Teaching from afar: 'Emotional well-being is top priority'
Do all families have tin foil? And even if they do, would kids be able to use it for a school project at home?
These are the unusual considerations made on a daily basis by teachers like Sarah Vannice as they adapt to the realities of distance learning amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Lake Oswego School District teachers have pivoted quickly from teaching in a classroom with technological supports to relying fully on technology for distance learning. Each teacher the Review talked with had different things to say, as their perspectives vary in subject and grade level. A common thread through all of their experiences is a focus on connection over new content.
Vannice, a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) teacher at River Grove Elementary School, said that before school closures she taught the whole school by cycling through a grade every week. The class time was interactive and collaborative.
"It was all hands-on," she said.
Transitioning to distance learning, Vannice had to create lesson plans that were flexible and open ended so that a student could do the base level work or take it a step further based on the resources they had at home.
"We can't make lessons based on what we think they have at home," Vannice said.
She used the example of a project that could be done with tin foil. "Even if they have tin foil, parents may not want to use the tin foil," she said. So when designing the lessons, she had to leave room for flexibility.
She also developed a system to streamline assignments throughout grade levels so that if students have siblings they can do the assignment together — offering the collaborative aspect of an in-person class while taking some burden off parents.
"Our priority right now at this level is connection, is relationship," she said. "We have to take care of people first."
Her role has shifted with distance learning. She still does a lesson every week but she's also a part of an IT team that supports teachers and kids using Seesaw and Google Classroom.
She said a lot of roles at both the school and administrative level have had to become more flexible — and that's OK. Vannice said everyone's all hands on deck to do what needs to be done for the students' well-being.
"We are concerned about their academic well-being but their emotional well-being is top priority," Vannice said.
Mark Benedict, a language arts teacher at Lake Oswego Junior High School, said the beginning was hard for everyone. A lot of teachers felt overwhelmed with how to replicate the classroom experience, while students grappled with less hands-on help and direction.
"I think (students) are starting to get into the swing of it now," Benedict said. "We're asking students to focus on a different subject each day so they're not completely overwhelmed."
He has interactions with his class through Google Live or Google Meets to check in and interact.
He's learned that it helps to keep things as interactive as possible and to make instructions simple and clear.
"The big focus that we're trying to do is maintain connections rather than maintain content," Benedict said, adding that "I would love for our students to read vast amounts of literature," but he knows that's just not going to happen right now.
He said it's more important for students to have adults who can help them through this.
Benedict believes students are still learning through all this; they are just focusing on things that aren't traditionally emphasised in school — emotional health, time management and technology tools.
Natalie Shevlin, a social studies teacher at Lakeridge High School, said there are no "typical" days anymore.
When she first heard of the pivot to distance learning, she thought it would more or less mimic a typical school day — just online. She quickly learned that was far from what teachers would be asked to do.
"I think we've all just had to switch to a non-traditional mindset," she said.
According to Shevlin, school days couldn't be like they were because of equity issues. Some students are working or providing childcare for parents who are working, while others don't have reliable access to the internet.
So Shevlin, too, has emphasized flexibility and a focus on connection over content. For her classes specifically, that means a focus on existing skills like writing and thinking like a historian, as well as assignments that are more feedback-based.
"It's a muddled down version for sure," she said. "I will say that the district has done the best that I think they possibly can."
Shevlin has a junior at Lakeridge High School, as well as a middle schooler and elementary schooler in the West Linn School District.
"I feel like I'm seeing it from all perspectives and everybody hates it," she said."I feel like all of us are putting our heads down trying to get finished."
Shevlin said since the state told passing seniors they were done with the year, she's heard from about five of them, which she understands because "senioritis" was already setting in before the virus hit Oregon.
She said she's worried for students who weren't passing before the school closures began. She emphasized that teachers and staff are working closely with those students.
"We're really trying to give them the benefit of the doubt," Shevlin said. "Really the goal is to get kids to pass."
She's seen parents, especially parents of juniors, worried about the state guidelines on grading — the move from letter grades to a pass/incomplete system.
She said that as a parent, she had the exact same concerns.
"I think a lot of kids are feeling pretty unmotivated, she said.
On the flipside, Shevlin said, "I don't see how (the state) could have done anything else."
She said the most challenging part was making such a sudden transition.
"Most of us, including myself, had zero training on this."
Shevlin said the process of distance learning has just made her appreciate school in a classroom even more.
She said she's had to become proficient at Google Classrooms and other online tools really quickly. "In a lot of ways I feel like my skills have gotten better," she said.
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