The virtual classroom: 18 students, three screens and one busy teacher

Teaching academics while taking care of social-emotional needs

Fourth-grade teacher Lauren Billings gives her students the hand signal for 'I agree'

Lauren Billings’ fourth-graders are done with their morning math lesson, but one of her students lingers after dismissal — on Billings’ computer screen. The girl’s dog died the night before, so Billings invites her to talk. 

“Were you able to get some sleep last night? Yeah?” Billings asks her gently. “Today is hard, huh? If you need anything, you let me know, OK? I’ll be here for you.” 

With a simulated hug and caring words, the Belmont Elementary teacher reaches out through the cyber-sphere to comfort her saddened student, and lets her talk with a classmate on screen for a while. Even in her empty classroom, she attends to the social and emotional needs of her 18 students as well as their academic achievement. 

“Part of school is making sure that the kids connect, and we have to find a way to bring that in virtually, too,” she says. 

Such are the challenges of virtual instruction, which Rockford schools followed for their first nine days. The cautious entry into a pandemic-restricted school year ends today, Sept. 11. Beginning next week students will learn either in-person or online, with a little over 900 students opting for the latter. 

For some teachers, the all-virtual opening was a warm-up for a year of online-only instruction. For those planning to return to the classroom, like Billings, it was a continuation of last spring’s school-closure switch to virtual – and a challenge to serve their students well no matter the circumstances.

“It’s a lot of work,” she said with a smile, on a break before resuming class. “But I love the job, I love the kids.”

Teacher Training Pays Off 

Billings said she felt well-prepared for this fall’s virtual ramp-up thanks to collaborative training sessions with other fourth-grade teachers, led by an instructional coach and one of 25 designated teacher-leaders. All RPS teachers received such training over the spring and summer. “I’ve never felt more a part of a teaching community,” she said. “Everybody is in this together.” 

That’s what administrators are hearing from most teachers, said Mike Ramm, assistant superintendent of instruction. Community feedback has been positive as well, he added, with people noting a big difference between the quality of learning last spring and this fall. 

“People are expressing great pleasure with the program as it’s running right now,” Ramm said. “The Rockford teachers are carrying their students, engaging in community building. Kids are seeing and interacting with other kids. That hasn’t happened in a long time in our school district.” 

Rockford is one of several area districts offering students a choice of in-person or remote instruction. Those who chose remote are asked to stick with it through the first trimester ending Nov. 13. Twenty Rockford teachers will lead the remote lessons through Rockford Virtual, a pre-K-12 “online Rockford Public School” led by newly named Principal Kelly Amshey.   

‘I’m just trying to recreate that classroom online for them, with all the tools they need.’

– Lauren Billings, fourth-grade teacher

The three-week all-virtual opening not only provided a pause to see how the coronavirus behaved before reopening classrooms; it also gave all teachers online experience in the event Michigan has to close schools again. 

In general, the rollout went well aside from glitches like log-in problems, Ramm said — although some students went missing from Billings’ and other classrooms this week due to internet outages in their neighborhood.

“It’s a little like the beginning of the year where you can’t figure out a locker combination or find a classroom,” he said. “Now those just look different, in a virtual world.”

Lauren Billings says it’s important to help students connect with one another even online

Alone in Class, but Together Online  

The virtual world looks different for elementary and high school students, the latter given more latitude to work on their own while younger children have a more set schedule of together time. In her recent morning lesson, Billings worked on math with her fourth-graders for about 90 minutes, then reconvened for reading in the afternoon after they took art and had lunch.

The halls of Belmont Elementary were eerily empty, silent save for the ghostly voices of teachers wafting from their classrooms, talking to their students on computers. Billings sat alone in her cheerful classroom, where bright-red baskets of workbooks awaited their designated pupils’ arrival. She tried to make them feel like they were all there with her — and with each other. 

“I’m just trying to recreate that classroom online for them, with all the tools they need,” she said. 

Working from her desk, Billings rotated among three computer screens where her students were gathered in separate small groups: Twix, KitKat and M&M’s. She had them learning large numbers on a physical worksheet listing 10 countries and their square miles. Hopping from one group to the next, she asked each to rank them. 

“Which is the largest country listed?” she asked the M&M’s. “I think it’s Algeria,” Hailey Robach answered, correctly assessing its 919,600 square miles. “Which one is the smallest?” Laos, with 91,400, Eli Johnson said. Classmates waggled their index and little fingers in agreement. There are also hand signs for “I disagree,” “I’m confused” and “new idea,” among others.

It was a clinic in multitasking, as Billings nimbly moved from one group to the next, reviewing their common exercise and assigning new ones, sometimes moving them from one learning platform to another – basically, keeping three sets of plates spinning nonstop.

“Twix group, I’m going to send you off. You may start your work,” she said, moving on to KitKat. “All right, KitKat, you are all set up,” she added shortly, moving on to M&M’s. 

All the while, she kept an eye on all screens for students not participating, not getting it — or even missing. “Where are you, sweetie?” she asked one girl. “Are you with us? Can you sit in your work space so we can see you? Thank you.”

Fourth-grader Eli Johnson says distractions can be a problem when learning online

Multitasking the Norm  

Keeping students engaged online is a challenge, said Billings, who has students answer questions online to make sure they’re understanding the material. But screen-hopping isn’t that much different from classroom instruction, she said. 

“Being a multitasker is just part of teaching,” said the fourth-year teacher. But she looked forward to resuming face-to-face interaction with her students next week. 

“There’s just something about teaching in person, and being present, being able to smile or wink at a child across the classroom, to give them encouragement.” Though concerned about the coronavirus, she said she trusts safety protocols of the district and the Michigan Return to School Roadmap

“I think in-person is best, and if we can do it safely, I’m all for it.”

Jenny Johnson and her three children are all for it, too. Two of them, twins Nikki and Eli, are in Billings’ class. They say virtual school has been OK, and they really like their teacher, but they looked forward to going back to school Monday. 

“We are learning a lot. I do enjoy it,” Nikki said. “But when we go to non-virtual school it’s a lot easier to do things (than being) on a laptop.” She noted “a lot more distractions” at home — such as when noisy road crews were repaving her subdivision street for a week. 

There can also be distracting chatter from other students who don’t mute their microphones, Eli said, calling it “really annoying.”

Fourth-grader Nikki Johnson says she likes virtual school OK but in-person school better

Both kids were eager to see their friends again at school. Plus, Nikki said, “I get to see my teacher for the first time. I’ve never been in her classroom in person before.”

They were among a number of Belmont students whose internet provider went down Thursday. Technical glitches like that are one reason their mother is eager for them to return to school, where she feels they learn better. That said, the difference in online instruction between last spring and now is “huge,” Jenny Johnson said.

“I realized last spring that I am not a teacher,” said Johnson, a part-time ultrasound technician at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s. “Boy, some of that math was coming back to haunt me.”

Unlike then, her kids have worked self-sufficiently this fall in a very organized program. That’s reassuring to Johnson in the event of another shutdown, even though she hopes they can stay in school all year. 

“While this isn’t ideal for anybody, it definitely has proven that it can work, if necessary,” she said. “They have put a lot of time and effort into making this a success, and I think it has been.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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