Oops, we did it again…

A Short Guide to Classroom Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Sitch

In Spring 2020 they shut down our campuses, locked the doors and turned off all the lights, and sent us home to teach by Zoom. In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, many of us continued to teach fully or primarily online, whether that meant asynchronously or synchronously. Then, with infection rates far higher than anything we had seen before, politicians and university leaders demanded we return to the classroom. For many of us, this has meant returning to classrooms filled to capacity without any measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19: no vaccine mandates, no mask mandates, no testing mandates, and no physical distancing. The choice is resign or do your best to protect yourself and your students through the limited means that you have. In this post, I outline the process and strategies that worked for me when I taught in person during the Fall 2020 semester. I don’t pretend to have any solutions or answers here; I simply share this in the hopes that it helps someone in some way.

Context, Caveats, and Disclaimers

I was lucky in some respects that when the pandemic hit, I was teaching at an institution that ultimately, after much pleading and debate, gave all faculty the full range of options for teaching during Fall 2020: fully in person, fully remote, or a mix of in-person and remote class meetings. With a smaller undergraduate population and only first- and final-year students invited to live on campus, I opted for the hybrid option. However, even though physical distancing, a mask requirement, testing, and an aggressive quarantine policy made being in the classroom feel pretty safe, the reality was that by the third week, between infections and exposures, you would never have all of your students in the classroom at the same time. My colleagues and I had seen this coming, and we had tried our best to design our courses to accommodate students who couldn’t be in class without just livestreaming or recording the in-person meetings (our courses were discussion-based and our classrooms weren’t set up for video capture anyway). This post attempts to outline our approach. All standard disclaimers apply, your mileage may vary, etc.

Trust Your Students

Before I get to those strategies though…One of the things that I came to terms with over the course of summer 2020 was that my pedagogical approach would have to radically change. Teaching in person under these conditions means that you have to relinquish control over how your students engage in the course. You cannot micromanage. You cannot police. Simply put, you have to trust your students. If you aren’t familiar with it already, run, don’t walk, to read Cate Denial’s “Pedagogy of Kindness.” Then, check out Douglas Dowland’s “The Problem with Rigor” and Joshua Eyler’s “On Grief and Loss: Building a Post-Pandemic Future for Higher Ed without Losing Sight of Our Students and Ourselves.” One of the lessons the pandemic has taught us is that we cannot control the world around us, try as we might. Extend that to your students. Approach them as collaborators, not judges. Assume that they are acting in good faith instead of making them prove that. Acknowledge that they probably feel as powerless as you do right now. Accept that engaging and learning is going to look as different for them as teaching does for you.

Focus on Learning and Engagement

This may seem obvious or overly simplistic even but focus on meeting your learning outcomes. Are your students engaging? Are they learning? Yes? Then you’ve done your job.

Re-Calibrate Expectations and Resist Comparisons

Resist the urge to compare your teaching right to Fall 2019 and before. We are doing something entirely different right now, and comparing Fall 2019 to Fall 2021 is comparing apples to pandas. Be transparent about that with your students. Explain to them what the situation is and how you adjusting for it. Don’t teach the course you would have taught in Fall 2019: teach the course that you need to teach now.

De-Densify the Classroom

One of the most important tools at your disposal is finding ways to reduce the number of students in your classroom. Obviously, a modality change is the best answer but many of us cannot simply start holding one class each week online. You can, however, do things like send half of the class outside to work on a task while you work with a smaller group of students in the classroom. You might even be able to accomplish some of your learning outcomes this way. For example, if you want students to think about space and community, send them on a walk around campus. Want them to use the library? Send them on a scavenger hunt to find a book or other resource. And, of course, use online platforms to make it as easy as possible for students to stay in the loop should they need to stay home (because then, if they need to, they will).

Designate a Notetaker

A lot of people were doing this pre-pandemic but assigning a student to take notes during class, especially during discussions, is a great way to provide a transcript of the class without just recording it. Especially in a discussion-based class, a recording might not be all that useful to students. With a notes document accessible to them, students can figure out what they need to follow up on. Again, the point here is not to provide an experience that is equivalent to attending in person: the goal is to provide a lifeline for students to keep up, just as you would for a student who needs to miss class for any other reason. You might worry that the notes won’t be good enough…don’t. This provides a great opportunity for students to learn to take notes. With a shared document, all of the students can contribute and so can you. Use this as a learning opportunity.

Social Annotation

With social annotation platforms, you don’t have to rely on in-person discussion to do all of the heavy lifting in a text-based course. Persuall and Hypothesis are the two major platforms designed for collaborative marking up of texts, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses. You can also just use good ol’ Google Docs. The point is that students both in and out of class can share their thoughts about their reading in a common space. If they need prompting, you can always assign task: make 2 observations, raise 2 questions, respond to a classmate, identify the argument, point to the most convincing evidence, etc. A similar, more structured activity is Danica Savonick’s Collaborative Close Reading, which is one of my favorite activities of all time and one that my students in Spring 2020 actually preferred to do online rather than in person (we had the chance to do both versions).

Move Peer Review Online

Full disclosure: I will never again do peer review of any kind in person. Doing it online is just that good. Here’s how it works: 1) divide your students into groups, 2) create shared folders for them to deposit drafts into (using Google Drive or Office 365), 3) provide them with detailed guidelines for what you’d like them to do as they review one another’s work, 4) set a deadline that gives them a couple of days to complete the work. When I did this, I found the students giving far more robust responses to one another than they did during a single class time. They could also “talk” to one another through the comments and chat in each document, and they could link to various resources–as could I. Feedback became much less directive and much more collaborative, as it should be! You are probably thinking, great, but why should they come to class? Well, they don’t have to, and that’s why this is can be used as a de-densifying technique. Some students will welcome working remotely on peer review days while others will be grateful for the chance to come to class and having your undivided attention so that they can ask all the questions that they want.

Be Creative with the Discussion Board

The tendency with LMS discussion boards is to pose a question and then students respond but this creates a one-way flow of information that is fundamentally evaluative. We know that when we run class this way, it’s awful, right? So don’t do it online. Use the discussion board for students to share resources. Or go multimodal and ask students to share video or audio responses. Ask them to share images or memes. Mix it up and do all of these things, in addition to more traditional text-based responses. Think of the discussion board as a launchpad rather than and endpoint and resist the urge to use the discussion board as a way to evaluate skills or content knowledge.

Create a Backchannel

Give students a way to talk to one another that allows students not able to come to class to join in the conversation, or at least follow it. A lot of people like using Discord for this purpose, and Mark Bresnan wrote a great beginner’s guide to it here. You can also use Slack or GroupMe or Teams. Or again, just a basic shared Google or Word document. The great thing about Discord though is that it is multimodal, so the conversation can include audio, video, images, files, etc. But anything that leaves a chat transcript works because it allows everyone to talk in real time and to post and respond asynchronously. As a teacher, it also allows you to gauge how things are going and helps you identify what adjustments you might need to make.

Evaluate Engagement, Not Attendance

This is likely not something you can implement mid-semester but in the future, you might consider moving from an attendance policy to an engagement policy if your program/institution allows it. My engagement policy takes into account in-class attendance but also asks students to engage in other ways: discussion board posts, sharing resources and research, helping one another, etc. My evaluation of their engagement is then labor-based, allowing students to mix-and-match modes of engagement to suit their goals and needs (while I ask everyone to do a bit of each category, they have flexibility in their primary mode of engagement). I also ask students to provide periodic updates and reflections throughout the semester. Admittedly, I’m still working out the details and students struggle with keeping track of their progress. I’m sticking with it though because when students help one another (reading a draft, teaching a classmate how to build a website, sending an article they found, etc) I can see students starting to re-think what “class participation” means in their self-assessments.

One Final Thing

For many of us, the tradition and ideal in our fields is a small seminar where we come together during class time to have rich conversations that develop organically. I’m going to give it to your straight: you can’t do that right now. You have to a have a lesson plan that is shared with students at least a week in advance–even if that lesson plan includes time spent on open discussion. I know too that many of us detest using our LMS. Again, I can’t beat around the bush here: our personal preferences are beside the point. Yes, anecdote isn’t data but my students consistently reported being confused and overwhelmed by the ways that their professors were conveying course information. Some were just emailing information. Others verbally conveyed it in livestreams and recordings. Some were using 3, 4, 5 different platforms. Others did use their LMS but just dumped things in random places and uploaded files with meaningless names. Take the time to learn your LMS and put everything in one place. Be consistent. Link EVERYTHING–pages, files, websites. Build in REDUNDANCY. Trust me, your students will thank you for it. The point though that you can relieve a lot of anxiety and panic by planning ahead and being organized…and when you do that? Everyone can focus on learning and engagement, which is really all we need to be worrying about.

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