How I Became the Country’s English Teacher

photo of Lisa Van Gemert conducting onlin English class

Saturday morning at 7:28am I became the country’s English teacher.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, which is how these things usually work.

The Idea for an Online Course Appears

I had been thinking about the implications of school closures due to COVID-19, and my mind was racing with concerns.

How would teachers be able to come up with remote learning opportunities – especially of quality – at the drop of a hat?

How would students not lose the momentum of a learning routine?

How would parents structure long and nebulous days?

How could we make sure that video games didn’t become the lifeblood of kids with limited access to other options?

I had spent the entire day on Friday creating an article curating resources and ideas I thought would help, but now it was Saturday, and my mind was still churning.

Above all these thoughts arched this one, primary question: How can I help? What can I do?

I used to be a classroom teacher, but now my typical business is speaking, facilitating professional development for teachers. I also write books and record online training for teachers.

All of my speaking events had been cancelled, and while by rights I should have been concerned about the loss of at least a couple of months of income, I was just worried about kids and families and teachers.

My panic mode was completely offline because I simply too focused on this other issue.

All of a sudden, a thought occurred to me. I wonder if I could do a free online course?

This made total sense because I had absolutely no idea how to do it, no software for it, no experience in it, and not even the hint of a place to start. Perfect!

Deciding on Whom and What to Teach

I started where everyone starts: the internet. I looked for what was there and how it was being offered. I found much more for elementary students and very little for tweens and teens.

That narrowed my thinking, and I decided to focus on 7th – 12th graders.

Now, what to teach?

Once I’d decided on an age, topic was easier.

Short stories offer something to every reader. They are, in a way, self-differentiating. They can be digested in a single sitting, and I thought I could do justice to a story in a single online class.

How the Online Class Would Work

I decided to do it for two weeks. I chose nine stories (one day would be an introduction).

I paid for a GSuite business account because I didn’t have any more storage in my Google Drive and needed a place for people to submit writing.

I created a flyer with a selection of nine stories and put it on both my business and personal Facebook pages.

flyer with information about class

Luckily, I had the tech equipment I needed. Kind of. At least I thought I did.

The Technology and Difficulty of Teaching Online

It turned out that I was a little overconfident. Shocker.

While many platforms for online learning exist, all have their issues. Some are prohibitively expensive.

Since I’d be doing this for free and had just lost more income than I could really even calculate, that was not an option.

Some limited the number of participants. I didn’t know if anyone would want a free online class, but if they did, I didn’t want them not to be able to join in.

Some required accounts or logins. Too much hassle.

I wanted something a kid could join in on, even if all they had was a phone.

And then I remembered YouTube.

In order to live stream on YouTube on mobile (to broadcast, as opposed to upload), you have to have 1,000 subscribers.

Coincidentally, I had passed that milestone on my channel not long before.

How It Got a Lot Harder

After a search on how to do it, I encountered an unpleasant truth: in order to show not just my face but also slides, I needed a third party platform.

I could not just press the magic button that said, “Go live.”

In a stroke of amazing luck, I came across a YouTube channel where a guy named Dusty Porter with a voice designed for broadcasting and a straightforward, can-do manner explained step-by-step how to do it. He’d posted the video a month earlier.

I downloaded Streamlabs OBS, a free streaming software Dusty told me I needed, and set it up.

Well, kind of. It’s completely misleading to type it like that.

It should read:

For hours and hours, I struggled to set up the technology. There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There were moments I wanted to give up.

I’d already put out the flyer, though, so I had to figure it out.

My poor husband. If you have ever listened to someone at DEFCON 1 frustration for hours, you  can sympathize with what he was going through, all while trying to help.

Finally, we did a test of it, and someone actually saw the test.

I still don’t know who that was, but Saturday afternoon I went live, and we could see that someone was watching. The person gave it a “like”, even though all they saw and heard was me lamenting, “I don’t think it’s working! I don’t think it’s working!”

Whoever you were, person, just seeing that “like” was like rain in a desert.

Interest in the Online Class was Growing

I kept checking in on Facebook because questions were coming in. I answered them, but in the background, I was frantically trying to make it all work.

I was answering questions like I knew what I was doing.

I didn’t.

Oh, and I had to create lesson plans and slide decks, too.

Through the weekend, my husband and I watched in amazement as the views on the flyer climbed. 5,000 people had seen it, 10,000, 20,000.

By the time we went to bed Saturday night, over 40,000 people had seen it.

By Sunday night, it was 100,000.

To say we were shocked would be a complete understatement.

I would have been nervous, but I was too busy panicking.

The Class Goes Live

Monday at noon the class went live. It actually worked!

My husband was working from home (he’s a software developer), and we realized at the last moment that I’d need him with me during the class because I’d enabled chat so I could see responses from participants.

chat + teenagers = need for moderator

I’m an English and social studies teacher, but I can do that math!

Almost instantly, I was blown away by the kids. They wanted to learn. They were participating in a real way. They were commenting with insights and ideas and questions.

As soon as I saw that, my inner teacher awoke, and everything was fine.

Luckily, because I already record training at home that is developed into courses by Responsive Learning, I had some equipment.

I had good computers (2!). I had a good microphone. I had a ring light. I had a decent webcam.

I had PowerPoint skills. I had pedagogical skills.

I am a teacher. Even with no classroom, I’m a teacher.

The Class Becomes a Community

Hundreds and hundreds of people watched the first class. And they came back for the second. And the third. The fourth one’s today.

I’ll let you know.

While I stream it live, the recordings are available almost instantly on YouTube, so more people watch after the class is over.

And just like that, I was the country’s English teacher.

 

 

I start the stream fifteen minutes early because the kids show up and interact with each other. They start talking about the story even before I’m there.

Friends, that doesn’t happen in real school. At least, it’s never happened to me.

I love seeing them. I’ve gotten to know many of them by name.

Some are the children of friends. Some are the children of my husband’s co-workers. Most are total strangers who are now my kids, my students.

A teacher named Deborah Morgan joined in with her class, and she turned out to be an enormous help, as teachers so often are. We made her a moderator, and it’s been an incredible gift to have her there.

She and my husband put kids in YouTube time out when they get too ridiculous in the chat, which happens, but less than you’d think.

A friend of mine who is a professor reached out to ask if student teachers could observe the class, because with schools shut down, they had no classes to observe. Of course!

As the days go by, the names become familiar. I am excited to see them. While the world is in turmoil, there is this hour of connection, learning, thinking, and peace.

The Class Gets Some Love from the Media

A reporter for the Dallas Morning News lives in my neighborhood. Our sons went to school together, so we know each other a little. He messaged me to ask if I knew of any people in the neighborhood who might be helping others during the crisis.

I said, “Well, I do know about this little English class I’m doing…”

We talked about it, and he asked if he could send a photographer to the house to take pictures while I was doing the class. Sure, I said.

So the photographer, Tom Fox, whom I’m did not know but coincidentally also lives in the neighborhood, came the next day (on his day off) and starting asking questions and shooting pictures. At one point, he left to go get a microphone, and he began recording. And what was going to be print only became three dimensional.

The next day, a truly lovely article came out in the paper, along with a video.

My Only Worry About the Class

You think I’d be worried about the fourteen- and fifteen-hour days I’m working to produce the class and evaluate their writing.

You think I’d be worried the tech will go sideways.

You think I’d be worried about making some blunder live on YouTube.

I’m not worried about any of that (although maybe I should be).

My only worry: I am going to miss them when this is over.

I’m only three days in, and I already know I’m going to miss these kids.

You can see their comments if you look at the videos on my YouTube channel because the chat shows, too. And when you see those comments, you’ll see what I mean.

Some are silly, and that’s par for the course.

But so many more are amazing. They are really engaging. They are really thinking. They are really learning. And they are really reading.

And they know that the writing technique I just used is called “anaphora.”

They’re amazing. I will miss them.

But in the meantime, I’ve got a class to prepare for.

I got up at 4:30am to write this. I’m writing it partly for you who might be interested.

I’m writing it partly for the students in the class, so that they will have a record of this incredible thing they were a part of and know how an adult who never met them feels about them.

And I’m writing it partly for me, so that I will remember what this was really like in the moment.

If you haven’t joined, you’re welcome to class. All are welcome.

The Credits

If you’re willing to stay with me for a second, I’d appreciate it if you would let me share some thanks to the people and companies that are making this possible. These are not affiliate links. They’re appreciation links.

If you ever want to do anything like this, start with these resources:

  • YouTube for providing a free platform to help students
  • Dusty Porter’s YouTube channel for guiding me through the process and showing me what was possible
  • BizTemplate Babe for letting me make the flyer and thumbnails attractive, even though I have no skill in that
  • Canva for design software
  • Unsplash, Pixabay, and Rawpixel for photos I use in the slidedecks
  • The Dallas Morning News, and especially Dave Tarrant and Tom Fox for the generous story and beautiful photography and video (Tom, thanks for showing my Little Free Library!)
  • Sodexo/Inspirus for letting my husband work from home so he can spend his lunch hour being a moderator
  • Beth Ziesenis, my Nerdy Best Friend, whose attitude that we can solve it with tech, and when we know how, we should share it, inspires me every day
  • Deborah Morgan for the support and help in the class
  • The participants in the class who make it so worth it
  • My mom, who always encourages our family to share what we have to make the world better
  • And most of all, to my husband Steve, who is in every way my better half

Wrapping Up:

My maternal grandparents were deaf. My mom, who is an award-winning public speaker, said to me once that it was ironic that we came from deaf culture, but our power is in our voices.

I know that my Grandma and Grandpa Nash would be happy with this. I know they would be thrilled that because of closed captioning, deaf students can participate fully in the class. In my mind’s eye, I can see my Grandpa signing to me, “I happy.”

Now, you may have no wish to become the country’s English teacher, but through this process as I’ve benefitted from the gifts and talents of so many, I know this: we all have something to share.

When faced with difficult times, focusing on what we can give, rather than worrying about what might be taken away, is food for the soul.

You’ve got something worth sharing. Share it.

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I also have an email list I’d love to have you join, if you’re interested (and not already on it). It’s the easiest way to stay connected with ideas and resources and tips and freebies and goodness of all kinds.

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