From Here to There: Trials and Tribulations of Teaching During COVID-19

Course: United States History

Department: Social Studies

Institution: Constellation Schools

Instructor: Samuel Hayest

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 100 8th grade students

Digital Tools/Technology Used: History Alive, TCI, EdPuzzle, Khan Academy, Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Meet

Author Bio: Samuel Hayest is a fifth year educator with Constellation Schools, teaching Social Studies. He is a graduate of Cleveland State University and holds degrees in Social Studies and History. He uses an eclectic teaching style combining primary and secondary sources with hands-on activities to meet the learning needs of all students. He believes that a student’s learning potential can be maximized through routine, rapport, and open communication.

From Here to There: Trials and Tribulations of Teaching During COVID-19

In college, education professors, advisors, and mentor teachers always tell you to “expect the unexpected.” They usually mean fire drills, off topic conversations, or technology mishaps. If anybody told me that I would be teaching students during a pandemic, I probably would have laughed until I cried. Sure, there have been pandemics in the past: SARS, Swine Flu, and Ebola, all in my lifetime, but life proceeded as usual through those, and I remained
unaffected by them. Fast forward to January 2020, and my students are tired of hearing about Coronavirus and how it is changing life in China as it spreads like wildfire. If they knew that the day before Spring Break would be the last time we all saw each other, maybe they would have taken it a little more seriously. Governor DeWine closed schools the weekend before my students were due back to class. What follows is an examination on some of the struggles both
staff and students faced in the weeks and months that followed, and how we worked together to overcome them.

In the immediate aftermath of DeWine’s orders, our school began making plans on how teachers would attempt to continue the learning process. Our building houses grades seven through twelve, and middle school (grades seven and eight) followed a different plan than the high school. For the middle school, all teachers were required to compile 15 days worth of lessons for students. These lessons could not cover new material, could not be digital, and
needed to be able to be modified for students with accommodations. Twelve teachers were given three full work days to get “Blizzard Bags” ready for 200 students. As it became more apparent that students were not coming back to finish out the school year, the administration was faced with the same difficult question every one of the 619 other districts were trying to answer: how exactly do we keep teaching kids when we are not with them for eight hours a

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

There were many factors that went into the decision between synchronous learning and asynchronous learning. Many families have multiple students in the building, as well as siblings in other buildings in the district. It would be impossible to have every student logging on at the same time every day. Another factor administrators had to consider was student commitments outside of school. In a school with a wide array of different backgrounds, we needed to be
aware that some students had other responsibilities, such as caring for siblings while parents or guardians were at work. These factors, plus feedback from parents helped determine that the asynchronous route was the way to go. Parents expressed students being overwhelmed from the sheer volume of work being assigned at one time, and in an attempt to relieve the stress, the district decided to give the students the opportunity to work at their own pace. In order to make that decision work, teachers worked with building administrators to come up with a set of guidelines and expectations for both students and staff. From scheduled weekly staff meetings, to newsletters and regular due dates, staff and students had a clear idea of what to expect during the duration of the shutdown.

Once a decision was made about how to teach our students, we were then given guidelines that changed over time, regarding exactly what we could and could not teach students. In the beginning we were told not to assign new content to students, which meant
continued review of a unit on the Constitution that students started in late January. The first week of April, we were told to start moving forward with new content, as long as students were not being taught “new skills.” In an effort to prepare students for high school, I had a meeting with the History department to review standards and pick the “Top Five Moments in History” to really focus on so students had a base knowledge going into freshman year. Another hurdle
was making sure that the work assigned was not too overwhelming and could easily be completed over the course of the week.

How Do I Fit an Entire Quarter into Six Short Weeks?

With all of this in mind, I set forth to cover as much American History as possible. Each week, students were assigned two tasks: a review of the previous week’s topic and a new topic. Each week’s work could be completed in 20-40 minutes and gave a general overview of a topic, as opposed to a week’s worth of 60 minute lessons that really dug into a topic or event. Instead of a lesson on how American culture had progressed in the years between 1800 and the Civil War, I had to make sure students could name key accomplishments of early Presidents and explain how they helped mold American foreign policy.

After setting expectations and designing a streamlined course for six weeks, the next obstacle was figuring out how to hold students accountable. After much discussion, we decided to model after other online classes: work assigned at a set time on Monday (8:00 am, when our school day starts) and due at 11:59 pm on Sunday. This gave students the flexibility to get the work done when they could, and gave a sense of routine. Assignments were posted in Google Classrooms, accompanied by a video like this one explaining what students were expected to complete each week. Teachers also utilized a Google Doc that updated each week to give students a place to see all their work at once.

To Grade or Not To Grade

Now that work was assigned, we needed to tackle how this work would be graded. ProgressBook has different assignment categories, where do we put these assignments: are they classwork or homework? The administration felt it was best to assign the work as “classwork” in ProgressBook as this category had the least amount of weight on student grades. Students could turn work in at any time, teachers were to mark assignments as “missing” and then go back and update once they were turned in. No penalties were to be given based on how late an assignment was, as long as students were doing work, we were happy. As far as actually grading the work, we were told to avoid grading based on completion, but to also be lenient on correct answers.

As the fourth quarter progressed, students and parents started asking about just how this work would be impacting their overall grade. Many students at our school move on to take honors classes in high school, and were concerned about their overall GPA. After much deliberation, students and families were told at the start of May that due to the wild circumstances the world was living in, the work for fourth quarter would not impact their overall grade for the year. The administration stressed that learning was still going on, and the material covered in the last weeks of school was crucial to success in high school. Students that were in danger of retention had meetings on a case by case level to determine if they were progressing in light of the circumstances. After students and parents caught wind that the work did not have any real bearing on their GPA, student participation significantly fell. Students who never had a missing assignment slowly stopping to put forth the same level of effort, and some just stopped doing work altogether.

Virtual Learning Without Technology

To further complicate matters, there were restrictions on technology. At the start of Spring Break, students were told to leave their school issued laptops at school. Approximately 85% of students brought their laptops home. Those who left their laptops at school were not allowed to pick them up. When parents asked for an explanation, the board response was that students were told to leave them at school, and that giving them out risked potentially spreading infection and complicated laptop collection at the end of the school year. This decision was made based on the assumption that the majority of students already had their laptops or could access their work via cell phone or tablet. Teachers were told to have paper copies or equivalents available for students who did not have Internet access at home. Teachers were also restricted on how they could teach material to students. We could not use “new websites,” even if it was one students were already familiar with. The school’s Tech Department compiled a list of “approved websites” that teachers could use in addition to their curriculum.

It was time to get creative. Worksheets that were formerly handed out in person were converted to PDFs and then inserted into the background of Google Slides so that students could complete them. Khan Academy videos like this one were embedded into articles.
Students were assigned EdPuzzles and IXL lessons to reteach past concepts. Teachers Pay Teachers saw a significant resurgence in popularity among coworkers as we scrambled to find ways to teach that did not rely on students just simply reading a textbook and filling out a worksheet.

From “See You After Spring Break” to “See You Next Year!”

The biggest challenge staff and students faced was simply losing each other. There are students who look forward to school not for the learning, but because of the safety school offers from the harsh realities of their lives. In the blink of an eye, that was taken from them. A week-long break turned into a six month vacation. For some students, that was a dream, for others it was a nightmare. Eighth grade students were doubly affected by this: canceled spring activities, clubs, dances, graduation ceremonies, and most importantly: the Washington D.C. trip. Students missed seeing each other in the hallways and classrooms, and some noted that they missed certain classmates they only hung out with at school. For teachers, and I am sure I am not the only one: as time went on I missed the kids more and more.

Like every other challenge though, we found ways to adjust and cope. I held weekly “Fireside Chats” with each of my classes: one hour a day where each class could come and hang out, and catch up. One week we found online Scrabble games to play. Another week we had a discussion about our favorite movies. Pets made guest appearances. Teachers also had one on one tutoring sessions with students, and we sent out weekly updates in video and email format. One teacher asked the kids to email another teacher with a random animal fact. In all of the seriousness, we found ways to be silly and share a few good laughs.

A Spotlight on Students

Through all of this, the majority of students never missed a beat. Some students even excelled during the time at home. There were students who struggled to complete work on time that suddenly were turning in assignments early, finished, and done correctly. Highly motivated students had work completed by noon on Mondays, and most of the class had work turned in by Friday. Students helped the teachers as much as the teachers helped the students. They were patient when technology did not work according to plan, they sent inspirational emails and memes, and they supported each other. During class wide Google Meets , there were many times where students broke out of their cliques and talked to students who they usually would not hang out with. Though we were separated, it felt like the classes were closer together than ever.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is hard to predict just where education will be once fall arrives. Given the resurgence of outbreaks in June of 2020, it is outlandish to expect the school day to be anything close to “normal.” Given the experiences at the tail end of this year, I believe that schools should start the year with students on alternating schedules in cohorts. Teachers should be given a few days at the start of the year to get students familiar with course expectations, resources, and
routines. Once students have been logged into online curriculums and various platforms, learning should continue on rotating schedules, with social distancing practices in effect. Teachers should rotate from room to room to minimize potential spread, and students should remain in their homeroom classroom for the duration of the school day. While getting students back to school and continuing the learning process is crucial to their success, the health and safety of everyone needs to come first.

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