There’s no question that education during the 2020-21 school year faced a dramatic change that no one expected. During the start of the pandemic, educators, students, and parents adjusted to a new way of learning and teaching. Midway through the month of March of last year, many believed, including me, that everything would return to normal at the start of a new school year. However, here we are one year later wondering, “when will this ever end?” Zoom sessions are the new norm and communication is more important than ever. Both students and educators developed a new entrance to the classroom as students click on the class Zoom link and teachers accept their request. This is drastically different from welcoming students at the door, shaking their hands as they enter the room. Although Zoom sessions aren’t the most ideal classroom experience, the question becomes, “is it possible for students to have a voice over Zoom?” The simple answer is yes. In fact, we have an opportunity to learn new ways to engage our students.
New ways of communication and collaboration
As I’ve entered my 8th year of teaching at Burton Middle School in Porterville, CA, I have prided myself on learning new and effective ways to communicate and engage students in my lessons. As a history and video production teacher, both direct instruction and collaborative learning are at the core of my classroom success. Allowing students to pair or group with their classmates to work on an assignment or project encourages the idea of working with others. Each student has a role and I monitor the participation as the facilitator. However, distanced learning created an adjustment on how to maintain the same form of communication and collaborative engagement.
Using Zoom as an effective learning tool
If a teacher uses Zoom to teach core content, here are some ways to include communication and engagement in their instruction. Google has a number of tools that work well with online instruction. The benefit of using Google — particularly when it comes to student participation and engagement — is that it allows the teachers and students to share documents with one another. Throughout the school year, I have assigned work where students must collaborate with each other to complete the assignment. Each student is provided a role in their group activities. As the teacher, I monitor that portion of the assignment.
For example, one of our classroom projects — where students had to be in groups — was to create a bill that was to go through Congress and sign into law by the President of the United States. Each student had a role, such as the researcher, the House advisor, the Senate advisor, and the Presidential advisor. The researcher was responsible for finding information about the proposed bill, as the advisors discovered how to pass a law on a bipartisan agreement. The students used Google Docs to track each other’s progress and presented their final product on Google Slides. The students also had the option to present live in class or by a recorded video. In addition to this project, to develop their opinions on the kind of bill needed for the American people, student groups used Google Forms to survey students, teachers, and parents. This allowed students to develop more responsibility as they completed this project.
Adapting online tools for your subject-specific needs
As an educator who teaches more than one subject, I learned that the formats of communication and collaboration work across most subjects, but should be adjusted to the needs of the subject. During a history lesson, students utilize the chat for required responses. This allows every student the opportunity, regardless if a student is more outspoken or a student is more on the quiet side, a chance to participate in the classroom discussions. Furthermore, a class like video production can also ask questions through chat and use Google formats such as docs, slides, and draw for brainstorming and scriptwriting. Another form of communication that has been helpful during distanced learning is the app called Remind. This app allows me as the teacher to send announcements to the class before any deadlines, or important messages that students should know. Parents are also invited to use the app and receive the same message as the student. Finally, office hours at a set time are beneficial for students. During office hours, students or parents know when to contact their teachers to discuss grades, concerns, or help on any assignment.
Giving our students a voice
Distanced learning has been a learning experience for many teachers. However, it is my hope that my fellow educators have now learned the difference between a traditional classroom and a student-led classroom. Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve learned that being too comfortable with the traditional classroom can result in a teacher dominating the classroom experience where the students have no voice. This is a familiar method of teaching where the teacher is in front of the classroom and students are either listening, taking notes, or even dozing off. It’s a classroom environment that has been too common in our professional lives. However, with the 21st century model of teaching, student voice and choice can become powerful in a classroom. Allowing students to voice their opinions and create solutions to the problems that are being taught can allow students to practice real-life expectations.
Zoom creates a comfortable space for conversation
Zoom sessions can be a great way to have students engage in meaningful conversations. I’ve learned that even the students who never talk or engage in the classroom have used the chat as a powerful method to use their voice. Allowing students the opportunity to still have a sense of belonging in the classroom. Of course, everything is done with structure and practice. The more we engage with students, whether in-person or online, the more quality we will get from the lessons. I, as the teacher, have become the facilitator and the students are now learning how to become the experts. Both teachers and students will experience the learning curve, along with the idea that mistakes will be made. However, it is the practice and experience that can help rethink the idea of teachers completely dominating the classroom.
Thriving through the chaos
In conclusion, although not ideal, the Zoom experience has not stopped the much-needed engagement for our students. In fact, it has taught us the difference between being comfortable in the traditional classroom and learning how to adapt in the midst of a forced and unfortunate change. There is no question, the student learning experience in the classroom is like no other. However, the learning curve that came with distanced learning has created new opportunities to teach and learn from one another. The education field is one of the most unique, yet challenging careers one can experience. There will always be the possibility of the good and bad days of teaching. Regardless, as the year goes on, it is my hope that we understand the importance of student engagement, student voice, and meaningful teaching. In spite of the many challenges that will be faced in the future, whether on campus or on Zoom, the classroom still has a purpose to help mold the future generation.