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North Hills Monthly

Teachers, Districts Successfully Pivot to Remote Teaching Model

Jul 29, 2020 05:54PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Amy Nixon, middle school head of Shady Side Academy

Before it was made official, Amy Nixon, middle school head of Shady Side Academy, saw the writing on the wall.

Like most schools in the area, on March 13, students were told not to come back to school, for at least the time being. However, several weeks before that, Nixon, along with the administrative staff, began to prepare for the school to transfer to an online model. In fact, Nixon co-authored the district’s Distance Learning Plan for Spring 2020.

Fortunately, March 13 was the start of a two-week spring break, which gave the teachers some time to acclimate to what was coming. “We told the kids to take everything home, including their iPads, and before everyone left, we worked out a schedule for distance learning classes because we had a sense that was going to be the way it was going to go,” Nixon said.

“It made the transition easier, and we had the technology available. The school made an investment to up our subscription to Zoom so we could have longer classes and use it more regularly,” she added.

For Elana Kriess, an elementary Spanish teacher at Connoquenessing Valley Elementary (CVE) in the Seneca Valley School District, the keys to making the successful transition to an online teaching model were close collaboration with other teachers and the relatively seamless use of Nearpod.com, an online platform she had coincidentally just started using in the classroom months earlier.

Kriess said that by using Nearpod, she could engage students with video links, lots of visuals, and her own voice recordings to aid with comprehension and Spanish pronunciation.

“It’s very interactive and user-friendly for both teachers and students,” she said, adding that because most elementary students are not yet independent learners, it was important to use a platform with which parents would also be comfortable. “Parents’ partnership and patience during distance learning was invaluable.” 

Katharine Pryor teaches eighth-grade social studies at Shady Side Academy. Fortunately, many of her activities, lesson plans and assignments were already created for the use of technology.

“Since many of my materials were in the form needed for virtual learning, I was able to focus on how to best deliver the content to students. I created many videos to help students learn content. Recording my screen, adding further explanation for learning activities, or explaining class material was pivotal in my remote teaching adventure,” she said.

B.A. Hull, who teaches middle school math at Marshall Middle in the North Allegheny School District, found that making videos was effective in terms of material delivery and providing continuity for the way her students were used to learning.

“I did spread out the content more than was typical for in-school lessons,” she explained, adding that watching a video can be challenging. “Learning math has its own complexities, and with the combination of the two I wanted to set the students up for success and not frustration.”

Hull’s husband, Zack Hull, teaches high school English 

and journalism at North Allegheny Intermediate School. “North Allegheny did a really fantastic job of making sure the kids were connected, and most of our textbooks were already online,” he said.

He added that if the school had to switch to online learning and had never used those online programs or devices, they would have been lost.

“It was pure luck that we had all that stuff in place before the pandemic hit,” he said.

The Hulls are parents of three small children, so working from home was a balancing act for the two of them. Zack said he had to go down to the basement and work near the router, while his wife was upstairs trying to corral the kids. In the evenings, after the kids were finally asleep, they would try to find the energy to grade school work.

Notwithstanding the occasional technical glitch, the online models worked well, but all of the teachers missed in-person interaction with their students.

“Language learning has to be interactive. I’m a strong proponent of face-to-face learning, and so much of that gets lost when you’re not directly interacting in person with your students,” said Kriess. “Gestures, body language, and visual cues all play important roles in communication, and it’s difficult to have that in an online learning environment.”

“I was lucky to have a great support system and previous technology experience to help me through this unprecedented time,” said Pryor. “While teaching virtually was successful in many ways, nothing beats interacting in person with your students, and seeing their quirks, humor, and moods in real time.” 

Zack Hull said that initially, when the students heard that school would be closing for an indeterminate time, they cheered.

“If we went back now and got the same announcement, no one would cheer,” he said. “We’ve all learned the value of human contact, of being together, of what real learning is. It is shared and experiential.

“I never want to do another Zoom session or Blackboard meeting,” he added.

“I will always remember the feeling that I had closing my computer after our last class. We all said our goodbyes and one by one, the names of the students appeared with a little door icon indicating that they had left the ‘classroom,’ said B.A. Hull. “I closed my computer and it felt like I had just closed an entire world. It was as if I was in a room with dozens of people, and then I turned around and they were gone.”

When life throws you a giant curveball, you have no choice but to adapt, especially when you’re in charge of the education of hundreds of students. But students are not the only ones who emerged with an education from this unprecedented experience.

“I learned that we’ve all got grit; we—students, teachers and parents—should all be patting ourselves on the back. It reinforced and empowered us all to do something we thought we couldn’t do,” said Kriess.

“Given the difficult circumstances and the abrupt transition, I think everyone involved did a great job. As a parent and a teacher, I was impressed with how our school district rose to the occasion,” she added.

Pryor is equally praiseworthy about Shady Side Academy’s efforts to help teachers. “From administrators to other faculty to the information technology team, I felt like there was always someone I could go to for help,” she said. “The technology specialists offered 'tips and tricks' sessions for teachers to come together to ask questions, share ideas, and reconnect. They were also always available over Zoom and email, and even set up their own office hours to help faculty.”

What matters most in the end is helping students, and through their Herculean efforts, teachers hope that their needs have been met. 

“I hope my students felt that they were not alone,” said B.A. Hull. “I hope that they encountered a community in a way that they hadn’t known before. I hope they felt proud of their abilities to adapt quickly and effectively to changes. 

“I hope they knew that they made and will continue to make a difference,” she added. “They are amazing, and I am so thankful to have a job that lets me always be inspired by the leaders of the future.”