Today I had a breakthrough with a student, the kind that helps me believe in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I tend to question everything I do (way too much…just ask my husband!) and the choice to teach online is no exception. As I hinted in my post from yesterday on not seeing my students, I do have this sense that we are missing out on something important with the lack of visual interaction. And yet then there are moments like this one today where I think, well, just because this isn’t the way I went to school, doesn’t mean that it’s “wrong.”
I have a student in one of my English classes who I will call Matthew. This student started off strong this year and then suddenly stopped working. I tried calling and talking to his mom, but she didn’t seem to be able to get him going, either. So I tried talking to the student, and just got nowhere with him. He would respond to my questions with minimal one or two-word responses trailing off, in a tense, barely audible voice. He would make a verbal contract to complete an assignment, and then wouldn’t follow through, or would complete just the multiple-choice portions of a quiz without completing the short answers. It was clear that although this student is very intelligent, something was holding him back from getting engaged in a conversation, not to mention putting himself out there in writing.
And then came a project that I love to do with my students: they can choose to research literally any topic that they are passionate about, become the expert and present their research in a professional format. Finally, after several phone conversations, this student opened up about a topic that was of interest to him: the inner workings of a computer. I told him that was a great topic and that I couldn’t wait to see his final project. But as of Friday afternoon, I still wasn’t sure if Matthew would follow through and submit it before the Sunday p.m. deadline.
But lo and behold, on Monday morning, there it was! And not only was it complete, but this student had come up with a beautiful analogy for the difference between the different kinds of computer memory. I definitely did a little happy dance on my exercise ball chair just then! And that is the kind of moment you live for as a teacher — when you feel like, at least for one moment for one student, you did have a positive effect. Now I don’t claim to believe that Matthew is suddenly going to be my start student; in fact, I am pretty sure I am going to have to pry every assignment out of him the same way. But perhaps as these small victories start to accumulate for this student, he will start to feel more confident in his own abilities and to feel less anxiety about writing assignments over time.
What is clear to me, though, is that this is a student who would feel completely overwhelmed and even lost in the traditional classroom, which I imagine is why he is in online school. Seeing this alternative option work for this particular student reminds me that even when I have my doubts about our program, as long as it is helping at least some students learn in the way that is best for them, it can’t be the wrong thing to do.