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I noticed that my students had become easily irritable and withdrawn.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.