Shorewood Intermediate School social studies teacher Sarah Kopplin (above) in her classroom.
“How do you build a sense of community in a class where everyone is a little black box on a screen? They’re middle school kids and they feel self-conscious, uncomfortable sharing their faces online.”— Sarah Kopplin, social studies teacher.
“I have one student who never came to class or participated last year. This year, he’s attending all his classes, he’s participating.”– Samantha Prystawik, special education teacher.
Kopplin and Prystawik are teachers in the Shorewood School District and are among the tens of thousands of local teachers who had to make the shift from in-person to mostly virtual classrooms over the past year, though many are now moving back to in-person learning. In mid-April, 2021, Shorewood offered students the option to go back to in-person instruction.
Both Shorewood teachers were part of a group of teachers from around the Milwaukee area who took part in a summer 2020 workshop at UWM that helped them prepare for an unprecedented year in their professional teaching careers. Course instructors were Simone Conceição, chair and professor of administrative leadership who has written a number of books about online learning; Candance Doerr-Stevens, associate professor of teaching and learning who teaches digital literacy; and Kristin Gaura, information technology consultant for the School of Education.
Shorewood Schools went virtual in the spring of 2020, with classes taught asynchronously (not in real time). In fall 2020 and early spring of 2021, the classes were mostly virtual, but a mix of asynchronous and synchronous (students and teachers together online). A few students, who had challenges with online learning or didn’t have access to technology, were in classrooms in-person with teachers.
The teachers say the School of Education summer program helped them prepare for their virtual classrooms.
“I think huge part of the benefit of the summer class was being there with colleagues from the district so we all have the same kind of background and common understanding of expectations, said Shorewood’s Amy Miller, who teaches 5th and 6th grade multiage at Lake Bluff elementary. “But we also learned from other districts who have different approaches or who have used different technologies.”
Sarah Kopplin, who teaches social studies, agreed that just sharing with other teachers and other school districts helped with developing innovative approaches and problem solving skills. It was also helpful to learn that everybody was learning to teach in a new environment and if one tool or technique didn’t work, you could try something else.
“We knew we were going to get hit hard by a new way of education, and it just helped me to know that we were mentally prepared to test things, to try it over if it doesn’t work. For me that was probably the most helpful. It gave me more confidence.”
While the schools had already been using more computer instruction and moving into a paperless environment, the sudden shift to mostly online was challenging, according to the teachers. While some students adapted quickly, keeping others engaged and participating required a great deal of creativity.
Middle school students are already sometimes reluctant to speak up in class, said Kopplin. “They’re self-conscious. That’s just where they’re at,” she said, so teachers had to be intentional in creating spaces where students could interact more naturally online. “We try to transform learning to make games and activities more engaging and less intimidating in this environment,” she added.
Trying to figure out how to give students one-on-one support, or encourage small group discussions was a particular challenge, according to the teachers interviewed. The UWM class helped them learn to build a sense of presence in the classroom, according to Kopplin and Prystawik.
“Joking around with kids and developing that rapport, that’s hard to do with that limited emotional connection on the screen,” said Kopplin, but Simone and the other professors gave us lot of good research to help build that sense of presence.”
Finding time to do everything that needed to be done in the virtual environment was another challenge. “I felt like I really had barely enough time when they were in person so now it feels like I really don’t have time,” said Prystawik in the fall of 2020.
Shorewood speech and language therapist Eva Gulotta found some benefits.
“For me, most all sessions were virtual, a completely dramatic shift in how I do things, but not necessarily a negative one. There are really a lot of positives to a teletherapy approach.”
Like some of the other teachers, she found certain students did well in the online environment.
“I’ve had students who struggled socially with what I’d call self-regulation so sometimes the school environment is overwhelming, and those students were really thriving in this virtual environment.”
“For many of my special ed students, this is the kind of environment they have waited for their entire life, said Prystawik. “For kids who don’t like to socialize or who are lacking in social skills or maybe have ADHD, they find they can fit in.”
One key benefit of the summer class at UWM was trying out new online tools that fit in with existing school programs like Google classroom. A number of teachers mentioned Nearpod, an interactive program that allowed them to make lessons more interactive and get students engaged.
“One benefit of the summer course was practicing using these new technologies,” added Miller. “That class was amazing because it was very interactive. The instructors were teaching the tools by showing them to you and interacting with them in the classroom environment. You got to play around with them to see how you could use them in a variety of purposes.”
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