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Teachers agree: virtual classroom has its pluses, but ‘much of the joy is missing’

Reflections on teaching online during the pandemic

Editor’s note: While it’s uncertain how school will look in the fall, it is likely that online learning will be part of it. Two Kenowa Hills teachers offer their reflections here on how teaching from a distance went for them and their students this spring.  

Seventh grade teacher Cara Gregory said the quick switch to virtual instruction was a big challenge for many teachers, but it’s her students she worried about. 

“Are they OK?” wondered Gregory, who teaches language arts and English at Kenowa Hills Middle School. “Are they happy? Am I meeting their needs both emotionally and academically? At school, I had a better picture of how I was doing at serving them. Now, I feel like I’m guessing.”

Seventh grade teacher Cara Gregory, Kenowa Hills Middle School (courtesy photo)

Gregory, along with Char Hartley, a third grade teacher at Central Elementary, shared her thoughts about the adventure of distance learning — a method all teachers had to adopt this spring when schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also shared examples of how class discussions went using Zoom, a widely used technology for business and social hours among friends but which has its limits for education, they found.  

As Gregory put it, shortly before the school year ended:

  • In a classroom: “I could tell if a student was having a down day. Now, I try to pull it out of them through Zoom, emails or surveys.”
  • On Zoom: “Academically, I have to wait until I see completed work to have a real glimpse of their learning. Before, I could know in 10 seconds by interacting with them or merely looking at their work. It’s not knowing that is so hard.”
  • Bottom line: “Without face-to-face interaction with kids, much of the joy is missing. It’s that simple.”

Further, Gregory said her surveys show students reported feeling anxiety about what is ahead.

“They want to be in school – they want to be with their friends. Many of them have additional responsibilities, such as caring for siblings or helping more around the house. 

“Some of them have just been on vacation the entire shutdown,” she added, “and I worry about their transitioning back to ‘real school,’ whatever that turns out to be.” 

Char Hartley’s third grade class at Central Elementary drew a ‘mystery character’ using Jamboard so students could guess the folktale they were about to read. Carter Neilsen guesses the character, a goose (courtesy photo)

On a Positive Note 

Yet Gregory said her students turned in better quality semester-ending projects than they have in the past.

“I’m still thinking through how and why that is,” she said. “Fewer distractions? More desire to learn? I’m not sure, but I am so proud of their hard work.” 

She said she would spend the summer studying how to be more effective in engaging her students, exciting them about learning and “finding better ways to empower them online.” Teachers are collaborating on how to adjust instruction for a possible hybrid schedule come fall, she said. 

More from Cara Gregory

What are the highs and lows of using this technology?

In terms of using Google Meet or Zoom, I’m glad to get to see my students’ faces and to be able to interact with them. It’s an important way for me to know they are OK. We all get a unique glimpse into each other’s lives by seeing home environments, pets and family members. It feels the most like a real class when we are learning together online. 

I do notice that my students are reluctant to participate as much online. They don’t want to unmute their video and be seen. This might be unique to middle school. Seventh graders are great at taking risks with their learning at school, but I’m finding that they are less willing to take risks via video chat. Many of the scaffolds we use to build comfort with sharing ideas, like time to write about your thinking before you share it, or turning and talking to classmates before you share it, are missing and can’t be easily replaced.

What other techniques are you using to engage students remotely?

There is always a social element to our time together and I try to give them fun things to do. I have a video of the week for them to watch that is funny and unrelated to our content. We answer a question of the week. In our Connect classes, we just get together to check in and play games, like Kahoot or trivia. I deliver winners a treat in their mailboxes each week as a way to stay connected and have some fun. 

How has this mandatory shutdown affected you and your family?

My family is doing OK. I’m lucky that my son is a junior in high school, who is self-sufficient. I can teach uninterrupted, unlike my colleagues with young children. But he is reluctant to engage online when he knows it “doesn’t count.” Also, his school is not holding synchronous learning so he feels alone and like he’s just following directions, not learning.

I feel for all the parents out there having to push their kids to try to learn in a completely new way. I’m right there with them in the “motivating your student” department. It’s not like you can ground them. Ha, ha!

How much do you miss the live classroom?

There are not enough words to express how much I miss going to school, engaging face-to-face with my students, learning together, socializing. One real eye-opener is the lack of being able to tell if students are with you and understanding what you are teaching.

Seventh graders are full of life and enthusiasm. I miss that. Being separated has definitely sapped that vim and vigor. No teacher got into this solely for the love of their subject area. It’s about working with kids. 

Third grade teacher Char Hartley instructs her class using Zoom (courtesy photo)

Char Hartley, third grade teacher at Central Elementary

What are the highs and lows of using this technology? 

Probably the biggest high is that Kenowa has Canvas for its learning management system, which has allowed teachers to provide and monitor a wide range of online learning opportunities for our students. I worked with the other third grade teachers to create weekly online learning activities in language arts, math, science, social studies and self-care. Students could also participate in art, music, PE and STEM activities in Canvas. The goal was for each grade level to create common lessons that would keep students engaged in learning without overtaxing families.

What other techniques are you using to engage students remotely?

My class had three Google Meets each week: a “Go Girls” group, a “Bionic Boys” group and a whole class Meet. I also met online with individual students weekly. Academics is important, but providing emotional support for our students was the highest priority during this stressful time. We used our online chats for academic lessons, but we also played games, shared “good things,” drew, laughed and even danced on occasion. Scavenger hunts were highly requested.

How has this mandatory shutdown affected you, your students and your family?

The impact of the mandatory shutdown that the students consistently bring up is that they miss each other and their teachers, and I miss them. A consistent positive is that it has given them more time with their families.

Personally, keeping up with the online learning and chats has been a tremendous challenge, but I have also learned a great deal. I also had a senior graduating from high school this year and it’s been heartbreaking to have him lose so many milestones and celebrations that we typically expect. However, I’ve also seen people come together and support each other in tremendous ways. Creative support for all the students has poured from the community. 

How much do you miss the live classroom?

I miss the live classroom every teaching day. I’m grateful that we were able to develop our positive classroom community before the schools closed. It made it easier to support the students both academically and emotionally as I knew them each so well.

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Cris Greer
Cris Greer
For more than three decades, Cris Greer has been a wordsmith, working in the fields of journalism, advertising and marketing. Much of the past decade, he helped grow the MLive Statewide High School Sports desk as a supervisor, editor and reporter, which included eight newspapers in Michigan and mlive.com. Cris also was a freelancer for The Grand Rapids Press, The Advance and On the Town magazine for many years. A good portion of his early career was spent building and managing the copywriting team in the advertising department at Meijer, Inc., where he oversaw copywriting for print ads, mailers, brochures, signage, several dozen in-house magazines per year and much more.

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