Smithfield teachers talk distance learning

Smithfield teachers talk distance learning

From left are teachers Jana Schnell, Robin Behringer and Samantha Armstrong.

SMITHFIELD – Teachers are reporting that three weeks into distance learning plans that they, as well as students and parents, are getting the hang of this homeschooling thing.Some grades appear to be easier than others, with higher grades needing less guidance from parents than elementary and pre-K students, say local educators. The Valley Breeze & Observer spoke with a teacher from each level this week to take a closer look into how teachers are doing with distance learning.

James Connell is a physical education teacher at LaPerche Elementary School and is the Smithfield High School baseball coach. He is also a father, with a baby due in five weeks.

“It’s overwhelming at first, but then you get used to it,” he said. Connell said his favorite part of the day is seeing his students’ faces when they log into his class for instruction. He said he likes to check in with students to make sure they’re doing OK before sending them off for exercise.

Teachers said students’ home lives vary and some are genuinely missing school. Younger students have less of a poker face, Connell said, and he can tell when something is not right and takes time to connect.

“I think they’re hurting for a routine, seeing friends, seeing their teachers,” he said.

As a physical education teacher, he asks students to go outside and play on good weather days. Other days, he asks students to do push-ups, run upstairs, or do other indoor physical activities. He and other physical education teachers have developed workout routines and a workout schedule to keep students moving during the quarantine.

Jana Schnell is a 4th-grade teacher at LaPerche Elementary School. She said the hardest part of transitioning to distance learning was losing the momentum built during the year.

“They were all making such wonderful progress when we were in school. It would be terrible not to see them through to the end,” she said.

Schnell said she writes a daily lesson plan and has it up on Google Classroom early enough for parents to review before students log in at 8:30 a.m. At 9 a.m., the students all go live.

“They love seeing each other. Their faces all pop up in a Brady Bunch-style grid pattern,” Schnell said.

Then it’s math, where students work independently or in group study. Schnell stays on for individual assistance. At 10 a.m., students are back for reading and writing, and then take a break before going into physical education, health, library or music.

They return at 1:30 p.m. for another lesson before signing off for the day. Schnell said her final lesson gives her a chance to go over current events, such as the governor’s press conferences. Students prepared questions for Gov. Gina Raimondo’s youth interview and were thrilled to see her addressing their concerns.

Schnell said she found organization for students, teachers, and parents to be the essential key to success in distance learning. When she sees students are sad or having a bad day, just as in school, she takes the time to talk with them privately.

Schnell said while distance learning allows for teaching to continue, she missed the “teachable moments.”

“The hugs, high-fives, spontaneity is gone. The family unit we created is splintered. I really miss them,” she said.

Robin Behringer is an 8th-grade English teacher at Gallagher Middle School. The older students have a more hands-off approach mixed with the structure of a regular school day, with 40-minute classes from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Behringer said she does weekly check-ins with her students to ensure they are enjoying school and lesson plans. The top complaint she’s gotten so far is that the students are bored. She added that students find distance learning is better than they expected.

She makes a point to greet every student each day, just as she does in her classroom. Keeping students interested and involved is her top priority, Behringer said. The class is reading Robert Frost’s poems, she said, trying to keep subject matter light. She wants her classroom to be an escape from the constant barrage of information about the coronavirus.

“For some kids, school is truly an escape, depending on family life,” she said. “Some have financial stress. Some families have a lot of kids at home doing homeschooling at the same time.”

She said there are some lessons she is not able to teach. The students will not write an argumentative essay that would be required if attending school physically. The work is too much without a physical presence or support, she said.

“We can learn all the elements, the terminology. That’s the hardest assignment we do all year, with a solid month of hard work with them. Never mind without them,” she said.

Behringer said administrators’ trust in teachers and giving them leeway to write lessons is the most promising support she’s received. “That’s huge in this. I think ultimately happier teachers make happier students,” she said.

Samantha Armstrong is a science teacher at Smithfield High School. She said the hardest part of distance learning is being away from students.

At the high school, she said it is challenging to adapt the curriculum to distance learning, and many teachers say it is like being a first-year teacher all over again. She said she is proud of teachers coming together to share new ideas, resources and ways to teach materials.

For her class, she records her lectures so students can use them as a reference at any time. With all the different educational platforms available now, she said, it’s an excellent time to try something new.

“This could be a great thing for me in the future, if I can find new and interesting ways to reach the kids,” she said.

As a mother of three, Armstrong said she is struggling to separate free time with work for her children as many other parents now are experiencing.

“It is hard to explain to a 3-year-old that mommy is home and wants to cuddle or play hide and seek, but that I need to be at my computer at this time. Or explain to 16 students I have on a conference call that I need to help my 2nd-grader with an assignment for a couple of minutes,” she said.

For students dealing with loneliness and isolation, she said it is important to set up an open communication system through office hours or emails to let them know she still cares. “For them to know that we all feel this way sometimes, or that we understand what they are feeling, may make a big difference to them,” Armstrong said.

All teachers praised administrators for their quick action in getting distance learning up and running and being supportive through the process.