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A Teachable Opportunity

News Story

Through the use of engaging with Google Classroom and collaborating alongside her students, SOE Clinical Assistant Professor Jennifer Pankowski is finding some unexpected positives that she looks forward to employing in her classroom teaching well after the pandemic is over.

For School of Education Clincal Assistant Professor Jennifer Pankowski, EdD, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought unique, unforeseen stressors. But it’s also created unexpected opportunity. Specifically, Pankowski has taken advantage of Google Classroom—a tool she almost certainly would not have used if not for the pandemic—to foster increased collaboration with her SOE students, while continuously experimenting with new technologies to create a more impactful and fulfilling teaching experience.

We had the opportunity to speak with Pankowski, as she shared her fascinating story surrounding Google Classroom, and the ways to turn obstacles posed by COVID-19 into forward-thinking advantages. 

What is Google Classroom, and where is it being used?

Very broadly, Google Classroom is an application that Google offers with the rest of their suite. It’s basically a tool that allows teachers to communicate with students in any way remotely.

Prior to COVID-19, teachers would use it to post homework; I know teachers who have used it to get assignments to students when they’re going to be out for any number of days, so that there isn’t a gap in instruction. It’s also a really neat way for teachers to connect with parents and caregivers remotely.

When the city determined it was no longer safe to host in person classes and they went to a remote model, they decided that Google Classroom would be a good option for students and teachers to communicate and not lose instructional opportunities.

You started your own Google Classroom. How did that come about?

The NYC Department of Education is a partner of SOE, so we work very closely with them. The group of students that I am working with happen to be predominately New York City teaching fellows—so they’re getting their master’s degree while teaching as well.

When we started our first remote class, I started it just like any other. Hey guys, how are you doing?—this is something I’ve always done, something that has stuck with me as a child, my mom had always told me to ask how people were doing, and wait for the answer. 

We were on video, and I saw the expressions on their faces. I decided to go through each person—in that class we have 27 students—and take the time to genuinely ask how they’re doing.

“Overwhelmed” and “Google Classroom” became a theme during the responses. I said to myself, what can I do to help? If I ask how students are doing, and I don’t do anything to respond, what was the point of asking?

So I decided to go on Google Classroom and investigate. Some applications were straightforward, but the more I toyed around with it, the more realized I could learn how to use this alongside my students.

I then created a Google Classroom, shared it with my students, and said “OK, this is my Google Classroom, I’m learning just like you.”

What is something about the experience that has surprised you thus far?

It’s almost taking on a mind of its own; it’s becoming my students own social media. They’re taking my information, but they’re also communicating with one another. From an instructor’s perspective, it’s a beautiful thing.

Discussions happen in class, but in class you’re limited by the parameters of the class structure; the lecture, working in groups. We leave time for discussion in class, but it’s not as open-ended as Google Classroom has been. If someone thinks of something at 2:00 a.m., they log on, post something, and when people wake up in the morning, they respond.

For me, it’s an unexpected consequence that I’m now going to take with me for the rest of my time as a faculty member. Next year, I’m going to embed Google Classroom as a tool for my students on the first day.

What aspects of this remote teaching period do you think can be transferred to classroom education?

We can’t control so many things about COVID-19. What we can control is what we learn from this.

From the Google Classroom, students are saying that they’re communicating with parents in a way they never had before; that they have a different connection with students before. 

Let’s make this less of a tragedy, and not go back to the way things were. If you see aspects of Google Classroom that are working for your students, your parents—now we’re set up! When September rolls around, start your year off that way. Use it as a supplement.

I’m using it as a very valuable tool at Pace, my students are using it as a valuable tool in their classrooms. I’m not going to stop now—it’s going to become something I use regularly now.

How do you think the pandemic is going to change teaching going forward?

Prior to going remote, naturally, we’re all creatures of habit. I’m guilty of this myself—I always thought, there’s one way for us to teach teachers. We have to teach teachers as practitioners, so we need to see them. That’s how we learn. How are we going to be able to teach these skills when they’re not in from of us?

That was my argument for a very long time. I think what this has taught me is that we need to adapt to changing times. It’s given me a lot more thought about teaching in as a more hybrid model, offering more classes online for remote learners.

I’m not saying abandon face-to-face classes by any means, that would be a tragedy. But I do think that there’s more we can offer students remotely than I initially thought. I’m becoming innovative myself, I’m recording myself—I was never someone comfortable with recording myself, ever. But now it’s become a necessity, so out of necessity I’m realizing, OK, this could work.

Going forward, maybe you have a student who has to go out on leave, and it’s an in person class—well now you don’t have to tell them that they either have to take a leave of absence or drop the class. You could say, why don’t we remote you in? Why don’t we Zoom you into the class to bridge that gap while you’re away?

How has this changed your personal perspective on teaching in general?

We always say that teaching is something that’s for lifelong learners. If you’re a teacher, you can’t be someone who thinks they’ve finished their education, and now are done.

While this is not something is I ever would’ve wanted, I’m really trying to embrace the change and do some good with it. This is a perfect example of the idea of being a lifelong learner, and being open to learning new things and improving your craft everyday.