Teaching in the digital trenches

Teachers and students are forced to deal with circumstances unlike any other with the closure of public schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several teachers shared their thoughts.

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Local News

April 17, 2020 - 4:38 PM

Lincoln Elementary School third grade teacher Gina Storrer reads aloud to record a post on Class Dojo, a virtual classroom. Reading aloud to students allows a teacher to model reading fluency and provide better lessons on comprehension. Courtesy photo

Teachers in USD 257 had to quickly adapt to an entirely new style of teaching when Gov. Laura Kelly announced March 17 that schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year. The district had about a week to design a new learning plan, with students doing their work at home and online.

Five teachers representing a variety of schools, grades and subjects shared their experience three weeks into the Continuous Learning Plan.

Regina Chriestenson is a speech and drama teacher at Iola High School.

Linda Heffern is a sixth grade math teacher at Iola Middle School.

Dianne Kauth is a math teacher at Iola High School.

Heather Luedke is a second grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School.

Gina Storrer is a third grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School.

How are you coping with this situation? 

Regina Chriestenson

Chriestenson: My honest answer would be simply, OK. To make such a sudden change can be very jarring and the transition was not easy. I have had to deal with the canceling or postponement of many big events that happen in the spring. Many people are grieving the end of the school year and I am included in that. 

I think USD 257 has come together and created great continuous learning for all of our students. I am the parent of a kindergartner and preschooler and their teachers are working so hard for them. I know all the teachers and staff in our district are working hard and doing what is best for our students and families. I am very proud of everyone! 

Linda Heffern

Heffern: Students still need structure and consistency. As an adult, I believe we all seek structure and consistency. I know I need a schedule in my life to fulfill accomplishments, whether it be completing household chores or my job. As a seasoned teacher, I can usually see what the students need to help them with future math problems. Everyone needs a good base of how to solve problems.

I am sad that this has happened in our society, but on the positive side, am happy to have gotten to make that connection with our students already. When they email/call with questions, I have a good idea what they are asking since I know their individual learning accomplishments/styles/struggles. If it had to happen, I’m glad that it was at the end of the school year.

Dianne Kauth

Kauth: My heart breaks for the seniors as they have lost almost an entire quarter. This means no prom, no spring play, no spring sports, no music performances and no graduation ceremony.   

Luedke: I am coping as well as I can. It isn’t ideal and I would much rather be in a classroom with my students but I understand the need for social distancing. 

Storrer: People in the field of education are chameleons. We adapt and differentiate materials for our students’ needs on a daily basis in the classroom. This is very similar to what we always do, our classrooms just look different. I’ve been collaborating with local colleagues and other teachers across the country through technology to find engaging learning opportunities for our students. 

Gina Storrer

How are you keeping in touch with students/administrators/fellow teachers? 

Chriestenson: I have been texting, calling and emailing parents and students. I try to answer emails as quickly as possible. To be honest, it is pretty overwhelming because you have so many different forms of communication you are using, however, I want anyone with a question or concern to be able to contact me, so I just try to go with the flow. 

Third grader Kinzley Fountain is working on her math facts outside in her yard. She is writing in response to a daily writing prompt in a journal. Third grade is a big academic change. They learn the concepts of multiplication and division early in the year; as a result, they practice their facts all year long, working on fluency. Their writing progresses from good simple sentences to embellished compound and complex sentences.Courtesy photo

I have also scheduled Zoom meetings to check in with students and answer questions. It is also nice to just see them for a short period of time. This week, theater and forensics students will have a big Zoom meeting to play some games together. My hope is it will allow them to still feel connected to the activities they enjoy and to each other. I am trying my best to spread positivity to my students. 

Heffern: We were told to make three continuous learning packets. Packet 1 was to be given to students on March 27 while distributing their personal school supplies that were left at school. That was extremely difficult. While my fellow teachers on the sixth grade team were all preparing, a few had been ill or in hot zones, so we had to all help each other. Our team is quite organized. We had 80 students/parents attend out of 81 sixth-graders.

We are having weekly faculty meetings through Zoom. I love seeing all of the faculty. We share what is going on with our classes and how everyone is teaching/visiting with the students. It’s very interesting to see the adult interaction with each other. 

Our administration has been very supportive and helpful. They have encouraged us to be adaptive and creative. 

Several of the middle school teachers are also having Zoom meetings with their students. It’s all been very positive. The kids like seeing their friends that they may not have seen since spring break started.

Heather Luedke

Luedke: I contact parents via telephone, Facebook, email, texts and Zoom. I also Zoom with my students. We had a Zoom last week where they shared a joke and just visited. Today we are having a Zoom show and tell. I am just trying to connect with my students in a fun way and allow them time with their friends.

Storrer: Communication is vital in education even in normal circumstances. Technology has been the most beneficial and time-saving tool for communication especially in this situation. I can’t send home a note with students or meet parents to talk about something. Teleconferencing, email, texting and phone calls are being used at all levels. 

Last week I used Facetime to explain a math problem to a student. It took just a couple of minutes to explain it and suggest online opportunities for additional practice opportunities.
Like many other teachers, I offer a class Zoom time each week with my class family. I try to plan a fun but educational opportunity for my class each week. In all honesty, our class Zoom time is very important to me on a personal level because I miss their smiles, their facial expressions when discovering something new, and even their questions. Answering their questions helps teachers know what direction to take the lesson. The education-based businesses have been amazing. Teachers have received countless emails from companies offering their products at no charge in order for students to have what they need. There are so many wonderful people in our community and across the nation doing everything they can to help us through this process.

Lincoln Elementary School third grader Logan Belknap Thompson conducts an experiment with a paper bridge he has constructed.Courtesy photo

How have you adjusted your lesson plans and what are your expectations for students? 

Chriestenson: My lesson plans have completely had to change. Usually, I would be directing class plays and having students perform at grade schools or different events at this time of year. Obviously this can’t happen through Google Classroom, so I have tried to create lessons that can be accomplished online with little support. My hope is that they allow students to use their creativity to respond to what is happening around them to help reinforce their use of fine arts. Many students may have heightened anxiety and stress during this time and I hope they use my assignments as creative outlets for that anxiety and stress. 

It is hard to know what to expect from students and still challenge them. Are they still working or working more hours? Are they watching younger siblings? What are their other responsibilities throughout the day? Are they going mad with boredom? We cannot answer those questions, so we just have to do what we think is right. 

Heffern: We were told to prepare/instruct half of what we normally do, and perhaps half of that. It seems like all parents admit they struggle with math, or today’s math. When parents are contacting me, I try to encourage them to relax a little. This will soon be over, just a short detour in life. I like to talk to the students. They understand my weird sense of humor. I try to get them to laugh and relate the problem/assignment to a previous concept. Usually they will reply with, “Oh, that’s what it is talking about?!” 

Kauth: This pandemic has definitely changed the typical education processes. I teach three dual credit ACC math classes that have now been changed to online. Some students can do well with this, but many struggle because the higher level math classes online are more difficult.  Students have to watch videos, look at examples and more or less teach themselves most of the time. To counter this I am available to my students though phone conversations and email every day and evening. I also schedule Google Hangouts when they tell me they need help. I can use Google Meet and send an invite to each student in the class to join. I can see them and they can see me and I can answer  questions. I also connect this to the smartboard in my classroom so I can talk them through problems step by step explaining and answering questions as we go along. I can record these teaching sessions and post them to the student’s Google Classroom. I also teach three high school math classes where I can do the same teaching techniques when they need it. For the high school classes, I have slowed the assignments down and we are only covering about half of what I had wanted to.

Luedke: We have had to adjust our lesson plans tremendously since we are not with our students each day. We have sent a packet to each student with two weeks worth of work. 

Storrer: Technology has provided so many outstanding opportunities for enrichment. I use a class website, Class Dojo, throughout the year to communicate with parents through messaging, a class story, and digital portfolios for student work. Students can record

themselves reading and then submit it. Both their family and I can watch the recording and give feedback. This website has also helped me continue my class “read alouds” during distance learning by video recording myself reading to them and discussing the book. Last week during our teleconferenced class meeting, I asked students to read a chapter in their social studies books while paying close attention to the vocabulary. Then I recorded myself reading and discussing the vocabulary like I would in class. We will use this for background knowledge for them to complete a fun project at home that I normally do in class. The project won’t be as comprehensive as I offer in class but they’ll get that experience. 

Expectation isn’t a word that I am using with my students or families right now. I want to use the word hope instead. I hope they have what they need. I hope they are doing their best to practice their basic skills like reading and math. I hope they are able to have some fun with their families during this difficult time. Most of all, I hope that they are healthy and happy. 

Braylon Keithly works on a post for his digital portfolio.Courtesy photo

What concerns are parents sharing with you, and how do you recommend they handle it? 

Chriestenson: No one has personally shared concerns with me, however, I keep hearing about parents of high school students struggling to keep them motivated. I am sure this is very rough. I truly believe most students are more willing to work at school for a teacher then at home for their mom or dad. I know with my 6-year-old this is the case.

Heffern: I expect the kids to do the best they can with what tools they have under the circumstances. Some still do not have access to the internet, so that is a struggle for them and for us teachers. For the students that do not have internet access we are sending home paper copies to accommodate their needs.

Kauth: My advice to parents and students is to take it one day at a time. Please check your emails and your Google Classrooms. Yes this is difficult as we have never done this before. Stay caught up and do not procrastinate. This crazy time will not last and you will be stronger in the end. You will be able to help and encourage others in the future if this ever happens again.

Luedke: The parents have been very receptive and it seems to be going well. I expect my students to do the best they can on their schoolwork.

Storrer: Change is hard. Distance learning was an enormous change that happened in a very

short time that no one had anticipated. We are very fortunate that this happened during the fourth quarter of the school year. A bulk of the learning has taken place with just a few learning standards that need to be introduced. I feel that our school district, like many others across the nation, put a good plan in motion very quickly. I think the learning packets were a wonderful idea. Our administration took into account that some of our students do not have internet or technology available to them and the packets resolve that issue. Families have been concerned about providing the best level of education for their students that they can. I hope families understand that they are not expected to replicate the full day of classroom instruction that their student gets from all of the amazing teachers out there. They should know that their teachers have done the best they can to provide engaging learning opportunities for their students following the guidelines for shortened instruction time suggested by the Kansas Department of Education for distance learning. Families should know that they do not need to stress themselves over their student’s education at this moment in time.

Kailyn Rodriguez is reading a good book.Courtesy photo

What would you like people to know?

Chriestenson: Teachers care. Teachers miss their students. Teachers miss their classrooms. Teachers miss each other. 

Heffern: We will get through this as a community. Please remember to help those that need it.

Luedke: As a teacher, I know that it is possible students may not learn everything they would have at school during the last quarter. It isn’t something to stress about. We know we will need to go back and teach these skills to make sure they have them before we go on.

Storrer: Do what you can. We know you are trying to find balance with providing everything your families need. As long as we come out of this with our health, the rest of it will work out.  

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