Bitmoji Classroom

My wife shared this video with me: How to Create an Interactive Bitmoji Classroom. Personally, I haven’t thought of a way to use this with my students, but others might be inspired. I did create an image though that I think really does a good job of capturing the back wall of my classroom.


Reflections on teaching online: negatives

I’ve talked about my positive experiences teaching an online summer school class. Twice! Now, let me turn to some negatives.

In my previous post, I shared Sam Kary’s ten item list that is aimed to help teachers teach online. There were three things on his list I didn’t do:

5. Use Personalized Learning and Engagement Platforms
7. Use Creativity Apps for Authentic Learning Experiences
8. Publish Work to Foster Class Community

I’m not sure that I need to do these three things. I’ll be thinking about it. I worry regarding 5 and 7 that introducing yet another app or platform to students will be overwhelming. I don’t know that more and more and more technology is the answer. The GSuite is integrated. It covers all the basics.

As regards 8, well, I could open a Blogger blog, or I could ask them to do more assignments where they respond to questions in the Google Classroom Stream. I’ll be thinking on this.

What are some things that didn’t go well from my experience? Here’s a list:

  1. Students who struggle academically really struggle online: Honestly, my grading is basically A-D, pass or fail, based on effort. I don’t grade heavily on ‘right or wrong’ answers. Some things, like dates or names, are either right or wrong. How one interprets a proverb? Not so much. But those students who would struggle to earn a good grade because, well, they just haven’t developed the necessary organization skills to remember when this or that assignment is due, those students struggle even more with online learning. The key is communication with parents. I feel like I did better with this over the summer than I did in the spring. I’ll need to do even better if/when we go online again.
  2. Predicting all the various assumed interpretation of instructions: One of my approaches was to have students work together on some assignments to create a sense of community when everyone has been social distancing for a while. Some students would ‘work together’ by splitting the assignment up: ‘You do the first half; I’ll do the second.’ That’s not what I meant. This seems obvious to me but students are good at getting a lot done efficiently. This is a legitimate approach if efficiency is the goal but not if learning is the goal. So, some instructions need to be even more detailed.
  3. Monitoring cheating: I caught a few people cheating, or cutting corners like the above paragraph narrates, but this doesn’t mean I feel prepared for all the possible ways students can cheat when doing work from home. One key approach is to make sure the types of questions they’re answering in their work are subjective to the person. If you ask questions with one answer, you’ll have students who abuse their friendships to skip work by finding that one answer. But if the answers have to be in their own words, using their own thoughts, and you have rubric guidelines, you can help your students by making it harder to cheat. Of course, this means more time grading because you can’t just do scantron-style checks.
  4. Seeing and involving students during synchronous classes: Google Meet will do grid view if there’s 16 people or less. I had 30 students. As I’ve mentioned, I installed GridView by GitHub into Google Chrome. It worked well for a few days but dragged my computer. Eventually, it has more glitches than it was worth. If you have 15 students or less, Google Meet works well. I prefer Google Meet to Zoom for a million reasons…but the lack of visibility isn’t one of them. Please fix this, Google! If you can’t see them, you can still randomly call on students to participate, but it helps to see who is sitting in front of their computer, who has their camera off, and so forth.

If I think of more negatives, I’ll post about them. These are the ones that came to mind this morning. Again, online teaching was fun. I thought my class was a successful effort. I’m glad I had a chance to do a practice run, because as Texas spirals into this ongoing first wave of Covid-19, I’m not optimistic we’ll be in class for long this fall.

Reflections on online teaching: positives (2)

This morning I ran across a website created by a teacher named Sam Kary: The New EdTech Classroom. He created a resource called ‘How to Teach Remotely: The Ultimate Guide’ which includes ten things that can be done to enhance your online/remote teaching. I browsed through this list and I was happy to see I had done six or seven of the items:

1. Set Up Well-Organized Digital Classrooms
2. Teach Synchronously with Digital Conferencing
3. Provide Instruction Asynchronously with Prerecorded Tutorials
4. Use Hyperdocs to Create Dynamic Independent Studies
6. Make Student Thinking Visible
9. Provide Meaningful Feedback
10. Build Better Connections with Families

Let me explain, quickly, how I did these things. Then I’ll list the things I didn’t do which will serve as a gateway for my next post on negatives.

I used Google Classroom. I made sure that the work was clearly definite by two categories: Classwork and Homework. In the Classwork Stream I organized assignments by their due dates and made sure that their descriptions were the same as they were in our school’s online hub that connects with the Registrar’s Office.

I used Google Meet. I said a bit about this yesterday.

For ‘Homework’, I recorded short instructional videos for each assignment. I would open a Google Meet by myself, record it, and allow that recording to land in my Google Drive. Then I’d share it along with the relevant assignment in Google Classroom.

I’ve been using HyperDocs for over a year. I used Google Docs. As I mentioned yesterday, I require students complete guided notes (I call them ‘Course Guides’). This allows me to link to any videos and/or articles found elsewhere on the web.

Side note: I don’t show videos over Google Meet (and don’t recommend it for Zoom) because it’s too choppy. So, I make sure they have access to the video on YouTube, and then ask them to play it from the Slides/Doc I share with them. I still play the video, muted, so they can see it in Presentation Mode, and get a sense that the class is watching the video ‘together’, but avoids the irritation of trying to watch a video that sounds and looks like it’s skipping.

As concerns ‘making students think visibly’ I had them build things like Solomon’s Temple from household items, video record themselves answering questions, draw comics, create memes, etc.

In spite of having a class of thirty students, and in spite of it being a crash course, I was able to give quick feedback because I had an Assistant Teacher. But I feel confident that when my classes are back down in number, and assignments aren’t due multiple times daily, grading with solid feedback should be easy.

Finally, I sent an email to families multiple times and I used Google Classroom’s option to send a report to guardians about once a week on average. This helped parents keep up with their students work assignments but also helped students see what they had done, not done, and what grades they had received recently.

Ok, to the things I didn’t do:
5. Use Personalized Learning and Engagement Platforms
7. Use Creativity Apps for Authentic Learning Experiences
8. Publish Work to Foster Class Community

I’ll say a bit about this, and some other areas that weren’t successful, next time.

Reflections on online teaching: positives

Last week I finished teaching my first online class where about half of the time was synchronous learning. Normally, summer school classes begin at 8 AM and end at 12 noon for three weeks (60 hours + nightly homework). We weren’t going to ask students to sit in a Google Meet for four straight hours every day, so most days we went from 9-11 AM. A couple of days we went from 8-11 AM (the first and last days). ‘Class’ could end at 11:30 AM if I had them doing a review or breaking out into discussion groups (‘Cohorts’ in my classes).

Where I live—San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas—we’re experiencing a spike on Covid-19 cases. Not only will this impact summer break but I think we need to be ready for the possibility that it will wreck the normality of school not only for the spring semester but even the fall semester. In fact, I worry, but also anticipate, that the academic year will have barely begun when we’re already having to adjust to some form of online learning. That said, I don’t speak in any official capacity. Just my educated guess here.

So, with this in mind, learning from what went well and what didn’t will help me in the fall. And for those of you who are preparing for the wild ride that could be this next school year, I hope some of this insights help.

  1. Guided notes were essential: I use guided notes in class anyway, but guided notes that had to be submitted soon after class, especially using Google Docs, allowed me to check the Doc history to make sure they were working on the assignment in real time and not just asking friends for answers later in the day. Also, the guided notes were extremely scripted. Things I would know to say while teaching in person don’t need to be written down, but when everyone is following along from home, I felt that scripted notes were important.
  2. Creating space for Cohorts to meet was a success: I use Google Meet. I don’t like Zoom but I think it might have more capacity in the area I’m about to describe. Nevertheless, Google Meet was sufficient. I wanted students to have some form of ‘community’. I wanted them to have friends with which they could do assignments. So, about a third of the days I had students continue after main session by going to separate Google Meets for discussions. This meant organizing the class by Cohorts and then choosing Cohort leaders. The responsibility of the Cohort leader was to guide the discussion, record it, and share it with me and the Assistant Teacher. I kept time requirements simple: discuss for 6 minutes; discuss for 10 minutes. Then I listened to the recordings to make sure they stayed on topic for the allotted time.
  3. Collaborative homework assignments were embraced: Usually, I’d show movies/TV in my class so my students can see the Bible-as-visual-art but since we weren’t meeting in person I asked them to buy the films/episodes themselves. In the end, it was cheaper than textbooks. Also, I invited students to participate in ‘watch parties’ where they’d connect on their phones while watching the same movie. The answers to questions about the movies were intended to be very subjective, so I invited them to discuss their answers together, which hopefully got them talking about the movie/TV episode, and furthered their learning.
  4. Not all assignments were traditional: Sure, I had them do a lot of reading/writing during the non-synchronous parts of class, but as mentioned I also had them watch movies/TV and record their observations. I had them build Solomon’s Temple out of items they could find around their house. I had them meet in a Google Meet to record a dramatic reading of the Book of Jonah. Some of the parents who wrote me mentioned this as one of the things about the class they really appreciated. Some families watched the movies/TV together, so that added a new element that could only be done in this format.
  5. Record responses to homework: My students spend a lot of time on YouTube, Tik Tok, and other video-centric websites and apps. So, it’s natural for them to record things. I tried to use this to my advantage. As I mentioned, they recorded their Cohort discussions. They recorded their dramatic reading of Jonah. I had them ‘review’ The Prince of Egypt by doing a video recording and pretending that they were a famous YouTube movie reviewer.

That’s the first list of positives. As I think of more, I’ll share. Also, I’ll share some of the negatives.

Google Meeting the Bible Again for the First Time: Days 12-14 of Summer School

I was wrong. I didn’t find the key to grid view using Google Meet. At least not one that works consistently. The extension ‘Grid View’ by GitHub has become increasingly unstable that past few days. It prevented by Assistant Teacher from signing on until she uninstalled it. I used it last a few days ago and it wasn’t a grid but a bunch of slivers stacked on one another. I couldn’t see anything but a few names. Google Meet needs to add this feature as a standard one before the fall.

Otherwise, summer school has been great. I’ll continue to post reflections on the actual content and teaching over the rest of the summer. But I haven’t encountered much that is new regarding the art of online teaching. The first week was the learning curve. I’ve settled into a routine since then.

Divine command theory and Hosea’s actions

I had my students write short ‘essays’ in response to a prompt based on one of their recent homework assignments. They can choose the one with which they’re most comfortable. Here’s one of those prompts:

‘In Homework #18, you learned about the content and message of the Book of Hosea. If you choose this prompt, you’ll need to tell me the following information in a minimum of 6 sentences: (1) Do you think it was moral or immoral for Hosea to marry a sex-worker (prostitute) knowing what she would do to him and their family? (Explain why.) (2) Do you think it was moral or immoral for Hosea to give his children the names he gave them? (Explain why.) (3) Does the fact that these actions are presented as obedient responses to divine commands change how you interpret them? (In other words, if Hosea did these things without being commanded by God would that change their morality?)’

When they learned about Hosea, they learned how Yahweh God had told Hosea that his marriage and the birth of his children would be overshadowed by Gomer’s occupation, and Hosea was commanded to give his children some degrading names (e.g., Lo-ammi, ‘not my people’), yet Hosea’s often justified because ‘God said’ to do it (divine command theory).

Among the responses, there’s been a desire to say that this is an exception to a general rule, because/if God commanded it. But the ‘why?’ has been harder for them to articulate. One response (that needed to be unpacked more) was the ‘greater good’ defense. God commanded these seemingly problematic actions because Hosea’s sacrificial life contributed to the greater good for others.

While rare, there were those who pushed back against the question. One student wrote, ‘Speaking broadly, marrying a sex worker is perfectly moral.’ His problem was with Hosea marrying Gomer knowing the consequences of this decision. This student wrote, ‘…intentionally bringing his children into a broken home just to make examples of them was an immoral decision.’ But it was his final argument that I found fascinating: ‘if Hosea had done these things without God’s requesting of them, then I actually believe it would be more moral. After all, Hosea only knew for sure that his wife was going to leave him because an omniscient deity told him so. If he did not have Yahweh’s foresight on his side, then absolutely none of what he did would have been immoral — only unfortunate.’

Another student put ‘God in the dock’ if you will, writing, ‘Hosea’s actions were immoral because God’s actions were immoral.’ Now it wasn’t clarified if this means God’s command was immoral which pushed Hosea to do something immoral or if she meant that God’s actions toward Israel were immoral as modeled by Hosea’s actions toward Gomer.

It’s been interesting reading through these responses. Some students experience a real uneasiness with saying that God could be immoral or command something immoral while simultaneously struggling to articulate why an action that would otherwise be immoral (intentionally marrying someone who you know will blow up your family; giving your children derogatory names to make a point) is moral when God commands it.

Team Daniel or Team Esther

Yesterday, I paired the Books of Daniel and Esther. Both are post-exilic writings set in the exile/diaspora. Both feature Jews who have found their way into the royal courts of Babylon and/or Persia. Both address the question of how true one must remain to their Jewishness to show fidelity to their god. In the Book of Daniel, characters such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t compromise. They are willing to die/suffer rather than break their dietary laws, or worship other gods, or even take a break from worshipping their god. Esther and Mordecai hide Esther’s Jewish identity which includes eating Persian foods, having sex and marrying a Gentile, and who knows what else. Mordecai might be a little more like Daniel and friends when he refuses to bow to Haman but overall the ethics of the Book of Esther are less black-and-white than the Book of Daniel.

I ended class by having my students get together in a Google Meet and record their discussion where they argued for either the quasi-deontological (or divine command) approach of the Book of Daniel or the more consequentialist approach of the Book of Esther. One of my student leaders begun the conversation by asking who was ‘Team Esther’ or ‘Team Daniel’. So far, as I watch/grade the recordings, team Esther is winning (though there were a few pro-Daniel students).

What’s fascinating is to observe their reasoning. Some students say they’d be like Daniel depending on the context though if the context was that your life was at risk, they’d be more like Esther. One student pointed out that Esther never explicitly said she wasn’t a Jew (though it could be argued many would have accused her of not living like one), so she didn’t technically lie about this.

Another topic that caught my ear was the difference between how God’s presence is narrated in Daniel contrast with Esther. Famously, God speaks to Daniel in dream and visions. He intervenes miraculously. Esther is ambiguous about God’s presence. God is never named or directly mentioned. Some of the key turning points suggest to some readers that God’s in the background but God is never mentioned. I think that’s key. For some students, if God was performing the deeds like we read in Daniel, sure, they’d adopt his approach, but life seems to be more Esther-ish: whatever we might say about divine activity, it’s not clear when and where God acts.

Google Meeting the Bible Again for the First Time: Day 11 of Summer School

The final week of summer school begins today! Today, we juxtapose the ways the Books of Daniel and Esther respond to exile and occupation. The first has a major role for God, angels, and other forms of divine intervention; the latter never mentions God. The first consistently advocates for living faithfully even if it means losing your life; the latter is a mixed bag (begins with Esther being secretive; ends with Esther risking her life). The first has a male protagonist; the latter a female. I’m sure there are more interesting contrasts between these two post-exilic works set during in Babylonian and Persian Empires. They’re fun to teach together.

While I’m exhausted and ready for my summer break to begin, I’m also really glad I taught this course. The class has been great. And I’ve been able to test different approaches to teaching online, you know, just in case wave 2, or wave 1.2, of the pandemic wipes out in person instruction again.