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Virtual 'Rithmetic: Math Class at Home

Veronika Valia

“I actually think this is an advantage because the teacher can directly present things to the class and write on our screens. This was especially helpful while we were learning the unit circle today,” she says.

Math. Arguably one of the most intense, challenging subjects in school. Because of this, it can be confusing, and for me, the face to face interaction between student and teacher tends to help. Before this transition to school at home, I took for granted the helpfulness of interactive lessons with group problem solving on massive colored whiteboards, or live demonstrations by teachers for what functions to use on our confusing Ti-84+ calculator.  

However, this level of interactivity can be challenging to accomplish virtually, and comes with a variety of questions. How do teachers know that students aren’t on their phones? How can students get the same amount of clarity when they can’t point out where in the equation or what part of the graph they are confused about? 

Luckily, the Lovett math department is doing a great job at combating these issues and working through these questions to achieve a seamless transition to virtual school in the face of a world-wide pandemic.

Mr. Amar, the head of the math department, explains how their approach consists of them doing three basic (or not so basic) things: toning down the curriculum, covering less material than they would normally do, and trying to keep things interesting by incorporating more diversity into their lessons using a combination of notes, flipgrids, and group work on smaller Google Meets.

Mina Derebail, a junior and one of Mr. Amar’s students, explains how she likes this diversity and it actually helps her a lot. “I actually like learning math online,” she says. “I know that might be kind of weird, but I already watch a lot of Khan Academy for school when it’s not virtual, so it’s not that different from that.”

Mr. Amar says that most of the teachers already use technology in their classrooms so it is just a matter of toning it up.

For me, I would have thought math would have been one of the most challenging subjects to adjust to virtually, but by contrast, it seems to have been one of the easiest. Mr. Amar explains how in his opinion, “in those classes where there's lots of discussion and debate or in those that are free form, such as English or a religion, a lot of what makes those classes tick has to be rethought, but in math it's more structured so that makes it a little easier.” 

Google Meets’s features also tend to make the transition a little easier. “I like the presenting mode on Google Hangouts,” says sophomore Jordyn Seigel. “I actually think this is an advantage because the teacher can directly present things to the class and write on our screens. This was especially helpful while we were learning the unit circle today,” she says.

However, with any big change like this, there are some challenges that are being worked on. “The biggest thing for math is figuring out what we can and can’t do,” says Mr. Amar.

A lot of this is simply due to having less time. Aside from being able to cover less material, Mina explains how the material they can cover has to be taught very quickly as we only have class two times a week. 

Jordyn mentions how “tests and quizzes have been the biggest hurdle so far.” Mr. Amar agrees, but the department has been doing their absolute best to combat this. Mr. Amar explains how for math specifically, their goal is to eventually move to completely online assessments. However, online assessments make it hard to look at work, a vital part of any math class. So in order to see work (important we want that partial credit) there seem to be two options: students scanning in their work or, Mr. Amar’s new approach: making tests/quizzes shorter and having students make videos of them doing their work. He explains how this allows teachers to see a student’s thought process and the way they approached a problem. 

With this type of situation where teachers are monitoring lots of students at once from just one screen at home, cheating is a concern. In order to combat this, Mr. Amar explains how he is making the tests harder but most importantly, phrasing the test questions so that they’re harder to cheat on. He is making the questions so they are “less about getting the right answer, and more about explaining why something works and understanding the problem.” This comes with consequences. Mina explains how in her class, AP Calculus BC, since their only grades are tests, not having traditional tests will affect them.

In terms of student engagement, Mr. Amar also explains how it is just not realistic to expect to be able to monitor everything. “You can’t really know if students are on their phones or not unless you’re watching it all the time,” he says. However, there are ways to see who is paying  attention (surprise!). “Most activities have back ends, and if you see x% of the students done with the activity, and one who hasn’t started that gives teachers some insight,” says Mr. Amar. . He jokes how in response to this, a teacher may ask “hey (your name) is your wifi not working or something?” to prompt students to be engaged yet to not call them out.

Something I have heard a lot about and was eager to investigate was student perception of thier being an increase in homework. Mina says that for her “It takes me the same amount of time but the homework is really different. During regular school, we did homework problems from the textbook. Now, we have homework through some sort of online resource like Albert.io or Delta Math or AP Classroom.” She adds how “our homework used to be a lot more problems, and they were a lot more mechanical. Now, our homework has fewer problems, but they’re a lot more challenging, and they are more about enforcing concepts than about enforcing skills.”

However, Jordyn thinks that the department “is doing an excellent job.” She says she can tell that her teacher, Mr. Palmer, is working hard to find quality resources for them to learn the material to the best of thier ability.  “He has found numerous videos, worksheets, and extra practice to help reinforce his lessons, and is always available during tutorial and by email,” she says.

Mr. Amar understands that there is a lot going on both for students and teachers, and that everyone needs a break.  “I used to always go to 5 till or 3 till, but I’m trying to back off of that.” He understands that “students aren’t as worried about getting through all the material as we are, and that’s okay. That’s been an adjustment for me to make. Not to be too picky.”

He stresses the importance of having an open door policy, where students can voice their comments, concerns and questions. He also adds how important it is to be respectful of students' time and attention. “It's about making the experience as low stress as possible for everyone,” he says.

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