My current teaching situation has me at home, teaching through my computer screen to nine students in various places in the US. It has been an interesting assignment, to say the least. Especially, considering my previous teaching experience was at a small, family-like, international school. I don't know that I could have experienced two more extreme environments:
Online teaching = no "human" interaction, separation at its best. The classroom is held together by invisible wires and transmitters that connect our words but not our beings. The intersection of our lives lasting for 90 minutes a week, one semester of a lifetime. The content administered view Blackboard videos, emails, and Haiku and Kidblog.
International school teaching = close knit community, students and staff operate with many faucets of life intersecting one another. The faces that I see in the classroom are the ones I also see on the cross-country course, performing on stage, and living life on campus as dorm students. The intersection of our lives (for some of my students) lasts years. (In fact, two former students are now going to college in the states and are flying in to MN to spend Thanksgiving with us because they have no where else to be.) The content was administered through activities, active learning, conversations and built upon a tangible relationship between me and my students. I hated lectures as much as my students, so we were always learning in other ways (when possible). I loved it, and I think they did too.
But I am like a fish out of my fishbowl in the online classroom. I struggle to figure out how to get the technology to work to my advantage--how to use the technology to create active, constructivist approaches to learning how to write. And it truly bothers me to my core because I want to use instructional strategies that I know are best practice, but am too technically challenged or unaware (or it is just plain impossible) to be able to create learning that mimics the "real" classroom. Add to that I work from home, which really means I try to work with 2-3 lovely, precious, loud, demanding angels floating around the house. There is no "prep" hour for the stay-at-home, teaching-from-home mom. Well, not until about 8:30pm--not the most productive time for the synapses in my brain!
But this week I had a bit of a break through! I gave myself permission to use 45 minutes of our Monday lecture to allow the students to meet in break-out rooms with a partner and peer revise together using googledocs and breakout rooms. And it actually went well! I had tried this one other time but I did not leave enough time for students to share with each other and most students were so tripped up by having to learn how to create a google doc, share it, make comments and then find those comments later that the experience didn't produce the peer revising I had hoped for--most students didn't even get involved. The technicalities of getting their work shared was so much of a headache I didn't see how it would ever work to continue with the technology available. But because we had to do another constructivist-style lesson, and because I had a busy week and didn't find the time to write a 90 minute lecture on reviewing revising, I decided to try again.
This time, however, I tried to eliminate anything that would slow down the process and didn't need to be a part of the experience to make it constructive. So, I uploaded all the papers to the google docs, I shared them, I sent out the links, and I partnered the students who were finished together (and connected together those who were behind). We did a quick review of how to make comments on google docs. And away they went. It was beautiful. By the next day I had an email box full of messages revealing that students were communicating with each other about their work. I could see they were conversing back and forth via the google doc comments, and it made me happy!
Because I gave myself permission to be removed from the lecture seat (which I might get in trouble for later because I don't think the school is a big fan of this constructivist approach to learning)I was able to see that all they really needed was time to connect (and a means to do so). I don't think it really replaced a "real" classroom experience, but it got us a little closer to actively participating in an authentic learning experience.
Nine Power Practices -- Ruby Payne
Much of the focus of the Saint Mary's program has been community and relationships. I could list at least 20 references to articles and activities that have been used in the last year of our program that point us toward the understanding that effective instruction and learning take place when positive community is built and respectful relationships are formed. This is not a completely new concept to me, I believe that I became a teacher due to the relational aspect teaching offered. To this day, I would say that the people who have had the most impact on my life and beliefs (after my parents, of course) are the teachers and coaches I had in high school.
What is new to me is that there is research to support the claim that effective teachers are those who can establish healthy and uplifting relationships with their students. An additional shift in perspective is the emphasis in the research on meeting the learning needs of students living with a lack of resources through establishing predictable and respectful relationships. I have not been exposed to much poverty in my educational experience, so the reading that we have been doing on education and poverty have been very insightful and thought-provoking.
One quote that stuck out to me in our reading over the past two months was used by Payne in, Nine Power Practices: "No significant learning occurs without significant relationships" (James Comer 1995). When I saw this I immediately thought of a phrase that was used frequently in the training my husband and I received before starting on our journey of being dorm parents to high school dorm students: "Rules without relationship leads to rebellion." After four years of dorm-life--caring for up to 36 boys and girls emotional, physical, emotional and spiritual lives--I could not agree more with this statement. The students who were hard to connect to and have relationships with, were often the ones who struggled to follow the rules. They didn't have a connection with us that motivated them to want to be a part of the "family-like" atmosphere we were trying to create in the dorm. It was during these years of my life that I really gained an understanding of life as a student and the great power relationships have in the education of a child. Because of my vantage point as a "Mom" to teen kids who were not my own and my "teacher" role in the community I was able to see and hear about which teachers were making a positive impact on students lives (and sadly, those who weren't). And believe it or not it wasn't the "easy A" teachers who the kids wanted to have as their teacher. On one occasion in particular, I recall a student who was not known for a strong work-ethic (he was more along the lines of, tell me where the line is for average and I will try to get there) tell me his favorite teacher was one of the strictest teachers in the Math department. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. When I asked why, his response was, "I know she really cares about me and just pushes me because she cares that much." I think this story exemplifies that it is the strong connection students feel to us and how much we care that will have the greatest impact on their motivation and learning.
As I pondered my current reading, my past experiences and the fact the phrase "rules without relationships leads to rebellion" doesn't quite fit the context of the classroom, I thought of one more fitting: "Content without Connections leads to Confusion." When students feel cared for, respected and known the chances that they will take the content of our classrooms more seriously increases. And I no longer have to wonder if I am being cavalier in this aim of building relationships as teacher, I can trust that it is profitable because of the abundance of literature that is circulating in support of effective teaching beginning with teachers who can connect with students and connect students to one another.
Links to all the, Go and See Study, sessions.