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Going the distance in Tiverton

Teachers, students finding success in brave new world of remote learning

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Cortney Kingsley is sitting on her couch, laptop propped up in front of her. Eight months into her education career, and the Tiverton Middle School science teacher is conducting class from her living room, interacting with her sixth-grade students through a screen.

“That’s what they always say, ‘you never forget your first year,’” Ms. Kingsley said.

It’s a reality that teachers across the state have had to face since mid-March, when Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered all Rhode Island public schools close their doors and move to distance learning in order to combat the spread of coronavirus. Now over five weeks in with a future still unknown, teachers in Tiverton remain committed to making distance learning a success in their district – working together students, parents, administrators and each other to get the job done. Said third grade Fort Barton Elementary School teacher Megan Macfarlane:

“As a district, we could have never pulled this off if it was just one sided,” she said.

Making adjustments

It was during the afternoon on Friday, March 13 when teachers first learned they would not be reporting back to school for the rest of the month, a directive that has since been extended through the end of April. Seemingly overnight, they were tasked with doing a complete overhaul of their curriculums, using tools like Google Classroom, Flipgrid, Legends of Learning, MyOn Reader and Kahoot! to aid in their asynchronous teaching before incorporating live instruction through programs like Zoom on April 6.

While Tiverton may already have been set up with 1:1 learning for grades five through twelve with devices available for all third and fourth graders, it was still no easy feat. But as Ms. Kingsley pointed out, being flexible is what teachers do best.

“We’re so good at being chameleons,” she said. “And changing the situation to make it work.”

While they might not be able to perform labs together in the classroom, Ms. Kingsley found she could still modify the experiments for her students, substituting in more household-friendly ingredients like cornstarch and baking soda so they could complete them at home.

To first grade Pocasset Elementary School teacher Julie Simmons, it was important that she, her co-teacher Amanda Rose and Roger Williams University student teacher Abigail Higgins develop lesson plans that were both educational and engaging in order to create a positive learning experience for her students. That’s why she created her class’s own student activity form – an addition to the daily district-distributed one – to get a sense of what they were or were not enjoying out of each lesson.

“I’m making them accountable, but they’re making me accountable, too,” Ms. Simmons said.

After spending time teaching at both the middle and high school levels, Ms. Macfarlane was already comfortable incorporating technology into her third-grade classroom. But she knows that some teachers were “blindsided” by having to switch to a strictly-online format, never so much as using Google Classroom. Like a number of her colleagues attested to, Ms. Macfarlane said it has been important for everyone to work together, to share as much information between one another as they can.   

“We have to reach out our hand and help other people,” she said.

While teachers have been working hard to make sure that distance learning is running as smoothly as it possibly can be – sometimes clocking in 15-hour days – Tiverton High School algebra and pre-calculus teacher Kelsey Murphy said her administration has been supportive in understanding that curriculums may be disrupted and teaching online won’t go perfectly. 

“Nobody can really be perfect doing something brand new like this,” she said.

Staying connected

As the weeks of distance learning have worn on, Tiverton teachers have discovered that the social-emotional piece is just as critical to the program’s overall success.

After each of their morning meeting sessions, Ms. Simmons and her first graders will just talk, her first graders showing off their favorite toys or introducing her to their siblings. Following one of her live classroom lessons, Ms. Kingsley said that over a dozen of her sixth graders stayed on the line, just to show her their pets. 

“So many chickens,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know Tiverton children had so many chickens.”

For her classroom, Ms. Macfarlane decided to keep open an all-day Zoom link for her third graders to pop into, knowing that for some of them, she will be their only adult interaction for most of the day. During that time, Ms. Macfarlane’s fourth grade daughter, Ava, will occasionally chime in, too, and they’re both kept laughing all throughout the day.

“We’re just trying to make it fun, however way we can,” she said.

In reality, Ms. Macfarlane knows that many of her students are feeling anxious about the pandemic; responses to her own student activity form include questions like, “when will I be able to see my friends” or “will my family be OK.”

“They are holding a lot inside,” she said. “They might not be showing it or displaying it in other ways, but no, these kids are holding in a lot.”

They are worries Ms. Simmons has seen from some of her own students, causing her to invite the school nurse into one of their morning meeting sessions to address the issue – something she said her first graders were “thrilled” about. If she hears from a parent that their child is missing her, Ms. Simmons will record a quick little clip of herself to send that student’s way.

While the disruption in normalcy has proved to be challenging for students, it has also been an eye-opening experience for Ms. Murphy, making her realize just how much she took being in the same classroom with her students for granted before.

“Now that’s the only thing I wish I had – to see them, to talk to them,” she said.

Working together

Though teachers are doing everything they can to stay connected to their students, they realize that many parents are now needing to fill in part of that educator role. 

“They’re right at the front lines, they’re seeing it live and in action,” Ms. Macfarlane said.

The move to distance learning has been a significant shift for them as well; of the 100 calls Ms. Macfarlane receives on that open Zoom line any given day, a number of them will be from parents – whether it’s to ask specific questions or simply to vent. She’s asked the district about setting up a parent hotline, “just so parents know that they are not alone.”

For Ms. Simmons, what was already a solid bond between her and her classroom parents has only grown stronger since the onset of the pandemic.

“I feel like we’re a good team, even better than when I was initially teaching in the classroom,” she said.

But a lot of praise was reserved for the students themselves for how hard they have been working to make distance learning as successful as it can it be in Tiverton.

“The students have really stepped up and done what we asked them to do, which was a great ask of them,” Ms. Murphy said.

Without their teachers now there to immediately answer any questions, Ms. Kingsley added that students are sharpening their critical thinking skills and becoming more independent in their education – a “revolutionary” feat.

“The jump that these kids are making will totally benefit them in the future,” she said, “and it will really change the generation for sure.”

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