WE ASKED TWO FACULTY MEMBERS from two different disciplines to provide reflections on their teaching experience in EPSRemote during last spring.
Everything Feels Different
By Wen Yu Ho, Social Science Faculty
Looking back at a whole trimester of remote teaching during EPSRemote, the mantra of “everything feels different” comes to mind readily. By that, I refer to how many elements of the school and classroom experience, including perhaps relatively minor ones, were entirely upended by the absence of our physical environment. Granted, I had taught a version of a blended online course in my previous schools through the Global Online Academy (GOA), but that was on top of the “normal” high school routine. This was a completely new ballgame in terms of daily experience.
One challenge, which emerged very early on, was getting comfortable with silence on Microsoft Teams. In the classroom, silence never feels inert. Many times, it coincides with a quick gaze across the space to identify and/or confirm comprehension, attentiveness, inquisitiveness, or any other reaction to the lesson being delivered. With only four screens in front of me (until an update to Teams late in the trimester), that same ability to gauge what students were going through was highly curtailed and the silence felt akin to a dead weight. After three months though, learning to pause and allow that silence to permeate has felt much more natural, as students have reflected that those moments of silence are highly beneficial in allowing them to process the lesson, much like in a classroom. Direct check-ins with students over email or through Teams have also helped fill in what I could have gleaned with a visual observation.
Another challenge revolved around the speed of transition between activities. In the classroom, a quick swivel of chairs is sufficient for students to launch into a new task. On Teams, finding a separate channel, completing a task with a smaller group, then returning to the main class meeting is decidedly more cumbersome, but a process that has become much smoother with practice. Additionally, there has been an active discussion among the teachers across the trimester regarding assessments. How should we administer a quiz? How could we administer an exam? Could the 10th grade Humanities team redesign our United Nations final, which has been a spring trimester tradition, to fit online? As with much of remote teaching, assessments remain a work in progress, but there have been moments of enlightenment. For example, the use of the chat feature during the General Assembly portion of the tenth grade United Nations final led to a tremendous increase in productive student participation compared to previous years and will likely be retained for future iterations of the final, in-person or online.
Indeed, while “everything feels different” is an entirely fair initial reaction to remote teaching, scratch a little deeper and there is much that has carried over from pre-COVID-19 EPS into EPSRemote. The deep learning that takes place through a rigorous and vibrant class discussion, the “aha” moments when students make a breakthrough in their understanding, the fruitful conversations with advisees guiding them through the highs and lows of young adult life, shooting the breeze with my colleagues who share the TALI 308 office have not completely disappeared. Yes, there is perhaps that extra step of having to set up a formal meeting on Teams or having a lesson agenda laid out in more minute detail than before, but the joys that make the daily EPS experience special have only been reinforced during EPSRemote. As we look ahead at what the new “normal” for EPS will be, these experiences should continue to be cherished and enhanced even more deeply.
OUR STUDENT BODY ROSE TO THIS CHALLENGE AND CONSISTENTLY MET AND EXCEEDED THE EXPECTATIONS MY COLLEAGUES AND I SET. I’M LOOKING AHEAD WITH A NEW LENS AND AM EXCITED TO CONTINUE EXPLORING STRATEGIES AND OPPORTUNITIES TO REVITALIZE MY TEACHING WHETHER IN PERSON OR REMOTE.
By Andrea Jostel, Mathematics Faculty
The 2019-2020 school year, my first at EPS, was certainly one to remember. When Dr. Macaluso made the decision that we would move as a school to EPSRemote, I felt daunted by this new challenge in my education career. Like a lot of our students, I initially felt uncomfortable appearing on camera for hours every day, and I wasn’t sure how to connect and laugh with students and colleagues virtually, something that feels so much easier in person.
Luckily, the tools and frameworks we previously employed in the Middle School math program at EPS lent themselves perfectly to remote teaching and learning. Students were already experts in navigating Canvas, Class Notebook, and ALEKS, the adaptive learning system our mathematicians use to practice and learn skills. In addition, my two main priorities in the physical classroom translated as well: creating differentiated learning opportunities and fostering a sense of community.
Differentiation opportunities increase engagement since students are less likely to be frustrated or bored by activities that are not aligned with their abilities and readiness. After moving to EPSRemote, my mathematicians continued to take preassessments at the start of every unit to give me information on their previous knowledge. This data helped me sort them into groups based on readiness and interest. There were opportunities for students to choose their own level of challenge and extend their thinking. For example, while all mathematicians in prealgebra explored graphing in the spring trimester, some were graphing linear relationships while others used the Pythagorean Theorem to find the distance between coordinate points. We used ALEKS for homework assignments so students could choose the topic that met their learning needs and work pace. This meant that while all students worked for the same amount of time, they could choose their own adventure for depth and breadth of topics.
Fostering community in any classroom builds trust and important relationships that set the foundation for a positive and productive learning environment. To extend this to the remote classroom, we translated the expectations and norms students already knew to our virtual tools. We teachers amended these expectations as the trimester continued, making our students’ mental well-being a priority. Another way we built community in Middle School math was having students respond to each other in Flipgrid or work collaboratively in small groups. We played games and did fun shares at the start of class about topics that had nothing directly to do with our learning. Community-building throughout the year helped us know each other in new ways and appreciate everyone’s individuality and interests.
I have several teacher friends around the country whose transition to remote teaching was nothing short of disastrous and frustrating. My experience at EPS, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. We were able to make the transition in less than a week and pick up right where we left off in the classroom. Our student body rose to this challenge and consistently met and exceeded the expectations my colleagues and I set. I’m looking ahead with a new lens and am excited to continue exploring strategies and opportunities to revitalize my teaching whether in person or remote. I’m so grateful to work at a school that supports its teachers and students in a form of education that is unfamiliar and can be intimidating. We don’t know yet what 2020-2021 will bring, but I feel safe and confident knowing I’m a part of the EPS community.