Teacher Spotlight: Ms. Gelso finds ways to keep class creative and interesting despite distance learning

Editorial note: This year Mrs. Gelso returned from maternity leave in January only to have the school year disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. As an educator who was not previously accustomed to teaching in an online setting, Mrs. Gelso has adapted to online learning incredibly well and continues to find ways to teach classes in a creative and interesting way. 

Q: What was your experience like coming into the year during second semester and then suddenly having to shift to online learning?

A: One turn has followed another this year. I never really got a chance to find my groove. I was so excited to come back to work in January, even though I was also nervous about juggling work and two young children. By the time February came, I felt like I was starting to find my rhythm. I was also so warmly welcomed back by faculty and students alike. But by the end of February I was hearing about the coronavirus in the news and had a feeling it was going to throw us all for a loop, and it certainly has! I have really loved all of my students this year, and I am so sad not to be able to finish the year in-person with them.

Q: What has the biggest challenge been with distance learning?

A: So far I would say there have been two major challenges. The first challenge has been figuring out how much to grade. I am wanting to give my students credit for everything that they’re doing, but it has been challenging keeping up with all of the little grades for everything. The second challenge, more important than the first, has been figuring out how to work in different social elements. So much of teaching language and literature is based on discussion; both the AP class and Brit Lit are about the ideas that we all have as we read. No online discussion board can replicate that. Luckily, I have tried to be flexible with my students, and they have all absolutely been flexible with me. Each class has seen my children, either in my lap or in the background of my screen at various points: my ten-month old on my lap or my four-year old wielding a lightsaber and building blocks. They haven’t been too disruptive, but I have to thank my students for taking the first minute of class one day to watch my son show them the letters he is learning to write or having patience while I had to spell certain words related to Dracula or Othello that might not be so good for little four-year-old ears!

Editorial note: Amongst the many challenges of distance learning Mrs. Gelso has continued to thrive as a teacher and find creative ways to educate her students online. This year Mrs. Gelso taught AP Language and Composition as well as British Literature which brought upon a new set of challenges in discerning how to teach the different classes. 

Q: How has teaching an AP class online been different from teaching your British Lit. classes online? 

A: The biggest difference I think relates to the nature of the classes more so than the level. Brit Lit has read an entire novel while the AP class is reading a somewhat shorter piece and practicing their writing skills in preparation for the exam.

Q: What do you find is the most effective way to give an online lesson?

A: I think it’s been important to have a combination of approaches. I’ve mostly relied on Zoom lessons, video tutorials, and individualized writing tasks. I gave my AP students an activity that offered them an option to either write a paragraph or record a small-group discussion. If we were engaging in distance learning for a longer period, I think I would explore that kind of small-group engagement further, as those discussions were so interesting to listen to and gave some social interaction relevant to the class. If we were doing this again, I would need to figure out the logistics a bit better, as it turned out to be sort of impossible to listen to and grade so many 40-minute discussions, as interesting as they were! While the Canvas discussion boards are tempting, when I tried them they did not feel like they could come close to recreating a real discussion. I have chosen tasks that have clear and real purposes and avoided busy work.

Editorial note: Below is an example of an instructional video Mrs. Gelso made for her students in regard to submitting annotations, just one of many videos she created for her students to refer back to:

Q: Do you think distance learning should be added to part of our curriculum?

A: Personally, this whole experience has reinforced that learning in-person really is something that we need! While I could see figuring out a sort of blended curriculum, discussions and genuine exchanges of ideas are necessary in my field.

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