Salvaging a Failed Lesson

By Catherine Conley

Today we finished our third week of online classes, and my last class was the worst online teaching experience I’ve had so far. Usually being in this class is like being on Family Feud. The students encourage each other with chorus of “good job,” “great answer,” “you’re on fire,” “sooo good,” and the like. It is a mixed class of juniors and seniors, but they don’t discriminate. They cheer on all. It is usually such a joy to be with them.

But not today. Instead, they were whiny and negative. There were the regular complaints that they are tired and there is too much work, but it was more than that. They are beginning to feel the effects of staying home so much. They don’t feel well; their backs hurt; their curiosity is dulled. It didn’t help that there was a bit of a tech glitch too so that the question I wanted to post on the Classroom had to be retyped. And of course, it was a long one, so they were waiting while I prepped it. I tried to talk to them as I recreated their assignment, but as most of them do not use their mics and prefer to write their comments in the chat box, I couldn’t see those while I was typing on a different tab. And then, wow, did they misread the passage.

I’m using Nancy Dean’s Voice Lessons; they translate nicely to Google Classroom Questions; then, with Meet we can follow up and discuss. Today’s passage was from Erma Bombeck about the ridiculousness of seasonal clothes sales. Anyone 40 or older should be familiar with Bombeck’s cheerfully satiric wit. My students today, however, were not. They could not get past their own unhappiness. Instead of seeing the genial nature of the satire, they saw bitterness, anger, and annoyance. When I asked them to back up their responses, they were plot based and general–September stuff, not April. I had to lead them back down the path of looking at the words and images directly. It was tough going. They didn’t so much fight me on the interpretation, but instead started getting down on themselves. “I never get these allusions,” one student said. Others agreed. This is right after finding out that the AP English Lit exam will be one prose passage essay, and they all began to get down on their abilities. As classes go, it was an epic fail.

Here’s the thing. We all have classes that fail sometimes. There are days you have to throw your lesson plans out the window, days when you as teacher have to temper your own responses. Sometimes, it’s a bad day. It’s as likely to happen in your digital classroom as it does in your physical one.

So, today, my lesson plans were truncated. We didn’t even touch the short story they were to have read for class. I let them vent a little; I heard/read their complaints and responded to them. “Yes, I know it’s tough being home with so many other people trying to work or play at the same time.” “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well today.” “Can you find some time for yourself this weekend for one of those new hobbies you’ve been telling me about?” “Those meals you’re cooking sound delicious.” They need us to hear them.

Then, we spent time with Erma, and I walked them through it. Don’t let go of the lesson entirely, but be willing to truncate and change it. Usually, I ask leading questions, I press for details, but when I tried, I received either silence or abnegation of their abilities. I needed to stop my regular questioning and show them the details instead. Of course this is frustrating, knowing how much more capable they are, how much they have backslid today, and at first, I heard that frustration in my voice. I’m sure they could too. I had to make a conscious effort to change my tone of voice to encouragement and excitement over the passage. They have to hear that I believe in them even as I’m showing them something they missed. 

My next thought was my face. Sitting in front of a largely black screen that shows just the student’s initial or whatever avatar she’s chosen, it is sometimes hard to remember that they can see me full screen. Sometimes, I pin my own face to the screen so I see me as they do. No one likes looking at themselves like that, but it’s not a bad idea if your students’ cameras are off. I had to look today at this tiny camera with concern and care.

And when the class time comes to an end, let the lesson go. Don’t burden them with extra homework because you didn’t get to it in class. They aren’t “being bad or disruptive”; they’re stressed. They need understanding, not punishment. Today, I simply asked my students to reread the story they had read for today’s class so we can tackle it on Monday. Will they do it? Maybe. They said “okay” and “will do.” They know they didn’t have as rigorous a class today as usual. They also know that that can’t happen every time.

Teaching is a profession of human interaction. One of the things we are all missing about our schools is the community. Do what you can to create that community online while we have to. That way when a lesson fails, you’re there to pick up the pieces and help the students in front of you right then when they need it. Just like you do in your physical classroom.

Catherine Rauchenberger Conley is a high school English teacher, poet, and writer. For 22 years, she has worked to instill a love of reading in her students at St. Jean Baptiste HS in NYC. She lives in Queens with her husband and cat. The former supports her writing interests; the latter steals her pens. More of her writing is available in Tuck Magazine, The New Verse News, and on her blog at

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