Imagine the organized chaos of an online gathering of 20 children, all 5 or 6 years old. A friendly, authoritative voice pierces through chatter — mostly, the eager answers to her questions —with words of encouragement, guidance and praise.
Seated at her dining room table and aided by her daughter, who is in the same room, veteran Richland Elementary teacher Pam Gernaat holds the attention of nearly all her kindergarten students. For 25 minutes, she leads them through flashcards, writing practice and show-and-tell. Children energetically demonstrate their recognition of key letter sounds and give brief accounts of a favorite stuffed animal, piece of homemade jewelry or family pet.
Pam Gernaat and her daughter
The strange and unexpected conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have moved lessons from brick-and-mortar classrooms to digital platforms. Though public officials made that decision reluctantly, most Michigan parents support it, even as their experiences with at-home learning appear to vary widely.
May 6 marks the seventh week Gernaat and other teachers at Gull Lake Community Schools, near Kalamazoo, have been providing some kind of remote instruction. They have adapted their work, to connect with their students and provide them opportunities to continue learning and maintain routines that at least vaguely resemble pre-pandemic life. It’s a real challenge facing educators across the state.
Only 14 kindergarteners showed up for the May 6 Google Meet session led by another Richland instructor, Marleigh Burris. Her lesson contained its own warmth and energy. She read a story that prompted students to offer ways they can help their families during the crisis, and guided them as they observed and drew pictures of different kinds of growing seedlings in a journal. An unexpected glitch darkened her webcam and forced her to log in from a new device, but she powered through while hardly missing a beat.
The challenge of getting everyone to sign on for a Wednesday session occurs because some parents work jobs deemed essential, and grandparents or day care workers lack the time or capability to help them log on. “It’s been a struggle,” Burris admits. But she also has taken pains to find times to connect with all her student’s families and engage them in different ways.
Both Burris and Gernaat praise school and district leaders for their support. They say Gull Lake has helped prepare them for the current moment through previous trainings in classroom technology. And their principal, they say, has been responsive to their needs and concerns, with a strong focus on student safety and learning.
No doubt many Michigan parents, attempting to balance their child’s educational needs with work responsibilities and other stresses, have a deeper appreciation for the role teachers play. It’s an especially fitting week to recognize those who are embracing creative new approaches to keep students learning during the undesirable conditions this season has brought.
The Michigan Association of Public School Academies has shared how this year’s Charter Schools Teacher of the Year finalists adapted to meet student needs after the governor closed school buildings statewide.
Among them, sixth-grade teacher Bonnie Camm told how she and her colleagues at Landmark Academy near Port Huron recognized that many of their students were not ready to just flip a switch to digital learning. Teachers “quite literally hand-delivered work packets to each and every one of our students,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to take nearly 9 hours - but those smiles were worth it.”
For some teachers and students, though, the daily educational experience has changed far less. Molly Clark is in her ninth year of teaching high school science at Michigan Connections Academy, a public charter school that provides full-time online instruction. She has gained plenty of experience directing laboratory activities from her remote teaching location. Students perform these activities either using household items on hand in their kitchens or on their computers through free software programs.
When the pandemic hit, Clark (pictured left) and her husband (who teaches middle school social studies at Connections) made a smooth transition from their Okemos office to their Owosso home, continuing to instruct and interact with students on a daily basis. She recognizes that many of her peers, including some of her friends, haven’t had it so easy. She recalls her initial challenges in teaching virtually, and also recognizes that the newest batch of online educators have had less time to make the adjustment.
“Teaching online is really different. You want to make sure that you are being mindful of what it’s like for the student,” Clark offered in advice to other educators. “Try new things, but know that if they don’t work out quite as well as they could, that you can always improve it. None of us mastered it in a couple of weeks.”
The two Gull Lake kindergarten teachers report seeing some of the fruits of that growth-oriented mindset. “As we go along, it’s definitely been easier,” said Burris. “I’m finding more tools that can help make this work.”
Gernaat is similarly hopeful that teachers like her can continue to grow into making the online classroom more effective. “There are ways you can be innovative and bring fun things into this type of learning. And I think we’re only going to get better and better at this,” she said.
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