It’s OK to let students keep their video off while you teach online. I promise.

Teaching virtual summer school gave me tools to make the fall bearable. Here’s what I learned.

If you believe that really good teachers learn right along with their students, then a) I like you already and b) my 2020 summer school students had a really good teacher. I learned a ton.

I’ve been classroom teaching for 19 years, all for Los Angeles Unified, mainly high school English. Fortunately, my school, Ramon C. Cortines High School of the Visual and Performing Arts had an inspired P.E. teacher who turned me on to Google Classroom a couple of years ago. But that’s about all the online teaching knowledge I had until this spring, when I hosted Zoom calls with students only to watch them gradually dwindle in number. The experience left me concerned, to understate the point, about teaching online again when school resumed in the fall.  

Yet I learned enough from teaching summer school online these past few weeks to make a difference. I’m feeling less panicked and overwhelmed and hopeless about teaching when school starts again and more ready. Feeling ready is better. So in the crucial-for-teachers spirit of sharing, please allow me to tell you what these lessons are and how I came to learn them.

  1. Keep a tidy screen. I have always taken pride in having a million browser windows open at a time. How would you describe the fruit of arbutus unedo? What’s a good antonym for “riddle”? Who sang harmony on “Dublin Blues” by Guy Clark? The answers may be important! But do your searching on a different screen than you do your teaching. Teaching online requires the concentration and efficiency of a short-order cook. All those open tabs were unnecessary hurdles to leap while trying to share documents with my students. Fumbling through the extraneous pages, I imagined the kids on the other side of the Zoom rolling their eyes like they were shooting craps. This is a self-induced annoyance that’s easy enough to avoid. Just bookmark the stuff you’re planning to share and close windows when you’re done.
  2. Let students keep their video off most of the time. This really ran counter to the experience I try to create in my physical classroom, where I’m always trying to pick up the students’ vibe, be it bright-eyed or yawning. With the group I had for summer school, however, I made one of those countless spot decisions we make as teachers to respect their obvious preference for video-off. First of all, a lot of them are in their bedrooms: enough said. I can foresee teachers trying to force kids to keep their video on, and I can also foresee that immediately and permanently alienating many students upon whom our hold will already be tentative. I just asked my kids to turn their video on when we took attendance in the morning, so I could greet them face-to-face. Most were happy to oblige, and after a while I developed other ways of determining how they were doing. For example, I would ask, “How are y’all doing?” and ask students to type their answers. I know that’s not exactly the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx in terms of ingeniousness, but let’s give students room to choose how visible they want to be.
  3. Give more, but not too much more, written feedback. The antidote to the alienation of video-off classroom teaching, for me, was to give more frequent written feedback. To make this doable, I cut way back on my preference for lengthy comments. Now, I make a point to write the student’s name and get right to the point: here’s one good thing you did and one thing you could work on. It’s an open-faced praise sandwich. (I always found going back to the other good thing a student would often be a reach. Also, too much praise makes a lot of students uncomfortable.) Name, done good, work on. These kids would write me back a quick note, “Thanks for the feedback,” which is more than I usually got from my more extensive responses. Lesson learned!
  4. Work with the students who are working. One of the many harrowing things about the upcoming school year is how many kids are going to remain offline. It’s a big problem, and one that, on the technology distribution end, I can only hope that my school district will handle. Meanwhile, I am going to focus on teaching the kids who show up and turn assignments in. This is not actually that different from in-classroom teaching, where it is wise not to lose your shirt over one or even two kids who aren’t there or just aren’t feeling it that day. Make sure the directions you’ve provided are clear, and focus on providing the best pedagogy you can to the students in front of you. This builds momentum and, at the very least, keeps me from despairing. I have been a teacher in despair and can tell you, the students notice and it is not good for classroom morale. Momentum, on the other hand, provides a sense of accomplishment, which is what we need and want. And those kids who might not be working? I’ll check in with them, sending a little “what’s up?” on individual Zoom chat, which I will do my best to make sure is not addressing everyone. If it is, ha, look at the silly teacher, being human.
  5. Form a band. One of the reasons I found teaching summer school so rewarding is that I did it with the UCLA Writing Project, which is basically full of the best teachers I know. We shared curriculum, graphic organizers, tech workarounds, and the astonishingly brilliant stuff our students did. It is essential to good teaching to feel you are not alone. Your district and administration may not be equipped to provide you with this power, but by reaching out on your own to the teachers you most respect and banding together with them, you can equip yourself. You know who your teaching dream team would be. Ping those folks right now and tell them of the high esteem in which you hold them. Propose that you join together to share tools and offer support. They’ll be thrilled and honored and recognize you as a discerning smarty with whom they would love to share impassioned texts built on strong evidence, simple but impressive green screen magic, and games so fun students will not even mind learning. It’s going to be a rough ride, with the destination uncertain — all the more reason for us teachers to be in it together.

Mark Gozonsky is a UCLA Writing Project fellow, LAUSD high school English teacher, frequent contributor to The Sun magazine, and former managing editor of Practical Supervision. Reach him on Twitter @markgozonsky.