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Chapter 59: Teaching with brain fog, Part 2

In my last post, I mentioned careful editing and giving students bonus points to catch my mistakes as strategies I use to deal with post-COVID brain fog.

Those strategies help when I accidentally type the wrong word on class materials, but what happens when I lose my train of thought mid-sentence, which is another annoying symptom of Long COVID?

It takes more time and more advance planning, but whenever possible, I backstop myself by making a Google Slides presentation and/or a handout to guide and reinforce my direct instruction. If I need to give the kids vocabulary words, explain a concept, or provide historical context for a lesson, I throw together a quick Google Slides presentation that hits the highlights so I don’t lose my place or forget something I meant to tell the students.

This has been a bit of an adjustment for me. Before COVID, I was accustomed to walking into class with a lesson plan and maybe a vocabulary list, glancing at it before class started, and then writing notes on the board while I discussed the day’s topic with the kids. I might look at the lesson once or twice during class to make sure we were staying on schedule, but most of the time, I just worked from memory, trusting my brain to keep me on track.

I can’t trust my brain to keep me on track these days, so I have to rely on Google to do it for me. It’s more work, but it’s not entirely a bad thing. My kids are used to checking Google Classroom at this point, and having the lecture/discussion topics condensed into a slide show makes it easy for students who are absent or working from home to keep up with the highlights, even if they miss some of the details. It’s also nice for the students who have trouble taking notes quickly to be able to go back and look at the lesson again to see what they missed.

Assuming I have some kind of notes to work from, I can usually create a presentation in an average of two to three minutes per slide, depending on how elaborate I make the slide, how many illustrations I use, and how much animation I decide to do. For note-taking purposes, I find it’s usually helpful to keep the animation relatively simple. I set my slides to advance on click, by paragraph, so the kids can’t see the next point until I’m finished talking about the first one. To speed up the process of building the slides, I pick (or design) my background style on the title slide, build a second slide with information on it, set up the animation the way I want it, and then just duplicate that slide to use as a template so I don’t have to redo the animation every time.

A good rule of thumb on slides: Confine yourself to one topic per slide, with no more than three or four points about that topic, and make sure the font is large enough and clear enough for kids to read from the back of the room. I’d rather make 20 slides that the kids will actually read and use than five overpacked slides that they ignore because they’re bored or intimidated by the sheer quantity of text in front of them.


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Chapter 57: ADHD Strategy

As I mentioned in my last post, I came down with COVID last November. Physically, I recovered quickly; I had a few lingering symptoms, but they had all faded by March or so.

Neurologically, my recovery wasn’t quite as thorough or rapid as I might have liked. I’m not sure COVID caused new symptoms so much as it just exacerbated existing conditions in a way that forced me to acknowledge them and find workarounds. One of the little parting gifts I got from the infamous COVID brain fog was an amplification of the low-level ADHD symptoms that have been part of my workflow for as long as I can remember.

I have never particularly liked sitting still, but before last November, I could tolerate physical inactivity as long as my mind was actively engaged in something. Now? I can still sit still and read or write if I’m really interested in the subject, but if I’m not, the impulse to get up and move around becomes a literal physical need. That’s an unfortunate situation for a grad student trying to prepare for comprehensive exams.

I happily binge-read about 80 texts between April and July, but when it came to transferring my notes from little Post-It flags stuck in the margins of borrowed books to actual notecards I could use to study, I struggled mightily.

The solution I found is one I’ve used often but previously understood at a purely theoretical level: I used a timer and a reward system to work WITH my ADHD brain and play to its strengths instead of fighting it.

Every hour consisted of six blocks: three 15-minute work sessions, with five-minute breaks in between to stretch, hydrate, etc. I spent the first two work sessions taking notes, then switched to a more active task — laundry, gardening, pet care, working on the mural I’m painting, whatever — for the last block.

About three hours into this process, it struck me that this is exactly the way I constructed lesson plans when I taught on a block schedule. It worked for my kids then, and it works for me now.

The ADHD brain is not wired to sit still and work quietly on a moderately (or less) interesting task for hours on end. Breaks are essential. Rewards are essential. Physical activity is essential. Having a light at the end of the tunnel is essential.

If you have fidgety kids, please understand that as much as their behavior annoys you, it almost certainly annoys them more. That was the big takeaway for me this summer. I didn’t want to be fidgety and unproductive and distracted, but I didn’t have a choice.

If you’re struggling to keep your learners engaged, try the 15:5 model, and make sure that for every 30 minutes the kids spend on something static, you give them 15 minutes’ worth of more active work. I think you’ll find that they accomplish more, with less resistance and fewer discipline issues.

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Chapter 56: Yeesh.

Has it seriously been a year and a half since I updated this blog? Sorry ’bout that. Here’s what I’ve been doing since then:

  1. Figuring out how to teach in the middle of a pandemic.
  2. Learning Google Classroom.
  3. Surviving my first year of grad school.
  4. Recovering from COVID.
  5. Learning new coping strategies after post-COVID brain fog blew the lid off some longstanding but previously low-level neurodivergence I’m pretty sure I’ve lived with since I was a toddler but didn’t notice because I masked it well, even from myself.

That last bit is important. My whole teaching style is shifting from a freewheeling, highly improvisational approach to a much more carefully structured approach in which all direct instruction is accompanied by a Google Slides presentation to keep me from losing my train of thought (as opposed to my usual shoot from the hip, toss notes on the board as I think of them method). There are advantages to this sort of teaching, of course, but the down sides are enormous, and I hope to everything that’s holy that by the time the world goes back to normal, my brain will have done likewise.

I won’t make any promises, but I hope to resume weekly updates here so I can share some of the things I’ve been learning as I navigate these new challenges. I wouldn’t have chosen to have COVID wreak havoc on my brain, but I’m trying very hard to turn a negative into a positive by using myself as a guinea pig for organizational, time management, and SEL strategies that will ultimately help my kids — and maybe yours, too.