Jason Gilbert woke up at 5:30 a.m. Thursday and began the day in the glow of his laptop screen from his bed as he checked emails from some of his roughly 140 students.
By 7 a.m. – after his daily morning smoothie – the Lakeview eighth grade social studies teacher was sitting at his tidy desk in his family room. There, he orchestrated his virtual classroom in front of two large monitors; taking a Zoom meeting with colleagues, recording attendance and producing and editing videos ahead of that day’s lesson on Shays’ Rebellion.
By 9 a.m., his students logged on for class, some of them with their cameras turned on so he could see their faces. Before the lesson began, Gilbert asked them to share in the group chat one thing that made them happy or made them smile recently.
“I want to know what is going on with my students, I want to hear about their lives outside of school,” Gilbert said. “(I have) 45 minutes to cram in as much information as possible… It’s tough to get that banter back-and-forth with students online, it mostly happens in the chat.”
Pennfield fourth grade teacher Karin Canfield grades math tests on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 at her home in Battle Creek, Mich. (Photo: Alyssa Keown | The Battle Creek Enquirer)
As school districts throughout the region temporarily move to complete remote instruction, Gilbert and Pennfield fourth grade teacher Karin Canfield shared what the 2020-21 school year has been like on their side of the screen as virtual teachers working from home.
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“We are still doing things that are best practices as best as we can,” Canfield said. “I think that kids are going to be OK. I have some, just like any year, you have some kids in a normal year in-person who could barely read and some that are reading at middle school level. In person, we meet them where they are at to grow them. The difference is now I have 40 and I see them through a screen, so meeting them where they are at is a challenge now.”
What a virtual classroom looks like
Unlike the distance learning plans put together before the virus outbreak prematurely ended the 2019-20 school year in March, Battle Creek area school districts prepared for this unprecedented school year by creating or expanding “virtual academies” to offer more rigor for online-only students.
All school districts in the Battle Creek area offer some form of remote instruction, but only Lakeview School District has been entirely virtual during this school year. On Jan. 18, Lakeview will return all students in to in-person instruction who do not wish to remain virtual.
Following recommendations from the Calhoun County Health Department and under the emergency order by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, students who have attended in-person class at Battle Creek Public Schools, Battle Creek Area Catholic Schools, Harper Creek Community Schools, Pennfield Schools and Marshall Schools will temporarily move entirely to remote or distance learning for the first time since last spring.
Where synchronous instruction is offered, teachers and students meet virtually at a scheduled time over live video conferencing. In asynchronous learning, students work at their own pace through through email and discussion boards and do not connect directly with their instructor in real time.
Depending on what mode of instruction school districts offer – most incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous – students in the same grade level may have the same curriculum, but are learning at a different pace and from a different platform. That’s partly why most in-person students cannot simply join their virtual-only peers during the latest building closures. Additionally, families with virtual-only students made the choice to be completely online and have already arranged schedules according to adult supervision, while that remains a hurdle for in-person families temporarily going remote, particularly at lower grade levels.
Making the most of technology
Gilbert spent 10 years teaching in-person instruction at Lakeview. He attended school in the district from kindergarten until graduating in 2005.
Then the state mandated the shutdown of schools on March 16 to combat the spread of the virus. That’s when be began delivering instruction from the home he shares with his wife – a hybrid teacher in another local school district – and their cat and two dogs.
“For me it was on a personal level, it was a bummer to have to leave because my group I had last year I had them as seventh graders, so I had developed a lot of fantastic relationships,” Gilbert said. “I use technology a little bit in my classroom as it is, we were able to transition right over to doing more of a virtual format. From a curriculum standpoint, we were just getting into my favorite part of the curriculum: the causes of the Civil War. Some of that stuff can be pretty boring and I think I make it relevant to what is happening in society today so we can look at the past and make it significant for students.”
Gilbert felt increasingly comfortable in the virtual setting, which offers a creative outlet where he produces and edits his videos, adding sound effects and music to make the content more engaging. During his lesson about Shays’ Rebellion, he quoted Thomas Jefferson and George Washington by using an exaggerated accent and later broke out a verse of “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock.
One thing Gilbert said is difficult as a virtual teacher is determining the appropriate amount of work to give students, an ongoing debate in school districts across the country. He lost about 10 minutes of instruction time compared to when he taught in-person, and has had to modify or cut certain aspects of curriculum.
Gilbert has embraced the new medium, though he admittedly didn’t have as steep of a technological learning curve compared to most educators new to remote instruction.
“At the time (of the first school closure) we didn’t have much of a structure, each teacher was on an island, doing what we can do with the skill we had,” he said. “It was a lot of unknown, but at the same time, it was heartening to see how many teachers were just bending over backwards to do whatever they could.
“One thing I know about all teachers when it comes to a progression, if you can’t be flexible, you are not going to survive. We don’t really know what this is going to look like, but lets all be scientists and do this social experiment and figure out the best way to move forward and change our variables as we go to get the desired outcomes.”
‘… left my classroom frozen in time.’
Canfield was in her 10th year teaching fourth grade at Pennfield when “I was thrown into becoming a virtual teacher on March 16,” she said. “I was at school, in and out of my classroom. We knew and had heard we were going virtual for three weeks. That morning I spent time getting things ready. March 13 had half day with students and thought I would see them in three weeks and left my classroom frozen in time.”
Canfield is a team leader for fourth grade at Pennfield and one of two online-only instructors for the grade level through the district’s virtual academy. She said she is asthmatic so is considered by the Centers for Disease Control to be at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, which factored into her decision to teach virtually this school year.
Canfield and her husband, a virtual instructor for another local school district, live with their two children, an 8-year-old who attends school virtually and a 3-year-old who is watched by a relative during the day. They also added two puppies to the household in July.
Canfield’s day typically begins at 7 a.m. when she helps her son get set up for second grade, checking over his work before he logs on for class at 9 a.m. The family schedule is set up in a way where they do not have to stretch the limits of their high-speed internet bandwidth.
“We only have one day a week where my son is on a Zoom when we are also on a Google Meet. We are usually never live at the same time,” Canfield said. “When I do live teaching, I am usually in my dining room. My husband goes to our finished basement, he pre-records and posts his videos down there. When I have to be at the table, he can’t do video while I am teaching.”
Canfield said she routinely takes a late lunch or misses it entirely thanks to a morning filled with lesson planning for math, language arts, science and social studies, small group sessions and live instruction between 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. She also does troubleshooting when students are having technology issues, though that occurred more at the beginning of the school year. Her office hours are from 2:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m., then she begins recording state-mandated two-way communications – essentially attendance – by contacting parents via email, texts and phone calls.
“Usually at about 5, I start making dinner and when my kids go to bed, I am checking email,” Canfield said. “Our report cards are coming up. I typically grade on Friday nights and Saturday nights until midnight.”
Along with teaching and the day-to-day responsibilities of being a parent, Canfield has found time transform her home/classroom during the pandemic, spreading a little holiday cheer with her students by putting up and decorating her Christmas trees ahead of Thanksgiving.
Both Gilbert and Canfield were each admittedly more willing than wanting to become virtual teachers.
However, both have seen a number of positives that can be applied when they return to a more traditional classroom setting, including more technology-savvy students and a student body more appreciative of coming into school.
“I just sent an email to my parents and students at the end of the trimester and told them I have been incredibly impressed with their ability to make lemonade out of lemons,” Gilbert said. “One thing that I have internalized as a history teacher, we look back at different events in history, it is typically the events that really shock us into reality and give us a lot of perspective for what we have. The way my students have been able to work through whatever struggles they are working through and still churn out the thoughtful work they have been giving me has been incredibly rewarding. I think the students that have been engaged have shown a lot of mental and emotional fortitude and taking what life has given them.”
Canfield echoed that sentiment, saying the big takeaway from this school year thus far has been an education in “resiliency” among teachers, students and families.
“I feel like, every event has some kind of opportunity with it,” she said. “Right now we all have to be resilient and creative. All teachers had to turn on a dime on March 13, our lives changed. We re-figure out our life’s work, the kids have to do the same thing. We’ve always learned this way, now how do I do what I do?
“To be able to learn and be flexible and learn things can change, you got to go with the flow and not freak out, look for that silver lining and ask, ‘What did I learn from all of this?’ The kids are learning technology skills. Lessons can be taught in Google Classroom in just about everything. Typing is getting better. They are spending a lot of time on the keyboards. Any of those skills they are getting now they may not have had as much before. It’s a silver lining.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at [email protected] or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley
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