It’s hard enough for seasoned teachers to transition from in-person classes to online learning. But what about teachers who are just starting out?
Oscar Andrade falls under that category. The second year educator left his classroom at Centennial Elementary School in March, and was allowed to return in early August to get ready for the year.
“I’m currently at my desk,” he says through a Zoom call. He picks up the laptop and moves it around to focus on the room. “This is the wall where I place different anchor charts,” he says, showing posters that explain story structure and math concepts.
Andrade points out his library and writing wall, things third graders would probably love to see in person. But for the start of school, they will also see these walls and library through a screen because all Fresno Unified School District classes will begin the year with distance learning.
Andrade says he didn’t take online classes in college, because he felt he learned best in person with his professor and peers. So, the irony that he has to teach online now isn’t lost on him. He’s ready to have a lot of patience with the squirreliest of his students.
“Although it is gonna be completely online, and I’m not gonna have my students in front of me, I am still excited, I’m looking forward to it,” Andrade says. “At the same time, I hate not knowing what the future holds, and I hate not knowing what it’s going to be like.”
Andrade couldn’t put into words what exactly might go wrong, but says he’s trying to focus on what he can control. He also participated in the district’s new teacher conference two weeks ago to help him prepare.
Traci Taylor, the director of teacher development at Fresno Unified, says the conference focused on distance learning.
“There was a lot of application for them to get practice in what it is that they’re going to be doing virtually with their kids, and that’s really what we want to do,” says Taylor. “So, not only do we want to give them the resources, but we want to model what that looks like.
Taylor says the weekend conference, which normally happens in person, went off without a hitch. Though it was online, she says teachers who attended were eager to learn. “Every session that we went into, you could feel excitement still, you could see people’s faces of nodding heads, and being engaged.”
Taylor says she hopes the new teachers have a leg up, since many of them are younger and are used to working with computers.
But teaching through distance learning is still challenging. Jennifer Folsom, a researcher with the education research group WestEd, has taken hundreds of hours of online courses to figure out what does and doesn’t work.
“Some of the instruction that I’ve been doing in the distance space is truly engaging and inspiring, and that is not something I would have told you was possible in February,” says Folsom. “So, it is possible, but it takes personal experience as a learner to get there.”
On the flip side, Folsom adds, districts have to keep minimizing roadblocks. In spring that meant getting devices and wifi to families.
“This fall minimizing roadblocks is thinking carefully about scheduling, about how many hours you have kids in front of a screen watching a Zoom call,” says Folsom.
The Fresno Unified schedule includes live instruction and independent learning. The district has also distributed 3,000 hotspots and set up a helpline for families if technology issues come up.
That would have been helpful when in-person classes ceased in March, says second grade teacher Lakeshia Miranda.
“I know some had tech issues, some didn’t have tech,” Miranda says of her students in the spring. “I had a couple who had Fresno Unified tablets, but one had a cracked screen, one didn’t have a charger.”
Last year was Miranda’s first full year at Fresno Unified, and she says most of her second graders didn’t stay connected as the spring semester ended. But she’s hopeful many of the tech problems have been ironed out.
She shows me the corner of her home where she’ll teach her upcoming class.
“I have my white board behind me, and here is, it’s like a whiteboard for ELA,” she says, tilting her laptop camera up to show me her walls.
Like Andrade’s classroom, she has posters up with sayings and class rules, like “Do Your Best,” and “Show Respect to Others.”
“I’m hoping starting online now with expectations being given that this is running like school, you’re expected to be there, there’s gonna be attendance and you’re expected to work, that’ll shift the mindset,” says Miranda.
She’s been having this talk with her own two teenagers: “So you’re gonna have to get up like regular, be at school by 9 o’clock, and you’re on tablet or on your computer working, just like if you were going to school.”
Both Miranda and third grade teacher Oscar Andrade say they would love to be in the classroom with kids, but they also want to stay safe. They have family members who are high risk, and would also hate risking their students’ health. Right now, Fresno County is also on the state’s county watch list, which means no schools can resume in-person instruction until the rate of positive COVID-19 cases declines.
For now, Miranda and Andrade will teach from a distance at home and in their classrooms. The first day of school with Fresno Unified School District is Monday, August 17.
Are you a Fresno Unified parent getting your student ready for school? Or have your kids already started distance learning in another district? We want to hear how it’s going. Please leave us a voice memo in our app, KVPR, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.