Burbank Unified teachers spent much of their summer preparing for remote teaching, working intently to adjust teaching approaches and plans to fit an online format. What have the past few weeks of 100% distance learning been like for them since classes began on Monday, August 17? We spoke with teachers at William McKinley Elementary and Luther Burbank Middle to find out.
“Our grade level started preparing for distance learning early in July, and I am happy I started when I did. Our preparedness has truly eased the transition into distance learning,” commented McKinley third grade Spanish Immersion teacher Judith Toscano.
Toscano has taught Spanish Dual Immersion for seven years, and the past four years at McKinley. She currently teaches from home and thanks her husband for his help in setting up her kitchen table with “an awesome technology hub” including a “laptop, a document camera, a webcam and an extra monitor to see all my students’ faces while I navigate the lessons on my laptop.”
“These past two weeks have gone really well!” she added. “Prior to class starting, I make sure to set up all of my tabs so that I don’t waste time looking for sites when the kids are in a meeting with me; we have a saying, ‘Cada minuto cuenta – Every minute counts’!”
“Distance learning is a rewarding challenge; it takes a lot of preparation, and energy. I say it takes a lot of energy because I find myself in a cheerleader role celebrating and cheering students’ learning!” she continued. “No really… we cheer! We sing, we learn new content, we dance and we share our feelings all while practicing our Spanish!”
“In addition, it is also important to focus on children’s socio-emotional well being. Children have been home for so long, it is nice to finally have some sense of normalcy in an education setting. Even though we started the year off distance learning, my students are so excited to finally see their friends, excited to get the year started, and catch up on their Spanish studies.”
“One of the challenges I am seeing is students not having strong home internet signals. This causes them to get kicked out of our Google Meetings,” Toscano said. “It is frustrating for these children and for their families. Many times all it takes for them to log back in. If they are unable to log back in, I have a separate meeting with students that have been kicked off, so that I can catch them up on what was missed.”
“I am so thankful for my students’ parents,” she also said. “Throughout this process they have been kind, patient and really supportive! I view my students’ parents and myself as a team, a unit, and we just want the best for these children, we want them to be successful.”
Another McKinley teacher, Amanda Pohlman, who has been teaching for 12 years, has chosen to teach her fourth-grade class from the school site.
“It’s nice to have all my teaching materials and tools handy, including my document camera I use daily,” she explained. “I try my best to keep a normal schedule for my 24 students, as I would if teaching in person.”
“I expect students to arrive at 8:30 a.m. ready to learn, participate and engage in the learning process,” she said. “The first few days of school had been a positive learning experience for all students, parents and teachers as we identified and worked through issues such as computer glitches, sound malfunctions and connection issues.”
“On top of all of that, community building was a challenge as students are meeting their teachers for the first time through a camera. It was difficult for me to show my personality without my students reading my body language. I believe building a classroom community is the most important piece of starting a new school year.”
“It was a new experience doing that online and will take some time, but I already see the results in just one week,” Pohlman continued. “My students have been so responsive, attending all our live sessions, participating in discussions and community building activities, and completing independent work in the Google classroom. I am utterly amazed at how responsible my 24 fourth graders have been thus far.”
“A lot of credit is due to the parents for the support they are providing,” she acknowledged. “Students are set up in a quiet area with headphones on, materials all nearby, and they are dressed as they would for a normal school day! Having that type of environment embedded at home helps our students to focus and learn as they would at school.”
“I am confident that this way of learning can be successful and effective. Although this is not an ideal situation for everyone, parents and teachers who work together will make an impression on students,” Pohlman also said. “I believe it is important now more than ever to communicate and check in with our students and families. I recognize that this is our current normal for now, but if we remember why we teach in the first place and put our students’ needs first, we will see tremendous success.”
Luther Burbank Middle School seventh grade Social Studies teacher Stefanie Enokian, who has been teaching for 15 years, has some additional perspectives to share on aspects of remote education that work well and others that are challenging.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many of my students are attending our synchronous [live teaching] sessions. I am also amazed at how well behaved my learners in particular have been and well-mannered they are in the chat. I can only speak for my own experiences on this one but it has been a nice treat,” she said. “It is also interesting that some of my periods have more kids with their cameras on and then some periods there are very few kids. But the majority of my students are participating in the chat and answering questions even if their camera is off.”
Enokian teaches from her classroom at Luther and averages 33 students per class in five periods.
“Collaboration amongst the teachers as worked really well. Not just here at Luther but there has been more collaboration District-wide than any other year. There has been a lot of work to support each other and share what we have learned.”
“I’ve also been trying to help support my fellow teachers at Luther by holding technology support meetings where they could come and ask questions or we could trouble shoot some of their issues or even talk about their successes. Many of them feel like this is a safe place to come for help when needed.”
“As of right now the part that’s not working well is the amount of time it is taking to do what feels like the right thing to do for kids,” she said.
Enokian attempted to describe the actions she took to prepare for remote teaching, “There really is no way to put in to words all that went in to preparing for this in a short amount of time.”
She “reviewed and utilized District Provided Professional Development which consisted of four modules for secondary and elementary around the topics of Instructional Models, Digital Classroom Community, Supporting Special Populations and Grading and Assessment.”
“I spent a lot of time considering my content and learning and researching how I could cover the material in this new format. I did research on the Flipped Classroom model and was able to embrace these ideas and transform my teaching so that I could maximize the limited face to face time I would have with my students. This was especially important for me as I have made videos to give to my learners for their Friday asynchronous lessons.”
Asynchronous lessons are self-guided sessions, during afternoons and Fridays in which the students are expected to check in for attendance and review, complete or work on supplemental material. This is a complementary aspect of remote teaching in addition to the live online class times they have with their teachers during the week on Monday through Thursday.
“I learned new skills such as using Screencastify to do screen recordings so I could record my lessons,” Enokian continued. “Thankfully, the District purchased the upgrade so we could all utilize this great resource without limitations. I’ve even featured my cats and bearded dragon in some of my recordings for my students and they LOVED it.”
She also collaborated with colleagues about “what would be some of the best practices, how to keep students engaged, whether or not we should require students to keep their cameras, how to meet the needs of kids who don’t have the best access to technology, what we could do to build relationships with kids in this new way of learning and to support their social emotional needs.”
“I am at an advantage because utilizing technology and Google Classroom is not something new for me because they are both things I used regularly when we were in the regular classroom setting before the pandemic hit,” Enokian explained. “I also did some trainings this summer for teachers in this video conferencing type format so it gave me an idea of what it would be like to teach through a screen and how I need to phrase my questions differently to elicit responses and engagement from my students.”
“I could no longer ask them to turn to their shoulder partner and RallyRobin ideas back and forth so I needed to come up with other ways to get them engaged. Whether it be they give me a thumbs up, or I have them stand up if they agree or type their responses in the chat, I am constantly having to think of new ways to keep our learning novel.”
“Despite having this comfort with technology and practice over the summer with how to teach to a screen, all of this work is really hard. I not only had to learn how to teach in this format, but learn how to best utilize new programs to keep the kids’ interest,” she also said. “In the first two weeks of school there are already fifteen assignments in my Google Classroom for the kids to complete.”
“Providing meaningful feedback on that amount of work has proven to be challenging. It is something I am still trying to navigate.”
Enokian also talked about other challenges facing teachers with the remote learning model.
“A couple challenges are finding enough time in the day to respond to all parent, student and school related emails and answer all student correspondence when they leave private comments on their assignments. It is also difficult to maintain the separation from school work to home as it feels like there are not enough hours in the day to get it all done.”
“Communicating with families has been key,” she continued. “I have worked to foster direct lines of communication with all of my families as it is more important now than ever to maintain the partnership with the families and make sure they are up to speed on the information they need.”
“Honestly, there is no perfect right now,” Enokian admitted. “We are constantly learning and changing things together every day. There is always room for us to grow and learn. I am providing my learners and their families with surveys to see how I can make this experience better and support their needs.”
Dina Harney teaches two sections of sixth grade English, two sections of seventh-grade English and is the Associated Student Body (ASB) advisor at Luther Burbank Middle School. She sees the need for socializing and community building as an important aspect of school that students are lacking with remote learning.
“Our ASB team is small this year, but I’m excited about the things our ASB leadership team will be able to accomplish in our digital environment. So much of our distance learning has been difficult to navigate, but this year our mission in ASB is to promote school culture in our virtual space and build relationships with one another despite the distance between us,” Harney said. “We already have a few ideas brewing to help with socialization and community building at Luther.”
“I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now, and I never imagined that I’d one day be in this position – teaching from campus in an empty classroom to kids I have yet to meet in person,” Harney said.
“I’ve taught online before, received my Master’s Degree in Educational Technology, and I consider myself pretty comfortable with many of the digital platforms we use to deliver instruction, but on the first day of school this year, it was like I was teaching for the first time all over again, uncertain of what I might encounter or how I might react, and hoping that it all just went well,” she continued.
“Our learners were the best part of all of this – so many of them have shown their resiliency and excitement and their willingness to make the best out of a bad situation, and I think that’s a true testament to the amazing community of parents that we have and the support they have shown to all of us during this time.”
“With the exception of ASB, most of my English classes have between 32-36 learners in them. I’ve only had a few absences in total over the past two weeks. Even though we have had some technical issues and glitches, we have been able to roll with the punches and carry on.”
“There is a lot of frustration on the part of students, parents, and teachers as far as that is concerned, but on the whole, I’m pleased with the amount of content we have been able to deliver and the overall engagement of the students,” Harney acknowleged. “Perhaps that might change over time.”
“I am exhausted at the end of the day. There is so much to prepare for, stay on top of, and to learn about in this new environment. I do feel like I have to be ‘on’ for the kids when we have our live sessions in order to keep them engaged and to feel connected. I worry about a myriad of things that go beyond lesson planning and grading.”
“As a parent myself of two children in BUSD, I can appreciate many of the challenges and concerns that come up in this model,” Harney also said. “It is difficult, but it is doable. A strong support system is key, as it is in anything having to do with education.”
Superintendent Matt Hill has stated in the most recent Board of Education meeting, on August 20, that the District wants to help families and students be successful with remote learning and encourages caregivers and parents to contact their school site principal if there are needs for technology support and access, child care, Nutrition and Lunch and more.
“Some may be having technology issues, others may be having issues at home. Some people may be out of work right now,” Hill said. “Connect with us. We want to help you. For all of the above, we have resources available that we can help you with that. Or put you in touch with the right individuals.”