Strong Connection: Here’s how people are finding teaching success through the screen

By Liana Cannon

Most teachers agree – in person instruction is always best. But we found five online instructors who are finding teaching success through the screen. Here is how they are making it work – and work well!

Music Teaching

June Cannon’s music lessons haven’t gone quiet at all – in fact, business has grown! She credits her students for using the down time to improve their hobby. And she’s been able to make the most of the virtual teaching opportunity – and even sees added benefits such as expanded client potential, more efficient lesson time and flexibility.

Have young students go to a secluded room

One difficult thing about teaching a range of ages is attentiveness. For young students, it’s even more distracting when they are in the comfort of their own home and can be intimidating when parents are close by listening or watching. Have the young students go into a secluded room away from parents and siblings and where other noises are muted or muffled.

Use good speakers

Sometimes just using the speakers on a tablet or smartphone will cause peaking and cracking, distorting the sound. This can make it difficult to critique a student’s performance. June uses Bluetooth speakers to amplify the sound and get a clearer idea of how she needs to instruct her students.

Maneuver the camera angles and microphone

Teaching piano can be difficult when you need to see the player’s hands and the piano at the same time. Try different angles with the camera. Place the camera over the student’s hands first and then have the them play a second time with a wide angle so you can see the piano. Another challenge with teaching music virtually is critiquing duets. Zoom favors the dominant ‘speaker,’ but in a musical duet, it doesn’t know who to favor. If June is accompanying someone in a duet as a teacher, she puts the microphone farther away from herself so the program detects the student as the ‘dominant speaker’ and she can hear them better.

Use the record function

This is a simple and extremely effective feature for teachers and students. Record your lessons and the students’ performances so they can play it back, remember feedback, and see for themselves what they need to improve on. This is one great benefit of online teaching, where students are more likely to record their playing and watch it back if their camera is already out and ready to go.

Language Teaching

Megan George is a virtual Spanish teacher and she also favors Zoom. She says virtual teaching can be hard when you don’t have the opportunity to go around observing students to see if each one is understanding and doing their work, but the ease of access is a huge benefit, especially with younger people so tech-savvy! Here are a few things that have worked for her:

Get a licensed account

You have an unlimited number of Zoom meetings you can use, however, one limitation is that these meetings only last 40 minutes. If your class is longer than that, it will automatically drop everyone out of the class at 40 minutes and you’ll have to send out a new link. This can be frustrating and inconvenient. Megan says a way around this is to purchase a licensed account for an additional fee. This allows you to be on the meeting or hold a class for as long as you want.

Switch between viewing options

What’s nice about zoom is that it allows up to 100 participants, and if you need more, you can have up to 500 participants with the ‘Large Meeting’ add-on. What’s difficult is seeing them all. Typically, on a smartphone the settings are defaulted to ‘active speaker view.’ This means whoever is speaking shows up on your screen with a tiny bubble in the corner of your face. Every time someone else speaks, their face fills the screen, replacing the previous speaker. For some, this can be jarring and confusing. Your smartphone allows you to see up to four people at a time in a grid, and then you can swipe to see more participants. However, if you use a desktop, you can switch to ‘gallery view’ and see up to 49 participants at once all as small thumbnails in a grid. If you have more than 49 students or participants, you will have multiple pages of grids you can swipe through. It can be helpful to use ‘active speaker view’ if one person is doing all the talking or perhaps a grid view if you’re having a discussion.

Use the breakout room feature

Megan told me about this and it expanded my mind! A lot of us are teaching students of varying ages, capabilities, and learning levels. Megan said the solution for her on this is grouping her students into breakout rooms. Go to the settings icon on the left side bar, then click ‘in meeting (advanced)’ and select ‘breakout room- allow host to assign participants to breakout rooms when scheduling.’ You will see an icon pop up at the bottom of your screen by the microphone and camera icon with four squares that controls the ‘breakout room’ feature. You can choose how many breakout rooms you’d like in a drop down menu and then a button will pop up on your students’ screens asking them to join the group. They have 60 seconds to click it until they are automatically put into that group. The host or teacher will then have a list of everyone that is in a group and what group they are in.

You can have the program automatically group people if it doesn’t matter who is in what group. However, Megan separates them manually so she can have people of the same learning level meet and practice different exercises than those on a higher level- genius! She says you can also do a breakout room with just one person, which can be helpful to do a one-on-one reading exercise or help someone who is particularly struggling in an area.

Dance Teaching

Teaching dance online sounds very difficult, but Sarah Christensen did it! As a dance teacher at Brigham Young University, Sarah recently has also employed Zoom to help her with her lessons. She says she is grateful for the opportunity the internet and virtual programs like Zoom give to keep the dance community going in times like these. Here are a few tidbits from her:

Share your screen

Oh, the beauty of the sharing screen feature! I discovered this in my acting teaching recently as well using Google Hangouts, and it works wonders! I use it to show videos, to watch different clips of student’s acting gigs, to all read a script together, etc. Sarah says it has made her dance class so much better! Zoom’s sound algorithms think music should get filtered out, making the music very hard to hear. On a desktop or laptop, though, you can ‘share your screen’ and allow your students to hear the music perfectly but only have a very small window of you. The best thing to do is navigate to ‘advanced settings’ for ‘share your screen’ and choose to only share the computer audio.

Other teachers have said they use screen share to take notes as they talk, almost like a whiteboard. You can hear the audio of them lecturing still but see what they are writing. This works well on an iPad with a stylus pen or typing into some sort of word document.

Pin your screen

Pinning your screen makes the image of you as the teacher the biggest so you can see when you are in the camera’s frame. This really helps to make sure they can see what dance moves you are doing, and you don’t get lost in the grid view of everyone else’s thumbnails.

Mute your microphones

Sarah said she had all the students mute their microphones to minimize background noise and chatting. She also had the Teaching Assistant verbally ask her questions she didn’t know the answer to so she could answer them right there. I think this is a very important virtual teaching 101 everyone should know! In my class we also have everyone else mute their mics. Since kids are in their homes, you often have babies crying, parents yelling, microwaves humming, etc. in the background which can confuse the program as to who it’s supposed to amplify. Also, with everyone on different devices, you can get a lot of technical whirring and beeping and clicking from computers, etc. or microphone feedback. Muting mics helps everyone stay on task and able to hear the teacher. It also makes comments very focused because students must consciously unmute their mic to speak up.

Elementary School Teaching

Elementary school teachers have had their lives turned upside down with all of this! Suddenly their classrooms are empty, and they’ve still got to keep track of dozens of kids. So, I asked two different elementary school teachers how they’re taking things and what is working for them. Madison Williams and Stephanie Wilkinson are truly embracing all the resources at their fingertips! Here are their words of wisdom:

Get familiar with different programs

So far, we’ve heard a lot about ‘Zoom,’ but that isn’t the only platform that can be used for virtual coaching; there is a plethora of resources out there. Some school districts aren’t allowed to use Zoom, either, so it’s good to know the options. The first thing Maddie did to set up her classroom, was get a portable document camera called an IPEVO with an accompanying software program called ‘Visualized,’ that made chatting and recording with her students much easier! The software is compatible with the Google Suite and the camera is different than just a static webcam; it has an extended arm that can bend and move and different angles, focusing options, video filters, zooming tools, and exposure adjustments.

Speaking of Google Suite, this is a treasure trove for teachers! You may have heard of Google Docs or Google Slides before, but there’s so much more. Google Classroom is a simple, paperless way to share files with students and grade homework. Google Hangouts is like an Instant Messenger where you can video call and chat, and Google Meet is similar to Hangouts where you can chat and call, but it has more advanced features for video conferencing like real-time captions and capabilities for more participants.

Maddie says she set up a class chatroom using Google Hangouts to allow the kids to message each other, which has kept the classroom family feel and helped her students stay socially connected. Both Maddie and Stephanie say they use Google Meets and Google Classroom for most things, especially to stay connected with their coworkers. We all need communication and human interaction during this time of isolation, and many teachers find solace in collaborating, sharing ideas, and posting materials via these mediums. “It eases our individual burden so we can spend our time and energy talking to the kids individually and responding to their questions and needs,” Stephanie said.

Set procedures and time frames with chat

Chat is a fundamental feature for teaching that has so many uses. In many programs you can adjust the settings to restrict chat if you want students to pay attention at a certain time or allow chat if you want discussion. It’s a great way to send files and answer questions without noisy interruptions.

With a classroom full of elementary kids, though, chat rooms can quickly get out of hand. Maddie said establishing procedures and time frames for silly chatting versus on-task commenting has been a lifesaver! On Mondays she allows each student to share about their weekend and uses the Google Meet add-on for a grid view of all the kids at once.  She has meet-ups daily and established a rule that prior to them, students can have their microphones on and can message with each other in the chatroom. She also plays background music as they all log in. When class starts at 9:30, students mute their mics and can only make learning-related comments or ask questions.

Allow time to catch up on work

This new routine is hard for everyone, students and teachers alike. Wrangling kids virtually can be difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to gauge who still needs help. Let yourself have a little breather and maybe allow for an extra day for kids to catch up on their work. With all the newness of online teaching, some things are bound to fall through the cracks. A little leeway can go a long way. Maddie says she tries to keep the workload to a minimum, but it helps to assign work across weeks and keep Fridays for completing any unfinished work.

Keep students’ emotional well-being in mind

Yes, we feel it our duty as teachers to educate our students and make sure they are progressing. However, these are difficult and unique circumstances for many and it’s important to take their mental and emotional well-being into consideration as well. Part of that, Stephanie says, is giving them opportunities to interact with her as a teacher and their fellow students as much as possible. She uses video chat and email to let students talk and share things they are excited about. She sets up one-on-one meetings if students find themselves feeling lonely and uses screen sharing if anyone needs help in a specific area.

Use Google Docs for journal entries

Our students are living through a very historical time, and it is beneficial to have them write about it! Not only is this a treasure for their future, but it also can help them work through the emotions of the quarantine. Stephanie gives her kids prompts every day to think about and has them write a journal entry on a Google Doc daily. The beauty of Google Docs is you can edit them live and anyone with a link can jump in and write input. This makes it easy for a teacher to look over, make corrections, and give feedback or comments.

Use social media platforms to connect with parents

Stephanie started her own Instagram account for parents to follow full of ideas for staying healthy and happy. It has been a great way to easily post updates for the class, let her students get an idea of her personal everyday life, and has kept a community feel in the classroom!

Stephanie and Maddie both say that one benefit of online teaching has been getting to know their students and their families on a more personal level. With kids being home all day and having class right in their own kitchens, parents are getting more involved. Students share more details about their daily lives, and teachers have the unique opportunity to see the culture and personal learning environments of their students. Those who are shy feel more comfortable opening up in one-on-one teacher/student virtual calls and many times parents are sitting right with their kids during the lessons. Parental involvement is so key to learning success, and virtual learning has created that convenience.

As eager as we are as teachers to jump back into our physical classrooms, it seems these unexpected times have helped us get out of our comfort zones, try new things, reach new heights, and maybe even connect and teach on deeper levels. As I go forward with my virtual coaching, I’ll keep in mind what my mother-in-law said, “During hard times we all have to be creative, but good things come about hard times.”

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