Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Teachers reflect on remote learning experience

Delaware Public Media

The 2019-2020 school year is in the books – a year thrown into disarray in March by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

School buildings closed forcing teachers and administrators across the board to rapidly ramp up remote learning strategies to keep teaching while kids stayed home.  

Earlier this spring, contributor Larry Nagengast reported on those efforts – and the initial successes and challenges that came with them.

This week, he checks back in with teachers around the state to see how what students learned – and what they learned.

School is out … at last, and teachers, perhaps more so than students, are asking themselves – and each other – “What did I learn this year?”

With the Covid-19 pandemic putting Delaware in a state of emergency in mid-March, school buildings were closed and teachers faced a sudden transition into something that was brand new for most of them – delivering their lessons online.

“We were in their homes every morning, right in their living room,” says Maureen McDonald, a first- grade teacher at Olive B. Loss Elementary School in the Appoquinimink School District.

No matter what their grade level, students didn’t learn nearly as much in the last three months as they would have if they had been in their regular classrooms, teachers interviewed for this article agreed.

“We did the best we could with what we had,” McDonald says. “It was all emergency learning.”

“We did introduce some new materials. I was able to move forward, but a lot is lost when you’re not with the students in the classroom,” says Rebecca Kalmbach, who teaches French at Appoquinimink’s Waters Middle School.

"We did the best we could with what we had. It was all emergency learning." - Maureen McDonald, a first-grade teacher at Loss Elementary School

State and local school leaders don’t yet know what reopening will look like in the fall. Brainstorming is under way within three School Reopening Working Groups, created last month by Gov. John Carney and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting. The groups have a July 15 deadline for completing their reports.

But veteran teacher Lisa Mims has a pretty good idea of where she will start. “I think we will have to pick up from where we left off in March,” says Mims, who teaches fifth grade at Pleasantville Elementary in the Colonial School District. Even if students did make some progress this spring, she says, teachers will have to backtrack and make sure students have an understanding of what they were supposed to have learned this spring before moving into fresh material for the next grade level.

To get through the last three months, teachers had to demonstrate two characteristics that might not seem to go together well: consistency and flexibility.

They showed consistency in at least two ways: trying to replicate their students’ classroom environment as much as possible and establishing a regular online schedule for class meetings, posting assignments and conferences with students and parents.

But flexibility was also essential. Distance learning is not conducive to the hands-on work that is integral to high school science or elementary school math, so teachers had to develop alternative strategies. And the school day itself was no longer the typical 9-to-3 operation. With many students having to adjust their learning schedules to times when the family computer was available, when parents were home or when they weren’t tending to younger siblings, teachers found themselves fielding queries from students and parents late in the afternoon and into the evening.

Teaching strategies varied from teacher to teacher, by school district and by grade level.

In the primary grades, teachers say, parental support was critical, whether for help with logging onto computers, making sure the work got done or helping their children understand the day’s lessons. “We became co-teachers with the parents,” McDonald says. “They went above and beyond. This is a year I’ll never forget.”

"I looked at the pandemic and saw the brighter side of it. It's a good way for parents to be active in their child's learning." - Jenna White, teacher at the Woodbridge Early Childhood Education Center

Jenna White, a teacher at the Woodbridge Early Childhood Education Center, used Zoom meeting software to meet for about 45 minutes once a week with each of her two first-grade classes. She scheduled the sessions for different times of day because 6- and 7-year-olds usually needed help from their parents or older siblings to access the internet. “I had better success with afternoon and early evening than in the morning,” she says.

Although she had only one virtual class meeting a week, White would post a daily note with assignments for students to complete during the day. The note would include links to worksheets and reading materials. Students could do their work online or download it, take pictures of the completed pages and send it back to her for grading.

“I looked at the pandemic and saw the brighter side of it. It’s a good way for parents to be active in their child’s learning,” she says. She was impressed with the initiative some parents showed – sending her emails about books they had read to their children, or pictures of cans and construction cones as the class was learning about three-dimensional shapes.

Michelle Scarborough, a first-grade teacher at Appoquinimink’s Brick Mill Elementary, followed a similar approach, but she held a 45-minute class meeting every morning at 9, using the time to help her students develop social skills and to offer instructional snippets to introduce the students to the work they would be doing during the day. She also recorded these sessions so students who didn’t have access then could log on later in the day.

Faithe Gibson, who teaches third grade at Claymont Elementary in the Brandywine School District, encountered some challenges in getting some of her students’ parents linked up to the online learning platforms the district was using. With her students, she found it was more productive to work with groups of six to eight students rather than trying to pull the entire class together.

Theresa Wills, who teaches fourth grade at Brandywine’s Harlan Elementary, held a virtual class meeting every day, then worked on and off during the day with groups of students, much as she does in her own classroom. “The kids are used to working face to face,” she says, “so I tried to mirror what we were doing in the building.”

Mims, the fifth-grade teacher, would meet with her class via Zoom for one hour Monday through Thursday, and she was pleased that 19 or 20 of her students checked in every day. She kept that time slot open on Fridays in case students wanted individual help, but only one student took her up on the offer. She prepared a newsletter every week, sent out notes regularly and tried to encourage parents to support their children.

“I would have liked the parents to be more involved, but I don’t know what was going on in their lives,” she says. “Maybe they thought the fifth graders could do the work on their own.”

At the middle and high school levels, teachers’ primary concerns were focusing on the most essential concepts in each subject and developing lessons that held their students’ interest.

"What I missed was not being able to read their body language, being able to say the same thing six different ways so I could be sure everyone in the class understood." - Newark Charter School science teacher Tami Lunsford.

“It was difficult to engage students the way I usually would,” says Kalmbach, the Appoquinimink French teacher. While she tries to use French exclusively in her classroom, that wasn’t always feasible during Zoom sessions. “You can’t use the target language for the technology things,” she says, like asking the class “can everybody hear me OK?” or “can you see the presentation?” Also, with only one 30-minute class meeting per seek, students had little time to engage in conversations and improve their pronunciation.

Tami Lunsford, a science teacher at Newark Charter School, found it challenging to identify key themes for each lesson and boil it down into a 20-minute video presentation. “Videoing yourself is a little terrifying at first, but then I saw how well the kids responded,” she says. Her typical lesson format included posing questions for the students at the end of each session so they would know what to research as they completed their at-home assignments.

“What I missed was not being able to read their body language, being able to say the same thing six different ways so I could be sure everyone in the class understood,” she said.

The format has its pluses and minuses, Lunsford says. With recorded lessons, students can replay them multiple times to ensure they understand the concepts. However, with students working remotely, she was unable to observe how they were doing their classwork.

Tara Saladyga, an instructional technology coach at Delcastle Technical High School, said she and her colleagues found that simply moving a classroom lesson into a video format wasn’t always effective. “When we stuck to the more traditional stuff, the students weren’t as enthusiastic,” she says.

She found that giving students a free hand in how they completed their assignments kept them plugged in to the subject matter. “We tapped into their personal interests,” she says, letting them create videos or slide shows to show what they had learned.

“If they’re into art, they’ll draw a cartoon. If it’s music, they’ll write and perform a song,” she says. “When you’re teaching at a distance, that kind of thing becomes very important.”

At all grade levels, teachers said their baptism by fire in the realm of distance learning will help them improve their performance next year. At the very least, they have learned how to use new technology, giving them more tools to employ as they refine their lesson plans.

“I can use more resources. I opened up education websites and learning tools that I had never used before,” says Wills, the Harlan teacher.

“This was thrown at us, and I had to adjust, and I was able to help my kids adapt,” Mims says.

Not knowing yet what the future will hold, several teachers said they will work even harder to strengthen relationships with both students and their parents.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
Related Content