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Ideas for Teaching Virturally

Welcome to my new blog designed to help teachers and parents in coping with this new teaching environment that is keeping us at home and apart - never an ideal learning senario.

In my teaching I have always tried to use a variety of methods within the course of the week, and to a lesser extent, within each class period. In teaching history there is always the tension between covering the content thoroughly and in dept and the necessity of developing student skills in critical thinking, interpretation of various types of images and texts, analysis of primary and secondary sources, creating arguable thesis statements, making big picture connections . . . it never seems to end. There is never enough time.

I have found that it is often easiest to teach the content. What is hard, though arguably more important, is developing the skills. Content can be googled in mere seconds, but it is these skills which students need most, not only in history classes, but in other subjects also, and beyond to college and careers. This task has now become even more difficult as many of us struggle to teach virtually in an online environment.

Fortunately, there are a lot of places to find help. There are many short video clips available on YouTube through Khan Academy, Crash Course, History Matters, and others. Educational sites like Big History Project, The Gilder Lehrman Institute, Arizona Geographical Society, Annenberg Learner, The Choices Program, and Teaching American History, all have free resources available to help teachers.

I will also be sharing some of the things I am doing to help my students. When I was in high school all of my history and government teachers lectured and we students took notes. This is the most efficient method of transfering information. Sometimes some discussion questions would be thrown in, but few students usually participated. The new trend to develop more project-based or student-centered methods. These generally take longer, but are more easily adapted to different learning styles and abilities. In my experience, teaching effectively requires both methods in balance.

Lecturing is often seen as taboo these days, so let's get it out of the way first. Some have suggested a flipped classroom, in which teachers video themselves lecturing, post it, and let students watch at home. This will then free them up to working with students more effectively in the classroom. And in this time of social distancing where many of us are working and learning from home, this would be a good solution. I would suggest keeping the lectures short, no more than 15 minutes though. If you don't like the way you sound on audio, you could post presentation slides, provided they have enough text or include the lecture notes, so that students can understand them. I would still try to keep the text short and limit the number of slides. Additionally, I would not just rely on students to take notes (as they should be doing, but we all know that many will not!).

When I lecture in class I am building in discussion with nearly every slide. I also take student questions throughout the lecture. Sometimes I even allow minor "rabbit trail" discussions, provided they relate to the topic or current events in some way, are useful for student learning, and are short. A note of caution here, you MUST be focused and not allow these diversions to become too frequent, too long, or disruptive. But controlled they can become a wonderful way of engaging students. So when I thought about how to bring this teaching method to a virtual environment, it seemed daunting. I could try to teach in real time and try to have students log in to a Google Hangout Meeting, but that posed problems. Not everyone would necessarily be able to do that. And without seeing the whole class together, it would be easy to miss students. So I have opted for posting my presentation slides with discussion questions inserted every few slides, for which students are expected to write up answers and include specific evidence to support them. They can then post their answers back to me on Google Classroom, and I know where they have understood (or taken the time to read them). I will

then have the ability to respond directly to each student to clear up any misconceptions or to press them further.

It can't all be lecture though. In my in-person classes I try to limit lectures to 20 minutes and averaging once or twice a week (some weeks have more lecturing followed by a week of all projects/simulations). The rest of the class time is spent in interpreting/analyzing various types of sources, visual or written, and discussing purpose, bias, historical context, and the like. Likewise, all of the projects and simulations I bring into the class require the use of a variety of primary and secondary sources. An example of how I do the source analysis with discussion is posted to the page "For Teachers" on my website. It is the lesson plan entitled, "The Start of the Cold War." In this lesson, students are given two quotes, one from Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 and the other from Fred Inglis in 1991. Students are asked to use their prior knowledge or do a little research, if necessary, to determine the historical context of the periods in which there quotes were written. Any unknown content vocabulary should be looked up. Then they will make inferences relating to purpose, author, audience, bias and finally, draw conclusions about the point of views expressed.

Projects, simulations, debates, and even a few historical strategic classroom games also play a large role in my classroom methodology. These always involve small groups of students, no more than three or four (only rarely five - and ONLY when there is a specific "job" for each student), working together to research, analyze, interpret something and then discuss, debate or present their conclusions. How can this be done virtually? Either the assignments must be modified so that students can do them individually, like the example I have provided entitled "Military Figures and D-Day" or there has to be a way to group students virtually. Edmodo, Google Classroom, and other online platforms do provide ways of putting students into small groups or enabling them to collaborate remotely. The presentation portion can be done by allowing students to videoing themselves presenting, or completing a written or visual deliverable, and posting them to a class shared folder.

I hope these initial ideas are helpful to some of you. If you have any comments and questions, please don't hesitate to respond. If you have any other suggestions, or best practices, please share them out!

Stay safe out there and best wishes on your own virtual journeys!

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