Teachers, kids tackle new assignment

Districts 181, 86 adapt to new plan as schools switch from e-learning to remote learning

Gabrielle Pastiak couldn't have an in-person discussion about the economy Tuesday with her fourth-graders at Oak School.

So she posted a photo on Padlet and asked her students a simple question: "What's going on in this picture?" Their responses appear as sticky notes around the photo (see art).

Other assignments on Tuesday involved calculating the volume of irregular shapes, reading a Newsela article on healthy otters and writing a response to a previous reading assignment about butterflies. The schedule also included optional activities and two Zoom meetings.

"The biggest difference for everyone is we're really trying to make remote classrooms feel as close to a normal classroom as possible," Pastiak said of the switch from e-learning to remote learning this week. "There is much more live interaction between teachers and students in all classrooms."

The Illinois State Board of Education called for the switch to remote learning and issued a set of recommendations for school districts. The shift has required educators to focus less on quantity and more on quality, said Julie Hafner, a fifth-grade teacher at Prospect School.

"How can we take the lessons we thought we were going to use, and how can we boil it down to what is absolutely necessary?" she said.

The District 181 schedule for third- to fifth-graders calls for 30 minutes of instruction three times a week for reading/language arts and math and two times a week for science and social studies. Students spend the other two days a week on independent practice or assessments in each subject. Each student also has 60 meetings of art, music and/or world language assignments to complete each week and 30 minutes of physical activity each day.

"I think part of the abbreviated school day is to make sure the students' stamina can remain for that duration of time," Pastiak said. "There's only so long a child can work independently."

The shorter day might actually be more productive for some students, Hafner observed, citing one boy who sharpened his focus without friends around.

"Some kids really do get caught up in the social aspects of school, and when all the distractions are away, they really are able to produce," she said.

Maintaining some contact, even through a screen, is important for the students' social-emotional health, the teachers agreed.

"It's a global pandemic, so we're making sure that we're all hosting class meetings and having that face-to-face time where you can share how your weekend was, to keep that sense of normalcy and support for them as well," Pastiak said.

Preparing for remote learning takes two to three times as long as planning normal classes, both said. They appreciate the teamwork among staff members and the professional development provided by the district. Pastiak said this collaboration - which extends to students and parents - is one of the silver linings of this experience.

"I think another silver lining is the students. They are resilient and they are so flexible and so positive, despite the circumstances," Pastiak said. "I'm biased, but I think we have the most amazing students."

Other benefits teachers have discovered are the opportunities to slow down a little and the life skills students are learning, such as how to be more independent.

"Our kids are going to do fine," Hafner said. "They are so resilient and we're hitting the main stuff and at this point, it's about keeping them happy and keeping them safe. That's more of a goal for me now, feeling connected."

Red Devils go virtual

Hinsdale Central math teacher Julie Saller said the switch to e-learning following the closing of Illinois schools March 14 was a test of perseverance.

Negotiating the new paradigm for her own algebra 2, AP calculus and multi-variable calculus classes was daunting enough. Factor in her secondary role as a technology coach helping colleagues set up their virtual environments and, well, things got complex.

"I was very overwhelmed the first couple of weeks," she said. "I was constantly fielding emails and phone calls."

The transition to a more formalized remote learning structure after spring break ushered in a more predictable daily formula. Mondays are now reserved for lesson planning and student catch-up work. Enrichment activities are available for those who want extra practice or students can check in with her.

"I hold virtual office hours throughout the day on Monday," she said.

Teaching from a distance has, ironically, demanded closer collaboration with her department colleagues to streamline the workload. They trade off tasks of recording an instructional video, crafting a homework assignment and creating an assessment tool (e.g. quiz).

"I've always kind of looked at my own classes and made decisions," she said. "I've never worked as closely with my teammates as I do now."

Or at her job, period.

"It's definitely a lot more work than the normal day-to-day than I'm used to," she said.

Fellow math teacher Abbey Green said the district's scheduling of one hour of class followed by an hour off was a healthy move.

"It gives kids structure but it also gives kids freedom," she said, noting some households have multiple kids doing remote learning or face other circumstances that necessitate some downtime. "It's a design that tries to keep learning moving forward and also recognize that there are probably a lot of things that are happening at home, too."

Open lines of communication, whether through Zoom meetings or other online tools, are vital for sharing concerns or simply socializing.

"I want them to feel comfortable telling me what they need," Green said. "I miss the convenience of being able to see my students' faces to gauge their understanding. They crave communication and they crave being able to connect with people."

Senior Jackson Hughes said he's been pleasantly surprised at the remote learning results.

"Online classes and having a class schedule to complete has given life a much greater sense of normalcy and interconnections in a time where everybody is very disconnected," he said.

The latitude students are given for completing their work is also appreciated.

"The structure of the learning is very well designed to allow students to participate in their classes while at the same time not feeling pressured to complete all the work within the slotted time," Hughes said.

Students aren't graded on their remote learning work (class grades are locked in from the last in-school day), but that doesn't mean assignments are optional.

Hinsdale Central Principal Bill Walsh, who also reported a steep drop in frantic phone calls and emails since the first couple e-learning weeks, said that message is still being driven home.

"The biggest issue schools have is getting students to do the work," Walsh stated. "You have to do the work; otherwise you're going to get an incomplete. What that ultimately means is you're going to go to summer school."

Green said there's a lot of praise to go around.

"Every single person is trying to help each other out, trying to do everything that we can and make sure students are feeling OK."