Teaching in the Time of Covid

Suddenly, we were dismissed a week early for what I have been calling “Faux Spring Break.” Two weeks to get ready for the last push: the 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year. But faster than a finger snap, we learned we weren’t coming back at all. And now, many of us are stuck.

We’ve gotten past the inundation of resources. We have figured out what technology we are comfortable with and what apps or platforms we’re going to try. We’ve connected with our students (most of them) and we’ve tried all this out.

And, probably, we’ve learned a bit along the way about what works and what doesn’t.

And we’re exhausted. For sure we’ve discovered that it’s hard to teach, parent, and home school all at the same time and, simultaneously, distance ourselves from our friends.

Could it be that we’re asking too much of ourselves and too much of our students? Educators are serious people. We feel responsible for our students’ well-being and for their learning. How they are doing worries us. Our lessons worry us. Our content is important and before next year our students will need to have learned it. But teaching from the living room gets harder and harder to do.

Here are some ideas about how to downsize the load without lowering your standards, about forgiving yourself for the guilt you are feeling because you can’t be Superperson every single minute, about prioritizing your own children (if you have them).

I offer three simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum,  too few days, and too little face-to-face–and then two more steps that are designed to ease the guilt.

1. Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2. Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of those two columns.

● Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote? Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.” Capote isn’t an imperative.

But research skills? Those are imperative for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them. So don’t cut out the research project. Look instead for ways to streamline it.

But if content is king, the trick will be to cut it down to size. That is, communicate the big concepts, the essential vocabulary, the absolute must-reads. Put your time and effort into these imperatives.

● Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level. These are imperatives. What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework together on screen so you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other? You can create breakout groups in Canvas Conversations and in Google Meet.
Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much yourself?

● Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

Easy ones to rethink are extra readings and extra assignments. Do you have to require that? Eliminating enrichment material can save a lot of time and eliminate a lot of stress.

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content? For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying. What about conducting a Socratic Seminar online? Or a Harkness discussion? Or even have the kids work collaboratively using Google Docs? Something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

An independent research activity can be a huge time suck. What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team? They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well. By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. (Which they need about now anyway.)

● How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory. I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest. Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods. As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period. The students worked collaboratively, and in the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history. In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting. As I said, a twofer.

By the way, this is a perfect opportunity to create a Padlet for those presentations.

3. Create a game plan and then stick to it. Whether you go through my suggested process or arrive at your decisions about what to teach in a different way—say, you’ve found a ready-made online program or you’ve already figured all this out—the worst thing you can do for your peace of mind is second guess yourself. You’ve got this! You know your stuff, you know your kids, you know what they can do and have to do. Don’t be distracted from your plan by comparing yourself to other teachers or feeling inadequate when you read online about some miracle worker somewhere. You’re a miracle worker, too. Look what all you’ve achieved already: Just. Like. That.

4. Don’t feel guilty about what you’re leaving out. Yes, inevitably there will be gaps. But every kid in America is going to have some gaps this year. Your students won’t be the only ones. And guess what: Next year, Amazing Teachers, just like you, will find those holes and fill them in. Because that’s what we do. We are teachers. We fill holes and then pave the road to success. Every single day, for every single kid.

5. Finally, don’t forget your own kids. When this is all over, they are going to remember how they felt during this time. If you’re so stressed you can’t help them and can’t enjoy them, they won’t return to school in the fall remembering the good things about this period of confinement. And there are good things: Families are spending time together: they’re enjoying books, movies, games, puzzles, and even yard work together. You’re getting a look at your own child’s learning process and they’re seeing you in the role you play every weekday most of the time. They’re watching you cope. You’re modeling.

Good times. Shared experiences. Families growing closer. Positive values. Good things can and are coming out of this.

You’ve got this, Amazing Teachers!
#Red4Ed

4 thoughts on “Teaching in the Time of Covid

  1. Thank you so much, Sarah! Reading this post really eased my mind because I did have misgivings about leaving out some topics that couldn’t be covered anymore, with the term suddenly cut short. And you write beautifully. And it’s serendipitous that like you I chose “Ithaca” not only to cap my class, but as a sort of send off for my students!

    Like

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