From the time Gov. Roy Cooper ordered public schools across the state to suspend in-person teaching until the beginning of online learning in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, teachers had three days to come up with new ways to educate and engage students under stressful circumstances.
Four weeks later, they’ve displayed a range of creative and inventive ways to reach students, from coronavirus-themed dances to apiary visits to journals on life during a pandemic.
Though they are using all sorts of methods, from Zoom to Loom to YouTube to tried-and-true links, one theme has emerged — online teaching is hard, and not just because of technology challenges.
“This has been more of an emotional and mental toll than I thought it would be,” said Molly Harwell, a dance teacher at Reagan High School. “I miss my students so much. I miss my work. I miss dancing everyday. This has been a grieving process. We know our students so deeply because, unlike some other teachers, we may have students for four years, and it’s hard not to have that closure moment with them.”
Some faculty members also say they wind up working odd hours in order to reach parents who work during the day. At Easton Elementary School, for instance, many students are left with older siblings or grandparents for the day, said Kristina Morris, the media coordinator at the school.
“Honestly, we’ve never worked harder,” Morris said. “You wouldn’t think that’s the case because the children aren’t around, but for some reason, the digital world goes beyond the normal 7:30 to 3:30 day.”
Despite the challenges, teachers are improvising and taking new approaches to their lessons.
Normally this time of year, Desirae Balsamo, an environmental science teacher at Hanes Middle School, would be teaching sustainable agriculture, lessons that would revolve around organic farming, homesteading and pest management.
To make up for that, she is "taking" kids into her backyard apiary, uploading videos on YouTube that show students the birth of a honeybee, how to build a colony, what a queen bee looks like and how to tell the difference between a male and female bee.
In the past, students have always shown an interest in bees, she said.
“This year, I was like, ‘Well, I’ve got the time. and my kids are probably a little bored so let’s go for it,’” Balsamo said. “They’re really having fun with it.”
Harwell and her fellow dance teacher at Reagan, Erin Astuto, also put a video on YouTube, a cardio warm-up with moves inspired by the new coronavirus. Moves include “Elbow Five,” “Six Feet Apart,” “Sanitize” and “Grab the Toilet Paper from the Grocery Store.” The video has about 2,700 views.
Harwell and Astuto teach all levels of dance at Reagan. Typically, they’d be working on the spring dance concert, a tradition that also serves as a farewell to senior dance students.
“Our main goal is to keep the community we’ve developed with our students throughout the year,” Harwell said. “While we can’t be physically active with them in the classroom, all of our assignments have been about getting them away from the computer and moving in the same way we’d teach them.”
The students are currently working on creating a video of a unified dance with individuals performing certain moves. Video of the individual moves will be stitched together to look like one dance.
“It will give them that feeling of unity,” Astuto said.
Another Reagan teacher, Kristen Crews, is asking kids to reflect in journal entries what it means to be living during a pandemic. An American History teacher, Crews talked with students about the 1918 flu pandemic. They looked at posters from that era that said such things as “Don’t Spit” and “Don’t Shake Hands” and compared life then versus today.
Crews, who has taught at Reagan for 10 years, wrote in her own journal about the pandemic and found it cathartic.
“It’s helpful to be reflective in this time of uncertainty,” she said, noting that some students are stressed about their grade point average and the loss of such activities as prom. “But also, part of social history is what was day-to-day life like for people, so how can we use what we’re writing about in the future? That’s our job as teachers, to get them to apply what they’re learning in class to current issues.”
She’s letting kids write as many journal entries as they want or express themselves through a podcast for video log.
Crews is juggling teaching with watching her two young sons during the day. One is a kindergarten student and has his own lessons to complete.
Besides teaching and watching her sons, Crews said she spends an hour or two each week calling parents of students she has not heard from since online learning began. That’s a small percentage of her students, she said.
“I was at my computer until midnight last night,” Crews said. “I can’t get enough done because of my boys. They’re constantly, ‘Mommy, mommy, why are you on the phone?’ After they go to bed, I get back on the computer.”
To cope, Crews said she has lowered her expectations. She knows of one student who has had to pick up more work at a grocery store because of a parent’s lost job.
“I can’t be perfect at my job,” she said, “and these kids can’t be perfect as students.”
Morris, the Easton Elementary School teacher, has spent her time finding resources for teachers, including technology tools that will allow kids to see and hear their teachers. One resource is a poem a day for the month of April, which is national poetry month. For each day of the week, students can click on a poem and hear and see their teacher.
“But mostly, we’re concerned with their well-being. Are they staying healthy?” Morris said.
She thinks about one young girl who loved coming into the library and checking out new books. On the day her parents came to pick up a Chromebook, Morris thought to herself “What is she going to do without her books?”
Morris gathered 10 books, checked them out and sent them home with the student, uncertain when she’d see the books or girl again.