ago, one of my fellow teachers said something that resonated with me.  “This is an exciting time, I’m not frustrated.  This is a time I can try new things out, the kids aren’t being graded on it.”  It was a breath of optimistic fresh air.  He was right, the kids aren’t being graded on anything, now is the perfect time to try out new things and maybe learn something myself.  We won’t be using this distance learning model forever, and even if we continue to use some aspect of it, now’s the best time to learn about it.

I took my own advice that I give to my students: learn by doing.  Another colleague shared that Google has an online learning platform for teachers to learn how to use their apps to teach.  I found it and learned more about what Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Forms, and Google Slides can do.  I saw our teacher’s union recommended various webinars that the state department of education was putting on.  I found one about how to record video of yourself giving a lesson and watched it.  An Amazon search produced a book “Teaching Math with Google Apps: 50 G Suite Activities,” I read it and learned about Google Drawings, how to insert math equations into slides and forms, and how to record my voice using a free website.  I even learned about Bitmoji and created an avatar of myself to insert in emails to my students.

I am finally taking strokes in the pool and not just treading water.  They aren’t powerful strokes, but I have an idea of where I’m going.  I’m trying some of the various activities I read about in “Teaching Math with Google Apps” and I’m learning what works well and what doesn’t.  I’m recording myself teach using Zoom and ordered an XP-Pen to make it easier to write digitally.  I’m holding virtual office hours, rigging my own document camera using my cellphone and a stack of books as a stand with one heavy book on top of the cellphone to keep it in place as it looks down on the pad of paper.  My teacher’s heart is happy when some of my students pop in and I get to see them and help them with math.

Untimely Classroom Clean Out

I parked my car in the dirt just outside my classroom door.  It’s one of the perks that happen when the students aren’t on campus and us teachers are either setting up our classrooms in anticipation of the school year or tearing them down at the end.  I was here to tear down my classroom, but it wasn’t the end of the school year.  Distance learning was still happening and is going to continue for the next three weeks.  My school district decreed that teachers are to clean out their classrooms for the summer and turn in their keys as we weren’t in the classrooms anyway.

I stepped out of the car, approached the door, and slid the key in the lock.  Turning the key, the door creaked open.  The light from the door enabled me to see the silent desks, all facing the front, the whiteboard with March 13, 2020 written on the top right for the students to know what date to write on their paper.  I flipped the light switch and saw the empty classroom, waiting for students, and wondering where everyone went to.

I set down my purse and extra bags I brought for the occasion and looked around the room, planning my attach.  My district directed that I was to take down everything from the walls and store personal items in my classroom cabinets.  There should be nothing left out so that the cleaners can disinfect the walls, table tops, basically every surface from the Corona Virus.

I started with the area around my desk.  Family photos came down, announcements about the SBAC testing and club meeting schedules surrendered to my stapler remover.  I thought about our testing coordinator and how he practically begged me to help him find another math teacher to proctor the SBAC test.  I volunteered.  I guess I won’t have to do it after all.  I remembered the Christian Club meetings that the students had in my classroom on Fridays at lunch.  I wondered how they were doing.

I picked up my binder that kept my attendance records and seating charts to tuck it into my desk drawer.  I flipped it open and saw the faces and names of my students on the seating charts, the records of attendance kept faithfully up until March 13.  My heart squeezed when I saw those faces and names.  These are the students that make the classroom into a class and the classroom was an empty shell without them.  This classroom has never been empty in May.

I moved on the the next wall and took down my “Golden Hexagon Award” posters that held the names of students who earned recognition for doing well or trying hard in class.  I took down 8 years worth of Golden Hexagon Award posters and wondered if I should give out the Golden Hexagon Awards this year.  I blinked my eyes a few times, swallowed the lump in my throat, and decided that I would.  I’d mail them out myself if I had to.

I quickly moved on to finish my work.  This was proving to be harder than I thought it would be.  Wedging the forks of a stapler remover under the staples that held up the character of my classroom, I systematically went around the room, taking down the rest of the posters.  The class calendars came down, showing an assignment for each day, ending with March 13.  The wall of newspaper clippings showcasing our school’s sports and activities was ripped quickly down, like taking off a band-aid.  There were no clippings about baseball or boys tennis.

My classroom was completely devoid of what makes it a classroom: posters, pictures, calendars, and students.  I surveyed the empty room, feeling like an ex-girlfriend looking at a box of memorabilia from her previous relationship.  There were some good times here that unexpectedly ended when the government shut down the schools. “Well, classroom, I hope that I’m back in here in August” I murmured.  Swallowing my heart again, I closed the classroom door behind me,  removing the final component of what makes a room a classroom: a teacher.