By Ali Schwein
“I did not like math in high school,” “I am so glad I don’t have to do math anymore,” or “I am terrible at math” are common responses when I share that I am a math teacher. These responses are amplified when the person I am talking to learns that I teach math online. Many are skeptical about how learning math online would work, and while it can be a challenge, I love teaching math to students all over the world!
1. Relationships Matter More
In an online environment where synchronous time is limited it is tempting as a teacher to want to spend every second working on new content; however, none of this content is going to be well received if your students do not know you or you do not know them. Students who are taking classes online have a desire to be known and cared for just as students in a physical classroom would. Mathematics is a subject where mistakes are necessary for growth and learning. If your students do not know or trust you, they are not going to be willing to take risks, make mistakes, and rise up to new challenges. Further, if I do not know my students well, I will miss so many signals they send me which will lead to lost learning for everyone. Every class I start begins with some sort of question that has nothing to do with math. Some days we engage in a funny question such as: Would you rather have arms for legs or legs for arms? Other days we’ll talk about high or lowlights from the past week, and other times we’ll talk about how to schedule our next day to include both time for homework and time for things we love outside of school. I try to engage students with a variety of questions, and I always make sure to answer them as well. This small practice allows my students to get to know me and allows me to get to know them. The benefits are huge!
2. Flipped Classrooms Rule
At Gravitas, I spend 140 minutes of synchronous, instructional time with my students per week for each class. This is a big transition for teachers and students alike who are used to 45 – 60 minute classes five days a week in most traditional settings. This means when I am with my students I want to spend the time engaging them in wonderful, creative, exciting problems. I want to see their problem-solving skills. I want to see them take risks, make mistakes, and try new things. I want them to develop confidence in mathematics, build proof and logical reasoning skills, and gain a deep understanding of the main concepts. I also want to see them enjoy mathematics and build a healthy relationship with the subject most abhor. All this to say, I do not want to spend my precious synchronous time lecturing. This is where the flipped classroom comes in. My students see most new content themselves before class even starts. My students are expected to watch a video lecture on our new material, take clear, organized notes, and do some entry-level practice before each class during their asynchronous time. This allows us to engage in deeper, more conceptual problems once we come together in class. While this was a big adjustment for students, we now enjoy working on proofs, giving presentations of innovative solutions, and attacking difficult problems while we are in class together.
3. Communication is Key
In an online environment it is easy for things to slip through the cracks. Some assignments can be totally forgotten about, feedback given could never be read, and opportunities for growth can be missed. Creating clear expectations for students early can make a world of difference. My students hold me accountable to grading their work quickly and giving them meaningful feedback. I hold them accountable to going in to check their grades and see if any comments have been left. They know they need to send me an email or leave a response to my comments if something is still not clear. It took a few rounds of guided practice to help students find where their grades are at, how to view comments, and what a good response to feedback looks like, but with these clear expectations about our communication surrounding feedback, students are equipped to grow even without their teacher standing over their shoulder. Another huge aspect to communicating in an online program is email, with both guardians and students. With their student taking classes online, it is so easy for guardians to not know anything about how they are doing. I have found an easy remedy for this is consistent progress reports. These aren’t something I send weekly, but every so often after a big assessment I will send out a simple grade report to guardians. This creates a fresh, open line of communication with all of my guardians regularly. On the opposite end of the spectrum, students need to be taught how to use their email properly. Clear boundaries can help students use email responsibly and efficiently. My students are expected to check their email daily, and vice versa: my students expect me to check my email daily. However, there are some healthy boundaries. I will always give a quick response to my students, within 48 hours, but I will not guarantee a response between 5 pm and 9 am or on the weekends. This structure allows us to communicate well while respecting the delicate balance of working and going to school at home.
4. Routines are Required
In a more traditional school setting, students can rely on a lot of routines. This is a basis of consistency for them. However, in an online school these routines are not as obvious. Students come to math class twice a week, but other than that, they build their habits and routines themselves. In my class and with the asynchronous material, I strive to build in some routines and consistency for my students. Students are familiar with the flipped classroom routine we have. All materials are organized and labeled clearly in the same system each and every week. The asynchronous materials are scheduled and organized the same before each class. These routines mean they know what is expected of them at the beginning of each class. There is no room for excuses if they arrive to class unprepared. They know I have provided them with all the resources they need to be successful prior to class.
Building routines into our class meetings also helps students know what to expect when they arrive. We always start with an engaging, non-mathematical question, and we always end with a review of our objectives and an overview of what is due before the next class meeting. This consistency helps students feel like they know what they need to do to be successful and creates a mutual rapport and trust that allows us to have fun the rest of the class meeting that falls in between.
5. Never Forget to Have Fun
During my synchronous classes, it would be easy for my classes to fall into a routine of working through problems religiously, and students would probably become pretty good at them; however, it would be a shame if students did not look forward to coming to class and feel excited about learning new math. Granted, in an online setting, creating fun can be slightly more challenging, but that does not mean it is impossible. In my classes, this can look like explaining solutions in a fun accent, playing rock, paper, scissors in the chat, competing for “party points,” and adding a spark of color and imagination to proofs. Students already have a lot of responsibility – especially when they are taking a math class online. Allowing students the time to act like students creates a beautiful learning environment where we are all excited to learn, where we are all excited to see the next person’s solution, where we are open to creativity, where we think innovatively, where we attack math with the fervor it deserves. Fun allows students to dream of being a mathematician rather than just being a burnt-out math student.
Teaching math in an online setting definitely has some large differences from teaching math in a physical classroom; however, it also shares a lot of similarities. I still have students who are waiting for someone to convince them how awesome they are and how awesome math is. I still have students who need clear expectations, routine, and feedback. But I get the honor of teaching these students who are all over the world and who are awarded the flexibility and opportunity of exploring their passions outside of a school building.
Gravitas is the online extension of the Stony Brook School, a college preparatory, co-ed boarding and day school located in Stony Brook, NY. We bring the same rigorous curriculum and passionate faculty to an online format so qualified students from all over the world can find academic excellence that is accessible and convenient. Consider applying today.