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May 14, 2020

STEM teachers making distance learning work

“It takes so much kindness to do this right,” Highland math teacher Dave Robertson says of online classes. “As the teacher, you almost become more of a friend in this scenario.”
By Ronnie Ross
Highland School

Teachers and students everywhere have adapted, with varying degrees of success, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Distance learning is especially difficult for math,” Highland School Mathematics Department Chair Dave Robertson said. “In math, it’s not so much the answer as the process you use to get there, and I want to see students go through that process so I can see where any breakdown might be.

“I might know the answer isn’t right, but I need to see where they did something mathematically incorrect.”

So, Mr. Robertson and his mathematics colleagues at the independent Warrenton school have had to get creative. He regularly shares his screen over Zoom and then enables a feature that allows students to draw on that screen.

Geometry teacher Elizabeth Carver designed mathematical escape rooms. She used the Zoom breakout rooms feature to put students in rooms together, and they had to solve problems together in order to get the codes necessary to “breakout” of their room.

Lindsay Ward, Highland Middle School math teacher, has been leveraging technology such as FlipGrid. Students have to upload a video, explaining their work verbally and in images. It allows students to work at their own pace, and it allows Ms. Ward to give meaningful feedback that matches that pace. Of course, no math class would be complete without mathematical scavenger hunts around the students’ houses.

Technology platforms, including Padlet and EdPuzzle, have enabled the Math Department to move to a mixed flipped classroom model in distance learning.

This is important, according to Mr. Robertson, because, “everything has to be in duplicate or triplicate for those who can’t be there live.”

While some students are able to attend class at the scheduled time, others — for many reasons, including poor internet connectivity — have to watch the lesson on their own time and at their own pace.

Mr. Robertson’s students are in agreement that this method is working.

“Honors Pre-Calc is by far the most challenging math class I have ever taken,” said junior Jackson Gill, “but [Robertson] makes it seem so simple. At first distance learning was challenging, but he uses features on Zoom, like the drawing capability, so we can do the work, and he can correct our mistakes in real-time.”

Equally impressive, according to other students, is how Mr. Robertson makes online class seem like students are still in school.

“Mr. Robertson’s class has been the most effective online class for me thus far because it is constant with how regular school was,” junior Mackenzie Cochrane said. “We are expected to participate and take notes while having new lessons and tests.”

Junior Caite Leake echoed these thoughts: “He uses technology to maintain the structure of our normal in-person class, which helps my classmates and me find normalcy in these hard times.”

Of course, as Caite’s comments indicate, teaching mathematical skills is only part of the job. Highland’s faculty are spending much time providing emotional connections for their students. As important as teaching mathematical skills, according to Mr. Robertson, is building community and trust.

“It takes so much kindness to do this right,” he said. “As the teacher, you almost become more of a friend in this scenario. You’ve spent the year building a connection and relationship, and now you’ve got to continue to show students that you still care and that you are still there for them.”

Mr. Robertson and his fellow teachers have gotten creative with community building. Ms. Carver, for instance, has turned towards another subject: language arts. She took a day and read a children’s book with her students, “Sir Cumference and the First Round Table.” While it had little to do with high school math, it helped build the community that allows her students to learn.

This ability to pause and take a breath is something students really appreciate. Mackenzie noted how she has a lot of work across all of her classes. Mr. Robertson, though, plans time for his students to work on their homework with him.

For Mackenzie, this has been so crucial. The result is that “his classes don’t stress me out.” Plus, “his communication through Google Classroom is clear. I always know what is due and when.”

For Jackson, he appreciated being able to turn his camera off occasionally during class. This helped him because there were then “fewer distractions” and he could concentrate on the material.

When asked about the level of trust such an approach takes, Mr. Robertson replied, “You have to trust that we have spent the first part of this year putting students in a good position to be successful. Then, you have to trust they will do the right thing.”

Despite his success with transitioning to online learning, Mr. Robertson still spends a lot of time worrying.

“I worry about who has internet access. I worry about the volume of work for my students, for my colleagues, and for me,” he said. “I worry about COVID-19.”

He worries about his students who have extra needs.

“This format is hard for students who need a lot of help or who might not feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher.” Ultimately, though, Mr. Robertson said, “The learning curve is steep and you will be judged no matter what. You have to do your best, and you cannot forget about self-care.”

Everyone is doing their best, and we are in this together.

The writer teaches English and serves as the freshman dean at Highland School in Warrenton.
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Jbwarfield · May 15, 2020 at 3:31 am
Highland School teachers have done an incredible job keeping our students engaged and connected throughout this crisis. They are exceptional educators.
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