Preparing for Distance Learning

My district was on spring break March 9-13. Near the end of our break, Minnesota’s governor announced Minnesota schools would suspend instruction until March 30 to give staff time to prepare for distance learning. Now that I’m a week in on planning, I wanted to take a step back from the details to reflect on what my priorities will be in the coming weeks.

Students Doing Sense-Making

On our first day of suspended instruction, my administration directed us to identify the most critical 30% to 50% of our curriculum for the remaining school year. I have no idea how to pick the most important content from my courses, especially since almost none of my students will take another high school science course. But, under normal circumstances, I’m quick to say opportunities for students to engage in reasoning and science practices are the most important part of my course, and I can’t think of any reason for that to change. My first question with any decision right now is how I can make sure students have opportunities for sense-making.

In Physics, this lead my PLC to decide to focus topics where students can collect their own data, so we’ll be starting with projectile motion, then shifting gears to work on pendulums. We’ll be making a lot of use of Vernier Video Analysis, though we are planning to do a similar pendulum lab to what we’d do in class. In AP Physics 1 and Chemistry Essentials, I’ll probably be making a lot of use of Pivot Interactives to collect data.

Teachers in my district are being asked to avoid synchronous instruction, so I’ll be making a lot of use of discussion forums to give students a chance to share their ideas. I think my general structure will be collect some data, post the results in a forum, then do a worksheet with some guided questions to get to big ideas from the class results.

Relationships Still Matter

A sense of relationships and a sense of community always matter, and I’m only expecting them to become more important as students are relatively isolated at home. For every class, I’ve created an off-topic discussion board to give students space to connect with others in their class. I’m also trying to create a sense of presence by recording a lot of videos for my classes; I’m planning to record one each week with an overview of what I’m asking students to complete.

I’m also trying to make sure students see me as accessible. We’re being asked to hold “office hours”. My plan is to have a Schoology conference open on my computer that any students who wants to can join. I’m also using the appointment slots feature on Google Calendar to make it easy for students to request a chat outside of my office hours.

The students in AP Physics 1 and most of my Physics students have been with me all year, but my Chemistry Essentials students are all new to me. I decided the first few days won’t have any content, and will simply be about connecting. In a Twitter conversation, Carol Braun suggested doing a short video chat with each student, so I’ve decided that will be my biggest priority for the first week of Chemistry Essentials.

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Students are People

It seems safe to assume that whether or not students say anything, many of them are dealing with challenges beyond school, working around barriers to accessing online coursework, or focusing on other priorities right now. While this is always true, I’m assuming it applies to a much larger percentage of my students than under typical circumstances. I can’t remove those issues, but I can be flexible with students. As I plan, I’m avoiding synchronous requirements and posting as much as possible up front so students can access materials when it works for them. Once my district sets expectations for grading, I need to take some time to figure out how I can apply those expectations in the most humane way possible. Once instruction starts, I also need to keep this in mind during every interaction with a student or their family.

Managing My Needs

I can’t be the teacher my students need if I’m not taking care of both my physical and mental health. A lot of my first week was figuring out how I’m going to set boundaries. At the best of times, teaching is the kind of job that can become all-encompassing and trying to fundamentally change how we do this job doesn’t help. Usually, I don’t bring work home with me. Since that’s not an option right now, I’ve made myself a schedule and even gone so far as to set alarms on my phone to make sure I’m blocking out time for non-work parts of my life.

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I’m fortunate to work in a district where the prevalent attitude is that we should work together on this seismic shift, which is helping reduce my workload. My building has two of us that teach Physics and we usually plan together, so we linked our courses in Schoology so we are collaboratively managing a single course. While I’m the only AP Physics 1 and Chemistry Essentials teacher in my building, I’ve been working with teachers from the other high school in my district to share materials and ideas.

Along with trying to keep work from overwhelming me, I’ve been figuring out how to manage my physical health. The first day, I didn’t drink enough and I didn’t move around enough, and I paid for it. Having a schedule has been helping me make sure I take stretch breaks and track how much I’m drinking. I’m also glad I took my physical therapist’s advice a few months ago and got a laptop stand and wireless keyboard; they’ve been helping me sit straight up when I’m working.

When I was student teaching, my mentor teacher liked to say the school year is a marathon, not a sprint and that feels more true than ever. Especially with all the uncertainty in what the coming weeks and months will bring, taking care of ourselves is a crucial piece of taking care of our students.

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