Teaching Science Remotely

As a first-year teacher, I’ve been pushed in more directions than I thought possible with my career. My goal is to apply this experience to make my students, myself, and my teaching skills stronger in the long run."
Ryan Herbert, GS

TPP alumnus, Ryan Herbert, GS. 

By Ryan Herbert, GS

Reflection on Distance Education from mid-Spring 2020:

Distance education as a first-year teacher has been a challenge. I’m grateful that I had two months at my school to acclimate to teaching 9th-grade bio in the spring. If I hadn’t met and learned about my students in person, I would not be nearly as effective at managing them from a distance. This is something I worry about for next year should distance education continue, and I would then have an entirely new set of students…

A theme that I’ve focused on is consistency. I know the difficulties that students have with technology, so I quickly tried to establish class procedures so that students would know what to expect. Each day, they are expected to enter a submission (covering most of class) and a discussion (covering an in-depth extension question or side topic). I know 9th graders, and that has meant ensuring that they always have a deliverable for any work that they are assigned. I respond to each discussion. Once a week, I also have a “more heavily graded” assignment that I thoroughly review and give them feedback on. As much as I would like to go through every submission, most of class consists of submissions, and I could not be thorough with my already overbooked work schedule. Of course, I provide them with detailed keys and dedicated time in class to review their work, usually on the next day.

My daily schedule is varied – I’ve got to ensure everything is uploaded correctly, make an announcement to direct students, check on student completion of work and log it, update late work submitted, contact students who are missing/struggling, respond to their individual discussion posts, grade their more heavily graded assignment of the week, plan lessons for future classes, create keys, and provide weekly Zoom office hours where I give a mini-lecture. My time spent doing each changes, but I at least know exactly what I must have done. I miss the active classroom component since that was really what got me into teaching. I’m able to complete everything that must be done, but it is much less automatic. I really must push myself to do each task, and that has taken diligence.

My district does not require daily Zoom meetings, and teachers follow a mix of strategies. I have chosen to make myself available and offer a weekly mini-lecture but not daily required Zoom meetings. We’re already at about ~half the time for biology class due to no lab periods and 2/3 of daily class time compared to our in-school schedule, and my opinion is that consistent Zoom classes could be inefficient and unengaging – I especially fear a fall-off from students who don’t attend live and then distance themselves from being active students. Having students watch recordings of Zoom meetings seems like a recipe for having students give up. This could be a factor of my inexperience, but there’s something you realize with distance education: there isn’t a handbook! My preference is to have engaging and approachable science presented to them for them to learn at their own pace. I have students completing classwork anywhere from the morning to midnight. Based on what I’ve heard from other teachers, the participation rate of my students has been above average.

Regarding science, we are lucky to have a lot of resources and a supportive community, but we are missing the all-important “A-ha!” classroom moments since they are often unreadable from a distance. I make frequent use of online simulations in the form of Gizmos as we did in the classroom. They are effective, engaging, and standards-based. Videos (always with an accompanying worksheet) are excellent to expose students to many phenomena. It is unfortunately difficult to gauge student progress since everything is done open-book and, for better or worse, is open to collaboration. It can be hard to tell if a certain student really isn’t “getting it”. But I’ve made daily discussion posts that are graded for reasonable completion, so I don’t think students are incentivized to stretch much beyond their own thinking. I respond personally to each post, getting a sense for their thinking and giving them feedback to reflect on. How much they actually review in my feedback and keys is unknown…but I do give dedicated time daily for that.

I’m trying to take away the positive from this experience. I’ve definitely honed a skillset for utilizing online media, whether that be from navigating through our online education platform (Canvas) or figuring out the most effective ways to replace in-class phenomena. I’ve gone from never reaching out to a parent during my first two months of teaching to, more or less, daily check-ins based on need. I wish I could speak from the student’s perspective about their improvement, but I do think that we’re simply not able to provide them with as good of an education despite our best efforts. Granted, I do think many are learning college-level skills like self-pacing, keeping up with emails, and seeking out help when needed. I have surveyed my students, and most felt like they were still learning bio well. They also let me know that I needed to give ~10 minutes less of daily work. I’ve adjusted to respect that.

Update for Fall 2020:

As we begin this unprecedented new year, everyone in my district is getting acclimated to our new hybrid model. Students are able to choose to stay all-virtual (about half chose this) or to come in on a rotating schedule that puts them in classrooms for 25% of the week. Despite a lot of bumps in the road with new technology, hybridized class materials, and a lot more management for teachers, the community has demonstrated a lot of resilience. I’m hoping that last spring’s leap into uncharted territory teaches us how to better adapt. As a first-year teacher, I’ve been pushed in more directions than I thought possible with my career. My goal is to apply this experience to make my students, myself, and my teaching skills stronger in the long run.