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Keep Trying New Things

With my adventure in online learning, I continue to try new things. I produced video recordings of essay commentary in addition to written feedback (just for fun). I also tried things I might do in a residential classroom like and in-class writing on Zoom. We all wrote for five minutes and shared our work if we wanted to. I also continue to try new things in breakout rooms like making students accomplish professional tasks together. For example, they’ll have to discover their best format for online collaboration for peer writing workshops–and then justify their choice to me. Is a google doc best? Is Zoom always best? What about emailing drafts back and forth with tracked comments?

There’s a way I can attach what’s happening to professional outcomes. We are learning how to present ourselves online, with appropriate discussions, in good lighting and in a good setting. We are learning to manage with unstable internet or broken microphones. Learning to adapt and do these skills positions students well for what’s next. It’s not a waste or second-best when there’s a learning outcome involved in using Zoom or online discussion (which we are all terrible at).

Meanwhile, I keep trying. I keep learning. Perhaps the breakthrough has come that it’s always about what we’re learning.

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The Practices We’ll Surely Keep

I ask my students what they’ve been learning most about themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. We discuss how much–despite all the fear and sickness in their particular communities–they enjoy the simple pleasures of a daily walk, a nap, a meal with their families, and the connections with siblings they wouldn’t otherwise see. Some talk about playing with their dogs every day. Others talk about the elaborate daily breakfast sandwiches they make because they finally have time to feed themselves well. They’ve been getting a full night of sleep. They’ve been doing their work and managing a schedule.

I take a daily walk with Ashley. Another couple joins us at a safe distance. When the Stay-at-Home directive ends, we wonder what practices will remain that we’ve all come to love. For me, I hope to walk along the creek every day of my life.

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The Verbs of Philippians 4:4-9

My husband told me of something he began to consider as he read Philippians 4 yesterday. Of course I was delighted because his insights centered on the strong verbs of Philippians 4 as opposed to the one weaker verb. I’m not sure of the technicalities of translating all the verbs in the Greek, but I can tell you this: Paul tells us exactly what we can do in the face of the verb “do not be anxious.” He writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

My husband reminds me that it’s impossible when someone says, “Just stop being anxious!” And Paul seems to know this. But when we’re told to rejoice, let, present, think, and practice, we can take some action steps with the Lord.

After an anxious day yesterday, I took inventory: while I had rejoiced and thought about good things, I never actually presented my requests to the Lord. I decided to return to the detailed prayer journal where no request is too small for the Lord, even in a pandemic. Whatever added to my anxiety, I presented as a request to God. I asked for help for even the small things (like what to make for dinner and how to finish all my grading) to larger requests for Penn State, my community, my family’s health, and for the virus to stop spreading.

And the peace of God was with me.

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Sustainable Teaching: An Update

After realizing the exhaustion of teaching virtually, I’ve learned some things. I’m too tired, and I don’t know why. As my wise friend stated yesterday, online instruction involves all the work and intensity of teaching without the joys of in-person relating. It’s not rewarding in the same way for some reason. It’s a shadow of the real joy of being together. I don’t know how to explain it well.

And it’s not sustainable. As I managed the stress of a poor internet connection and students with accessibility issues on Monday, I realized that this just isn’t going to be my best work ever. I’m going to have to move more discussions online and learn how to teach from written feedback and guided discussion forums. I’m going to have to serve students differently without the joyful rapport of the classroom and the real-time flow of discussions where nobody worries about unmuting their microphones. The lag time bothers everyone. I’m going to have to work in more sustainable ways.

My friend told me that the exhaustion we all feel is because we all now how another full-time job: protecting our families and communities from COVID-19. Our real jobs are keeping people healthy, managing our homes, and preparing for an unseen future.

I wish I had better news to report. I wish I wasn’t dreading Zoom calls or sad that class doesn’t feel the same. But the good news here–the flair moment–is that it’s wonderful to learn what’s not working. It’s wonderful to think about sustainability, not just as an educator, but as a wife, mother, and friend. What can we change? What can we do less of or more of? With one month left to teach my course content, I’m looking for ways to breathe life into my course, to bless students with rich material, and to enjoy teaching online more. And living with flair means it’s sustainable.

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The Certain Things

In a time of so much uncertainty, I take more delight in certain things. I note how the Weeping Cherry will bloom on schedule. I see the evidence against a stormy sky. Tomorrow, we may see those fleeting blossoms, certain in their transience.

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When You Start to Compare Your COVID-19 Situation to Everyone Else

It’s bound to happen. I can already see it. We might start comparing our lives. Some people shelter-in-place in lavish, well-stocked vacation homes, far from urban centers. They can ride this virus out for six more months with joy and endless provisions. And others sit comfortably in what has become a 1950’s neighborhood of fathers throwing baseballs with their children in front yards, neighbors riding bikes, and happy, healthy families doing puzzles together on spacious, germ-free porches.

But that might not be your situation or mine.

I can see the longing in the posts of friends who still work long hours and in the stories of young mothers who cry every day because life at home is not the idyllic dance party of TikTok and Instagram. I talk daily with people whose situation is close to miserable. They are alone, scared, and just barely getting through each hour. It’s not fun. It’s not a vacation.

I feel the sting of jealousy and comparison when I talk to better situated friends in other parts of the nation or when I think about the difficulty of my new work life as a virtual professor. And the same questions parade across my mind that came back in 2014 when I wrote Seated with Christ: Living Freely in a Culture of Comparison:

What if my life were like that one? Why aren’t my children doing this or that? Isn’t everyone else living a better life in their home? I want a different, better seat at the table of comfort, blessing, health, wealth. And I wish I lived somewhere less populated or less at risk! I need a different seat!

PS: My comparisons become oddly specific. I think things like this: Is it OK if I do not like puzzles, strategy games, or long painting sessions with my family? Is it OK if I’m not engaging in hour-long devotional times with my teens or accomplishing personal development goals? My goal is survival. Is that enough?)

I speak the same truth that saved me then and saves me now. You and I are exactly where we should be. God ordained it. And I recall my favorite quote from Seated with Christ: “All seats provide equal viewing of the universe,”—meaning no matter what your situation today, you have an equal chance to enjoy God’s presence, blessing, riches, joy, favor, power, and comfort in an unlimited way. And Jesus will lead you in what to do, how to live, and what will bring joy and peace to your environment, no matter how terrible it now seems. Paul was writing Ephesians 2 most likely from a Roman prison, yet he experienced himself as being seated at the Greatest Table with the Greatest King. And this is your situation, your seat with Jesus. He’s planned the fruit for your life (Ephesians 2:10). It’s not going to look like your best friend’s, your brother’s, or a celebrity.

I speak the verse again: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). We are in the best situation already because Jesus put us here.

So now, we live lives of faith and deeper focus into spiritual realities. We don’t compare our lives. God knows where you are, why you’re there, and with whom, and He will use it for His glory.

Now that we’re over the distraction of comparison, we can get to the real work of loving our family, friends, and neighbors. We can get to the real work of worship, of prayer, and of abiding with Jesus to bear the fruit He’s picked just for us.

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A Loving Question During a Pandemic

I don’t know about you, but if I’m having a bad moment as I think about COVID-19, I feel overwhelmed when people call or text and ask, “How are you doing?” Of course, that’s how I personally lead off in conversation, but something doesn’t feel right about it lately. I began to wonder if there’s a better question. Yesterday, as I walked along the creek, a professor asked me this:

What challenged you today? What did you do about it?

It felt like a breath of fresh air! It was a focused, loving question that helped me process something small but important about my day. And I found that the question opened up my heart and mind. It didn’t overwhelm me or make me assess my own well-being. It didn’t scare me. It didn’t invite me to wallow, either. Instead, asking me to identify a challenge and my process through it felt empowering.

Some people don’t want to talk about their state of being. Again, the weak verb (!) in a sentence like “How are you doing?” invites existential investigation. It can feel exhausting. But the precision of “What challenged you?” invites a clear picture: I can revisit what happened socially, professionally, financially, or even nutritionally. I can really go into specifics. If I want to talk about my emotional state, I can. But I don’t have to.

I bounced the question back to the professor. And for the next hour, we talked in productive, joyful, and meaningful ways.

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What I’ve Learned After Two Weeks of Teaching Virtually

After two weeks of teaching virtually at Penn State, I’ve learned some things:

  1. Teaching virtually is not the same thing as launching an online class. When you teach virtually, it’s a synchronous classroom where students join you during your scheduled class time for virtual instruction via Zoom (for example). An online course does not necessarily do this. It can, for example, work asynchronously, meaning you post assignments, pre-recorded lectures, discussions, or quizzes that the students complete on their own time. Nobody necessarily comes together at the same time in a purely online course. Why does this matter? Online course development requires training I do not have. My course isn’t designed for online instruction. So I seamlessly turned it into a virtual, synchronous classroom. We discuss things together at the same time. We can share our screens and look at our work at the same time. We’ve basically created a classroom via our screens. I would like more training in online teaching, but that’s not what I’m hired to do. And that’s OK. I know what I can do. However, this synchronous teaching challenges students who live in different time zones or who now find themselves caring for children or working jobs at home. Synchronous teaching also assumes all students have laptops and a stable internet situation. So I’m learning that recording classes to allow students to access later works. It also means I’ll try my hand at asynchronous strategies this week like emailing readings for students to respond to when they can.
  2. When you teach virtually, you must over-invest in student-teacher interaction to make up for the millions of little ways you connect when you’re in a residential classroom. I send more personal emails. I invite students to upload more writing for commentary. I hold more virtual office hours. Yes, it’s exhausting! But when you teach virtually, you miss the easy banter where you bounce around in conversation before class about Tyler’s new car or Lauren’s upcoming Calculus exam. Before, you’d arrive early to class to see students sprawled out in the hallway where you’d join them to discuss the basketball game or their paper topics or the Post Malone concert they went to over the weekend. You miss the walk to class where you enjoy the warm weather together or sip your lattes and smell the coffee. You even miss talking about new shoes (you don’t see anyone’s shoes on Zoom–a small thing).
  3. Your physical space matters. You’re going to see yourself for hours on a screen. You need good lighting, a clean background, and the kind of environment that energizes you. Last week, I sat in my upstairs office for five hours a day looking at a screen. I dreaded it. It was boring and dreary. This week, I moved a small table in front of my Weeping Cherry in my bedroom, right next to the yellow recliner where I read my Bible, scribble in my journal, and write my blog. It’s bright, cheerful, and tucked away from the family. It’s a cozier spot for me. The cat sleeps by me as I teach.
  4. It’s stressful, so build in non-screen time. I’m amped up every day. That’s why every day at exactly 4:15 PM, I depart to walk along Spring Creek for an hour. I look into the beautiful water instead of a screen; I gaze up at the budding trees; I listen to the birds; I talk with others on the walk. After an hour, I’ve calmed down. I’ve shed the stress of the teaching day.

I’ve also learned little tricks: inviting students with fresh Zoom invitations each day so they aren’t overwhelmed with a dozen links in old emails; polling them regularly about what they need more of or less of (I wanted to stop using Zoom on Friday’s, and students actually wanted it! They loved the routine of it! One said, “Could you please just keep a Zoom room open in case I need to talk to you?); using breakout rooms to ask students to connect with each other and share what’s working as they overcome challenges of isolation; and limiting lecture to 15-20 minutes if I can. What a journey it’s been during this COVID-19 world!

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