When the school district for which I teach announced a shift to synchronous e-learning, I did a dance of joy and then felt guilty.
After the first week of e-teaching, colleagues were frustrated. A few were getting headaches after toggling for hours from one application to the next. Others said it was impossible to keep up with the workload while trying to learn all this new technology on the fly and look after their own young children. One colleague said to me, “I’ll never again complain about having to go to work.” I have sympathy, but so far, for me, at least so far, it’s all working out pretty well. I am one happy introvert.
To keep my e-instruction simple these first weeks, I’ve continued with the silent, sustained reading familiar to my students. Anticipating school closures, I had students take home a book of choice from our classroom library. At the start of each e-class, after we check in on Zoom, students read their book for 20 minutes and then write a response that they submit on Google Classroom. Many students seem to be really engaging with their books. I’m hearing voices in their writing that didn’t get expressed in the traditional classroom. One student who early in the school year said that she hates reading, now writes about finding a place in the sun and reading for well over the required 20 minutes because she gets lost in her book. I like getting to know kids this way. The quietest ones are now the loudest.
In the traditional classroom, it’s nearly impossible to conceal differentiation because students notice if I give out different levels of an article or ask a few students to do more rigorous work. Online, students can be in the same class but participate in different tasks without knowing one another’s business. And students can stay on Zoom after a mini lesson to ask questions without other students hearing their confusion.
In e-teaching, misbehaviors can be turned off. Predictably, on the first day of e-learning two lunkheads thought it would be funny to invite buddies onto our Zoom, under aliases, and then shout out profanities during the seconds it took me to find the mute button. Yes, in a traditional classroom these students wouldn’t be so emboldened. However, it is easy as the commander of Zoom, especially once you enable the “waiting room,” to simply remove a student from a class session with the touch of the screen. Tap. You’re gone. Misbehavior no longer needs to waste other students’ time.
Synchronized e-learning provides students and teachers with a schedule but a flexible one. Between classes, I can hop onto my yoga mat and do a few poses when I need to stretch. When I have a block of time on the schedule for preparation, I can go for a walk and do the prep work in the evening. And so can students. Both of my own teens have fit a run into the middle of their online school days.
My students with ADHD have been more productive. Maybe it is helping to be able to move around and separate from distracting classmates? Perhaps the privacy built into e-learning allows students to avoid negative peer pressure too. Kids with organizational challenges who I had urged prior to Coronavirus to use a planner are now writing down their assignments and keeping track of them. I asked a student why he’s now keeping the planner I had encouraged him to keep all year, and he said it doesn’t feel embarrassing anymore. One parent told me that her 17-year-old son is thriving—earning higher grades than when he was in the school building and restricted by the role he plays. At home, he can be himself, a curious intellectual.
For years sleep experts have espoused that the circadian rhythm of the teenager doesn’t match the start times of high schools. Since schools don’t have to juggle a bus schedule, many school have started their days later. The students I surveyed reported getting enough sleep for the first time since beginning high school. Furthermore, students have time to do their work. They don’t have to wait until 9:45 p.m., after a full day of school, piano lessons, driver’s education, and club volleyball practice.
E-learning is not for everyone. My students with individualized education programs are struggling more than ever despite individual Zoom sessions with teachers.
Once we’ve weathered the coronavirus storm, I hope that we will let today’s lessons enact positive culture shifts. I hope we will remember how good it feels to slow down, spend time with loved ones, and breathe cleaner air. I also hope that educators will recognize that there is great promise and possibility with e-learning. Students can have more autonomy. And so can teachers.
Kerry McKay is a public-school teacher in Darien, Connecticut.
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