Teachers using every tool in their tech toolbox

Over the summer school officials took what they learned in the spring about distance learning and created a more robust plan that included an emphasis on technology to create a more robust Distance Learning 2.0.

“We went from zero to 60 getting technology out,” said Liz Liscum, principal of Creekside High School and tech lead for Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

Forced in March to close due to the pandemic, Sonoma Valley school district scrambled to put together a plan for distance learning that was expected to be short-term, but due to continued coronavirus infection rates in the county, school closure was extended into the new school year.

Within weeks of shelter-in-place rules, the district got Chromebooks out to all of the students who didn’t already have one, something that was happening across the nation as the pandemic grew. They also provided Wifi – or hot spots – to students whose homes did not have internet. Resources were limited as school districts across the U.S. sought out materials, but the district got a jump on it, said Andy Mitchell, another tech lead for the district who also teaches photography at the high school.

Mitchell and Liscum are among a group that taught teachers in the district over the summer how to use the Google Suite of applications and several other online programs that they are now using in Distance Learning 2.0.

It was a “huge learning curve” going from in-person to online, Liscum said. High school students and teachers were a bit ahead of that curve given that they already used laptops and web programs in learning. The elementary students needed the most support, Mitchell and Liscum said, because in general some are new to computers.

Distance learning is tough on everybody, and Superintendent Socorro Shiels maintains that she and the rest of the district want to get students and teachers back together in person in classrooms, but not until it is safe to do so and with the blessings of the county and state. The situation is frustrating to all.

“Hope is a strategy,” Liscum said.

Teachers are spending more time doing prep work now than when they teach in person. Regina Mellinger, who is in her second year teaching third grade at Prestwood Elementary School, said she spends about four hours every Sunday prepping for the week. Every night requires extra prep time, too, because she’s not only getting things ready for the students, she is getting things ready for the adults who are overseeing students in their home work environments. The adults may be parents, grandparents, other family members or staff members of the pod program at the Boys and Girls Club. But they need to be able to understand what a student should be doing or working on in order to oversee and supervise their activities.

They all need to see, for example, what she will be teaching, when and where to get online for a teleconference, and where to go for an assignment.

“In a live class I just have to prep for myself. This is about double the work,” Mellinger said.

Teachers across the district are working long, hard hours trying to move a whole classroom onto a screen, keep students engaged and motivated, and help them learn.

“We’re tired. It’s exhausting,” Mellinger said.

Students are feeling the pain, too. Caroline Studdert, a 10th-grader at Sonoma Valley High School connected online to the district’s board meeting on Oct. 20, and read comments from classmates in the group Sonoma Valley Youth Rising. The group meets every other week to discuss board matters that effect students, she said.

One student said she has to care for her younger brothers during the day and does cooking and cleaning as well, Studdert said.

Studdert said students report a lack of motivation and feeling isolated, alone and helpless, too.

Mental health and well-being are a concern for the district, which has ramped up its wellness resources and outreach to students.

Teachers are using mobile apps to text with students and parents and report a higher than usual interaction with parents. The apps allow teachers to stay in contact without giving out their personal mobile phone number.

Creativity and innovation

Mellinger said that in person she can use voice inflection, facial expressions and body language to keep the attention of her young charges. To translate that into a screen image means building visually stimulating slides and other presentations. It’s extra work, but necessary, she said.

She has a website with tabs for both student and parent portals, and thanks to Google Translate it is available in English and Spanish. Her daily plans are broken down into time segments and have hyperlinks on them so students only have one place to look for such things as Zoom links, assignments, times and names for small group work, and independent tasks.

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