Science In-Between

I’m going to do something in this post that honestly makes me uncomfortable. I’m not really good at self-promotion and I know that it drives some people bananas when they encounter others who use their social media platforms for self-aggrandizement. To be honest, I’m actually one of those people. I stopped following a few colleagues on Twitter because their feeds turned into a self-promotion vehicle. I stopped listening to a pretty famous podcaster recently because he couldn’t stop promoting his book. I get that it’s part of the hustle and that people like to celebrate and promote what they’re working on. I’ve just never been good at it. And it also makes me really uncomfortable. But I might have mentioned that SIB logo

So, I’m going to jump into that pool of discomfort to share a project that I’m collaborating with a colleague on. But first, some back story.

A month or two ago, I received a number of emails from local science teachers who were struggling with the remote/online/hybrid modalities that their districts were embracing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a former science teacher who teaches a lot online, they felt I could offer some advice. I was happy to help. But in my conversations with these teachers, I realized that this was a challenge that many science teachers were probably facing. So I reached out to my colleague (and former doctoral advisor) Scott McDonald to confirm my suspicions. Scott is a professor at Penn State whose work also intersects the science, teaching and technology worlds. As we discussed the teachers we’d both been working with, we realized that we needed to offer broader support to the science education community during the pandemic.

So we started a podcast. It’s called Science In-Between and it is now available wherever you find podcasts. If you’re wondering where the name comes from, it actually has a dual meaning. With teachers working in remote, online and face-to-face worlds, they’re teaching “in between” traditional learning environments. So, the podcast is going to help others teach science “in between.”

But the name also references a concept I read about called Ma, which is the void between objects and people. When we think of gaps between things, we think about empty space. But emptiness depends on one’s perspective. “Ma is empty space that can be filled with any possibility. What you project into that space – an object, an intention, or an awareness or understanding – shapes the experience of anyone who enters into or engages with that space,” writes Alan Seale on his post titled The Power of the Space in Between. And Scott and I really liked that metaphor. While we’re struggling to work through the seemingly (empty) digital space of remote/online/hybrid instruction, we can also view that space as being filled with possibility and opportunity. We’re hoping to project that the space “in-between” can be also be a space of innovation.

Or at least that’s our plan. Like I said, the first handful of episodes are available wherever you find podcasts. Give it a listen. Or don’t. I offer no pressure. I also promise to return to my normal musings and self-deprecating insights next week.

Thanks for wading through this discomfort with me.


Are You Serious?

So, this is another podcast inspired post. Regular readers know that I listen to a lot of podcasts and the good ones make me think about my role as a teacher, as a husband, and as a parent. So, at the risk of being a “one-trick pony,” I’m going to dig into the podcast well once again and talk about a recent Radio Lab episode titled Translation.  The episode covers a lot of territory by examining how things are translated in different ways. One section focuses on the multiple translations of a single French poem. Another interviews a sign language interpreter who worked at a Jeff Ross comedy show. The episode is jam-packed with awesomeness.

But the most thought-provoking section of the episode focuses on the use of the word “serious” in other cultures. In America, when someone says they’re serious, it usually means that they’re not joking. Or that they’re genuine. Or sincere.  But according to the Radio Lab episode, that’s not the way other cultures use the word. For example, in East Africa, the word “serious” is used when people are so committed to a cause that they don’t just talk about making a difference, but they’re willing to do something about it. So, when someone in East Africa asks “Are you serious?” they’re not questioning a person’s sincerity. Instead, they’re gauging the person’s commitment to action.

The phrase “Are you serious?” has been bouncing around in my brain a lot these last few weeks. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on my interactions with an undergraduate class I’m teaching. The class is a new course for me so I’ve worked really hard to get up to speed with the readings and design an engaging and interactive course. With the pandemic, the course has been moved online and I’m teaching the class through a blend of asynchronous and synchronous interactions. Most of the students in the class are sophomores with a few juniors mixed in. We’re entering week 5 of the semester and so far, the class has been…. just okay. Maybe I’m being somewhat critical with my assessment (I’m prone to that…) but looking at the students’ interaction and performance in class, there’s a group of students that I feel like I’m just not reaching. They’re (mostly) attending my synchronous classes but their work in the asynchronous components has been mixed. While I feel like I’m committed to my students’ success, some are clearly struggling. And the voice I hear in the back of my head keeps asking “Are you serious?”

So, if my answer is “Yes, I’m serious,” it means I have to do more to reach my students and help them succeed. I can’t just talk the talk. I’ve got to do something tangible to help them. To better support these struggling students, I’ve implemented a variety of strategies. I’ve sent supportive and encouraging emails when they’ve missed class. I’ve met with a few of the students to develop improvement plans. I’ve offered some deadline forgiveness for students who have experienced health and technical challenges. I’ve also built checklists to help students better attend to synchronous and asynchronous aspects of the class. Have the strategies worked? I don’t know yet. But I am a little more confident answering the voice in my head that asks “Are you serious?”

Yes, I am.

Learning from Chopin

There are only two known photographs of Frederic Chopin. That’s a little tidbit of information I picked up from a podcast recently. Two photographs. Thinking about it logically, it actually isn’t that surprising. Modern photography wasn’t invented until the 1830’s and Chopin died in October 1849. So, there’s only a window of about a decade or two for Chopin to sit for a photograph. And I’m using the word “sit” intentionally. At the time, Chopin would have sat completely still for about 20 seconds as the photographic film was exposed. And history documents that Chopin did this at least twice.

Looking at the historical record, Chopin seems to have been a pretty busy guy and chose his endeavors carefully. While he composed hundreds of ballads, etudes, concertos and waltzes, he reportedly only gave 30 public performances across his 30 years of musical life. He was one of the first musical celebrities of the 19th Century and people clamored for his time and attention. And through his busy schedule, he chose to sit for those two photographs.

To be honest, I’m not a huge classical musical fan. I can identify certain composers and maybe only a handful of symphonies. But for some reason, I’ve been thinking of this Chopin photography thing for the last week or two. You may be wondering why this is such a big deal. After hearing about Chopin only being photographed twice, I found the pictures online. If you’re interested, you can find them here. In both, Chopin appears stern and solemn. He appears to be scowling and very serious.

Maybe this was culturally appropriate at the time. In the early 1840’s, I don’t know how many pictures were taken that show smiling individuals. But this is the image that Chopin presents in the two existing photographs of hims. Not Chopin as the musical genius, but Chopin as morose and taciturn.

So, what’s the point? I think Chopin’s photographs are a great metaphor for how we interact with our colleagues, our students and maybe everyone else. Consider each conversation, email, discussion board post, phone call, social media discussion and video chat as a photograph. It is the indelible image that someone is going to have of you. For some, it may be the only image they ever have of you. Like Chopin, we’re all busy people. We have a lot of time commitments, deadlines and expectations. But if we’re going to spend a few minutes to write that email, have that phone or post on Twitter, let’s consider the image of ourselves we’re presenting. Are we scowling? Morose? Or are we supportive and empathetic?

As I’m typing this post, I literally just had a student email me and say that they tested positive for COVID. This isn’t some literary device I’ve created to make a point. They’re actually sick and actually COVID positive. In their email, they explain how they were having trouble breathing and went to the hospital where they received the COVID diagnosis. While they’re still hoping to participate in our synchronous online class this week, they wanted an extension on an assignment that’s due in a few days.

So, as I’m writing my response to them, I’m asking myself “what image am I portraying?” Maybe Frederic Chopin should have done the same.

Remote Students Speak – Part 2

In last week’s post, I shared that during the first class in one of my courses I asked my students to respond to two prompts in the chat feature in Zoom.

  1. Name something your professors did in the spring that helped you succeed during the remote transition.
  2. Name something that your professors did in the spring that you found ineffective.

My goal for asking these questions wasn’t to spy on the instructional decisions of my colleagues. In fact, I specifically asked students to not identify professors by name but instead to focus on the practices that they found supportive or ineffective as students during the remote transition. Last week, I discussed the ineffective practices. This week, I focus on the practices that students felt helped them succeed.

Being flexible. While many of the students responded that they appreciated when their instructors provided clear deadlines and expectations, they also explained that appreciate the grace their professors showed during the transition to remote instruction. One student responded that he appreciated professors who “were more forgiving with due dates, so if it was due one week originally it would end up being allowed back to the week after just to make up for peoples now changed schedules.” Another wrote that several professors “loosened the schedule so people could work around their workplace and being home.” From an instructor perspective, it may be challenging to walk the fine line between giving clear deadlines and offering flexibility and grace, but it’s a practice that our students appreciate.

Being Present. I’ve written about the importance of teaching presence and immediacy in other posts (see Teaching Online? Consider Immediacy and New to Online Teaching? Be VOCAL). Looking over the student responses, it was clear that the students valued professors who made the effort to be present. One student wrote that he appreciated when professors “took time to make individual meetings to make sure we were doing okay.” Another shared that a professor held “did one-on-one zoom sessions with us whenever we had questions about an assignment that way he could help us all the way through.” While teaching presence can be shown through synchronous sessions, the students also valued professors who were demonstrated their presence in other ways. One student wrote how she appreciated professors who were “always checking email and willing to help with everything I needed.” Across the responses, it was clear that students value when their online instructors are present to assist with the challenges the face.

Providing Instructional Supports. While the remote transition was a chaotic time for professors and students alike, my students communicated that they appreciated when professors provided supports to help them stay on track. One student shared that his professor provided a “weekly checklist of what needed to get done.” Another wrote that his professor sent “a weekly overview in the beginning of the week.” While strategies like checklists and overviews may seem like simple practices, they help students self regulate and better stay on track with the learning expectations in courses. This is true during a global pandemic and during any type of instruction, both in online and face-to-face instruction.

Remote Students Speak – Part 1

Our fall semester started this week and I greeted a new class of students bright and early yesterday morning. This class is traditionally taught face-to-face but with the pandemic still impacting much of the country, I’m teaching the class online with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous interactions. It should be a fun class.

Since it was our first class meeting, I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to discuss their experiences from the spring. Like many instructors, these students were thrust into remote learning environments without any advance notice or preparation. I thought I’d ask a couple of reflection questions to inform my interactions with them this semester.  Using the chat feature in Zoom, I asked them to reflect on two separate prompts:

  1. Name something your professors did in the spring that helped you succeed during the remote transition.
  2. Name something that your professors did in the spring that you found ineffective.

I advised them to not identify specific professors but I also asked them to be specific as possible. As I read through the student responses, I realized I had some great material for a blog post. Or actually blog posts. This week, I’m going to focus on the practices that students found ineffective. I’ll share the successful practices next week.

Lack of communication. Several students reported that their instructors didn’t communicate as frequently as they hoped. As one student shared, “My one professor did not answer his emails very quickly and so it was hard to understand what to do.” Another student wrote that it “took forever for (the instructor) to answer back emails.” Reading through the responses, it was clear that students wanted/needed a level of communication from their instructors that they didn’t receive. Thinking about the student responses some more, however, I wonder how many of the instructors provided students with expectations regarding their response times. I’m betting many of the instructors were in triage mode in the spring and were more focused on getting their content online and figuring out how to teach remotely. With more advanced preparation for the fall semester, my hope is that more instructors clearly share expectations regarding response times and are also better situated to communicate more frequently with students.

Disorganization and lack of clarity. In their responses, several students communicated that their online classes were disorganized and that the assignments they were given were unclear. One student wrote about “links that didn’t work” and another shared that an instructor provided study guides “that didn’t match with the content on test.” Again, considering the rush to put content online in the spring, these student responses are understandable. But the responses also identify the critical role we play as teachers, both in online and face-to-face classes.

Poor modeling. In a post from a few years ago, I wrote about being VOCAL. VOCAL is an acronym that can help online instructors develop a “teaching presence.” The L in the VOCAL acronym stands for being a “leader by example” which means that as instructors, we model the behavior and expectations we hope to see in our students. We’d never want our students to skip lessons and just read the text. But in the haste of the spring’s online transition, that’s what some students reportedly encountered. One student responded that their instructor didn’t offer any “recorded or live lessons” and another wrote that his teacher “just stopped teaching and depended on the text to do everything.” Another student shared that their instructor was always “extremely late for zoom and then going over the class time.”

If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you know that I communicate the importance of grace and empathy. And the spring challenged all of us in ways that we never anticipated, requiring more grace and empathy than usual. I totally understand that some instructors navigated the hasty transition to online teaching better than others. My hope with sharing these student responses isn’t to chastise or criticize anyone. Instead, let’s learn from the experiences of our students and agree to do better this fall.  I’ll share some examples for how to do that next week.