By Virginia Daugherty
“We teachers stay in touch and try to keep up our morale.”
“Children aren’t meant to sit in front of computers all day.”
“I’m upping my skills daily.”
“I didn’t sign up for this.”
It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and this year our local educators deserve a special shout-out as they try their best to teach under quarantine.
On Friday, March 13, local teachers learned there would be no school starting Monday, March 16. With some on-the-ball leadership, they pivoted, and thus started a peculiar kind of education.
Zoom, Google Classroom, Seesaw, MeVideo—teachers had to pick up computer programs immediately so online classes could function. Most had never done “distance teaching.” Yes, they had used technology. But not to the extent now required.
“First, I assigned all the students to make a video of themselves singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with their families,” Charlottesville High School music teacher Will Cooke says. “They laughed, but some of them really got into it, using beatboxes and tambourines.” French teacher Dorothy Carney taught Buford Middle School students how to take an online tour of the Louvre and write about a painting. At Jack Jouett Middle School, English teachers mailed a novel to 200 seventh-graders, then posted the reading assignments online, according to instructional coach Erin James. Across our school systems, and I presume the whole U.S., there’s an explosion of creativity.
Not that it’s easy. “It takes a lot more preparation and planning,” says CHS art teacher Marcelle Van Yahres. “It’s a steep learning curve,” according to Mountaintop Montessori art teacher Ginnie Daugherty. “The lighting may be bad. The background may be bad.” Reading specialist Kris Wray has to post comments for Greer Elementary School kids in 11 different classes.
The internet provides a lot of content, but much must be created from scratch. A teacher may record herself reading Abuelo and the Three Bears, post a math problem, or create a bread-making video. Making these may take 15 minutes or four hours.
At Stoney Point Elementary, Shelby White gives her preschool through first graders only an hour of work a day, half math and half literacy. “It’s overwhelming for some,” she says. Kelly Farr gives her Clark Elementary kids a weekly schedule and makes it as user-friendly as possible. Nathanael Greene Primary teacher Jennifer Murphy simply films herself for small lessons, joking “I’m 61. The younger teachers are more savvy.” Cooke can’t conduct his four real choruses, so he gives one-on-one singing lessons to 140 chorus members, grades nine-12.
Not everybody has Wi-Fi access and it’s not conducive to some activities . “Everything is different. Everyone is struggling. We had to refigure how to do everything.” Wray says. Some parents know computers, some don’t. Some parents find teaching natural, others don’t know how.”
“I was talking to a student yesterday, and he said ‘Can I call you back? I’m babysitting my little brother,’” says Cooke. “Many students are working, so they have double responsibilities. I see my students in every grocery store in town.” And many parents are in survival mode, maybe working at home, depressed over job loss, or short on food money.
Corey Borgman, English and math teacher at Mountaintop, explains that some parents cannot get onto a school-type schedule. Their children are all different ages. “They are just trying to think of fun activities, like camping in the backyard.” White says she tries to model teaching for the parents. “My Choice Boards have ideas for parents of things to do, using gross motor skills and fine motor skills, for example. Preschoolers learn through play, not just sitting at a desk.”
“I’m a huge hugger,” says Kelly Farr at Clark. “Now every Wednesday my fourth grade has Google Meet. They can see each other. We don’t work. It’s a chance to see what everybody is doing. We have dance parties!”
For all the innovation and creativity, though, there’s no getting around the loss of in-person connection. “Normally we see kids and parents and there is a lot of nonverbal communication,” Borgman says. “I cannot tell how thoroughly they are understanding now because I’m not getting that feedback.” Jennifer Murphy, at Greene, agrees. “Seesaw has feedback but it’s inconsistent. In class you’re witnessing every moment,” she says. “Also, I have ESL students, and this is not meeting their needs.”
The abrupt change to the end of the school year has been hard emotionally, too. “We didn’t get to say goodbye,” says one teacher. “I still get upset,” says another. “After our class meetings I just start to cry. We miss seeing the kids. We worry about the ones we don’t hear from.”
What is the silver lining for education in a quarantine? The Standards of Learning (Virginia’s statewide standardized tests) were postponed. “We are grateful for this return to creative teaching,” says Cooke. And Beth Gehle, a CHS social studies instructor, echoes that. “This may be an opportunity to rethink how we assess. High-stakes testing is not equitable. What is the best way to find out what students know?”
“I hope it’s an opportunity to realize what’s important,” says Wray. “We should slow down.” And James confides, “This has forced some teachers to catch up on technology.” But she adds, “I hope that kids get sick of computers.”
Virginia Daugherty is a former mayor of Charlottesville. Her daughter, Ginnie Daugherty, teaches at Mountaintop Montessori.