Features

Learning to teach: Saint Francis teachers on remote learning

by Amaya Malik | May 19, 2020

Students come together in form of Zoom meetings to keep up to date with their classes. Art by Daniela Tran (’21)

The Lancer recently and virtually interviewed religion teacher Mr. Sean O’Neill, history teachers Mr. John Foy and Mr. Gary Dinneen, science teacher Mr. Matt Maguire, and Spanish teacher Ms. Hilda Flores to get different perspectives on how teachers are handling remote learning. During this interview, all five teachers discussed the transition into remote learning and the effect that it has created. They mentioned that the transition has created mixed feelings for them and has had some difficulties along the way. They also believe that remote learning has had a significant impact on students’ learning because students are not able to interact with their teachers and peers as much as they used to. Along with this, they mentioned the possibilities for utilizing remote learning in the future.

The Lancer: How has your adjustment to remote learning been?

Mr. Matt Maguire: It hasn’t been too difficult because I’m pretty tech savvy and have been getting a lot of things done online. It has just been hard to come up with content that will engage students.

Mr. Sean O’Neill: The transition hasn’t been entirely tough, but there have been some bumps along the way. It feels similar to when the fires happened last year and school was shut—for a week or so, learning was mainly through assignments. It became apparent that it was a hard problem, and I feel the same type of energy now as I did then.

Mr. John Foy: It’s been a mixed bag. Sometimes it has worked for me, and sometimes I have had difficulties because I was not totally familiar with the technology I was using.

Mr. Gary Dinneen: Believe it or not, SFHS has the infrastructure to do learning by remote means, so it was probably a lot easier for us to get things accomplished because of our dedicated tech crew and colleagues who stepped up to instruct on some of the nuances associated with the platform.

Ms. Hilda Flores: I think it’s been a little bit of a burden but as far as technology, I have been proficient. For the most part, it’s just been the adjustment with time, being a parent needing to adjust my child to the same thing because he is also going through learning online. The other thing is knowing how much work is okay to give students so that it is doable for them.

TL: At first, was the transition to virtual learning easy or difficult for you?

MM: It has been easy from a tech standpoint, but it has been difficult to form content and to try and assimilate to these new ways of teaching.

SO: At first, I felt a lot of energy and motivation, but then it was hard to keep endurance because there were lots of meetings, a lot of emails from the admin to be prepared on how to communicate with students. Luckily, we were able to meet the administration before school shut, so we were prepared in case there would be a lockdown.

JF: For me, it was a mix. Parts of it were easy, and parts of it were hard. The first few weeks I didn’t encounter any real difficulties, but as the shelter-in-place was extended, I found myself having to do more remotely. I definitely had some failures, but that’s natural when you are doing something new.

GD: My personal adjustment has been steep since I usually rely on hard-copy, old-school submissions, but on some level that transition is now paperless and some of the quality of writing is superior to in-class submissions. I have a tech-savvy family, so I have “tech support” at my house, so even though my learning curve has been steep, I have been able to negotiate a number of challenges which I am proud of dealing with.

HF: For me, it was not difficult but it was just very time consuming. It was not really a hard thing but it was just tedious because there was a lot of time to convert what was prepared for the following weeks to what would be available online.

TL: Were there a lot of changes that you had to make in order to teach the same material?

MM: Definitely more changes not having a group of students in front of you. I’ve noticed that you lose the feel if they are understanding and the constant feedback loop that we rely on in the classroom when they are asking questions or nodding their heads yes or no. It’s tougher to replicate during the Zoom calls, and it has been tougher than I thought it would be.

SO: I changed the assignments a bit, have done a lot of reflective assignments so my students are engaged, and have been teaching the major focus points of the class. One whole class period is equivalent to around 2 weeks of assignments because we have been moving slower.

JF: Luckily, I was at the point in my classes that content took a back seat. That meant that I was able to spend more time giving feedback on research and writing tasks than I might normally be able to.

GD: I’ve been teaching high school for forty years and technology is still very important, yet our best teaching and learning is done without technology; it involves the thinking and creative brain. Going forward I’d imagine that next year we will have some “blended” teaching and learning plus less emphasis on traditional, formal evaluations. Projects and creativity will evolve to their rightful place sooner than later. Of course, there will still be evaluations, but they will be presented in a different manner with less emphasis on memory regurgitation.

HF: I had to make some changes because I have memorized most of the curriculum I teach after teaching it for years and years. It’s easy for me to talk to students and teach with that style, but knowing that it’s not the same right now, I had to make some adjustments as far as the delivery of the content which wasn’t easy.

TL: Do you think online learning is having an effect on students’ learning?

MM: I don’t think it has; I think it’s up to students to see if they are going to do the reading and understand the material instead of just checking off the assignments just to get them done. The content is still there, but it depends how much work the student is willing to put into learning. The interactions are still lacking.

SO: I think online learning is sapping the motivation of students because they don’t really know when to stop. I make comments on most assignment submissions to help motivate students. Students are not really getting enough time to spend with each other so I try to implement that by using breakout rooms on Zoom. For some students, I think it’s making it hard to learn, so I try to help them out as much as possible.

JF: Yes, of course it is. I think that the school has done a really good job of minimizing that impact, but there is no way that online learning could replace the amount of class time and personal interaction that teachers and students normally have.

GD: I polled my students and about half of them think that remote learning is in their wheelhouse, and they might thrive on not having tests or formal evaluations and having writing and reflection be paramount, so their skills have improved here. Additionally, about half of the kids who were used to the “traditional” methods of doing high school are perhaps “challenged” by the new learning platform, mainly because they prefer human interaction, a friendly face, and someone keeping them honest on a daily or weekly basis. You can do that online, yet we all know it’s not the same.

HF: It is certainly having an effect, but I hope it is a positive one on their learning. I don’t think they are learning the same because the pressure of having to memorize things specifically for language is a lot higher when learning in the classroom. Whereas online, students have the flexibility of accessing resources while at home. For example, we don’t do a quiz online the same way we would do it at school, because we are unaware of what resources you have available at home. I think there is a benefit for the students who don’t do well with pressure because they probably have a lot more of a break knowing that they can work at their own pace. I think it’s also really hard for students who are not good with time management because it’s hard for them to get things done on time. The learning is there and some students may benefit while others may feel very overwhelmed.

The Lancer: What are some of the different methods you use to track students’ progress?

MM: I have been using EdPuzzle videos to check in with students and have been having project-based assessments. There is more of showing your knowledge as opposed to just memorizing the content. In the end, this could actually be very beneficial because students are able to show their understanding.

SO: I’ve been mainly tracking students’ progress by their submissions because once they submit one assignment, then they can see the other one. I’ve also been trying to use different apps and tools like Flipgrid, Google Forms, and Schoology Discussions to keep it different each week so it’s not boring. I also do attendance at the end of the week to track if my students have submitted everything and have shown up to the mandatory Zoom sessions. I try my best to help students struggling during this time to help them catch up with their work and help them in any way I can.

JF: I don’t use that many different methods. I work to provide students with guidance about how to execute the tasks I was assigning each week, and then try to give them feedback on how to improve.

GD: The Zoom technology and Schoology platforms are generally very helpful. Plus, if a student submits an assignment late or incomplete, a cursory view lets me know when it was submitted and I can type in comments to the students if they need direction or suggestions; kind of like Turnitin.com with its comments section for the research paper.

HF: Because this virtual learning was a result of an emergency situation, it’s not the same as planning a whole year ahead of time knowing that this is going to be the learning platform. A lot of the assessments for my classes changed and it’s more of a series of self-checks that I’m giving to students that they can complete with the learning resources that they have around them. It’s a matter of application of content rather than actually learning and memorizing the content because it’s teaching more skills than material.

TL: Would you like to see virtual learning be used in the future?

MM: In a perfect world, no, but we could get back to the status quo because that seems realistic. I see some of the projects and ways that we are thinking about education and assessments sticking around a lot longer than screens will. We will be able to take some of the things we learned and the experiences of being away from each other and take those good things and bring them back to the classroom.

SO: I think improvements need to be made to Zoom because it’s mainly meant for business meetings and not really a teaching environment. More resources need to be added to Zoom or other software to help manage student behavior and to avoid distractions.

JF: Well, I suppose the tools and my knowledge of it will improve, so that is an exciting possibility. On the whole, I prefer in-person learning, but I think that as technology changes that the use of virtual learning will become more common.

GD: Finally, I have tried to “evolve” (like Pokémon) during this challenge, and like my esteemed colleagues and students, we all would like to do school in the traditional manner, where human interaction is paramount to its success. Now, we are challenged to do school remotely, without formal evaluations, which will be revised and incorporated in the future, but I am confident that a school like Saint Francis will be able to succeed if we have either remote learning, a “blended” combination/hybrid of on-site learning and remote learning, or we go back to traditional methods and learning. Nonetheless, we will all have to adapt to changing times and “get with the program” about how best to educate the youth of America, my students, the future of our great nation. I am confident that in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Saint Francis, we will be able to thrive in any environment proceeding forward!

HF: That’s something that I have thought about before, just as an idea, to integrate some pieces of it. For example, I think this idea was suggested a long time ago to have one day a week or once a month integrated online learning, while also knowing that you can come into the classroom for physical interaction. I also see the challenges that could be faced by students who would prefer in-class learning.

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