By Danielle McAuliffe
The absence of bells and the cacophony of announcements in the morning is replaced with an unusual, peaceful quiet in the virtual high school. There are no loitering students in the halls, no calls to cover classes, no broken copy machines or parking problems. The usual hustle and bustle of what we associate with school is gone, and we are left with, well, time. Uninterrupted time to prepare for the day has become the new normal for both students and teachers. And I don’t mind it—in fact, I enjoy teaching remotely.
I no longer spend weeks fumbling over attendance or playing games so that students can learn each other’s names. Names appear under video streams, making introductions immediate and seamless. I begin each English class with an open chat, much like that in the physical classroom when we socialize before class starts. We chat about sports, pets, weekend plans, friends, and siblings; this time belongs to them. One advantage of this socialization, whether it happens in the chat box or open microphone, is that it is more centralized with a format that includes rather than excludes, as students are no longer able to form cliques. If only I didn’t need so many reminders from my students to “unmute” myself before I start talking!
As class begins, I watch a father kiss his daughter on the forehead on his way out the door, a cat walks across a camera, a younger sibling jumps in to say hello, and we debate whose breakfast looks most appealing. We are all more vulnerable in a sense because we are virtually present in each other’s homes, but I have seen this build empathy, comradery and friendship in a way that the impersonal nature of the school building often serves as an unintentional barrier to, especially during the first term.
My lessons closely mimic those in the physical classroom, and my use of technology (basic Google Suite) is rather simplistic. I continue to follow my colleagues who are adept at using the latest virtual learning platforms (and share their experiences in workshops and LOOM videos); however, I’ve found that these platforms are sometimes superfluous for my purposes. A shared slide with the day’s agenda is on screen for my students to review prior to the start of class, as it would have been on the white board. We learn new vocabulary words with the same set of oversized flashcards that I have used for years, and we reinforce them in a way that gets students moving around behind their screens as they would in the physical classroom space. Each vocabulary word has a physical movement related to its definition that the students act out using their bodies, much like they would playing charades. These words have been carefully chosen from the novels we will read this year, albeit in PDF instead of paperback. A quick mini-lesson is then presented through screen share from my second computer (I join each Google Meet twice for this purpose). As I advance through the slides, I am no longer a teacher at the white board with my back to the students, fumbling to find that one Expo marker that still has ink. By joining the Google Meet from two separate computers, I am able to observe the class as they watch the virtual “board.” I can see who is attentive and who is confused. I can answer questions in the chat without disrupting the rhythm of the lesson.
The independent work is easier to monitor and support in the virtual classroom. My students practice grammar using an interactive platform (Noredink.com) that I’ve used for years. It provides enough free content for a year’s worth of curriculum, as well as appropriate scaffolding that leads to noticeably improved sentence structure in my students’ writing. Another benefit is that the program gives them immediate feedback. I can meet with struggling students privately or in small groups and they can share their screens, and I can walk them through challenges. When the students engage in writing assignments, I can make comments and suggestions in real time in their Google docs. Students stay after class, they break off into groups during class, and ABA tutors, paraprofessionals, and administrators join anytime without interruption. One young new-hire joined class so seamlessly that I mistook her for a student and called on her to answer questions.
School-to-home communication is fast and easy. I can meet with a student and parent during lunch block with five minutes’ notice. The parent can meet from home or work. I’ve even spied on my own teenage daughter’s class from just off camera to see what she’s learning, and I’ve encouraged parents to observe my classes in this way, too.
Perhaps the best part of virtual learning is the absence of discipline problems. The trivial things that teachers fight with teenagers about (wearing hats and hoods, loitering in the halls, using phones in class, eating where they shouldn’t, not cleaning up after themselves) have been eliminated. Of course, there are still students who resist virtual school just as some students resisted school in the classroom, but they no longer disrupt the learning of others, and I can follow up with them privately and offer my assistance. I’ve even found that some students who struggled to learn or stay on task in the high school building are thriving in this new environment! My discipline policy in the classroom was always, “don’t disrupt the learning.” Now, I don’t really have one. We learn together, make mistakes together, and we delve into the future of new educational possibilities that I could never have imagined just one year ago.
Danielle McAuliffe is an English teacher at an urban public high school. She has taught grades 9-12 for the last eighteen years. She has spent many years teaching SPED inclusion in a co-taught classroom, and she has also taught honors and ESL classes. She earned a Master’s of Teaching English from Fitchburg State University.