Thursday, July 23, 2020

Covid journal #2: Lessons learned from making media during a pandemic

Mad World by Cam

During the coronavirus shutdown I learned a few things about how some students thrive in online settings. A lot of the success I saw in these students can be attributed to two things – leveraging the affordances of digital networks and self-regulation. In this post I'll talk about mainly the positives I learned from my students after interviewing them at the end of the school year.

Location, location, location

Where the learning happens changes things. When my school went from a traditional face-to-face (f2f) classroom to a completely online setting in mid-March, I wasn’t sure how my media production class was going to go – if at all. In all the years I've taught this class the physical space was the center of making and learning. That’s where all the cameras, computers, and applications were.

Then there’s the community aspect – the refining of story ideas that takes place through class discussion, the collaboration between peers as they coordinate filming, lighting, and audio for an in-person interview. And then there are the subjects of the stories themselves. Typically the content of high school media programs are primarily about and for the people who are in the building.

So if there’s no “school” per se, there’d be no product, right?

But then something unexpected happened. A number of the students started producing work that in a lot of ways was more compelling than what they made in the three quarters prior, work that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened in my f2f classroom.

Leveraging digital networks

One of the reasons I still love teaching is that I've been fortunate to learn from others through digital networks for about 20 years now – connecting on Teachers Teaching TeachersYouth Voices, and through the National Writing Project, for example. Another vital piece of my professional learning network is PBS NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs who came through with resources like Making Sense of Coronavirus and Conducting Virtual Interviews. I talk about this in detail in this Media Education Webinar, but to summarize one of my main points in that webinar, having this resource ready to go as I navigated uncharted waters lightened the cognitive load for me as a teacher, and knowing that other students around the country were also doing similar stories motivated my students.

One of the initial problems my class faced was when students had to figure out how to make their own equipment work.  In my f2f classroom I know how to use all the equipment and if students don't figure things out on their own, I'm there to show them. But when students had to use their own equipment, they were using tools and applications that i Never had. 

Other students became resources for each other. Instead of me demonstrating how to use the equipment in the classroom, our online classes turned into troubleshooting sessions, where I found myself emphasizing how people were making things work, rather than dwelling on the all the things that were going wrong.

Figuring things out on their own

I don't want to minimize equity issues, because admittedly some of my students struggled with access to computers and little to no wi-fi at home. There are systemic educational issues that have to be addressed if we want a healthy economy and an electoral system that works for everybody. But that's another discussion. And how my community supported struggling students during Covid-19 is something I'll take up in another post. Right now I'm focusing on the things that worked this past spring, and one of the themes that ran through a number of the interview responses was that students came up with creative ways to solve problems on their own.

For example, Cam couldn't get his older-model HP computer to read video files shot on his iPhone 6. I did some searching for resources but in the end, through sheer persistence, he figured it out on his own. Watching his video I think his success, at least in part, is consistent with what Nora Fleming writes about in the article, Why are some kids thriving during remote learning – self-pacing and getting enough sleep. From a research standpoint the behavior described in the video supports Zimmerman's observations about the cyclical process of self-regulation in chapter 2 in the Handbook of Self-regulation.

When asked, a lot of the students mentioned how they learned a lot about their own technology through this experience. Sam said: "I learned that virtual interviews can actually be as easy as conducting them in person. Thanks to apps like Zoom or FaceTime, virtual in-person interviews are easy to conduct." Other students used their gaming systems like Game Bar, or OBS. "In my situation, I didn't have access to any video or audio editing software, but I was able to conduct interviews over the phone, and use their transcripts to write a story.”

Expanding world views

Something else happened this past spring; the scope of our stories became more worldly. Some of the students produced a series of interviews about how coronavirus had impacted teens around the world like in ChileNorthern Ireland, and England. Sarah interviewed an international student at our school who left for her home in Korea as soon as our state's schools went completely online. 

When asked what they learned about coronavirus from doing stories from an international perspective, some noted similarities ("I learned how people around the world are in the same situation as I am, unable to leave the house or hang out with friends"), while others noted contrasts: “I learned how differently other countries handled the pandemic, especially in comparison to the United States. I also learned that not every place went into a full lockdown.”

Other students conducted virtual interviews with adults about issues that affect millions of people. Katie interviewed a representative from HEAL Utah, a local environmental non-profit about the obvious benefits of reduced commuting on air quality but also learned that the pandemic's effects on the environment were more complex than what she was seeing. Another student interviewed a member of the US Olympic Committee for a story on the cancelled 2020 Summer Games in Japan.
"I learned about ways to make an interview look extremely professional despite being across the country. I realized that even if we do go back to school next year we won't be limited to interviewing those in Utah."

The challenges ahead

Some of what my students had to say warmed my heart, like this one: "I learned that even though many of us have been struggling, we have adapted to new ways of life and learned to appreciate all of our blessings. People are more forgiving, grateful, and willing to go out of their way to see the people they love. I think our world has learned the importance of being proactive instead of reactive, in order to keep a pandemic like this from happening again."

That sentiment would make for a happy ending, but I can't close without recognizing the struggles. While some of my students thrived online, others floundered. And I'm left wondering how we can make school work better for all our students.

Too many of our students are feeling like what this student of mine wrote:
"I wake up every day around 1 P.M. I usually fall asleep around 4 in the morning. The virus has taken away everything I love, any way for me to make money or see my friends, and has indirectly caused my grades to tank. I’m stuck at home doing homework and sleeping in a weird, unhealthy pattern. I go through the rest of my life like a drone, just waiting to get my next hit of a popular movie or critically acclaimed T.V. show. Some would say my mindset is unhealthy, and I totally agree, but there isn’t much else I can do at this point. All aspects of my life have been touched by the virus, all in a negative way. I’m less healthy, school is more difficult (especially because teachers don’t know how much online work is too much), and I can’t see or interact with my friends. I’ve never wished so badly that I had school. I’d give anything to be back in a classroom, understanding the material and learning with my friends."

Even before Covid-19 a lot of our students had experienced trauma. In a recent episode of Teachers Teaching Teachers Richard Koch had a lot to say about how to teach in the age of stress and trauma. His book, The Mindful Writing Workshop, is a wonderful starting place.

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