Sixth through eighth grade teachers at Hyde Park public schools are trying to overcome issues endemic to virtual instruction and position students as well as they can for success in an uncertain future.
Dawn Evans, who teaches middle school math at Bret Harte School, 1556 E. 56th St., set up Google Classroom for the four different classes she teaches and, when interviewed, had connected with 118 out of her 120 students. Remote instruction has been a learning process, and she is happy to take their input.
"That's the beautiful thing about middle school: they are willing to tell you how they feel and how things are going," she said. After her students complained that they could not write on the PDF files she uploaded, she did online training on Google Classroom's features and found a more interactive approach through the web service.
If students aren't engaging with her, she reaches out to their parents, well aware of the gap between what middle schoolers tell their parents they're up to and what they're actually doing. "That's really working, because I did a lot of (calls) yesterday, and all of the sudden I had a bunch more kids jump on and do their work," she said.
Patrick Papczun, a sixth grade math, social studies and reading teacher at Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., said a big challenge in the transition to remote learning is the absence of an ability to engage with a live classroom full of students.
"When you're teaching a class, you can right away get a sense of their engagement on an issue," he said. "With the online learning, you don't really have that luxury anymore, whether through the video conferencing not being efficient enough or just by the fact that you're not able to help with students."
Working one-on-one with a student — showing him or her how to do a specific math problem, for instance — is much more cumbersome online than side-by-side in a regular classroom. In response, he meets virtually with five to eight students in small groups from Tuesday through Friday for 30-45 minutes each day, following a class-wide meeting on Mondays.
Papczun doesn't have to mute anyone during the small groups. "We're able to more efficiently talk about the learning but also comfortably share as I teach," he said. "If we can keep our meetings to be six or seven people with our students, it allows (teachers) to have a much stronger connection to our students, and you can more efficiently buckle up the problem that you're working on."
Furthermore, Papczun said older students find online learning platforms more intuitive than younger students, using his own first and fifth grade children as an example. His middle school students can try more online platforms than elementary students, allowing them to get to more content.
"We've had more advancement in what we teach this way, how we find that it's most effective," he said. Teachers are learning to make short instructional videos for their students, freeing them from having to be online as he explains it in real time. When the small groups meet live, they discuss the problems and concepts — not "granular instruction."
Nevertheless, much has been lost in the transition to online schooling. Evans is trying to keep up with where she would be if she were teaching in a classroom — right now, her students are in a geometry unit — but she said it is not possible to keep the exact pace. She will continue teaching her sixth and seventh graders but anticipates at least 15 weeks of make-up work once classes resume in-person.
"I may be trying to give them some exposure to some of the stuff, (but) in terms of full conceptual understanding, we know that is not necessarily happening remotely," she said. "I definitely know that I'm going to have to cover these things again in more detail. I know that I'm still going to have to cover everything else within a typical seventh grade curriculum."
"I can't teach four new things a week, so I try to just teach two things a week and let them have some practice time with it," she continued. "I notice that all of a sudden because of this, they have to be a little bit more driven. Back when we were in the classroom, they knew that more was coming to them no matter what, because they had to go to school everyday. Now with this, they're like, 'The learning's not just going to come to me. I'm going to have to put in a little bit more.'"
Papczun is having trouble getting novels and other books to his students to read; asking parents to buy them gets into tricky issues of equity and fairness. Certain titles are available as PDF files or audiobooks, but the issue remains unsolved.
"Reading a PDF isn't like like a Kindle version where it's kind of a nice read," he said, referring to a popular brand of e-reader. "They're not very user-friendly. And audiobooks are different, too. If you're really working on getting your kids to read at different levels and they don't have the texts in front of them, they just have an audiobook, that's learning the story, yes. That's not them decoding and understanding the words. It's not reading."
While Evans hopes the experience will teach students the value in being self-motivated to learn, she acknowledged that the stress of the pandemic is taking a toll on them, made clear by responses to a survey question she sent to them.
"A lot of them said things like 'I just wish the world would go back to the way it was,'" she said. "Some of them were like, 'I miss you. I miss our classroom. I miss being in school.' There were a lot of comments about that. They do know what's going on in the world, but I don't think they fully understand and appreciate this."
Being around their peers is a huge part of her students' lives, and a streamed classroom just isn't the same. Evans' eighth graders are heartbroken at missing middle school graduation and other end-of-school ceremonies.
Taking classes at home is also affecting students. Evans said some have to take care of younger siblings at the expense of their studies. Parents have told her that helping their younger children with schoolwork comes easier than helping their middle schoolers.
"I definitely feel the stress of where these kids are going to be next year. It worries me, for sure," she said. Whatever seventh graders score on their standardized tests will determine where they can enroll in high school, she observed, so the missed learning is on their minds as well. Eighth graders who took her algebra class may not be able to test out of the subject, forcing them to take it again in high school.
Interviewed at the beginning of the month, Papczun said that only a few students have had health scares in their families, but he added that the ones who are having trouble keeping engaged may be dealing with more in their personal lives. At any rate, he said his students are adaptable and doing as well as they can for the times. Some are even having virtual hangouts after school.
"You're getting a better sense of what the students are really into, because it's an opportunity for them to be showing the stuff that's in their house or apartment, or in their room," he said. "They're incredibly resilient, and they seem to be coping well with what we're going through."