Tackling the Tough Teaching Conversations When You Don’t Know What to Say

As instructors, I believe we have an obligation to acknowledge what is going on in the world and to provide an outlet for our students to talk about it. I was a student during Columbine and 9/11 and have been a professor through the Boston Marathon bombings, the too numerous mass shootings of the past few years, and the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #Time’s Up. We can’t just plow ahead with course objectives, pretending that these moments of tragedy and injustice don’t exist.

As a white woman, I am not the right person to speak about the murder of George Floyd and worldwide Civil Rights protests, except to say that such injustice should never happen and I fully support the movement. I will never pretend to understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States. In my role as an instructor, however, it is my duty to create a space for students to discuss what’s going on. So how do we lead a conversation without overstepping or feigning an insider view that we may not have?

In a face-to-face class, our conversation would have happened organically, as I could have gauged the need to talk in our initial chit-chat. It’s so much more difficult teaching remotely. Everything feels like a big deal, like a big agenda item in which I cannot pre-assess the vibe of the classroom.

I struggled with how to approach my summer class, but ultimately decided that I had to give the group the opportunity to talk. I invited students to an optional Zoom session to talk about current events. I didn’t know how many would show up or what to expect.

Only a few students chose to do the Zoom session. The small, yet diverse, group actually worked to our advantage as each person opened up. I did not lead, except to open up the discussion, ask what was on the participants’ minds, and call on people. I won’t share the details, but the conversation flowed naturally from the protests to related topics of representation.

It was honestly one of the best, most honest, reflective discussions that I’ve experienced in my teaching career. I did little to make it that way. I just set the table, sent the invitations, and welcomed the group–the extent to which I felt comfortable doing. In other words, I created the space. The students filled it.

I realize this could have gone poorly. I’m not usually a fan of unstructured class discussion, which are prone to tangents and the injection of personal agendas that may conflict with our class diversity policy. If we had started to have issues, I obviously would have stepped in. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this.

We can’t shy away from topics that make us uncomfortable or that we don’t know how to address. As educators, we can provide a safe space for students to reflect and make sense of what is currently going on, even if it’s only for a few minutes. We are not leading so much as creating the opportunity and protecting the conversation.

Our engaging class session prompted me to add more to the itinerary, beyond what was already on the agenda. In person, this would be easy. Online, everything has to be so much more scheduled. If students are looking to connect, especially in the current climate, I want to be there to support them and listen.

We Made It Through, but the Online Format is Not a Long-term Solution: Planning for the Future

With 2.5 more weeks of “crisis-schooling” for the kids, a summer class to prep, and numerous other tasks, it was necessary for me to push through and finish Spring 2020. I submitted final grades for all of my classes yesterday. The last gen. ed. assignment for the semester required students to briefly reflect and describe their experiences, including additional challenges they faced.

This short essay was very telling and I learned a great deal about my students’ feelings, activities, and obstacles since the midterm. Students expressed concerns over their parents and other family members — about the future of their family businesses, recent unemployment, and health. Three or four students had family members who had recovered from COVID-19 or had had it themselves. Other students worried about vulnerable parents or grandparents, fearing what would happen if they became sick. Many had become unemployed and struggled to buy food and other essentials. On the flip side, some students had significantly increased their hours, working 40-60 hours a week in addition to school.

Access to reliable technology was a significant hurdle for a large portion of the class. One student had left a laptop in the dorm and had to wait more than a week to get it back. Other students had no WiFi at home and had to drive elsewhere to use D2L or they had WiFi but connectivity was poor. Students also experienced multiple challenges at the same time — working on a farm, for example, with no internet at home.

Students faced other challenges as well, getting stuck far from home after visiting a friend on Spring break, dealing with canceled trips, performances, and training. Issues related to mental health were frequently brought up, in relation to isolation, a lack of purpose, and distancing from the world. Furthermore, many expressed their personal difficulties with online learning, explaining that they struggle with time management and understanding material in an online delivery.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t know about these hindrances until the day of the final. I had asked about challenges periodically throughout the semester, but few had piped up. In other words, students were not seeking excuses and exceptions in these reflections, just conveying their current realities.

Obviously we had to shift online this semester and for the summer. Beyond that, though, these reflections reinforced what I was already suspecting: the online format fundamentally does not work for many students. While my own university did an exceptional job with providing resources and support, our students do not have the widespread access and support to fully succeed. It is just not feasible for a student to juggle separating cattle and driving 40 minutes to complete school work or sharing a computer with multiple family members in the same household.

On April 30th, President McPhee announced that on-campus classes with resume next semester. Knowing our students’ challenges, I support this decision.

If we don’t at least try to have in-person classes, I wonder how many students would not return in Fall 2020. For those who did come back, how many would fail because of limitations outside of their control? Moreover, what classes cannot be taught effectively online?

For all colleges and universities that plan to resume in-person, the question is how do we do this? Obviously, cases may escalate and the in-person experience may not be feasible in a few months. However, we can still plan for the different possibilities and at some point, will reopen.

  • Increase the number of online courses by having faculty identify which ones can go online. It makes sense to offer more online courses for students that choose this format, knowing that they have the resources to make it work. Increasing online courses would also help vulnerable faculty members who cannot safely teach in-person at this time. There’s a difference between offering and mandating the online format.
  • Allow vulnerable faculty and staff to work from home.
  • Rethink class sizes, splitting up large lectures. Schedule classes in larger capacity rooms.
  • Hold faculty and student training sessions for online learning.
  • Encourage all instructors to create contingency plans for the semester and communicate them to students.
  • In preparation for another shutdown, identify students that are most likely to struggle and help them prepare for the shift to online learning.
  • Share guidelines across disciplines and universities for in-person and online classes in this new normal.

Today’s post is my reflection on my students’ experiences this semester. I felt for the ones struggling and those who stopping submitting assignments and taking exams. I did what I could to help my classes make it through the content, but it still did not feel like enough. Well, maybe for crisis mode/half term. However, it’s definitely not the default path for future semesters.

Creative Media Projects: Joy During the Teaching Crisis

Like other instructors, our mid-semester shift to online teaching forced me to quickly rethink assignments and assessment. For my intro course, 180 of 200 points remained of the group project. Obviously, it would have been unrealistic to expect students to work together to produce a paper and presentation, at least in the current crisis mode in a gen. ed. class. At the same time, I was reluctant to just do away with these points, shrinking the overall pool so that tests made up the majority of the grade.

My solution was to replace the majority of the group work with an individual creative project, in which students could either continue with their group’s historical topic or choose to create an original work that captured an aspect of our current situation. My only instruction was that they had to make something engaging that could be shared on D2L. Acceptable formats could include videos, songs, poems, posters, memes, and any other format approved by me. I also made the assignment a competition, allowing everyone to vote on their favorite projects.

This week, they turned in their projects. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the folder, but I was immediately blown away by their creations, in thoughtfulness, innovation, and the overall quality. Students wrote poems, stories, and letters, created photo essays, pictures, and comic art. Several students produced songs that were so well done, I asked for verification that they had actually created them, like this song by David Moore on life as an introvert (shared with permission).

A song by David Moore

The diversity in the videos was also impressive. Some were pensive reflections on the challenges of working and finishing the semester. Others were humorous: one student filmed herself attempting a skateboard trick. Another student created a ’90s sitcom intro, starring, well, only herself. Students were also thoughtful in their evaluations of each other’s projects, noting the skill and emotion put into their peers’ work or commenting on how songs and videos gave them new perspectives on how other people are experiencing life right now.

The top project was this mixed art painting by Jernicya McCrackin:

“For my Creative Media project, I wanted to do a mixed media illustration relating to how fashion covers and social media has converted wearing face mask to a fashion statement. ” by Jernicya McCrackin (shared with permission).

A project that I had thought would be a collection of hastily-created memes turned out to be so much more. While I did receive a handful of “distracted boyfriend” meme templates (lesson learned on my part), the majority of the submissions were so much better than I could have imagined. Thanks to my students, their projects became a bright spot in a difficult semester.

“My Quarantine Life Vlog in Japan” by Yurika Misuna. She was studying as an exchange student in the U.S. when the university shut down. Fortunately, she made it back to Japan.

Together, but not really. Another Push for Asynchronous Teaching

Like many Saturday Night Live fans, I eagerly tuned in to the special at-home broadcast. It was well done, as they did their best with what they had, enhanced by having Tom Hanks host. At the same time, this make-do format sadly reminded me of what we have temporarily lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to have the technology. To be able to see and talk to people, at least for a moment, can be a day brightener. It works great for giving a brief training with screen share for large groups, like a conference Zoom I participated in last week. The virtual meet-up is also nice for touching base with different family members. I’ve also appreciated the platforms (and the people involved) for enhancing home learning time with a poetry workshop, lesson on Helen Keller, and interview with polio survivors.

For regular online class, though, let’s not pretend that Zoom is the same as an in-person experience. So why are many institutions mandating that students “attend” class, sometimes for the full time slot? And for faculty who have choices, why are you requiring students to do this?

Pandemic at-home synchronous is problematic for a lot of reasons. Students signed up for an in-class experience to be held at a college, presumably close to where they reside. A required Zoom class significantly deviates and increases the demands and expectations of the original registration. We are assuming that students are in a safe, stable environment in which they have WiFi and a computer and are able to spend hours of consecutive time to sit in a virtual classroom. This assumption ignores shifted time zones, issues of access, and other newfound challenges that did not exist for the on-campus version — the one at registration.

We are in a new reality in which parents and other caregivers have been cut off from childcare and networks of support. For universities that are still requiring virtual office hours and live teaching, how are parents supposed to do these tasks without disruption? At the same time, how realistic is it to expect students who are parents to sit through hours of virtual lecture through virtual platforms.

Adding to this challenge, is the economic burden on students, many of whom are working entry-level jobs deemed essential (like grocery store employees or take-out restaurants). Others are suddenly unemployed and may have to take whatever work they can find. Time off for class may have been promised in January, but that doesn’t mean it still applies.

Hours and schedules have radically changed for everyone. It is unreasonable to carry over the Spring in-class schedule to the virtual one, pretending that nothing has changed. It’s far more doable to provide recorded videos and materials so that both sides can work around their other obligations.

Aside from the logistics of requiring live class meetings, the meet-up platforms just aren’t the same as sitting in a classroom. Technology issues impact some participants from having audio or video. It’s hard to call on people or to tell who would like to speak next. There’s also the awkward factor of seeing into others’ living quarters, paired with interruption from other family members or roommates. All of this is magnified when class is stretched out to an hour or two and mandatory so that people can’t opt out.

And, as I articulated in my blog post “Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic,” we also need to consider how illness has and will impact teaching and learning. Students and instructors are getting sick, some needing hospitalization. A synchronous model ignores the reason why our classes are online in the first place. If instructors can produce content ahead of time, then class can continue even if they become ill. Likewise, recorded content and flexible submissions can better accommodate students if they get sick or have to care for an ailing family member.

I’m not saying that we should do away with all Zoom interactions, just that we need to think about how we are using these types of platforms. While I do include the virtual meet-ups for my classes, mine are optional and under 20 minutes. Students can choose instead to do an online discussion post at their own convenience for the week. For those who opt for the Zoom, I know they made the choice, not me, so that they want to be there and that it works for them schedule-wise.

If the goal is for our students to learn the course material and ultimately succeed, then we need to consider obstacles and seek ways to overcome them. Virtual class is not the only pathway to success, nor is an equal substitution for an in-person experience. As with the SNL home show, it is a make-do time. If Saturday Night Live can be flexible in changing things up for the pandemic, then so can we.

We might get sick. Seriously. Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic

So far, our discussions on how to move online have focused on pedagogical questions and conferencing tools. I enjoyed reading one of the few essays to go against the grain–“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.” Dr. Barrett-Fox’s reassuring narrative really gets at what most of us are feeling.

The other key point we need to center on is that many people will get sick. We are moving online because of disease. I’m not saying this to fuel the fire. It is a fact. We as faculty should prepare our courses in such a way that if (or when) we are too ill to teach, or too busy providing care, classes can still continue.

If we prep and release several weeks of material (video lectures, prepped assignments, quizzes, exams, discussion submission boxes), we also extend the same flexibility to our students, some of whom will also get sick. Even for the healthy ones, we don’t know their situations. They may not have computer access at home. Or slow internet. Or an older device that can’t download new apps.

Our students are across time zones right now and facing many unusual burdens that take away from learning. If we can create some material in advance, then we grant students the flexibility to work around their additional challenges. We can still connect by offering real-time conferencing, but only as a bonus, not for regular course delivery.

I know that many instructors are panicking about producing any materials and this task seems daunting. You will not be able to replicate your normal class or even its ideal online version. Boil down your regular lectures into short videos. Use technology that auto-grades quizzes and exams. Use the textbook’s additional resources and the free technology, provided that learning it doesn’t suck all of your time. Find Youtube videos that cover some of your course topics.

We as faculty also need to use each other as resources. If you create a video lecture with wider appeal, offer it to others. Senior faculty should reach out to junior faculty that teach the same course. Don’t let pride or fear hinder opportunities to make it through, especially as childcare options are falling through, forcing instructors and students to parent at the same time.

This is a weird time. We need to prep for the worst and hope for the best.