Learning new ways of teaching during COVID-19

“What did the Zen master say to the guy at the hot dog cart?” I texted to one of my students.

“Mmm, I feel like it has something to do with wholeness. But I got nothin’,” she replied.

“Make me one with everything!”

I seldom text my students and when I do, it’s usually about assignments. But currently I text this student every day because the only people she knows in Akron are those in her graduate program, which she started a month ago.

And because she tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

I do not give 2020 agency. The year, which has been unlike any other in anyone’s lifetime, did not create the pandemic, protests, political unrest and raging wildfires. Thus, there’s no reason to believe that life will return to normal on Jan. 1, 2021.https://db9ccd6b52e9d99abd691d05bcf1a162.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

And, frankly, I’m no longer sure what normal is or will be. But the beginning of the school year has caused me for the first time this year to feel a keen nostalgia for the way things were before the month of March.

My 10-year-old son, Leif, has synchronous school days on the computer with his teacher and classmates. We are a low-screen household and normally I don’t let my kids on computers until they are in middle school.https://db9ccd6b52e9d99abd691d05bcf1a162.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Now Leif spends six hours a day looking at a computer. Live Zoom classes are far better than the recorded lessons he had last spring. Still, at the end of the school day, he tells us his eyes hurt.

Our 8-year-old daughter, Lyra, is doing better attending her online classes, but only because we are paying a certified interventionist to come to our house and help her.

And then there are my students at the University of Akron. I miss them. Oh, sure, I’m teaching this semester, but it’s not the same online.

I am a true extrovert. Being with people energizes me. Teaching classes of 20 freshmen not just about writing, but about music, history and culture is demanding (if done well), but also extremely rewarding.

It’s easy to shock freshmen. It’s also delightfully easy to make them laugh.

Research shows that students who sit in the T-zone of a classroom—the first seats of each row and the middle row—learn more. When I’m in the classroom, there is no T-zone because I never sit at my desk. I walk up and down the aisles, occasionally sitting on the desk tops at the sides and back of the classroom, looking every student in the eyes each day.

Now most of my students’ faces appear in poorly pixelated two-inch squares on my computer screen. I don’t know if I’d recognize them if I saw them in person.

I agreed to teach my freshman courses by dual delivery this semester. That means that up to half of my students can attend in the classroom with me, while the rest attend online.

On the first day, I hooked up my laptop to the audio-visual portal so that my online students could be projected. It didn’t work. I later learned that my 7-year-old laptop’s HDMI jack, which connects the computer to the A-V portal, is dead.

Without the ability to project my computer screen to the in-person students, only I could see the online students. Imagine trying to teach six people spread at least six feet from each other in a classroom, while also connecting to another 14 on your computer screen. It’s tough.

But no worries, because my apparently senior-citizen laptop couldn’t handle that many students in one virtual meeting anyway. It quickly froze. Fortunately, the students could still hear me.

The second week of the semester, I moved my freshman class to a computer lab, but it was no panacea. It took the entire second week to get all the technology working properly there.

Each class of students has a different dynamic so, like many professors, I build time into my semester to stay unexpectedly longer on a topic when needed. Due to those myriad technical difficulties, I blew through most of my extra time right out of the gate.

As always, there are silver linings.

Attendance is far better this semester, though one student tried to fake attendance. They appeared for roll call and then flipped their laptop screen back so all I could see was a ceiling. I received no answer when I called on said student, who now knows I’ll count that as an absence.

Also, students are overwhelmingly turning in assignments on time. When I mentioned this to my son Claude, who is in his first year of graduate school, he said, “Yeah, that’s because we don’t have anything else to do, so give students a focused assignment with a deadline and we’re all over it.”

And perhaps most importantly, the students have all been patient and understanding, which is essential in getting through these times as best we can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

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