Challenges of distance learning Part 1
Spanish teacher Lisa Ferguson explains how distance learning works at Shasta High School. She describes some of the challenges and solutions.
Mike Chapman, Redding Record Searchlight
Lisa Ferguson never thought she’d see the day her students would wish they were back in the classroom.
In her 24 years of teaching, she’s heard kids say they love her class. She’s heard them say her class is fun. But when distance learning was imposed last year, it was the first time she heard her students say they wish they could be back in class every day.
“A heartfelt appreciation for what we do has never come out directly like that,” she said. “I was like, ‘You guys, a year ago, would you ever in your life believe you were asking for real school,’ and they were like, ‘No way, senora. That would have been weird!”’
As the start of school nears in the third week of August, Ferguson is one of three teachers who shared what teaching during the pandemic was like and what they’re looking forward to in the fall.
Ferguson is an intermediate Spanish teacher for freshmen and sophomores at Shasta High School. In 2020-21, she spent a lot of time converting her in-class lessons online. To prepare for this fall, she’s spending her time adjusting her curriculum based on what she learned last year.
There were times when she felt like she was running in circles to adapt to the hybrid schedule, she said. But in the process, she learned new ways to teach her students that worked better for them.
“I felt like there were a lot of good things that came out of last year that probably won’t be replicated this year,” she said.
Bigger isn’t always better
Ferguson and her students loved the reduced class sizes, she said. Students were split into two different groups and alternated the days they came to school. That meant Ferguson’s class of 30 to 36 students shrunk to a class of 13 to 15.
Kids felt safer asking questions and taking risks because the classes were so much smaller, she said. They got to know each other and were less embarrassed to talk in class. When they were absent, their classmates noticed.
“Discipline problems disappeared, and you couldn’t not participate because it would be noticed,” she said.
When the district brought all students back to campus full time after spring break, Ferguson’s classes didn’t want the other groups to join, she said. They didn’t want their classes to get any bigger.
“I think kids have a much better appreciation for school in general and their teachers in particular,” Ferguson said. “There were some very good things that came out of last year that I’ll be sad to see gone.”
Success in the classroom
Still, hybrid learning did bring its challenges, Ferguson said. Her students admitted they didn’t do any learning at home and waited to get to class to do their work. Her students missed out on lots of group learning and activities like the first semester project, Fiesta Day, when they make and bring food to class.
Ferguson is looking forward to doing things in class she couldn’t last year. Something as mundane as seating flexibility to make the class more functional excites her now. She’s rearranging the room from last year’s rows and seating kids in groups of two, three and four, she said.
Partner work, learning games and group activities necessitate movement and proximity.
“I think the unanimous decision was we learn better when we’re in class with our teachers. I guess that’s what I’m looking forward to, is that kids have the very best opportunity for success again and they realize that,” she said.
Teachers get jitters too
Jen Morgen, a teacher at Turtle Bay School, shared a similar outlook. Morgen alternates between teaching kindergarten and sixth grade, and says she’s looking forward to allowing her students to collaborate and share.
The start of a new year can mean first-day jitters for teachers, not just students, she said. Around the time of going back, she feels a lot of anxiety.
Just like kids have a summer backslide, so do teachers, she said. Morgen doesn’t know what grade she’ll be teaching yet, but she’s looking forward to decorating her classroom, she said.
Last year, she surveyed her sixth graders and learned they wanted to have a more colorful class. The sixth graders said the class seemed too “sterile” and needed some color.
Morgen had removed some decorations to make sure the class arrangement complied with the Department of Public Health guidelines, she said.
This year, she’s going to add more art on the wall. It’ll be eye-grabbing, educational material; wall art.
She also loves to celebrate what the kids did over the summer. It’s something she does to get to know her students, she said. Even if the student did nothing but stay home and level up on an old video game, she said.
At the end of the day, when she’s back in the teaching seat and her nerves have calmed, Morgen is just happy to have her kids in class and looks for exciting ways to teach the curriculum through art and science activities that get them to use their hands, she said.
New school year is special
“We found out that a teacher’s heart never changes,” said Kristin McElvain, an eighth-grade teacher at Turtle Bay.
The No. 1 goal has been to serve students, and teachers have grown stronger in that, she said.
After the unpredictability that came with starting school in fall 2020, McElvain said it feels good knowing she’ll be returning to a class full of students in August and seeing them every day in person.
“There is definitely something special about the start of a new year … I am excited to start this next school year strong,” she said.
Nada Atieh is a Report For America corps member and education reporter focusing on childhood trauma and the achievement gap for the Redding Record Searchlight. Follow her on Twitter at @nadatieh_RS. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today! And if you are able, please consider a tax-deductible gift toward her work.