2019-2020 Year End Reflection

I remember sitting at a meeting table at my school in Suzhou, China late January earlier this year when a colleague said, “Heads up, there’s a virus going around in Wuhan. Very contagious,” and thinking something along the lines of “Well, at least we’ve got our Chinese New Year holiday coming up. Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.” I was, absent-minded to say the least.

Two weeks later, nobody could wander into a public space without a mask, long distance buses stopped running, temperature checks were imposed at major transportation hubs, and cars were restricted entry into locations outside the jurisdiction of their licensure.

2020, I imagine, has not turned out to be the year many has expected it to be. I write this four and a half months after the World Health Organization declared the Novel Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to be a pandemic.

This dramatic turn of events has had me feeling like the entire world is just holding its breath. For a while, all we could do was observe and wait, not fully willing to settle into what was slowly shifting into our new normal in hopes that we can just pick up where we left off pre-COVID.

By the time Semester 2 began mid-February, I was “temporarily” residing back in Canada. For safety reasons, the school re-opening date was to be pushed back two weeks. Teachers were told that online learning would only be temporary (lasting no longer than 2-4 weeks) to accommodate for rapid changes in travel plans and quarantine measures.

Our school eventually re-opened in May, but by that time, a majority of our teaching staff were out of country and had no way to get back in. China had already closed its borders and our visas suspended. All we could do was wait. I ended up teaching the entire semester online, with many changes and adjustments that had to be made to teaching style, content delivery, and assessment along the way.

Despite the many barriers that were imposed upon us, I remind myself that I still have a lot to be grateful for. I didn’t chance to say goodbye to my students in person, but we found new and different ways to connect online. We missed out on a ton of live in-school events and activities like Pi Day, the graduation ceremony, the school-wide lip dub, sports competitions, but that didn’t stop us from celebrating student achievements through their virtual counterparts. I lost my job too, but at least now I have an opportunity to start fresh. When one door closes, right?

Looking back

When I started the school year, one of my professional goals was to be able to get into more teacher classrooms, of all different subject matters, to learn from and observe my colleagues, and to get teachers in my classroom as well. It was my way of taking small steps towards making #observeme more of the norm at our school.

#observeme sign I post on my classroom door.

As a department, we worked on re-vamping the way we structured our classes and assessments using principles from cognitive psychology to better help our students learn and retain information (I wrote about it here).

We experienced many successes in our first semester, but still had a long way to go in terms of finding our groove. When COVID hit, I knew we all needed a new goal: find ways to help us and our students successfully navigate the world of online learning.

Starting from ground zero

If I’m honest, for a long time it felt as if we were just keeping our heads above the water, struggling to balance between the uncertain timeline imposed by COVID, as well as expectations from the school, students, parents, and ourselves. Even though we were working long hours, none of us truly felt like we were operating at 100% capacity. A jumbled mess now laid in place of the clear path (or so it seemed) that was once before us.

THE CHALLENGES:

  • Several cheating and/or plagiarism incidents took place with course assignments
  • High student absenteeism rates, especially at the beginning, which led to snowball effect of select students continuing that trend to the end of the year
  • Inconsistent scheduling (due to various factors)
  • Difficulty communicating with some parents and students

WHAT WORKED:

  • Developing a consistent school-wide plan for scheduling, parent and student communication
  • Keeping platforms for communication and e-learning consistent.
  • Incorporating interactive and collaborative elements in online synchronous lessons (e.g. Padlet, Nearpod).
  • Eliminating heavily weighted timed assessments (such as unit tests and final exam) helped alleviate pressures associated with adjusting to an online learning environment. Students had more time to work on fewer graded assessments, thus increasing the quality of work to be handed in.
  • High success and engagement experienced with implementing open tasks on Flipgrid.
  • Moving from weekly to bi-weekly quizzes to help with student workload.
  • Maintaining a positive mindset and staying flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances (school policy, overall outlook of global health crisis… etc.)

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT:

  • Keep graded assessments to a minimum.
  • Opt for more open tasks, collaborative projects, or project-based and/or problem-based learning
  • Develop, communicate, reinforce and continually PRACTICE norms for successful online learning
  • May need to rethink mandatory synchronous live lessons. Issues of access may make this a non-equitable practice that may hinder the success of certain students. Providing equitable asynchronous learning options is ideal for ensuring equal learning opportunities for all.

Closing thoughts

For a long time, I was in denial. The practical me jumped in headfirst and did her best to adjust and adapt to changing circumstance, whereas my less practical self refused to accept that this is really happening. Yet, neither of those selves are helpful. In thinking about the past, or worrying about the future, I forget to live in the present.

What I’ve Learned from Online Teaching

I’m no expert, but the COVID pandemic has given me the prerogative to scour the interwebs for useful tidbits on maintaining lively and engaging online lessons. In the last three or so months, I’ve created at least half a dozen new teacher accounts on educational sites and platforms; some of which I use moderately (EdPuzzle, Padlet, Flipgrid…etc.), a few that I use religiously (Zoom), and still others that I’d like to experiment with some more (Nearpod, Brainingcamp).

Transitioning to full-time online teaching has been a process of repeated trial and error, and a test of patience and flexibility in learning to adjust to changing circumstances. I’ve definitely made more than my fair share of mistakes, but here I’ve compiled list of tips and tricks that I’ve found useful for teaching online. Some of these are obvious and are good practice in general, and others are things I’ve learned along the way or things I wish I had done sooner. If there are any tips here that you think I missed, I would love to hear about them in the comments!

Delivering Live Lessons

  • Look AT the camera, not your screen. An easy one to remember for more formal settings, like online interviews, but also at an important one not to miss with your students too. It shows them they matter, you care, and gives them a sense that you are watching.
Like this, but less creepy.

Left: Even though I’m looking at my students on screen, I appear less engaged. Right: Takes some getting used to, but this one has more of the right feel to it.

  • Display your daily agenda, and deadlines on your screen like you would in your regular classroom. This develops helps consistency and create routine for you students.
  • Always pair visual and verbal cues. If you want your students to respond to a question in a group chat, or complete an activity, make sure they can hear and see the instructions, as some may experience audio or internet connectivity issues. (Good practice in the regular classroom too).
  • Allow longer than normal wait times. Again, expect a lag between the time you pose the question to when your students actual hear it.
  • In general, I’ve found that live lessons take MUCH longer than a regular class. Plan more than you need but expect to cover less.
  • Engage students as much as possible. Q&A sessions can get tricky in an online setting and plain old cold calling… well, gets cold. In the next section, I’ll take about some low stakes methods to ensure that students aren’t just tuning into your lesson, only to be playing League of Legends off screen.
  • Start easy. Rather than dive right into the deep end with new content, a class-wide discussion…etc. why not begin with a warm up question? I like to start class with an attendance question that each student will answer (a tip I picked up from my VP). This gives me a quick and easy way to check-in with my students, they get to learn some information about each other, and it allows time for mentally transitioning into learning mode.

Keep in mind it DOES take time to check in with each student individually, so think about the type of question you want to ask, and whether or not you will give each individual student air time, or have them all type their answers into a shared document simultaneously.

  • Record your lesson and upload the video for later access. Zoom does this automatically, but there are plenty of free software out there for you to record your lessons. We are an Office 365 school, so I upload my recorded lessons onto Sharepoint for any students who missed a class.
  • Get a drawing tablet! Perhaps this goes without saying, but it is really difficult (in my math class at least) to pair visual and verbal cues when I can’t draw or write on the board. Having a tablet helped alleviate that issue.
  • Something I wish I had done is model to students how e-learning works. Sara Van Der Werf talks about this in detail here.

Increasing Engagement

  • Set the expectation that students need to turn their video cameras ON right from the get go. This one may not work for everyone due to issues of access, but I found that in my classroom engagement is much higher when my students and I can all see each other. Not to mention this gives me a better way to gauge how they are responding to the lesson.
  • Don’t just lecture. If you are having a live session, use this time to build in as much interactive elements into the session as possible. Information heavy content can be recorded and made available to be accessed later.
Students working through a prompt shared on Nearpod.
  • Make PARTICIPATION, not evaluation, the norm. I thought that I would need to incentivize participation with marks (like marking Flipgrid responses), but looking back I don’t think this was the right move. Whatever platform(s) you are using for online engagement, use these early and often, and keep them low stakes.
Students responding to a Notice/Wonder prompt on Flipgrid.

Assessment

  • Assessment is not the same as evaluation. Assessment is timely, and gives us a way to gauge where our students are at and for us to figure out how to get them to where they need to be. Assessment needs to happen early, often, and BEFORE evaluation.
  • Prioritize the learning itself, not the marks. I know from personal experience, this can often feel like an uphill battle, not only against whatever policies that have been set, but also against yourself. We’ve been teaching and learning for marks for so long it is easy to forget that the goal of knowing the Pythagorean theorem, or understanding transformation of functions is not so our students can pass the test, but because there is genuine enjoyment to be had! (This point deserves its own post).
  • Eliminate timed tests and quizzes (as much as possible). Ask better, open questions instead (OpenMiddle, Which One Doesn’t Belong, Number Talks…etc.).
Sample task from wodb.ca I ran with my students on Flipgrid.

Tools and Tech

  • Less > More! Really. This one was a biggie for me. Trying to do too much will only drive you crazy. While there is a ton of useful tech out there that can dramatically up our teaching game, it can also be time consuming to learn a new tool. Start small.
  • It’s not about the resource, but how you use it (check out this podcast, episode #70). Contrary to the last point, don’t let the fact that there is so much tech out there stop you from exploring a new tool. Yes, choice paralysis is real, but at some point simply sending your students links to Khan Academy videos ain’t gonna cut it.

Finally

  • Remember that kids have lives outside your classroom. This one is so important, even in a non-COVID situation, but nothing is easier to forget. I often get offended when kids don’t remember deadlines or to submit work, but the reality is that my class is NOT the centre of their universe and I have to be okay with that.

What Teaching During the Coronavirus Outbreak Has Been Like for Me

​ Shortly before the start of our Chinese New Year holiday at the end of January, news had started to spread about a new virus in Wuhan, China. By the time I actually left the country, virtually everyone was wearing a face mask and activity at all major transportation hubs (railway stations, airports) had basically stalled. For a while, it seemed like we were able to escape the mass hysteria that was beginning to ensue and enjoy nearly three weeks of worry-free traveling around the Philippines.

My travel companion, Jose, and I had been keeping a close tab on the coronavirus situation, and we were warned by my relatives in Hong Kong to stock up on as many face masks and hand sanitizers as we could while we were in the Philippines as they were virtually sold out everywhere in Hong Kong and China. We had originally planned to return to Shanghai on February 16th but had been notified by our principal that the start of physical classes in China had been delayed until at least March 2. At that point, the number of reported infected people had been raising still and we contemplated travelling elsewhere to ride out the situation. The problem was, we had, and still have, no idea how long this situation would last, nor have we been given any sort of certainty as to a specific return date for work.

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The streets of Hong Kong seemed emptier than usual.
Jose ended up returning to Suzhou, where we both work and undergoing a 14 day quarantine, which was monitored by the building management. I made a last minute decision to return to Canada. Both our decisions were spurred on by an unfortunate encounter with bed bugs (we suspect), and us having to deal with two very different sets of symptoms that caused us a lot of emotional stress and worry. Luckily for us, we’re on the path to recovery. As far as I know, majority of international teaching staff from our school are taking “extended vacations” (using this term loosely here) in various countries around the world. A few have opted to go back to Canada, some returned to China, and a few never left.
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A snapshot of my class WeChat group. As you can see most of the posts are announcements from me, haha!
With all this in mind, teachers, administrators and staff members hustled to get an online instructional plan in place for the start of semester 2, which began on February 19. Our main learning management system is Moodle and it is a platform that our school has been using for a few years. We use Moodle  to communicate information and share resources and lesson materials. Since we are teaching in China, WeChat (the Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp) has also been indispensable as a communication tool, especially since Moodle was unprepared to handle such a high volume of users, or accommodate our rapidly growing storage needs (our brilliant IT team has been able to curb many of these issues since then, but the server still undergoes regular maintenance causing minor disruptions in our workflow).
I know that many teachers and schools express issues with using WeChat as a way to communicate with students, and this was something I had a lot of hesitations with as well, which is why I’ve never created WeChat groups for my classes in the past. Over my last few years though, I’ve quickly realized that it is really the best and fastest way to reach students, and I’ve joined and created WeChat groups for sharing or keeping up to date with school-wide announcements, communicate with course teams or departments in the school, or get in touch with students who are part of extracurriculars I’m running.

WeChat is not just a messaging app, but also has social media features, payment options, and several other utilities built in. In short, WeChat is pretty much woven into the fabric and lifeblood of what living and working in China is like. That said, it is THE number one tool to utilize if you are looking for a stable and reliable method of communicating with people in China. No server issues, no need for a VPN… so while privacy is still a concern, it is now a part of my online instructional plan. (There is an option to limit communications with contacts to “chats” only so you can hide your social media posts).
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Students have been learning with a mix of interactive lessons, course notes, formative quizzes, and live sessions.
Moodle is, and remains, the MAIN communication platform for students to access course materials, view links to filmed live sessions, submit assignments…. And so on. A couple of other tools that my colleagues have introduced that I’ve found extremely helpful for my classes include Zoom, an online conferencing tool, and Loom, a video recording software that uploads any videos you make onto a cloud and sharing a video is as simple as copying and pasting a link.

Given that we’ve been fully online with our learning for about two weeks now, we’re addressing minor hiccups as we go, adjusting the pacing of our lessons, and working on finding authentic ways to assess student learning. We’re thinking about how to troubleshoot potential issues with academic honesty and ways to get an accurate and holistic picture of how our students are learning. The biggest unknown at the moment is when we will be back in the classroom, and how the coronavirus situation will pan out… Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.  ​​