Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Adventures in eLearning

Our blogger today is Shannon Schiller. Shannon teaches Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, Advanced Placement Language and Composition, Film Literature, and Newspaper at Mt. Vernon High School, Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation.

Eight years ago, my principal told my department that we had received a grant from the state for six classroom sets of desktop computers. Along with the grant came Moodle, a learning platform that at first confused and frustrated me. Thankfully, I am not easily daunted and I at least like to pretend that technology doesn’t scare me much, so I agreed to be one of the first teacher in my building to completely integrate Moodle into all of my classes.

It was scary, but after the first year, some training and some serious trials (and more than a few errors), I figured it out. I’d cut down paper usage, kids couldn’t claim they’d left their work at home and all my classroom resources were available for my kids 24/7, so that even when they did leave those in their lockers, they could do the work.

It was glorious!

And then we got Chromebooks.

And life changed...rather drastically.

We knew the Chromebooks were coming. When our new superintendent was hired, one of his promises was to immerse every student K-12 in a 1:1 environment. Working with our school board, Dr. Robbins had even laid out a two year plan for our district, part of which focused on integrating new technology to our buildings, starting with the high school. The plan was for teachers to have Chromebooks in August and then for students to get them in January. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right?

On the teacher work day the day before classes started, we were all given Chromebooks. By the third day of school, all of our kids had them too. Not only that, but we’d been told Moodle was going the way of the dodo and we’d need to switch to Google Classroom. I had a brief moment of panic, which may have included a few tears of frustration, but I took a deep breath and started researching Google Classroom.

Turns out, it’s not very hard to use. While it doesn’t have everything I love about Moodle (you can’t organize your materials by topic, tests are harder to create and you can’t “hide” materials after you are done with them), I can still make every assignment work in Google Classroom.

Things were going mostly swimmingly and then we found out that we qualify to have eLearning days this year. In theory, we all thought this was tremendous. The idea of closing the school suddenly didn’t mean that learning had to stop for the day or that we’d be stuck inside taking finals in June. We had several PLC meetings and staff meetings where we discussed how to implement an eLearning day. We agreed on requirements for teachers and students. We polled our classes to find out who did not have access to internet at home.

We even had two eLearning practice days. For the first one, each teacher had to choose one class period and practice a virtual learning environment. We were not allowed to answer student questions verbally. If kids had questions, they had to post them on our Classroom pages or email them to us using their school email address. All directions, handouts, videos, etc. had to be posted on our Classroom pages and we had to devise a way to take attendance, anticipating the day when we wouldn’t actually be able to see the students. After our class period test run, we discussed our results in a PLC meeting.

Our second practice run was a full day trial. Every teacher had to devote their entire day to digital learning. Spending an entire day with students, but not being able to talk to them was, well, awkward. I’m a highly social person and I struggled with this. I love talking to my students. I like hearing bits and pieces of their lives as they are filing in the room. I like their questions. I like their voices. The teacher in me had a hard time with this. I had to keep reminding myself that in a real eLearning situation they wouldn’t have a way to talk to me, so this was good practice.

And it’s a good thing we did practice because on December 12th, the temperature had dropped so low and the back country roads surrounding Mt. Vernon made it decidedly unsafe for students or teachers to make the trip to school. We got the call at 7:45 on Tuesday morning. Although our teaching day usually begins at 8:35, during our trial runs, our students were told that work for classes would be posted by 9:00 am on eLearning days and that all students were expected to check in with their teachers by 3:00 pm.

As teachers, we were given total control over what an eLearning day in our classroom looked like. Our only requirements were to take attendance (which we had to report by 3:30 pm) and provide the students with work that would be challenging and equivalent to what they would have done that day in our classrooms so that when we returned to school on Wednesday, everyone could move forward with their lessons and no time would be lost.

I got to work, starting on lessons for my AP students since I knew they would be the first ones to check in. My AP Literature and Composition class was supposed to start our study of poetry, which lasts through most of this semester. My plans for the day called for us to watch one of John Green’s Crash Course videos on Emily Dickinson’s poetry and then discuss not only the poem he briefly discusses in class, but also our observations about Dickinson’s life. Since these plans center on discussion that could not easily take place in my classroom, I had to do some quick thinking so they could still have the needed discussion and poetry analysis even if we weren’t physically together.

This is what I put together for my students to see:

Since we are on a block 4 schedule, our classes meet every day for 85 minutes. So, I had 85 minutes of instructional time available to me. When we were planning for eLearning days, our principal stressed that he did not expect any teacher or student to sit in front of a computer for 7 straight hours. He wanted kids to be able to work more at their own paces and for us to be available throughout the day to answer questions and to check on progress, so I gave my students a list of tasks, which could be completed on their time table.

My department has incorporated a new silent reading program this semester in an attempt to get kids to read more for pleasure. The first 30 minutes of my class were easy to plan. If the students were with me, they would have been reading and then completing their daily journal entry about their reading, so I told them to complete their silent reading and journal about it. Next, we would have been watching the Crash Course video. I provided them with the link:

After students watched the video, they got to participate in an online discussion over the video. Using the Question assignment in Classroom, I created this prompt: After watching the Crash Course about Emily Dickinson, explain what you learned about "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died" and how it relates to your understanding of the poem. Students were able to respond to the prompt. On the Question assignment, I clicked the button to allow them to respond to each other’s prompts. Even though they were not in class together, they were able to discuss the poem by reading their peer’s interpretations and then responding to them. The discussion they had helped clarify Green’s points as well as discuss their understandings of the poem. In order to make sure students weren’t waiting until late at night to discuss the poem, therefore leaving their fellow classmates out of the discussion, I used this assignment to take attendance. All students had to complete this portion of the work before 3 pm.

With this practice run at poetry under their belts, students used the link I provided for another Dickinson poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” They had to find a partner and create a shared Google Doc where they analyzed the poem using an AP poetry strategy I taught them earlier in the year (PSTOASTS= Purpose, Subject, Tone, Occasion, Audience, Style, Title and Speaker). They also had to dialogue with each other on the text, just like they would have discussed it in class, each student adding their comments and thoughts on the poem. This assignment could be done when they were available to work together. When they came into class the next day, we spent about 15 minutes discussing their analysis of the poem, which we could then apply to two more of Dickinson’s poems during class discussion.

Despite having quite a bit of 1:1 experience under my belt, eLearning was still something completely new for me. My day went off without much of a hitch. I thought I would get a lot more emails from students, but aside from some of my Film Lit students who had forgotten passwords for a skills based web program we use, most of my students were able to complete the work without aid. When we gathered again for classes the next day, we talked about their eLearning experiences. They felt I’d given them an appropriate amount of work for the day. In some of their other classes they felt overworked and in others they felt they had barely gotten any work. I reminded them that this was a learning experience for us all. It’s going to take some work for teachers and students to adjust to eLearning days, and that’s ok. Education should be a learning process. It may take us time, but eventually I think we’ll all get it right.

I know that the next snowfall or ice storm has me feeling less apprehensive now.

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