- Southwood Elementary School
Remote learning different but still school, students say
It’s a little like days gone by at the Holloman household even in these days like no other.
Tammy Holloman sits at the dining room table, doing her work from home, while her two daughters work beside her, completing the assignments beamed out of their schools to their iPads and laptops. The remote learning is new, but the nearness is nostalgic.
“When they were younger, I was very involved with their schoolwork. Now that they’re older, they don’t ask for that much help. But now that we’re in the same room, doing the homework together, I’ll ask what they’re working on, what has their teacher sent them today to do,” said Holloman, mother to Abby, a seventh grader at Woodington Middle, and Ashlynn, a junior at South Lenoir High.
In the four weeks since the coronavirus pandemic closed the state’s public schools and Lenoir County Public Schools launched its remote learning program, Abby has joined her mom in evening workouts, part of an assignment from health class. When Ashlynn asked for help with one of her more creative assignments – a class challenge from her AP Environmental Science teacher to write lyrics for a song about fossil fuels – mom was all ears.
“We were actually collaborating,” Holloman said. “That was fun because we don’t do that a lot now. I enjoyed that.”
Finding unity in isolation stands out among a handful of positives in an unprecedented time of empty classrooms and stay-at-home orders with end dates that feel distant and, worse, sound optimistic. Circumstances have also pushed digitally capable school districts like LCPS, which five years ago put iPads in the hands of all K-12 students, to innovatively adapt that technology for home-based learning. And students and teachers have responded to this changed environment with a creativity that has probably surprised both groups.
But educators don’t equate even a well-designed, constantly evolving remote learning program with teacher-led instruction at school. The leveling influence the classroom setting and close supervision have across subject areas, the range of abilities and levels of interest can’t be easily duplicated online. As it is in the Holloman household, it is across Lenoir County. The responsibility for academic success, for sustaining engagement, has tilted toward the students and adults at home.
Establishing a routine
“The first couple of days when everybody was trying to figure things out, you had to realize this is not spring break, this is not summer vacation, you’re still a student,” Kinston High School senior Alena Rivers said. “It’s making the time to complete your assignments. You just have to realize you have to get this done.”
Establishing a routine could be Rule No. 1 among several general tips for successful learning at home, although the effort could be complicated by having more people at home and more people using the internet. (Readers can find more tips for supporting remote learning on this website.)
“It was an adjustment to begin with for all of us. This week it’s coming together a little bit better,” said Holloman, who left Moss Hill Elementary School, where she staffs the front office, two weeks ago to work at home.
“Me, momma and Abby all come to the dining room table, which is pretty big, and we all have our separate work space,” Ashlynn said. “We live in the middle of nowhere and our internet is not the best, so if we have to submit something then all of us have to stop what we’re doing so the other person can submit it.”
Like Alena, Ashlynn and her sister like to get started early. After some preliminaries, they check the assignments on one of the learning management systems the students used in class and get to work, hoping to have “the rest of the day to do what I want,” as Ashlynn said.
In addition to her high school classes, Ashlynn is taking four college-level classes through LCC, two of which moved from the classroom to an online format when both the public schools and the college closed, requiring “a little bit of an adjustment,” she said.
“It’s getting easier just because I know how (teachers) are going to post the work and their routine, so I made a routine off of theirs.”
Staying in touch with teachers and schools is another element of success – and a focus of LCPS, according to Melissa Lynch, a former teacher and principal who is now the district’s digital learning instructional coordinator.
“Partnerships between families and schools are a critical component to student success,” Lynch said. “One of our top priorities during this disruption of face-to-face learning is strengthening the connections between families and schools. Our teachers, support staff and administrators are connecting with students daily through online conferencing applications like Zoom, telephone calls, emails and feedback on online learning opportunities.”
The district’s teachers use a variety of apps like Zoom, Canvas, Google Classroom, Remind and Seesaw to facilitate two-way communication with students and parents.
In addition to handling a full load of schoolwork online – four classes in KHS’s International Baccalaureate program and two college-level classes through Lenoir Community College – Alena is tutoring students in Tiffany Shepard’s Math I class using Zoom and Canvas, the learning management system employed in LCPS’s middle and high schools.
“Mrs. Shepard hosts the Zoom meetings. Whoever joins us, we help them out,” she said. “We can make videos of the assignments, us working through the problem, then she’ll post the videos on Canvas so students can see the problems get worked.”
Missing the teacher
Having the apps, the devices and the infrastructure for digital learning in place and operating for years not only allowed LCPS to begin pushing out online assignments the same day schools closed, on March 16, but eased the transition for students, who were already familiar with the products and the process. Still, the process is sometimes called distance learning for a reason.
“The only thing I had to adjust to was not being able to ask my teachers for help right in the classroom. I have to wait for them to email me back or for a Zoom meeting to talk to them,” Abby said.
“Teachers are doing a really nice job getting back to students when there are concerns or questions, but their physical presence is much better than virtual,” Alena said. “It’s definitely better if you can go talk to a teacher about an assignment and they are right there.”
Teachers feel the same way.
“I miss being in the classroom,” Megan Rager, a seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher at Woodington Middle School, said. “I miss seeing all of my students and being able to talk to them.”
While grading hasn’t changed for the college-level classes in which hundreds of LCPS students are still engaged, assignments geared to elementary, middle and high school subjects are largely review work – a concession to the reality that, for a variety of reasons, all students don’t have equal access to instruction. Without grading, teachers are logging these assignments as “completed.”
Instead of pressing ahead into new material, teachers focus on creative ways to keep students involved in learning without the incentive of grades and despite lapses in interest that for students evitably come with another week of school closures, the absence of friends and myriad distractions at home.
Rager has tweaked both her communication methods and assignments, setting up weekly Zoom meetings for each of her four classes to make the sessions more like school and relying more on learning apps that look a lot like games.
“They like to play the games and to be in competition with their classmates. We try to give them those kinds of assignments to keep them in the educational mode,” she said.
But she used a recent Zoom meeting to encourage one class to complete a more traditional assignment by asking them to look ahead, not to next week but to next year.
“I explained to them the purpose behind the reading assignments is to help them improve their reading skills and improve on the skills we were learning while they were still in the classroom, trying to get them to understand when they go to eighth grade next year they’re going to be expected to do all of these things,” Rager said. “They need to continue to practice on them to build their skill set up.”
Alena Rivers is already looking ahead. She’s missed, or likely will miss, some keepsake moments of her senior year at Kinston High and her last year of softball abruptly ended after one day of practice. On the other hand, she’s been accepted at the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia and High Point University. She’s weighing her choices as a first step toward law school and a possible career as a sports agent.
Oddly enough, being forced out of the classroom this spring – being given more responsibility for her own success as a student – is the kind of life lesson she can take to college next fall, she said.
“In college, mother’s not there to tell you to go to class. It’s kind of learning how to want it for yourself.”
Tammy Holloman and daughters, from left, Abby and Ashlynn have all carved out space at the dining room table as they work together from home. Remote learning has taken Tammy Holloman back to the days when her children were younger and she was closely involved in their schoolwork.
Coronavirus and school closure have caused Alena Rivers to miss some keepsake moments of her senior year at Kinston High School, but having to take more responsibility for her success as a student through remote learning is a life lesson she will take to UNC, Virginia or High Point – all universities that have asked her to join their student body next fall.
Megan Rager of Woodington Middle has tweaked her assignments to keep students interested as school closure drags on.