by Natalia Harrison
November 11, 2020
I have been an academic advisor for 9 years, and this year, like most educators, I am re-learning everything I thought I had mastered, from communicating with struggling students to guiding teachers to implement best practices that support students with LBLD. As the weeks ticked by, it became clearer and clearer with each incident I had to troubleshoot that I needed a better idea of what students were experiencing and what it would be like to learn on the computer all day. My suggestions often felt like best guesses, and I wanted more context so that I could more accurately offer suggestions to make everyone’s experiences run more smoothly. So, with the blessing of my administration, I planned to spend the day shadowing one of my fully remote students from the comfort of my living room.
I woke up early on the morning of October 16, eager to see what the day would bring. I poured a cup of coffee and elected to skip breakfast – I could grab a bite between classes if I was hungry. I clicked the first link and joined my student’s language arts class. The “live” students filed in and the teacher moved about the room getting things organized. My student quietly joined the Google Meet, and the first thing I noticed was the volume of white noise. Shuffling backpacks, squeaky chairs, exclaims of “I’m so glad it’s Friday!” melded into chaos in my brain, and I was worried that with this level of ambient noise that I would never be able to direct my attention to the task at hand. I was thrilled when the teacher quieted the class to share the day’s announcements and the class agenda. Both were projected for the students to see on the whiteboard and she also shared her screen with me and my student. I really appreciated feeling as though I was getting the same view as all of the other students. As the class shifted into a discussion, I was able to see all of the students from another computer strategically placed in the corner of the room. When the students began talking and sharing their thoughts on the topic, what struck me was how hard it was to keep track of who was speaking. Between their masks and my faraway view, all of their voices started to sound the same. Luckily, the teacher often called on different students by name and/or repeated what they had said. My remote student later told me that over a month in, he now has an easier time recognizing their different voices. After a mini-lesson on integrating quotes into written compositions, the class was given some time to work independently while the teacher checked in with each student. It was apparent that this was routine, and each student got to work as the teacher jumped in and out of different documents to share observations and feedback. Had I, too, been working on writing, I would have found this a bit distracting as it was hard to tune out the teacher’s comments.
My student’s physical science class was next. They were in the middle of work on constructing rockets. I was excited to see how hands-on learning is approached for remote students. The class quickly settled to work building the bodies and gluing on fins. Once the in-person students were settled into work, the teacher shifted his attention to the two students working remotely. After reviewing calculations on the board, the teacher gave the two sample data points to work with before he returned his attention to the in-person students. I loved watching the camaraderie between the two boys working away remotely. Though not in person with their peers, they almost formed a mini class working together with a healthy dose of humor and silliness. They giggled as they mimed using their calculators and laughed when they ended up with completely different results.
US history came next. On Fridays, my student’s teacher explores controversial topics, and when I logged on, it was clear that I was in for a hearty debate. This week’s focus was racism and the history of protest in the United States. After a short video, flawlessly shared by the instructor who presented his screen for my student and me while projecting for those in the classroom, the discussion began. The students in class certainly had a lot to say, and the remaining class time flew by as comments were shared like popcorn. My student remained pretty quiet through all of this, and I couldn’t blame him. I’m not sure I would have been able to unmute my mic at the appropriate moment to share a comment. As students left the room, the teacher hung on the Meet and chatted with my student. They connected over weekend plans and drew parallels between the content of the discussion and my student’s favorite sport – golf. I was struck by the intentionality of this time that the teacher dedicated to the conversation as a way to connect with a student whose voice may not be as frequently heard during fast-paced class discussions. We all signed off, and it was time for lunch!
Exhausted, I headed for the fridge in search of a meal. I threw together a sandwich, grabbed a seltzer, and sat down to catch my breath, even though I had not moved more than a few rooms throughout my house, I still felt somehow winded! I was shocked to discover that after just a few bites of my sandwich, it was time for the next class. I logged into geometry – a class that is entirely remote. As students joined the Meet, the teacher checked in with each of them and then transitioned into instruction. It was so nice to see everyone on the same platform, and you definitely couldn’t hide! The teacher called on specific students, and even I, as an outside observer, felt like I had to be on my toes and ready. He often repeated what students said for the benefit of others and to clarify and elaborate. Despite being remote, this class definitely had a homey classroom feel.
And with that, I was off to my last academic class of the day, film and literature. I clicked the link the teacher had forwarded me, and I got an error message. I frantically clicked it a few more times, copied and pasted it directly into my browser, still nothing. I had been doing so well; I did not want to be late for my last class! I emailed the teacher and within moments an invite to the meet arrived in my email. The teacher was already mid-lesson by the time I arrived, with just one student in person with him and the rest remote. They were looking over a Jamboard in which each student had interacted with a scene from Good Will Hunting. The Jamboard served to replicate an activity where students could come to the board to draw something out and share with their classmates. It was great to see the use of a tool that offered all students access to the same platform. When they shifted focus to watching the movie, the teacher used a similar remote set up as seen in other classes and was able to pause and engage students in discussion throughout.
When I logged out of my final class meet I was exhausted. Between independently keeping track of time between classes (I didn’t realize how much I relied on the shuffling of feet in the hallway as a cue), looking at myself on screen all day, and keeping my attention focused on each meeting and not my grumbling belly in proximity to my own kitchen, the energy required to get through a remote day of classes was surprising. I was shocked that there was barely enough time to make a snack, let alone have enough time to enjoy it! I was so happy that my student had a chance to log off and independently complete and log his PE period with a round of golf outside.
My main takeaway from this experience is the impressive stamina of not only my student, but all of our remote students. This energy is only matched by the creativity, ingenuity, and virtual acrobatics performed by our teachers. I have so much respect for ALL those involved in the educating of students right now, and I will be reminding myself to take a breath as we close the door on 2020. This environment isn’t forever, no one signed up for it, and we all deserve a little grace! I also was able to gather a few simple tips that can help to make our hybrid classes feel that much more inclusive to all students.
Natalia is an academic advisor at Landmark High School. In her 12 years at Landmark, Natalia has taught in the Language Arts, Study Skills, and Expressive Language departments. She also teaches graduate level courses in Dyslexia Studies through Southern New Hampshire University’s online program. Natalia graduated from The University of Vermont with a bachelor’s degree in English, and she earned her master’s degree in special education from Simmons College.
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