Teachers are facing unprecedented challenges this school year, from trying to reach invisible students who attend class without their computer’s camera turned on to juggling the demands of simultaneous online and in-person instruction. Even accomplished teachers have floundered.
With a few months of online teaching now under their belts, many teachers “feel like a first-year teacher halfway through their first year,” said Justin Reich, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab. “It’s still hard and they still don’t know how to do all these things, but some of that clawing sense of disaster and failure has gone away.”
Mid-career and veteran teachers are struggling the most, according to a recent study from FutureEd, a think tank based at Georgetown University. That’s because they are more likely than novices in their early and mid-20s to have caregiving responsibilities at home, and less likely to feel comfortable with the new teaching technologies.
Yet those few months of experience have given many Massachusetts teachers time to feel comfortable with the new medium, and now some are starting to experiment. Three told the Globe how the pandemic has transformed their teaching.
From ‘guide on the side’ to ‘sage on the stage’
Teaching inside her Boston classroom, Adrianna Barnes knew exactly how to guide students to an answer instead of handing it to them.
She would ask her fourth-graders at KIPP Academy Boston, a charter school, to grab jars with dozens of square tiles and take them to the carpet. Then she would throw out a bunch of questions — “How do you find the perimeter when you arrange the tiles in a giant rectangle?” — which she encouraged the kids to talk through with each other.
Her goal: to encourage them to figure out formulas for calculating the perimeter of shapes on their own.
“They learn best when they’re learning from each other,” Barnes said. “I’m just there to make sure we stay on topic.”
But teaching on Zoom from her home in Quincy, the 27-year-old was disappointed to discover that the student-led, discussion-oriented approach fell flat.
Most students were far more reluctant to speak up, make guesses, and take intellectual risks online. Only a few students engaged with her questions when their classmates were around.
“They’re still figuring out how to interact with each other online,” she said. “If we were in person, I’d say, ‘I’m not a part of this conversation — ask your teammates what they think.’ ” But that no longer worked.
Sometimes, environmental factors contributed to the reticence, Barnes said. Kids with background noises nearby hesitated to unmute themselves. Some felt distracted by siblings, television, or other interruptions in their homes.
So Barnes reluctantly shifted to a much more directive, teacher-led approach to instruction, with individual sessions with those who are struggling to work through a concept. That helps alleviate some of the stage fright that kids feel on Zoom.
There are times when Barnes, like many educators navigating remote teaching, feels demoralized by the new medium and concerned that the kids don’t learn as well online. More than once, she says, she has collapsed on her bed in tears, worried that she is letting down her students.
She is learning to rely more on topics that naturally excite the students — unfortunately, not geometry — to help them feel more comfortable engaging directly with each other on Zoom.
After learning the basics of the electoral college, for instance, the students had a lively debate about race and politics during one recent class.
Such discussions give Barnes faith that she might slowly be able to return to a more hands-off approach, where the students learn more directly from each other. But she knows a Zoom video will never feel the same as being in her classroom.
“I miss being with the kids in person so much,” Barnes said. “I miss their weird jokes — I think what I miss most is them interacting with each other.”
An art class transformed
Before the pandemic, Erin Roth struggled to teach art the way she wanted to.
Her classes were rich in fine arts skills like drawing and painting, with the class creating a student-designed mural for the school cafeteria at Excel High School in South Boston.
But digital arts training — in skills like Web design — was lacking. Roth, 39, offered some classes in graphic design and photo editing, but the school did not have enough computers for every student, making it tough for everyone interested to take advantage.
That technology deficit, like so much else, changed during the COVID-induced school shutdown. All of her students acquired district-issued Chromebooks. And over the summer, Roth received training at Digital Ready, a startup affiliated with Wentworth Institute of Technology, where she learned how to teach her students skills related to Web design, three-dimensional architectural design, and other digital art skills.
In September, Roth debuted an art class transformed — one that is “way more targeted toward...those skills that will get you a job,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Roth taught mostly fine arts with some digital art mixed in. But now, all her classes are in digital art skills. She has broken down the various software tools she wants her students to master, from Pixlr, a digital drawing and graphic design program, to Tinkercad, a 3-D design tool, and Canva, for online presentations. (Fine arts are no longer a part of the class while learning is remote, as she doesn’t have an easy way to get her students the supplies they would need, including paints and canvases.)
The new digital focus has allowed her to plan a whole slate of ambitious units that are more relevant to the students’ lives. In one, students will use an architecture software program to design their own vision of what affordable housing should look like in Boston. And right now, they are using the graphic design program Pixlr to emulate an artist of their choice on a social issue that matters to them.
Seventeen-year-old Leticia Pina chose to emulate feminist artist Laura Kina. During a recent class, she shared a painting by Kina of a woman in front of a red background touching a sign that reads “Shut the (expletive) up.”
For her “imitation,” Pina also used a red background and large text, but hers read “BLM” in block letters with images of protests inside the letters. The background included dozens of names of Black people killed by police.
“She wrote about something that affects her and I decided to write about Black Lives Matter because that affects me,” Pina said.
Sacrificing communal class time for more inspired poetry
Geoffrey Schmidt doesn’t always get a second chance with his students.
They are, by definition, already struggling severely with attendance when they arrive at his class at Holyoke Public Schools’ Opportunity Academy, an alternative high school that serves students who either dropped out or floundered in their previous schools. Many of them are in their late teens and early 20s.
So Schmidt, 38, felt fearful in September when he debuted an English class focused on slam poetry, and most of his students didn’t seem that engaged.
Some didn’t log in at all. Others turned off their cameras and said nothing, making it impossible to tell if they were even there. The students he could see hesitated to participate. Schmidt worried that the class of 15 might dissolve.
Schmidt, a school leader who decided to teach a class this fall so he could better support his teachers, realized that he would have to overhaul his approach.
In person, and in his initial weeks online, he emphasized lectures and larger group discussion. It had always worked for him; but online, large groups caused the conversation — and student attention — to deteriorate.
So he made the opening presentation shorter and shorter, quickly introducing a poetry concept like personification or rhythm. Then he shifted immediately into online breakout groups, where two or three students workshopped their own verse while Schmidt and a co-teacher rotated between the groups. He also set aside time for one-on-one meetings.
The results were almost immediate: Online attendance improved. The students grew more animated. And he can see more passion in their poems.
During one recent class, student Justin Alvarado, 25, shared a poem in his breakout room that described his conflicted feelings about police officers as a young Latino man who has had mixed experiences with them.
All police aren’t bad. No cop puts on a badge and says I’m gonna kill someone today
It’s like going to the grocery store – you might get some bad apples but not all are bad. Most officers have kids. Most officers come from all walks of life — Puerto Rican, Black, white.
One day I was walking down the road I seen a police officer car drove by me, stopping. He put his car in reverse and pulled up next to me, telling me to stop
He said I fit the description. My heart was racing
Schmidt complimented the poem. “There’s a way for you to use that common metaphor we’ve all heard — the good apples and bad apples — but think of your own experience and create a metaphor that’s more personal to you,” Schmidt said. “I know that’s hard.”
Jacob Ortiz, 16, said his classmates seem more comfortable talking in the poetry class than in some of his other ones. The smaller groups facilitate conversations, he said.
“This is my only class where multiple people speak,” Ortiz said. “Maybe the topic is something relatable that people want to speak about, or maybe it’s the atmosphere of the class.”
His teacher said that “minimizing that traditional Zoom class time has been a lifesaver” that kept several students from drifting away. “It’s a trade-off,” Schmidt added, acknowledging the loss of communal rapport. But “the quality of work I’m getting from students is better than I could’ve anticipated.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.