Lessons in Virtual Teaching

Berklee Online & FLX Fitclub

Last winter my son was a high school sophomore. He is interested in saxophone performance studies in college and his career goal is to be a woodwind doubler on Broadway. He and I sat down and started to look at online college class options before the pandemic even hit. We looked at the information for Berklee Online and watched examples of the classes. They give you a great window into the course by releasing part of a module for you to get a solid idea of the style. This includes a sample video lesson, as well as the other materials. He made a plan for a possible summer class after assessing just how busy he was with high school.

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly he was not so busy and thought, “I’m gonna give this a go.” This turned out to be the absolute BEST decision ever for more reasons than one.

Little did I know that I would learn as much as he did from this experience. This post is all about those bits of learning as well as the things I picked up from virtual and hybrid classes at my gym; FLX Fitclub.

Individual Feedback

As he started his class watching his required videos and doing his lessons, I noticed that he really thrived on and anticipated the feedback from his professor. A positive one liner from his professor would make his day. Our dinner table conversation shifted from HS stories to Berklee online lessons. As the weeks went on and his asynchronous high school coursework continued, he grew more and more connected to his Berklee work and his professor. As a middle school teacher, I was meeting with my own students virtually daily, and he only had access to his Berklee teacher live one hour a week. Yet, his connection seemed very strong. I was struggling with the lack of the in person connection with my kids. Everything felt kind of empty, even though I was giving lots of feedback. Seeing how the feedback he received strengthened his relationship with someone he hadn’t even met, made me realize:

Don’t underestimate the power of the individual connection. The feedback and comments matter.

Content & Pacing

Xander’s Berklee week of lessons opened up every Sunday. He had one live class scheduled at a different time each week while the rest of the class consisted of videos, asynchronous discussions, and assignments. He could complete them when it worked for him and the system kept track of his progress. He looked forward to Sundays. He also tried to complete his work with enough time to spare that he would have most or all of a day off before the new content opened up. The timing and pacing motivated him to stay on track. Our family started to operate in “Berklee class time of – this is week 7 or can you believe it is already week 8?”

I had tried something like that with my students the year prior but it didn’t really launch. At the time we had tech in our hands, but the kids had to leave their chrome books at school at night. Not all students had wifi or a device to use at home. I also struggled with a general reluctance to watching videos for learning. Despite the success of a flipped classroom for some of my colleagues at the HS level, it didn’t seem to be attainable for me at that time.

Still, I paid close attention to Xander’s set-up. I started to consider the type of container I could build for my class. I looked at paid platforms, but they were all designed for someone to teach independently online and collect revenue. That was not my plan. Instead, I started to design units on my website that could be unlocked one by one. But, when my school decided to sign onto the learning management system, Brightspace, my need to manage a class this way shifted. I changed course.

As the year started, I tried to set up a system like Berklee with the launch of a mini-unit and a certain amount of time to complete it. It completely failed. The kids weren’t ready for the system. They were used to being in lock step with each other. A switch would take time.

Turning Teaching on its head

As Xander continued to enroll in a new class every 14 weeks, I started to ask him more questions. “How many kids come to live class?” The answer was 3 or so regardless of the size of the class. Classes were recorded and students could watch them at any point. In some classes he was the only student. I wondered if the teacher ever questioned whether it was even worth it. Still, I watched him get excited to tune in.

“Tell me about your discussions.” Discussions are required, but students have a long time to add to the discussion. I noticed that Xander pounced to comment but many students waited until the grace period at the very end of the course to go back in and comment. It wasn’t lost on me that these were students of all ages who had paid for the privilege of this class. I had taken a summer course that required discussions and I didn’t get it. To me a discussion is something that happens in real time. I still find myself confused by his interest in a discussion and his willingness to go back and check out replies. In my summer class I submitted my replies for discussions but I was completely unengaged in the process.

While teaching, I’m energized by the vibe of the classroom. I feed off the enthusiasm of the students. Where was that enthusiasm here? What was the impetus to do the work? In some classes feedback for all work was public for all students. In some it was private just to Xander. Every time he and I talked it seemed to come back to that individual relationship between teacher and student. I came to understand that in virtual and hybrid teaching that my individual connection to students was the powerful piece.

That honest feedback you give each student individually, whether typed or in a video or audio file really matters.

Self Paced Learning

I’m still not to a point where I can open a week on Monday and close it on Friday. Our system has what they call “conditional release” where you can set it up so that you can’t see the assignment until you watch the video. However, my savvy students quickly realize that to “watch” the video just means to turn it on and then the assignment will release. The rest of the students who don’t open the video just never see the assignment if I set it up that way. Middle school and online college classes aren’t the same beast. Still, I’m moving forward with semi-self paced study. Google Slides, Jamboard and inserted video have been an incredible change for my classroom. Jamboard has become my own little workaround to not having a .pdf writer like Kami or another program. Our district recently purchased PearDeck and I’m very excited to investigate this!

FLX FitClub Lessons

FLX hybrid BodyPump class. Our screen is on the bottom left.

Early in the pandemic, friend and FLX Fitclub owner Chantelle started offering virtual classes over Zoom. Scott and I attended the classes from our living room. FLX teaches Les Mills Classes and our favorite of those is Body Pump. We already have Les Mills on Demand where you can watch the Les Mills instructors deliver perfect classes whenever you want. We’ve always used that to supplement our FLX classes for cycling, BodyPump, Combat, Yoga, Grit and more. We feel connected to these presenters, but have a much stronger connection with Chantelle and her great team of local instructors. As Chantelle opened up her virtual classes, I wondered how they would go.

Connection over Perfect

We found that as the pandemic started that we would turn to FLX classes virtually a little more often than our perfect LES Mills on Demand. I didn’t consider WHY until one day when my daughter invited me to attend a virtual class with the instructor she had certified with for Les Mills. She’d trained in person and she said he was AWESOME. Ok why not. I wasn’t doing much that afternoon anyway. We set up in the living room and his audio was a mess, his set-up was less than stellar and he wasn’t a bit motivating to me. She took a glance back at me and saw my flat affect. “Mom you don’t have to do this.” Had I even been the tiniest bit connected to the instructor I would have stayed, but I pounced and said, “ok” and promptly put my equipment away.

If the class isn’t perfect, the connection is what matters.

This helped me understand why my students were willing to watch my perfectly average videos. I was often surprised when kids would say they’d rather have me teach it in video or in person than have a video from someone else.

YouTube and EdPuzzle

A HS colleague uses EdPuzzle. It is an essential part of his class. Another HS teacher uses his own unlisted YouTube videos. I dabbled in both prior to this time, but hadn’t yet found my way.

At the start of the year I tried EdPuzzle again. It allows you to upload videos and add questions. You can assign it to a class and see if they watch the video, check their answers to the questions and more. There were two things going against it for me. The first was that whenever I tried using it with my student hat on I became anxious and focused on the potential answer to the upcoming question. The result? I would get the question right because I was listening for detail, but I’d miss the big picture. I would always find myself at the end of a video with no recall of what I watched. The 2nd ding was that it made me feel like a cop. Suddenly I could see who watched the whole thing, who never even logged in and everyone in-between.

YouTube unlisted was a little better, but you could still see the number of views and assume. If you have 17 students in a classroom and it has 10 views, now you wonder which 7 (or more because let’s face it, some kids may watch more than once) just ignored your ask to watch the video.

Does it matter if they watch the video?

One morning I was chatting with a MS colleague. She uses Google Slides, embedding video into them. I asked, “do the kids watch the videos?” She said,

I don’t know. Does it matter if they watch the video?

Does it? Maybe I should just focus on delivering high quality content and steer clear of systems that made me feel like a cop instead of a teacher. I decided that for my own mental health, Ed Puzzle was not the platform for me. I also decided to start making my YouTube videos public and embed them into my Google Slides.

YouTube

I have a very thin skin. My principal often pops into my classroom to find me crying about something. When she reaches out by email she will preface it with, “nothing is wrong” before delivering the message.

A year ago I didn’t have many videos on YouTube and those that I did have were private. I also had a few playlists where I housed videos from other people about topics that I gave them to the kids as a reference for extra practice. In pandemic times, I suddenly had a need to create instructional videos. Even with pretty good file management, my Google Drive is crowded. It would be easier to get a thicker skin and just make my YouTube videos public.

I had a couple of parameters. For one, I would stop focusing on re-use, trying to create a perfect lesson. Instead my focus is on the here and now.

The next thing I decided was based on my own learning preference. While it could be nice for some of my kids to have my face in the corner of the screen, as a learner I am really bugged by videos that have the teacher in them.

The last thing I would commit to is to disable comments and info about likes and dislikes. Maybe in a year when I have more videos under my belt I’ll reconsider this.

Back to FLX

Enter FLX Fitclub and hybrid learning. A big chunk of our school year was spent in a hybrid model. As luck would have it, my gym also started offering hybrid classes. I grew more comfortable with this in my classroom alongside my FLX instructors at the gym. I learned a few things along the way.

The connection is between the student and the instructor

The instructor relates to both groups. I worked with an instructional coach who also helped set the stage for this. When I explained to my coach that it was sometimes challenging to be there for both groups he said:

Teach them unapologetically separately.

I started to watch the fitness classes more closely. We said hello at the start and the end, but then we were just along for the ride. The instructor talked to the in person crew. Sometimes she checked in on us. If we needed something we would write in the chat. We both got the workout experience. Both groups felt connected. When I attended a hybrid class and I was in person, I wasn’t aware of the virtual students. They got what they needed from the instructor.

I tried to channel this in my classroom by being available for my virtual kids, but not being so stressed about their needs that I ignored the kids in front of me. I followed my coach’s advice by occasionally telling my in person students that I would be working with the virtual kids for a few minutes as I directed them in their task and vice versa. It seems a small thing, but it makes a big difference.

What’s Next?

As we start to exit the pandemic, I think about all the growth that happened for me, my students and so many others during this time. I no longer spend hours making copies – instead I engage in creative lesson planning that is done when I leave the computer. I recently graded a baseline Regents Algebra exam on paper for my Algebra 1 students and realized how much more efficient computer grading is. Later that day, while grading something digitally I used a different highlighter color on every page just because I could!

I’m looking forward to the new normal we are headed into and I hope to keep many of the lessons I learned as I move forward. Even in pandemic times, the individual connections I forged with the students felt authentic and strong. I saw growth, perseverance, and hard work from many of my kids this year. I’m proud of them and their resilience.

I’m grateful to my window into Berklee Online via Xander, to FLX Fitclub and their online and hybrid classes and to Trumansburg Central School District for all that they do to support their teachers in providing fantastic learning for the students.