I survived my first week of Zoom-based teaching.

Today, on July 3, I am telling you that I survived my first week.

Not my first week of teaching, of course: what I survived was my first week of teaching with Zoom — although sometimes it did feel like my first week of teaching.

About 48 hours ago I observed that I was really stressed out by the experience. So saying I survived is progress.

Maybe next week I will be able to tell you that I’m actually enjoying the experience. I hope.

The thing is that most of you have already had a lot of experience with Zoom at this point. I haven’t. I haven’t been teaching during the school year since 2018, when I retired from Weston, so I missed the second-semester Zoom experience. In some ways I’m relieved, but it means that the 2020 CSA summer session — where classes started a mere four days ago — is my very first time with Zoom other than a handful of meetings, and meetings aren’t the same as teaching by any means.

Fortunately I’m not doing this alone. I have a co-teacher, Joyce, with whom I’ve taught for many years. And I have two essential teaching assistants (“mentors,” in CSA jargon), Lucia and Chandler, both of whom are experienced at CSA and the first of whom assisted Joyce and me last summer in this particular course (second half of Quantitative Reasoning, for rising high-school juniors). I mean it literally when I say that I couldn’t do it without the three of them. Because Joyce has taught with Zoom at Weston this past semester, she is pretty much taking the lead this summer, and I am oh so appreciative.

Let’s look at what’s working, and at what isn’t working so well. Unfortunately there’s more of the latter:

  • Screen sharing works pretty well. When I want to show a document or a webpage or a video, it’s easy enough to have it take over my whole screen and therefore my students’ screens. If I’m using Notability, it’s easy enough to mark up a document as I talk, or to write on a virtual whiteboard.
  • When a student needs help with their work, it’s easy enough for them to share their screen so we can observe what they’re doing wrong, make suggestions about what to do, and see the results.
  • Breakout rooms are a lifesaver. In a class of 32, it’s nearly impossible to focus on an individual student. But with two teachers and two TA’s we can create four virtual rooms of 8 students each; we do that for 20 minutes or so on most days, and for 90% of the class period once a week.
  • Students do participate when in the breakout rooms. In the large group we mostly hear crickets from the students, although some are willing to raise their hands and speak.
  • Actually, it’s impossible to see when someone has raised their hand. Look at the image above and figure out who has their hand up. (It’s not a photo of my class, BTW.) Fortunately Zoom tells me when someone has their hand up, provided they’ve done it by clicking on “raise hand”; otherwise interrupting is necessary. But that’s OK.
  • Especially in the large group — but even in the small groups — it’s impossible to “read the room.” Are they confused? Maybe we should try the polling features that’s built into Zoom.
  • This problem is exacerbated by a peculiarity of the iPad. Normally everyone sees real-time images of all participants, but students who are working on another app (such as Desmos or Wolfram Alpha or Notability) only have two choices: share your screen with the whole class (usually inadvisable) or have your image replaced with your name. If a student shares their screen with the whole class, everyone sees their work, their questions, and their difficulties — not a good idea.
  • In the latter case no one knows where you are. Are you working on an app? Did you step way for a minute? It’s definitely not like a face-to-face class, where you know who is present and at least whether they seem to be working or are nodding off.
  • It’s really hard for students to collaborate, since they have an all-or-none choice. This is a major problem in a course that emphasizes collaborative work. I don’t have a solution to this problem.

OK, two more comments that are not particular Zoom-specific:

  • As I wrote about on June 3 and June 4, we have replaced our long unit on Trigonometric Models with a much shorter unit on the Mathematics of Epidemics. The upside here is that we don’t have to deal with trig difficulties in an unfamiliar setting. The downside is that we’re teaching unfamiliar content for the first time in that same unfamiliar setting, making it doubly difficult.
  • This is actually not my first rodeo. Back in the mid to late ’90s I taught for the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications (MCET), a wholly state-owned non-profit that taught enrichment courses over the internet and satellite television. In fact I taught over 150 hours on television, which of course bore a lot of similarities to Zoom teaching. More on that in a subsequent post, in which I’ll describe not only the similarities but also the crucial differences.


Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning, Technology