Zoom became a popular digital teaching assistant for one Fort Wayne area teacher, and Google Meet held promise for another.
Plexiglas dividers on tables keep students separate in a private school, and one middle school teacher began learning to live by the concept that a plan that cannot be changed is not a good plan.
The Journal Gazette asked educators throughout Allen County to share what it's been like to prepare for a school year during a pandemic. Here are their edited responses.
• Pamela Fennell teaches high school math and special education for East Allen County Schools. She has 30 years of experience.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? I started seriously preparing about four weeks before school started. I knew I would have students attending in person and virtually. I wanted to create a system that I could teach both simultaneously. I used my office at home to figure out how to use technology to help me. After I came up with a plan, I went to Sweetwater Sound to look for stands that would hold my iPads in order to teach and record at the same time. Once I had the technology figured out, I planned my lessons so everything would be digital. Virtual students needed a way to submit their work, and I did not want to handle papers submitted by the in-person students. To make this happen, I had to learn to use a software system I hadn't used regularly in the past. Our tech coach, Paul Hoffman, spent time with me over Zoom in the summer and in my classroom at the beginning of the school year helping me learn a new way of teaching digitally. His help has been invaluable.
What hasn't changed about school or teaching? Students still want to interact with each other and with their teachers even though we may be talking over Zoom and wearing our masks. The students I have seem eager to participate in classes even though they are participating from home. I still expect a high quality of work from my students, and they have been living up to those expectations. Another thing that has not changed is the awesome teachers and administration that I get to work with. I have witnessed us all pulling together and lifting each other up like I have never seen before. When something is not working the way we had planned, someone has been there to help figure out another plan. I feel supported by everyone here – especially those in my hallway. They have demonstrated professionalism at its highest, and it is an honor to be beside them.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? When I was preparing to come back to school, I had so many people ask me how I felt about coming back. I told them I was nervous about it. Not only was I worried about the possibility of getting ill, but I was worried about how we, my students and I, would pull this off. My motto became, “This may be the most challenging year I have ever had in my 30 years of teaching, but this may also be my most rewarding.” This is what I am hoping my students take away from this experience. I want them to know they are tough enough to get through uncertain times. I also want them to learn the value of being flexible and know how to change plans without the changes upsetting everything. These life lessons will help my students navigate their future, and I am glad that I chose to come back this year and help lead them.
• Linda Corson teaches kindergarten at Canterbury. This marks her 26th year at Canterbury following 10 years in Michigan.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? Room arrangement was just the beginning. We have Plexiglas dividers on the tables to separate each child, and all their tools – such as crayons, pencils, markers and scissors – are stored in a small pencil box or in their own drawer in plastic stacking bins. There are also bins that hold their books, rather than the bookshelf. Cubbies and belongings are stored with more space between. The usual carpet space where many stories and lessons take place is now spread out around the room. Small manipulatives used for counting and math are sorted into individual packages rather than a shared large bin. Parents wrote their child's name on each and every crayon and marker so they could be identified when one was found on the floor. That is just a sampling of the preparation for keeping everyone distant.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? One of the things special about our school is that we are very close to the children and families. We hug the children, as well as the parents. Not being able to hug a child, especially the children from last year who you were so abruptly separated from March 13, has been very difficult. It has also been a challenge to stay separate from the other classes in our grade level. There are no group chapels, grade level activities, eating or playing with friends outside your classroom. The teachers miss each other, and so do the students.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? To be grateful for what we have. To value the closeness of friends and what you learn, not only from your teachers, but from the different perspective of the friend sitting next to you. Technology is a tool; it cannot replace in-person learning and discovery. Some of the changes that we have made may be worth keeping.
• Scott Lazoff teaches sixth and seventh grade science at Summit Middle School in Southwest Allen County Schools. He has 18 years of experience.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? The number of students in each of my class periods was not finalized until the day before school started. This required an incredible amount of last-minute work to set up the physical classroom to promote social distancing, accommodate the number of students present and create engaging lessons that could be rapidly adapted for at-home learners. The quote I kept mentally repeating was, “A plan that can not be changed is a bad plan.”
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? It is incredibly challenging to provide instruction for both students attending at home and in class at the same time, every period, every day. This is compounded by the fact that who is at home and at school can change daily and with little notice due to students feeling ill or being quarantined. To add to the challenge is the fact that students do not have specific materials at home, such as lab equipment. This requires being able to modify lesson plans at a moment's notice. Other challenges include the continual self-reminders that I can't just teach to the class, but to those at home, too. Technology that works well for students in class and at home is imperative. I want students who are at home to be able to ask questions during a lesson, just like they would if they were in class. This requires self-reminders to pause and make sure everyone is following along, and a good wireless headset that allows me to walk, talk, write on the board, help a student with an experiment, and answer a question from those at home who are virtually raising their hand – all at the same time. These challenges are, quite simply, exhausting. However, every teacher that I know is working tirelessly to provide a quality experience for every student no matter their learning location.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? The biggest lesson I hope my students will take away is how to persevere. This year is challenging, yet I have been fortunate to witness many students learn to rapidly adapt to all the changes being tossed their way. I have seen at-home and at-class students collaborate in real-time, helping each other and solving problems together. The skills they are learning through this experience will ultimately help them succeed in other situations as they age. They are becoming resilient problem-solvers and learning how to think on their feet.
• Jaime Brunson's home school is Perry Hill Elementary in Northwest Allen County Schools, but this year she is teaching remote with a combination of first grade Oak View and Perry Hill students. She has been teaching 20 years.
How were your preparations for this academic year different than in past years? Normally, I am in my classroom weeks before school begins setting up my classroom and preparing for that first week of in-person teaching. This year, I was creating a classroom in our basement. I was creating ways to engage my kids virtually. I was planning how to introduce first graders to their new device using Google Meet, planning how to assess virtually, and determining what I currently use that can be implemented online. My mind wouldn't stop spinning. I wanted to do everything to make this online experience as close to an in-class experience as possible.
What is especially challenging about teaching this year? Teaching kids and parents how to use virtual education resources and how to troubleshoot. Also, kids need to move. They need to watch me teach, of course, but my lessons need to encourage them to get up from the screen occasionally.
What do you hope your students take away from this unprecedented school year? My hope is that they see how bumps in the road only make us stronger and that they learn how to adapt and relate to one another under different circumstances.
At a glance
This is the second in a three-day series about what it's like to teach during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sunday featured questionnaires from seven veteran teachers and feedback from two educators who began new teaching jobs this fall.
Today and Tuesday feature feedback from four experienced teachers.