by Robert Stewart
With the announcement on Tuesday, April 21 that public and private schools in Massachusetts will be closed for the remainder of the school year, students in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District will spend more than a third of the school year conducting their studies at home under vastly different surroundings than their normal study environment of the classroom.
Teachers and students had to quickly transition from a hands-on, traditional classroom where interrelationships with classmates and teachers add value to their education to a remote, digital environment that presented significant challenges both academically and personally for teachers and students.
In the span of three weeks, from March 17 to April 7, the school district had to revamp their teaching methodology and curriculum from the traditional model of a teacher-led classroom to a teacher-led digital model. While this massive transition had its personal and technologic challenges, administrators and teachers in the school district believe the remotely conducted program of studies developed by the school district will ensure that students will be ready for their studies at the next grade level.
The development of a remotely taught curriculum was undertaken by a team of teachers and administrators under the
guidance and leadership of Assistant Superintendent Dr. Katie Novak. Many factors had to be taken under consideration especially the content of instruction and the level of content that should be learned by students. It wasn’t a simple matter to mirror the environment of the classroom. Dr. Novak indicated that the remote model does not replicate classroom learning because some curriculum standards have been relaxed and remote teaching and learning only take part during half the day.
However, despite those differences, students are being required to master key elements of the curriculum appropriate for the different grade levels and which will act as the foundation for learning at the next grade level. Susan Wynn, a fourth- grade teacher at Swallow-Union School, expresses that confidence when she states, “I have no doubt our fourth grade students will be prepared for fifth grade. We are committed to making sure students are exposed to the fourth grade standards that are the foundation for fifth grade.”
Typical Day of Remote Teaching
Wynn outlined a typical day of remote teaching that to a small degree mirrors how she conducted her actual classroom. She said that Swallow Union fourth grade students “meet” Monday through Friday from 10 to 10:45 a.m. for whatiscalled“MorningMeeting.” At Morning Meeting teachers have the opportunity to say good morning to each students by name. A daily message is posted for students to read providing time to allow all students to gather in the virtual room through the use of the digital video conferencing program “Zoom.” Once all students are together Wynn gives students a question or situation to think about. Students break into small groups through a feature on Zoom called “breakout rooms” to discuss the question or situation. A student recorder is selected to share that discussion with the full group when they reconvene after their time in the breakout rooms.
Wynn said that after Morning Meeting the academic component of the day begins. She said students get ELA (English, Language Arts) direct instruction two days per week and direct Math instruction for two days a week. On Fridays, Wynn said the fourth grade team at Swallow Union started an “Adventure Series” that ties into a concept being studied in another unit. As an example, Wynn said the students were able to take a virtual guided tour of Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska. This virtualtourallowedstudentsto see up close a 12 million year-old, fully intact rhinoceros skeleton. More importantly, the tour tied into their studies of fossils in their Earth Science unit.
Wynn said the virtual guided tour was made possible by a grant from the Groton-Dunstable Education Foundation (GDEF).
Wynn said the Friday Adventure also featured a conference-style program which featured staff with special skills and Swallow-Union alumni with different skills. The staff and alum lead different learning options like Math Mysteries, 3D drawing and elastic energy and the human body.
Aided by Technology
Wynn said the transition to remote learning and a required course of study was made easier because of the three-week period between March 17 and April 7 when remote learning and activities were recommended but could not be required because the availability of internet access was not accessible to all students. During that period, Wynn said remote meetings with students started with Google Classroom and switched to Zoom video conferencing by the end of March. Wynnstated,“Theearlystart to video conferencing gave us the opportunity to develop our classroom culture of respect. When we transitioned from Morning Meetings focused on social emotional learning to Academic learning on April 6, it was an easy transition because students were used to he expectations for being active listeners and participants in video conferencing.”
While teachers acknowledge that their students will be ready for next year, there is also the recognition that the grade progression from this year to next year will lack some of the key attributes associated with classroom learning such as personal observation and evaluation by teachers that can only come from interactions within a classroom. Wynn puts it succinctly, “Will they be as prepared as if we were still in school? Definitely not. We can‘t offer the spiral review and depth of learning in a remote learning environment that we can when we are with students all day. I anticipate that we will have to move at a slightly slower pace next year, especially in math and science,tobuildinsomeofthat depth of understanding.”
Remote Learning Differences
Wynn noted another major difference between remote learning and classroom learning: Students miss their friends. She notes, “...Almost every student I talk to says the same thing. The thing they hate about remote learning is they miss their friends. They are lonely.”
The personal toll in making this happen for the students in Groton and Dunstable has been enormous especially for teachers. Having your private home operate as a base for your work and personal life has its challenges. Inaugurating an entirely new course of studies for hundreds of students in mid- stream makes that challenge nearly impossible. Wynn sums up what it was like, “The first two weeks of remote learning were certainly unsustainable, I was working 10-12 hour days, eating at my computer and feeling like I was barely staying above water. It is hours of work to transition from classroom teaching to remote learning. We are meeting with kids or in meetings all day, which leaves nights for planning curriculum and developing systems for tracking learning.”
She continues, “Everyone involved in the process of switching to remote learning has beenincrediblysupportive.The district has offered extensive professional development, the technology department has distributed computers to families and been an invaluable support to staff. (Superintendentn of Schools) Dr. Chesson has been a steady leader and clear communicator. Dr. Novak has been the glue holding us all together. The parents have been amazing. Most importantly – our students have been the shining light throughout all of this.”