Monday, September 7, 2020
Caveman teaching in the time of Covid
Speaking with several colleagues and friends who are teachers, from law school to high school, it seems that many of us are struggling to adapt our courses to teaching via Zoom (or comparable online platforms). Count me as one of them too. And that’s despite the fact I’ve previously taught semester-long online courses and developed some experience with Zoom in particular last spring when all courses at my law school went online toward the end of the semester.
But those experiences didn’t really prepare me for the unique challenges I’m facing now teaching brand new, completely green 1L students in my legal writing course this semester. My prior experience teaching online was through a Masters of Law program here at my school which involved primarily purveying information to non-law students rather than engaging in the type of “brain surgery” we undertake on 1Ls (to borrow a phrase from Professor Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase”). As a die-hard classroom teacher, truth be told I have never loved online teaching but for some programs and courses, it can be an efficient and effective way to deliver information to busy, adult students seeking a credential to advance their careers. And teaching via Zoom last spring didn’t prepare me for the challenges I now face with new 1Ls. That’s because by the time we made the switch from face-to-face classroom teaching to going fully online, I’d already established a good foundation with my students. They were already “thinking like lawyers” by the time we made the switch in March, they knew my expectations by that point, and we’d developed the kind of rapport and shorthand methods of communicating that occurs when teacher and students hit their stride. For that reason, I think the switch to Zoom will be less troublesome for upper class law students who already have a good foundation in critical thinking and know what to expect and how to prepare for class. I’m more worried about the 1Ls.
As I recently explained to a friend, trying to teach skills like writing and legal research to completely green 1Ls via a computer screen is a bit like trying to explain to someone how to change a tire over the phone. I’ve never worked harder as a teacher yet at the same time feel like I’m being less effective. Each class requires a tremendous amount of pre-planning because teaching via Zoom lacks much of the spontaneity of good classroom teaching where, based on 20+ years of experience, I can read the class in a nanosecond (literally) and respond or make adjustments as needed.
And because teaching skills through a screen is indeed very much like explaining how to change a tire over the phone, I’m putting a tremendous amount of forethought into figuring out how to simplify my lessons and explanations so they translate well in this platform. I’m also finding myself utterly exhausted after each class, more so than I can ever recall due to my attentional bandwidth being stretched to the limit. Between monitoring student engagement, watching the chatbox for questions, toggling between documents and sharing screens, periodically checking in to make sure students are seeing on their screens what I intend, troubleshooting the myriad tech glitches and screw-ups that occur in every class, by the end of my two hour session, I’m totally wiped out while also feeling less than confident that the class was a success. One colleague confided in me that for the first time since she was a new teacher, there’s a pit in her stomach before each class due to worries that it’ll go off the rails for one reason or another.
So I thought I’d blog a bit about some of the particular challenges I’ve faced teaching a skills course during the time of Covid, the work-arounds I’ve developed and perhaps it will help others reading this or, instead, you’ll suggest something in the comments that’s a better solution than what I’ve come up with.
For today, I thought I’d talk about a real conundrum for me – how to translate the physicality of classroom teaching to Zoom. As I’ve written before, despite the myths and popular stereotypes about so-called “digital natives,” all of us are essentially cavemen living in a digital world when it comes to how we think and learn. We’re still using the original factory equipment of our ancient ancestors whose brain evolved to serve the needs of the deeply social creatures that we are. Indeed, our brains are specifically designed to receive and communicate a tremendous amount of information by reading body language, facial expressions, and other physical cues that often occur below the level of consciousness. Teaching in particular is an especially social activity. It’s not just that teachers receive a great deal of feedback from students in the form of physical cues about whether they’re getting it or not, we’re also communicating a tremendous amount of substantive information about the material through our own body language and physical cues.
I recall vividly one of the best lectures I ever saw in any context was an evidence video decades ago in law school by the legendary Professor Irving Younger on the art of cross-examination (e.g., “Good cross-examination is not the invasion of D-Day! It’s a commando raid! You’re in, you’re out!”) which I think was not even delivered in a classroom but instead in the middle of a forest to a group of students sitting around a campfire (!). One of the things that made it so effective (aside from the brilliant metaphor) was Professor Younger’s intense passion, his crazed delivery, and wild gesticulating which really sold the material. It turns out that studies show that watching a teacher move across the stage while simultaneously listening to the lecture is experienced by students both kinesthetically and aurally which in theory engages them better because it involves two modalities of learning. Many great teachers throughout history have intuitively understood this phenomenon including Aristotle who famously lectured to students while he walked with them.
Yet teaching via Zoom completely obliterates that. Just as social media isn’t a replacement for the in-person human interaction our brains were specifically designed for (we now know that spending too much time on social media ironically makes us more isolated and depressed rather than fulfilling the false promise of greater connectedness which might also help explain why those Zoom “happy hours” that seemed so novel last spring got old really fast) teaching through a computer screen isn’t a substitute for the physicality of face-to-face classroom teaching.
I guess I should explain that here at my school, our legal writing courses are being taught entirely online this year. Due to the demand on classroom space because of social distancing requirements for those classes offered using a hybrid model (I’m teaching one of those too this semester), all the LRW profs are confined to teaching in front of a computer screen either at home or in the office (for me, it’s the latter). And while Zoom has a whiteboard feature, frankly I think it sucks in terms of meeting my particular needs for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a bit balky to write and edit on though I also find in general the whole process of sharing screens a bit balky insofar as it interrupts the flow of conversation between teacher and students as I search for the slide, check to make sure students are seeing what’s intended, etc. When I’m in the classroom, even when I’ve got my back to students while writing on the board, I’m always looking over my shoulder, making eye-contact with them, assuring myself they’re still with me. In the classroom, I’ve learned to walk and chew gum at the same time but Zoom is taking much more of my attentional bandwidth to make sure all the functions are working properly and students are seeing what they’re supposed to which creates breaks in the conversation and dead spots that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
But what I really don’t like about Zoom when it comes to the whiteboard, sharing screens, showing slides, etc. is that students wind up looking at a screen while hearing my disembodied voice in the background. For me, it doesn’t feel like an effective way to communicate the information; I want all of us to be making eye-contact while we talk together about what’s on the screen. Students have always told me that I’m a very passionate teacher. I rely on that passion to help communicate and sell the material. I’m constantly roaming the front of the classroom, moving from the podium to the board, projecting slides onto the screen and then editing or diagramming with students what’s being projected, venturing out among them, and using demonstrative body language to emphasize key points. But all of that is lost when you’re reduced to a talking head on a video screen or, worse, you’re nothing more than a disembodied voice behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz.
What I’ve done to address this is buy an easel (only $18 (!) on Amazon) and some whiteboards (only $17 and $24, respectively, on Amazon for a large and small one) which I’m using rather than Zoom’s whiteboard so that I can be on camera while I’m writing lessons and diagramming points for students. I want them to be able to see me as I write and to be able to talk with them directly to keep tabs on their engagement. So far I’ve found using a physical whiteboard helps eliminate some of those pesky dead-spots and uncomfortable silences in the flow of our classroom conversation.
But it’s hardly an ideal workaround. For one thing, I still have to sit at my desk while I teach since I have to be in close proximity to my desktop to do a Zoom session (I bought a standalone video camera on a tripod specifically for teaching but logistically it isn’t possible to use a wall-mounted whiteboard while operating my desktop given the layout of my office). So instead I’ve placed the easel next to my desk and I have a couple of whiteboards that I can switch in and out if I run out of room or, alternatively, I’ll prepare a board ahead of time, show it during class, and then diagram or add to it as the conversation warrants. Of course this requires much more planning and class prep than classroom teaching where I’m able to leverage decades of experience to spontaneously respond to sticking points as they arise and employ the many tools at my disposal like PowerPoint, the chalkboard, giving students handouts to mark-up, etc. (Sheesh – it turns out that many in my class - perhaps most (?) - don’t even have printers at home so having them print hardcopies and edit with me in real time like I do in the classroom is not even an option).
The feedback from my students so far is that they prefer my use of the physical whiteboards to Zoom’s version insofar as they like seeing me talk about what’s on the board, diagram and edit, and the associated body language that helps communicate the material. But I’m not entirely satisfied with this workaround either, yet so far it’s the best thing I’ve come up given that I’ve confined to a desktop to teach legal skills. I do think it’s better than Zoom’s whiteboard for many situations but I’m also interested in hearing what others are doing to compensate for the lack of physicality that's inherent in online teaching. Or maybe you don’t find that to be a drawback at all in which case I’d be interested in hearing about that too.