During my first and second years of teaching I was also going to grad school each night and every Saturday to get my MAT in Mathematics. During the weeknights I had classes with k-12 teachers from all over NYC. Sometimes we’d practice delivering instruction or directions and I remember whenever the kindergarten or early elementary teachers stood up to practice, the whole room would go silent and us high school teachers would watch, picking our jaws up off the floor after. The amount of energy these early-grade teachers brought to their instruction was INSANE. Everything was a captivating performance.
In today’s interview, we’re going to hear from another friend from my hometown, Alyssa Pyle, who’s changing the game of virtual teaching by delivering engaging lessons to her elementary kids every week.
Julia: Tell me about your school and your role. What are the demographics of your school? How many students do you have? How many staff? What grades do you teach? What subjects? How long have you been there?
Alyssa: I just completed a one year long teaching residency at Linden Elementary School. I started out working with the second grade team, but moved around a bit due to staff turnover, then finally ended up teaching Art to the 3rd and 4th graders. My school is located in the neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn. Nearly all of our students are black or Hispanic, and qualify for free or reduced lunch. We also have the most incredible families at our school, and they have been supportive and flexible during these unprecedented times. It’s been such a blessing to partner with them.
Julia: In what ways was your school prepared for distance learning?
Alyssa: I don’t know of any school that can say it was totally prepared for distance learning. I think we anticipated that we would be out of school for a couple of weeks, but certainly not for over 3 months. We had a network holiday (no school) on Friday March 13th, and on Thursday we had some suspicions that we might have to instruct remotely, so our network and staff members quickly put together work packets for the students to take home on March 12th. We found out the next day that we would move to distance learning. Since then, we had to arrange for many of our families to get internet access at home, and provide laptops for students to complete their work online. This was done within about 2 weeks due to coordination and hard work by our operations team.
Julia: In what ways was your school unprepared for distance learning?
Alyssa: I was not prepared to be a remote Art teacher. The first couple of weeks I was creating videos and uploading them to a Google Drive for the kids to watch. But, it became challenging creating new content when I don’t know what supplies my students have at home. I had assumed that they would at least have access to a writing utensil and paper. Then one student emailed me telling me she didn’t have any paper to draw on. I suggested that she use a blank space or page on the bottom of an old homework packet. We had our plan and she was able to submit her assignment. My school didn’t give my any guidance or coaching on lessons, so it was certainly a struggle to find creative ways that kids can express themselves with very few supplies.
Julia: What does your typical school day and week look like now?
he non-Art classes that I used to support are now tracked remotely, so my teaching schedule changed dramatically. I went from constantly running around the school doing prep, admin work, teaching, and supporting, to teaching 4 different art lessons live via Zoom. My school week looked like:
- Monday: Prep
- Tuesday: 10-10:45 teach art; 3-3:45 teach art
- Wednesday: 9am – Staff meeting; Prep the rest of the day
- Thursday: 10-10:45 teach art; 3-3:45 teach art
- Friday: 12-2 Staff meeting
Julia: What platform do you use to teach (Zoom, Google Classroom, etc.)? What are the pros and cons of that platform?
Alyssa: When distance learning first began, I was uploading daily drawing videos into a folder on Google Drive. Then I posted a weekly assignment in each class’s Google Classroom for the students to complete one of the drawings and submit for credit. I didn’t like this method because students were constantly confused about where to view the videos, where to upload, how to upload, etc. To my knowledge there wasn’t a feature where I could add a folder in Google Classroom and have kids upload items without it being listed as a specific assignment. Additionally, I missed seeing the kids and interacting with them which made me feel a bit depressed, unmotivated, and very isolated. Eventually, my school switched to using Zoom. I developed a set class schedule, and most importantly I got to remotely see my students and give live feedback on their artwork.
Julia: What’s the funniest thing that happened so far during distance learning?
Alyssa: There have been SO many funny moments during distance learning, but perhaps the funniest was when I made a volcano erupt. I started making my art classes more interdisciplinary and incorporate topics and information from other areas where students weren’t getting instruction, like science and social studies. We drew endangered animals and learned about their diets, location, and habitat, and one week we even drew some natural disasters. I turned my bedroom into a science lab, put on a lab coat and glasses and made a volcano erupt. Before the eruption the kids were so excited and nervous, one was covering her eyes but just barely peeking between her fingers. When they saw the eruption they all screamed and got super excited to draw what they saw. It was so funny!
Julia: How do you think kids are handling this time emotionally? What should other teachers and schools prioritize?
Alyssa: COVID-19 has affected the black community disproportionally more than the white community and our students have felt that weight. Many of our students have lost family members during this pandemic, and the trauma and fear associated with that is really out of my wheelhouse as an educator. Some students struggled to complete their work, whether it came from lack of motivation, or depression, or because family members weren’t able to help them. Students felt isolated and afraid, and no one can tell them what the future holds because there is still so much uncertainty. Families have also been overwhelmed by calls from different teachers, and feedback conferences, that some of them simply ignored our calls. Homeschooling felt like too much for some parents, and scholars did not grow as much during this time. As a school we struggled with how to respond to this. Taking attendance via phone is unprecedented, so we didn’t have clear guidance on this. If the student hasn’t completed their work, are they present? What about if they miss their conference but text photos? How long do we wait with radio silence from the family before we alert authorities to do a wellness check?
I think the most important thing for teachers to do right now is try to maintain consistency, especially for the youngest grades. Kids thrive when they have a routine and know what to expect. Also, I would open up my Zoom classroom 10 mins before class to give kids a chance to dial in early and socialize with their peers. I would start class with a check in to see how kids are feeling, and give them a chance to share with each other and see that others might be feeling a similar way. If a student would say they’re feeling blue or mopey or angry, etc. I would call later and check in with them 1 on 1. I found that the kids thrived during Art by getting to express themselves. Although they only had to attend one class per week, many students attended more than one or even all of my lessons. For this reason I made 4 unique lessons every week so it was always something new for kids dialing in multiple times. I tried to keep lessons really engaging by also pulling strategies from vloggers, and being even more over-the-top than I am in class. I used costumes, accents, props, surprises, and all sorts of techniques to bring joy to my digital classroom. I highly recommend this
Julia: What do you think will happen in the fall? Is full-time distance learning the future of education?
Alyssa: I don’t think we will start live instruction at the beginning of the school year. I imagine that there will be combinations of remote and face-to-face lessons with small classes and recorded lessons that students can watch at home. I don’t see this as the future of education though. While there are some students who have thrived from distance learning, that is not the norm. Especially for kids in elementary school, it’s not just about the school work, but also the life skills they learn by being in a classroom and interacting with other kids. That cannot be replicated at home. I think maybe we will incorporate more virtual lessons in the long term, but there will always be a need for kids in an actual classroom.
The big thing I want to highlight from Alyssa’s interview (besides the fact that she’s super creative!) is the need for consistency and routine for our students. While I understand why many schools have transitioned to asynchronous instruction during this time, I think pushing for synchronous meeting times at least 2-3 times a week would be best for all students and teachers.
Yours in creativity,