Lessons From Unsettled Fall of Pandemic Teaching

All, Reflections

As I prepare to teach over Winter Term for the first time and think about a second spring of pandemic teaching, it is time to reflect on the lessons that I learned from our unsettled fall, so I can make the best possible choices for my students as well as myself. All the health experts predict that this winter is going to be devastating and even as vaccinations begin to roll out, our schools and summer programs will still need to operate under pandemic conditions for the remainder of this school year. What the fall of 2021 will bring is still in question and I’m afraid to hope. But, right now, we are still caught in the ongoing nightmare that is education during a pandemic and the question before us is simple: how do we get through this without harming ourselves or our students? We can get through this just as we have our first seasons of pandemic teaching and learning: by recognizing our reduced capacity, tending to our communities, and rethinking our goals.

Reduced Capacity

Entering the fall semester I thought I was prepared for the reduced capacity caused by pandemic life, but I was wrong. The cognitive load for those of us with optimal pandemic conditions is very real and far too many of our students (as well as faculty and staff) are facing far from optimal conditions. The struggle is real and as the pandemic, with all its attendant health and financial concerns, stretches from season to season the fatigue grows exponentially and despair increases. There is no easy fix and I am not sure that it is my responsibility to address this situation in my students’ lives, but it is definitely something I need to weigh as I decide on the large and small details of my class from the number and scope of my assignments to organizing the details of the work and assessment. It is also something that I need to take into consideration for myself as well. I am not operating at the same level of capacity as I was a year ago. I need to carefully husband my personal resources while also providing the best support possible for my students. I need to establish policies and procedures that support student growth and development while also being flexible and forgiving (for me and for them). Ultimately this means streamlining some procedures and requiring some check-ins to make sure I can focus my limited resources on the students who need it the most while continuing to fiercely cherish our community of care.

Tending Our Communities

One of the challenges I faced with my classes in the spring was that the shift from hybrid learning (where we met in person half the time) to 100% asynchronous online was that many of my students became untethered from the class. Even my students who had been 100% online and asynchronous before the pandemic struggled. My solution this fall was to institute both academic and community check-ins.

The community check-ins were a simple tool to keep us personally connected as humans. Students were asked to post once each week to let us know what was going on in their life (sharing as much or as little detail as they felt comfortable sharing) and/or offering their pandemic coping strategies. Everyone was also expected to offer sympathy, support, and/or encouragement for at least three of their peers. I responded to everyone and let me tell you while it was sometimes heartbreaking it was also the best part of my day. Thanks to our community check-ins I was able connect with my students on a human level and that is a practice I am definitely going to keep even after the pandemic (for classes that do not meet in person).

In the fall I taught two sections of Writing I. One class was 100% online and asynchronous while the other was designated hybrid. My pre-pandemic hybrid model called for us to meet as a class on Tuesdays and to collaborate online in lieu of a Thursday class. I couldn’t come up with a pandemic teaching model that did not require twice as much work (as holding whole class meetings and requiring in-class group work was out of the question) so I decided to schedule a combination of weekly meets that would offer students small writing groups in lieu of synchronous classes and office hours. Perhaps my mistake was not requiring these meetings but attendance at these sessions was infrequent at best. Similarly, many students failed to complete the academic check-ins that might have helped to keep them on track. The semester quickly devolved into a logistical nightmare for me as some first year students struggled and I lacked the information I needed to help them. I am still contemplating what to do about our class meets. Perhaps require a certain number or maybe include those meets as an alternative to some other community support work? I’m trying to work out a solution that suits the students who work well with the asynchronous system yet serves the needs of students who need more structure.

Rethinking Goals

In addition, two structural reforms to my classes are in order to help students with their work and to help me with mine. The first reform is the next iteration of my #ungrading journey and is inspired by Laura Gibbs’ Declaration Quiz. I am going to experiment with this process combined with my usual reflections during the Morehead Writing Project’s Winter Institute as I hope that community of experienced educators will help me work out the best solution. That same community is also going to help me tweak my #HyperDoc templates. I’ve already made some improvements to the templates for the Winter Institute that will streamline workflow in my classes and make sure students understand the thinking behind that process.

What changes did you make this fall that you need to keep or re-vision for another season of pandemic teaching and learning? What questions do you have about my pandemic teaching solutions from #HyperDocs to #Ungrading to Check-ins? How are you planning to manage the reduced capacity of your students? How can you protect yourself during yet another season of pandemic teaching and learning?

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