Tag Archives: Teaching

My First Podcast Interview

This was a new one for me! Once upon a time I wrote a brief piece about travelling in Sri Lanka for a blog (I have since lost that piece, unfortunately) but I’ve never been on a podcast before!

Steve and I sat down for half an hour to chat about the Extended Essay, a requirement of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. As my school’s EE coordinator, I’m responsible for managing the students and their supervisors during the year(ish) that they work on this extended research project. If you’re an IB student or teacher or if you’re an interested individual, hopefully you’ll find this useful!

You can listen here. Enjoy!

Four Things I Don’t Hate About Online Schooling

Let me paint a picture.

I am standing on my well-loved blue yoga mat at the kitchen counter with my laptop perched on three coffee table books – America: An Illustrated History, Exciting Singapore: A Visual Journey, and 1000 Events That Shaped the World. Another coffee table book, The History of the World: From Earliest Times to Present Day, remains on the coffee table. But here I am at my makeshift standing desk. Like most people reading this, I’m living in an online world right now and my online world is school.

Those familiar with my work know that I typically talk about education. I’ve written at length about what education means and how I understand it. Right now, however, I am deliberately talking about schooling. Merriam-Webster says that schooling is:

  • instruction in school
  • training, guidance, or discipline derived from experience

That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re giving students instruction, asking them to do something, guiding them along the way, and giving feedback at the end. In a learning environment that was set up with intention and not in an emergency, this would look very different. Anyone who has taken a self-paced online course can attest to this. However, I do want to be realistic about what we can and cannot do right now. Ergo, the use of the word “schooling”.

I do not like online school; I know precious few who do. But there are four things I don’t hate about it, four things that I might actually even like.

Starting at the same point

At my school, we are using Google Meet and Google Hangouts to communicate. Email is still there but it has become increasingly common for students to send a quick hangout chat rather than a formal email. Students reach out very casually in a chat and I am more than happy to reply in kind. Breaking down hierarchy in schools is long overdue. Many students find video easier and it has become my practice to ask students for their preference. We’ve all learned how to share our screens and we’ve all made mistakes while doing so. We’ve all had trouble accessing documents or navigating new platforms.

Teachers and students are more alike in our current learning environment than we traditionally have been. This is new for all of us and the novelty makes us all real, genuine people. We’re all in this together in a very literal sense; no one can claim to have been here before and therefore it’s true that some have a much better handle on things than others. Sometimes, it’s the teacher but often, it’s the students.

While being genuine is important in all teaching and learning, I think it’s especially significant in our current context. I’ve asked my students about how things are going academically and in their personal lives and I reply when they ask in return. Some are really struggling, and so am I, and so are my colleagues. Under normal circumstances, this is easy to hide. But because these things literally are our every day lives, there’s no pretending. There’s no claiming we know the answers because every day, it’s more and more obvious that there are no answers right now.

The informality of our current online schooling system allows me to be involved in my students lives at a time when, by their own admission, they need human connection. Students who don’t normally like to talk have asked to talk. Students who are often reluctant to ask questions have been asking questions. One of my students (finally!) referred to me by my first name in our Advisory group.

We really are all in this together.

Learning out of interest

I teach grades 11 and 12 students and the expectations of and for grade 12 students changed significantly with the cancellation of exams. The message I have tried to get across has remained consistent since this announcement rocked everything we’ve worked for. But like I told my students, though I admit it took a couple days to find the words, the point of learning is not to sit an exam at the end. The point of learning, the way learning works in real life, is to explore something we want to understand and perhaps to share it with others.

The cancellation of exams for graduating seniors gave us the opportunity to remember that and to put it into practice. While my students study a lot of psychology over two years in the course, there’s a lot we don’t study. My students are interested in topics and questions far beyond the realm of the course and this gave us an opportunity to explore. They chose a question to investigate with the goal of sharing what they had learned with their peers. Many put together presentations, some recorded videos, and others created infographics. As part of their research, students wrote an annotated bibliography, many learning this highly practical (in the academic sphere) skill for the first time.

Most importantly, they enjoyed themselves. I conferenced with each student as they worked and they were excited about what they were doing and how they were doing it. There has been little time in the last two years when they’ve been able to learn something just for fun and just because they were interested in it. I’m glad that our current situation allowed them time to do so.

New ways to give feedback

I have never enjoyed collecting written work online because I find it very difficult to provide feedback that way. My students are used to their written work coming back covered in comments, circles (areas to fix), and underlines (well done, this is a key idea in what you’re saying). Each new cohort of students tends to find it initially alarming, which suggests that many of their teachers don’t mark up their work. But I do, and I’ve never been one for online submissions as a result.

However, that’s the only option we have now. Of course, not all tasks require extended written responses but I recently collected one that did. Instead of using the comments function on Google or the review function on Word to give feedback, I recorded it. I read through each student’s document and then ran through a screen recording. As I would when working individually with a student, I walked through each section of what they’d written and I talked, indicating certain parts of the text with the mouse or scrolling back and forth between other parts. I concluded each recording letting them know where they were on a scale of low-middle-high and summarising no more than three tips to move up. The recordings lasted between two and three and a half minutes.

I’ve never done this before and I put out a survey asking whether students liked getting feedback this way. Except for the one who replied “neutral”, all students said that they did and gave a very clear reason why. They said that it would be easier to look back, was easier to understand, and that they appreciated being walked through each part. Wow. Well then.

This is a time when we are trying to figure out what works for our students, who are going through something none of us adults can understand. It is really important that my students and I have settled on something that works for them. My responsibility now is to listen and to continue working together to make the best out of the system that we have.

Not chasing grades

There are many ways to find out what a student knows and understands. In a normal classroom, we find this out every time a student speaks or asks a question. Teachers gauge understanding as we watch who pairs up for activities, how long the activities take, and the resources students use without prompting. Ongoing informal assessment is not possible in an online schooling situation the way it would be (which is to say constantly) in a regular classroom. It is not fair to students to pretend that it is.

Additionally, formal assessment in a classroom is completely different than formal assessment online. For one thing, it is controlled in terms of time, materials available, and peer (or teacher) involvement. Formal assessment need not come in such a standard form but it often does. Again, online learning has thrown this on its head.

With my own students, I’ve provided options. In the above example of a written task, we actually generated a list as a class of all the possible ways students could think of to demonstrate understanding of a prompt. Not everyone wrote an outline or essay. Additionally, I’ve minimised grade bands. Rather than giving students a mark out of 22 and then converting it to the IB 1-7 grade bands, we talked about low-middle-high and variation within that.

Low-stakes assessments still tell me what my students know and therefore what we need to work on. From the students’ perspective, they don’t have the stress of thinking about a grade at the end. Hopefully it will also make it easier to talk about improvement without a number hanging in the background.

Conclusion

Like everyone else, I am eagerly awaiting the day I can welcome students back to school. I miss the conversations, the connections, and the general atmosphere of classrooms and hallways. Immersion in a dynamic and vibrant space is, after all, what I love about being a teacher. Standing in tree pose on my yoga mat doesn’t quite match up.

But I know that it’s important to find silver linings. I know that there is some learning to be had in every experience and in that sense, this one is not unique. I do not like online schooling but it’s not about liking or disliking right now. Instead, it’s about taking the emergency situation we are in and doing with it the best that we can. I have landed on four things that are actually going okay and four is more than I would have thought when this began mere weeks ago.

And, as always, there will be more to learn and try and implement along the way. It is my hope that the lessons we learn at this time are not forgotten but instead are taken to heart and into practice when times change yet again.

Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier. – John Dewey

Reflections on Learning

During our last class before the holidays, my grade 12 students and I talked about getting old. Well, older. I mentioned something that had happened six years ago and we were all taken aback for a moment. Six years ago I was still living in Rochester, New York where I grew up; six years ago, my students were in grade 6. Six years is six years but somehow, it seems like a much bigger change for them. Six years ago, my students were kids. Now, they’re young people who are preparing to go into the world and do something. But not just yet. Let’s not rush things.

I’m reflecting on this right now because I have a birthday coming up and it required me to change the tagline that appears just below the title of this blog. Until about 10 minutes ago, the tagline read, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.” Now it reads, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.”

Don’t panic: I’m still a teacher.

But yes, I’m turning 30 next month and any birthday is a cause for reflection. Last year I wrote a list of what I’d learned in my twenties and it definitely reflects how I was thinking at the time I wrote it. A few months later, I wrote a letter to my brother with some life advice and I like that one much better. It takes some elements of the first list and frames the ideas in actionable ways – I like that. The difference between these two lists, five months apart, also reflects what I would like to highlight here: the importance of perpetual learning.


I can point to much that has changed for me over time, but an essential constant has been the desire to learn and to grow. There has always been a genuine excitement over recognising something new or forming new connections. I’ve never been afraid of what I don’t know and I’ve never been deluded into thinking there’s nothing left to find out. This is also why I’m more than happy to reread books. There’s plenty out there, sure, but you really never step into the same river twice. (My credit to Disney’s Pocahontas here, but further research indicated that Heraclitus said it first.)

Last week, my Theory of Knowledge students gave oral presentations on the topic of ignorance. One student concluded by saying that ignorance leads to growth. When my co-teacher asked what she meant by “growth” she replied, “I don’t know, maybe learning.” Yes, exactly. Ignorance opens doors to learning. I have always known this but I have not always had the language to express it.

Growing up, my parents had a pretty clear policy on things we children didn’t know: Go find out. We had dictionaries and encyclopedias and after some time, we also had the Internet. If you didn’t know it, you looked it up. If you didn’t understand your findings, you asked. I only remember being turned down once for an answer. I was thirteen and my poor dad, looking distinctly uncomfortable, told me, “Go ask your mother.” I did and it was a good thing.

I have never been a stranger to learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the important step of being able to appreciate when I am wrong. In many ways, being an educator has taught me this. As a student, I could see right through my teachers, especially new ones, and I knew exactly when they didn’t know what they were desperately trying to demonstrate that they knew. As a teacher myself, I understand the necessity of being both genuine and vulnerable with my students. I expect the same of them, after all, and at the end of the day we are partners in this thing called education. (Schooling is a different matter and, in keeping with the above, I am very open about this, too.)


Learning is deeply personal and I understand that. When I think back to what I wanted out of life six years ago, to return to the conversation with my grade 12 students, I’m stunned by how much has changed. I am in awe of what I have learned.

I am doing almost none of what I expected to be doing, but much of what I dreamed of doing. I have so much more than I thought I would, but very little of what I had wanted. I now see myself in ways I never imagined were possible because I didn’t know they existed, but I am not who I thought I would be. And I know there is more to become.

This is not to say one is all good and the other is all bad, certainly not. Rather, this is to say that I have lived in varying shades of black, white, and gray – at times, more gray or more black or more white. Shifting. Sometimes fluidly, sometimes with stark lines. In short, I have lived. I have learned.

I’m not particularly sentimental but I do grow nostalgic every now and then. For instance, the other day I looked up a friend from a former life. Just looked. But the same day, I picked up a book by an author I would have once passed over. Because you never know. Really.

In the words that Immanuel Kant took as the motto of Enlightenment, “Sapere aude. Dare to know.”

And millennia earlier from Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Indeed. And now I’ll return to my reading.