Ingram, Day adjust curricula, strategies for student connection in virtual learning

Amy Wang, Web Editor

One of the biggest differences between this year and last year for biology teacher My-Nga Ingram is the feeling of anxiety that comes with turning on her camera before every class.

“I am always anxious on the first day of school to meet my students, but after that I get very comfortable in front of my class,” Ingram said. “On Zoom, however, I feel like every day is the first day of school.”

To combat this, Ingram has taken to playing relaxing music as she begins each class.

“I like to think that not only does it help me, but I do think it also helps my students,” Ingram said. “They might be coming from a really tough period, or coming from a class that they really struggle with, and if they can just take a moment to relax a bit, I find that it helps them get into a better frame of mind.”

Like Ingram, math teacher Karen Day also tries to ensure that her Zoom classes start off on a cheerful note. In her case, she makes a point of saying hello to each individual student as they pop up on screen.

“It’s mostly to make them feel seen,” Day said. “I wish we could give everyone a few minutes to say hi, but obviously that isn’t feasible so I just stick to making sure they know that I know they’re there.”

For Day, one of her fears this year is students holding the mistaken belief that their teachers don’t notice or care that they show up to class.

“I never want a student to think, ‘oh, the teacher doesn’t really care if I’m here,’ or ‘they don’t know who I am,” Day said. “I’m just trying my best to make sure they realize that we do care, and we do know.”

Though the new school year has been a struggle for students, teachers have struggled  too, facing an uphill battle when teaching online. For Ingram, seeing only rectangles of disembodied heads on a screen has left her feeling more disconnected than ever with her students. 

“One struggle of online learning is that it’s really hard to read student body language,” Ingram said. “Usually, I can get a feel for it because as they’re walking in, their demeanors say a lot, but in the virtual world, it’s really hard to see what they’re feeling.”

For Day, the difficulty of this new school year comes from the unfamiliarity with her new classes of students, unlike last spring when she was already well-acquainted with her students before she Zoomed with them.

“When you’re virtual, you don’t get a chance to have side-conversations at all,” Day said. “Which on one hand is a good thing, because you get down to business, but on the other hand you really miss out on the connection.”

Besides that basic familiarity, there is also the issue with making sure her students actually understand what she’s teaching.

“Often, I can tell if a student really comprehends the material by looking at their expressions,” Day said. “So without having that proximity to students, it’s hard to know if they understand, or if they’re even listening.”

To combat a sense of being unable to reach her students due to physical distance, Ingram tries her best to find ways to understand her students, and what they need from her in order to do well in her class.

“First of all, what I like to do is so that everyone’s on the screen, or as many as can fit,” Ingram said. “Besides that, I’ve started doing tickets in and out the door.”

The tickets, which are Google surveys at the beginning and end of each class, ask students how they’re feeling and if there is anything that she, as a teacher, should know going into the class. It’s one of the aspects that she most appreciates about being online, as they provide more than just a second for students to communicate their issues with her.

“The goal is to make sure that everyone’s completely comfortable,” Ingram said. “I think for me, my biggest struggle is making sure students feel comfortable sitting in front of the screen with me on the other side.”

Besides these adjustments to daily class routines, the entire online experience has also required an uncommon magnitude of effort. 

Day, who is a part-time teacher with two periods of AP Calculus students this year, has found that grading homework online, a large policy shift from last year where homework was not graded, is a huge undertaking, largely due to technical issues.

“In the time that it took for one file to load, I could’ve graded four or five pages by hand already,” Day said. “It’s an unexpected issue, but an issue nonetheless.”

For Ingram, a huge increase in her workload over the summer due to the restructuring needed to recalibrate AP Biology curriculum for online was the biggest issue. 

“I’ve worked harder these past few months on what we’re doing than I have in twenty years,” Ingram said. “I’ve spent days and weeks preparing for this school year, because we knew there was a strong possibility that we would not be coming back to school face-to-face in the fall.”

Despite this forewarning, there were times where preparation for AP Biology, with its primarily hands-on curriculum, veered far off its usual path.

“There are online versions of certain labs that you can go onto a website and do virtually,” Ingram said. “But those are very different from doing them in a classroom setting, or even at home, because they don’t provide the necessary experience that comes with hands-on experiments.”

Her solution? With the other AP Biology teacher Dave McMartin, Ingram put together nearly 200 kits of necessary materials (which included twine, smaller versions of models usually used during the first few weeks, and a potato) for different projects along with an entire printed copy of the course manual.

“We’ve tried our best, honestly, to keep experiences [close] to what they are in the classroom,” Ingram said. “Rather than drop all those activities or find online representations, our goal was to find a way to get [students] those experiences at home and safely.”

At the same time, however, restrictions on what could actually go home to students forced Ingram into thinking up creative solutions.

“Some of the labs that we would normally do in the classroom require glassware, which we  couldn’t [send home to students] because we couldn’t ensure their safety,” Ingram said. “So we thought, can we use plastic? Some of the lab kits we’re sending home next week will have plastic versions, and if we couldn’t find plastic versions [for every student], we thought, was there a way to have them experience it in small groups?”

An example of this thinking in action was a recent display in Ingram’s AP Biology class, where not all the students got the exact replica of a model needed to complete an activity, but were instead divided into groups. Within the groups, students without the supplies watched and recreated the models on a smaller scale, through the descriptions of their classmates.

“It wasn’t one-on-one unfortunately, but it was in smaller [breakout rooms],” Ingram said. “So everyone still got the experience, if not personally.”

Apart from class curriculum conflicts, both Ingram and Day said that splitting home life from personal life has been challenging. For Day, who has a son starting middle school this year, helping him navigate multiple teachers has been a learning curve, along with adjusting to a new class of her own. Her home office, while closed off from the rest of the house, is the first place her children run to after encountering Zoom errors, even when she’s teaching.

“Even when I’m in my office, I can still hear things happening,” Day said. “I felt really frazzled that first week, and it was really a lot harder than I had anticipated.”

Making sure that her focus on the class is unbroken by family interruptions has been a hard task, but as her sons adjust, so has she. Day says that she’s gradually getting used to the new rhythm of online school.

Despite having only been in school for a little less than three weeks, Ingram said that she’s already applied a lot from her previous experiences with online teaching in the spring. In particular, one student made her completely rethink her grading philosophy. The student, who had been one of the brightest in her class, according to Ingram, and did well on every single assignment before moving to virtual learning, had their home life change to such an extent that they physically no longer had time to finish their work.

“That made me think, why do I grade?” Ingram said, “Do I grade so that students can collect points? Or is it to assess how well a student understands their material? I shifted from this idea of collecting points and making a grade, to developing skills and assessing how well a student understood the material.”

Due to this change in mindset, this year, in Ingram’s AP Biology class, students get to choose which assignments to submit, and which ones they believe best exemplify their understanding of the topic at hand. 

“I think it helped me understand more clearly what’s going on with my students’ home lives,” Ingram said. “They’re the children in their houses, but even for me, as someone who’s an adult, things mess up plans, often.”

This change in policy is one of many that Ingram has made, either due to a better understanding of student capabilities, or to deal with the confines of online teaching. The decision-making process for such choices has not been an easy one, but this year, her goal is simply to make sure that students receive the best education she can provide.

“I’ve tried to be cautious in making my decisions on what to do next with AP Biology,” Ingram said. “I decided [over the summer that] what I don’t want is for a student to lose out on opportunities or interactions because we’re waiting on [whether or not we’d be online] that we didn’t know when [that] would be decided.”

Day, too, is trying her best to make sure that no students are left behind by the pace of class. But to her, it’s more important than ever for students to reach out themselves if they have concerns.

“Teachers have to be a lot more intentional,” Day said. “And so do students. Everyone’s super busy, obviously, and we all have a lot to do, but everyone just has to make sure that they stay on top of it. It’s super easy for students to stay anonymous and fall through the cracks, because they can’t rely on teachers to keep bugging them to ask questions every time they see them in person.”

All in all, one of the only static things about this year is that it’s completely different, Ingram said. One thing that she’s found especially interesting is that while Zoom might obscure some things about students, it has also pulled back the veil in other ways.

“I’m not sure if students realize, but when they open their video, they’re letting us into their home,” Ingram said. “I have found that it’s amazing how much more I know about you now, and it’s only been a week and a half. Some students share rooms, some listen to music, some like really bright rooms, these are all things you don’t normally learn from students, because you’re rarely invited into their home.”

Through these changes, however, Ingram said it has remained her goal to be there for her students. Despite the anxiety that upheaval might bring, it has always been, and always will be, Ingram said, her place to provide long-term support and help so that her students learn, despite what might be holding them back.