To Find What Works in the Virtual Classroom, Many Teachers Are Adapting Old Strategies
Illustrator: Olivia Wise
Matt Reed, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, was worried about one of his 9th-grade students. Portland Public Schools, he explained, had been all-remote since March 13, 2020, and this particular student seemed depressed, the kind of depression that verges on anger.
So Reed, after consulting with colleagues, went to the student’s house to see if he could coax him into going on a run together. They ended up going on a long walk. This student, Reed explained, learns best when surrounded by other students, and being stuck at home has been grinding.
Teachers have largely been left with little guidance and support during the pandemic — but in a strange way, that’s also left them with a certain freedom. Like so many teachers, Reed has been working to find ways to connect with his students beyond the dreary routine of the virtual classroom, and around the country, teachers have been finding ways to use this moment to reach out, to experiment, to challenge themselves, their students, and their colleagues.
Many of the social justice teachers I spoke with have found that what is working now is in many ways what has always worked: understanding and appreciating the inequalities students and their families are wrestling with, finding ways to make meaningful connections with students, grounding curriculum in their students’ lives, and refusing to let tests and grades be the measures of student success, among others.
This is not to put a pretty face on teaching during a pandemic that has been mishandled at every level of government. For every teacher who had a positive story to tell, three more told me that they simply didn’t have any. And for every minute of a call spent describing an innovative experiment, we spent five talking about the various ways that virtual learning can hardly be called learning. Yet there are some lessons learned from a year of virtual school that teachers like Reed found worth sharing.
The pandemic has made the inequalities that many teachers knew all too well even more obvious, and finding ways to meaningfully connect with students has often been difficult. For so many students, being at home means added responsibilities.
Alejandra Nava, a teacher at César Chávez School, also in Portland, explained that even 7th and 8th graders often are responsible for caring for younger brothers and sisters. “Pandemic times have brought us just more illustrations of how important the environment away from the home can sometimes be for kids because their family structures are so tight and they very much want to do what they can.”
One constant complaint from teachers has been that students won’t turn on their cameras. Peta Lindsay, who teaches at Venice High School in Los Angeles, argued that cameras can be an issue of equity and that some students may not feel comfortable showing others their homes. At Venice High, she noted, “I have kids who are Zoom broadcasting from their parents’ cabin in Tahoe in the same class as kids who are sharing a one-room apartment with many people.” Teachers, she suggested, need to find ways to get students engaged that accept that many of them won’t turn their cameras on.
Adam Sanchez, a Rethinking Schools editor who teaches at Abraham Lincoln High School in Philadelphia, agreed. “I think of my student Hakim, who I can clearly see in eighth period. Occasionally, he has his camera on and he’s caring for a younger sibling,” he said. “The struggle is to get students to tell you that they’re dealing with something, not that they’re constantly making excuses.” Other students, he knew, were working outside the home, bringing in income that their families might rely on.
Alekzandr Wray, who teaches ethnic studies at Seattle’s Garfield High School, said, “The challenge is building relationships.” In pre-pandemic times, he liked to have potlucks, movie days in the classroom, and to find ways for the students to have fun. Online, he said, “There is just not as much life giving. It’s those little human moments in a school building that make it easier for teachers to keep going.”
At other times, the lack of forced interaction has been a relief. Jay O’Neal, a middle school teacher in Charleston, West Virginia, who has been teaching in a hybrid model, noted that the need to maintain social distancing has also pared some of the more negative student interactions. “It has cut down on typical middle school drama. There’s been no fights. They’ve actually been able to learn.”
Without the need for the same kind of attention to discipline, Nava said, the teachers she works with have been able to put a lot of effort into making sure that students feel supported — and that is reflected back by other students. “The interactions that I see between kids are really forgiving of each other.”
And there are still moments of joy. “It’s been cool to see some advantages for some people, like introverted students are talking more because they’ve got the little chat box and you can go into their breakout room to chat with them,” said Ty Marshall, a teacher at Rosemont Ridge Middle School in West Linn, Oregon.
Jacob Steger, who teaches 1st grade in Milwaukee, said, “I would love to be in-person, but I have had so much fun with my students this year. I’ve never laughed harder, never loved teaching as much as I have this year.” To bring that sense of play to the classroom, he said, “you’ve got to become an entertainer. I have all these different hats. I have wigs. I have sunglasses.” It helps to keep moving: switching from the whole class to small group work, having specials like PE continue, having a teacher assistant and even the principal join the virtual class and check in with the kids.
Online teaching does make it possible to test out a more self-paced learning model, Marshall added. “It gives us the time to actually support the students that I think need and deserve the most; whether they have learning challenges or disabilities or just learning English or whatever the thing is.”
While some students have struggled with the technology, Turquoise LeJeune Parker, who teaches elementary students as media coordinator in Durham, North Carolina, and is also vice president of the Durham Association of Educators, has enjoyed watching her students get excited about learning to type, learning to use the cameras and to interact with each other digitally. Sometimes, she noted, they get silly with it: “You can, of course, stop the chat and you can not allow them to unmute themselves, but they are still going to find some way to communicate with you and show you how they’re going to find their autonomy. So, ‘I’m going to turn my video on and off’ or ‘I’m going to put my nostril as close to the camera as possible.’” But they’re also, she noted, building real skills while having fun.
Parker’s school has even been able to have virtual field trips for the students, with tour guides from the National Park Service giving students Zoom tours, or a museum in the community doing a virtual presentation.
Many teachers, Marshall noted, are also taking time outside of the home-classroom to reach out to their students. “The school building is this access point for a lot of services and care that we didn’t fully understand until the building was shut. A lot of teachers are filling those gaps dropping off books or food or supplies,” they said. Steger added that at his school, students have been able to come in and pick up a “learning bag” with various things — manipulatives, notebooks, things that the students will have in addition to their Chromebooks to use in their lessons. And in Parker’s union, teachers have gathered Valentine’s Day cards from the students and hand-delivered them to their classmates.
In some ways, said Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, this moment has strengthened communication between teachers and parents. “I can tell you that a lot of teachers who rarely made home visits or never made home visits have and that is a good thing,” she said. “For the first time teachers were forced to do virtual conferences and they had greater participation than they’ve ever experienced in their entire careers! We need to provide both all the time.”
It’s been important, Steger said, to make sure he’s talking to parents regularly and making them feel appreciated too. Nodding to the idea that “it takes a community to educate a child,” he stressed that the parents’ interaction with the teachers and administrators at his school have been able to make the year a positive one.
Many of the teachers I spoke with said they have still been able to find ways to ground their classes and curriculum in their students’ lives and that the virtual classroom, while not ideal, might have some advantages when grappling with COVID-19, recent political events, and discussing white supremacy.
Peta Lindsay in Los Angeles has used technology that allows students to post anonymously about what they’re going through. “We actually had a few of those conversations today where — again — a student put up that they had COVID or their family had COVID and people in the class come forward to offer support and solidarity.”
Adam Sanchez in Philadelphia dealt with the difficulty of the pandemic by allowing two different paths. “One was ‘Let’s continue with the African American history course’ and the other one was ‘Let’s talk about COVID: where it comes from, what are the politics and economics surrounding it?’” Some students didn’t want to talk about COVID, he said, while others “couldn’t talk about anything else.” Then the uprisings in the spring, following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, began. “It was on everyone’s mind when we came back in September, so we jumped right into it.”
Sanchez used technology to have students create visual essays tackling the question of policing and particularly police in schools. That issue was even more stark for students who were, while learning from home, experiencing schooling without police for the first time. “It has been completely normalized for a lot of students and this summer and this fall was — for a lot of them — the first time they had even thought about ‘Do police belong in schools?’”
Lindsay, aside from her own work teaching about Black Lives Matter, made a video to help teachers think about how to teach the protests. “That needs to be something you’re doing with students from the first day so that when this stuff comes up you can just go right into it. White supremacy is a unit one vocab concept because I teach U.S. history.” It was, she noted, the first year that Black History had been offered at Venice High, due to student organizing and interest. “We’re at a moment where they want to talk about it,” she said. “You better be ready!”
She’s also linked teaching the pandemic back to these questions of racism and equity. “Some of the inequality we’re seeing in terms of health expectations in Los Angeles are very much linked to historical underdevelopment in those neighborhoods.”
Even for the younger students that Turquoise Parker, in Durham, teaches, it’s been “natural,” she said, to talk about the pandemic and racial justice in the virtual classroom. “The children are learning so much as we go outside of our instructional hours. They have been watching the news and listening to the adults who are around them. They have come up with their own ways to talk through this.” It gives her an opportunity, she said, to have natural conversations about things that the students bring up, conversations that are “more tangible and stick so much better with kids.” Her union put forward a resolution to recognize February as Black Lives Matter at School Month of Action for the future as well.
Jay O’Neal in West Virginia has used the pandemic as a jumping-off point. “We start off class looking at the most recent coronavirus data. I think learning to read charts and graphs, that’s a really good skill that they need anyway.” The immediacy of the material helps them learn the hard skills — and also absorb the reality of the need for safety precautions.
Alekzandr Wray, who teaches in Seattle, has focused on connecting past history to the present reality. He asked the students whether they’d take a vaccine if it was offered. “I had a bunch of my students of color, particularly my Black students, say, ‘No. I’m not going to take that yet. I want to see the effects on other people to make sure it’s safe.’ Then, a bunch of my white kids go, ‘Absolutely I would take the vaccine! They’ve done a whole bunch of clinical studies and they’ve determined it’s safe and there’s a bunch of rules to make sure it’s safe.’”
From there, he said, they moved into a discussion about the history of medical experimentation on Black people in places like Tuskegee, and still-present issues of discrimination in the healthcare system. “At the end of the class, one of the white kids who said he would take it goes, ‘I’m just surprised at myself that I wouldn’t even question whether or not this might be safe. I think that is a reflection of my own maybe rose-colored glasses or my own privilege to not even question what authority tells me.”
“That has been my approach to it: ground it in today and then use what happened before to explain today and get them thinking about what needs to happen for tomorrow,” Wray added.
Students, Ty Marshall in Oregon said, “need desperately for us to acknowledge that this is not normal.” In addition to the pandemic, the uprisings in Portland that lasted long into the summer with intense police violence, there were also wildfires to contend with in Oregon. Marshall’s students “did essentially a gallery walk through all the different forces of this moment. They wrote letters to future generations, lessons learned.”
Events in the outside world are often bringing history to life in new ways, and that in turn has made students more excited to engage remotely. Matt Reed in Portland noted, “Before break, I said to students, ‘Folks are tearing down Confederate statues and monuments. What should be in their place?’ Having students do research, write explanations, and even design some Reconstruction era monuments has been really rad. I’ve had many students say, ‘This is the first time, Mr. Reed, that I’m doing group work distantly.’”
One of the biggest challenges this year for social justice educators has obviously been grading. It’s ludicrous, Peta Lindsay in Los Angeles noted, “to be putting pressure on teachers to be doing graded assignments at a point when our ICUs are full and we’re using words like ‘mass casualty event’ and ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Los Angeles right now.”
Alekzandr Wray in Seattle has been experimenting with a different system of grading. He studied at Fairhaven College, where, he explained, students got “narrative evaluations” instead of letter grades. Those evaluations, he said, allow him to look back and recall his own learning process years later; this year, he’s chosen to incorporate the process into his grading. “I am still legally required to give letter grades, but I’m allowing my students to engage with me in a dialogue and a conversation about their letter grades by doing narrative evaluations, where they’re reflecting on the quality of their work, their participation, they’re reflecting on how showing up in this remote learning environment has impacted their ability to show up as a learner and as a community member.”
It’s also a way for him to get a deeper understanding of what students were struggling with over the course of the crisis. “According to my rubric, perhaps this was a C+ essay, but then I find out that the student has to look after their younger siblings while struggling with homelessness or food insecurity or mom being sick and having to take care of mom,” Wray said. “I’m like, ‘If you were dealing with all of that and you were still able to produce a C+ essay, imagine what you could have done if you were able to sit in a library for five hours a day and just focus on your work?’ I’m able to take that information and compensate what my rubric would not be able to compensate for.”
At other schools, like the one where Matt Reed teaches in Portland, teachers have collectively pushed back on the demand to keep grading as normal. This year, he and his colleagues have decided “We’re not giving F’s. Period.” Adam Sanchez also saw a new willingness to question the grading system in Philadelphia. “Failure rates are skyrocketing and that has caused conversations that I’ve never really had at a big high school like ‘What would it mean to get rid of grades?’”
Ty Marshall in Oregon has also changed the way they give assignments, labeling the ones that are “Must Do,” then adding the ones that are “Should Do” and then marking others as “Aspire To.” They note that “for some students, the ‘Must Do’ is what is possible in this moment and that is OK.”
The question of standardized testing still looms, though, especially as the Biden administration has pushed for testing despite an uproar from teacher unions. In Portland, Reed said, a group of elementary school teachers had organized to try to eliminate standardized testing for elementary school students in the fall, and were working to expand that in the spring.
Instead of worrying about testing and grading, the teachers I spoke with were more concerned with trying to find out from their students what they needed most. “When I was meeting with students right after break this week, a lot of students were telling me that they were upset that they’re not as productive as they usually are,” Lindsay said. “We had to pull back and talk about ‘What is this drive for productivity?’”
Teachers have also found ways to combat their own isolation from one another. “That’s also part of the reason that we started the Ida B. Wells Education Project,” Peta Lindsay in Los Angeles explained. “There was a lot of despair and disillusionment and ‘I don’t know what to do’ kind of feelings coming from the teachers I knew. I intentionally set out to build community.” Since then, the group has been meeting regularly on Zoom, allowing teachers from around the country to connect.
It’s been thanks to strong unions like Lindsay’s United Teachers Los Angeles and the Chicago Teachers Union that many teachers have been able to remain mostly safe during the pandemic. But the ongoing need to fight premature return-to-classroom orders has also meant some of the other demands the unions might be making can fall by the wayside.
Still, there’s a new militancy in the air in many places. Adam Sanchez in Philadelphia felt that the pandemic was driving a new awareness of the problems with a system that was failing teachers and students even before the crisis. “Now, everyone understands the school district does not care about your life. They are willing to send you to die to get their data.” Turquoise Parker in Durham echoed this feeling, pointing to the way teachers have been attacked in newspapers and television news for understandable hesitancy at returning to the classroom.
The pandemic has made organizing among teachers more difficult, but as Sanchez said, “I hope it’s the dam that is holding the tidal wave. Once we’re back in the classroom and we’re able to talk to other people and organize in an easier way, all of this will come to fruition in some ways that I think it’s harder to see in this moment. My sense, right now, is that a lot of teachers are feeling that it is their breaking point.”
The failures of the current moment have shown teachers that they will have to take the lead, because elected officials and administrators will not. And something else is finally clear: As Reed said, “Don’t tell me there’s not enough money.”
The moment is ripe, he continued, for bringing bigger demands to the bargaining table, for dreaming about what education could be. “If all we’re able to do right now is survive? Cool. Survive. But we also have to be thinking about and actually working right now to build the world that we want to move into.”
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