Teaching remotely: Long days for teachers as they work to connect with students

Janelle Retka,

May 20, 2020

Teaching in Washington state has moved online, at least for the duration of the school year, as campuses remain closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

That leaves educators looking for creative ways to connect with 55,000 K-12 students in Yakima County and guide them through coursework.ADVERTISING

Several weeks into the remote schooling system, teachers and students are settling into a new normal. Yakima Valley teachers shared a peek into how they run their remote classrooms, what lessons they plan to take back to campus when the time comes, and what hurdles still stand in the way.

This is the second in a two-part series.

Vicky Ramirez

Grandview Middle School

Vicky Ramirez, who teaches eighth grade math, said her days aren’t her typical 7:10 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. contract time in the classroom, “because that’s not working for my students.”

Her work hours stretch long, and peak hours for student activity online have been between 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Some of this is due to students helping take care of younger siblings during the day or going to work with their parents to support the family. She tries to reply promptly or first thing in the morning so students don’t fall behind.

Ramirez said she sends paper packets of work to 15 students. Another 130 do their work online. About 50 of them needed help to get set up online when remote learning began, which meant she spent about 30 minutes with each one, coaching them through how the platforms worked, she said.

Some students didn’t know how to use the caret symbol to create an exponent in algebra, while others were unaware that a slash could be used for division. Some students will email her with a question and not know to look for an email reply, she added.

“They’re good at the social media technology, and not at the learning technology,” Ramirez said.

They’re also juggling online learning for different classes, which she said can be overwhelming compared to going to a teacher’s classroom to directly ask for materials or help.

Ramirez counts herself lucky that so many of her students have access to the internet. She said 60% or more of her students borrowed a device from the school. But she said she has a handful who can’t get the internet based on where they live, or that they live with one parent with internet one week and another without the next, so they have to double up their work when they have access.

For those working from paper packets, she writes detailed notes to replace explainer videos she shares online for new mathematical concepts. Students send back pictures of their written work to be graded.

Ramirez said she misses her students, but looks forward to using some of the tools from remote learning to better reach all of her students when they return to the classroom. For now, each student’s experience is different, she said, with some asking for more work, and others struggling with time management expectations usually learned in college, rather than middle school.

“Some of them will have gaps (in their learning) and some of them will actually go further than what we would have in the classroom,” she said.

Theena Roberts — Selah High School

Theena Roberts found she couldn’t get any work done in her house, where her 2- and 3-year-old children were vying for her attention. Instead, she started waking up earlier — before they do — to go work in her garage. So her days stretch longer than usual.

Roberts teaches geometry at Selah High School, as well as pre-calculus and calculus college-in-the-high-school courses.

Across Selah High, teachers meet with two designated class periods for 30 minutes each on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They also hold one “office hour” each of those days. Students have a code to a video call and can drop in to ask questions or connect, she said.

She and fellow math teachers tag-team lesson planning for geometry, with one of her colleagues delegating the work. Roberts was in charge of making weekly video lessons for students across all geometry classes.

But her college-in-the-high-school courses are more demanding, as she continues to help students meet standards previously set by colleges so they can earn college credit.

Roberts said she makes countless videos explaining calculus concepts, plus follow-ups to help students with material they’re stuck on. She’s also available for one-on-one video conferences to talk through problems or concepts.

“It’s a lot more work than it’s ever been before to try to make sure the kids are getting everything they need to be successful,” she said.

She has a couple of students without internet access, and works with them directly to make sure they have all the support they need. Still, she said, she can’t reach all of her students. Those who are usually not engaged in school are especially challenging to reach remotely.

Of her 128 students across all subjects, she said she has 15 who have not turned anything in.

“As far as learning remotely goes — something the kids never signed on to do, something the kids have never learned how to do — I think that’s a pretty good achievement,” she said.

Remote teaching has helped Roberts zero in on what the fundamental lessons she needs to teach are and weed out excess work, she said. When the time comes to return to campus, Roberts said she’s looking forward to having these video tutorials that students can access if they are struggling in class or want to learn at their own pace.

Brad Schultz — Nob Hill Elementary, Yakima School District

Each morning, Brad Schultz wakes up and makes a video for his third grade class.

“Generally, it’s a math problem to solve that’s a real-life problem. So I might measure a tile in front of my house and go, ‘Hey, can you guys figure out what the area is,’ and they’ll communicate back and forth,” he said.

The videos are lively and goofy. Each Friday, he acts out a science experiment, which students can then replicate at home.

On top of that, Schultz uploads lessons to a learning platform each day by 8 a.m. On weekday evenings from 6:30-7:30 p.m., he hosts a video conference where students can play games like I Spy and be social. He also takes them on virtual tours, like recent trips to Disneyland and the Space Needle through videos the class watches during a video conference while he shares his screen. Schultz also invites guests like their school music teacher to join occasional calls so students can engage in some of their favorite subjects.

At 8 p.m. each night, he reads a chapter from a mystery book and gives the students a challenge to solve with their families, he said.

“I feel like I’m working around the clock, and that’s been kind of a challenge,” he said.

He does all this while juggling helping his own school-aged kids get their school work done. But with many parents of his students working during this time, he said it’s important to be available to students and be checking in on them and how they’re doing.

Some of his remote teaching ideas are from a professional development course he is taking, which helps teachers learn about resources available to them and best practices. Through that, he’s learned of programs like Padlet, a program that allows you to make a website for a class page, for example, so students have a single place to access materials and have discussions.

Schultz is also assisting two of his 26 students with paper packet work, which mirrors that online content.

He said 80% of his students are regularly engaging in the class.

“I’m pretty proud about that, because it’s pretty challenging,” he said.

With students so young, most rely on a parent to help them get online or access resources, he said. That’s one of the biggest challenges of remote teaching, he said, but he was thankful for how much parents have stepped up in the teaching process during this time. He said he doesn’t expect students to get work done every day, because everyone is experiencing the coronavirus pandemic differently.

The gaps in student learning that Schultz expects will be from less repetition than they would get in a classroom setting. But Schultz is optimistic overall, especially as he sees teachers statewide become more innovative in how they teach.

“We’re definitely going to have a new normal when next year starts. What that will look like, only time will tell,” he said. “I think kids ultimately are going to be resilient, and it’s going to surprise a lot of people.”

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