Lessons Online: UPA teachers prepared to begin the 2020-2021 school year via distance learning

English Department Chair and Professional Development Coordinator Kristin Moore at her desk in Johns Hopkins at UPA, where she teaches her classes. Photo courtesy of Kristin Moore.

Five months after the first day of distance learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-2021 school year began digitally, with the hope of introducing hybrid learning later in the year.

The UPA administration and staff have worked extra hours this summer in preparation for conducting fully virtual school. For example, there were eight days of professional development for teachers instead of the usual three, where they discussed how to make distance learning lessons engaging and were trained on how to use new technology.

Dance teacher Catherine Dietrich came up with her own system of tackling changes for this school year to keep herself from getting overwhelmed.

“Over the summer I made papers of all the troubles I think could come up or all of the challenges to troubleshoot, and I put them up in my house on papers on the wall,” Dietrich said. “All summer I’ve been writing ideas as they come to my head.”

Teachers have had to restructure and adapt lessons to fit distance learning because students in the class are no longer physically together and online lessons take more time. Modifications include reevaluating previous lessons to ensure only essential material and worthwhile application opportunities are being assigned to students.

Math teacher Esther Chen at her workspace for distance learning in San Jose State. Photo courtesy of Esther Chen.

New school guidelines have been instituted to accommodate the stress students might be experiencing. In reference to the Summer Newsletter emailed to the UPA community by Executive Director David Porter on July 31, teachers are encouraged to use Fridays as review days and limit how much homework they assign per period. The recommendations include no more than 20 minutes of homework per period per day be assigned for middle school courses, 30 minutes for non-AP high school courses and 40 minutes for AP courses.

Another significant change is the switch from PowerSchool to Schoology. According to English Department Chair and Professional Development Coordinator Kristin Moore, the change to Schoology was planned regardless of whether school resumed on campus or not, but it has proved to be advantageous for distance learning.

“I think for me as a teacher, and hopefully the students are experiencing this as well, [Schoology] makes posting assignments and sharing resources and communication so much easier,” Moore said. “It was great timing; I don’t know how we could have done the distance learning without it.”

While technology such as Schoology provides convenience in certain aspects of school, it is not always reliable. Dietrich makes sure to have written directions for all assignments in case technology fails. 

Math teacher Esther Chen’s distance learning setup. Photo courtesy of Esther Chen.

Technology introduces an obstacle in the social realm as well.

“[Getting to know new students online] is the hardest thing, and I don’t know when I’m actually going to learn people’s faces and names,” Moore said. “That’s going to take so much longer just because they’re not there and sometimes cameras are off.”

In order to bridge that gap, teachers have created reflective and personal assignments for their students, such as writing a letter about themselves.

Math teacher Esther Chen feels that distance learning has made it more difficult for students to collaborate and participate in class. She misses the social aspect of teaching and connecting with her students, and tries to incorporate Zoom breakout rooms as much as possible.

“I miss the random sidebar conversations,” Chen said. “On Zoom, you can really only have one person talk at a time. I definitely miss hearing the kids have sidebar conversations with each other and just kind of like chatting and socializing. On Zoom, when I ask everyone how their day is or if anything new is happening, they don’t want to share.”

Chen, Dietrich and Moore are hopeful that as time goes by, students will become more comfortable and willing to share in their online classes.

Math teacher Esther Chen’s laptop and monitor as she works on a lesson for one of her classes. Photo courtesy of Esther Chen.

“I know everyone’s shy at first and it’s a little awkward,” Moore said, “but I hope at some point we can feel like a family.”

While teachers have had to overcome challenges in preparing for the school year, Chen, Dietrich and Moore recognize the benefits of distance learning, including more sleep because students no longer have to commute, less back pain due to not wearing backpacks, an increased appreciation for in-person learning and the ability to record lessons for students to review.

With the current state of the world, checking in on students’ mental health has been prioritized. Dietrich is brainstorming ways to provide her dance students with a creative outlet, such as choreographing dances and using songs that mirror what is happening in their lives right now.

“We always focus on mental wellness, but there is probably a lot more focus on making sure [the students] feel safe and comfortable and maybe a little bit less focus on getting everything right and perfect,” Dietrich said.

Dance, Drama and AVID teacher Catherine Dietrich’s distance learning set up in Juilliard at UPA. Photo courtesy of Catherine Dietrich.

Moore has also made the mental health of her students a priority this year and strives to create a sense of normalcy for her students.

“They don’t know me that well yet,” Moore said. “So they don’t know that I will be a support for them and that I am there and that I want to be there, so I want to convey that as much as possible.”

Along with helping their students, teachers are also coming together to share resources and support each other.

“The support of friends and teachers [has been helpful during the transition] in being able to process everything and bounce ideas off of each other and not just feel like we’re in a vacuum,” Dietrich said.

Both Moore and Chen are especially grateful for the optimal attendance in their classes and hope to maintain it throughout the rest of distance learning.

“I am very lucky to be a teacher at UPA during the quarantine and COVID-19 because UPA students are so willing to try and to make the best of things,” Moore said. “I’ve really appreciated that.”