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In March 2020, the growing COVID-19 pandemic forced educators to change the way we create learning experiences, assess understanding, and offer feedback for growth. The change has not come easily or seamlessly for most, and pivoting from teaching face-to-face to teaching from behind a computer was, for me, one of the most difficult educational challenges in my 24 years of teaching chemistry.

I teach advanced chemistry and AP Chemistry at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin. About eight years ago, I started teaching a summer accelerated chemistry course where students learned an entire year of chemistry in six weeks, meeting four hours a day, five days a week.

Then the pandemic arrived — and I had to decide if this course could continue. I had 20 ambitious students ready to learn chemistry, and some already signed up for AP Chemistry in the fall. I felt up to the task, after honing my online teaching skills in the spring, and knew it was in everyone’s best interest for this course to be successful and enjoyable. I decided that this online course should take place for three hours a day for five days a week, and last seven weeks.

The experience has forever changed me and truly made me a better educator. It was a remarkable and memorable journey with my students and their supportive parents. The online course ran smoothly because of five main ingredients:

  • A positive attitude
  • Interaction and collaboration
  • Organized course structure with frequent feedback
  • Hands-on opportunities
  • Carefully chosen technology

STUDENT: “Normally I don’t look forward to many, if any, of my classes at school, but I was hyped for Chemistry as it’s renowned for labs and hands-on assignments. However, when the pandemic set in I got skeptical, and my worst fears came true as the class that I signed up for had disintegrated into online learning right before my eyes. I thought it was over, our summer chemistry class would surely fall short in curriculum, as we would miss out on all the hands-on work. Our summer class was going to be a failure. At least that was what I thought. I had no idea what Ms. Schmidt had in store for us. She was dedicated to make this online class work.”

Ingredient 1: A positive attitude

My most important task every day was to show the students that I care by creating an effective and encouraging online environment where students could thrive. Remaining optimistic, being flexible, believing in every student, and being a caring and compassionate educator made all the difference for my students. I put these principles to work in multiple ways each day, by:

  • prioritizing the socio-emotional well-being of my students before worrying about the lesson that I had prepared that day,
  • making sure to have at least 15 minutes before and after the lesson and lab portion of the course for students to openly ask questions or just chat, and
  • asking questions to gauge where each student was in their learning of the content, and also looking for social cues to gauge how they were doing emotionally — after which I could focus on helping them improve, learn, and grow.

In short, we laughed, struggled, and worked together every day. I believed in them and they believed in me. We were in this together!

STUDENT: “You were very helpful in terms of recognizing what individual students needed. Wherever certain students were in the course, you seemed to recognize their position and did as much as you could to spend extra time outside of the lessons to get students where they needed to be. Rather than just ending the lesson and moving on with the day, you seemed to want each and every student to fully understand the concept, regardless of their position.”

Figure 1. Example of student names on whiteboard.

Ingredient 2: Interaction and collaboration

In an online class, the distractions are many, and the technical difficulties are a daily occurrence. Getting students engaged, making sure they are interacting, and giving them leadership tasks were extremely beneficial strategies. I knew from my experience in the spring that teaching completely online was a great challenge for a single teacher to manage, and that getting the students involved in running the class, as well as collaborating together in groups, would also help everyone.

Many online conferencing tools include functions the teacher can use to manage the class. Assigning some of these tasks to students gives them the opportunity to build leadership skills while staying engaged in the lesson. These assignments included:

  • monitoring the chat,
  • helping to take running minutes or class notes to be shared with everyone attending,
  • being leader of a breakout room,
  • reminding students to mute or unmute, and
  • making a Google Slide or Document for the group.

Making class a team effort helped make the three-hour sessions both engaging and effective for students. Any direct instruction I provided was paired with constant questioning to keep my students engaged. I wrote all 20 students’ names on a small dry-erase board, and made sure I asked a question of every student, either directly or in or our large group setting. Next, I used breakout rooms to have students interact and collaborate with each other in smaller group settings.

The breakout rooms were randomly assigned at first. But as time went on, I used them to group students who were at similar points in the assignments or might benefit from a specific task focus or style of interaction (like quiet room, I need help, or discussion central), and let them choose which one to go to. Three key things helped me most in supporting the group-work in the breakout rooms:

  • Capping the groups at five or six students
  • Giving each student a role in the group to be in charge of
  • Constantly checking in with them, even if just to listen to their conversations

Breakout rooms with five or six students gave the students a feeling of safety in numbers, and a variety of roles they could take on for that day. There were rooms for students who were either having a stressful day, too shy to share their camera, uncomfortable being in a digital room with just one or two other students, or leery of being the one doing all the work. This arrangement allowed them to feel more comfortable in the breakout rooms, and also allowed for better discussions, because students who were not as willing to share right away, seemed to do so after hearing other students share their thoughts or ideas. It was also easier for me to join in just a couple breakout rooms to help or listen, instead of trying to monitor 10 breakout rooms with only two students in each. Having students work together in breakout rooms, and doing a daily question-and-answer sessions in both large and small groups, made the three hours more enjoyable and beneficial for student learning.

STUDENT: “The most beneficial thing for me was the opportunity to go in before class and having the shared notes, along with being able to split off into breakout rooms and have the mini-groups which was really nice to be able to interact that way.”

Figure 2. Example of a weekly calendar.

Ingredient 3: Organized course structure with frequent feedback

To give students a clear understanding of the expectations for the week, each Monday I shared a daily calendar in a Google Document that had detailed but concise information about what was due, links to documents or videos being used, a short summary of the day, and assignments for the following day (see Figure 2).

Assessing students and offering feedback needed to be authentic, frequent, and personal. Students were required to turn in their handwritten notes (taken during class using interactive paper foldables I created) for each of the 15 chemistry topics we covered. There were also 15 pre-quizzes and 15 quizzes (all open-notes, to be fair to everyone), 40 homework assignments, and 16 lab experiments. I allowed multiple attempts on the pre-quizzes, and required that both pre-quizzes and quizzes be completed during class time, so that students could ask questions and I could monitor them.

My favorite authentic and personal assessment was having the students create digital science journals with photos of their at-home experiments, hand-worked calculations, conclusions, and errors discussions (see Figure 3). Having them take photos of how they carried out the experiment, even though we all did them together during class (see Figure 4), made sure that everyone actually completed the lab and did their own work.

Figure 3. Example of a student’s digital science journal.

Figure 4. Example of student photos of at-home lab work.

More important than assessment is feedback. I gave written feedback on assignments as well as verbal feedback using audio or video comments on their work. I also met with students individually each day to guide their learning, offer praise for their achievements or growth, and answer their questions.

The student learning in this summer chemistry group was equal to or better than that of students I have taught in the past. This online class had an average of 94% with over 1500 possible points, which is higher than most of my class averages from previous years with similar numbers of assessments and total points. In addition, eight of these students are now in my AP Chemistry class of 25 students during the 2020-2021 school year, which has been hybrid or completely online. I have noticed no difference in learning or retention between students I have taught completely face-to-face and the students who completed my online summer chemistry course. What I have noticed since starting the school year is that these eight students are more comfortable in the hybrid or all online learning environments that we are currently phasing between at my school. These same students are consistently smiling and laughing, sharing their camera, interacting in class, leading breakout rooms, and taking helpful roles (online) during class without me asking.

PARENT: “From a parent’s perspective and listening to what was going on in class, the students were able to interact with you and each other and ask questions, just like being in the classroom. I liked that there was time set aside for one-on-one questions with you. They were able to do experiments with all of the materials you provided, which made it fun and they learned about the world and how things make more sense with the knowledge of chemistry. Of course it is hard to make an online class as good as being in person in a lab, but you did it and made it seem as normal as possible during this time when nothing is normal. My son learned he loves chemistry and wants to take more chemistry classes. He also liked how well the class was organized, he could access any of the content with a link which made things easier to follow.”

PARENT: “Your commitment, attention to detail and organizational skills, consistently kept our son not just engaged, but excited to go to ‘school,’ in his room, at 9am on a summer morning, for 7 weeks! Thank you!”

PARENT: “Hands on labs, break out room discussions, teacher very organized & motivating. Thank you for all of your efforts — above & beyond!!!”

Figure 5. Student kits for online chemistry class.

Ingredient 4: Hands-on opportunities

This was my biggest concern when I said I would teach the course completely online, because one of my favorite quotes is, “I want you to feel like a scientist when you are in my science class.” The Johnstone Triangle states that chemistry knowledge is understood on three levels:

  • macroscopic, happening through doing experiments and making observations
  • symbolic, including equations, mathematical calculations, and graphs, and
  • submicroscopic, including atomic or molecular modeling and drawing particulate views of physical or chemical changes.

When I was given approval by my district to build and send home safe chemistry kits for each student, I knew the course could be as close to what a student would experience if they were able to take chemistry in a classroom and laboratory.

All the laboratory experiments were done during class, and students positioned their cameras to show how they were doing the lab. Safety goggles were worn at all times. In addition, students took the Flinn Scientific Safety Quiz and parents signed the Flinn Chemical Safety Contract in order to acknowledge and give permission for student participation in this virtual environment. The materials I used in the kits were household items, science manipulatives, and creative modeling activities with Play-Doh, Legos, model kits, and balloons.

Students picked up their kits on a biweekly basis. Each kit included paper copies of all the digital foldable notes I used in class, as well as lab activities and worksheets that we would normally do in a face-to-face class. This Lab Kit Materials List includes all the materials used for the 16 experiments, the approximate cost, location of purchase, and how they were paid for. I had personally created and used the 16 lab experiments in previous years, and adapted some of the chemicals for this online course. In many districts, it isn’t an option to send home chemistry kits, but chemistry teachers can still use online videos of labs made by others, create their own videos of their lab experiments, use online simulations like PhET, purchase online lab options like Pivot Interactives, or get creative with household items that can model chemical principles.

STUDENT: “The class was fantastic. The thing I thought was most beneficial was the ability to do labs. I think applying knowledge is really important so that was vital to the class's success compared to other courses that happened in the spring semester.”

STUDENT: “We were blessed to have Ms. Schmidt’s dedication. Because of it, she created lab kits for every single student to take home. This allowed everyone to perform labs at home, and not miss out on a single part of the chemistry experience.”

STUDENT: “For me, the most beneficial thing that we did during summer chemistry is focus on those three steps to genuine learning that you emphasized. I believe that they were writing out formulas/diagrams first, modeling them with our model kits, and then doing the reaction. I know that process -- although meticulous -- was very vital in order to understand the concepts for the first time. Despite our time and technology challenges, I still feel confident about the content because of how those distinct steps help us learn at a psychological level.”

Ingredient 5: Carefully chosen technology

My school adopted Schoology as our LMS over seven years ago. Every year, I created more content in Schoology and became more knowledgeable of its capabilities for students and teachers. By the spring of 2020, I had created a wealth of online resources, as well as an extensive knowledge of what Schoology had to offer for a completely online course.

Schoology was the digital backbone for everything during this summer chemistry course. I used it to create the course, upload all my content from my past Schoology courses, create new content unique to summer chemistry, and used its BigBlueButton for video conferences within Schoology. Students turned in every assignment digitally, my feedback was all digital, and I entered every grade into the gradebook in Schoology. An access code could be shared with parents who wanted to see the course content and the students’ grades. I was also able to add members of my administration to the course so they could join an online class or view content.

The technological game-changer for me was when my district gave me an iPad, in addition to a MacBook, to help facilitate class. I learned how to use Notability and upload Google Document versions of my worksheet and laboratory experiments, as well as digital versions of the paper foldables I created for students. Using an Apple Pen, I was able to digitally hand-write when I shared my screen, helping to improve my direct instruction, ability to go over practice problems, and draw particle diagrams. I feel that because of the iPad, I was able to reach a level of results equal to or better than when I am in the classroom using my large dry-erase boards. Students appreciated that after we learned a new topic or worked problems together, I could share a .pdf of what I just went over through Schoology.

I have been dabbling with using technology for education for many years. I create chemistry videos for my YouTube channel, have a student-friendly website, make QuickTime recordings, and tutor using Zoom. I also had my AP Chemistry students using the AP Classroom all year, and am a lover of all things Google (Slides, Documents, Forms, Groups, Jamboard). In addition, I’ve created with EdPuzzle, tried Flipgrid, and used PhET simulations. Becoming knowledgeable and proficient in all of these different teacher technologies prepared me for teaching all online, and allowed me to seamlessly work them into my course and LMS. It’s important to use technology that you and your students feel comfortable with, and that enhances learning, makes a unique assessment, and doesn’t distract or detract from what is to be accomplished.

The Hidden Ingredient: Personal growth

Just as my students were learning new things each day, so was I. This pandemic era in education has truly challenged me, but it has also enlightened me on better educational practices and possible technology that I can employ to help my students learn, interact, collaborate, adapt, change, and grow. Instead of focusing on how hard this challenge was, I chose to focus on what I could learn from this challenge to become a better educator.

Photo credit:
(article cover) TierneyMJ/BigstockPhoto.com