Story by Lilian Zhu
Photo by Ella Jayasekera
Tiger spoke to multiple SPHS teachers about distance learning as part of its September print center spread. English teacher Mark Afram discusses the logistics and challenges of online instruction.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tiger: How is distance learning going?
Mark Afram: Distance learning has been very challenging for teachers and students. The format and the challenges are different, and I want to make sure that I am effective and engaging, so it is requiring a lot of extra work and thought. I know it is challenging for the students too, and that they would prefer to be in class.
Tiger: Did the amount of preparation time for classes change? How so?
Afram: Yes. The prep time has gone up exponentially. I’m trying to think about how to translate my lessons into the online format or revise existing ones. I’ve realized things I’ve done in person in cooperative groups are not always possible, so I have to reinvent and create new things. Even the idea of giving a quiz or test is now challenging because I can’t do that in the same way anymore.
Tiger: How is distance learning now compared to the spring?
Afram: I appreciate the schedule and being able to see my students. Even though it’s difficult to have discussions I appreciate that it’s more personal and it feels more engaging and lively.
Tiger: How are you keeping students engaged?
Afram: I try to rely on different apps like Kahoot or breakout rooms. I try to practice mindfulness exercises and to connect content to their lives.
Tiger: What’s your format of each 80-minute class?
Afram: I try to mix it up. I always open with some mindfulness exercises. When it’s appropriate, I go over homework. I try to have some sort of small group interactions with students where they can talk and process student information and relate to each other. I try to have some personal aspects where some students share what’s going on their weekends or their hopes just to try to get to know them better. I try to mix it up. Maybe there’s a game, competition, or Kahoot opportunity for that.
Tiger: The biggest difference between regular school and online for you personally?
Afram: I find online school so much more exhausting. I find looking at the screen to be exhausting. I find the prep to be exhausting. Even when students have questions for me, they email me. So where a question would have taken 20 seconds to answer now becomes an email. I frankly feel overwhelmed by the amount of emails I receive from my students. I try to respond as quickly as possible but there’s a little bit of a lag time and delay.
Tiger: How comfortable do you feel with the technology with Zoom and Google Classroom?
Afram: I always like to joke that I’m a Luddite and technology isn’t my strength. But I also think in terms of technology awareness, I’m somewhere in the middle in terms of the faculty spectrum. I’m not the most tech savvy but I’m not the least. I know how to navigate it and I know how to use it. I’m not cutting edge, but I get the job done.
Tiger: How are you making sure students don’t experience Zoom fatigue?
Afram: I always try to start class with some stretching and mindfulness exercises and several activities in a class.
Tiger: How are you handling assessments and ensuring test security? If you used smaller quizzes for homework comprehension, have those formats changed?
Afram: I think all of us teachers need to rethink assessments. We need to revisit the tradition multiple choice tests. There are some occasions where I think it might work but it’s really hard to supervise and monitor. I would like to see us as teachers to rethink our testing and rethink our process and think of something more authentic. We need to think of other ways for students to show their knowledge and proficiency versus the traditional multiple choice test. I really try to change them but we can’t test in the ways that we have in the past.
Tiger: Teachers were pushing for a wellness day. Do you still think that is still necessary and how are you trying to make space for that with the current schedule we have?
Afram: After having taught for a couple of weeks now I think there’s even more of a need for wellness day. I think that both teachers and students are stressed and exhausted. I would really appreciate some time to talk and meet with teachers and really just pause, because this new system is exhausting.
Tiger: Were there any professional development days and were they helpful?
Afram: I want to give a shout out to Mr. Chad Bryant and Ms Alisia Engelhard. I do not do well with technology and they really helped me get up to speed with all these different apps and programs. They had to do this all remotely, but I thought they did a fabulous job. I’m really thankful for them!