PALS Roundtable: Digital Teaching Strategies in a Pandemic

While many of us have taught online before, we have not done so in the circumstances of a pandemic. Also, most of us have not been faced with a situation where the planning for our classes is so up in the air and where we have to switch between face to face plans and digital ones at a moments notice. Since so many of us are in new circumstances this year, we decided to check in with a few PALS writers to see how teaching strategies are being adapted to our new circumstances. Below you will find responses from three PALS writers about their current semesters.

Caitlin Kelly
School: Case Western Reserve University
Teaching Mode: Blended/Synchronous
Strategy: Match the Mode with the Task

I’ve been teaching this fall in a blended model, and because our COVID case numbers have remained low, I’ve taught more in person than remotely. Over the summer, we had a series of pedagogy workshops aimed at helping us to configure our traditional, in-person courses for this new blended or fully remote reality, and as a result, I was able to transform my course into one with a much more robust LMS presence and one that is completely paper-free. However, despite my careful planning, I still ended up determining the balance between remote and in-person instruction primarily in terms of safety. Somewhere in the back of my head, I was thinking about what mode works best for what kind of tasks but as the weeks passed and it became clear that we would make it to Thanksgiving week as planned, I increasingly privileged in-person meetings to remote ones via Zoom. That’s probably not the most pedagogically-sound way to go about it. I’m slated to teach a blended, synchronous course again in the spring, and so my goal is to be more intentional about the balance between in-person and remote instruction. Rather than give into the temptation to value in-person instruction for the sake of being physically in a classroom, next semester I want to let the learning outcomes for a given day’s lesson determine the modality of the meeting.

This focus on matching the modality with the task at hand and its learning outcomes doesn’t just come from what I know about best practices for online teaching. Instead, it comes from a much more important source: my students. My first-year seminar this semester is taking up the idea of the “college experience,” and one of the conversations we’ve had is about the shift to online learning that was happening long before COVID-19. The vast majority of students who come to Case Western are looking for a traditional, residential experience, and that is not what they are getting right now: even those students on campus find themselves in online classes for the most part. While the students are disappointed, they understand that some faculty might not be able to teach in person or that large lectures just aren’t safe. However, they’ve smartly raised questions about how optional in-person learning opportunities might be offered through small group review sessions, supplemental class meetings, and opportunities to take exams in-person. My students, in other words, were telling me to think about what would help them learn best when I determined whether to hold class in person or online. 

There are some things that are just hard to replicate online and are best done in person if you have the opportunity. For example, it can be much easier to answer students’ questions about an assignment when face-to-face. Introducing assignments can be done online, but following that up with an in-person class meeting where students can ask for clarification or get questions answered would be helpful according to my students. In contrast, workshopping papers is best done online since hand hygiene dictates that we shouldn’t be sharing papers or laptops–if you are going to be working in Google Docs anyway, you might as well do that via Zoom (and put students into corresponding breakout rooms). Close reading is another exercise best done online if you can use a tool like Hypothesis or Perusall, or even Google Docs. Last spring I had a chance to do this collaborative close reading activity both as it is modelled here and using Google Docs after we moved to remote learning (modelled here). My students raved about how much they enjoyed the online version better as they were able to include links and images in their annotations, which enriched their understanding of the text in ways the paper version of the activity did not allow. Sometimes though, it’s a toss up as to whether in-person or remote is better, as I’ve found to be the case with discussion. Discussions in groups of 3-6 haven’t been as difficult as I’d imagined they would be when masked and spread out across a large classroom, and that approach has worked as well as discussions on Zoom. So, when it comes to discussion, next spring I’ll probably opt for in-person meetings—as long as it’s safe. 

Catherine Hostetter
School/Level: Middle School
Teaching Mode: Virtual/Synchronous
Strategy: Use Breakout Rooms to Build Connections and Differentiate Instruction

In August, my new school district made the decision to remain 100% remote through the first marking period of the year. As a result, I have been teaching my sixth and seventh graders through primarily synchronous instruction by using a combination of Zoom for the live meetings and Schoology as our online learning management system to house all of our class materials. In order to better facilitate virtual instruction, our school now uses a block schedule, where we meet with our traditionally scheduled morning classes on one day and then our traditionally scheduled afternoon classes the next. Instead of having eight periods with classes that are approximately 45 minutes long each day, we now have four periods with classes that are approximately 75 minutes long. My greatest challenge has been trying to figure out the best ways to structure these longer classes in order to cover our necessary content and keep students engaged in a new and, for many of them, challenging learning environment. 

Zoom’s breakout rooms have been a game changer for me. While I have used them for group work, the vast majority of time that I include breakout rooms in a lesson is for students to have their own individualized space to complete their reading and writing assignments during class. Students are able to have this “quiet” space to work on their assignments, and they can immediately ask for help if they have any questions as they are working. Using breakout rooms in this way has helped me to better differentiate instruction for students. For example, I can read to students who might benefit from hearing a test question or the assigned text out loud. Students who finish their work quickly can call me into their breakout room so that we can discuss which enrichment activity is best suited for them. Including time in the individual breakout room also helps me to break up the class into two or three segments. Sometimes, we begin in our breakout rooms and then come together for a whole group discussion or lesson, and other times we start as a whole group before spending time in our breakout rooms.

In addition to helping facilitate differentiated instruction, the use of individualized breakout rooms has helped me to develop better connections with each of my students. During independent work, I check on each student to see if they have any questions or need to have any directions repeated. While there, I can remind students of their missing work and have transparent conversations about their grades. I also get the chance to ask students about their games, their independent reading books, and their experiences with virtual instruction. It is strange to think that I had never even heard of Zoom a year ago, and now it plays such a large role in my daily instruction. Although I am using this strategy with middle schoolers while teaching Reading classes, the implementation of breakout rooms in this way can be adapted easily to other grade levels in secondary education as well as for collegiate level courses. I look forward to learning other ways that people are using Zoom to help foster connections and differentiate instruction from the PALS community.

Brianne Jaquette 
School/Level: First year university students and MA students
Teaching Mode: Hybrid Digital and Face to Face 
Strategy: Evaluate Your Work Flow

Despite knowing that there are probably a lot of topics I could write about for this roundtable, the idea of writing a few paragraphs and organizing my thoughts about what I have been doing this semester seems hard–which might be an indication of how the semester is going in general. I teach in Norway, and the covid cases here are on the rise now but have been relatively low, so we have spent most of the semester doing a hybrid model of teaching half our classes digitally and half our classes in-person. Overall, when I think back on this semester, things have mostly gone well, so why am I feeling so burnt out? Obvious answers: the pandemic in general, the government in charge of the U.S. for most of this pandemic…but I think the teaching answer to this question is about the sheer amount of administrative work that not just teaching online but also switching plans constantly and having to make and remake lessons takes.

I do think that most people think the work of teaching is what takes place in the classroom, but it doesn’t take long into your first class as a teacher to know that the much of the work takes place outside the classroom: prepping, planning, organizing, and grading. The planning and organizing part of this semester has probably increased at least 25%. Whether it is having to type out exact directions because students will be doing exercises without your supervision, having to remake an in-person lesson because the format will be changed to digital, or having to answer student emails at a much higher volume, I’m feeling how much of my headspace is taken up with these routines.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that I have much in the way of good answers to get rid of this administrative bloat, but the thing that has helped me deal with it the most is to stay organized and to find new organizational tools. I like to use a paper planner, but I found recently that my planner wasn’t cutting it because I needed to see tasks in both smaller windows and over the course of several weeks. Usually I use the two page spread on my planner for a week and then I can easily move things from the to-do list on the next week if I have to. Now, I find that with my paper planner I was writing down minuscule tasks like sending an email reply that would take two seconds, and more longer term things—planning for a change in the course schedule. Recording these kinds of tasks was not really a good fit for my paper planner. It was getting too messy and things were falling between the cracks. I had been using Google Keep for my personal items and to-dos and decided to make the switch to use it for my work things too. There are obviously lots of planning apps that one can use, so I won’t recommend which one to use but would more generally say that because the planning looks different now, you might have to switch your organizing methods and tools rather than just trying to do more with the same methods. 

Secondly, I noticed over the course of the semester that I was also often adding to my own course work with the tasks I was setting for my students. As part of the social distancing at my school, when we met in person, the group had to be split into two because we often did not have the classroom space to accommodate the whole task. This meant that I often had one group working on an activity or a task while I was present with the other group. These tasks were most often posted to our LMS. I felt like I had to read and respond to these tasks outside of regular clastime, so I took something that would have been finished over the course of the class and added between one and two hours of time to my own schedule to read and respond to the tasks. I realized pretty quickly that this was unsustainable, so I moved to reading the entire class’s posts and then responding to the whole class or putting students into groups and responding to the groups and not to them individually. This saved time and still allowed me to make sure I was acknowledging the students’ hard work on the tasks.

Overall, I think these two different examples add up to the fact that it is not only the mode or method of teaching that has changed but that those new modes change the demands on our time. We have more things to do, yes, but we also might have more hours in one category than we are used to. For me, planning and organizing took up a significantly larger part of my brainspace than I had planned. It was important for me to evaluate how I was spending my time and consider changing the course of my practices once I realized how that time was being spent. I didn’t solve everything, but I have made some changes that helped. I’m also more aware of where my time is going, which has helped me make sense of why this semester has felt like a lot while I simultaneously feel like I have not accomplished much of anything. 

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