What do you do when you have no time? I blinked and the world was a different place. How could this all happen within a week? COVID-19 has been running rampant across the world: a global pandemic, the only topic you see when you turn on the TV, scroll through social media, or go to the supermarket. From a teacher’s standpoint, we never planned on creating virtual home instruction (VHI) lessons – in fact, we’ve never done it…or get paid to plan for it! We barely had time – we have families, responsibilities; not to mention, having to continue teaching our students as we were simultaneously planning for the unknown, without knowledge of how it would pan out. We teachers carry quite the load on our backs and that load includes the weight of much more than the subject matter we teach.
What happens when our everyday lives come to a screeching halt? Businesses shut down, government mandates and curfews are put in place, and schools are closed. When a school closes its doors, we teachers must open up our own and the show must go on – education is never over.
I’ve taken stock of my emotions and thoughts over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve taken note of some helpful hints in hopes that by sharing our experiences we can assist each other during this time of uncertainty. (And, thanks, Plymouth Rock Teachers’ Lounge for providing this platform!) Sure, this grim situation could have prevented me from being successful; however, when you are lucky enough to have a strong district that supports its employees and you can muster up some valuable self-determination, it makes everything a lot easier. So, here it goes. I hope this will help you over the coming weeks! Here are my “8 Teacher’s Tips for Getting Your VHI off the Ground.”
- How I Prepared for the Unknown
My district inundated us with emails, staff meetings, and online resources a week before the madness commenced. Sure, everyone, including myself, knew the inevitable was coming, but we felt overwhelmed. We had questions that left us nauseated as we attempted to imagine this becoming our reality. “How can we carry out our lessons?” “How can we ensure students are on task and completing daily work?” “How do we know students will have childcare or if they’re eating lunch?” I decided the best way to prepare was through self-exploration, communication with my colleagues, and properly preparing my students. I cannot stress enough how much the media affects us all; but it really takes a dramatic toll on the children. I had students coming to class that were very frightened because they only heard “the bad stuff.” This entire situation is awful, yes, however, we must calmly and effectively teach our students the proper facts and preventative measures. I commend the online Brainpop series for having this accurate, kid-friendly explanation of the coronavirus that made my students understand this situation at a grade appropriate level. In addition, I sent out mass emails to parents once I devised my “master plan” of how I was going to pilot setting up each day “in the event we were to go virtual.” Although this was a ton of work, it was well worth every second of preparation.
- Making Google Classroom Your New Best Friend
To some, this might seem super basic and expected – which means you’re just a Google expert! I enjoy using Google Classroom every day to manage my lessons, assignments/assessments, and daily classroom procedures. Maybe you’ve never used this platform and wish to start during this time (which is a perfect idea). Google Classroom is a wonderful place to maintain communication and keep all announcements, assignments, and resources in a designated area where nothing can get “lost” and your dog can’t eat it!
- Need to start fresh? Look no further! This video is the perfect start.
- Familiar with Google Classroom, but looking to expand your knowledge? Check out this video.
- Housekeeping Organization Tips
While I have spent my time planning, planning, and, you guessed it–more planning, it’s important not to forget to keep your thoughts organized. Remember, you are not going to be physically in front of your students for an unknown amount of time. The last thing we need to do is confuse them more than they already may be. Adapting to a new pace and schedule is tough, so be sure to use a similar structure each day. For example, I’ve been making every day’s lesson look like Image A below and I’ve been labeling each assignment: (Date): VHI (Assignment Name). Create a VHI “classwork” tab on Google Classroom where all work during this time will be kept.
Another way to keep organized is through taking daily attendance. I have successfully completed this by creating a Google Form where students answer a few questions and submit for proof of attendance, shown in Image B below.
Image A: Sample Assignment
Image B: Sample “Daily Check In”
- Get Used to Hearing Your Own Voice
Video recording…how I dreaded it. Listening to my own voice, making a mistake halfway through, uploading it for students and their parents to listen to. Let me tell you, despite my initial fears, this online tool has been my savior this past week! Each day I voice record myself on a program called Screencastify. This Google extension links to your browser and is FREE! The free version allows you to record five minutes and saves automatically to your Google Drive (yes, please!) My district was ambitious enough to reach out to the company and they gave us a promotion code for a month of unlimited use. I record about 10-15 minutes of direct instruction daily and upload it to Google Classroom alongside my daily assignment. This allows students to preface the lesson, while still hearing their teacher, preserving as much normalcy as possible. You can navigate websites, assignments, slideshows, etc. as you speak over it, just as if it was a real in-person lesson. This tool has also allowed the students who tend to rely on me for clarification to utilize their resources by listening over the recording again to answer their own questions – talk about amazing!
- Maintain Communication
Let’s be real: as a middle school teacher, I know kids love to talk! Believe it or not, your students probably love to talk to you, too (whether they admit it or not). My advice to you is, don’t walk…RUN! Go install Google Hangouts or Zoom, two excellent video conferencing tools that you need. I host daily chats and video calls during regular class time with my students to discuss our lessons, assignments, or what our dogs are doing (duh, we love our dogs!) In addition, add positive comments on their work and ensure you are posting EACH day – this is so critical. While you’re at it, keep parents in the loop, too. Whether this is by direct contact or keeping up with entering grades, (every teacher’s New Year’s resolution, am I right?) I promise you, they will notice your effort and appreciate you.
I’m also talking about you too, teaching staff! Do not exclude your colleagues and departments at this time. Lend a helping hand, share your successes and failures, and follow some of these great tips to ease the tension of the times!
- Assigning a Fair Work Load
How much is too much? How do I teach effectively online? Cut assignments down to minimize confusion and make room for 20-25 minutes of student learning activities. Ask questions appropriate for the grade level you teach. Go ahead, challenge your students, too! Chat on Google Hangouts about the work or pre-record yourself on Screencastify demonstrating the lesson step-by-step. Grade appropriately – remember, you are not there and we can’t expect parents to take the reins for us.
- Take Advantage of Online Resources
Here are some educational links and ideas (some need to be purchased and some are geared towards science, since that is what I teach) that you can enhance your lessons with during this time of virtual home instruction:
- Ebooks (provided by your specific district), Gizmo Simulations, Brainpop, EdPuzzle, teacher devised webquests, simulations (example: PhET), STEMscopes, Newsela, Discovery Education, NASA, NatGeo, PBSKids, Teachers Pay Teachers, and the list goes on.
- Keeping a Healthy Mindset
You could fall into the trap of negative social media, anxiety-ridden newscasts, or the dreariness of “self-quarantining.”Instead, I suggest you make yourself comfortable in your home: find a spot with ample sunlight and fresh air, grab a hot cup of tea, set your table up with your laptop, planner, and a few colorful Paper Mate “flair pens” (of course). Wake up with the sun, take an extra five minutes to make a healthy breakfast, and start your day with gratitude. This is not your classroom at all, but it is your new reality for the time being – so make it the way YOU want it! Take your vitamins, go for a walk, spend time with those you love at home and virtually, hey, even let your dog join in on your lesson – this is your time, soak it all in.
You are NOT Alone
Truthfully, I have my alarms on this week, but for some reason, I have not needed them. I’ve been awakening to a different, unfamiliar, but sweet sound. My phone – it’s pinging, nonstop, one notification after the next. It’s my students. Google classroom, Google Hangouts chats, questions, assignment submissions, but wait…it’s 7:00am, school doesn’t start until 8. That’s when I asked myself, “who is more motivated, me or them?” Shortly after, it dawned on me: we are the example. The sense of pride that has overwhelmed me has relieved so much of the fear and anxiety of these uncharted waters we’ve entered. This time of uncertainty, where the media has made everything about COVID-19 and how afraid we must be…lucky for me I can put that aside for just a second. Take your students’ anxious thoughts away and fill that void with happiness. Teachers – never forget this time; we will remember it is when we all gathered and realized as a community, we can build an empire.
Take pride in your motivation, dedication, flexibility, and ability to be a part of the metaphorical glue that holds our country together in times of despair. I hope this opens the eyes of America to how dedicated teachers are to their students. I hope this opens the eyes of anyone who thinks “teachers are merely babysitters.” I hope we can find the light in the midst of this tragedy and let it shed on those who work tirelessly to guide America’s youth, the future, to greatness. To all educators across the nation and every individual enduring this global pandemic – stay well; together, we all shall rise.
- Casey Downie