July 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Remote Learning: How Educators and Families Are Coping

Part 1

Dining room tables are now student desks, backyards are now playgrounds and kitchens are now school cafeterias. As families and teachers all around the region begin adjusting to online schooling, they find themselves tackling new obstacles such as navigating unfamiliar digital platforms and keeping children engaged in their lessons despite many at-home distractions.

On Thursday, March 12, County Executive James Tedesco ordered the closure of all Bergen County schools and, a few days later, Gov. Phil Murphy gave the order that every school in the state be closed by Monday, March 15. New York City also closed its schools by that same day, while Mayor Bill De Blasio predicted that they might not reopen for the rest of the year.

So began the massive transition into online learning. For teachers, this provoked some anxiety and concern over how to maintain the same quality of education and connection they were fostering in the classroom.

D.T., who has been teaching for two years at a charter school in the Bronx (and asked that only her initials be used to protect her privacy), is concerned about her first graders, many of whom don’t have access to the same technology that they had at school, which would greatly impede on their opportunity for online learning.

Her school, like many others, uses tablets and laptops as a tool for learning, and while the majority of her 23 students have access to computers and WiFi at home, there are about six or seven students who only have access to cell phones, and therefore have to listen in over the phone for their daily lesson.

“They can’t see us. They can’t see what page we’re on,” D.T. said. “We can’t use visual aids, or know for sure that they’re keeping up.”

D.T.’s school is planning on sending tablets home to families after its spring break in mid-April.

Keeping students engaged can be hard enough while they’re in the classroom, and the challenge of managing attendance and productivity only grows with a whole new set of distractions at home that accompany kids struggling to focus.

Before schooling launched online on March 23, she had one day (Thursday the 19) to print out take-home packets, set up Google Hangouts and call families to alert them of the technical changes. While her schedule theoretically granted her 10 days to prepare, most of her planning had to be squashed and restarted because her school was still getting new directions from the state about how to move forward. Fortunately, D.T. and other first-grade faculty were able to work together to create what the school wanted––independent practice work that stretches out one-day lessons across four or five.

Stripped of snack, lunch, recess and other classroom breaks, a virtual school day filled with independent packet work and video conferencing keeps her students occupied for three hours (a normal school day lasts more than seven hours). D.T. creates as structured a schedule as she can––her typical school day consists of the three hours divided into six 30-minute periods where she rotates teaching groups of four or five kids at a time.

That leaves the rest of the day in the hands of parents, some of whom are more involved with their children’s schooling than others. D.T. uses ClassDojo, an online teaching tool, to communicate with parents about assignments. She is also able to translate her messages into different languages––many of her students are learning English as a second language. Still, she notices that parent involvement varies. She is required to call parents at least three times a day if their child has been absent, and her principal has begun following up with parents as well.

“I have parents who have their kids logged in early and it’s a smooth process,” she said. “I have other parents who are still struggling to log on everyday.”

College professors are also struggling to keep their students engaged in their digital classrooms.

Marina Mazur, an adjunct psychology professor at a CUNY school, was nervous about teaching online, a fact she was very open about with her students.

“I very openly told them, ‘I’m just as anxious as you are because I’ve never taught an online class,” she said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for all of us. We’ll all make mistakes and figure it out as we go along.”

She had her last in-person class on Tuesday, March 10, and received an email the next day that classes would be canceled for the rest of the week to give professors time to prepare for remote learning. The school provided workshops to train teachers on how to use Blackboard, the digital academic forum where teachers and professors post quizzes, lessons and other assignments. Mazur wasn’t able to attend those workshops because she works another job and the classes offered interfered with her work hours.

Luckily Mazur was able to access digital tutorials for Blackboard, and her school administration has an open line of communication for her and other professors to access if they have any questions. With the help of her department chair, she was also able to edit her syllabus to provide step-by-step instructions for students who now need to upload all of their assignments online.

Along with transparency, Mazur values in-person connections with her students, some of whom are 19 years old, others who are in their mid-30s. She is better able to gauge how engaged her students are during a lesson, and if she senses they’re not, she asks them how to better hold their attention. Over video conferencing, she can only access a few faces at a time (she has a class of about 40 students).

It’s harder to foster those connections over video chat, and she acknowledges that both she and her students are both susceptible to at-home distractions.

“I start every class validating that the distractions are there, and asking them to put their phones away and turn off other tabs in their browsers,” she said. “I ask them to turn their video on and I say, ‘I don’t care if you’re in bed wearing a face mask and pajamas––I need to see your face. We need to be connected.’”

In an attempt to make cheating, which is an inevitable result of having textbooks and notes within arm’s reach, less accessible during a midterm, Mazur needed to drastically change her assessments in order to prevent students from simply looking up definitions in their books to answer test questions. She used questions that instead required students to apply the definitions and facts they studied in theoretical scenarios, which lessened the usefulness of a direct textbook definition.

Mazur hasn’t yet been able to grade the midterms, and therefore assess the benefits of this change, because she has been experiencing multiple coronavirus-like symptoms and has not yet been well enough to review student’s responses. She has not needed to cancel classes though, which she views as a small silver lining to teaching while self-quarantined in her apartment.

“This is the best that we can do right now,” she said of her current predicament. She looks forward to things going back to normal. “I really miss seeing my students.”

By Elizabeth Zakaim

 

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