Virtual teaching proving to be challenge

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WESTMINSTER — Distant or virtual teaching is nothing new to Lily Hart, a Bellows Falls Union High School language teacher.

Or to Susan Swan, a mathematics teacher.

Or Anna Macijeski, an art teacher.

Hart, even before she came to BFUHS in 2016, tutored private students over Skype for five years, when she lived off the grid in Missouri. She instructed them in the intricacies and delights of Latin.

While living in Europe, she tutored Polish businessmen in English, again online.

The switch to distant or virtual teaching in the past weeks since Vermont schools were closed on March 18 because of the coronavirus pandemic has been a work in progress, according to teachers. Now that in-person teaching has been cancelled by Gov. Phil Scott for the rest of the academic year, there will be more adjustment, as the state Agency of Education isn't expected to release formal guidance for another week at least.

Hart received a grant last fall to take a class in remote teaching from the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, the Vermont public school program that has been teaching Vermont public school teachers, primarily on the high school level, how to teach remotely since 2009. She took Methods 1, Methods 2, and then did a student teaching practicum, all geared toward getting her certificate in online teaching.

But, she said, VTVLC is very different than the current situation.

Hart said she misses seeing her students and talking to her fellow teachers. "I really miss the collegiality," she said.

Hart said she has made meeting all or most of her students online as a goal, and she's been using Google Classroom for assignments and notices.

But Hart, who lives in Keene, N.H., said the switch from a real classroom to a virtual one has been very different, much more than she expected.

Her earlier experience online was all one-on-one tutoring, she said. Now, she is dealing with a group of students, in a virtual classroom.

"It's very different," she said. "We're flying by the seat of our pants," she said.

A Zoom meeting (a video conferencing program) is much different than one-on-one. Some kids adapt immediately to Zoom, she said, while others do not. Some of her stronger students are having a hard time making the adjustment.

She says she prefers voice communication. "Some kids are comfortable with Zoom and are happy to see my face. Some block their faces," she said.

Technology isn't a problem - all BFUHS students have a Chromebook, Hart and Swan said.

Hart said she gave her first online assignment on March 16, and started with simple assignments. But last week, she gave a video assignment, asking students to make a video of them reading some Latin.

"Some of my kids made amazing videos," she said, "the artistry, the attention to detail." But again, she said, for some kids it was difficult.

LEARNING TO ADJUST

Swan, who has taught at BFUHS for 30 years, said she's tried to re-create her homeroom every day for her math students. Maintaining a schedule is very important for the students, she said, for a variety of reasons.

But Swan said the difference between the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative and day-to-day classwork is significant. The VTVLC comes with curriculum, and she said the teachers act primarily as mentors or coaches, to the students.

Now, she said, teachers have to make an big adjustment to converting their classroom lesson plans to a virtual classroom.

"It's a learning curve for everyone," said Swan.

She said she has "office hours" where kids can log in and talk to her before the regular school day starts, and also check in later in the day for extra help.

"I thought it would be an easier transition," she said. "We're having to adjust on the fly. It's going well for me and most of my students," she said.

But like Hart, she said video-chat and conferencing is no substitute for face-to-face, in person teaching.

Many students turn off the camera on their laptops, and she said she can't tell if they're engaged, sleeping or confused.

Swan said her own children are grown, and she feels particularly for teachers who have the double duty of teaching their students and helping to teach their own kids, which she said was the case for many teachers.

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"Kindergarten is chaos, give me a room full of high schoolers," she said, noting that teachers with the younger grades face an enormous task.

BFUHS was fortunate to get Chromebooks for all students. "Chromebooks put us in a good position," she said.

Swan has some advice for parents and their children during the "Stay Safe" shutdown: Play games using dice, cards and dominoes. She said those games teach kids how to learn "skip counting" and numeracy. Any critical thinking games are also important.

Her students aren't talking about the coronavirus, she said. "They are worried about graduation, Class Night, Project Graduation, and whether there will be a prom," she said.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES

Macijeski, the art teacher, said online teaching presents a unique challenge.

"So much of what I teach relies heavily on access to a variety of materials, so I've had to get creative. I retooled my color theory unit to be done using colored pencils and watercolors rather than acrylic paint so it would be easy to send materials home for students," she said via email.

"I have been recording video lessons with visual and verbal instructions for my students that I post online through Google Classroom, and students take digital photos of their work to submit when they're done," she said.

"I also have a classroom Instagram page (@bfuhs_art) where I try to post a bit of what students are working on along with fun art challenges and inspiration a few times a week. The Instagram page is a great way for parents, community members, and students alike to engage with what we have going on in the BFUHS art room."

Getting things up and running and making sure every student has access to the materials they need was a bit of a hurdle to jump over, but going into week two of fully implemented remote learning, this new system seems to be going about as well as one could hope for.

She said she planned on working a virtual museum visit into her curriculum later in the semester, saying there are a lot of "amazing and totally free online resources available."

"I miss seeing my students every day, but it's such a bright light in this dark time to be able to connect with them virtually and see the awesome artwork they're continuing to create," she said.

The three teachers' principal, Chris Hodsden, said the challenges teachers are facing in this new teaching world are substantial.

"It doesn't catch me by surprise that even the teachers who have been trained for and experienced with online instruction are finding this new educational system, which has been thrust upon us by the nation's health circumstances, different from their experiences and their training," Hodsden said Friday.

"One obvious difference is that most of their students have not chosen to learn this way. In their previous experiences with online instruction through classes offered through VTVLC, those students not only actively chose to take that course, but also went through an orientation, provided by VTVLC, to establish an understanding of the nuances associated with remote instruction and learning," he said. "Now all teachers, including those who are trained for this type of instruction, have students who are figuring this out on the fly."

That is just one of many challenges teachers are facing and will continue to overcome, over the next two-and-a-half months.

Swan and Hart both praised the work of Hodsden in the crisis. He recently appointed a "morale officer" for the faculty - the school nurse, Swan said, to keep track of the teachers during this stressful time.

In the planning stages are a "Spirit Week" and a "Dress Up Day," said Swan.

LEARNING COOPERATIVE

The VTVLC program, which is based at the River Valley Tech Center in Springfield, taught more than 1,000 students last semester, according to executive director Jeff Renard, who founded the cooperative after winning a statewide competition to establish such a network. Since then, Renard's group has taught dozens of Vermont teachers how to teach and taught thousands of students. There are currently 50 teachers in the network.

Renard said since the coronavirus crisis hit Vermont education, the program has been tapped to provide overall guidance to state educators. "We're giving our two cents here and our three cents there," he said, declining to be specific.

The strengths of virtual teaching and learning, he said, is that it meets students where they are. They could have physical, emotional or logistical problems, and the virtual classroom works to their advantage.

He said that all but a handful of Vermont high schools belong to the cooperative (In Windham County, both Brattleboro Union High School and Twin Valley Middle High School work with a Massachusetts network instead.) Renard, who started his teaching career in Brattleboro, before moving on to Springfield High School's tech center, said schools earn spots for 50 students for every class taught by a teacher — that's the cooperative part.

"It takes two to three years to get your sea legs," he said.

The current crisis has been a crash course.

"It's throwing them in the deep end of the pool," he said. "Kids can't just sit in front of a screen all day," he said.

"You have to use the strengths of the tool. You wouldn't write out a book on a chalkboard," he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802-556-2147.


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