At South West Middle School, Stacey Maydak is tasked with teaching math and science to fifth graders over Zoom and in person. She said teaching usually tactile science classes over Zoom has been difficult, and a fully-stocked closet of supplies for various experiments sits nearly unused. It’s not hard to adapt a basic math lesson for virtual learning, she added, but it’s much more difficult to tell which students are struggling with the material when they’re not in the classroom.
“I just want to make sure everyone is understanding,” she said. “It’s not as easy to notice when someone is lost or needs extra help as when you’re in person, so I try to notice that and pull them aside online.”
During a recent science class, Maydak was teaching students the three phases of matter. Students chimed in with their own experiences, anecdotes and questions, but many were still confused at the end of the lesson. Maydak said it wasn’t a problem, they’d pick it back up the next day, and said that example is a common one when teaching virtually.
“It takes so much more time to teach a concept, I can’t believe how much I used to be able to get through,” she said. “I really do feel like it’s going well. We’re doing good work, it’s just slower. It’s getting a little easier, but I can’t wait to get back to normal.”
At the elementary school level, Gaeta said customization is key. It’s not likely that all 20 students in a Zoom class will grasp the same topics at the same time, and Gaeta has turned to technology to keep students at all levels entertained.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Gaeta was working with virtual students on alphabetization. Students each had access to an individual, interactive slideshow and were asked to rearrange words until they were in correct alphabetical order. Once finished with that, students could move on to a similar slide asking them to do the same with full sentences. If they breezed through that, they moved on to an online activity on quizlet.com while Gaeta worked with anyone still struggling with the original assignment.
“It’s like having an in-person class, you’re managing a lot at once. We all work at our own speeds whether in person or online, that’s just part of working in an elementary school,” she said. “Some students will finish quickly and then need something else to challenge them, and others need you to sit with them and support them through the initial assignment. I’ve never seen kids not understand that some students will just take a little longer – they’re really good and supportive of each other and rarely does anyone get frustrated.”
Ruth Witmer, principal at the Lincoln-Hancock school, said she’s been surprised by just how similar long-distance learning can be to in person.
“It really is similar to being face-to-face,” she said. “They try to stick to the exact same routine, they follow the same curriculum and they’re all in line with one another.”
Teachers say the learning curve for virtual classes has been just as steep for them as for students. Gaeta said spring teaching was a major struggle, and that a summer of training was necessary to make her feel comfortable in front of the screen.
Maydak said she still isn’t without technology issues, and said she and her colleagues frequently share the tips and tricks they’ve learned to keep students engaged online.