by Sefarina Benevides
The student body feels the pain of virtual learning. No social interaction. No conversation. No voices. No faces. And the teachers are feeling it too. How are the teachers in our school holding up? What's happened with substitute teachers? Is everything going to be okay?
I took the liberty of meeting up with a few teachers at Reagan to discuss their missions to get their students involved in online classes. Everyone knows the pain of sitting in class and seeing black screen full of circle emojis or character icons. Your peers might be off doing something else in their home. Or working on a different project. As much as you are in the dark about what's going on on the other side, your teachers are too.
Mr. Michael Moore, a mathematics teacher at Reagan says that throughout quarantine, he's been great personally. Moore says that he was built to live in isolation, and that he is very happy living his day-to-day life, only seeing his wife, son, and the occasional delivery boy. However, he hates how he has to teach. Moore says he enjoys hanging out with people and having fun in class, hopping around from group to group, dancing and singing. Profile pictures are not what he became a teacher to see.
Not only does the virtual setting take its toll on his classes, but the actual duration of the classes. During a normal school year, each class would be taught 2-3 times per week, with 90 minutes dedicated to each class, as well as an after school workroom open for an hour three days per week. This year, the schedule has changed dramatically, with over 20 hours of instruction time cut from the schedule. Moore states, “What normally would be a huge part of teaching is helping students that are struggling, but we get no feedback.” “I can put together the best presentations, but no one does them,'' he continues. “We’re here and available to help, but no one is taking advantage of that”.
With the three hours of dedicated Asynchronous work time, and the availability of teacher office hours, surely students would find the time to ask for help? I’ve heard many first-hand accounts of life during virtual learning. My peers have told me that they are either working on other school work during their classes, taking care of their siblings or other family members, or simply just going back to bed.
Teachers understand the obstacles that students are having to go through, because they are going through them as well. I'm sure you’ve seen the occasional baby crawl through the background of your teacher’s at-home classrooms.
As for Google Meet/Zoom teaching. Moore believes that if students unanimously choose not to turn on their cameras, then we should switch to Khan academy or Canvas teachings (souly virtual assignments without virtual instruction). “If you're not turning your cameras on and you're not talking to your teachers, then why the heck are we having Google Meets.” The purpose of having the online meets are for the social emotional benefits and benefits of asking questions in front of peers, and still, no one is doing that.
Moore says that, “There are kids that I teach that I have not seen or heard from since August 8th.” He says that this applied to over 50% of his students.
In an ideal world, he would be back in person, laughing about things in a cafe, going to ball games, leading after school clubs, giving jumping high fives to Puddicombe in the hallways, and making fun of Mr. Milizer
Madame Terri Knight, a French teacher at Reagen high school gives her account on virtual learning as well.
Knight is doing alright in her daily life, going on walks and getting out of her house makes her feel a bit better about the state of the world. Initially, when Knight would log on to her classes and see a screen full of icons, she started to feel like a failure. She couldn't reach kids that she otherwise would have been able to reach face to face. To try and understand everything, Knight goes back to when she was in high school. She said that she most likely would have turned her camera off too. She thinks about how it’s every kid’s dream to sit in their room for school, not have to be seen, have no one pay attention to you. Knight says, “I understand how teenagers are being judged, especially with the social media generation. Everything is deceiving, immoral, iligal, and unethical.” However, as someone who cares a lot about her students, she knows that what they are missing in their lives is making connections.
At the beginning of online instruction, Knight pulled out all the tricks she knew. She tried bribery and begging, but in the end, the teachers couldn't reach through the screen. Knight reminds us that it’s embedded in Reagan’s culture to form relationships with one another.
Of course she wants her students to turn on their cameras, but she knows that no matter what anyone says or promises, it's up to the students whether or not they do it. Knight says, “If I thought that urging them made a difference, if I thought there was a way to encourage them, something I haven't already thought of, I would do it.”
On a parting note, Madame Knight wants us to know that we would feel a lot closer to each other if we started turning on our cameras. Think about how you feel when you see someone else in your class with their cameras on, you’re not judging them, you're not picking apart their backgrounds, so they're probably not doing that to you either. Just take care of yourself and you'll feel more confident.
I interviewed one final teacher at reagan. Mr. Puddicombe is an English and performing arts teacher here at school. He also runs a number of organizations within the school, including leadership programs and inclusive clubs. One organization he manages is the Link Crew program from juniors and seniors. Link crew members are upperclassmen who want to help underclassmen adapt to high school life. He started an initiative at the beginning of January for his Link Leaders to turn on their cameras while they were in class. He asked them to document the changes they saw in their classes along with any experiences they wanted to share with the rest of the Crew. During the first week, stories of kids turning on their cameras and engaging more in class were coming in strong, but after a while, thighs went back to the way they were. Eventually the numbers of kids with cameras on dwindle down, and there were no more stories coming in.
As far as teaching goes, Puddicombe hates this new environment. Especially being a performing arts teacher, it is difficult to act without a stage to perform on. Puddicombe misses being able to teach and interact with students in person, and this extends beyond just teaching. It is no secret that a number of kids struggle with mental health, and require constant help to cope with everyday struggles. Puddicombe knows that he cannot connect with his students like he used to. He says, “I think I'm good at making connections, reading faces and pulling kids aside to have check in, now that’s just impossible.”
The schedule for school times is messing up his teaching mojo as well. Just like other teachers, he is reaping the consequences of MPS cutting down instruction hours. The school board was convinced that students would use the asynchronous work time to reach out to teachers and ask questions, but that hasn't been happening very often. If the system is structured to rely on the students 50%, and that's not being accomplished, either the students need to step up their game by 150%, or the system needs to change. Puddicome says the students are held to “a level of self management that we've never asked students to do before.”
Courses are designed to have a certain level of content, and when more than half of the instruction time is wiped away, how are teachers expected to accommodate. Throughout this year, he has had to simplify his instruction plans and streamline things to make them more manageable for his students. He says that teachers are throwing out a lot of what they would normally do. Students are not operating at the “same level of retention,” so they have to introduce lessons a lot slower and with a lot more attention. Combining this strategy of presenting the material, along with the shortened class time, I see no way that teachers would be able to fit in all the district assigned course material by the end of the semester.
Puddicombe urges all students to turn on their cameras. He tries to provide positive feedback when students do what they're asked.
“Thank you for turning your camera on.”
“Thank you for unmutting.” “
Nice to see your face.”
“Nice to hear your voice.”
By treating every situation positively, he says students are more likely to want to do what they're asked. He would never call out students who are not doing what they're asked. For one, technology issues are not to blame, and a teacher would not know if a kid’s microphone or camera is not working, so who are they to call that student out publicly in class without a way for them to defend themselves. He also knows that there is no progress in making a student feel bad about themselves. There are a number of reasons why someone would not want to turn on their cameras, including: babysitting, other school work, managing the house, or a number of other legit reasons they don't want to have a conversation about. Illegitimate reasons are: watching tv, being on your phone, going back to sleep, staying in bed, or just simply not wanting to out of laziness.
I asked Puddicombe how he thought this would affect our progress towards preparing for college, as we are a college prep school and our final year has been taken away from us. He says that this situation actually mirrors college life quite accurately. Not just about the virtual classes, but the self dependence, the self management and the struggle to juggle numerous responsibilities. He says, “If you've been successful this year, you'll be successful in college.” There are so many opportunities for growth throughout this whole experience. And we have to keep in mind that everyone in the world is going through this same experience. Our school and our grade is not an exception. Were not the only school that got shut down, the only one who's schedule has changed, or the only one who has cut down on the required curriculum. All of MPS, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the US, and the world has gone through this. We are not alone.
The struggle of virtual instruction is real, after all “We’re human animals that make eye contact.” We have that need to connect with one another, and looking at a gray screen with a bunch of cartoon icons on it does not satisfy that. We have 10000s years of evolution training us to make eye contact, and in one year, that was stolen. Even seeing someone's face through the monitor is not everything we need either. Technically, those aren't eyes we're looking into, they're pictures of eyes, spit up into tiny pixels, and shown with blue light through a screen.
In an ideal world (while still being virtual), Puddicombe says that everyone would be seen. People wouldn't feel isolated and disconnected. People wouldn't take for granted what it's like to be in a space with lots of people. We would return to our normal lives, and appreciate it on a level we never knew we could.
What would you like to see?
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