Friday, May 29, 2020

What We Lose When We Learn/Teach Remotely

I am a high school teacher living in unprecedented times. While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everybody’s daily lives, it has sent me into a whole new virtual reality – the world of remote learning (and teaching). Though it has its challenges, I am grateful that remote learning has allowed many educators, like myself, to continue impacting their students’ lives.

When remote learning was first proposed as a realistic possibility, I was intrigued and excited. Some of my colleagues were nervous for the change, but I must admit that, as an introvert, the prospect of teaching from my couch was appealing in some ways. But, after a few weeks, the novelty wore off, and I started to notice some changes in my students’ behaviors and attitudes.

I noticed that my students had become easily irritable and withdrawn. While I encouraged students to speak out and to answer questions, more often than not, I would end up talking to myself. When I asked my students about this change, probing them to share the most frustrating parts of remote learning for them, a theme emerged. They were frustrated with the repetitiveness of their classes. As it turned out, every teacher was starting every class with some version of, “How are you doing?” or “What have you been up to?”. These questions, while well-intentioned, became monotonous and frustrating after the students had been asked them 5 times a day, every day, for two months straight.

This small monotony was just a microcosm for their entire remote academic experience. 
Monotony on a larger scale had led to stale classes in which students struggled to engage and couldn’t enjoy themselves. Their inability to comfortably interact with each other caused them to retreat emotionally and avoid social interactions.

While we have been able to replicate the academic elements of face-to-face learning through remote classrooms, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the social elements.  In its current implementation, remote learning is solely focused on the continuation of the academic elements of school. Remote learning often seems to remove all student-to-student interaction, and severely inhibits or removes any student-to-teacher interactions, as well. Asynchronous assignments allow students to continue their growth academically but do not create opportunities to grow socially or emotionally. And, unfortunately, I don’t believe that the in-person interactions in students’ day-to-day lives which prompt social and emotional growth can be fully replicated via remote learning, even with the implementation of Zoom and other video conferencing platforms.

If you surveyed a sample of educators, regardless of their background, to determine why they became teachers, I would presume that most would say some version of “I want to contribute to students’ well-rounded development.” Regardless of our field of expertise, the element of teaching that makes it fulfilling is most often what happens beyond the academic. Most teachers use their platform as an academic teacher to encourage young people to be comfortable in their own skins, and challenge them to grow, not only as learners, but as people.

In order to continue teaching our students in a well-rounded manner during this pandemic, we must think creatively to minimize the differences between face-to-face and remote learning in terms of social and emotional development. If we do so, not only will we see happier and healthier students, I imagine we will also see improved academic success and classroom engagement!

After taking the time to understand my students’ fatigue with the monotony of virtual classes, I made a promise that I would try to ask more interesting questions to start class every day. For a time, I found success with goofy questions. One of their favorites was, “Would you rather have a pet Zebra or a pet Ostrich?”. Students that hadn’t spoken for weeks chimed in about their preferences, sparking a lively debate about which animal would be the best pet. While the interactions were not entirely the same as they would have been in-person, there were familiarities that I found encouraging.  The comradery was back, my students were joking and disagreeing, and speaking freely. I saw more smiles in that class than on any previous day of remote learning. And, while that conversation took 20 minutes out of a 50-minute class, for the remaining 30-minutes, the students readily engaged with the material!

Guest blog author Nick Manfreda is a high school math and economics teacher at Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Why We Need “Science Citizens” 
Here are excerpts from a guest essay in Scientific American that is very timely.  Written shortly before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, its message resonates strongly now, given all the misinformation and mistrust of science surrounding COVID-19.  Reprinted with the authors’ permission.  Read the entire piece here. 

A public that doesn’t understand what science is and how it works can’t form useful opinions about public policy. 
More than 11,000 scientists recently urged swifter action on climate change, but polls show that 16 percent of the U.S. public continues to deny that climate change is real, and 63 percent of Americans rarely or never discuss global warming with their peers. A rigorous Danish study recently demonstrated the overwhelming safety of vaccines while documenting recurrent threats from measles and other preventable diseases globally. Yet the “anti-vaxxer” movement remains strong. 
When misunderstanding of science and a willingness to believe scientific misinformation affects not only individual welfare, but also key government policies that affect everyone, a new systemic educational approach is needed. We need to do a better job of teaching everyone to be “science citizens.” 
Science citizens should be able to apply scientific reasoning and critical thinking to inform their personal decisions, and to navigate the frenzy of modern news cycles. They should be equipped to use and analyze scientific information to make informed choices at the ballot box and to participate effectively in government decisions about environmental policy, health care and a wide range of other issues. Science citizens should also have an innate understanding of and trust in the institution of science. We do not mean that citizens should blindly believe anything labeled as science. Rather, they should understand that science is a rational and evidence-based schema for understanding the world, and that scientific institutions hold their members to rigorous standards of care and honesty in their work.  
To educate a population of science citizens, science education must improve at all levels. Although the recent focus on STEM education demonstrates that the American education system is working toward improved science literacy, we miss the mark by targeting only students destined for careers in science and education. Science education should foster and encourage critical thinking skills in all students, starting at an early age. “Science citizen” curricula would prioritize the application of scientific thinking to “real-world” scenarios in lieu of rote memorization, and emphasize experimental design, hands-on experience with rigorous data analysis, critical thinking and an understanding of scientific ethics. 
Given past failures in science education, however, efforts should not be limited to current schoolchildren and future generations. We also need to develop and improve continuing education initiatives for non–school-aged citizens and utilize public campaigns to improve widespread science literacy. Particularly given the disproportionate impacts of climate change and other environmental degradation, efforts to create science citizens should also prioritize programming in underprivileged and highly impacted communities. We should offer science education opportunities for all citizens, regardless of circumstance. 
And science is too important to be left to scientists alone. Just as we need to reinvigorate civic education to help restore democratic governance, we need to ensure that everyone receives sufficient training in scientific reasoning and analysis to participate effectively in the increasing array of important societal decisions involving science. A population of science citizens is one that can thrive, both communally and individually, through evidence-driven and value-inclusive progress. 

Robert W. Adler is a Distinguished Professor and former dean at the University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law. He specializes in environmental law and has written extensively about the intersection of law, science and policy. 
Sierra Adler is a writer with a master's in science communication from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her work focuses on public perception of science, the use of SciArt for science communication, and scientifically informed community-based decision-making practices. 
Robert and Sierra are a dynamic father-daughter duo. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

More Free Online Edutainment Resources – The Bounty Never Stops

When the coronavirus first began claiming the world’s attention, I wondered whether the increased exposure to online learning would create new habits that outlive the pandemic. 

In multiple blog posts since then, I’ve shared edutainment resources that have been made available for free during the time of coronavirus.  The time of pandemic continues to provide valuable online resources for free use during these days of shelter-in-place and physical distancing.  Here’s a sampling of what’s come to my attention over the past few weeks:

Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative:  Coursera is offering 3800 of their courses and 400 specializations for free to all levels of government to help their unemployed residents re-train and gain meaningful employment.  Enrollment is open until 9/30/20 (government agency has to enter into agreement with Coursera, Coursera then makes courses available); learners need to complete the courses by 12/31/20.

Udacity is offering free online re-training programs for one month:  data science, programming, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, cloud computing, business..

Robot tours of museums:  The first museum to offer this is Hastings Contemporary Museum (Hastings Old Town, Sussex, England), but maybe it will catch on elsewhere.

Read books for free from multiple sources:
·      Check your local library for their e-book selection
·      Google books
·      Project Gutenberg
·      Librivox audio books

Open Culture:  1,150 free movies, including great classics and multiple genres

Vienna State Opera:  free performances of full operas, streamed one per day

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater:  past performances available to stream online

Cirque du Soleil:  60-minute videos from past performances, special content videos, videos just for kids

When you’re not indoors bingeing on all the free online content, please wear a mask and wash your hands often.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

How to Transition to Online Teaching: Ten Tips

A few months ago, Zoom was foreign to me and I rarely used Skype and FaceTime. Virtual teaching was something I’d occasionally thought about but dismissed it as too cumbersome or impersonal.  Really, I’m a technophobe. Then the pandemic hit and virtual classrooms sprung up everywhere. The only way to teach was online.
This term I’m teaching writing at the University of Utah’s Osher Lifelong Learning Program (for adults over 50). Part of my course, “Re-Imagining Your Life: A Creative Aging Writing Workshop,” stresses the importance of stepping out of our comfort zones in order to grow.  So back in March, when the program director asked if I’d be willing to learn Zoom and teach online, I jumped at the chance. I realized this was the moment to expand my technology comfort zone. The first week I muddled through as we experienced a few technological difficulties, but I encouraged the students (most of whom were also new to online learning) to re-frame this as a group adventure. I’m almost finished with the six-week course, and through trial and error, I’ve quickly learned a few things along the way to help make my online classroom run smoothly. Here are my ten tips:
1.     Lay out the ground rules upfront – Spend a few minutes in the first class session explaining how your online platform works, the mute feature, how to ask questions, taking breaks, if any, etc.  

2.     Pace the instructional material – The tendency may be to pack in a lot of information but pare down what you normally cover in an in-person class. With online learning, it’s a bit more of a strain to take in a lot information at once. Email your students to follow-up with any quotes, handouts and references mentioned during class.

3.     Speak in a conversational tone – Be aware of your pacing and make sure you speak clearly and not too quickly.  

4.     Use visuals – Use images, PowerPoint or Word docs to complement what you are saying. Because we all have different learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic), slides or documents with quotes, short passages or images help visual learners to read along. Kinesthetic learners can take notes on what they hear and see. To mix it up, Zoom has a whiteboard feature which is easy to use with a little practice.

5.     Ask for help – Enlist a TA or student to monitor the chat feature and aggregate the questions while you focus on the teaching.

6.     Practice, practice, practice — Do a few sessions with yourself or someone else to test out your mic and camera. Very often, the camera isn’t at eye level so you may need to prop up your computer or your chair to make sure that you’re gazing straight ahead.

7.     Scan the “room” – It’s much harder online than in person to get a sense if students are engaged.  Try to scan the students’ faces to see if you’re holding their interest. If need be, call on people!  This way you’ll get more active participation which, in turn, will make your class more interesting.

8.     Silence is Golden – Make sure your phones, computer calendar and event notifications are turned off (I learned this the hard way).  Also, mute the students while you’re talking to prevent background noise. You’d be surprised what gets picked up: radios, texts, cell phones, kids crying, dogs barking. You get the idea.  Use the “raise hand” feature (or have the students raise their hands) to unmute.

9.     Close your door— Unless you want your cat jumping up onto the keyboard, your dog lunging onto your lap, or your little ones barging in, make sure your door is closed.

10.  Create the right atmosphere – the background to your image on screen shouldn’t be too distracting, and neither should your clothes. For this, I’ll defer to the experts:  How to Look Your Best on a Webcam. For a master class on lighting check out: How to Look Good on Camera According to Tom Ford.  Here’s some common sense information on how to dress and how to create your web environment:  How to Look Fresh and Professional in Videoconferences and Web Meetings.
Go easy on yourself!  We’re all adapting to a new “normal” and much of your success with teaching online is remaining flexible. I’ve really enjoyed teaching virtually and am thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to nudge my students and myself out of our comfort zones. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m slated to teach my next online course starting mid-May. I can’t wait!

Guest blog author Debbie Leaman’s writing, including personal essays, has appeared in numerous local, national, and international magazines and on a variety of websites. She teaches various writing courses including “Writing Through Grief,” “Writing as a Tool to Cope with Anxiety” and “Re-Imaging Your Life: Creative Aging.”  Read more at: and

Monday, April 20, 2020

Becoming Virtually Mindful … No, Mindful Virtually

This is the last in a series of blog posts helping you add value to your time in coronavirus quarantine.  We’ve pointed you to online resources for edutainment (museums, music, films, continuing education classes), virtual travel journeys, ways to entertain kids schooling from home, and support for exercise at home.

Today, we’re going to help you keep your sanity while sheltering-in-place.

I was already on an exploration of mindfulness before the pandemic arrived, and have welcomed the strategies to calm my anxiety-prone thoughts.  Especially the skill of noticing your thoughts without judgment, but not allowing yourself to get sucked into them.  “Oh look, I’m worried about [insert symptom or person’s name] … again.  How interesting . … Let’s return to deep breathing and clear that busy mind …”

This interview with Jack Kornfield gives you an introduction to the general principles and benefits of mindfulness, especially in the context of Covid-19.  Bottom line:  (1) accept fear, anxiety and grief as normal; and (2) try to let it go.  Breathe deep, breathe some more.

There are plenty of free resources available online to introduce you to mindfulness and guide you through your own mindfulness experience.  Here are a few to try:

·      Mind Control:  Managing your mental health during Covid-19 (U of Toronto, available through Coursera)
·      The Science of Wellbeing (Happiness) (Yale’s most popular course, available through Coursera)
·      Coronavirus Sanity Guide (Ten Percent Happier)
·      UCLA Mindful (UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center)
·      Insight Timer (guided meditations)
·      Balance: Meditation (app)
·      Shine: Calm Anxiety & Stress (app)
·      Ten Percent Happier Meditation (app)
·      Headspace (app)
·      Calm (app)

The unbelievable thing is, this mindfulness stuff really works.  There are neuroscience explanations for how/why it works (it really does rewire your brain), but take my word for it and try it for yourself.

Breathe deep, breathe some more.  Go wash your hands. Don’t check your email, newsfeed or social media for a bit.  Breathe deep, breathe some more.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Stay Safe, Exercise at Home

Depending on where you live, you’ve been experiencing shelter-in-place requirements for well over a month or only a couple weeks.  Or maybe you don’t have any such requirements, but you’re voluntarily staying out of virus harm’s way.  My county just extended its stay-at-home order to May 1, and clarified that exercise outdoors is restricted to the geography near your house.  Other counties near us have issued enforceable orders that forbid anyone from out-of-county coming in; so, I can’t do any of my favorites like hiking or camping.  Gyms, parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, weight rooms, yoga studios are closed for now.

If you’re like me, you’re indoors, eating and sitting much more than you usually do.  Other than walking or running in place while going one of the virtual tours of someplace beautiful in this previous blog post, what’s a person to do about getting exercise?  Some coaches and studios are offering free online resources to help you exercise while in quarantine:

·      Corepower Yoga is offering a special collection of free online classes (yoga and meditations)
·      Peloton is offering a 90-day free trial on many of their classes (bike and other equipment optional) (running, strength, toning, cycling, yoga, meditation and outdoor workouts)
·      Barre3 (The Bar Method) is offering a 15-day free trial starting April 13 (strength conditioning, cardio, mindfulness)
·      Daily Burn is offering a 30-day free trial (thousands of workout videos, plus running and yoga)
·      Gold’s Gym app is free until May 31 (600 audio and visual courses)
·      Yoga with Kassandra (10 minutes full body stretch for beginners every morning)
·      Amazon Prime Video has oodles of exercise videos for Prime members (i.e., not totally free); just search for the kind of exercise you’re interested in (yoga, exercise and fitness, Zumba, pilates, dance fitness, etc.)
·      Nike Training Club (workouts and fitness guidance)
·      Wakeout! (exercise for busy people)

Don’t leave the kids out of the exercise fun.  A PE teacher offers free online daily workouts for kids on YouTube.

Stay safe, exercise at home.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Mom, I’m bored. Can we go back to school yet? Please?

If you are the parent of K-12 kids in this time of coronavirus sheltering-in-place, you have my sympathies and respect.  You are playing so many roles:  teacher, teacher’s assistant, gym instructor, recess supervisor, mental health counselor, mediator, and of course, parent.  Oh, right, and you may also be trying to keep up with your own work from home.

Your approach to helping your kids spend their time at home productively may range from distributing and supervising homework provided by a land-based school, home-schooling (where you choose the topics) or unschooling (where the students choose the topics). 

Below are some free online resources to help you keep the kids engaged during those many hours of the day:
·      Early learning boost emails for 3-4-year olds (literacy, math, science)
·      Khan Academy:  Ages 2-18 remote learning resources
·      Other Goose:  Ages 2-7 lesson plans (20 min. lessons, available free for three weeks)
·      Childrens books’ authors read stories aloud online
·      Read Works:  K-12 reading comprehension instruction
·      Discovery K12:  online homeschool
·      Mystery Science lessons
·      Educational webinars from TEDEd
·      Lesson plans by grade level
·      Extensive list of resources available for free K-12 home schooling (English, math, science, physical education, languages, geography, music, art/design, drama, history, information technology (IT))
·      Mom creates periodic table battleship game to teach her kids chemistry
·      Minecraft video game offers free educational content
·      Daily online PE (physical education) classes for kids

And for high school and university students, or even the parents themselves!
·      Broadway shows:  digital tool kits for integrating the theater arts into standards-based curriculum, featuring student activities, suggested lessons, historical backgrounds and more
·      Harvard University online courses:  140 Harvard classes are publicly available online; this link provides a list of the 31 most interesting free courses (computer science, public health, politics, history, poetry, science of cooking, etc.)
·      Coursera courses:  100 free online courses available through May 31, including reading material, graded homework, projects, and a certificate of completion (public health, coding, mindfulness, updating a resume, learning to play guitar, etc.)
·      10 university art classes you can take for free online
·      Babbel makes its language learning app free for students in various countries