So, here we stand. Our third snow day in the last two weeks. All of them in late February to early March in Texas. Yes, that is unusual. It poses the same challenges that happen any time you have unscheduled time off from school, and, without a doubt, it is better than last year, when our big frozen, snow days were during finals period of the fall semester. Missing days in the 7th and 8th week of the semester is not bad overall, especially since I do not give midterms. Those who do midterms are struggling to figure out how to make those up, with the real result that most of them just get pushed to after Spring Break, which is next week.
I know that a snow day is nothing particularly unusual, and that what counts as a snow day would be an average winter day in Pennsylvania, where I spent 8 years of graduate school. Still, it poses interesting challenges. I want to talk about those challenges in two ways — first with school and schedule and second with personal time.
The most obvious problem with a snow day is making up the material. For my online classes, there is no problem, except when students have their internet knocked out from losing power and the like. Otherwise, the semester just goes along like normal. And, unless it were to happen at a time when we were testing, days off are essentially irrelevant to an online class. Since half of my load is online, three of my classes were totally unaffected. My other three classes are hybrid classes, where the days off are more directly problematic. We only meet once each week, and if the day is missed, that week is missed. If the classes were distinct, I could make up in one class for one set of assignments missing, but I am teaching three of the same classes, all at the same point and doing the same assignments. Thus, to make up the material in any meaningful way means making some of my students do significantly more work for the grade than what they would otherwise do. There also are no built-in make-up days this semester for me, meaning that when I miss, that material is just gone. I do have some safeguards built in, however. For one, they all have pre-class writing on the subject to complete. So, they are, in fact, directly held accountable for the material that we were to discuss that week. As well, I have an assignment on the chapter(s) for the week also due before class, and that also means the students are held responsible for the material. What they are missing out on is the actual classroom discussion of the material. Two of my three hybrid classes have now missed a day (different weeks of material, of course), and that means that I have not had a chance to discuss the material with them. One of them was last week, and so I did make some references to the material this week in class. The other one missed this week, which means I will not see them again until two Thursdays from now. That is a long time to carry over material. The other big problem for me is that we were in the middle of a three-class themed set of material. We covered the World War I to World War II period looking at the theme of American neutrality in the world as it related to the US becoming a world power. Since the three were linked, missing one means that material was not covered and topics got lost. As we were doing a narrow look at the issues, it also means that the broader context of what was going on in the world also didn’t get connected to the material. What’s the effect of all of this for the students? They’re probably just happy to not have to come to class. But for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay on track and cover what I want to cover. By the next time I see the class that didn’t meet today, it will be two weeks later, and we will be on to the post-war period. Sigh. I worry too much, I’m sure, but I can’t help it, as it is my job.
The other side is my personal experience with the snow days. It seems like an unmitigated good. A day off from school. No travel, no obligations. But it never works that way. Of course, as I said above, for one thing, my online classes just continue as normal. The days off we had last week were in the middle of my own grading period of their material, and so I graded in my time off. But I actually feel like I got less grading done with the days off than I would have if I had gone into work. The problem with everyone being home is that we are a household of 6, and getting things done at home when everyone is home is not always the easiest thing. An even bigger problem, however, is the feeling that I get that is like how the students feel. I have the day off, why should I work? I have to force myself to get something done. For example, take today. If I had been at school, I would have gotten to campus around 9:30. I would have been in my office doing work from 9:30-11. I would have taught from 11-12:15. Lunch until 1:30. Then back in the office doing work from 1:30-3:30. On my own at home, I could barely force myself to sit down for an hour to do classwork. The temptation to view it as a full day off, especially as this would have been the last work day before Spring Break anyway, is strong. But I have a lot to do. I have things to catch up on, both in grading and in preparation. I owe my hybrid students grades on quite a few small things, and I do not even have the next week of material up and ready for them. But I find it hard to get any real work done. That means that I am not getting what I need to do done and feeling guilty about not doing the work at the same time. Isn’t the human brain wonderful?
The solution to this? Treat a snow day off from work as a work day. Or, treat a day off from work as a day off. I have to choose one or the other. If I try to treat is as partly one or the other, I just feel guilty.
Those are my thoughts on it. What do you think? Do you enjoy unexpected days off? Do you get anything done? Do you feel guilty about not getting things done?
Well, here we go. Another semester is set to start, with just a little over a day left until we get going. I am teaching six sections this coming semester, three online sections and three hybrid sections. This last week has been the preparation time to get ready for the semester. We were worried over the course of this holiday break because we were updating our learning managements system (LMS), and so there were some cautions about doing too much ahead of time in case there were problems. There turned out not to be any problems, but I scaled back most of my plans for possible changes. In fact, with my online class, I am simply redoing the course I did last semester, meaning that there were mainly just some changes of dates and a few minor updates. Otherwise, that course is ready to go.
I have put together a few more changes for my hybrid class. They have finally gotten my hybrid classes scheduled correctly here, as they are set for meeting only one day a week. In the past, I have always had them scheduled for two days a week, and then I met for one of those. Now, I have one class on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and one on Thursday. The only negative to that, is that I used to meet for both of the days in the first week, which gave me two days to introduce the class. Now, I have to get that introduction done in one day. So, I have developed some introductory materials to show the students how to access my online material and the textbook material. I used iBooks Author to develop the material, making a .pdf file that is set up like a book and includes both images and links. I am hoping this provides my students with the information they need in an attractive and accessible format. If I knew how to attach a .pdf file to this post, I would put an example here, as I am pretty proud of what I did. It is something new I am trying out, and it worked well.
On that same note, I have put together similar presentations for my hybrid class weekly assignments. In the past, I had very basic assignments for the students, such as having them watch a documentary, write a response paper, and then discuss it. Over the years I have been doing this, I have come up repeatedly unsatisfied with my students’ preparation and background knowledge. So, I have beefed up the activities, providing background information, helpful links, stronger and more involved assignments, and more detailed response papers. I want the students to be more prepared and to have more engagement with the material. Again, if I had the ability, I would post one of these up, as I do feel that the iBooks format works pretty well for the material and presentation. I am not planning on publishing these to the Apple Store, but I do like the ability to create something that looks nice and can be exported in a format that is generic enough for anyone to use.
So, that is what I have been working on. I have all of the dates in my classes adjusted to the Spring semester. I have all of the Course Outlines done. I have the online classrooms ready to go. The first five weeks of the online course are visible and ready when students get in on Monday. I have the first three weeks of the hybrid course ready to go, and I hope to get the fourth work done tomorrow and have that be my preparation point to get the students in on Monday.
How about you? Are you teaching a class this semester? Are you taking a class? How ready are you for the semester?
I am coming to the close of the first big grading session of the semester. I have the class divided up into three units, with major assignments due at the end of each unit. For me, that means that my busy time starts after each unit closes. And, the first unit hits before I get any significant number of drops, which means that I grade more in the first grading session than any that follows. This session has been no different. I have had my students complete papers, discussion forums, and essay exams, which means a lot of direct grading by me. I strongly believe that my students need to write and need to write a lot, but the curse of that is that I am then the one who has to grade them. So, I have been grading since last Monday, meaning I am just over a week into this grading session, which I hope to wrap up tomorrow.
The other feature of the first grading session is that I also get my first round of drops from the class at this point. Students can cruise along in the class for the first 4 weeks, completing some basic reading quizzes and the like. However, once a paper is due, a discussion forum closes, and an exam must be taken, that’s when the first round of students are gone. There are always a number of those, so it is part of the process.
The other thing that always comes up with first assignments in the semester is that the first technical glitches hit. Luckily, this time I actually had no glitches on the exam, which is where they usually occur. Instead, this time the paper has been the problem. The students are required to submit their paper to turnitin.com (to check for plagiarism and grade easily with a rubric), but I had about 10 students who managed to miss this part of the assignment. This is despite the fact that every place that the assignment is referred to says that it is due in to turnitin.com, as well as the fact that I sent out two announcements in the last week warning students that they needed to submit to turnitin.com. What it really shows, unfortunately, is how the students seem to run mostly on autopilot. Many just click on the next thing to do without ever looking at any instructions or materials that teachers post. This does mean that often I do not get what I am really looking for, as the autopilot mode often means that students hit a very minimal level of work.
I wonder if there is a way to combat these problems, but I have yet to come up with any yet. I modify my class every semester, working on the phrasing of instructions and reconsidering the structure and order of assignments. And yet, it really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, as the same problems continue. Unfortunately, where it ends up is that I end up just assuming a certain level of attrition with little I can do to help them. All of my efforts end up failing for a certain number of students. Of course, if they can’t meet my standards, then they probably do not belong in the class and certainly do not deserve a decent grade from me. That does not make me feel any better about it, but it is the best I can do for now.
We are just finishing up the first week of classes. It is my eighth first week of classes since I got my first full-time teaching job, and it is certainly starting to feel relatively normal at this point. I was fairly prepared this semester going into my classes, which did help. My online class is pretty much set in place at this point until I am ready to do a major overhaul. So, it is largely a matter of updating the dates and links, and then that class is ready to go. The hybrid class was a bit more work, as I really did want to make some overhauls from what I did last year. However, my best-laid plans from the summer of spending a lot of time recreating the course did not pan out. As is true most academic years, I do my primary prep in the week before the semester starts, and so I get a limited amount of work done.
I did have one big change come my way in the week or so before classes started. Late in the week before our in-service week, I was asked (with refusal not really being an option) to take on another course. Our normal course load at my community college is 5 classes a semester. I normally have an overload, so I generally teach 6. As I was given this extra course, I am now teaching 7 classes this semester. 5 covered by my normal pay and 2 more at adjunct pay ($1800/course). So, my semester is now set at the highest number of students I have ever taught in one semester (around 230). There are two good things about this. First, I was given another online course section, so largely I just have to integrate in 30 more students to my existing course. There is not an extra course prep, just more students to respond to and grade. Second, I was given this extra section with enough time to be able to compensate for it in my assigned work load. I reduced the number of assignments in my online class and changed up some of the ideas that I had for my hybrid class in order to make up for the extra grading I knew I was going to have to do.
Now, we have reached the Friday of the first week of classes. I have met each of my hybrid classes twice, and they have now been divided up into the sections that meet once a week. I have fully introduced the course to them, and I have them set to be ready to start real class work next week. My online class is in its fifth day at this point, and, while there have been some questions and issues, I would say that this is one of the smoothest starts to the semester that I have had. In fact, things are really going so smoothly so far, that I am really waiting to see when the wheels are going to come off and the fist major crisis is going to begin.
For now, however, I think that the first week has been a success. I’ll write more specifics about the classes I’m teaching in the next couple of days, so I will get more into the nuts and bolts of the particular classes and talk about what I am doing, what I plan to do, and how things are going.