Return to Headlines

Remote learning a manageable step up for LCPS

Female teacher works at her desk in an empty classroom

Female teacher works at laptop at home. Alicia Davis has transformed a little room off the kitchen into her teacher space. It’s equipped with a small white board on an easel, a green screen she uses to produce video lessons and, on the dining room table, the laptop that is her indispensable link to the 47 students in her science and math classes.

The set-up isn’t ideal, but it’s the best Davis can do – maybe the best anyone can do – now that a viral pandemic has closed the state’s public schools, shattered the routine of daily instruction and left teachers like Davis reliant on technology to make the concept of remote learning feel less remote and more like learning in the classroom

“We’re just trying to keep things normal,” Davis, a fifth-grade teacher at La Grange Elementary School, said in a telephone interview. “If the kids talk to us (online) every day and meet with us every day just to see our faces and tell us what is going on at home – not even instructional, just to touch base – they feel like they’re still in the group. It’s good for us, too. I miss their faces, as well.”

North Carolina’s 115 public school districts are in the second week of a state-ordered shutdown that will last until at least May 15. Lenoir County Public Schools is in the second week of a remote learning program launched on March 16, the day classes were suspended. For LCPS, moving lessons online was both a sharp shift from proscribed teaching practices and a manageable step up for a district that, five years ago, put iPads in the hands of all K-12 students and has made digital learning – and the apps that power it – a key piece of classroom instruction.

“We’re making the best of it,” said Josh Ayers, who teaches about 50 students in AP Environmental and Honors Earth Science classes at North Lenoir High School, is working now from a desk in a spare bedroom and talked to an interviewer by phone. “I think we’re better off in this county than we would be in other counties. Having the iPads in the kids’ hands already has made this way easier than it could have been.”

A Virtual Day

As it is in the classroom, LCPS’s remote learning program centers on a weekday routine that provides some structure for students and allows teachers and school administrators to meet and plan despite the limitations imposed by social distancing and stay-at-home advisories.

Teachers and school staff begin each workday with an hour-long virtual meeting using the app Zoom. Teachers have set “virtual office hours” in the morning and afternoon when they communicate with students through Zoom or the learning management systems students used in class, answering their questions about assignments or, as often, allying their anxiety about coronavirus and the open-endedness of school closure and the absence of their friends.

Teachers digitally push out assignments and instructional videos using Seesaw and Canvas – the primary learning management systems used, respectively, in LCPS’s elementary schools and middle and high schools – or Google Classroom, all of which allow for two-way communication with students.

La Grange’s fifth graders get assignments in math, science, reading and social studies each week, issued to students on a standard, predictable scheduled devised by the four-teacher team Davis leads. As an enrichment activity, she sends her students computer coding exercises – involving sequencing, looping and algorithms – and music and art teachers post activities on Seesaw for every class in the school.

Ayers began producing video lectures before schools closed and, as of Wednesday, had posted a dozen, along with related articles from periodicals, on Google Classroom, an app that allows students to submit questions about assignments. He uses Schoolnet, an assessment tool employed by public schools statewide, to gauge students’ understanding and posts a weekly video to go over their questions.

At Woodington Middle School, seventh-grade math teacher Mari Hatcher is continuing the study of proportional relationships, asking her students to be creative in devising “recipes using proportional relationships and designing floor plans using scale factors, which is another type of proportional relationship.”

These practices are typical of teachers across the district. Lessons are shared on grade-level listservs, guided by principals and the district’s curriculum team and augmented by the initiative of individual teachers who are reading children’s stories and posting boredom-breaking activities on social media.

But educators belong at school, not at the dining room table or a desk in the spare bedroom. Davis, Ayers and Hatcher all see the shortcomings in remote learning and none puts it on a par with teacher-led instruction in the classroom, a point emphasized Male teacher wearing ball cap sits at a disk in his home office. by Superintendent Brent Williams and other administrators since schools closed.

All student households are not equally served by the internet – LCPS students without internet access get a learning packet of assignments every two weeks – and “remote” is an difficult concept to square with trades classes like carpentry or masonry or in working with developmentally or physically challenged students.

This lack of equity, of guaranteed and equal access to instruction, has dictated the shape of a remote learning program with a couple of significant differences from the everyday classroom experience: no assignments for grades and no new material in assignments.

“We’re not actually asking for high-stakes anything. This is all low-stacks review,” Davis said. “If I’m not in the room with them, even though we’ve given the example of everything we want to happen, it’s not the same as being face-to-face, to sit with that child and explaining to them two or three different ways of how to do it. We don’t want to overwhelm them or their parents. We want to keep it a stress-free, engaging part of their day.”

Hatcher’s math classes, for example, had already covered proportional relationships in their study of circles, area and circumference. “We’ve finished with circles,” she said by phone, “and rather than beginning anything new, I’m going back and we’re applying proportional relationships in different ways.”

Invitation to Creativity

Not being able to press ahead does give her and her Woodington colleagues pause – “We just don’t want the kids to fall behind,” she said – but in her glass-half-full view she sees an invitation to creativity.

“Remote learning is definitely not for every teacher or every student, but this experience has given a lot of opportunity for teachers and students to explore more resources for richer academic experience while they’re not in the classroom,” she said.

Students have completed her assignments by designing posters, shooting videos and drafting the floor plan for a restaurant, all work that can be done on iPads without internet access and uploaded to the teacher when the internet is available.

“They can work on things at their own pace,” Hatcher said. “I think they’re getting to experience some freedom and ownership in their learning and they’re getting to do things in an order that’s more beneficial to them.”

Davis estimated that about 60 percent of the assignments going to her students are for review and the other 40 percent are “creativity-based,” or probably what the students would call “fun.”

Like the assignment given them during a morning Zoom meeting to come up with “some of the toppings you’d put on the grossest sandwich,” she said. “We got some notes, some pictures, some videos explaining what they’d put up there. That gives the students a choice about how they’re going to answer the question, which is good. We really want to see them creating from home.”

And, with few exceptions, they are.

“Most kids are doing a really good job. That’s what really blew me away. We assign some of these couple-of-days-long activities and they’re turning them in and they’re actually quite good. It made me feel that we’re not really there to guide them in how to do it so much,” Davis said.

“I was just really afraid without having me in the room they just wouldn’t do the work,” Hatcher said, confessing to a misjudgment. “They really are dedicated to learning their material and the parents have really been in contact with me, making sure their students have done it.”

High school is not elementary school or even middle school. Ayers’ freshmen and sophomores are not as devoted to Zoom meetings with their classmates, don’t need the teacher to anchor their day and are juggling more responsibilities, including longer work hours since they’re out of school. But they are still in class, albeit remotely.

“All my stuff goes live on Monday and I had kids that were done with it by Monday afternoon. Pretty much everyone in all of my classes has done something this week. I’m having pretty good response so far,” Ayers said.

“It’s a stressful time, but I feel like if we can keep learning and keep things as normal as possible, it’s better for the students,” he said. “That’s why I was making the video lectures, to try to give them a taste of normalcy, showing them what they might see in normal, everyday class. I had expectations they were going to continue learning at pretty much the rate we were learning in class, and I feel like the kids have done a really good job of living up to those expectations.”

Photo captions (from top):

Math teacher Mari Hatcher works in an empty classroom at Woodington Middle School earlier this week. Some days she works from home, but every weekday she communicates with the school’s seventh graders via the internet.

Alicia Davis of La Grange Elementary School has turned her dining room into a teacher space.

Working from home, North Lenoir High School science teacher Josh Ayers produces video lectures to give his students a sense of being back in the classroom.