Saturday, March 21, 2020

Life Of A (Socially Distant) Math Teacher

A couple weeks ago, when Covid-19 had just begun to breathe down our backs, I decided to start teaching my classes remotely.

I teach upper level mathematics - algebra, geometry, trig, pre calc - to homeschooled high school students. That looks like me sitting at a dining room table - sometimes mine, usually my students' - and working with one, or two, or maybe even three kids at a time. I often teach the same student for three or four years, and multiple students in the same family. It's a dream job and I love every minute. 

Now obviously, I'm not the first teacher to take math instruction online, so I'm not exactly inventing the wheel over here. 

But I aim to do more than just deliver up some standard lectures on rickety technology and expect my students to adapt. Over the years, I've come up with quite a few bells and whistles that take my classes from good to great, and coronavirus devils notwithstanding, I am not willing to compromise. My goal is to take each element of my tried-and-true learning process and somehow morph it into a germ-free, socially distant version of what we do in person.

In real life, the first step of my process is the lecture. 

Well. Allow me to clarify. 

The first step is me explaining some new math concepts, one lesson at a time, using strange metaphors and rambling stories, substituting more colorful descriptions for dry math jargon

The quadratic formula is the man-eating dragon.

Radical signs are known as pig houses in which the little fellows hide from the big bad wolves. 

The art of adding or subtracting to solve a basic algebraic equation is termed, "swimming fish."

All the while, I'm writing out the problems and key ideas (highlighted as "puffy clouds of knowledge") on a whiteboard. In normal times, that is. 

While many impromptu digital instructors are turning to a Skype, FaceTime or Zoom type platform, that doesn't work for me. Those systems work well when the main means of communication is voice, but I need voice and visual to be transmitted with equal precision. 


My solution to this conundrum has manifested itself as a chair on my dining room table. Using my phone with the camera facing down onto the table creates an environment where I have considerable control over the variables of the shot; my hands are free to write with abandon and my mind is free to roam all over the math landscape. 

And so I've been video recording my lesson. I teach four lessons per week to five different groups of students, which makes for a lot of time in my "studio."

Gracie finds my performances mesmerizing. She curls up at my feet and snoozes for hours on end while I work. Lord only knows what mathematical knowledge has accumulated in her brain over the past few weeks.

Once recorded, the lessons are uploaded to my Youtube channel. Yup. I'm pretty much an influencer.

The second major component of my classes is homework. Lots and lots of homework.

I hope you won't be shocked to know that the average teenager needs some accountability on that front. Normally I provide pep talks and procrastination advisories at the start of each class. Nowadays I follow up the assignments with individual phone calls with each student to a) hear the sounds of their adorable voices and b) interrogate them about their work status.

I've been checking in once a week by phone, but also manning my texts and emails for random questions that come up as my students are actively working problems. At any time of day or night, I might open a text that says, "Hey, I'm stuck on Problem 17 Lesson 85." Usually, the resolution involves me quickly getting up to speed by working out the answer for myself, asking the student some questions delicately loaded with helpful hints, and possibly sending a photo of my solution. 

My students have already been using a checklist I designed for keep tracking of assignments and due dates, which works fine for in-person classes and distance learning alike.

And the third component of my coursework is the dreaded test. 

I give my students a weekly one-problem quiz that I euphemistically describe as a "review problem."  And I administer two midterms - one before Christmas break, the other before spring break - and of course, a big, bad final at the end of the year. Normally, we set aside time in class to cover these events.

Trusting my students as I do, in the age of coronavirus, I've no problem with letting them test at home. I'm sure I could whip up some sort of pdf and shoot it off via email. But I prefer to send their tests through the good ol' US Postal Service because everyone likes to get mail, even if it is a math test.

And I enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the return trip so that a) I present the test takers with no obstacles (besides licking the envelope) to popping their completed test back in the mail to me and b) they will be among the rare members of their generation who understand the acronym SASE. matter whether I'n teaching in person or at a distance, my method of testing is what many might consider laissez-faire. And while that may seem to fly in the face of my otherwise high-expectation and high achievement course design, there's a very simple method to my apparent madness.  

With classes as small as mine, I know each student's math brain inside out. I can pinpoint the look on their face when they are confused or tired or just over it for the day, and I recognize and celebrate those magical "aha!" moments when their dear little light bulbs come on and the new ideas snap perfectly into place.

Honestly, I don't need a test to tell me how a student is learning. I know by the look on their face.

* * * * *

And this brings me to the absolute worst part about being a socially distant math teacher. I cannot see my students' shining, expressive, revealing faces. And to be honest, that takes most of the fun out of teaching. 

As much as I'm grateful that my students and I can carry on as Covid-19 rages around us, I can't wait till we are back at the dining room table together. 

* * * * *

Read more stories about my life as a math teacher:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please comment...I'd love to hear from you!