By: Mattie Tomey
This year has been unlike any other. When the pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect. As the first two weeks of distance learning turned into the last two months of school, we knew the following year would look completely different. Now, students everywhere are still facing new challenges every day as we try to balance school, extracurriculars, work, and our personal lives- all amongst a global pandemic.
However, in this time filled with uncertainty and hardships for students, our teachers and faculty have faced immense challenges as well, trying to make sure that we have the best learning experience possible, all while trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Often, we forget about all the sacrifices they make for us. In an effort to hear about what they have to say, I have compiled a few questions to ask some of my teachers, who have graciously put time aside in their busy schedules to answer.
- First things first: what class or classes do you teach this year?
Mr. Irwin: I have two classes of Spanish 4, two classes of Spanish 4 Honors, and one class of Spanish 5.
Mr. Wahlgren: AP U.S. History, AP Comparative Government, and Honors US History
Ms. Ekblad: I teach AP Literature and Composition as well as Studies in Culture, a senior honors English elective.
Ms. Thorn: Algebra II Honors, AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC
Mr. Leavengood: Musical Theatre X3, Film Making and Playwriting/Screenwriting
Mrs. Gende: Honors Physics, AP Physics 2 and AP Physics C
Mr. Paige: Equity and Social Justice, AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics
- What has been the biggest challenge for you in teaching your classes this year?
Mr. Irwin: First and foremost, not being able to have students move around and interact quite as much with each other in communicative activities has really bothered me. Language classes are meant to be pragmatic and highly interactive, and to not be able to offer that this year to the degree I have in the past leaves me often feeling bad for the students, as they are not getting the fullest experience possible.
Mr. Wahlgren: Keeping up with all of the additional tasks, such as recording lecture videos, and writing online assessments. In addition, finding time to meet with students individually on Webex.
Ms. Ekblad: It can feel discouraging to work twice as hard and feel like the instruction is half as good as you want it to be. I think everyone in our society is feeling that way—if we’re all working extra hard, shouldn’t we all be crushing it?
Part of the problem is that there are far more moving pieces in my world than ever before. Just keeping track of who’s on flex or updating the flex page with the tidbits I throw into lessons at the last minute takes up a lot of my mental bandwidth, but all that work is invisible.
Ms. Thorn: Staying organized as I balance students at home and at school, getting handouts to Power School, updating Power School, creating portfolios, and meeting with flex students.
Mr. Leavengood: Trying to keep the FLEX students involved, engaged (and remembered!) in some of my classes.
Mrs. Gende: Managing assignments for all of my classes in both flex and face to face learning.
Mr. Paige: Keeping students engaged and participatory, when I can’t move around the room or see students at home.
- How do you feel about the new-open note policy put in place this year? Has it affected the ways you assess your students?
Mr. Irwin: As you can most likely expect, I am not an avid fan. I believe firmly that having open-resource assessments slows students down and causes them to doubt themselves more often than normal. Furthermore, not everything in real life will always be “open-resource”, and that being said, I fear that students will not possess as strong of abilities as before to effectively and efficiently handle “tests” of any type.
Mr. Wahlgren: The open-note policy is here, so I’m taking part in this giant experiment along with everyone else. I mostly assess with analytical discussion boards and essay writing.
Ms. Ekblad: The open-note policy has disadvantaged students in ways that they don’t necessarily see quite yet. There are many pieces of information you need to have memorized, that you need to truly own, in order to master the bigger concepts. In my class, for instance, you need to know your literary terms before you can aptly apply them in written analysis. But with the open-note policy, I can’t hold students accountable for these terms in quite the way I used to. And then, the assessments we do give have to be harder and more application-based, a shift that I think the students resent as well.
Ms. Thorn: The way I assess mostly has not changed, though for questions that can be done easily with the calculator, students must now explain their logic of how to solve without a calculator. I do ask a few more conceptual questions than usual.
I am really worried about how this will affect student’s math performance in future years. There are things that students simply must know to excel in higher level math. With open book/calculator, it is putting that work off for a year, so I worry that will make Pre-Calculus, Calculus, and AP Stats that much harder. I worry that students have forgotten to study without relying on having their notes out–this will be a problem in future years, on standardized tests, and in college.
Mr. Leavengood: It’s just another less-than-ideal compromise we have to make. It is less effective in seeing what each student knows, but also challenges me to think of ways to create questions that neutralize the easy advantages of open notes.
Mrs. Gende: My assessments are basically the same with a few minor changes.
The open-note test policy affects the way students prepare for assessments as I have noticed that it gives students a false sense of confidence. Knowing how to apply the concepts from your personal learning is not the same as thinking that you can look it up during an assessment.
Mr. Paige: I think it has been fine. It has totally changed the way I write tests, and I worry if students will have had enough practice of multiple choice questions when we get to the AP, but I actually like the system because it feels more like real life tasks. (Producing work is open notes in the real world!)
- Do you think any positives have come out of the new types of teaching and learning this year, both for you and your students?
Mr. Irwin: I am a firm believer of there ALWAYS being something positive to come out of any type of situation. While I am somewhat hard-pressed in this particular situation, I would be remiss to not acknowledge this! As I reflect here and now, I have learned to use some additional technology, and I will also have an expanded repertoire of activities that could be left with a substitute in the future whenever I am not able to be here. All the work invested in redesigning some things will not have been in vain, for sure.
Mr. Wahlgren: I can’t speak for the students. However, I have a renewed appreciation for how great it is to be on campus each day with highly motivated students.
Ms. Ekblad: We’re all becoming more flexible and resilient through this experience! This year has forced me to get organized on a whole new level, and that has some advantages. For instance, now when a student misses an individual class, they can simply watch the video of our discussion. Welcome to the school of the future.
Ms. Thorn: My students are appreciating being able to go back and watch my explanations of the hardest material in videos I create for flex students. It allows them to get immediate help from home and means sometimes they may not need extra help, which saves everyone time. Students are learning to be more flexible and more open to different types of assessments.
Mr. Leavengood: Just shows what we can all– teachers and students– do together to “make it work”
Mrs. Gende: There are more differences than positives in my teaching practice and my students’ learning.
Mr. Paige: I have learned a lot of tech for sure…also, it has helped me think about some of the basic fundamentals of engaging teaching that sometimes we take for granted.
- What is one thing you wish could be implemented in order to make distance learning better and/or more sustainable for teachers?
Mr. Irwin: I’ve honestly not thought about this much. I am more concerned about what will make distance learning better for students than for myself.
Mr. Wahlgren: We are fortunate to have the technology to implement distance learning but there is a reason that schools and universities meet in person. I’m not sure what can make the situation more sustainable, because distance learning affects each class and subject a bit differently.
Ms. Ekblad: We simply need more time in our schedules. It feels like we’re teaching two or three extra classes because of flex, and that all takes time.
Ms. Thorn: -skipped-
Mr. Leavengood: I don’t know
Mrs. Gende: Nothing. It is OK the way it is.
Mr. Paige: Easy, easy, easy…all students should have the exact same device with the exact same software. The biggest hurdle is finding software that works equally in Ipad and laptops…
- What is one thing you want your students to know during this time?
Mr. Irwin: A couple of things: 1. Your teachers are truly doing their best and are on a major learning curve with the whole process. 2. We value open, timely, and clear communication from you. We can only help you when we know there is a problem or you are in need of our support and help. However, please also know that poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on the teacher’s part. Finally, please keep us in mind as you make choices to engage or not engage in activities that can put you at risk, in turn, putting your teachers lives and health at risk. We will make it, but only by doing so together and being flexible with each other and considerate of others.
Mr. Wahlgren: Despite all the challenges, I want to help make this year a productive one for you academically.
Ms. Ekblad: First, I want to say that I am proud of how well my students have handled the very adult challenges the past year has placed on them. I think this time has only brought us closer together as a community (metaphorically, in the age of social distancing). Last spring really made us realize how much we need each other, and we are lucky to gather in person when so much of the world is so deeply isolated. We have to continue to make good choices and protect the safety of our community so we can keep this going.
I also want my students to know that their teachers are doing significantly more work this year than ever before. Please be patient with us. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that you’re not seeing.
Ms. Thorn: It is hard for everyone; your teachers are feeling the difficulty/anxiety/exhaustion, too! Hopefully this makes us all appreciate our return to “normalcy” soon! I appreciate them and have been glad to see their faces each day!
Mr. Leavengood: They are doing a great job of persevering and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Mrs. Gende: I understand their struggles as I am dealing with my own frustrations with the everyday challenges. We are in this together and we are better by supporting each other.
Mr. Paige: We are all trying our best, we are all learning (and failing) then learning again, then improving…and failing some more, etc.
- We are about two months away from when distance learning was put in place at the beginning of the pandemic last year. If you could go back in time, what is one piece of advice you would give to yourself if you knew what was going to happen in the year to come?
Mr. Irwin: Be patient with yourself. Things have worked out fine, and the students have been very patient and flexible when I needed it most. Students are also willing to help support you with technology when needed. It all will turn out ok!
Mr. Wahlgren: I’d tell myself that the pandemic is going to last a while. Therefore, I should probably bring home a lot of books, my computer charger, and the stockpile of tea and coffee I’ve built up.
Ms. Ekblad: I think I would tell my former self that this would be a marathon, not a sprint. At the beginning of distance learning, it felt like being a good teacher meant video editing skills and knowing how to use a whole slew of apps. This experience has confirmed for me that
what makes a class meaningful is the quality of the discussions, and I need to focus my effort on the tools that help us talk to each other.
Ms. Thorn: Get an Apple Pencil–it has made grading and giving feedback easier for me and MUCH easier for my students to read and understand. And the phone scanner is an amazing thing!
Mr. Leavengood: The world you know today is not necessarily the world you will know tomorrow. Be ready to change, compromise and be inventive to stay happy and productive.
Mrs. Gende: Take it step-by-step and not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks. Be calm and keep on going a day at a time!
Mr. Paige: You are about to stare at your own face more in the next year than you have in all of the 43 years you have been alive before this. Get ready to be completely distracted by your eyebrows.
Thank you teachers for all that you have done during these crazy times, we appreciate you!
Checking in with Teachers