I am a middle school teacher working in a pandemic. I am also a TRC researcher investigating student engagement in whole class discourse. Of course, like every teacher right now, the only constant in my “classroom” is that nothing stays the same for very long. I started the year distance teaching to distanced students. In October, we went to in-person teaching with distance learners Zooming in. In December, my doctor put me on quarantine and I went to distance teaching to both in-person and distance learners. I was projected on the whiteboard and watched the class through an iPad. Then my students were quarantined. As of today I am teaching in person to in-person and Zoom learners. Change is constant, flexibility is essential.
One of the many things I noticed when attempting to engage distance learners is that subtlety doesn’t work very well. I have spent twenty-five years perfecting a variety of “teacher looks”. These looks include a raised eyebrow, a smirk, and a stern look; wait time is a must with each look. Well, my former teacher looks were not so useful with distance learners. Often I was looking at an array of black boxes. One student confessed one day that he was making pancakes during class. Yes, no subtle look for that one.
So I had to retire my subtle looks and find new ways to engage my students. I began to be dramatic. Not usually my style but my students seemed to respond to my dramatics. I think it was my way of letting them know it was really me and not a video. I wanted them to know that I care if they are present and engaged. I believe that digital communication is difficult. I have to strain to interpret a student’s mood. One day, when I was teaching from home and projected on the whiteboard, a student said , “Mrs. Sinnen looks stressed.” I responded, “I am not stressed, I am just trying to see what you are doing.” That was the aha for me. Be clear, be bigger than life, be dramatic. This just might be a key to engaging my students from or in a two-dimensional digital world.