Helping struggling students online
A high school teacher navigates virtual science classes and labs
By Cristy Dimatulac
I have been teaching life sciences in an all-girls private high school in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years. My courses include biology, integrated science, anatomy and physiology and environmental science.
One of my students’ favorite activities in these courses is lab work. These activities, which are usually done in a collaborative setting, allow them to think critically both collectively and individually, as they need to come up with solutions to queries before discussing them as a class.
When the pandemic began, I was teaching my usual upper level courses with the addition of a class of advanced placement environmental science. The latter was being introduced to our school curriculum for the first time! You can imagine the challenges of holding lessons entirely online without seeing how students were interacting with the concepts being taught to them; the dynamic process of working in the lab; or giving the one-on-one support to students who are struggling in class.
Jesus’ words “you did it to me” (see Mt 25:40) came to my mind. The desire to love him in each person was the springboard that launched me to do my part in this unique situation, not only by taking time to explore other effective instructional strategies, but also by being fully present when students asked questions or expressed their anxiety. If I was struggling under these new circumstances, my students must be as well — maybe even more.
Although I have been incorporating technology use in my classroom throughout these years to improve my teaching and student learning, I encountered many challenges last spring when we went online for three months. A couple of students who were in an Individualized Educational Program due to special needs and a few other students who lacked solid study habits were about to fall through the cracks.
Communication with parents was crucial. I established regular parent-teacher Google meetings with both parents and students to listen to the student and her family’s challenges. This allowed me to understand better my students’ struggles and to help each one improve their academic performance.
I remember a student missing the deadlines of almost all the assignments; I came to know that she lives with two siblings who have serious health problems. She could not focus on doing her assignments while at home. Like her, other students preferred to be at school, because there they received more support, and the entire environment is more conducive to doing schoolwork.
To facilitate student participation and engagement, I revisited the curriculum, tweaked some of the lessons, and aligned the online strategies with the topics so that students can grasp the concepts better.
In each 90-minute lesson, I planned better the synchronous moments (lessons in real time) and asynchronous ones (offline learning) to help them maintain a certain engagement. I made sure they had short breaks to keep them from looking at the screen continuously. I gave time for students to ask questions, as well as share about their uncertainty and anxiety.
It was also important to implement lessons to learn about the coronavirus, its structure, how it spreads and infects individuals, and how one can avoid getting infected. To expose students to some updates on the pandemic, I assigned scientific articles to read, review and talk about in class.
Now it has been more than three months that we are back to online learning. Before the beginning of the school year, the entire faculty did a weeklong training and discussion on some resources that we could use for project-based learning that are meaningful, collaborative, engaging and inquiry-based, while all these activities were happening virtually.
The online teaching and learning policies were put in place at the beginning of this scholastic year. Lesson plans to target the learning objectives of each course were reviewed. I also dedicated time to know some resources well, such as Edpuzzle, Go formative, CK 12 etc. I navigated the various functions of these resources so that I can use them alternatingly and other free open resources to implement lessons.
Labs are still challenging to implement, but students have done a few by using house materials, with lab safety explicitly and clearly established before any lab. Students, for example, did labs on water properties related to its chemical structure in the study of chemicals of life; using fruits and vegetables to demonstrate various anatomical terms and sections; investigating osmosis by using potatoes and eggs, and the kitchen digital balance, etc.
Although there are still challenges and limitations, I feel that the students have adapted so fast to online learning and seem to be engaged during class.