Teachers limited to distance learning make the best of it

With the future uncertain, some are preparing for online teaching over the longer term
Annie Spratt, Unsplash
Annie Spratt, Unsplash

In March, many countries were stunned as the COVID-19 pandemic expanded across the world. Success in controlling the spread of the disease has varied widely from one country to another. While some countries are beginning to ease lockdown measures and reopen schools, in others there is no end in sight.

More than three-quarters of the world’s schoolchildren have been out of school due to the pandemic. As the school year draws to a close, schools in some countries are trying to return to in-classroom teaching. Others have given up hope that students will return before summer.

If distance learning becomes the norm, how will teachers reconcile its limitations with the needs of their students? We revisited teachers in the US and UK, where the pandemic has shown no signs of slowing, to hear what they have to say about continued schooling.

East Bay Area, California, US

For Jill Mariucci*, a seventh-grade history teacher and literacy coach at a public middle school (ages 12-15) in the East Bay, the first weeks of lockdown were spent getting all the teachers on board, and then figuring out which families didn’t know they could get a free Chromebook from the school. Especially in low-income families, not all parents use e-mail and pupils were missing out on support. With the start difficulties ironed out, teaching began in earnest.

“It’s been a learning curve for me personally: what I am doing now is so, so different,” Mariucci said. She discovered that her students don’t like the online version of the history textbook, so she dropped it entirely, searching instead for videos that relate to her lessons.

“I’ve been discovering really great tools that make it more fun for the kids to interact, which is maybe even better than what we did in the classroom. I’ve gotten more excitement in my game now,” Mariucci said.

She is regularly using Nearpod to structure lessons, which allows her to put together a diverse set of activities that fill the lesson time. Another new favorite is Edpuzzle, where teachers can pull existing video material from Youtube or other sources, and embed their own quiz questions in the video.

“Some kids with learning disabilities in my history class are still not doing anything. I don’t push it, because they’re keeping up with math and English – which is a lot for these kids,” she said. Mariucci continues to push out multiple versions of her history lessons to different student groups, using more pictures with her narration to support students with dyslexia or lower reading abilities, for example.

The teaching teams have figured out how to enable the regular teacher and support specialist to co-facilitate the Zoom class sessions. Just like in the real classroom, the specialist can then start a pull-out meeting with special needs students. Another innovation that Mariucci hopes is here to stay: teachers now must submit daily plans in detail for the whole week by Sunday midnight. Ostensibly to keep parents informed, the plans enable the special education teachers and assistants to plan their support better.

“Daily teaching plans enable the special education teachers and assistants to plan their support better.”

With the end of the school year in mid-June, teachers haven’t received much guidance on grading and reports. Students will receive pass / no pass ratings rather than grades, but the criteria for and consequences of ‘no pass’ are not yet determined. Teachers currently report weekly to the administration whether a student is ‘absent’ (not online or communicating), ‘tardy’ (online, but not participating), or ‘present’ (engaged to any degree).

“Frankly, we’re terrified that we might still have to be teaching online in the fall – we’re watching countries that have opened their schools, like Denmark and Switzerland, to see if contagion goes up,” Mariucci said.

In a reinterpretation of her current role as literacy coach, Mariucci is thinking about becoming a distance learning manager next year for a group of around 30 kids, to make sure they stay engaged and working. In her experience in traditional schooling, the students who need extra help often can’t or won’t come in before school or stay after school, she said. Being available online for these students might make it easier for them to get the help and support they need, she explained.

“We’ve finally solved one equity issue this semester by handing out computers and getting sponsored broadband to households. Every student needs to have online access!” Mariucci said.

Maryland, US

Nathan Diamond, a visual arts teacher at a public primary school in Maryland, US, experienced a slow start to his home teaching: in the first few weeks in March, just over half of his 300 students reacted to assignments at all. He called all the families of the ‘missing’ students, and heard a lot about their day-to-day lives. Military families, parents working in health care, restaurant workers whose hours have shifted, or older siblings having to take care of younger children are all family factors that make learning at home difficult if not impossible.

The teachers confer regularly with each other and there is a combined effort to reach students who are still ‘missing in action’ after two months of lockdown. Diamond praised the school counsellors for their work at getting recalcitrant students on board, admitting that his eighth-grade students (aged 13-14) are not always easy. “They’re undergoing a huge personality change: the maturity isn’t there yet, but the defiance is.”

Diamond guesses that the participation of his students largely depends on their parents – and many don’t see the visual arts as a priority. Still, there are surprising bright spots. The ‘artsy’ students are taking off because they have more time to indulge their passion, and Diamond enjoys fostering them. And some who didn’t particularly stand out in the classroom are excelling in the freer environment.

“The ‘artsy’ students are taking off because they have more time to indulge their passion.”

In Diamond’s school district, the schools will not reopen before the end of the year in mid-June. There is no decision as to whether the school year will start in person in late August, even in a reduced format. Diamond and other teachers are preparing for distance learning over the longer term. With the visual arts modules he designed for use across the district received well, Diamond is using the feedback to design more online lessons.

“In the classroom, the physical arrangement of materials helps provide some structure to the activities, but there’s no equivalent online,” Diamond said. His response is to begin structuring each unit exactly the same, thus providing a sense of class(room) management.

He’s also noticed the generational factor at work. His students communicate multichannel and simultaneously. “We may be online in Teams, but they don’t ask a question verbally even though we’re all ‘live.’ Instead a question comes in via chat, or email, and sometimes both at the same time. It’s not what I expect, and it’s hard to manage,” Diamond admitted.

St Austell, Cornwall, UK

Rosie Shaw, an adult education specialist in the southwestern peninsula of the UK, says there’s no loosening of restrictions in sight. For her students, most of whom are unemployed people retraining from physical jobs to office jobs and school leavers returning to gain general learning qualifications, managing online learning goes hand-in-hand with other difficulties in their lives.

Some students weren’t at home when the lockdown order was issued, so decided to ‘shelter in place’ with friends for the duration. Many have uncertain job prospects and one student, a builder, can’t get enough dust masks to be able to continue his work, Shaw said.

Still, Shaw said she and her teaching assistants have developed a certain routine with their 80 students across the region. Everyone has a dedicated class e-mail address, and can select learning activities in English, maths and IT that are set up in Moodle. This works much better than a virtual classroom, she said, because students can choose what to do on their own time.

She and her assistants phone students during their regular session time to give feedback and see where they need assistance, and many students phone her in the evening with questions, Shaw said.

“When it comes to reaching their students and making education meaningful, teachers and administrators have latched on to new methods and ideas to inspire the way they teach, and that can shape outcomes positively.”

Rediscovering the Moodle platform, which they had briefly used before, has been a positive side to the special teaching efforts for Shaw. Now that’s she’s been given a nudge to explore the platform more, she’s thinking about ways to use Moodle more in her regular teaching.

Odds on reopening this semester are about 50-50, Shaw estimated. The semester is due to end the second week of July, although if reopened, the Cornwall Adult Education Service plans to extend classes for a few weeks to give students extra time and the chance to take qualifying exams. Since the Functional Skills tests that Shaw’s students are working towards are offered on demand roughly once a month – as opposed to the national GSCE, AO and A levels, which are the annual exams that have been cancelled – their chances at completing the qualification this summer are still intact.

A reopening would entail compromises, like teaching in half classes, but Shaw said she worries about losing a lot of people if in-person teaching isn’t resumed until September.

It’s likely to be several more months before any of these teachers or their colleagues know what their new school year in autumn will look like. Administrators are currently putting together various contingency plans, but the big questions regarding evaluation of students and teacher accountability remain unanswered.

When it comes to reaching their students and making education meaningful, however, teachers and administrators have latched on to new methods and ideas to inspire the way they teach, and that can shape outcomes positively.
 
 
*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

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