Lesson #1: Transparent Empathy
First, I will be more transparently empathetic. In the past, students who took the time to get to know me outside of class via office hours or working as my research assistants knew me to be highly empathetic and kind. But some students in my classes struggled with the persona that I (apparently) demonstrate in front of a real-life classroom.
Teaching completely online helped me to break down that barrier. Everything I read in preparation for this semester reminded me that in online teaching, you have to be extra demonstrative so as to keep folks engaged. In addition, the research on metacognition – including teaching students why you are assigning them certain work and what they should gain from it, encouraged me to be more open with my students.
Two other secret ingredients forced this transparency: I have tenure now and thus am not afraid of students’ evaluations potentially forcing me out of the career I have wanted all my life. Now that I have stable employment, I feel free to experiment with ways to be a more effective teacher, evaluations be damned. The other secret ingredient is the fact that I have full-time working spouse and three children at home, and I am as much of a disaster as anyone this year. Students got to hear my real world in the background of our class: A child’s tantrum, a four-year-old’s request for someone to wipe her bottom, piano practice, a parent screaming to a child to stop bothering their sibling. Sometimes our class had surprise cameos by humans or felines. We all just had to roll with it. And so, students got to see that I am a human too. I asked them to give me the grace I was extending to them, and this was effective at helping me to connect with them.
I am grateful for this lesson, and I will take it forward. In the future, I will show my vulnerability and humanity to students.
Lesson #2: Engaged Teaching is Anti-Racist and Inclusive
Second, I will leverage multiple forms of content to create an inclusive and anti-racist learning environment. Like many people, this year I’ve been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to be more intentional and vocal about my approach to anti-racism. I realized as I was curating the materials for my class – deliberately seeking not just traditional written texts, but also audio and video of varying lengths – that these multiple types of materials also opened up more diverse voices than are represented in traditional educational content. Inclusive materials and content (I’ll write more about this in my next post) are one way of enacting anti-racist pedagogy.
Teaching remotely this semester also forced me to reconsider how I engage students in the classroom, and I made some choices that felt more inclusive. Surprise – technology can help with this! For example, I used Google Jamboards to get instant feedback on what students knew about a topic and to assess how much more I need to cover. Jamboards are basically online versions of giving students sticky notes to write down a main idea or theme and posting it on the wall. They are anonymous, so students felt free to share their thoughts with no fear about being wrong because no one knew who had posted what. There are dozens of similar strategies that can encourage participation and active learning; I am just a novice at this. Incorporating these more inclusive, active strategies is a way to practice anti-racism in the classroom.
In the future, I will continue to use active learning and engaged teaching strategies in constructing and facilitating my courses.
Lesson #3: Educational Technology Can Be Useful
Finally, I will not be afraid to use educational technology – strategically. Once I got over the steep learning curve of our learning management system, I was able to make it helpful to both the students and to me. This was critical in a semester where I had 58 students and no teaching assistant.
All of the course materials were available online, organized by module and by week. This meant that the students did not have to make their own organizational system, and so students who are not naturally inclined toward organization could follow along just as well. I figured out how to set materials to open at certain times, or conditional upon completing other activities, and this provided additional forms of forced organization to meet learning objectives.
I was able to embed the types of frequent, low-stakes assessments that are recommended by engaged pedagogy because they were automatically graded by the system. All of this involved an enormous amount of work to set up, but most of it will be reusable the next time I teach this course.
I am not sure how open I’ll be to allowing devices in the classroom in the future – this semester it was obvious that the students who were using pencil on paper (literal or virtual) were more effective note-takers and performed better on assessments than students who took notes on their computers – but I am at least open to trying it out.
As hard as that climb up the remote teaching curve was, I am thankful to have been forced to learn how to use instructional technologies. In the future, I will choose to use instructional technology strategically to facilitate student learning and to help me spend more time on substantive teaching issues.
So there you have it. Taking the time to write out these reflections was a good exercise for me, and I hope it has been helpful to those who read through to the end. In the next installments of this series, I’ll focus on the substantive content of my course, and what we learned about Health & the Media using the diverse course materials I curated for this semester.