Remote school: Painting without numbers on a strange Canvas

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – “People at home and also people in the room — what would be the degree of this polynomial?”

Six intent faces were beamed onto a whiteboard, right next to the equation Science Hill High School pre-calculus teacher Eric Wondergem had scratched out. A handful of other students, live and masked, peered at the board from their desks.

Welcome to the school day, COVID-19 style. School systems around Northeast Tennessee are taking different approaches to remote, hybrid and in-person learning.

Science Hill High School math teacher simultaneously instructs remote and in-person pre calculus students in Johnson City, Tenn.

At Science Hill, Wondergem and colleague Josh Berry tweaked a set-up in July to allow the best possible learning environment for their classes — a mix of full-remote students and the handful who are in class two days a week until Oct. 12, when they’ll be there every day.

At Johnson City’s elementary schools, one teacher per grade level teaches all remote students every day, while other children have gone in-person since late August.

At South Side School, Nancy Miles is pulling that duty for the 28 students who are all remote. While it’s involved a big learning curve for everyone, Miles said she’s pleased overall with how things have progressed.

Fourth grade teacher Nancy Miles.

“The challenge is how can I make it engaging for the students, how can I keep their interest, how can I get ’em excited,” Miles said after wrapping up one of several 45-minute class Zoom sessions that are interspersed with students completing assignments.

“We’re talking about food webs right now in science, about who eats what, and that’s always really interesting in the classroom — but how can I do that from a distance.”

Three keys: Relationship, easy navigation and the eye test

Miles, Wondergem, dozens of other teachers and hundreds of families are relying on the orchestration of David Timbs, Johnson City’s director of secondary and instructional technology.

In an empty Science Hill coffee shop designed to be a relaxed gathering place for students, chairs were stacked up as Timbs explained what he believes are the most important foundations for a successful remote program.

One is face time between teachers and students using the power of video. That happens “synchronously” (in real time) through Zoom. Johnson City’s learning management system, Canvas, can host asynchronous video.

“Whether it’s recorded video like something the teachers are using in Canvas studio or whether it’s that live video like we see through Zoom, if students can see and hear their teachers on a daily basis that is going to make all the difference in the world in making their learning continue on,” Timbs said.

Navigating the uncharted waters in a canvas craft

But without the platform of Canvas, which the system has used for four years now — albeit sparingly — the slickest video technology would practically be for naught, Timbs said.

“It’s been sort of the backbone of what we’ve been doing in our district for the last several years, but as we moved into closure and now into remote learning has played an even more crucial role,” he said.

Johnson City Schools’ David Timbs.

“Our teachers were somewhat familiar with (Canvas) and those who were not very quickly got familiar with it through the help of their colleagues. We were able to continue learning. Otherwise we would have been at square one.”

Students and parents would also be adrift without Canvas, Timbs said.

“(They are) able to make submissions, have dialogue with their classmates, have dialogue with their teachers and it’s been sort of our one stop place or learning during this remote season that we’ve had.”

At home in north Johnson City, the parent of two out of Johnson City’s 2,300-plus full remote students agrees Canvas is a key. Jon Reading said the parent app allows him and his wife a back door into fourth-grader Brynn’s and sixth-grader Logan’s progress and academic experience, while the kids have their own portals.

“Once you learn the landscape of how the app works it’s fairly intuitive and very easy to get into, see what you’re supposed to do, do it and be able to submit the information to your teacher,” Reading said as the kids worked in the background, headphones on.

Reading did say Canvas doesn’t fit quite as well with Brynn’s curriculum because Logan’s material is more advanced and can be incorporated into the platform better. But he added that like the other elements of the full-remote model, progress is occurring weekly.

Brynn Reading, top, interacts with her fourth-grade teacher Ruth Loving.

“I suspect that will also improve as the teachers learn a little bit better how to use Canvas even more as we get later into the school year,” he said.

Miles, the South Side teacher, likened using Canvas to driving the same car, regardless of teacher or grade level.

“You know where the steering wheel is, you know where to put the key and you know where the accelerator is,” Miles said.

“From a parent’s standpoint I think it’s great for them to have a consistent way of doing school and finding assignments – and for kids too.”

Miles said there’s even a 30-minute Canvas course for parents, after which they can become observers in the classroom.

“So it gives them the flexibility to delve more deeply into that platform and understand it more.”

Timbs said the platform’s importance can’t be overstated.

“If we had not had Canvas or any type of learning platform I think we would have really struggled to have some continuity and some rigor in what we’re offering to our students,” he said.

Wireless empathy?

In Miles’s classroom, 28 near life-sized photos of her students are attached to the top of wooden sticks protruding above seats that are spaced out around learning tables. Absent are the squeak of shoes, the shuffling of papers and the whispered tones of children — but Miles said she’s still managed to forge sincere relationships.

In fact, she focused on that for several days before diving into the nitty gritty of academics.

“The first few days I just focused on finding out about them, letting them find out about me, ‘hey what’s all this virtual learning about,’ and I let them talk a lot with one another,” Miles said. “They’ve missed each other.”

She’s betting “losing” a day or two of content instruction for the sake of bringing cohesion and trust will pay off in the long run.

Nancy Miles interacts with her all-remote fourth grade class.

“Building that relationship with me and building that relationship with one another means they trust being in that classroom, and … until they believe you believe in them – they’re not gonna participate as much.”

Timbs said the relationship piece is one of the three keys to success. “Make sure that you’re … talking. And that goes both ways, from school to home and then from home to the school.”

Reading said that’s been happening in his case. He explained as Brynn spoke one-on-one in real time with her teacher, Ruth Loving of Towne Acres, about an assignment.

“We have daily communications with the teachers and they’ve very good at telling me what my children are doing, what they’re failing at, what they’re being successful at, what we need to focus on,” Reading said.

The sailing gets smoother

Reading said that with every week that passes, things seem to improve, and he’s appreciative for the remote opportunity.

“Every week both the schools that we have in our household have shown improvement, the teachers have worked really hard to make sure if something wasn’t working, they looked to make it work. The kids have gotten a little more comfortable with what to expect including a little bit being able to roll with something when it doesn’t happen the right way.”

The kids see their grandparents frequently, and the family has begun expanding its “pod style” familial and relationship groups with caution.

“We’ve made promises to those groups to be conscious of who we come in contact with and schools are still a large part of that communicating the coronavirus,” he said.

Jon Reading said the remote option is working well and is the best option for his family right now.

And likewise, Reading is ready to extend some grace.

“It’s pretty hard to ask people to slam on their brakes and change the way you teach from however many years we’ve taught in person.”

Problems still creep in regularly, from slowed internet connections to sessions crashing.

“All of that stuff has nothing to do with the teachers or the learning process, it’s the technology process, which I would say is one of the biggest frustrations that we’ve seen,” Reading said.

“The teachers presenting the material and the kids learning the material has improved throughout the school semester and honestly I think it will probably continue.”

Miles said she’s continuously troubleshooting, learning workarounds and even turning to her students for help when they can offer it. After all, they don’t even remember life without 4G.

“Any question that they would ask me I would just say, ‘don’t know that,’ or  you know, ‘let’s find it out,'” Miles said.

At the high school, Josh Berry said he knew he and Wondergem would face a challenge with their college prep students. Some would be in the classroom and some at home, and they wanted to replicate the all-together experience as much as possible.

“We scratched our heads for the month of July trying to figure out a way to accommodate all of the different variables and learners in our classes,” Berry said.

Science Hill High School math teacher Josh Berry

“I would Zoom into his ‘class’ and just kind of test running, ‘ok, what do you see, now let’s switch. So, is this what we want it to be like or is there a better way that we can structure our classes in August.’”

Eventually, they landed on as elegant a solution as they could find. It combines synchronous and asynchronous learning but maximizes live time for students who are counting on getting the most out of a college prep course.

“In feedback from my students, they love the live aspect of it because they can ask their questions in the moment.

“The ability to ask and answer questions and have a dialogue with classmates … is also very powerful within a math classroom, so it’s not just me dispensing information, but the classroom interaction can work, we can split up into small groups via Zoom and have breakout rooms.”

Definitely imperfect — but how imperfect?

Berry said he’s still concerned about how wide a gap there might end up being for this year’s crop of students compared to the norm.

“There is a fear of what will students know on the other side. Like when they go to college, are they just as prepared for a calculus I class at ETSU as they were two years ago.”

Berry’s also more than ready for a return to normalcy.

“I’d much rather be face to face with all of my students, but that’s just not the reality we live in right now,” he said. “If it comes back to where I can face to face with all my students I’ll probably enjoy that, but this is a season and you just gotta do the best you can.”

Another concern is remote students with fewer advantages, whether those be internet connectivity or parents and guardians without the opportunity — or even the desire — to take full advantage of all the remote option offers.

Johnson City Superintendent Steve Barnett said folks from the school system spent much of the spring trying to connect with students and families who just sort of fell off the map. Unfortunately, he said, some of those same families chose the full-remote option.

He estimates up to 20 percent of remote students are doing little more than checking in so they’re counted as present — and the system is very concerned about both their academic and general welfare.

For her part, Miles said she expects some long-term changes even after the COVID-19 threat subsides.

South Side School fourth grade students’ heads sit like giant popsicles on sticks at their desks as Nancy Miles teaches them remotely.

“I think parents were very pleased that they had that option for their child and I think maybe long term their might be a place for virtual learning, maybe for small groups of children in our district,” Miles said.

Timbs has even more thoughts on the matter.

“We’re seeing a paradigm shift in the delivery of education and how parents want education delivered for their students,” he said.

“I think districts will really be missing the boat if they don’t go ahead and start planning for this. We’ve already shifted that thinking. There will now be a demand by parents and by students and by a lot of teachers to be able to have different delivery modes for education.”

Johnson City has spent more than $1.5 million on new tech since March — a good bit of it from CARES Act money — and Timbs said he thinks offering an ongoing remote option in some form will be affordable.

“Now that we’ve demonstrated that we can, with some training and some time, design content and deliver the content and still capture all of those relationships and all of those traditions that school  is about, I think it will stand the test of time and it will become just another way that we deliver education.”

In the meantime, Miles said she’s had plenty of laughs — including a parent who asked if their child had to wear pants to the Zoom meetings.

“I’ve met ferrets, I have seen baby sisters, I have seen what they’re having for breakfast, I’ve seen a dad in the background with a samurai sword. And that’s what helps build the relationships. You don’t ignore it, we acknowledge it and that’s the environment we’re working in. So that’s kind of added a different element that I would have never seen if they’d been in the classroom.”

Brynn Reading discusses her experience with remote learning.

Fourth grader Brynn Reading said she believes she’s learning at a similar level to what she would be in the classroom and is happy to be checking out new websites. Still, she said there are some strange aspects to the whole thing.

“Sometimes if you log on early to the meet, there are consequences too, so like, you’ll get control and you may accidentally click something and kick people and not let them back on,” she said.

And then there’s the ever-present lure of non-academic urls.

“It’s a little hard, because when you’re on your computer your like, ‘oh my goodness, I want to watch You Tube so bad!’ But, then you realize ‘oh wait, I’m in school.’ It’s weird.”

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