Teaching in a Pandemic (Part 1: Algebra)

Wow. Just… wow. This year has been nothing but rolling with the punches.

I can’t believe it’s been exactly 2 years to the day since my last post. I feel like I’ve let you all down! Initially I paused on any blog progress due to new responsibilities at work (yay growth!). Then the pandemic hit in March and our educational system all but ground to a complete halt. Throughout 2020, I dabbled in all stages of grief –

  • denying our new reality,
  • angry that I was suddenly confined to the very small bubble of my basement apartment,
  • bargaining with myself on what “safe practices” actually meant in Covid,
  • sinking into a frustration and darkness over an inability to see friends and family,
  • and finally accepting the new school year for what it was.

I don’t know about you, but in distance learning I have recreated *literally* everything I’ve ever done – whether it be actual lessons or my classroom environment. No printing notes or activities. No relying on students’ facial reactions to determine their stress or levels of understanding. No depending on group work for building a sense of community or encouraging students to address neighbor’s questions. I’ve felt like a new teacher alllll over again.

Now that we’re about to go back to the building, I have finally settled into a rhythm with my classes, where students understand expectations and are mostly successful in their learning. Irony, at its finest. ha! Of course, there are really great days, interspersed with really terrible days, but I’d say overall everything in my classroom is trending up.

SO, the purpose of this post is to share teaching strategies that have worked well for my students in virtual learning.

I see my ESOL students every day for 80 minutes in Algebra Part 1. We started with building number sense through adding and subtracting numbers, and now we’re successfully multiplying binomials! (Shhh… don’t tell. I know that’s *technically* not an Algebra Part 1 topic. But it’s challenging my students! And they’re seriously rising to the challenge.) In order to embrace virtual learning I’ve had to accept a few changes:

  1. I can’t check that my students are writing everything down. Nor do I want to. I can encourage good habits and say “now you should be copying this polynomial onto your paper.” I can ask questions to see what students are able to do. I can ask them for a green check if they’re tracking with me. But I can’t see their work. Having them upload pictures to documents is more of a mountain than I want to tackle at this particular moment.
  2. In order to provide the best structures for mathematical practice, I’ve had to do a bit more hand-holding. Those factor ladders we incorporate for simplifying radicals? I’ve created the ladder structure on slides. Simplifying and condensing exponents? Students merely have to type an exponent after each base I’ve provided. Those boxes for multiplying polynomials? You guessed it – I set those up too. At the end of the day, students hypothetically practice writing these structures down every time we do a warm up. At the end of the day, students are *still* getting the great, repetitious practice that I believe in, even if it means I’m providing more up front. At the end of the day, it’s a pandemic, after-all. Students may need a little more support to get started.
  3. We are limited in our technology. Students can’t simultaneously watch my screen and work on their own slides or Mathspace activity. Yes, of course I know that split screen exists! However, it has been a feat and a half to FINALLY get students to understand how to access, complete, and submit a Google Drive Assignment in Schoology. It has been a feat and a half to get them properly logged into Mathspace, Quizizz, and Quizlet Live (curse those dumb bot-check tests). It has been a feat and a half getting students to turn their microphones on and to participate. OUT LOUD. But we’ve done it. I am embracing these feats as successes, even with our technological limitations.
  4. I can’t control their testing environment. Will they cheat? Yes, it’s possible. But if I’m providing them with techniques that help them to be successful and learn the material, they will be more motivated to demonstrate their own understanding because they WANT to prove they can do it.

Now, for my virtual learning recommendations:

  1. MIX. IT. UP. Students love engaging with different activities to practice what they’ve learned. I regularly use:
    • Quizlet live for vocabulary or spot-check types of answers (ex: moving negative exponents)
    • Whole-class Quizlet Live is an entirely different activity from the individual competition!
    • Quizizz teacher-led or independent activities (great for when students are finishing other work at different paces)
    • Kahoot: I prefer Kahoot for teacher-led practice with a timer, where I can explain the work throughout. I encourage students to use their phones, while looking at our class tab with the kahoot questions projected on it.
    • Whole-Class Google Slides: I copy and paste the same practice slide (sometimes with different numbers) for every kid. They have to “claim their slide” by typing their name in the name box. I put challenge slides in different colors at the end of the deck for students who finish early. One slide deck makes it super easy for me to check all answers.
    • Individual Practice Google Slides: Assign a copy to each individual student through Google Classroom or Schoology, and tab through students’ answers to see their progress. Ex: This Multiplying Polynomials Riddle
    • Mathspace (or a similar online textbook): Great for when you want students to show their process that you can’t easily check on paper in a virtual environment.
    • Google Forms: Great for homework checks and short answer quizzes that allow you to provide an answer key.
    • This list could go on forever. I have other resources that I favor for my upper level students, and I may share those in a separate post later this semester.
  2. CONSISTENCY. Don’t laugh. It totally contradicts my above recommendation… and yet, it doesn’t. Students like to practice their skills in different formats and platforms, but they also appreciate the consistency of knowing they will have (1) a warm-up, (2) a lesson or review, (3) practice or a game of some sort, and (4) homework at a certain time of the week. They appreciate the consistency of knowing:
    • How you will assign tasks and where to find them.
    • How you will engage ALL students in the learning.
    • The length and timing of breaks.
    • The frequency of assessments.
  3. Short lessons with lots of practice. I try to limit my lessons to 3-5 questions, depending on the topic. This has a lot to do with the fact that I require students to physically copy the questions we do during our lessons. This also has a lot to do with the fact that we share so much time together, that I can be leisurely in my teaching of topics. Then I model one question on the practice activity and set them free to demonstrate their understanding.
  4. Include polling questions directly on slides. For direct instruction, if there’s a topic where I’d like to ask a bunch of fairly short questions, I’ll type out the answer choices ahead of time on my presentation. (Ex: What is the smallest prime number? (A) 5, (B) 3, (C) 1, (D) 2.) This allows me to use one poll in Blackboard Collaborate and just clear students’ selections after each question (rather than taking the time to type those answer choices in the middle of class).
  5. Call on Students. If this was uncomfortable for you in a typical school year, it’s even more uncomfortable now. But students recognize when you are rooting for the success of ALL. I encourage you to stick with it! If you are gracious and encouraging with them, they will be more likely to offer an answer, even when they’re not sure. Provide the solution to “my mic is broken!” with “Fn + F4,” and offer some opportunities for students to choose between verbal and typed responses in the chat.
  6. “Stickers.” Bitmojis are the new stickers! Every day I choose a new Bitmoji through the Google Chrome Extension, but emojis or cute images work as well.
    • In my Google Slides for practice that day, I pre-paste multiple copies of the Bitmoji so I can click and drag it next to any correct answers. Students are constantly typing in the chat “CHECK MINEEEE!” or “Done Miss!” to let me know that they want each and every one of the stickers they have earned for that day.
    • This also works really well with brightly colored circles that are transparent – I click and drag circles to indicate incorrect work or answers that students need to fix.
  7. Play upbeat music. Pandora is a lifesaver! I constantly play their Bossa Nova or Lindsey Sterling stations to set the stage for students’ individual practice. I found early on that music without lyrics is your best bet, because it allows students to focus without causing one or the other to be upset over your choice of songs.
  8. Use a second monitor! This has been life-changing. My laptop screen is what I project, and therefore what the students see. My second monitor is for attendance, monitoring the chat. and running the classroom controls in the background. This was the best $8 I ever spent… for a used monitor at a local Goodwill.

Best wishes as you hit your stride with virtual learning!

two thumbs up

We will get through this too,

Miss Elsie

One thought on “Teaching in a Pandemic (Part 1: Algebra)

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