E-learning: Teachers ‘reaching out in so many ways’

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Celestine Elementary kindergarten teacher Renae Rohleder holds her 2-month-old son, Tucker, as she watches her sons, from left, twins Wes and Cale, 6, and Max, 3, play outside at their home in St. Anthony on Tuesday. Rohleder made frequent trips to her outdoor, work-from-home setup, where she was able to field questions from her students and their parents on her laptop and phone. She assigned her kindergarten students four online exercises to be completed each day.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Heritage Hills High School science teacher Gary Ayer spends two hours every morning alone in his empty classroom holding office hours. While he’s sure not to have any in-person visitors, he receives plenty of emails and phone calls from his students and parents as they work through e-learning lessons at home.

Teaching without their students physically present is the new norm for Ayer and teachers across the country while school buildings are closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s a challenge,” Ayer said. “There’s a lot of different variables that go into it.”

For Ayer, the biggest challenge has been internet access, both for himself and for his students. He doesn’t have internet access at his home, so he comes to school each day to log on so he can post to Google Classroom, answer emails and take phone calls on his school phone. He also does what he can for his students by phone when he’s out of the classroom. A handful of his students also don’t have internet at their homes, so once a week, they pick up a packet filled with paper and pencil assignments that match, as much as possible, what other students get online.

The other big challenge for Ayer is teaching science when hands-on activities aren’t an option.

“It’s difficult to find relevant supplemental activities that can take the place of hands-on work,” Ayer said.

He’s mostly using videos and online interactive tools to replace hands-on activities, but he’s also learning that many of those tools are geared toward either grade school or college students, not high schools. The resources are out there, he said, but it’s taken him longer to find them than he would have liked.

Also lacking are the dynamic discussions he can have with his classes when they’re in the classroom. With e-learning, he said, students can still email him their questions, but only the single student gets to see the question and the answer. In class, everyone can hear the question and answer and has a chance to ask additional questions.

Celestine Elementary kindergarten teacher Renae Rohleder is also concerned her students will miss out by not being in class.

“I’m very concerned,” she said. “But we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”

Rohleder uses Classkick for her online classroom. The app allows her to post voiceover lessons her students can access at home, as well as upload supplemental materials. She can also build worksheets within the app that her students can fill out on their iPads. The app also lets her watch her students complete work in real-time.

Like Ayer, coming up with activities to replace the hands-on learning that happens in her classroom has been a challenge. For example, one of the kindergarten standards is replacing one letter in a word to create a new word, like changing mail to pail. If Rohleder were in her classroom, she would put letter magnets on the board and have students move them around to change the words. Since her students are at home, however, she’s needed to find other resources.

“It’s just not as hands-on as we’re used to in kindergarten,” she said.

As she plans future lessons in the coming weeks, she’s looking to get more creative. She’s already thinking of ways to teach math using uncooked noodles or other items her students can find at their homes.

She also plans to make a short video for each of her students to say hello. Then, she’ll encourage them to send one back. It’s one way she can maintain the connection with her students while school is closed.

As Rohleder makes her lesson plans, she said she’s also taking parents into consideration. As a parent herself — her twins attend kindergarten at Pine Ridge Elementary — she knows that teaching your kids at home is different than a teacher teaching them in the classroom.

“Even though I’m a teacher, I’m still struggling,” she said of helping her kiddos with their e-learning.

Rohleder also knows that many of her parents are essential employees who are working full time, then trying to help their kids in the evenings. She said she’s grateful to them for the work they’re doing to keep learning going for their kids. This time of year, Rohleder said, a lot of the assignments are review, so the students should be able to complete the exercises mostly on their own.

“I just encourage them to keep with it,” she said. “It’s a hard time for everybody.”

And if they’re struggling, Rohleder tells them to reach out. She provided all her students’ parents with her personal phone number.

“I’ve gone from never knowing where my phone is to having it glued to my hand,” she said.

Southridge Middle School math teacher Mary Reese is also helping her students over the phone. While it’s been an adjustment, Reese said, she’s also enjoying it.

“It’s kind of cool to do something different,” she said.

A big challenge for her has been making sure all her students have similar learning experiences whether they have internet access or not. Students without internet at their homes are working from paper and pencil packets, while students who do have internet get a video lesson and other interactive tools. Those students also have access to email where they can reach Reese anytime.

“I feel like they have more support if they need it,” Reese said. “[E-learning] is not the same for everybody. Free internet for all families would be great right now.”

She’s also adjusting to spending most of her day at the computer. When class is in session at school, most of her time is spent on her feet teaching or helping students. Now, she spends most of her day grading assignments, managing spreadsheets to track who has done which assignments and tracking other data.

“It’s easy to get bogged down and lost in the data,” she said.

Although Southridge has used e-learning in the past to make up snow days, Reese has noticed that the prolonged period of e-learning is much more about supporting the family as a whole than just focusing on the student. Teachers are taking their students meals and homework packets and checking in with parents to make sure e-learning is going well. It’s become a huge team effort that has teachers supporting students and parents in all subject areas.

“Normally, I would only talk about math, but now I’m talking about all subject areas,” Reese said. “And I’m taking on new roles. We’re reaching out in so many ways to help the families.”

Ayer, Reese and Rohleder all agreed that although their students are adjusting well, it’s a stressful time for everyone, especially the parents. They emphasized the importance of students completing the assignments and encouraged students and parents to reach out for help whenever they need it. The schools may be closed, but the teachers are still working.

“I tell [the parents] all the time if they have questions they have to ask me,” Rohleder said. “I don’t want them struggling with their kids.”

Reese also suggested not letting school take up all your time. She hopes her students and their families are using the extra time at home to connect with each other and do activities they normally wouldn’t be able to.

“That’s my hope,” Reese said. “Whether that’s reading together, playing board games, going for walks or something else, my hope is they’re connecting with their families.”




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