On June 1st this year, I began to teach a new batch of 54 students remotely and asynchronously. Given that the only piece of knowledge I had about them was their names, it was arguably scarier and more difficult than the switch to remote learning in March, when I did it with a batch I had been teaching for 2 years.
Now, 7 weeks in, I have a lot more information about each of my 54 students than I thought possible. The one tech tool that helped me achieve this is the good old telephone.
Nothing tells a student that you are invested in them personally more than a phone call. Even in a 5-minute conversation, the teacher gets to intently listen to the student as if no one and nothing else matters. It trumps group zoom calls and prerecorded video messages any day.
More importantly, I have been able to gather significant information about the situation of my students and how they’re engaging with my classes, and I’m confident that no survey could have fetched me this data. I have learnt about time, motivation and attention management issues, network issues which force them to work from the terrace of their houses, overwhelm due to too many pending tasks, misunderstandings in the content, and a myriad tech issues such as multiple Edmodo accounts and forgotten passwords. This data has also informed my subsequent lessons and improved my instruction delivery significantly.
In this post, I briefly describe the different types of calls I make to my students:
- Check in to appreciate: Even pre-corona, it has always been hard for me to remember to make appreciation calls home. Calling the student to appreciate them for their work signals to them that you see them and their work despite being far away. It proves to them that their learning matters to you. It helps students who are doing well to continue to do well.
- Check in to remind: Many of my students need reminders for retakes (I insist that students retake my formative assessments if they score below a certain percentage.) A 2-minute reminder phone call goes a long way in preventing future learning gaps for the student.
- Check in to find out why: Sometimes, the student is a week or two behind, or appears to have submitted an assignment in a hurry, or has skipped assignments. I have found that reminder messages / emails in such cases work only for a small minority of students. Most of the time, a listening ear over a phone call helps diagnose underlying issues (“I didn’t know I need to work for at least 4 hours a day. I used to study only for an hour a day.” or “But that’s just a Google Form; am I required to proofread before I submit?” or “I didn’t know that learning must prioritized above deadlines.” or “I didn’t notice assignment 9e.”) and fix them once and for all.
- Reteach/clarify key concepts: Asynchronous remote learning makes it hard to honour the fact that learning and teaching is a 2-way street. No matter how much I think and rethink about what misconceptions students might have or encounter, and account for them in my lesson plans, I have always met a student with a question I couldn’t have come up with in a 100 years. Based on student responses in Google Forms, I am able to assess fairly correctly if certain students need reteaching or a key clarification to move forward in their learning. Phone calls make students’ thinking instantly clear to me and help me present the content to them the way they need it. Insight into student thinking also helps make my future lessons better.
- Support for retakes: Sometimes, a reminder message/email about a retake is enough. But, sometimes, the responses in Google Forms make it abundantly clear that the student needs more support without which she might end up retaking the quiz multiple times and lead herself into a zone of unnecessary frustration. In such cases, I call the student and guide her through the retake. She succeeds in the retake, and in the process, I get to learn about the student’s knowledge and thinking.
- Support for ELLs: Given that all the videos and instructions are in English, it is very easy for me to not know when I’m making things difficult for an ELL, esp. because I have never taught these students before. My intuition for which words, phrases, and sentences the Ss may struggle with is sometimes not enough. Calling ELLs allows me to speak to them in Hindi or their home language, and time and again, I have witnessed communication barriers crumble before my eyes (or ears?).
- Support to help the student organize herself: During this unprecedented time, many students require help with organizing themselves irrespective of whether they have learning difficulties or not. Almost all issues concerning organization and executive function are invisible through work submitted online. Phone calls have helped me get to the bottom of the issue and suggest solutions immediately. (I made a planner but I can’t find it now: Stick your planner on the wall. I saw your message about the retake but forgot about it: From now on, enter retakes in your planner as soon as you see my message.)
Although student surveys (written/audio/video) exist and can help us gather useful information about our students asynchronously, it is important to remember that students who are able self-diagnose issues and articulate them well enough so that an adult miles away can understand is probably already doing well in class.
Phone calls can help us reach the rest.