In partnership with eSchool News, Illuminate Education is spotlighting teachers in a series recognizing educators, the way they have moved instruction online during COVID-19, and how they have prioritized the needs of their students.
Ann Grey Newcomb
West Oxford Elementary School
Granville County Public Schools
“If there is a silver lining, it’s that we see the heart on the sleeve of educators that I already knew was there.”
Before school closures, what did a typical day look like?
At the school, I am a half-time ESL teacher and a half-time Instructional Support Coach. So a typical day would be seeing students, maybe two or three grade levels, in a small group for about half a day. If I’m lucky, I can sometimes “push into” a classroom and co-teach to help the EL learners. Other days are spent working on PLCs all day, looking at data, making instructional decisions, and matching instructional needs to resources. Other days I am training teachers and co-teaching, which is my favorite coaching method. So my day to day is varied, which is one of the things I like most about my job.
How have you been able to adopt to a remote learning model for your students?
I will give big props to Granville County Public Schools, which has really gone above and beyond, in my estimation, to reach all children at this time. We have a lot of low income families who don’t have the same resources as others, so we’ve been working on a way to make learning equitable. Our School Counselor, Mrs. Christy Currin, and our Media Assistant, Mrs. Sonia Hernandez, have done an amazing job at taking instructional packets out into the community and leaving them on doorsteps. While we are starting to have more and more assignments online, I do have a lot of students working on these hard copy packets. So far, we have been able to issue Chromebooks to students in Grades 4 and up and have ordered additional devices for Grades K- 3. We have also boosted internet capability in the school parking lot.
When we first started distributing the packets, our understanding was that students would come back. So we had only given them materials to practice what they had previously learned. When we found out that the school would be closed for longer, we shifted how we would present their lessons. Right now, I am mostly using Google Classroom and our textbook company, Cengage, which has made their online materials free for the remainder of the year.
We are just now starting to move into teaching new material, so we are making it available online and in hard copy packets. I’m using the instructional videos provided in Cengage and recording them in Zoom so that the students can access them easily. I’m able to pause the video and ask questions or just interact with the students while they are watching.
I work with a great group of ESL teachers, and we are really collaborating and splitting responsibility on how best to reach our students. So far, we’ve had individual instructors create the Kindergarten video, the 1st Grade video, and so on. I then created a video to introduce all of our teachers so that when students see those teachers on a video lesson, they feel familiar. We play these videos in what we are calling “Connections,” which is where the students meet as a group two times a week with me. This is the part that we are just rolling out, so we’ll see what that looks like, but I’m hopeful. I will have to hold these sessions in the evening so that their parents will be home and can help their children.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Not interacting with my students. Not having the ability to connect with them. I have yet to have a child log into one-on-one sessions with me or a small group. I have 56 kids on my caseload and have only been able to communicate with about half of them. I still have a good chunk of students who I haven’t heard from at all—no text or email. It’s a joy just to hear from any of my students right now. We’re working really hard to make web access available in homes that can’t afford it, but the digital divide is just tremendous.
I would also say that learning new material is also going to be a big challenge. I would be more in favor with learning new materials if we had students who were better engaged with us right now. My EL students are already below proficiency, and so I really just want them to continue what they’re already working on. We already have to work twice as hard with the summer backslide that always happens, and now that they are not receiving in-person instruction, this is just going to add to their hardships. I think the best thing that I can do for them right now is just to continue their language development. I’m in favor of trying to help students—especially my middle schoolers—understand some of the vocabulary and language that is in the news.
In a lot of cases, the parent’s English language is sometimes limited as well, and they need translations in their first language, so I think it’s important to help them all to understand what is happening. In the beginning, I started trying to get words out there like “quarantine.” I would also try to explain the process for good hygiene—to avoid touching their faces, to wear a mask, and how to properly wash their hands. I also wanted to make sure they knew where they could access medical care in Granville County should they need it. I know doing all of that sort of moved away from what we are supposed to be working on, but I feel it is more important for them to learn about what they’re dealing with in their communities. My middle school students play a very large role in helping care for their families and work hard to support one another. I’m just doing what I think my kids need.
What are some ways you’ve been able to help students who are struggling?
Right now, we’re missing the feedback from the students. I’ve been an educator for a while so I feel like I can create resources to help them learn, but it’s very concerning that my ability to give feedback to kids right now is very limited. We’re trying to teach the parents to take pictures of the assignments and send them back—not because we are concerned with the grade, but because we’re missing that feedback. Right now we aren’t even issuing grades—we don’t know the answer to the “grade question” or what grading would look like. But overall, we are seeing very little work being submitted. I have some parents who have some technology skill and some parents who don’t yet. I think it will get better, though, as we are able to continue helping parents learn how to help their kids continue learning. In the meantime, they are trying really hard to pick up the work packets.
Have there been any unexpected positives you’ve seen?
One sort of positive is that the students are missing us and missing school terribly. They cannot wait to come back to school. Sometimes by the fourth or fifth grade, when children are behind, you see a lack of motivation. But that’s not the case here. They are saying they can’t wait to see me and see their friends. It’s like the old adage says: “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” I’m really hopeful that this will be a life-changing experience for some of our students. I’m hopeful it helps keep them engaged with school and with learning.
Another positive is really seeing all the teachers come together. There are members of my team who are 25 years or more into their education career and have some technology skill, but we find ourselves really reaching out to our younger, first- or second-year teachers who know how to better navigate these new applications. I’ve also seen all the teachers out here announce publicly that they are available for any students to reach out to them. As is often the case when you go through traumatic events, you find that people are good, and people want to help and people want to support each other. If there is a silver lining, it’s that we see the heart on the sleeve of educators that I already knew was there.
Would you like to share a message to your students?
I love you and I miss you. And also, READ! Read anything you can, as often as you can.
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