Remote Learning: A Semester in Review

Reading, MA – On March 13, on what would later be dubbed the last day of in-person classes, one might have expected the scene at Reading Memorial High School to be one of the students traveling from class to class, trading jokes while grabbing books from their lockers. Instead, the scene was that of an unexpected quiet.

“At 10:30 am the students had this huge walkout, so there were like no students there. By 11 am, there was not a single soul in the school that day. I think I had two kids show up to my E-Block class, but I didn’t have any more kids show up after that” said Anna Cuevas, Video Production Teacher at RMHS.

The walkout came after students had expressed their frustration that Reading, unlike many of the other school districts in the Greater Boston Area which had closed earlier in the week due to growing concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, had decided to remain open through Friday, March 13.

At the time, neither the students nor the teachers realized this would be the last time they would see each other in-person for the remainder of the academic year.

“At the end of the day, at like 3 pm, on March 13 we received an email from Reading Public schools that said they would be closed for the next two weeks. But there was nothing about online learning or anything. And then about a week into that, they realized we were going to be closed longer than that. But we didn’t start remote learning until the week of April 6 to April 10” said Cuevas.

That period between March 13 and April 6 was filled with planning behind the scenes, as the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education started to put guidelines in place for its vast network of public schools across Massachusetts.

In the days since remote learning was first implemented, teachers throughout the Reading Public Schools have been working hard to figure out the best way to reach their students in this new environment.

Photo of a closed Birch Meadow School. By Julia Corbett

“The biggest challenge is not being to interact face-to-face with students and have full-class discussions about the texts we’re reading. As teachers, we’ve tried to break down assignments into manageable parts, but it’s harder without being able to check-in face-to-face with students as they are learning” said Andrea Mooney, an English teacher at RMHS.

“I work five times harder now. I think so much of my teaching style I base on how I see them reacting in front of me, so that’s a huge piece you have to adapt to, is that you have to wait for a pause then you have to see their reaction online or their comments, so there is this delay. In the classroom, you can more quickly adapt to help them” said Helen Palmieri, a fifth-grade teacher of Science and Social Studies at Killam Elementary.

“All of my classes are production classes, so it’s been pretty difficult to make a production class online when students don’t have access to the classroom resources, like camera equipment, editing equipment, and software,” said Cuevas.

Art classes like Cuevas’ have had to adapt to this added challenge of students not having the same access to resources outside of the classroom as they do in their homes.

“What I have really had to do is make it more of a theory class rather than a production class. I am still trying to add some production elements because I know that is why students want to take my class. So, I’ve been trying to give them smaller projects that they can still create at home with their phones. Before COVID-19 shut down the schools, my Broadcast Journalism class was working on Inside RMHS, which is a news show about things that are happening in Reading and in the school. So, what I am having them do right now is they are going to be filming short segments with their phones” said Cuevas.

These smaller segments can be about any topic the students wish to investigate, such as cooking shows, segments regarding how students’ sleep schedules have been affected by COVID-19, as well as looking at how remote learning affects people at differing stages of their education.

“One student interviewed herself, her Mom who is a teacher, and her sister, who is a college student, to see how remote learning is going for all of them,” said Cuevas.

She hopes to edit these smaller segments together to create a program that reflects the students’ hard work over the course of the semester.

“Kind of like John Krasinski’s Some Good News,” said Cuevas.

A lack of face-to-face contact can be especially daunting when designing lesson plans for younger students. Yet, Reading teachers have again risen to the challenge. Palmieri’s work in remote lesson plans was recently highlighted in a Department of Secondary and Elementary Education webinar as an example of how remote instructional routines can look in elementary science. For this, Palmieri thanks Padlet, an online learning tool that works like a virtual version of Post-Its, allowing for students to add words, pictures, or videos on any topic of their choosing.

“Two days before the shutdown the kids and I had planted corn to be part of this lab where we compare how the corn grows in soil versus how it grows in cotton balls. So [when the shutdown happened] I took all the corn home with me, and I kept doing videos and taking pictures and keeping records. One of the things we are supposed to do for science is to make scientific models, so I asked the kids to draw a model, and I put up a Padlet for them. It was really cute” said Palmieri.

Teachers across grade levels have been attempting to create lessons that can allow for students to take a break from their computer screens and focus on their own social-emotional wellbeing.

“In addition to academic assignments, we’ve afforded students the opportunity to complete assignments based in self-care, such as meditation or learning a craft. It’s been a pleasure to read about students’ experiences with these types of assignments” said Mooney.

Overall, the teachers said that their students have shown that they have been able to rise to the challenge of remote learning. Although there have been some growing pains as students have struggled to meet deadlines and understand how differing teaching styles would translate to an online format, as well as what platform they should be looking for their assignments on.

“It’s definitely been difficult for a lot of students, especially for students with learning disabilities. Some teachers are using Google Classrooms, and some are using Plus Portals, so it isn’t consistent across all teachers. And even if most teachers are using Google Classroom, the assignments aren’t formatted the same, which makes it extremely difficult for students with learning disabilities. I’ve talked to a lot of students, and they are definitely overwhelmed by the amount of work they are getting, and that it is not the same as in school when you can just go up to a teacher and ask for help” said Cuevas.

“If we go into next year and we have the opportunity, I know I’ll approach things differently just to lay the groundwork for what you might have to do at home or on your own. For example, we had already used Google Classroom, but minimally. So, this was a big shift to go to the level that we then needed, and I think that is where some kids fell down” said Palmieri.

“I think the transition has been challenging. Many students are struggling with motivation given the emotional toll of isolating for the stay-at-home advisory, but overall students have risen to the challenge” said Mooney. 

Remote teaching has been a learning process, for students as well as teachers. There have been positives, as some students enjoy greater freedom to complete assignments at their own pace, and some negatives as students struggle to concentrate on assignments in homes where they may not have the same access to resources, whether physical, such as art equipment, or emotional, such as assistance from adults.

As teachers look forward to the eventual return of brick and mortar schools, one might wonder if there is anything they might take with them from this experience that they might apply to their in-person classes.

“I will cherish face-to-face time even that much more! And I’d like to incorporate additional social-emotional activities into my curriculum when we return to in-person learning” said Mooney.

“I hope change comes out of this, for education. I hope maybe we won’t be so grade obsessed. UCLA is not going to require the ACT or SAT anymore, so maybe this is a time where there will be a shift in understanding what really works best for all kinds of kids. I’m a big fan of giving kids choices, so maybe a kid who likes more of an online component can do that, or a kid who likes more of a live component can do that, so maybe we will be able to explore that and move away from more restrictive type things” said Palmieri.

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