Uniting from a distance

GMR first grade student Easton Berg works through a distance learning lesson guided by his teacher Mrs. Schenkey.

GMR first grader Gavin Harder works on his math assignment as part of his distance learning curriculum. (photo submitted by Allison Harder)

Badger students Blair Przekwas, a kindergartener, and Austin Przekwas, a fifth grader, show the rocks they painted to support a Badger FCCLA STAR event. As part of this STAR event, students were asked to paint rocks to be placed in the Badger School’s elementary flower garden. (photo submitted by Erin Przekwas)

Badger second grade teacher Becky Dostal is finishing up her twenty-eighth year of teaching, but not in front of students in the normal classroom setting. Instead, she is using online applications to teach and sending hard copy materials home to her students. Like many teachers across the country, she had to make this transition to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a change making her feel like a first year teacher.

“We are responsible for creating and delivering distance learning materials and activities in such a different manner than we are used to,” Dostal said via email when asked about distance learning difficulties. “We are differentiating instruction to meet the needs of families based on their individual needs. We are monitoring and answering questions at all hours of the day into the evening as families have time to log in and submit work.”

This transition to distance learning began after Minnesota Governor Tim Walz temporarily closed schools in the state from March 18 to 27 to allow school administrators and teachers to develop long-term plans to provide continued education and essential services during this pandemic.

On March 25, he then authorized and directed the Commissioner of Education to implement this distance learning period from March 30 through May 4. On April 23, the Governor extended this distance learning period through the end of the school year.

Via email, Badger and Greenbush-Middle River teachers and school administrators discussed distance learning, including their first reactions to it, the methods and tools being used, the positives and negatives of it, and how their roles have changed during this period.

When first hearing about having to transition to distance learning, teachers felt a variety of feelings, including uncertainty, concern, shock, sadness, hopefulness, disbelief, panic, overwhelmed, nervousness, excitement, frustration, acceptance.

“There were many tears and feelings of desperation and frustration,” first grade Badger teacher Heidi Warne said. “Not paying much attention to technology, I had heard of Google Classroom but had never used it. Suddenly I was thrown into the technological age and I wasn’t very comfortable with it!”

When GMR Principal Sharon Schultz first heard about this transition, she knew it would be easier for some classes than for others.

“How can the Industrial Tech teacher expect that students will be able to access tools and use them safely for Woods class? He found some engaging, relevant solutions,” Schultz said. “Special education services are particularly challenging, but with the help of our special education cooperative and Director, we’ve had some positive feedback.”

So what tools are being used? Teachers are using many different online applications and tools, but some of the more commonly mentioned ones include: Class Dojo, Google Classroom, Zoom, Flipgrid, Edpuzzle, Remind, Google Meet, and YouTube. Some are sending home paper materials as well.

“I would much rather work with the kids in the classroom. I am getting tired of watching my face on videos,” GMR Third Grade teacher Todd Bergeron said, who uses Class Dojo. “But I guess we are fortunate this did not happen in January or February and that it is only the last part of the year and we have the technology to make it work. (It) might have been tough if we had to do this 20 to 25 years ago.”

Transitioning to this more technology-centered learning has its positives and negatives. As for positives, this form of learning is giving students an added level of responsibility and adding some tools to their toolboxes, including learning how to use some new technology.

“I think it is also making students become more organized. They have to stay on top of their work,” GMR Global Studies, Geography, Current Events, and Physical Education teacher Kent Christian said. “If they fall behind it is tough to catch up. I think it is really preparing them for the way some college classes are run.”

As for a negative, this distance learning environment may be allowing for continued communication but is eliminating that daily face-to-face interaction that numerous teachers enjoy having with their students, and, with it, the ability to more instantly respond to student questions and concerns.

“For teachers, it is really hard to know if kids are understanding,” GMR Spanish, Digital Literacy, and Computer Science teacher Mara Gust said. “I do a lot of little observations and checks in class to make sure kids are with me, and use those to guide my teaching and planning. That’s extremely hard to do distantly.”

This transition has had its share of new obstacles and opportunities, but they are ones that students, parents, teachers, administrators, and support staff are working and going through together from a distance. Badger English teacher Becky Dahlgren understands the challenges this learning environment provides, but doesn’t see them as ones that can’t be conquered.

“More than ever, I feel like I am telling kids and parents ‘You can do it!’ All of us are out of our element as we go through this time; however, none of us should shut down just because something is new,” Dahlgren said. “Everyone is capable of overcoming difficulty. Change is good for all of us once in a while because it shows us how strong we are!”

To see the complete story, read the April 29 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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