As many teachers and students head back to their virtual classrooms this week, I’d like to share my experience learning Zoom and Google Docs, changing from a PDF to an editable format and teaching reading and writing to students ten miles and three time zones away.
In four words: I have been overwhelmed.
Before the pandemic, I had used GoToMeeting with one student whose father set everything up for us. That worked, in part because the father hovered nearby and anticipated his daughter’s and my needs.
But as I returned to teaching in November, after seven months of babysitting grandchildren, I struggled to learn Zoom. For my first classes, my husband (my IT person) sat at my side off camera and slipped his hands on the keyboard from time to time to rescue me. I couldn’t have done it without him.
For me, teaching via Zoom has been like my trying to teach English in Vulcan aboard the Starship Enterprise with Mr. Spock at my side. I know the content, but grapple with how to use the technology. For example,
- If my student writes her homework in a workbook, how can I see her answers via Zoom? She can hold the workbook in front of the camera, but she might hold it too close or too far away or she might jiggle it. With time, I learned how to solve this problem. Her parents can scan her work before our lesson and send it to me as an email attachment which I can then open and share on Zoom. It took me weeks to learn that.
- And what if I want to scan information to send to my student as an email attachment? Before, I would make a photocopy and bring it with me to a lesson. Scanning and inputting is on my to-learn list.
- If I want to see what my student is writing by hand, how can I? Her writing surface is out of camera range. I learned that if I ask her to reread the corrected writing, I know if she changes it.
- For some students, I can see only the tops of their heads. Asking a student to sit up works until the student slumps a minute later. I have asked parents to adjust the camera angle, and that helps, but some children deliberately hide.
- One of my students is hyperactive, sliding in his chair, contorting his body, standing, stretching, walking around and darting off camera. He even falls asleep. When I teach in person, I use eye contact or a tap on the desk to engage him. But via Zoom, if he is not looking at the camera, I have only my voice. I am still working on this problem.
- Many of my students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Sometimes I ask my students to bring their parents to the camera at the end of our classes. When I try to explain homework expectations or student behavior to the parents, they nod, smiling without saying a word, and I know I have not made my message clear. I have learned to recap a lesson in writing immediately after the lesson concludes. I include the homework assignment and any other work a student might need—like a prewriting organizer the student worked on. I send everything as an email to a parent’s email.
These are small problems. Bigger ones are caused by my lifetime of relying on my husband to handle online technology. On Monday, for example, I kept losing Google Docs I had downloaded and opened, ready to revise with a student. My husband pointed out something basic that I was unaware of: At the top of my screen are tabs for documents I unload from the internet. At the bottom of my screen are browser and application icons. Duh.
I am writing about my frustration using virtual technology because many of your children’s teachers are going through the same ordeal. They were trained in math or reading, not in how to teach remotely. They were trained to walk the classroom to engage students, but they were not trained to monitor two dozen children on a computer monitor, peering at faces the size of postage stamps. Older teachers, who are experts in their subjects, are wrestling with a technology learning curve. What might seem so basic to a thirty-year-old who was born with a smart phone on her hip seems odd and even frightful to a veteran teacher.
Two months teaching in this new mode is not enough for me to master it. Nor is a semester for many of your children’s teachers. My New Year’s resolution is to forgive myself for my ignorance and to practice, practice, practice Zoom and Google Docs and any other technology that will help me be a better teacher.
As Mr. Spock said, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.” I have no wish either, but we all must to get through this pandemic and beyond.