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Reflections about teaching, technology, and human connection

By Meg Krugel | OEA Communications

When schools closed their doors nearly a year ago, educators had to quickly reinvent their profession - giving up years of training and carefully honed best practices in exchange for a computer monitor and a revolving door of technologies, designed to help simulate the classroom environment. Like all facets of life since the onset of COVID-19, the education world has been turned upside down, and teachers are scrambling to provide an authentic space for learning in a digital environment.

CONNECTIVITY in all of its varied forms - internet connection, student connection, teacher-to-teacher connection - is the central theme running through the stories of the three Oregon educators featured in this piece. Spend some time with these educators, listen to their experiences of learning to teach in a pandemic, walk through a few of their virtual classrooms, and find those ever important points of connection to each of their realities. Each of these conversations were conducted via Zoom after long days of work, and as such, the short video segments represent these teachers in their most personal spaces and as their unpolished, authentic selves.

On her DonorsChoose page, teacher Imelda Cortez notes that her students are becoming increasingly frustrated in accessing their learning via Zoom and Canvas platforms.

Imelda Cortez

6th Grade Bilingual Teacher, Eugene

Last fall, 6th grade teacher Imelda Cortez put up a small request on DonorsChoose.org, hoping to crowdsource enough funds to purchase a secondary monitor to use in teaching her students from home. The request was funded and the new monitor is now making life a little easier for the Eugene-area educator, who teaches in the dual immersion program at Kelly Middle School. Cortez put the challenge of virtual teaching into words when she wrote on her project website:

"The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust my students and myself into distance learning for what could be the entire school year. I am trying to manage teaching my 25 Spanish Immersion students through the use of my school-provided laptop, which really limits the ability to interact meaningfully with my students. Having a second monitor would give me the ability to share my screen with students while teaching through Nearpod and the Canvas platform, while still seeing each of their beautiful faces, as well as their chat questions/comments. Being able to see them while sharing my lesson will ensure that I can answer their questions in real-time rather than after I've finished projecting my lesson, which would lessen the frustrations students already feel about learning through a screen."

Screengrabs of inside Imelda Cortez' virtual 6th grade classroom, which she runs through Canvas, Nearpod and Google Classroom, primarily.

Meeting Their Needs

When students walk in to Cortez' Language Arts or Social Studies virtual classroom, they see Black Lives Matter posters on the wall and a quote of the day on the blackboard, much like they would see walking into Cortez' physical classroom. In setting up this virtual space, Cortez knew it would be important for students to see small reflections of themselves in their classroom. These little personalizations within a virtual learning environment help the classroom come alive for students. For dual immersion students, having the classroom exist fully in the dual immersion language (Spanish, in Cortez' case) provides a secondary benefit of navigating through the platform. To date, Canvas - a learning management platform - is being used in districts across all 50 states. Its open interoperability allow educators to integrate their Canvas classroom with other leading educational technologies, just as Cortez has done for her students.

"Distance learning has made it incredibly difficult to foster the relationship and community building that I pride myself in when I teach students in my classroom. Being able to see my students on the Zoom screen while sharing my lesson is crucial and will keep me from missing raised hands, questions, and important comments."

Letting Go of Expectations

One of the key barriers for Cortez in feeling connected to her students is the camera functionality on Zoom. She doesn't insist that her students keep their cameras on, because she knows many of them may not be comfortable sharing their homes in the background. But, this can result in a sea of blank screens, which makes it more challenging than ever to feel connected to her students.

"We're living through a global pandemic, which is something I never thought I'd live through in my lifetime," she says. She hopes districts and administration can work to align their expectations for student performance (limiting the amount of homework assigned, or providing more space in class to work with their teacher, or loosening attendance policies, as examples) to be more reflective of the realities of living through this moment, and all of the struggles that come with it.

"I can’t say that as their teacher, I’m not worried about the academic portion – the things that have been lost in this process. I have 6th graders and this is their transition to middle school and it’s all been online. I wonder what their attitude toward school is going to be after this."

Abby Jones

3rd Grade Teacher, Hillsboro

If you're the type of teacher, like Abby Jones, who prides yourself on not using technology in class, where does that leave you in a virtual world? For Jones, the transition to Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) required her to abandon some of her own teaching philosophies - or, more accurately - rewrite the virtual teaching playbook to reflect them.

I know that there is a lot of good that can come from technology, but if you don’t have those basic skills, the technology isn’t going to be that helpful either.

We Need to Simplify

Jones remembers that the beginning of the school year was filled with a deep sense of being overwhelmed. The district pushed its teachers to implement a slew of new tools - Pear Deck (a Google Slides integration), Jamboard (Google's interactive whiteboard feature), and more. "For a person who doesn’t know technology, it was just too overwhelming. And, during that time, I also learned – if we overuse technology in the beginning, it’s too much. The kids aren’t going to be able to grasp it. I got overwhelmed, and I know how overwhelming it can be for the kids and their parents, and so I honestly stopped trying to do new things. Instead, I came up with a routine that I've stuck with. And it's working."

Keep Paper and Pencils Alive

Some of Jones' best 'technology' moments this year have been simple, yet profound. In one class, she sent out a link to a shared Google slides document and titled each slide with the name of a student in the class. She asked them to show their work on their respective slide, and students began to notice different ways of working through the problem by seeing their peers' digital work. "Hey, how did you do that?" became a frequent question posed between students during the class - and made for a far more engaged group of kids than Jones typically sees online. "My students really are the teachers when it comes to technology."

A Deep Sense of Loneliness

Last year, Jones supervised a student teacher, who now is in her first year with her own classroom. "She's really struggling," Jones says - noting that the challenges teachers are facing this year are only magnified for those educators who are in their first year or two of the profession. The sense of isolation runs deep for all, but particularly for new teachers. Even in traditional teaching settings, 50 percent of early career educators will leave the profession within the first five years, according to the National Education Association. Couple that statistic with a new teacher's inability to walk down the hallway and check in with a colleague in another classroom this year, even about a simple task or protocol, and you'll find newer teachers feeling immensely alone.

What will Jones take from this experience of teaching through tech, once school doors open back up? "I've decided there's a lot that you can do with technology that I never utilized. I think that there is some potential that I will bring back to my classroom... but honestly, the biggest thing I'll take back is is just how much I love being in the classroom with the kids and how much I miss it," she says.

"As much as there's a disconnect right now with my students, I'm also in my bedroom, teaching them every single day, right? They are more a part of my life than I've ever allowed students to be. So, there's a new sense of connection there, as we're going through this together, that I will take with me, too."

Jana Giles

3rd Grade Teacher, North Marion

Rewind the calendar back to March of 2020. Mid-way through an extended Spring Break, 3rd grade teacher Jana Giles received word that schools wouldn't be reopening due to COVID-19 closures. All classroom instruction was moving online. Giles, an early career educator who is now in her 5th year of teaching, wasn't panicked about making the transition, personally. She felt adept with using the technology — her students, however, weren't. The district had to quickly devise a plan to set up Google classrooms for every teacher, get Chromebook computers in the hands of every student in the district, and make internet connection a reality for many of their families (over 60 percent of families in the district identify as low-income).

"It was just such a crazy time," Giles remembers. "We had to provide online instruction, and also had to provide paper copies of all of our curriculum materials mailed to each student at home. In my opinion, it create a lot of inequity. If a student was only using the 'offline' materials, it wasn't as substantial as the online instruction - it was just a paper packet being mailed to their home."

One of the most successful tools Giles has started using, integrated with Canvas, is GoGuardian, which allows her to see the screen from any of her students' points of view. She can see what tabs a particular student has open, can message them (and their parents) directly through the service, can pull open a web browser if they need it or watch them doing their work on screen. This tool has helped bridge the digital divide felt by so many teachers in not knowing exactly what is happening on the other side of the screen. In the video below, Giles gives a little preview of her classroom space.

There are unique pressures on 3rd grade learning, which is when state testing begins. "The pressures of teaching third grade… with testing, and the learning gains that are supposed to happen this year…. It feels just so hard to make it all work. I try not to think about it. Because it almost feels impossible," Giles says. She talks about the inequities that impact this feeling - seeing some students with tidy and quiet workspaces at home, while others are meeting in their living rooms, in the midst of family chaos.

"How do you prepare them for next year, when so many of them can’t even open up a Google doc and type their name? I’m trying to not think about the weight of all of it, but I do think about it a lot. I can only do so much, and as teachers, I think that is the hardest pill to swallow this year."

A Hasty Adoption

Two weeks before school was to begin this fall, North Marion School District administrators informed teachers that they'd be using Canvas platform district-wide. A week after the announcement, teachers still didn't have a log-in to their classroom pages. Quite simply, they needed more time in order to prep for students coming back to their classrooms. In the clip below, Giles remembers what that process was like and how overwhelmed she felt by it, even as somebody who is fairly tech-saavy in her teaching.

Though teachers are finding ways to connect with their students and ensure the learning continues to take place, what's being lost in the process is the very thing that keeps teachers going... kids being kids. Says Giles, 'I was thinking about it yesterday - I really miss that goofy fun downtime with my kids. The pressures feel so large - to pack all the learning into these short bursts of time, and I don't want to lessen my expectations because I don't think it's fair to the kids. They deserve a 3rd grade education, not a lessened version of that. So that's a whole other pressure on us."

Is there a solution?

When the Oregon Department of Education released its Ready Learners, Safe Schools: Comprehensive Distance Learning guidance this fall, the plan tried to balance two forms of instructional delivery - synchronous (face-to-face meetings) with asynchronous (self-guided videos, independent learning games, etc). Giles reflected that the emphasis on asynchronous instruction (in theory, to limit 'screen time') has added a secondary level of time and stress - and actually deepens the disconnect she feels with her students. Screen time is a given in an online learning world, but finding meaning in the screen time becomes the challenge. Looking back, Giles says it would have been better if districts had been able to closely simulate a classroom environment and allowed teachers more face-to-face time with their kids to troubleshoot issues, work on assignments together, and, in the end... connect.

"I think teachers just feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders because we are helping educate the future during a time that’s so unknown."

While there is a lot of work in reimagining a better way for distance learning - it is also worth noting that what teachers have done in a few short months is nothing short of miraculous. A conversation about how to "improve" distance learning is nothing without first reflecting on the work these teachers do every day in masterful ways. Their hasty transition to online education, in the midst of a global pandemic with students who are experiencing so much, deserves all the praise. They have found moments of connectivity in a time of extreme isolation. And given the realities we face this year, that is more than enough.

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