Teaching Online Opens Possibilities

Jeanne McDermott
Traditionally, eighth-grade science is a lively, hands-on scene, with students experimenting with chemicals, Bunsen burners, collisions, and explosions to collect data about the physical world. Our corona-inspired web-based instruction has prompted us to shift our methods but not our objectives. 
At the moment, my students are in the midst of researching topics and immersing themselves in science-centered web quests, videos, and interactives. Research, discussion, and processing all still happen. It’s just happening differently now.
For our first online project, students did a deep-dive into density. Each student selected a density-related topic of interest: how cranberries are harvested, why helium makes your voice sound "higher," why the “unsinkable” Titanic sunk, why the Gulf Stream shifts course. They made and shared slideshows. A side benefit was the chance to learn the elements of effective slideshow presentations. Simple is good. Visuals! Titles tell the story. The text should display talking points rather than details.
One of the challenges of learning online is sustaining the joy, creativity, and playfulness that are hallmarks of Shady Hill’s program—for both students and faculty. I opened today’s Zoom session by asking, "Which subatomic particle would you like to be and why?" Lots of students wanted to be electrons because they fly around and never stop moving! Midway through class, we took a stretch break, moving around pretending to be animals. Among others, we had a seal, elephant, turtle, and flamingo. Then, we learned about isotopes and how to use the atomic weight information on the Periodic Table to calculate the average number of neutrons in an atom.
Online instruction has actually enhanced certain aspects of my teaching. These days, for example, I collaborate even more closely with colleagues than was typical in the past--and we collaborated a lot before! Additionally, online instruction has not so subtly altered the balance between teacher and student. My students are exhibiting ownership of their learning as well as independence in their explorations in ways that have surprised and delighted me. And while I probably should have been doing things like animal stretch breaks all along in my classroom teaching, online instruction has encouraged me to mix in more fun, spirit-raising moments. You game? Check out this—spoiler alert—cake server!
Jeanne McDermott
Grade VIII Science Teacher
617.520.5260        178 Coolidge Hill    Cambridge MA 02138