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Geneva teachers share ups, downs of 10 weeks of e-learning

Remote learning during pandemic posed challenges to be overcome

A student works at home.
A student works at home.

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GENEVA – In mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic launched teachers and students in Geneva District 304 into the unfamiliar – and previously unheard of – territory of everyone in school while at home.

Called e-learning or remote learning, officials scrambled to get teachers and students set up to complete their courses while the schools were closed and families were under a stay-at-home order to contain the virus.

Five Geneva teachers shared their 10-week experience with remote learning.

Focusing on the positive

Tammy Thompson, who teaches fifth grade at Western Avenue Elementary School, said the district’s leadership stepped up to make the trial-by-fire situation as amenable to learning and teaching as they could.

“I think it’s really important to focus on the positive,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing for elementary students is, you work really really hard to stay connected during this unprecedented time.”

The challenge, Thompson said, was getting connected to the students and getting them up to speed, combined with teachers learning the new technology at the same time.

“We got so much support from our Teaching and Learning Department and the Central Office. They have been amazing. And the kids learned – yes. And that is another plus,” Thompson said. “They learned lots of new technology but they also continued to grow in their subject area. It’s very good news. … I could see by the end of May that overall, the kids were very engaged.”

But there is no amount of technology that can make up for classroom learning.

“What we’re missing is in-the-moment learning,” Thompson said. “We can’t see who gets it and who doesn’t. ... You see some struggling and they need extra guidance. Those are the things missing.”

The last day of school for District 304 was May 28. Thompson retired the next day, after 24 years.

‘We make it work’

Jen Snodgrass, who teaches seventh grade math at Geneva Middle School North, found herself in a juggling act to keep up with four regular math classes, one accelerated class and a math intervention class for those who need one-on-one help.

“I have a 7-year-old boy in first grade, a 5-year-old preschool boy and a 9-month-old girl,” Snodgrass said. “I’m in the middle of me trying to teach and help my son with his learning, my 9-month old had a poopy diaper and needed a bath. Trying to watch her and help students is a little crazy. We make it work."

When the schools were closed, her students were just learning to do percents, so for remote learning, Snodgrass focused on real-life applications such as mark-ups, discounts and interest.

As an incentive, the student who got their assignment back to her first received a Portillo's cheeseburger, fries and milkshake delivered to their house, she said.

But that also became an assignment, as students looked at a video of the receipt with the total tax whited out – and they had to figure out the percentage, Snodgrass said.

She also relied on video chats with small groups of three to four students

“Being away from the classroom at this age is, they don’t want to reach out for help if they are struggling," Snodgrass said. "It was really important to stay in contact and …make them feel comfortable asking for help.”

A learning curve

Kevin Gannon, the department chairman for biology at Geneva High School, said remote learning is different – and because it’s different, it’s difficult.

“Any time you’re taking on something new, there is a learning curve involved,” Gannon said.

He described the first four weeks as “a little ragged,” but then everyone seemed to find their footing.

“There was a good amount of work that we could expect from students that they would engage in,” Gannon said.

“It’s so hard to get that through a two-dimensional screen with four faces at a time and not get the entire classroom,” Gannon said.

Support at home essential

Special education teacher Meg O’Donnell works with 13 third, fourth and fifth grade students, providing additional instruction in reading, writing and math.

“Most of my students have been doing well at home. All of the third, fourth and fifth students have one-to-one devices that has helped having them access to technology,” O’Donnell said.

Some required more support in terms of one-on-one in e-meetings, she said.

“I personally think all of my students did the best job each of them could, due to the support they have at home – which is phenomenal. They all got just as much out of it as in a regular classroom.”

Remote band instruction

Geneva High School band teacher Jason Flaks had to re-imagine his class – completely – when it came time for remote learning for his 193 students, plus having two fifth graders, a kindergartner and a preschooler at home.

“I really appreciate all of the encouragement my parents give their kids to get their stuff done,” Flaks said.

But as for remote learning for band – well that was another story.

"The main focus of band was, we all got together and played music,” Flaks said.

And that was the one thing they couldn't do because of the delay and lag in internet speeds.

The solution was more guided listening, aiding the students to become better listeners and more articulate in writing about great pieces of music – “An American in Paris,” by George Gershwin and “Moanin’” as performed by Charles Mingus – and how to listen to them in a deeper way than they were used to, Flaks said.

That was a stop-gap – not a solution.

“The kids miss being together and I miss being with the kids,” Flaks said. “There is no way to replicate that with e-learning. We can do all the guided listening in the world, but what kids want to do is, they want to play together.”

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