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A Teacher’s Diary: Catherine Walker

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Published: Aug. 21, 2020 at 1:58 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2020 at 9:53 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - August 28, 2020

Today was the last day of our first full week “at” school. In total, the four members of my family successfully took part in 61 Zooms over our 5 school days. On Tuesday afternoon when we were out walking after finishing up long hours of sitting at screens I was explaining how strange I felt to my son and likened it to a day spent waiting in an airport. His response was, “Mom, you’re a zoombie!” 2020 has created many zoombies, but taking things day by day and solving each problem that arises will help us achieve as positive an outcome as possible.

This school week had many positive outcomes. During a social-emotional learning activity when I asked my students to compare their week to a type of weather, and shared that mine was feeling like a blizzard due to the amount and velocity of new information, most students responded that their week was feeling calm and sunny. It was a pleasure to share that with my colleagues at a morning staff meeting and to let them know their hard work and focus on taking care of our students was paying off.

The students in my oceanography classes are exceeding my highest expectations with their empathy towards each other, depth of prior knowledge, passion for the subject, and quality of work being turned in. Sharing with them the exciting news that the Alaska Sealife Center had received enough monetary support to stay open another year was a highlight of the week. Two recent graduates and past members of our school’s Ocean club Zoomed in today as our Friday guests to visit with my students and it was wonderful to experience them imparting wisdom to their younger peers. In multiple classes, students are choosing to stay logged into Zoom to chat with me and their new friends and it is starting to feel like a community.

This morning in my engineering class when our Friday Zoom guest, Dr. Jennifer Brock, was sharing her experience as the Associate Dean for Academics and professor of mechanical engineering at UAA with the students, most of them chose to turn on their videos and afterward asked in-depth and thoughtful questions. I was thrilled when two of my students stayed late to ask me if I could find an astrophysicist for next week.

The students aren’t all feeling sunny though. The ones who are really struggling are the ones I am least able to interact with. One of my boys missed his day of classes because he is attempting to participate on his phone and his charger stopped working. A high-risk student disappeared from my roster without warning and I have no contact information to check on her. Another is out on a long-term suspension. There are some who have no internet and others who are working nights and sole caregivers for ill family members.

Full-time parenting overlapping with full-time teaching is also a struggle. My own children are gamely Zooming into gym, art, health, and music as well as math and language arts, each with a separate Zoom link. On top of that, they are starting the iReady diagnostic tests that we have learned can take up to four times as long as advertised. Although they are very positive about teachers and classmates, my children reported their weather for the week to be lightning storms and tornadoes with what they felt were technological emergencies occurring without warning. Even with both parents in the house, it is a struggle to make sure they are taken care of and ready for each new task.

Not all students have the required materials for lessons or caregivers who are able to stay home with them. Online school brings up numerous equity issues that we all need to work together to improve. Materials can be sent home, modifications to lesson ideas should be allowed, dress codes should not be enforced, snacks and breaks should be permissible, and family members and pets should be welcome in the home “classroom”. As a community, we should continue to check in with the “weather” students are experiencing and do what we can to increase the sunshine for all of our zoombies until we have the luxury of safely returning to our classrooms..

August 20, 2020:

Today was the first day back at school with students. Even though I physically left school back in March, my focus, like that of thousands of other Alaska educators, has stayed on my students and how best to support them. This summer I juggled time with my family and modifying my Project Lead the Way engineering course so students could use it in an online environment. I spent countless hours of screen time getting prepared for this year, knowing that it would be the most challenging of the 15 years I have been educating students, yet also one that could drastically change at any moment. Instead of decorating my classroom and preparing lab supplies, I spent the last week practicing using the Canvas online platform and Zoom tools and learning how to make videos of my lessons and tediously edit the closed captioning, so all of my students would have equitable access.

Now more than ever, equity has been on my mind. I have questions like, “How can my high schoolers focus on their classes when they are caregivers to their younger siblings?” and “What if they have a job and are helping support the family?” and “What if they don’t have a quiet place to work or a reliable device or internet?” and “What if they aren’t safe, or don’t have enough food, or need someone to talk to about depression and suicide?” These are incredibly difficult questions, and I know that the most I can do is reach out to every student and communicate with them to find out what they need in order to be as successful as possible. That is what I spent the majority of my time doing in March. Students that I used to check in with every day were suddenly unreachable. I had many difficult conversations with students about their skyrocketing levels of anxiety and with parents and guardians about how to support their suddenly crashing students. I felt like my ability to communicate with my students in a meaningful way had been amputated and that I was no longer teaching effectively.

Being torn from my classroom in March and switching in a week to emergency teaching and learning was what I thought would be the most difficult challenge as I faced as a teacher. But I was willing to do whatever it took to keep my students, my family, and my community safe. Spending every spare moment of my summer developing the skills and content needed for robust and authentic virtual teaching has proven to be a whole other level of challenge. But again, I am willing to do it again wholeheartedly for as long as it takes if it means protecting the lives of my students, colleagues, family members, and neighbors. I am willing to completely relearn what it means to be a teacher.

After weeks of slowly building anxiety and a restless night, I logged into my virtual first hour on Zoom at 8:00 am… and only met four students. This was, at best, because of scheduling and technology and information dissemination issues. Just as I did in March, the rest of the story will slowly unfold. Four students who mostly kept their cameras off. Four students who struggled to stay awake after months of admittedly late nights. Four students who struggled to remember each other’s names even though they were displayed on the screen. One of them did not have a working camera or microphone and typed in the chat that he wasn’t really paying attention. But, he attended class. My job is now to continue to reach this kid. To get him excited about the hands-on kits I’m sending home. To help him find his passions and delve into solving problems that he sees in the world around him. My job is, as has always been, to reach every kid.

As the day progressed to hours more conducive to being an awake teenager, my attendance rose, but still many students kept their cameras off, not yet ready to invite strangers into their personal space. I get it. Teachers should not be demanding that students turn on their cameras, but it does make it much easier and more engaging for their teachers and classmates to see faces and starts the process of beginning a community. Teachers shouldn’t be demanding students refrain from snacking when they are hungry, or from taking bathroom breaks, or from taking their dogs outside. We are guests in their homes during a global crisis. We are all in this together and need to give them the grace to figure out how online learning works for them.

Teaching online requires a whole new skill set, both for teachers and students. We all have things to learn and I know that I can only try my best and then take care of myself and my family. My own two grade-school age children will be participating in their public-school run online courses right along beside me and doing their best as well. My husband will be teaching his 7th graders online and doing the best he can. We all will. I know there will be struggles, but we are all going to take this one day at a time.

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