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How to Get 4 Full Weeks of Winter Break When Teaching Online

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As college instructors know, winter break typically runs for mid-December to early or mid-January, which means we basically get a month off from teaching, which sounds amazing!

However, when teaching online you also have a lot of work to take care of during your ‘break,’ unless you plan accordingly (which is where this blog post comes in).

If you play your cards right and plan ahead, you can actually get that full 21-28 day break from work (which really is incredible), here’s how: 

  • If the schools you’re working for allow you to set your own date for your final exam during the usual weeklong final exam week, set it for the very first day! Then you’re able to submit your final grades a few days earlier, and take your break earlier.
  • For each school, you’ll have a long list of items to take care of when setting up your Spring classes (it may include updating your syllabus, schedule, assignments deadlines, and many other items within your Canvas or Blackboard course)- don’t wait to do this over your break! I always set up my course within 48 hours of getting my new class schedule (which typically happens halfway through the Fall semester). Not only does this mean I don’t have to worry about it over my break, but I have plenty of time to contact my supervisors about any issues- and they tend to be impressed that you’re so on top of things!
  • Anticipate any student issues or questions that will come up right before or during the first week of Spring classes (if you’ve been doing this for long enough, you know what they’ll be), and have automatic, detailed announcements already set up to be sent out on the first or second day of classes. This way, when students come to you with questions about said issue, you can simply say ‘That’s a great question! Go ahead and read the course announcement that was sent out earlier this week, and after reading through it, let me know if you have any additional questions!’ I promise it’ll make your life so much easier, and keep your time spent checking emails to just a few minutes a day toward the end of your break.

Of course (as you saw in #3 above), you may have to respond to the occasional email during your time off, and then during that first slow week of the Spring term, but if you’ve planned ahead, you can set yourself up for a really nice chunk of time away from your laptop and away from worrying about what fires you’ll need to put out next.

I hope this helps some of you as you’re wrapping up this term (and if it’s too late, remember the tips for next year!).

Enjoy your time off, and happy holidays!

The Best Music for Working from Home During the Holiday Season

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As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m not normally a big fan of jazz music, but for some reason I absolutely love it when I work. I have no idea why that is, but if it helps me enjoy working, and also keeps me productive, I’m all for it.

While I’m grading papers or checking emails, I  tend to go to YouTube, type in ‘Jazz music’ and randomly click on whatever appealing option pops up (I rarely listen to the same thing twice- and it’s not uncommon for these ‘videos’ to be removed, so try not to get too attached!). However, during this holiday season, I’ve found 3 new favorites that I’ve listened to repeatedly (and there are so many more like these- especially the Christmas jazz!).

So if you’re anything like me- working from home, and wanting to be productive while simultaneously enjoying the holidays- light your Pumpkin Pie or Fraser Fir scented candle (those are my favorite- especially with the crackling wood wick for an extra wintry feel!), plug in your earbuds, and listen to some of the music below to make your work day that much better.

New York Jazz Lounge (because who doesn’t love New York during the holidays!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sI_Ps7JSEk&t=1372s

Autumn Coffee Music

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpaJl6UsoZ8&t=2159s

Christmas Songs Jazz & Bossa Nova

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUjRuVhJ_4o

Happy listening, and happy holidays!

The Sandwich Method: The Best Way to Give Feedback to Online Students

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It’s hard to convey emotion and create a positive environment when teaching online, but I’ve found one way to give feedback that I feel is effective, encourages students, and makes the online environment a more positive place.

I call it The Sandwich Method. Quite simply, you construct assignment feedback in the following way:

  • Something (or a few things) the student did well
  • Something (or a few things) the student can work on (constructive criticism)
  • Something (or a few things) the student did well

For example (if you’re giving feedback on a student’s speech):

You did a great job here with eye contact and vocal variation- you were dynamic and engaging as a speaker! In the future, be sure to start with an attention-getter at the very beginning of your speech, organize your thoughts a bit more, and orally cite at least 3 scholarly sources. Work on those content elements for your next speech, but overall you had a great delivery!

Again, it’s super easy to structure feedback this way (although it may take some time for it to become a habit), and I like to think it leaves the student feeling good about at least one thing they did in the assignment.

Happy teaching!

4 Time Saving Tricks When Working From Home with a Newborn

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When my mom friends told me taking care of a newborn would be time consuming, I didn’t realize how much of an understatement that was- that it would take up about 12 hours in a 24 hour day (when you do just the basics- feeding, changing, burping, getting them to bed, dealing with a gassy stomach, etc.). When I did that math when my little lady was about one-month old, it kind of blew my mind.

Right around that one-month mark, after calculating that at 12 hours spent with the baby each day, plus my average of 6 hours of sleep time each night, I was left with just 6 hours left each day.

Just 6 hours each day to do everything else.

That’s the amount of time I have left to work, eat, see my husband when he gets home from work, buy diaper rash cream on Amazon, Google whatever baby crisis is happening, maintain some sort of contact with the outside world (like texting friends), and maybe even change out of my sweats into something different for the day.

After all this hit me, and after feeling like I couldn’t get ahead with my work, I became more strategic with how I did things.

Granted, I haven’t had a maternity leave during these early weeks (no complaining- I have an awesome job, but it can be time consuming!), so I’ve been working 20-30 hours a week without a break (and taking two faculty development classes online, because I kind of wanted to prove something to myself, I guess) and had to figure all this out for survival’s sake. However, I know there are other working moms, or even stay at home moms who are incredibly busy, who could use some of these shortcuts, so here you go!

  • Go to bed early & be willing to sacrifice a little bit more sleep to get an early start in the morning. I know, you’ve probably already sacrificed the max amount of sleep that you want to, but for me a little extra productivity is worth a little less sleep. I’ve been trying to get us all ready for bed about two hours earlier than I typically would like to, that way if I shave off some sleep time in the morning to get an earlier start (like 10 or 11 am- don’t worry, I’m not that ambitious with a 7 week old), I don’t feel it quite as much. I also feel like I then have a chance to build up better momentum to get things done. (Note: If baby won’t go to bed, give dad a pacifier and bottle and have him take over so you can pass out by 10 pm.)
  • Do whatever you can to get baby to sleep faster, or at least find something to occupy her so you can work. I had to experiment with a few things (and I’m still experimenting). The small bassinet she would nap in on the couch in my office left her too fussy to sleep for more than an hour at a time, then the mamaroo worked like magic for a few days so I could work for 3 hour stretches during the day, but it wasn’t nearly as effective a few days later (like most things do with a new baby). Currently, a baby carrier works like a charm to keep her close to mom and keep her content (and normally asleep- like right now) while I’m at my laptop grading papers or writing blog posts.
  • Use feeding time as hour long breaks to recharge for the next work session, as valuable time for baby, and/or keep working at your laptop while she eats. Depending on what I need to accomplish for the day, I might watch Netflix to take a mental break from working, read an ebook out loud to my little lady, play music for her development, or have her eat while she’s in her baby carrier so I can keep working away (it doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s a huge time saver!).
  • Keep snacks next to the laptop. Most people would probably give the opposite advice so that you don’t eat all day long, but I suggest getting the portions you think you’ll need of water, trail mix, fruit, etc. and keep it by your laptop. I tell myself it has to last me until 6 pm when my husband comes home. At the that point I can hand the baby to him, eat some real food, and spend some quality time chatting with him before baby needs us and/or before I need to get back to work.

It may not sound ideal, but so far so good! For you busy work-from-home moms, it’s all about trial and error (as I’m sure you know), so keep powering through. You’ve got this!

Happy living 🙂

Quick, Healthy Foods to Snack on When Working From Home

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When I tell people that I work from home, a surprising number of people respond with ‘I could never work from home, I’d just eat all day.’

However, I actually find that (1) when you’re focused on working, you’re not usually mindlessly rummaging around the kitchen, so you’re fine. And (2), it’s easier to eat better, healthier options and feel satisfied than if you had to limit yourself to whatever you’d brought for lunch or had available at a traditional office.

During the last year or so that I’ve worked from my actual home a few days a week,

I’ve found a few snacks that hit the spots, keep my energy up, and can sit at my desks for a few hours or days if I don’t want to break my work flow by taking too long to eat.

  • Water. Of course, maybe you wouldn’t consider this a snack, but it’s good for you, and it does energize the body, help you stay full, and it will get you up and moving every couple hours to refill your bottle and/or use the restroom.
  • Dark chocolate. I keep a stash of small dark chocolate bars in the kitchen, and normally snack on one over the course of a day. I eat the really dark stuff (85%), so that I’m not tempted to eat too much, and so that I get a nice little boost of energy.
  • Melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, or watermelon). We have one of these cut up into huge slices in the fridge at all times. If you want something refreshing that you can eat a lot of without overdoing it, start snacking on some type of melon.
  • Nuts. If you’re in the middle of a project and don’t want to break your focus, keep a small bag of nuts at your desk. Nuts aren’t my favorite food, but if I’m getting hungry and I really don’t want to start preparing something in the kitchen (which, I know from experience, inevitably leads to a longer break that could lead to procrastinating), I’ll eat some almonds or cashews to hold me over until I can take a real break.

You may already eat some of these snacks at your home office, or even from a traditional office, but if you haven’t discovered these choices, I encourage you to give them a try!

Happy living :).

The Power of Believing That You Can Improve (a Must See TED Talk for the Classroom)

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If you teach (and even if you don’t teach), you may have heard of Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset and a researcher in the field of motivation.

I’ve referenced Dweck in the classroom a number of times to encourage struggling students, and just a minute ago the dean of one of the schools I work for shared Dweck’s TED talk with us to share with our students.

If you or your students or a friend believes that talent or intelligence is fixed, share the following video with them about developing a growth mindset to become more successful:

The Power of Believing That You Can Improve

Happy teaching, learning, and living!

How to Use TED Talks to Engage Online Students

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Recently I was asked by one of the schools I work for to submit an activity I use in my online classes to engage students. Some sort of Discussion board prompt might have been the most obvious activity to submit, but I chose something a little different that I think impacts students in a more subtle, but probably more long lasting way.

It’s not necessarily a specific activity, but I always try to share my love of TED talks with online students in a way that will truly impact them. I find it’s a great way to bridge the gap between student and teacher (since TED talks are becoming a popular trend not just in the classroom, but in society among people of all ages).

Occasionally I’ll recommend TED talks in Blackboard Announcements to the class if they relate to a topic/s we’re covering, and I include relevant TED talks when grading student assignments (in the written feedback I provide), and in responding to student Discussion posts. I also send Announcements out reminding students to revisit old discussion boards to find these helpful videos and tips through the end of the semester, and I believe it’s effective at keeping them involved in the Discussion boards, even if it’s just as a reader when it comes to old Discussions.

Lastly, I find that as an instructor of communication courses, where students frequently have to present speeches, I’m able to tap into their passions (based on what they choose to speak about), as well as their insecurities as a speaker, and use this knowledge to recommend videos that are tailored to them as individuals.

For instance, at one school I had an autistic student in my online speech class who expressed to me her disappointment in herself as a speaker (she didn’t like being a ‘disabled’ speaker, and having to present differently than everyone else). So I sent her some incredible TED talks by very impressive speakers with a number of disabilities (this was one of them: I got 99 problems.. palsy is just one), to prove that speakers come in all forms (and to keep her motivated through the end of the semester!).

I think reaching out in this way was simple, but very effective and very human, and I believe it’s why she remained connected with the students in online discussion boards, stayed in contact with me via email, and was engaged (and successful) in the course until the very end.

It always feel good to see small signs of this positively impacting my students, not to mention getting emails from students at the end of the term telling me that they now watch TED talks for fun in their spare time!

Happy teaching 🙂

The Best Laptops (and Other Office Must Haves) for Working From Home

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The nice thing about working from home as an online instructor is that you can create a flexible schedule for yourself and have some much-appreciated freedom. 

The downside when teaching online is that you have to use and purchase your own resources: laptops, printer, ink, paper, etc. 

Since I’ve started teaching primary online in the past 2 years (about 20 hours a week), I’ve started realizing I need to be more deliberate about the products and brands I’m committing to (for the sake of efficiency, reliability, and my bank account). 

For those of you working from home, these are the products I use and absolutely love:

HP printer– We pay about $5 a month and ink is automatically sent to us when needed. It does everything a printer in a corporate office would do, and it’s been incredible for the last 2 years.

Asus laptop- I could just use our desktop, but I’ve always gravitated toward laptops (so I can work from wherever I’d like). My husband (a PC guy- I’d been team Mac for a decade, but needed to get something that made more sense for working from home), helped pick out this laptop when it was on major sale around the holidays. It doesn’t have any impressive or particularly artistic features, but it’s worked wonderfully for about a year now, and only cost $500. I expect to need a replacement after 2 years of use (not due to the computer’s quality, but because that seems to be how long it takes for me to wear out my work products), but at only about $500, I’m okay with that. 

iPhone– Some people have a smart phone that’s provided to them by their work. I use mine primarily for work (not so much for fun), but the cost is on me. My last iPhone seemed to be on the verge of death for about a year (didn’t hold a charge, some much-needed apps stopped working, etc.) until I sucked it up and paid for the iPhone 7. It’s so much better, and I really shouldn’t have waited so long. I can check emails faster, sign and send documents on my phone, and I don’t have to worry about it dying constantly. Bottom line, get yourself the best smart phone available that will make your work life easier. 

For those of you that are currently shopping around for the best laptop for working from home, I went ahead and included a group conversation I had with some of my other college instructor friends, all of whom work from home in some way (website, small company, and/or teach online in some capacity) and rely on a personal laptop. They all had different opinions about which brand would be the best choice, but their input was invaluable to me. 

For those of you that don’t have a group like this to help you weigh in on decisions, feel free to borrow their advice from the following conversation!

~

(Our conversation from December 2017)

Erin:

Hey guys! I have a question. My MacBook officially died last night, so I wanted to know if any of you had some amazing laptop or brand you’ve been using for a while that you think I should consider looking into (I’ll be going to Best Buy tonight). I want to get a PC this time, something between $400 and $600, that’s just a standard laptop that won’t let you down- definitely doesn’t have to be touchscreen or anything. Any suggestions are welcome!

D:

I did the same thing a couple years ago. I bought a Dell that was highly rated (I needed it for some meeting platform that wasn’t supported by Apple). It lasted less than a year, and blew up in a way that couldn’t even be repaired. I had always been Mac loyal, but after that, I’ve never messed with PCs again. My Mac’s typically last 7 years. 

K:

My HP has been pretty good and I’ve have it for 3 years now.

N:

Had a Dell die in less than a year, too, never again! After that I bought my Lenovo for under $300 on Amazon and it’s great- not super fast but it’s touchscreen and gets the job done. I also have had 2 Acer laptops last over 10 years each.

Erin:

Thanks for the suggestions! Acer might be a good idea, I saw some good reviews for that brand last night. 

And about the Lenovo, Adam has a 1 year old Lenovo that I like, but it’s got this glitch where it won’t stay turned off if you unplug it. Ugh. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about that online.  Otherwise it would be perfect!

N:

Wow, mine has been great for 2 yrs- just kind of slow. But unfortunately they make more money when the laptops die faster

Erin:

Yeah, I’m also wondering if it’s because I use it like 25-30 hours a week lol

D:

You wore it out!!

Erin:

Probably haha. I figure it might be time to just buy a reasonable and reliable laptop that I can replace every 2 years. 

S:

They just came out with a new MacBook Pro, so the previous version might be cheaper at Best Buy now

Erin:

Good to know! And D, I was Mac loyal, too, because they always lasted 7 years for me, but my recent one didn’t even make it a full 4 years- I was shocked, so I’m kind of annoyed that I overpaid for it.

Yeah, Natalie, yours might be a different model or something. Maybe I’ll just look at different versions of the Lenovo- those had good reviews too. 

You guys are awesome! Thanks again! Adam and I will be looking back through these texts as we shop and discuss tonight lol.

3 Incredibly Easy Ways to Establish a Positive Relationship with Online Students via Email

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I’ve written thousands of emails to online students over the years (yes, thousands), and it can be difficult to be sure that what you’re writing is professional, yet human and appreciated by the students you’re working with.

Over the years I’ve learned how important it is to put some effort into leaving students with a good feeling after communicating with them through email (since it’s sometimes the only way you’ll communicate with them during the semester). I try to include a few standard things in most emails to help maintain this positive and respectful relationship:

  • I always end my emails with ‘Let me know if you need anything else!’ or some variation of it (‘Let me know if you have any other questions/concerns.’). This sign off is very simple, and might not seem like much, but I believe it’s important. I want to encourage students to come to me if they need anything- and I believe it helps them feel more comfortable coming to me with questions (especially when I do it in an upbeat and approachable way), and through seeking me out more, they help me address any issues other students might be running into as well.
  • If students come to me with an issue or problem in the course, I always show my appreciation to them. I might start the email with the phrase ‘Good question!’ or ‘Thank you for bringing that to my attention.’ This (similar to what I mentioned above) encourages them to come to me if they notice any other problems, which either helps me improve/fix the content of the course and/or leaves them feeling like they did something worthwhile.
  • Use punctuation purposefully. I try to stay away from using smiley faces (during a post-TED talk discussion in the classroom, I learned from some students that it can sometimes be ‘creepy’ when your instructor uses smiley faces too often, or unexpectedly- so I very quickly stopped using those!), but I think one exclamation point per email when responding to a polite student is perfectly acceptable. I find that it helps to establish goodwill in online relationships, especially when students might expect you to be more serious or unapproachable. If a student seems unnecessarily angry or frustrated via email, you might want to stick to periods and usual punctuation. However, when addressing a student who seems to want to establish a friendly relationship, or a student who needs a little encouragement, feel free to use a well-placed exclamation point to show that you’re human and open to friendly conversation..

These are all very easy adjustments to make when emailing students, and I know from experience that they appreciate these small touches of humanity when navigating a course solo during the semester, so don’t be afraid to show a slightly softer side when it feels appropriate.

Happy teaching!

The Best Technology for Engaging Students in Online Classes

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Teaching online can get a little stale when you’re just using the basics: Blackboard, Canvas, Pearson products, Adobe Connect webinars, etc. 

However, the article Building Real Community Online with Free Apps by Dian Schaffhauser offers some options for ‘meeting’ with online students that may build more of a community in your classroom, and may help to further engage students.

If you’re getting tired of the same old routine, check out the article below and see what inspires you. 

Happy teaching!

https://campustechnology.com/articles/2017/07/05/building-real-community-online-with-free-apps.aspx?m=1

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