This morning began with a game of “Would you rather…” to get them talking, thinking, and smiling. In case you were wondering, nearly all 22 would rather build a snow fort than a snow man. Next, she reminds each student how to access their Bitmoji classrooms, which she designed and loaded with videos and eBooks to help explain Illinois third grade curriculum topics, like migration. Between group instruction time, students can go to the Bitmoji classrooms before doing their assignments they find in Google Classroom.
Before sending the class off to independent learning time, Julie asked one student to stay on the Zoom “after class.” She reminded this little boy that her Zoom is open all day and if he needs her for anything, at any time, he can join. He waved goodbye to the camera and told her he would see her later. Julie says students take her up on that offer every day to pop on to Zoom, often as a distraction from something going on in the background at home. Sometimes they want to talk. Other times, they just want to see a safe, comforting face.
Because many of Julie’s 22 students are at different reading levels, she teaches several virtual reading groups. She selects a book for each group and uses a document camera to project the pages of the book to the students’ screens for them to read out loud. When one student is reading, the other students have their microphones on mute. They wait patiently as Julie helps each one of them sound out new words like “acorn.” Occasionally, the reader mutes his or her microphone in the middle of the page if someone in the house begins making noise in the background. Julie gives them some time for things to quiet down or has another student start where their classmate left off. The students in Julie’s smallest reading group are still trying to master sight words.
While the students are reading out loud to each other, on one of Julie’s three monitors, she’s watching the screens of her other students. At any point in the day, Julie can see exactly what the student is doing on his or her laptop. If a student is struggling to find a resource, Julie can invite them to join the Zoom and help navigate. If a student is watching YouTube instead of learning, Julie will send them a chat to stop and pay attention. If they don’t oblige, she can turn off access to YouTube. She’s had to immediately intervene when older siblings or parents began using a student’s Chromebook to access inappropriate websites.
Those are the long days. But Julie says most go by quickly. While she’s spent her career teaching, this school year is Julie’s first at this school. When she applied for the job, she thought she would be teaching in-person, and she even decorated her classroom. But days before students were scheduled to start, she found out her class would be fully remote. While she’s never met her students in person, Julie believes she knows them better than she would if it was a traditional school year, because she is able to see them in their environment. If they don’t join Zoom class, she calls or texts a parent to check on them. So, she knows the intimate details of their home life—the good and the not so good.
Unlike some districts, Julie issues grades to her students. Overall, they are better at math than reading, Julie shared, because some don’t have many books at home (although she was able to share three books with each student). As state testing wrapped up during the week I shadowed her, preliminary results indicate that every student in Julie’s class “showed progress.” Despite the many challenges posed by remote learning, Julie believes her students are progressing thanks to the independent learning time during which she is able to connect with each student individually—which likely wouldn’t happen in an in-person class of 26.
At the moment, this dedicated teacher has no idea what the next school year will bring for in-person or remote learning. Her students don’t know what the next hour will bring. In a world filled with instability, Julie’s smiling face, encouraging words. and a structured schedule is enough to get at least 22 of them to log on to learn each morning. Now she can only hope they remember to join class after lunch.
Shadowing Julie gave me valuable insight I may not have otherwise gained. I learned firsthand about the challenges teachers face in a remote teaching and learning environment, and I also saw how the relationship between students and teachers are taking on new depth, with more personal knowledge of a child’s environment and what that child may be experiencing that informs their learning experience. As educational partners with districts across the country, Follett strives to help teachers and students create better teaching and learning experiences through our Follett Cares program, through which we donate 70,000 books each year. We are also expanding our Follett Foundation to offer Free Follett Book Fairs to underserved communities.
It’s our hope that together, with teachers like Julie, we can all continue to help each child reach their potential.
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