May 2020 Honoree
Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus
Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus, Washington, D.C.
story by: Steve Drummond, Executive Producer, NPR News
“Give students grace. You have no idea what their home lives are like and what they are dealing with.”
For John Zirkle it’s all about the rhythm. The rhythm that comes in that moment when his students are singing together, their voices in perfect sync.
But when there’s a half-second delay on Zoom or Google Hangouts, his students sound like, well, students. “The latency of even a half-second,” he says, “makes it impossible to line up a beat.”
And so when schools in Big Sky, Montana, shut down on March 16, Zirkle, who was Honored’s May 2017 Honoree, had to shift gears — and fast.
As a music educator whose specialty is ensemble singing, he knew when school moved online that he couldn’t just replicate the normal classroom experience. “Rather than try to sing together over Zoom, we instead decided to do a virtual project.”
Zirkle teaches at Lone Peak High School in Big Sky, and he’s the director of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. He’d been in touch for some time with an all-girls student choir in the Czech Republic, and the group was planning to visit Montana this year. The visit was now cancelled, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t sing together.
Zirkle had each student — those in Montana, and in Eastern Europe — record their own tracks, and video of themselves performing. Over several days, “we edited this piece together with translation and a short background.” The whole thing took about two weeks, and the result is amazing: a professional-looking and -sounding video, complete with time-lapse footage of nearby Lone Peak.
It’s an original work; an entirely different performance than the one Zirkle had envisioned earlier in the year. A work that was conceived, performed, edited, and produced completely online. For his students, it was a learning experience they would never have known if everything hadn’t changed so fast.
Welcome to Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus.
In the blink of an eye, school as it’s always been done came to a halt, and in the span of about two weeks, teachers and principals and administrators had to re-invent it from scratch. Millions of educators who’ve never had training in how to teach online suddenly find themselves doing it every day.
Lesson plans, software, grading policies, meal programs, Individualized Education Programs, attendance, assessment — the whole works — all of it had to be retooled and re-imagined. Not for some distant future, but right now. All of this in the midst of coping with the stress and anxiety of living in a global pandemic.
Nevertheless, like John Zirkle, great teachers everywhere are rising to the challenge. And so, as the crisis stretches from weeks into months, we reached out to some of Honored’s past Honorees for their advice, their inspiration, and for the lessons they’ve learned so far.
“My parents are phenomenal and are stepping up to become teachers.”
There are clunky downloads, funky Internet connections, mixed-up schedules, and the inevitable minutes lost while everyone logs on. Everything takes longer than it did before, and it’s much harder to know what’s working and what isn’t. Most importantly, these teachers are missing the personal, one-on-one interactions with students that are a central part of their lives and teaching practice.
Still, in the midst of it all they are finding — or making, rather — those moments of joy that teachers live for. And they’re working to preserve and even strengthen those crucial bonds with their students.
“Over the past month, I think I’ve met every one of my students’ pets, and they’ve spent some quality time with mine,” says Cathy Atwell, the July 2018 Honoree, who teaches at Marlborough School, a private, all-girls school in Los Angeles.
Like many teachers, Atwell is building the pandemic into her teaching. She and her colleague Mabel Wong have designed a final project for their 9th grade history class — an oral history on the coronavirus experience. Each student will interview two people and use that “as primary sources for an analysis of one major theme/topic related to the pandemic.”
In their instructions to the students, the two teachers explain why the assignment matters:
“This project isn’t meant to increase anxiety about the pandemic. Rather it is meant to encourage you to face it, to look at your role in what is clearly a major global turning point, to reflect upon what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling, and to do all that by applying the critical thinking and writing skills that you have been working on this past year. As you might have realized by now, the pandemic isn’t simply a disease; it is a political, economic, social, environmental, technological, media event.”
While Atwell is teaching the pandemic through the lens of history, for April 2019 Honoree May Ng it’s a chance to expose her students to real-world lessons in science.
For her statistics students at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, California, Ng has given them links to COVID-19 tracking databases, ”so they can monitor local outbreaks.” The students will “track and identify growth trends and whether we are locally ‘flattening the curve.’”
Like so many teachers, Ng has found that with all the new platforms and technology, “it does get overwhelming.” But she adds that it’s also exciting to be thinking once again so carefully about how she teaches. “Distance Learning has really forced me to look and explore alternative ways to deliver instruction and engage my students.”
February 2019 Honoree Matt Buchanan has done some self-examination, too, and realized that he’s got to change his style: “Teaching a class online makes me hyper-aware that if I ‘drone on’ at all I’ll be losing students.”
Buchanan is the English department chair at La Lumiere school in La Porte, Indiana. He says that in the few short weeks he’s been at it, he’s developed several strategies for keeping his students engaged as they work through Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby.
He’s dabbled in podcasting and moved his weekly newsletter online. His students are writing poetry in the online “comments” section. Basically, he’s willing to try “anything you can do to recreate the magic that happens when students and teachers share ideas.”
Great teachers everywhere are rising to the challenge.
Although he’s adapting to teaching online, “The classroom has been my home for over 20 years,” says Buchanan. “Teaching from my home office isn’t the same — nor will it ever be.”
As the shutdown has lengthened and the time students are spending away from their routines and friends and teachers grows, many schools are emphasizing the importance of helping students cope with their fears and anxieties.
Long before COVID-19, the emotional well-being of her students was a priority for Tomiko Ball, the April 2017 Honoree. Each day, with her first-graders at Brightwood Education Campus in Washington, D.C., she shared with them after recess a “mindful minute.” It’s a little pause in the day for the students to calm down and take a breather while they watch a soothing video — often a nature scene.
With all the upheaval in their lives, she’s preserving that daily routine in her online teaching. “During our Zoom class time,” she says, “I have a ‘pause’ section, where I pull up a relaxing video that shows the waves and the water.” It’s an important reminder, she says, to the children “that there are some things that are still under their control — that we can take ourselves somewhere virtually, just to give ourselves some calm,” Ball explains. “They’ve gotten used to it, and it’s calming for me, too.”
For Jeremy Schlitt, the January 2020 Honoree, very little of what he did in class before the shutdown translates into an online setting, and he’s been forced to make radical changes.
“Teaching woodworking online is obviously difficult,” says Schlitt, who’s taught cabinetmaking and other technical courses for years at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wisconsin. There was no way that his students, in their homes, can replicate the work they do in the school’s massive woods lab, with its planers, band saws, lathes, and computerized cutting machines.
So Schlitt came up with an idea he’s calling “reverse woodworking.” Instead of starting from scratch to design and build a piece of furniture, he’s created an assignment where students choose one that already exists, and work backward from there. They’ll choose an item in their home, describe its form and function, measure its dimensions, sketch it using a variety of drawing techniques, and then develop a plan for how they would build it, and the materials they’d need.
It’s a great lesson, and he’s doing what he can to keep students engaged. Do they like it? “That’s the difficulty of teaching online; you don’t have the chance to really see students’ reactions like you would in a face-to-face classroom.” His students are completing the work, he says, “but I know they would much rather be in the lab working with their hands.”
“I’m trying to invigorate my freshmen and sophomores: ‘Don’t check out, man. You still are trying to build into something.’”
When it’s all said and done, Schlitt knows how much stress and anxiety and fear they’re feeling, and how important it is to stay in touch and keep the lines of communication open.
“Give students grace. You have no idea what their home lives are like and what they are going through,” he says. “I am trying to give as much feedback as I can and I’m asking how they’re doing.”
Those same kinds of concerns are keeping Adelina Vargas, the August 2018 Honoree, awake at night. “I worry about them constantly,” Vargas says of her students at Thomas J. Rusk Middle School in Dallas.
In her dual role as teacher and instructional coach, the uncertainty of not knowing how her students are doing, and the daily task of phoning parents, in some cases to let them know their kids are at risk of failing, “takes a heavy toll on my heart and mind.” Vargas is a parent herself, and knows how difficult and complicated this is for families. “I know I must be very understanding and patient. It can be overwhelming with all the information being sent at the same time.”
For Tanya Barrios, the July 2019 Honoree, the challenges facing parents are also a huge concern. She teaches special education at Prosper High School in Prosper, Texas, and these days, she is the district’s transition teacher for students who are 18 and older. These are students who have completed grades 9-12, but still have learning needs and require someone to look after them for their health and safety.
Though they’re not in school now, her students are working on their goals, including communication, making choices, following a schedule, completing a task and other activities. At home, they can help with the dishes or household chores, or choose what they’d like to eat, and they can get outside for walks.
But “they don’t really understand why they are stuck in the house all day.” And this has forced their parents, Barrios says, to “confront the issue of what will happen to their child when they finally ‘age out’ of the program.”
In Santa Maria, California, many of the families who haven’t lost their jobs are working in the fields. It’s an agricultural region, and some of the students sent home when Pioneer Valley High School shut down have gone to work, too. Others “are day care for their siblings,” says Kevin Ilac, the November 2018 Honoree.
“I worry about [my students] constantly….It takes a heavy toll on my heart and mind.”
For Ilac, a big struggle so far has just been keeping track of them, and staying in touch.
“Everyone’s always talking about equity, but this pandemic has really brought this issue to the forefront to educators to explain exactly what that means,” he says. How are you reaching your students? I asked him. “We’re trying everything,” he says, “any kind of contact.” Zoom classes. Phone calls. Anything.
But one of the main tools that teachers like Ilac — who coaches tennis and wrestling — use to engage with students is gone: The extracurricular activities that for so many kids are a lifeline to school.
“When it came down that sports were cancelled for the rest of the year,” Ilac says, “it was like seeing their souls get crushed — they didn’t know what to do with themselves.”
And so he’s trying to keep those connections alive, wherever he can. “Even if it’s engaging with one or two kids” on any given day, he says. It’s all about “trying to find those little moments of happiness to build on.”
The seniors, he says, know they need to focus in order to graduate. But the younger students? “I’m trying to invigorate my freshmen and sophomores: ‘Don’t check out, man. You still are trying to build into something.’”
Isabel Renteria, the September 2019 Honoree, feels grateful for the support of her parent community in Visalia, California, in the state’s central valley. “My students are reading to me over the telephone because our district doesn’t allow us to use platforms like Zoom. My parents are phenomenal and are stepping up to become teachers. I have over 120 photos of the students learning at home so far.”
Some teachers are finding comfort and support — remotely, of course — from their district and their colleagues. “My team has a great attitude,” says Adelina Vargas, “and it is nice to have a group of educators to talk about these issues.”
Qiuhong Zhang, the March 2018 Honoree, is reaching out as well. She’s been joining webinars with colleagues across the country. Along the way she has picked up great ideas for tools and techniques she can use to make online learning more meaningful.
Zhang teaches Mandarin Chinese at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Zhang says those first days of distance learning were the hardest. “I was nervous that I couldn’t hold the students’ attention.” Some weren’t showing up, or didn’t complete their assignments.
“That's the difficulty of teaching online; you don't have the chance to really see students' reactions like you would in a face-to-face classroom.”
But pretty soon, they got in the groove, and so did their teacher. On the day I heard from her, she told me, “a half hour ago, when I finished an IB oral exam/assessment with a senior student, we had a very happy and relaxed chat.” And in mid-April, eight of her students competed in Wisconsin’s annual Chinese Language Speech Contest, which was moved online. “We achieved one first place, three second places … and two third places!”
For Tomiko Ball, that kind of joyful moment comes when the students share their artwork: “There’s nothing sweeter than getting on a Zoom, and a student has drawn a picture of me, or the whole school, and holds it up to the screen. Those things are so touching.”
Rachel Mandrelle, the June 2019 Honoree, has in some ways turned the corner, too. She teaches third grade at Williams Elementary School in Jonesville, Michigan. And when I reached out to her, it was one of the good days.
“I had a virtual meeting this morning with my class,” she told me. “Not everyone was able to attend at that time, but it was wonderful to see their faces.” She told the class what a good job they had done on the online math question she had posed to them, and how proud she was of them. Then they told jokes “and laughed and made those connections that we had been missing.”
The meeting ended, though, with a question-and-answer session that brought Mandrelle to tears. One of the girls asked her, “Are we really not going to be in class anymore?”
Mandrelle struggled to respond, and finally answered: “Yes, when you go back to school, you will be a 4th grader.”
That student “was the last one to leave the meeting. She didn’t want the time to end. I was crying with her by that point and tried to give her a virtual hug.”
That, she says, is the hardest part of all of this. “I know she needed a hug, but I was unable to provide that to her. I knew what my student needed, but I COULDN’T help her.”
I asked her what lessons she’s drawing from these experiences; what advice she’d have for other teachers going through these same difficult moments.
Mandrelle says the most important task is to look after your students’ mental and physical health, to ask how they’re doing, and to stay in touch and be there for them.
“They will never get another year with you. Laugh with them. Remind them that you love them. That is what they will always remember.”
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