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Teacher voice: Once I removed barriers to online access, my students were able to participate in remote learning in meaningful ways

Joshua Brown | April 27, 2020

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Joshua Brown

“Oscar, are you there? Make sure to unmute yourself please!”

Like thousands of teachers across the nation, I muttered this phrase in my new virtual classroom. Curriculum and instruction have taken on a completely different meaning as schools attempt to navigate the new digital learning environment. My colleagues and I are doing our best to reach our students in the changing landscape.

As educators, we know that any disruption to our students’ lives, such as the job loss of a parent or guardian, divorce, or change in routine can directly affect their behavior and performance in our classes. For Oscar (not his real name), whose family is facing eviction due to a job loss, accessing the internet, let alone the curriculum, has proven especially challenging.

Oscar and students like him are the reason I’m taking a hard look at the issues of access and equity, especially in the context of online instruction and grading.

For example, I included participation in the overall grade for my course as a formative assessment. In order to earn credit, I expected students to attend our online sessions, verbally answer questions, and submit their work on time. In class, Oscar is a shy yet diligent student; he volunteers just enough to earn his participation credit. However, in this new digital learning environment, I’ve noticed that Oscar is routinely absent from our online sessions and is missing a number of assignments. Should he be penalized according to my grading policy? I realized quickly that my current grading practices were based on students’ resources and environment, not on their academic abilities. In other words, my practices weren’t equitable.

Fortunately, in the online classroom, it is possible for students to demonstrate comprehension in a variety of ways. The digital medium allows my students to answer questions by filming themselves, creating a picture, or doing a quick write (a short, written response). Not only does this practice empower students to express themselves differently, but it creates equity by meeting them exactly where they are. Even though Oscar doesn’t have a computer with internet access, he can do a quick write or film himself on his phone. Once I eliminated participation as a grade and instead created various ways for student expression, I was able to assess students in more authentic ways.

In my 11th-grade U.S. history class, I designed an assessment in which students were to become historians; without any prior knowledge, they had to analyze primary source documents, discern relevant details, and create an evidence-based historical narrative about an event that occurred during World War I. Students could film themselves, write their response, or draw a picture to demonstrate their understanding of the event that unfolded in the pictures.

I presented a series of photographs featuring people in masks, overflowing hospitals, and empty stadiums. Oscar, who hadn’t participated in our class at all up to that point, submitted a video.

“I think this sickness happened to everybody around the world,” he said. “I think it happened a long time ago because the pictures are in black and white, but the people in masks look like what’s happening today.” Without explicitly learning about the event, he was able to describe the 1918 flu pandemic and I was able to accurately assess his understanding of the content.

Once I removed his barriers by creating lessons Oscar could access, he began participating in meaningful ways. Thus far, online teaching has taught me that my job is to actively reduce the obstacles to learning for all of my students. As I develop my own online practices, I’ve realized that access and equity are the keys to meaningful participation.

Joshua Brown teaches 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade special education at Francis Polytechnic Senior High School in Los Angeles’s Sun Valley neighborhood. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum.

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