BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — From kindergarten through high school, students and teachers in Maumee have adapted to a new normal in education with distance learning.
More than one week before Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued the stay-at-home order that closed public schools in the state, the Maumee district began ramping up efforts to prepare students, teachers and parents for the virtual classroom.
“We put a plan together to make sure that every kid in the district had access to a device,” said district technology director Jason Dugan.
By reaching out to families early on, Dugan was able to create a spreadsheet with the names of each student in need of a Chromebook. The district has enough on hand for every student, and 1,600 were distributed districtwide for distance learning purposes. In addition to getting the devices to students, Dugan and his tech team have systems in place to provide daily tech support.
On the first full day of distance learning, Dugan also worked with district curriculum director Michelle Shafer to host a one-day professional development Zoom video conference on the tech tools available to teachers for remote learning.
Fairfield second-grade teacher Emily Yavorsky was grateful for the information.
“Not that any of us were trained or prepared to go into a situation like this, but I cannot think of anybody else more prepared than we were,” she said.
Now, she regularly communicates online with students, parents and fellow teachers.
“I’m daily communicating with a handful of parents, whether it’s a general question about a lesson or something else,” Yavorsky said. “The second-grade teachers at Fairfield are doing a daily Zoom meeting with our students where we play games, chat about what’s going on at home. It’s a nice way for us to stay connected.”
Fellow teacher Jeannie Pawlicki agreed and said the use of Seesaw, an interactive computer program used by all second-grade teachers at Fairfield, has been helpful with distance learning. The students can write on slides, take pictures and videos. The program also allows parents to comment, so there is a back-and-forth communication between teachers, students and parents.
“Thankfully, our students had been using it throughout the year, so they could navigate it pretty well,” Pawlicki said.
All of the second-grade classes at Fairfield are working on the same assignments, which makes it easier, and video lessons are used to teach new math concepts and writing assignments. Optional assignments are also offered for those interested in completing additional activities, and parents are encouraged to communicate with teachers, which they are doing via e-mail or by phone.
Both teachers say that the majority of families are engaged in distance learning, but they know that it is not the same as learning in the classroom and neither can predict how prepared students will be when school resumes again.
“I think it’s a concern, but no matter what year it is, we always begin instruction where the kids are,” Yavorsky said. “We meet them where they are and we give them what they need. My hope is that students will continue to read and practice math facts and not regress, but if they do, then that is the challenge we will face when we get there.”
For Pawlicki, the distance learning experience has instilled a more personal response to her students and she plans to continue to work with parents and students to get them what they need.
“We will have to be creative and work together to see what we need to do, summer is hard enough as it is when they are in school,” she said. “What we are doing every day really is important and now we have no choice and we have to hone in on the essential skills. This will all hit me more when we begin next year.”
Wayne Trail and Fort Miami music teacher Kelsey Kuszek has become very creative with her online music lessons. Each week, she creates eight- to 12-minute interactive music videos for all of her music lessons for her students, which range in age from kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I’ve been adding a green screen to add a little more production quality,” she said. She also adds pop-up animation to keep students’ attention and holds Zoom meetings with them. The videos encourage students to engage and enhance their music skills from singing, dancing and practicing rhythm skills. Families are often engaged as siblings and parents join in for a dance or special sing-along.
“At the end of each lesson, I prompt them to try to continue to learn at home in some way,” she said. “Music is one thing that everyone in the world can relate to. It can help work through problems and I really think it can affect our mood. Music is really important because it gives students a release from their everyday work and allows them to just get up and get moving and have fun.”
She has also implemented a folk dance challenge, which several families have participated in together.
“I’ve gotten great videos back of the whole family doing it, so that’s been a blessing in disguise with all of this – it’s something that is bringing them all together.”
Seventh-grade social studies teacher Mandie Bentz admits that initially, the distance learning process was a rollercoaster and difficult to get used to. Eventually, however, she settled into a routine and now with the use of Google Classroom, You-Tube, Zoom and Google Hangouts, things are moving along. She uses video to chat with students and parents and delivers new content with as much support as necessary, whether she is providing extra information or video clips to help explain a new concept.
“The fact that Maumee has been so progressive in terms of having kids use technology, that a lot of what we are doing now is what we would be doing in class,” she said. “They know the drill, they have seen these things before and they know what to do, so that is an enormous asset to our kids being able to learn.”
She also complimented the administration for laying out the terms and expectations for both teachers and students by providing more flexibility.
“I am always proud to work here, but based on the direction we were already going and based on the response to this crisis, I am so proud to be a part of this district. I think they have responded really, really well.”
Fellow Gateway teacher Mike Dick, who teaches seventh grade science, agrees.
“At Maumee we are so fortunate the tech department has done a great job making sure that all of the kids have access to the devices, we are very, very fortunate to also have a number of online things to use,” he said.
In his observation, the biggest challenge to distance learning is student engagement. Many in middle school have new responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings, and it is difficult for parents who are working to then come home and have to make sure that the kids are doing their lessons. He relies on solid relationships he has cultivated from the start of the school year.
“The best time of the school year is March through May because you know your kids so well and they know you so well, and that’s what I think we miss the most – the best part of teaching happens when we are together,” he said. “We have those daily interactions and I think as teachers, that’s what we really miss. Not being there to talk to our kids and see them and see how they are doing. You don’t get those ah-ha moments or funny jokes in the hallway. That part is gone and that’s the best part about teaching.”
High school DECA students in Robin Bruderly’s class would have been at state competition the weekend that school shut down. The competition was modified in that students could not present their projects. Instead, their grades are based solely on their papers and any awards earned will be mailed to them. Normally, 40 percent of their grade is based on presentation. This year’s International Career Devel-opment Conference in Nashville has also been canceled, which means students who do well in state competition will not advance.
“So this is the last stop for the students. At least they will get some validation for what they did, but it is a letdown. It will sting, but at least it will make them feel like there is purpose in what they did and all of the work that they put in.”
Bruderly utilizes a website, which she had implemented before the shutdown, to assign work to students. In addition, because she often travels with her students for DECA activities, group texts are often used to communicate. To keep up their morale, Bruderly has assigned fun activities, such as a selfie scavenger hunt, and she also delivered notes and cookies to front porches, but she says that the shutdown is wearing on the students.
“A majority of my students are engaged,” she said. “I also think that most schools are finding that students who did their work when they were here are still doing their work, and those who struggled while they were here are still struggling at home.”