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Teachers Reflect on Standout Successes from an Unusual Semester, Part 1

Seven elementary school teachers share their most memorable moments and breakthrough strategies from the start of distance learning

The unprecedented, immediate shift to remote learning in March of 2020 created new challenges for schools and communities across the country. Teachers at all levels grappled with the best ways to maintain high expectations set for themselves and their students, while understanding that all stakeholders in education had to learn how to function in the “new normal” together. As we progress through the summer, it’s evident that many of the lessons learned from the spring will need to carry over into the fall, with most schools planning for full- or part-time distance learning to continue.

In this article, seven elementary school teachers, each of whom is part of the 2020 class of Extraordinary Educators named by Curriculum Associates, share some of their experiences based on the initial few months of remote learning. What memories stand out and what strategies worked best? Each teacher has insights unique to her own class, and to the elementary grades overall. This is the first part of a series that will track these teachers’ perspectives over the course of the summer.

Reflecting back on the various challenges, successes, and lessons learned from the transition to distance learning this past spring, what was the most influential or memorable moment for you as an educator?

Cathy Anderson

4th grade teacher

Thames Elementary School, Hattiesburg, Miss.

The most compelling moment occurred during a math assignment. The students were asked to make a project that utilized a central circle to show the relationship between an angle that measures 90 degrees and an angle that measures 180 degrees. A student and her father constructed a stand that was composed of two circles. The first central circle displayed the 180 degree angle (straight angle). The second central circle displayed the 90 degree angle (right angle). The father made a video of the student showing the relationship between the right angle and the straight angle using the central circle as a reference point. They sent me the video via email and gave me permission to share with other students. This moment was remarkable because it displayed the following: 1) The student and her father were willing to help others during the Covid-19 pandemic. 2) The video was totally student-centered. This is my highest level of expectations for my students. I have always encouraged student-centered learning by allowing students to share in decisions, believing in their capacity to lead, and remembering how it feels to learn.

Cynthia Chapman

5th grade teacher

Elsie Johnson Elementary School, Hanover Park, Ill.

I think the most memorable moment for me as an educator was how much my students really needed me and looked forward to our times together.  We had been on Spring Break when our stay-at-home order had gone into effect, so the last time I saw my students in person was the Friday before Spring Break. I can tell from students’ body language how they’re feeling, so I focused on building relationships, and as a result I was able to pull their interests into my remote lessons.  As we transitioned into remote learning, I also made a point to continue as much of a routine with my students as I could. It was something they knew would be consistent in their life.  Some of my students even asked for routines we did in class like our morning slides of jokes, interesting daily facts, and upcoming events. 

Some of the students who struggled the most in class behaviorally, emotionally, and socially, would email me every morning or log into my office hours to check in with me to say “hi” and go over the work they needed to complete and what the schedule would be. It was a pleasant surprise that, for some students who I feared might check out during this time, the opposite turned out to be true. One particular student, with whom I’ve been building a relationship all year, was one of my brightest stars.  He logged in every morning to say good morning and go over his schedule for the day and check to see when our virtual meetings were. As he worked, he would email me or pop into my office hours when he had questions.  He never gave up! This was something he did a lot of during the time we were in the classroom. He said “Ms. Chapman, I’m feeling frustrated with this assignment. I need to use my calm down strategies to calm down and then can you help me?” I was so proud. Towards the end of the remote learning time, he was getting nervous about going to middle school. I told him I would always be here for him no matter what.  All he had to do was email me. The next day, in our Google Classroom stream he wrote a message to the rest of the class and said ” Do you know Ms. Chapman will always be there for us?  Even when we get older, you know like adults!  She cares about us and loves us!  She’s the best teacher in the whole world!” I cried that day. Through the craziness of remote learning, I was happy to be there for all of my beautiful students.

Anna Redding

4th grade teacher

George Welch Elementary School, West Monroe, La.

Learning how to navigate all the factors of distance learning reminded me of the beginning of each school year.  It was exciting and chaotic at the same time, since I was navigating through uncharted waters. Parts of my plan worked while other parts failed miserably. I did not give up though; I’m an educator and can always find a way to adapt to new situations. Not only did I adapt, but also my students and their families adapted. My school district did not require teachers to teach; we were only required to assign review work. I chose to continue to teach virtually, and parents appreciated that. Therefore, parents were willing to assist their child to join in on Zoom lessons, watch prerecorded lessons, and complete assignments. Once the school year was over, I had many parents thank me for my efforts in virtual teaching. It was not a thanks because their child learned so much academically. Instead it was a thanks because I adapted to meet the biggest needs of my students during the stay-at-home order….the need for normalcy and socialization.

Brook Veldkamp

Kindergarten teacher

Challenger Elementary School, Kentwood, Mich.

As I look back on the spring, it still feels surreal how the school year ended. The unknowns and uncertainty made for many challenges as well as new experiences. As an educator, one of the most memorable experiences for me was simply keeping in touch and communicating with my 27 families. I have always sought to communicate with families as a number one priority as an educator, but this semester brought that communication to another level. Walking alongside them as they learned how to teach their child, while often still keeping up with their own job, gave me new insight into their experiences. It is definitely a lesson that I will take with me as we enter the fall semester: to continue to walk alongside my families in a similar way as I was able to during this initial effort in distance learning.

What online teaching and learning strategies did your students respond to the best?

Sachiko Green

5th grade teacher

Pelham Oaks Elementary School, Pelham, Ala.

We were very fortunate to have been consistently using Ready Math and i-Ready within my classroom. This made the transition to virtual instruction a breeze. My students continued logging into their i-Ready accounts and working on their individualized paths throughout the end of the school year. Additionally, I assigned the students specific math lessons based on any critical standards that I had not explicitly taught within the classroom yet. I made it a priority to provide constructive feedback with each completed lesson. I found that this was pertinent for students to take ownership in online learning while continuing to feel engaged in the assignments. The students were more likely to participate when instructions were clear and concise, the lessons were engaging, and if they were provided meaningful feedback.  

Amanda Kipnis

Special Day Class teacher, 3rd-5th grade

San Altos Elementary School, Lemon Grove, Calif.

Short, live virtual interactions with small groups worked best. This was the only true way to gauge students’ social and emotional well-being (most parents replied that they were “good” or “fine” each week, regardless of whether they truly needed help). When the material was engaging and the lessons were interactive and fast-paced, the students responded really well.  We already know kids, especially our students with autism, are visual learners. Frequent attention grabbers become vital when teaching remotely. To increase attending we began each session with stretching and “whole body listening” activities. We incorporated a lot of video and audio clips (thank you Safe YouTube!) and had the occupational therapist (OT) incorporate kinesthetic movements as often as possible.  

We all worked together on the same activities, within the same documents. I would add the academic piece, the speech therapist would add her part, and the OT would add hers. Not only do we now better understand each others’ roles, but we’ve all picked up strategies that we can utilize across settings. The students definitely benefited from this collaborative approach! 

We embedded all activities into a Google Slides/PowerPoint presentation. This streamlined having to toggle between different tabs or staff members’ screens. All sessions were done with a co-teacher.  Having a partner help monitor the chat room, admit students from the waiting room, or even to present their screen so the head teacher can focus on teaching reduced teacher stress. This took more planning, but really helped create more efficient and meaningful lessons.

Alicia Renaud

3rd grade teacher

Drew Elementary School, West Monroe, La.

My students respond best to anything interactive. Reading an online source and answering questions was not going to cut it. We had to have online activities where the students could interact with each other. We would use Zoom or Google Meet for class discussion, along with Google Slides and Docs so students could work in groups on a shared document just like they would in the classroom on paper. Many strategies used in the regular classroom can be adjusted to online learning if you’re willing to be creative and adventurous. I made many mistakes and adjusted as I needed, just as I would in the classroom setting. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s proof that you are trying. That’s what we tell our students, right?  As educators, we need to be willing to try, fail, and try again. 

What is a standout anecdote that describes your experience this past semester? 

Amanda Kipnis:

The funniest (and often most frustrating) part of navigating through this quagmire is watching intelligent, well-educated adults navigate technology. It’s a nightmare! And that’s coming from what my brother calls a “technology dinosaur.” (So what if I still have an AOL account!) To be fair, I probably did 80-90 hours of online professional development during the first few weeks of lockdown―not exactly the spring break I had planned. But dinosaur or not, I wanted to be prepared for whatever was going to be asked of me. 

In the beginning, teachers were a comedy of errors trying to hold staff meetings via Zoom. None of us knew what we were doing! And there was definitely a learning curve with Zoom etiquette, but we learned quickly; we had to. Now, most teachers can explicitly explain the intricacies of Zoom settings, which makes virtual meetings with non-tech users entertaining. We’ve all had to meet with other staff, parents, or family members who haven’t been thrown into the distance learning world like teachers were. Watching others try to figure out where their mute button is, or how to turn on their video, can be entertaining…the first 1,000 times! And if I had a nickel for every time I heard, “I’m sorry, I’m not good at technology,” I could retire early.  Four months in and I think people not muting themselves could be my biggest teaching pet peeve―surpassing those infamous “reply all” people.

Alicia Renaud:

The end of the year was rough. Normally there are celebrations, awards, hugs, pictures, all the things!  Well, that did not happen. Our school opted for a modified end of the year Zoom celebration. All of our 3rd graders and parents logged in, we got to see all of their faces, and some even dressed up for the occasion. You would think talking to a computer screen would make it easier to say, “see ya next year!” but it made it 10 times harder. We only had a 30 minute window to end the year, and what an interesting year it was. We laughed, smiled, cried, and shared little anecdotes from the year. It may not have been the ending to the year that we all wanted, but we were able to make the best of it.

Cynthia Chapman:

Through this experience, I learned how truly caring and empathetic my students are. We sometimes do not give them enough credit for having such big hearts. One of the assignments we were working on was a friendly letter. Now, writing is a struggle for many students. It is not their favorite subject or, if they want to write, it definitely is not structured writing. We have been working on friendly letters most of the year. Every Friday students write a letter to me and tell me about how their week has gone, what they’ve learned, what were some of their struggles and successes, as well as something they may be looking forward to over the weekend. They look forward to doing this. I read them over the weekend and write back to a handful of them each time until everyone has received a letter from me, and then I start over again. 

They don’t know when it will be their turn to get a return letter. This time, instead of writing to me, I wanted them to choose an essential worker to address, if they were comfortable with it. They ran with it and all of them chose to write to the firefighters in the firehouse by our school. Their letters were touching. They shared how they hoped they were safe, using hand sanitizer and wearing a mask, and how they respected the hard work they were doing. Many said that even though they were bored being home, they knew it was the right thing to do to stay safe and healthy. One even said he loved them and that not enough people tell them that. These letters also touched the heart of our fire chief for the village, who shared it with our mayor. I think it was because the words were honest, innocent, loving, and meant something. Writing these letters to someone other than their teacher made them feel more connected to their community, especially since it was the firefighters who would be the ones who come to our school or to their homes if there was an emergency.  It made my heart full!

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