How do our teachers cope with distance learning yet stay connected to their students during the extended quarantine? Columnist Amy Weisberg, who teaches transitional kindergarten and kindergarten at Topanga Elementary Charter School, shares her experience and those of her fellow teachers.
When we left our classrooms at Topanga Elementary Charter School on Friday, March 13, for what we thought was a two-week “lockdown,” we had no idea that we would not be in the same physical location, together with our students again this year.
Our classrooms are frozen in time, where our calendars remain on March 13. Books and workbooks are still in desks or cubbies, our desks stacked with work in progress, and the walls and windows adorned with the artwork of our students. School, as we knew it, would not resume this year. Teachers, students and parents faced the reality that the most important thing, the human connection we build at school, somehow had to be maintained from a distance, virtually.
I expressed my concern to LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner about the social-emotional impact on our students (not to mention teachers and parents) and the need to find a way to reconnect with this group of students before they move on to their next grade and class. We all will need closure. He responded to me within an hour:
“I’m hoping we can find a way to help restore the human connections for all of our students,” Beutner wrote. “We sometimes forget, amongst our focus on the 3Rs, that which is most essential for all children: to feel safe, secure and connected.”
The prompt and sensitive response gave me a glimpse into the humanity behind the daunting job of, as has often been said, “building the airplane while flying mid-air.”
Teachers had to adjust extremely quickly to a new kind of teaching and learning that for many of us is unfamiliar and to others, overwhelming.
I teach transitional kindergarten and kindergarten (TK/K); my students are five and six years old. They crave connection with their teachers and classmates and really miss the physical classroom itself. It is heartbreaking to think that we won’t share that space anymore. Teachers are flexible and what we care about most is our students.
The last week before spring break was filled with professional development provided by LAUSD meant to help us learn how to be successful at distance teaching. I began having Zoom meetings with my class twice a week and monitored the work they completed online through a site I have used in class all year for reading, Lexia Core 5, as well as new sites offered free to the District (for this emergency): IXL for math and language arts, and Zearn for math. I offered a menu of learning options on my class website including science, social studies, and additional fun learning games.
The District recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for TK/K, so I also offered alternate learning activities on grids with subject/day sections that include art, music and creative writing. After spring break, I will expand to PBS Socal activities that are based on favorite literature and age-appropriate shows.
“I miss the children, the hugs and smiles. I miss interacting with parents every morning and afternoon. I miss watching the children proudly learn something new and complete their work independently. I am grateful for connections through technology, but it’s the human element that I miss the most.”
Mrs. Linda Kort, Kindergarten, uses email to connect with the parents of her students. They get together on Zoom each day at 11 a.m., where they share class assignments as well as art, music and nature assignments. About 90 percent of her students are participating and have their workbooks at home. She is also reading stories to her class, sending a video of herself reading aloud to her students and has a journal prompt about the stories she reads. The most difficult thing for Mrs. Kort is not being with her kids physically. She misses their interactions and the varied personalities. Many of her students are shy or inhibited on Zoom. “It is challenging for the parents, too, who are taking over the teacher’s role and are being asked to do something that is not in their realm,” she said. “This too shall pass.”
Mrs. Moria De La O, First Grade, started a Google classroom to organize some optional distance learning materials, assignments, and projects. She has been using Zoom to check in with her class, reading stories aloud, and teaching short lessons. She has also video-taped a lesson or two as well.
She is providing a wide range of options for her students and has enjoyed discovering interesting resources to share, connecting with her students and getting to teach, “even if it’s in short, odd bursts.” She says she is grateful that she is healthy, as are her friends and family and that their incomes, so far, have been unaffected by the pandemic. It has been challenging figuring out unfamiliar technology and not being able to reach some students and their families. She has had to balance her life and the stress of having her own twin first graders who also need to participate in distance learning.
“Navigating this new normal is incredibly challenging and stressful,” she said. “I see how my own children (and family) are struggling and I hope I can ease the stress a bit for my students and their families. Kids feel safer when they have structure and routine, so I hope I can help set-up a structure and routine within this frustrating, scary time or, at the very least, get to see my students virtually as a comfort and stress relief for us all.”
Mrs. Julie Tobisman, First Grade, is using online sites that her students can access remotely and Google Slides with work to either print out, or that students can type on directly, leaving the choice up to each child’s parents. She assigns written work such as, “go outside and find an insect camouflaged, then draw it and write about it.”
For Mrs. Tobisman, the frustrating part of the distance learning experience is learning how to adapt to new things that weren’t supposed to be done solely via distance or online learning. She misses the person-to-person interaction, being able to see the kids and know by their face if it’s a good day or bad day. She misses hearing, “Oh, I get it now!” Some of the positives have been getting things done around the house and spending time with her own family. She quotes Cecily Myart-Cruz of UTLA, who posted: “One month, two months, six months, one year from now you won’t say to your students, ‘You should have learned this…’ or ‘Usually we would be doing that, but….’ Instead say, ‘Here’s where we are. It’s a perfect place to start.’”
Ms. Kathryn Appell, Second Grade, is using virtual worksheets, reproducible curriculum materials and online sites. She encourages her students to keep their bodies moving and sends out different challenges to her students.
She enjoys technology, so it has been fun experimenting and learning more. She looks forward to applying some of this new knowledge when back in the classroom. Miss Appell said she misses being with her students face to face and though Zoom is helpful, it is not the same. She misses seeing the children interact and having those teachable moments in the classroom. She likes this quote: “I will teach you in a room, I will teach you now on Zoom, I will teach you in a house, I will teach you with my mouse, I will teach you here or there, I will teach because I care.”
Mr. Roger Harrell, Third Grade, is jumping on the technology bandwagon using Google Classroom and Parent Square to communicate with his students and parents. He is holding Zoom meetings four times a week, reading Charlotte’s Web to his students. They have spelling tests and write essays, work they usually do in the classroom. Mr. Harrell sent home some of the books his students were working in.
“It was really hard the second week, when I had to figure it all out,” he said. “I’m really grateful I’m getting paid through all this. I feel lucky. I’m glad that the parents are all giving us a break on this for a while. We’re all learning.”
Mrs. Kelly Welch, Third Grade,uses Lexia for reading, Freckle.com for reading and math, Zearn.com for math and SeeSaw for students to connect and present their work, all focusing on foundational skills. She has Zoom meetings with her class on Mondays and Fridays to check in and to share. Students brought an animal to share (real or stuffed) to their first meeting.
“I’m grateful we have the technology to connect, but it doesn’t replace meeting and sharing in our learning community at school,” Mrs. Welch said “Topanga teachers in conjunction with teachers across the country have shared websites, platforms, and materials to support one another as we transitioned to online learning.”
Ms. Rebecca Brotman, Fourth Grade, is assigning fun projects to work on including California mission research projects, Rube Goldberg projects, and art projects. She is following the language arts and math curriculum with videos and worksheets, and for practice, she is having her students work on IXL and Newsela websites.
Ms. Brotman said she enjoys the Zoom meetings most because she thinks it is very important for her students’ social-emotional wellbeing at this time. The lows for her are dealing with a multitude of different expectations. She wants to scale back on assignments, but some students seem to enjoy having a lot to do. She is also trying to learn to time manage at home. “I always have the urge to answer an email when it comes in, even if it is after 10 p.m.
“Overall, I am enjoying online teaching, but it definitely does not replace classroom instruction. For some students the online curriculum works really well, while for others, it is clearly a struggle for both students and their parents. I think we all have to take a deep breath and relax and know that it is okay to read a book or practice on IXL instead of stressing about assignments.”
Ms. Misty Harlow, Fourth Grade said she feels like she is still learning what is working best for her students as they have a variety of learning styles. For math instruction she is using a combination of Zearn and Eureka math videos that go with the textbook they brought home. She doesn’t have the proper resources at home to conduct live lessons, but she is working on it. The children have done some close reading from the booklets they took home and they have had class discussions about theme and point of view, based on video resources. She thinks the biggest low is gauging what is fair and equitable for the whole class, be it the amount of work, the type of work, or grading.
Some of the benefits? “My commute is awesome! I get to go to work with my pets and they always make me happy! I know that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and pressured. Teachers all across the country are feeling the same way, so it’s nice to share in that feeling.”
Mrs. Sondra Tapper, Fifth Grade, uses Schoology with her students, as they were familiar with the platform and had used it all year. She uses Zoom every day from 10-11 a.m., for instruction and discussions and then is online again at 2-2:30 p.m. to answer questions about assignments and assigns work daily including math pages, social studies, reading, and writing. Mrs. Tapper said she has enjoyed learning new technology skills such as how to upload assignments, scan items and post videos.“This has been a very challenging time to balance teaching, being a mother and teacher to my own children. When this is over, we will come out of it with a much deeper appreciation for our school and being in front of our students daily. We will also be skilled masters at integrating technology into the classroom.”
Dr. Gina Amenta-Shin, Fifth Grade, uses Google Classroom to post a daily “Morning Message” on the “Stream” page with her students and sends a daily message to parents via ParentSquare. On the “Classwork” page she posts individual assignment directions, links to resources, video demonstrations and interactive activities students complete and turn in online. Students ask questions and make comments in discussion forums. Every day, students have a new reading and math assignment. In addition, they write in their online journal and log their independent reading on a Google form. Each day they have a science lesson or a social studies lesson to complete.
Students can also see their grades on Google Classroom. On Tuesday and Thursday students participate via Zoom in a PE lesson led by our resident fitness expert and parent, Mike Heard. Dr. Amenta-Shin hosts this Zoom session and participates in some of the activities while monitoring student interactions.
“I am trying to keep online learning as simple as possible because families are in different situations. One student is trying to do everything on his mother’s cell phone. I am impressed with how quickly my students have become fluent communicators and online collaborators. The first week was exhausting for everyone, but now, we have a routine and parents are supervising when students are online, providing a space for students to work from home, and helping with assignments when needed. None of this could be successful without parent support.”
TECS Principal, Mr. Kevin Kassebaum has been supportive and helpful as our school community has transitioned to distance learning. He is our link to the District and meets with us regularly via Zoom to coordinate efforts and assure that all students have a device to access the Internet and that we are in contact with all students.
“We at Topanga Elementary Charter School, have been working together as a team to ensure that learning continues and the school community stays connected. Our teachers have willingly taken on the challenge of rapidly scaling up online learning programs for their students,” Kassebaum said. “I commend them for their grit, resilience, and flexibility during these changing circumstances.”
By Amy Weisberg M.Ed. *With contributions from TECS teachers