Unlikely Story of 2020: My Joy of Remote Teaching

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When I left teaching in 2013, I never envisioned going back. Teaching had become reduced to the inert bureaucracy that I feared when I started teaching 20 years earlier. I had nothing left in the tank to make it to retirement.

As such, I certainly couldn’t have imagined going back in a virtual environment, a place devoid of the organic grit, charm, and humanness of the “real” classroom — the only thing that put a smile on my face at the end of my teaching career. The mathematics, whatever that looked like through institutionalized pasteurisation of education, had left me years ago.

In 2020, I reconnected with Lora Saarino, a person I met when I was interviewing at The Nueva School in Hillsborough, California in 2018. She was a part of this new venture/adventure called Dexter Learning. She asked me if I would like the opportunity to stream some online courses. In my mind, my initial thoughts was like:

“No way. Why would I teach through an even less human medium and the associated stresses of teaching digitally?

Also, my work commitments at Amplify and Mathigon wouldn’t give me much time. But, time wasn’t going to be the big issue. Freedom was. Specifically, intellectual freedom/trust. I was given that by Dexter. Something I NEVER had in my teaching career. I could teach whatever I wanted and however I wanted. I never had a chance to teach number theory as a teacher. Here I was going knee-deep with both 6th and 8th graders.

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8th Graders and Number Theory

Sold.

Including a summer course, I have been doing this now for over 20 weeks. I currently do one live stream Monday to Thursday, equally split among my two classes — Math Recess(6th Graders) and Algebra: A Hero’s Journey Through The Unknowns(8th Graders). Anyone can join these streams for free.

Mere months into mynewteaching career, I have a renewed hope in the pedagogical and human potential of remote learning. Also keep in mind, I don’t do any marking/assessment/etc. I simply teach and interact with my students. The enthusiasm at the end, the curiosity for more, is the only metric available. When curiosity dies, everything dies — eventually.

A Sneak Peek at Calculus with Happy 8th Graders.

It’s been hard.

But this is also true: it’s not often that we get to reinvent ourselves and our educational world. In fact, it probably won’t happen again in our lifetime. Just as we ask our students to embrace new ideas and take risks in their learning, we should as well. For me — a classroom teacher of retirement age — reinventing myself in real-time with students in a new landscape has been rejuvenating. In 2020, we have a generational opportunity to leverage our resilience and resourcefulness. This brings me to my first tip for joyful remote teaching:

  1. Leverage the strengths of a virtual classroom

If you can look past the chaos of getting started with remote learning, there are a few clear advantages over teaching in-person. It can be easier to plan and organize lessons with all the extra space that is afforded with virtual boards as opposed to chalkboards. It can also be easier to work with images from the internet than using an overhead projector or writing on a board. While access to hardware and software are equity issues that need to be addressed, the modality of remote learning has the potential to be more equitable in the long run. Every student is now “sitting in the front” with the opportunity to see the same thing with the same clarity. Every student can chime in at the same time, with real time rolling dialogue in the chat boxes. Confused and anxious students seem more apt to share this misunderstanding and struggles in a group chat, that perhaps isolated with a hand going up in isolation in a real classroom.

2. Celebrate your students’ comfort with technology

For better or worse, many students are nimble with social media tools. Their understanding of online environments is something that should be celebrated and utilized in our remote classrooms. What I have found is that kids love the chat boxes not only to communicate, but also to show their personalities with lingo and emojis. By sanctioning some of this, I’m encouraging a more fluent and robust participation from all students. Remote learning is giving us an opportunity to disarm some of the anxiety and negative attitudes that are inherent in math classrooms.

3. Let small fumbles color your teaching

I teach mathematics, and there are many ways to describe what it means to be a mathematician these days. One of my favorite descriptions is “mistake-maker.” Remote learning will not only amplify some of your math mistakes, it will also show the imperfections of the digital tools you’re using. Closing tabs accidentally, dealing with lagging connections, working through audio challenges… These are just some of the obstacles we face as we teach mathematics to our students. However, we just laugh through these fumbles and stumbles. They disarm the classroom, ironically, giving me a better learning environment for learning complex mathematics — I don’t think I could teach calculus to 8th graders if I wasn’t making asshat technological blunders all the time! But, for me, and hopefully you as well, they also help us embody this truth about mathematics — the slow failure you learn from is more important than the fast success.

4. Focus on human engagement over technological production

Because we are now further away from our students — physically, but also sometimes emotionally — it is even more important to bridge that distance in our connections. In one of my remote learning classes, a student messaged me during my lesson to ask whether she could show her puppy, Mango. In the meeting tool we use, the only face on the screen is mine, and the only way students can appear is if I invite them. So I took time to invite the student on to show her adorable puppy. Other students then asked if they could show their pets. Some asked if they could show their art. Yes, you could say we lost about ten minutes of a fifty minute lesson on prime numbers, but we also gained some invaluable time as a community. I acknowledged that the interests and passions of students are just as valuable as the mathematics that they learn. I also modeled that all learning is shared, that we are a collective, and we celebrate ourselves and the mathematics together. We should all take care to feed the social and emotional needs of the students.

There is much to learn from in this new world we live and work in. If we keep humanness and equity in the forefront of our interactions, we can come out the other end with a newfound joy and love for teaching.

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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