Alexandria grade school teachers overcoming challenges of distance learning
(Editor's note: This is the second of a distance learning series. The initial story on Alexandria Area High School ran in last Friday's Echo Press.)
Sometimes children can be a handful, but elementary and middle school teachers in the Alexandria school district are doing the best they can to carry out the remainder of the school year online.
Because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus, students are no longer in the classrooms. Instead, classes are conducted virtually with the tools that each school district has available. While many districts are taking a different approach to online education, Alexandria implemented distance learning at all levels.
"Distance learning is teaching our students, like we would in our classrooms, from a distance," fifth-grade teacher Brittany Vis said. "We, the teacher, interact with our students daily and teach them just like we would in school, using different platforms online."
While the high school uses a program called Schoology, elementary students are using a site called Seesaw. It's a platform that links teachers, students and their families for school assignments. Students create learning portfolios by drawing pictures, recording videos and using creative tools.
However, a challenge for both programs lies within the internet connection. While elementary school students are assigned a device to bring home for distance learning, internet connection has been an issue thus far. In that case, students have special accommodations.
"We use Google Hangouts to connect with kids," third grade teacher Julie Wrobel said. "I also use Google Chat. Every educator has a system in place that best suits the needs of students and their families."
With the increased use of technology for young kids, there's an initial learning curve that forced students and families to adjust. Along with some technical difficulties, one of the biggest problems for kids is not being able to interact physically with their peers on a daily basis. However, some students are finding silver linings.
"From what I've heard from my students and their families, the biggest challenges are not being able to see their friends and teachers," fourth-grade teacher Kelley Barvels said. "I know a lot of my students appreciate being able to work at their own pace and in the comfort of their own homes with their families. I think there continue to be opportunities to learn, which will also bring balance for students, teachers and families."
Elementary classes are often interactive for both the students and the teachers. Even though the Seesaw program is a viable alternative, some teachers are having a tougher time adjusting to their new work stations.
"I'm not a sit-at-my-computer kind of educator," Wrobel said. "I videotape my lessons, and I'd much rather speak to the students than stare at myself presenting. Not seeing the students and being able to provide immediate feedback is a challenge. Google Hangouts are very rewarding. However, the challenge is making sure every student present has a voice and can share their thinking."
At Discovery Middle School, seventh grade English teacher Mackenzie Dougherty, uses a program called EdPuzzle to record her lessons. She links the videos to her Schoology page with easy access for the students to watch.
Each middle school student gets a Chromebook laptop starting in sixth grade before the school year starts. Much like Alexandria Area High School, Discovery students are ahead of the game when it comes to using technology for school. Even though they can't be in the classroom, they are finding ways to feel connected.
"Through EdPuzzel, I can ask questions as I would in school and do check-ins," Dougherty said. "I feel this has allowed me to feel very connected with my students, and I like to think it feels the same for them. We are so lucky to use technology in school regularly, but now the whole state and nation are moving to these platforms."
Outside of her recorded lessons, Dougherty has designated time slots for her students to video chat with her.
"They can hop into my video chat if they have questions or want to say hi," she said. "I had done a virtual game with my students like we used to do when we were in the classroom. Right now, the best attendance for video chats has been for class games or just coming into chat. Students have done a great job learning their recorded lessons."
While both Discovery and elementary schools are doing their best to stick to the curriculums, some things can't proceed virtually.
"I needed to decide which curriculum pieces I could let go of for a while, focusing more on core subjects and aligning them with state standards," Wrobel said. "Developing lessons and learning how to teach as if there were 21 little bodies right in front of me was a huge adjustment. Letting go of what was and allowing the new to take place brought in most change for me. Transitions, routines, constant interaction and large chunks of time in front of the computer have significantly changed the way I teach."
Even though these times are hard, educators are looking at the positives that can come from distance learning for the future.
“My colleagues are working extremely hard to help not only each other, but our students and their families, too,” Barvels said. “It makes me proud to be a part of this community. I think a silver lining is thinking ahead about how these new technologies can be implemented in the future to further engage in their learning and connect with families to what their students are doing in school.”