Teaching in Fall 2020: Ten Strategies for Pandemic Learning

Yes, we should all probably be teaching online in Fall 2020. But the powers-that-be have decided, at least for some of us, that we are going to carry on with face-to-face teaching, even as they explain to us in calm, reassuring terms the conditions of our own demise.

If we must head back to campus, we might as well make it count, at least until we “toggle” back to online instruction a la March 2020, as several major universities have already done.

When you think about what you’re going to do with students in the physical classroom space, don’t look back to Spring 2020. That ship has sailed. Instead, ask yourself some tough, possibly transformative questions about your teaching and the commonplaces of your pedagogy. Start with this one:

What am I trying to accomplish in the classroom space that can’t be accomplished just as well in the online space?

(Note the lack of qualifying statements in the previous sentence. I didn’t say “nearly as well”; I wrote “just as well.”) I’ve put together a list of ten tips for teaching in the weirdness of Fall 2020:

  1. Resist the urge to lecture. Lecturing is not teaching. Scads of research tells us this, but it’s also just good common sense. How well do you learn sitting in meetings listening to someone drone on? How much more ineffective will this be with masks? Instead, figure out a plan for each class that includes a written agenda that you share with students ahead of time, complete with learning objectives for each class, readings and homework for class preparation, and a clear sense of what you want to accomplish together and why. The urge will be to lecture–social distancing in a classroom makes this inevitable–but if you spend your class time workshopping and writing, you can handle all of the housekeeping and instruction via other modes. Reserve class time for serendipity. Do the nuts ‘n’ bolts stuff via LMS and email.
  2. Conference instead. When it comes to writing pedagogy, one-on-one conferences with students are the “gold standard.” Using Zoom, WebEx, or another conferencing platform, one-on-one and small group conferences on student writing make a whole lot more sense than trying to do peer review in class. One of the most effective tools writing teachers have at their disposal is the “just in time” writing conference; luckily, now that Zoom conferencing has become the norm, you can do this whenever a student needs a nudge or feedback on their writing.
  3. Learn everything you can about Zoom…or whichever video conferencing platform your institution uses. If you’re at IU, the Knowledge Base is a great place to start.
  4. Get organized. This has been (and will most likely continue to be) a tough one for me. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, I enjoy the serendipity and fluidity of face-to-face teaching, particularly in the context of a writing class where literally anything can become a point of discussion or a compelling question to spark student creativity. This semester, I am encouraging my instructors to send out a daily agenda for each and every class, complete with the specific learning objectives for that day, as well as links to relevant assignments in Canvas, web resources, due dates, and other helpful information.
  5. Use written artifacts. One of the most persistent questions I’ve received from my faculty about Fall 2020 has to do with some version of “How am I going to ensure that students are spending quality time-on-task without the built-in surveillance (let’s just call it what it is) of the physical classroom space? Guess what? It’s a writing class! Use this to your advantage. If you send students across campus or outside to peer review drafts or work on a small group project, don’t just send them into the wild with a handout and your best wishes. Give them specific instructions about what you want them to accomplish and leave enough time at the end of the meeting to share out and collect whatever written artifact you’ve assigned.
  6. Build community however and whenever you can. This will be challenging. Again, I think the best way to go here is to use your LMS to your advantage. Encourage students to Zoom with you whenever they have questions rather than a simple email or LMS message.
  7. Don’t let the course become a daily referendum on COVID-19. Students, like you, are sick of talking about the pandemic almost as much as they are sick of living through it. At the same time, you can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Use a syllabus statement that forthrightly lays out how this semester will be different and go over it on the first day of class. Then, just let it go.
  8. Get used to the idea that the technology will fail you, probably at the most inopportune time. Don’t get embarrassed when your passphrase doesn’t work. Don’t curse at the projector when it stubbornly won’t find the correct input. Just laugh it off and slide right into the next item of the day’s agenda; you can always come back to what you missed in Canvas later.
  9. Have a sense of humor about things. If you don’t already have a sense of humor, develop one, then work hard to maintain it. You’re going to need it this semester.
  10. And finally, be kind. Remember that your students didn’t sign up for this pandemic any more than we did. Here’s some wisdom from the Twittersphere:

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