It has been said that the current pandemic situation has made teachers across the globe feel like it’s their first year on the job. Even master teachers with more than 20 years of classroom experience have to wrap their heads around the technology, methodology, curriculum and more to effectively connect with their students around the city via screens to help them learn, grow and continue on their path to becoming their best selves.
For some, the novelty and challenge of this teachable moment serve as a catalyst for inspiration, as 8th grade math teacher Tim O’Connor is currently modeling in teaching his Algebra 1+ classes.
Although O’Connor, who began teaching math in 2005, had never taught remotely before mid-March, he has always incorporated technology into his practice. While teaching math at St. Peter’s College in Auckland, New Zealand in 2010, he was among the first teachers at the school to use a SMART board or support his daily classes with a website. His prior leadership experience as an eLearning Coordinator involved working one-on-one with his peers to help guide them into the 21st century with their teaching practice.
“Because of my desire to keep my teaching linked to technology, I think it has always been easy for me to see new avenues to connect my current ideas and methods to cutting-edge tech,” he shared.
O’Connor credits fellow 8th grade math teacher and department co-chair Kam Woodard for introducing him to the Explain Everything app a few years ago. As a tool that allowed him to record himself taking notes on his iPad and play them back to the students “as live” (complete with his voice speaking over the words/symbols on the screen), Woodard recommended Explain Everything for anticipating planned absences from the classroom. When it recently became clear that remote teaching and learning would be the norm, O’Connor saw a different way to use this tool.
Realizing that his new classroom would be his home living room, and his primary TV screen could also play YouTube videos, O’Connor’s current remote learning approach uses multiple tools to accomplish his desired ends.
“I thought, ‘What if I make my notes on Explain Everything, upload them to YouTube and play them on the TV behind me while talking directly into my laptop camera?’” he said. To O’Connor, this setup seemed much more like the “real” teaching he had become accustomed to rather than offering students a static screen displaying his math notes and his voice talking over them. “This way the students could see me and I could pause the video while I emphasized certain concepts or techniques.”
O’Connor also has a unique approach to handling his virtual office hours. Twice weekly, he strives to use this time to more directly connect with those students who require additional instruction. He sets up a computer logged into a Google Meet with interested students and then displays his iPad onto his home TV, which is behind him but still visible to students in the Meet. This way, anything he writes on his iPad appears over his shoulder. Students can see his face while he answers questions and explains concepts they are curious about.
“There are other ways of doing this,” offered O’Connor, “but I think it really is beneficial for me to be able to see my students’ faces while I am answering their questions, and they can see me. The human connection must have some subconscious benefits, and I think since I’ve started doing this, my students have felt more connected.”
Having established the basics of instruction and student support, O’Connor turned his attention to the important task of engaging his students. He wanted to make the entire experience of learning math with him remotely more fun for the students stuck at home. First, he started showing up for class dressed in a mixture of his worst/mismatched clothes. Following a positive reception to that tactics, he went a step further and began dressing up in a range of costumes he and his wife just happened to have around their home. The students have responded well, and he hopes the costuming might help them remember he still has a personality. “I have honestly set a pretty high bar for myself, and I don’t know what I’m going to do going forward! It has been a lot of fun, though, coming up with ways to deliver algebra while clearly being silly with my attire,” he said.
O’Connor will be the first to say that all of this is very different from the way he structured his on-campus classes. Beyond the costumes and tech, he finds himself talking much more as a remote teacher than he ever did in the classroom. Normally he orchestrates his classes as shared spaces, where he serves as a guide encouraging an equal amount of participation from all. “I’m talking to myself in the videos I am creating. It was kind of like Blue’s Clues when I say, ‘Did you notice that? Who sees it? Can you find the missing part?’ and things like that.”
A big commonality between the physical and virtual classroom environments that O’Connor likes to create is a culture of community: “… a community working together, challenging each other’s ideas in supportive ways and ultimately understanding the material more deeply and more completely.”
Thus far, O’Connor has been pleasantly surprised his students are still grasping and understanding the material he has been presenting. In addition to his formal curriculum, he hopes he is also inspiring his students in a larger way by modeling real “learning by doing” with the tools, techniques and theatrics he has been using to engage them.