Burbank Unified High School Teachers Talk About Remote Education

By On August 29, 2020

Four Burbank High School teachers took time to share their perspectives on remote teaching and education, now that the Burbank Unified School District has had two full weeks of 100% distance learning since the first day of classes on Monday, August 17.

Overall, teachers responded positively to the new learning model, noting they spent a lot of time over the summer preparing for the new approach. Their general consensus is that remote education is a viable approach, given the constraints of a national and international pandemic, but it is not without some very real challenges.

Many noted the limited social engagement that students receive through virtual classrooms and breakout groups with other students and their teachers. Additionally, teachers have taken on a huge amount of extra work in order to teach the required materials, connect with students and manage their classrooms to the best of their ability. Technology access and resources and special equipment or software, particularly for advanced or specialized classes, remain a top concern.

Burbank High AP Stats and Algebra I teacher Robert Hammell shows off his at home remote teaching setup. (Photo Courtesy Robert Hammell.)

Robert Hammell teaches AP Statistics and Algebra I this year at BHS, so his students are from all grades 9 – 12. He teaches from home, “My wife is also a teacher in the district and she is teaching from school as it is hard for both of us to be teaching at the same time because the noise travels very easily in our house.

His average class size is about 30 students, over two sections of AP Stats and four sections of Algebra I. His classes draw students from all grades 9 – 12.

As a statistics teacher, I must point out that my average is a slightly misleading number as I have one class that is much smaller than the rest. If I remove the small class, my average is 32.4,” he said.

“To prepare for the remote/online learning approach, I went through the district created modules which covered instructional modules, digital classroom community, supporting special populations and grading and assessment,” Hammell explained. “These modules were created by colleagues throughout the district and had a lot of useful information and ideas. They were organized in the format: learn and explore, create, and share. There was enough material in these modules to spend at least a week exploring and learning.”

“In addition to the district modules, I also self reflected on what went well and did not go well last spring, read student feedback from surveys I had my students fill out last spring, talked to colleagues and read many articles online.”

“At this point, I think the biggest thing that needs attention is how to get my students to interact with me and each other more during live instruction,” Hammell continued. “I am quickly learning the best way to utilize some of the features in Zoom to help with this including the chat window, breakout rooms, nonverbal feedback, reactions, virtual and literal hand raising, waiting rooms and controlling mic/video settings.” 

Burbank High School’s front entrance is devoid of students currently. (Undated file photo by Ross Benson)

“I feel one of my strengths is adjusting my teaching in real time based on student feedback and interactions and I am missing that piece in my class right now.”

“As far as what worked well, I think I was successful in communicating a mathematical mindset to my students,” he continued. “I want students to change their perspective in my class from earning points for a grade to receiving feedback to help them master learning objectives.”

“With this change in perspective, I’m hoping students will find the value in asking questions to gain understanding of concepts, learning from mistakes, being creative, learning math (and not just performing/memorizing), communicating their thinking and appreciating depth over speed.”

“I am confident that my students will learn the material and that I will be providing a rigorous course.  However, I would not say I feel comfortable yet, but I am getting there,” Hammell also said. “We ask students to have a growth mindset, ask questions, learn from mistakes and think critically to problem solve. This is the perfect time to model that as teachers as this is a brand new model for teaching for most of us in the district.” 

Burbank High AP Biology teacher Rebecca Cooper believes in a “dress for success” approach to remote teaching from her dining room table office. (Photo Courtesy Rebecca Cooper)

“The hardest part for me is figuring out how to build a classroom community where all the students can share their thoughts and I can adjust my teaching in real time based on students verbal and non verbal feedback,” he added. “The virtual classroom setting makes it very difficult to get feedback in the usual way, but I am quickly learning new ways to get the feedback that I need to be a more effective teacher.”

Rebecca Cooper, who has taught for 18 years – 16 of those at BHS, is currently teaching five periods of AP Biology from home. She is also the Burbank High Science Department Chair.

“If it becomes too challenging (due to technology and materials needed), then I may start working more at BHS,” she said.

Cooper has a lot of students this year; she is averaging 37 students per class.

“Preparing for remote learning has been an ongoing work in progress. Fortunately, I was already using Google Classroom (GCR) with my students last year for a variety of purposes, so that made the shift to going all online for distance learning a little smoother for me,” she commented. “However, with that being said, distance learning/teaching is about far more than simply knowing how operate GCR.”

“Over the summer I was part of the district Professional Development team that helped build the training modules for the staff this year. They were designed to help everyone have supports in place as they started preparing individually for this new format.”

“And from that moment on, it has been read, learn, create, discuss, share,” Cooper continued. “The same model we try to impart on our students. I am in a number of teacher groups on social media where I am constantly getting or sharing ideas and am in constant communication with my colleagues as well  I am always looking for ways to engage my students better, or to help them feel supported and more connected to one another.”

“I have mixed feelings about teaching this way. While I am grateful for the opportunity to maintain safety and good health and feel confident that I can do a good job teaching, it is still overwhelming,” she acknowledged. “It’s hard to not have the opportunity to engage naturally in conversation with people. For students to have to sit silently in class, rather than socialize and build relationships between classes.”

“On the logistical side of things, it’s challenging to manage Zoom windows, chat windows, student ‘hand raise’ icons, screen sharing, etc. AND develop a natural flow to the class. And building classroom community takes a very intentional approach – it’s not just going to happen on its own in this sort of setting.”

Burbank High AP Bio teacher Rebecca Cooper’s Zoom profile includes a background of her classroom view. (Photo Courtesy Rebecca Cooper)

For AP Bio students and other high school classes that usually incorporate lab work, that hands on approach can be a real challenge for distance learning.

“We’re going to do the best we can to still make lab experiences happen. Many of the labs are possible to do at home with some basic materials (like cups, water, seeds, soap, etc.), so for some classes, students may be surveyed for their home access for certain materials, and can be provided with the additional supplies,” said Cooper. “In other cases where material distribution is too cumbersome (or involves supplies that are not safe to use at home), students will be provided with live or prerecorded demonstrations of the labs, or alternatives such as virtual labs, or samples of lab data that they can then be asked to analyze.”

Burbank High AP Bio teacher Rebecca Cooper watches her students in a Zoom call work in teams to build a presentation as they work on a shared document that is projected on a wall behind her computer. (Photo Courtesy Rebecca Cooper)

“It’s certainly not the same experience, but we will do our best to make it as interactive as we can. In my AP Biology class, we will be attempting our first at home lab on Monday where students will be investigating the properties of water. Students were provided with a materials list, and if they are able to gather materials, then great! And for those who are not able – no problem!”

“I have embedded video clips into the lesson that are demonstrating the activity,” she explained. “They can use these videos as their experience to assist in answering their lab questions and doing data analysis.”

“Overall successes so far include pretty great student attendance and overall improved communication between students and their teachers (lots of students reaching out via email and comments in GCR),” Cooper went on to say. “And in my classes, most students have been doing an excellent job of keeping up with their assignments, and putting in good effort not only with their work, but attempting to get comfortable with a room full of digital strangers.”

“It continues to be very difficult to manage all of the responsibilities that need to be done daily, while also remembering the importance of self-care. For the last 10 days, I have spent the better part of every day (probably about 12 hours is a fair estimate) sitting in front of my computer – just to stay caught up.”

“We want to do a good job, but sometimes that means catching up with 100s of work-related emails gets put in front of working on our lesson plans, activities, building presentations/lessons and providing feedback on student work,” Cooper also said. “And all of those listed responsibilities end up getting put in front of our home responsibilities (cleaning, cooking, exercising, tending to our own families, resting, etc.)”

“I think for everyone – both teachers and students – we need to establish some healthy routines, schedules and boundaries. Today [Thursday, August 27] I started my day at 4:30 a.m. just so I could make time to exercise (for the first time in two weeks) and accomplish some work [before] school started, and before the new emails for the day started pouring in.”

“Same goes for students… several shared that their work was pretty manageable last week until Friday, when they became overwhelmed,  as they didn’t realize there would be so much new work assigned on Fridays for their classes (and they had procrastinated on assignments from earlier in the week.)”

“Several students recognized it is their responsibility to hold themselves accountable, and mentioned their new goal for week two was to tackle their school work on the day it is assigned, during school hours (from 1:30 – 3:00), rather than waiting until it was due.”

“I think eventually, we will all get more accustomed to how the different technology tools we are using work, and we will start to figure out a groove of routines that work well for us,” Cooper also said. “I’m enjoying getting to know my students a little more everyday, but am going to have to work on having a cut off time to be looking on my phone or computer, or doing work for school – my brain needs a forced break every day.”

“I’m sure right around the time where it all starts to feel comfortable, will be the same time where we get to go back to school in person and will have a whole new set of norms to learn and establish.”

Burbank High teacher Amy Winn shares remote teaching and learning space with her son Matthew Winn, a seventh-grader at John Muir Middle School. (Photo Courtesy Amy Winn)

Amy Winn is in her 19th year of teaching at Burbank High. Before taking over the Digital Video Production classes five years ago, Winn taught Special Education and English classes at the school. She  teaches seven sections at BHS, covering grades 9 – 12, and averages 37 students in her Video Production and Yearbook classes, 27 in Broadcast Journalism and 10 in Advanced Video Production.

“The first week was very challenging personally – it was probably the most anxious I have ever felt in my 19 years of working in Education,” Winn commented. “Overall – my classes went great, the students were great and it was good to be back with them again. It was just a lot to prepare for, fear of technology not cooperating and I had true anxiety about trying to maintain an academic setting on a Zoom call in my living room.”

Burbank High Digital Video Production teacher Amy Winn logs in students to her Zoom classroom. (Photo Courtesy Amy Winn)

“I collaborated with Richard Lightfoot at JBHS [John Burroughs High School] who teaches Video Production, he was a huge help as we figured out together how we could even attempt to do this,” Winn added. “It’s taken hours upon hours to prep for four different classes and transform the material into a new digital, virtual format.”

Winn is very concerned about her students not all having access to video editing software at home that the school typically provides in the physical classroom.

“The real test will come when the students will work independently on video assignments at home which they would normally have in class to use software and edit their work. It’s a gamble right now if they will be able to complete projects at home not having the right technology.”

“I am not confident at all in my ability as a teacher or in my ability to adequately teach my subjects this way without the proper tools,” Winn continued. “I am constantly working – I don’t think I leave my desk at home all day… continuously answering emails, figuring out lesson plans, having Zoom call classes, grading, etc.  I know every teacher is going through this, but it’s A LOT of extra work that I didn’t expect.”

“The kids were happy to be back and interacting with each other,” she acknowledged. “There is still a lot that needs to be addressed like technology access. It feels impossible to be able to teach these Arts/Digital Media classes which are hands-on and interactive in this particular format.”

Digital Video Production teacher Amy Winn in her at home remote teaching office. (Photo Courtesy Amy Winn)

“I have computers and editing software that students are able to use at the school and I am not sure what editing software or apps my students have access to at home, meaning then my whole curriculum is having to be modified and manipulated to take on this challenge of distance learning.  I have a huge broadcast studio that we film our announcements in at BHS and now are forced to do them on a Zoom call.”

“We have a Yearbook to produce with no activities, no sporting events, we aren’t even on campus… so, everything in my digital media world is a challenge and will be until we are able to be physically back at school.”

“Until then, we do what we can – I teach the subjects the best way I can and pray that this all works out. The students are definitely not getting at home what they could be getting in the classroom, especially in my classes and I feel like I’m failing them already and the year hasn’t even really started yet.”

“I know it’s no one’s fault, but this is very very difficult for me and I’m doing the best I can,” Winn also said. “I like things to be perfect and they aren’t and it’s hard for me to accept that – it is what it is.”

John Wells teaches the Associated Student Body (ASB) class in addition to Phys. Ed. classes at Burbank High.  His classes average 40 students per section.

“I am working from both home and BHS. I live in Burbank so makes it easy to go back and forth,” Wells said. “I have a young son, age three, that my wife and I share duties teaching and entertaining right now so that determines when I go in and when I don’t.”

“I am beginning to feel more comfortable. It isn’t easy being on screen for hours a day but [I’m] making it work,” he added. “The confident side is a bit harder because shifting Physical Education to all online has challenges and I think as we go on I will get more confident with what I am teaching each day.”

Burbank High ASB Advisor and Phys. Ed. teacher John Wells works from his remote teaching setup. (Photo Courtesy John Wells)

Wells talked about how Burbank Unified is handling Phys. Ed. classes.

“These are a bit challenging but I think are slowly getting better. As a Physical Education department, our goal is how can we get these students as active as possible while maintaining the necessary social distance and health protocols.”

BUSD requires two years of Physical Education classes and passing the State Physical Fitness exam (or additional semesters of Phys. Ed. until passing the exam) for graduation.

“We are creating at home workout videos that the students will workout to during class as well as they create their own and share them with us. We will also have different activities and sports that will be covered. Those will be covered with videos in and out of class that students can watch and answer questions to.”

“We hope to get creative when it comes to demonstrating different sports and lack of equipment students have access to. So that will be a challenge and fun at same time.”

Wells notes that ASB, which runs school spirit campaigns and a lot of special activities at the school, has really been impacted by remote learning.

“With the distance learning ASB activities have shifted. Students are disappointed at this time there isn’t our annual Foam party, which kicks off the year, and then into homecoming celebrations which are postponed at this moment, with hope they can happen in the spring,” Wells explained. “So ASB students have shifted their mindset of what they can do to engage and keep that Bulldog pride alive.”

“We will be having our first virtual spirit week next week. This is where students will dress to different themes each day for their classes and can post their outfits in Burbank High ASB Instagram. ASB will choose a most spirited for each day.”

Student members of Burbank High School’s Associated Student Body (ASB) class meet with advisor and teacher John Wells via Zoom. (Photo Courtesy John Wells)

As ASB advisor, Wells seeks to “[encourage] the students to continue to think outside the box and get creative. Which these students are. As their advisor I support and help with any logistics they need with their ideas. I really try to make ASB about them and creating excellent leaders.”

“For our virtual classes, I meet with ASB president Carmen Blanchard and ASB VP Bella Bowman at [the] end of each week to plan out the following week,” he added. “We are currently engaging in a lot of leadership activities and having ASB students create their own lesson plans and then present their leadership lessons to rest of class. These are going well thus far.”

Currently, Burbank Unified remains focused on providing 100% distance learning for its students’ education, while planning for an eventual return to in person education.

“Reopening will depend on current health conditions and guidelines,” Superintendent Matt Hill has stated. “Current guidelines require six feet of physical distancing, so when it is safe and appropriate to reopen we would phase in with a hybrid model.”

Hill has also emphasized that the District does not want to reopen schools, only to have to shut them down again. Thus, BUSD’s approach to reopening to in person education will be cautious and follow County and State guidelines.