Online learning forces teachers to adjust teaching goals

September 21, 2020 — by Angelina Chen
Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 11

Teachers overcome difficulties through curriculum revisions and changing how assessments are administered. 

As Precalculus Honors teacher Kristen Hamilton pops in and out of 12 breakout rooms, five new messages from students show up on her screen, alerting her about issues with their technology, online assignments and math that their group needs help with.

With the switch to online learning last March, teachers like Hamilton have learned to create new activities, changed how tests are done and shifted parts of their curriculum. 

In addition to the complications of starting the school year online, Hamilton is teaching Precalculus Honors for the first time. Her plan for the new class is a flipped classroom model to prepare her students for AP Calculus BC. 

In her version of this model,  students watch lectures outside of class, work on only a few problems in class and then take a short exit quiz at the end of class.

Among the challenges, Hamilton believes the greatest is the change to testing. Instead of having students take a large assessment covering multiple sections, she now gives them mini quizzes with five questions every class, in the hope that multiple choice questions will be easier to answer in an online format. Due to this change, grades will be more heavily weighted on homework than on tests and quizzes than they used to be.

Hamilton also began using breakout rooms, a feature in Zoom that many other teachers are beginning to take advantage of.

“I have them do problems sometimes in groups of four or in groups of two or three,” said Hamilton. “I’m just trying to get them to interact with each other in a smaller setting with a focus on doing some math problems and helping each other out.”

She has students record answers in a Google slide deck as a group, then she goes over the slides with the class after the breakout rooms close. 

Hamilton’s goal for the semester is to learn students’ names so looking at faces in mini screens can feel more personal and more like a regular in-person classroom setting. She said her students’ patience for complications such as technical errors makes working in such a difficult time worth it.

“My students are really nice and polite and they’ll let me know if I'm on mute or if I mess something up,” Hamilton said.

For English teachers, online learning has meant more work, especially due to changes with the Fall writing assessment that usually occurs every year. English 11 Honors and English 11 MAP teacher Natasha Ritchie has put in the work to plan for the new school year.

“We can't do the fall writing assessment the same way, so we made the diagnostic essay instead,” said Ritchie “That took all new lessons, all new planning, all new prompts and all new debriefs so it’s a lot to adapt and change for remote learning.”

Ritchie said her three main goals for the semester and general school year are to build community between teachers and students, something that is particularly hard during online learning, to make students stronger as critical thinkers and writers and to help students feel that their writing is on an upward trajectory.

To achieve these goals, Ritchie, along with other English teachers, have decided to “backwards plan” the semester to make sure students learn the same required skills from fewer texts and to create a more “manageable and sane schedule” for students and teachers alike. 

“We started with the end of the semester and said, ‘OK, how many days do we need to do ‘Beloved,’ and how many days do we have left over?’” Ritchie said about the planning process.

Because online learning means losing one class period every two weeks, units needed to be shortened. For the collaborative English 11 MAP class, it means adjusting the projects that students participate in. 

Shorter class times also further the disconnection felt through a computer. In order to combat the less personal feel of online learning, Ritchie has assigned students to work on synthesis writing activities where students can work together collaboratively.

“It's cool to see how students approach the writing because maybe one student is strong in something the other students in their group or their partner isn't as strong in, so it's a good way to get a lot of bang for their buck,”Ritchie said. “Teachers teach the students and then students can teach each other.”

In terms of testing, instead of the typical grammar quizzes, students will be incorporating the grammar they have learned into their writing. For testing, they’re relying on short-answer questions instead of multiple-choice ones.

As teachers refine a new normal in the new format, the biggest lessons of all may lie in tolerance and understanding.

“It's trial and error,” Hamilton said. “I’m just giving them grace, and they’re giving me grace. It's day by day, you mess something up and you fix it.”