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How are Teachers Preparing for Online School?

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As school has moved online for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, Morro Bay High School students and teachers alike are facing serious changes to the school experience. With these unprecedented circumstances, teachers have had to quickly adapt. The school year’s changes include not only a move to an entirely online classroom but also a schedule change that has students having each class every other day rather than every day.

For some teachers, this transition has not been an easy process. Mr. Andree, who teaches AP Chemistry, Physics, and AVID, when talking about his experiences preparing for the class, admitted he had hoped “up until about mid-July that we would come back for at least a hybrid setting” and had designed a course for that scenario. “I had to sit down and totally revamp it” once it was clear that school would be entirely online, he said. For AVID, he “definitely spent some time in the summer” preparing for the course, which he has not advised in the past. 

US History, AP Government, and AP Macroeconomics teacher Ms. Van Zee had similar challenges. When asked if teachers had enough time to prepare for the changes to the school year, she replied, “absolutely not.”  She added, “I think that [it] was a big misconception…that teachers [were] prepping all summer. Nobody told us.” 

Van Zee added that in order to make the necessary changes to her course within this time frame she has had to make major alterations to the content she is teaching. For her non-AP US History classes, she “is cutting a lot of content…We just don’t have the time for a regular course… I want students to still be able to spend their time with their family and not just be on their computer.” When deciding what to cut, Van Zee is focusing on “teaching the thinking skills—how do you think about history, and how can I use specific pieces of history along the way as examples to practice those skills?” She has had to be “picky” about teaching pieces of history that have “effects…which are still being felt.” 

AP classes, though, are a different story. Because they have a predetermined amount of content to be learned in a year, “that’s going to be more on [students].” However, Van Zee also added that it will be “more on me too because I’ll have to prep things for outside of class time whereas normally I would just deliver it in class.” Andree reiterated that more of the workload for AP courses is being put on students as independent work. “It really feels like an actual college course now,” he said. “The students…are given the content and it’s really up to them to practice the problems. I think it’s going to be less of a culture shock when they go off to college.”

For Andree, AP Chemistry presents a unique challenge: “Labs will be interesting,” he said. Although he is hoping that school will resume in-person classes in January, alternatives include filming labs at school for students to watch and respond to and sending students lab kits to be completed by students at home. The latter, though would be “really difficult,” especially as many students would not have the necessary tools. 

For many students, though, school is more than just an academic experience. When asked how she is working to maintain a sense of community in her classes, Van Zee said that she thinks the “breakout rooms are going to be a huge deal. I’m hoping to use them a lot.” To Van Zee, breakout rooms are a method of “getting students to interact with one another still…[instead] of me just talking into Zoom. That’s going to be where a lot of class time needs to be spent.” 

Although Andree mentioned using breakout rooms in AVID, he located the primary source of community in most of his classes to be the “five minutes before class starts [when] everyone’s coming on to the Zoom and chatting.” However, he admitted that while teaching this is still an area in which he hopes to improve: “That is the hardest one. Honestly, I don’t feel like I’m doing a great job.”  

Andree has been noted in the past for having a teaching style that is built on having high energy and engagement. When asked about how he is maintaining this in an online format, he shared that “it’s not the big grand gestures. It’s the little things that you do,” mentioning in particular that “just saying something weird or showing them a demo” has worked for him, saying “you gotta assume that [the students] are a little more engaged.”

Both Andree and Van Zee have had the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers while adapting to an online school environment. Van Zee shared that she “works very closely with some of the other teachers” and that they have “been doing a lot of practice Zoom meetings” to get comfortable with the platform. 

Andree added that he has talked to the Chemistry professor at Cal Poly, who is working on designing “simulations for their class” to take the place of labs. Furthermore, he was talked to “other high school teachers” from Pioneer Valley and San Luis Obispo High School as they’ve worked on “trying to figure out how [they] can keep students engaged throughout the entirety of the year.”

Although both Andree and Van Zee made it clear that the changes for the school year brought significant challenges, they highlighted some positive aspects, too. For Van Zee, being at home gives her the “benefit of spending more time with [her] family.” She also shared that she thinks that there “is some benefit for everybody getting a lot more tech-savvy and learning how to use different apps and how to function in a digital world.” 

Andree, on the other hand, welcomed the school year as an opportunity for a perspective shift. “Now,” he said, “when I talk to [students], they’re like ‘all I want to do is get back to the classroom!’ I think that that mindset shift is really, really cool.” More personally, he felt that the change allowed teachers “to really step back and think to themselves what the heck they want their students to learn. We’re seeing you two to three times a week. How are we making the biggest impact?” That question, at the moment, may not be one that is easy for everyone to answer, but students can expect to see that answer as we move further into the school year.

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