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Gearing Up to Teach Virtually in 2020

As the school year quickly approaches, I wanted to share some content specific examples of how I am looking to transform aspects of my teaching. My district is currently rolling out both a hybrid and virtual learning model for students to choose from. Since each option includes a virtual component to the school day I need to do some major revisions to how I have taught in the past. Perhaps the suggestions below will spark some ideas for creative change in your own life!

Use video lessons that have already been created by expert teachers.

There is no shame in this! There are so many people out there who not only know the content that you are teaching, but have already mastered effective ways of communicating this information virtually.

I have been building a library of virtual resources for students over the years. Up until last year, they were only used by students who needed additional help due to absences, pace of classroom learning, etc. Last year, however, I flipped one of my courses to allow video instruction at home so we could focus more on problem solving during class. That was the first time that my class heavily depended on virtual resources.

In preparing to flip my class, I was overwhelmed with the idea of creating videos for every lesson. However, with a little advice and research, I realized the power of utilizing available resources. For instance, last year I came across the YouTube Channel Flipping Physics where Mr. P teaches AP Physics lessons that are not only technically sound, but cleverly produced. He has created a classroom of duplicates of himself where he addresses common misconceptions and questions that students typically have in a classroom. If I had created my own videos, they would not have been nearly as engaging as his! I was thrilled to use Flipping Physics as a resource to help reach my educational goals. I will continue to increase the virtual library of resources for my students this year. Not just one option, but a diverse collection of resources that demonstrate various teaching strategies to reach my diverse group of learners. I will also be asking students to share resources that they have found as they navigate my course.

Create your own videos!

Now, I just explained the power of utilizing existing resources, but sometimes you need to step up and create your own. After looking at what others have published online, it is very easy to feel insecure about the quality of your own videos. I know that I do! However, there is a time and a place where we need to use our own personalities, skills, and techniques to reach our students. This year is my year to step out of my comfort zone and start creating pre-recorded lessons that monopolize my strengths as a teacher.

Harness the power of social media.

Every year I tell myself that I want to incorporate more current events into my courses and every year I quickly get distracted by focusing on content for standardized tests. This summer I have been exploring social media to promote Finding Physics, and found myself discovering science and technology articles faster than I ever have before. I plan on leveraging social media such as Twitter and Instagram to connect myself and my students to current events in science and technology. I continue to voice how important it is to see real world applications of physics. This is my chance to learn how to harness social media to educate and inspire my students.

Optimize live virtual interactions.

There is so much socializing that goes on in a typical classroom! It is the place where seemingly insignificant candid interactions lead to significant insight into students' needs. This is what I missed the most in the spring. I lost the personal connection that I had developed with many students. We need to find ways to not lose this critical aspect of the classroom experience. Here are some of my thoughts on how to build a relationship virtually with my students.

  1. Start the year with one-on-one virtual meetings. To streamline the process, I will record a video introducing myself and make it accessible to my incoming students. This video would be accompanied by a brief message that includes several questions that I would like to use as conversation starters to learn more about the students. Prior to the beginning of the school year, or during the first few weeks, I would schedule 10-15 minute meetings with each of the students to get to know a little more about them. If meeting students live for 10-15 minutes is too unattainable due to time, I could always have them record and submit a welcome message to me. However, recorded messages are not ideal. Face to face, live interactions are what I’m after in order to foster a connection prior to getting too far into the school year.

  2. Schedule small group meetings. During the school year, students will work on some assignments as a group and will need to present their findings to me in their small groups. These virtual small group settings will allow for fluent communication with focused attention on each of the members. It will require the students to communicate with each other and myself using various virtual methods.

  3. Optimize Office Hours. Office hours will be a time for students to meet with me independently or in small groups based on their individual needs. If there is a student that I feel out of touch with, I may request that they stop by my virtual office hours to touch base and discuss a recent topic.

Supplement hands-on activities.

As a physics teacher, a large part of my course includes students working on laboratory investigations in the classroom. Typically, students work in small groups to set up laboratory equipment and collect data. With the current guidelines set to keep people 6ft apart and the logistics of cleaning materials between classes, I know that I am going to need to be creative to design successful laboratory experiences. In the past I have used the ever growing library of PhET Interactive Simulations to enrich my class. These simulations have become a cornerstone in my courses. I have created my own investigations based off of the simulations and I have used lessons posted by other teachers on the site. However, this year I need more. The simulations are great, but they are just that, simulations. This summer I started investigating Pivot Interactives. It is a library of prerecorded laboratory investigations with guided questions. You can watch real time data collection on various instruments and do your own measurements when the video is paused by using virtual tools like stopwatches and rulers. This resource allows for realistic data collection because it is not a simulation. It is actual data that is being collected by an experimenter. Though students do not have the opportunity to set-up the equipment and manipulate the materials, they can still collect and process the data. Pivot Interactives has a vast library of recorded physics experiments to choose from. It covers more diverse topics than what I typically offer in class due to limitations of time and equipment. This resource is not free, so there is the challenge of getting it funded. Regardless, it is definitely one of the resources that I am excited to potentially use.

While students are virtual, they can still do hands-on activities at their house. The trick is making sure that each student has access to some basic resources to collect data. In physics, we can do a lot with a device to measure length (ruler, meter stick, measuring tape), a stop watch, and a calculator/spreadsheet program. It would be even better if we could equip each student with some type of scale to determine mass, but I’m not going to go too over the top to start! The important skills to focus on are how to develop a unique investigation based on available materials, how to work through the physical manipulation of the materials and tools, and how to properly collect data acknowledging the limitations of measurements that have been taken.

Fear not, students can still work in lab groups virtually! This is a great opportunity to remind students what group work actually entails. In the real world, we have people working together on projects who are separated by oceans. We even have people working together who are separated by space itself. Now is the time to redefine teamwork and how to truly benefit from working with others.

I’ve identified some diverse ways to address the laboratory portion of my physics class. My focus is on giving students an opportunity to develop the skills that surround research and investigations in science. In the end, by using these diverse methods I may serve my students better than some of the conventional methods that I have implemented in the past.

Focus on the big picture.

Now is not the time to get caught up comparing last year's methods of delivery to this year. We know that there will be differences. Instead, let's remind ourselves of the main goals for our courses and consider new approaches to reaching those goals. I am going to keep a list of objectives for each of my courses handy for when I need to refocus my attention from feeling overwhelmed by the technical challenges of delivering an education to students virtually.

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