Homeschooling and distance learning
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Teachers face new challenges trying to educate their students from a distance.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, classrooms were filled with students and teachers, hallways were a place to see friends and catch up on the latest gossip, and gyms were filled with athletes and families cheering them on.

Now, everything has moved online, and classrooms are now in kitchens, bedrooms and office spaces in students’ homes.

Amy Stein - Farber Hebrew Day School
Amy Stein (Photo: Farber Hebrew Day School)

Technology glitches are inevitable and are now common occurrences for some classes. Amy Stein, a Jewish studies teacher at Farber Hebrew Day School, was bringing her students back from a Zoom breakout group session when everyone’s videos had frozen. Luckily, the sound was still there. Stein continued with the lesson and slowly, one by one, each student’s video began to come back.

Teachers have also had to encourage engagement from students through discussions by calling on them individually to discuss homework assignments or in-class exercises. Stein, for example, has her students mute themselves and use the chat box function on Zoom so no one begins to talk over one another. Talking over one another is hard enough in the classroom, but in a virtual setting, the result is deafening silence due to Zoom’s settings automatically muting crosstalk.

It has now been over two months since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed schools throughout Michigan due to COVID-19. On April 2, districts were tasked with developing individualized plans for their teachers and students to engage in distance learning.

Many students, especially seniors, are still struggling with the notion of not being in the classroom and celebrating the end of their high school careers with proms and graduation.

Zoom classrooms, Google Hangouts and recorded lesson plans have become the new “norm” for students and teachers. Sitting at home, staring at a screen all day is difficult and strange, but still allows for students to feel a sense of togetherness while being apart from one another.

However, teachers from local schools around Oakland County have risen to the challenge and are trying to overcome obstacles to engage with their students as much as they can through this new virtual age.

Frankel Jewish Academy

At Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, teachers have been using Google Hangouts to engage with their students.

Rebecca Strobehn, a ninth grade Jewish studies teacher, has been a teacher at FJA for three years. Although she is proud of her students’ resilience, nothing can compare to seeing her students face-to-face on a daily basis.

“The part of teaching I love most is the daily interactions with my students, both formal and informal. In our current online learning structure, we have limited face-to-face time with our students and such limited opportunities for just being together without the pressures of a lesson plan,” Strobehn said. “Even as someone who has grown up in the digital age, I have always processed in-person interactions differently from digital ones. It’s just not the same seeing and talking to my students on a screen.”

Strobehn has also changed her approach to teaching during this time. She tries to make time during each lesson to check in with her students and find out how they’re doing outside of academics. In a few of her classes, she has structured projects to require one-on-one video chats with students to allow more individual attention.

Bosmat Dovas - FJA Teacher
Bosmat Dovas (Photo: Frankel Jewish Academy)

Bosmat Dovas, a Hebrew teacher at FJA, has transformed her coursework due to the shift to virtual learning. Testing and assessments have been the most difficult and challenging obstacles for Dovas during this time.

“The most difficult thing for me as a foreign language teacher is that we rely on conversations that are heavily based on interaction … I have been encouraging them and providing them with more homework and less assessments because I fear that they will either use Google Translate or ask others for the answers,” Dovas said. “I now give them personal assignments so they can’t copy off one another and talk to them about the honor system.”

Dovas continues to remind her students that this is a learning experience for everyone. While this may be a tough time, she remains positive for her students and brings a new sense of creativity to her classroom, especially through games.

Farber Hebrew Day School

Teachers from Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield have used Zoom and its features to reach their students. Zoom allows for the teachers to use the “shared screen” so students can share their work, but also allows for small group work through their “breakout rooms.”

Nachshon Wyma, a robotics teacher at Farber, had to completely redesign his class. Normally, the class involves electronics, microprocessors, 3D printing and designing, and building robots. Since the transition to virtual, they have pivoted the focus to coding only.

The “share screen” option on Zoom allows for the students to share their designs with Wyma and his volunteer robotics mentor, Ben Forta, and also enables the instructors to help students overcome difficulties by pointing out where something might be going wrong in their code.

“We are trying to maintain the normalcy of education in a sea of uncertainty and change — and this can be a positive point of familiarity,” Wyma said. “The basic structure of our culture has changed, and we need to acknowledge that, but we’ll get through this together and be stronger for it when all is said and done.”

Berkley High School

Berkley High School teacher Natalie Ford currently teaches 11th grade English and AP literature and composition. She has been using Google Classroom to communicate and post assignments and the screen recorder software Screencastify to record short, instructional videos and feedback on assignment. She has also begun making her own podcasts for longer discussions to talk her students through their reading assignments. Ford also uses Google Meet to host her office hours once a week.

“I think the biggest thing has been trying to maintain a connection with students,” Ford said. “This is new for all of us so my strategy has been to at least once a week post a journal assignment where students can be themselves and write like a teenager. They can communicate with me what is going on in their world.”

Ford also takes the time to respond to all her students’ journal entries and mimic having a conversation with them. Her goal is to take the time to make sure her students are not only understanding assignments, but also doing OK in general.

“What I have gathered from their journal entries is that this time away has allowed them to understand themselves as learners a little more,” Ford said. “No one is forcing them to do the work, so they have to truly figure out who they are. One student told me she used to feel rushed in class and now she has learned that she can do more work when she goes at her own pace.”

Ford’s students have told her that they have noticed they have to place their phones in different rooms to ensure they are not distracted by them. Other students have also begun journaling, finding other routines that work for them.

In Ford’s AP literature and composition class, her students were still able to take the AP exam online. The exams have all been adapted in some way — Ford’s exam only had one essay question, and she gave students 45 minutes to answer the question. Students can also choose to receive a full refund on their money if they don’t want to take the online AP exam.

“I have been telling my students since this began that every emotion is allowed. Early on, especially the seniors, many of them were writing about how disappointed they were surrounding everything,” Ford said. “I just remind them that whatever you’re feeling is what everyone else is feeling. You have to move through all the emotions. We may all be apart from one another right now, but we are still doing this all together.”

Hillel Day School

The teachers in grades K-4 at Hillel Day School of Farmington Hills use an asynchronized model, which means they record lessons of themselves and post them online for students to watch on their own time using a platform called Seesaw. They also hold class meetings on Monday mornings through Zoom.

Elizabeth Emmer - hillel
Elizabeth Emmer (Photo: Hillel Day School)

Elizabeth Emmer, K-4 math curriculum coordinator and 1-2 grades general studies teacher, records her lessons two or three times a week and then follows the lesson with an activity that her students can do then post to Seesaw.

“My students have tried their best to accomplish their work. On our Monday morning meetings, we always encourage our students to try their best and keep their same goals as they would normally have in school,” Emmer said. “We also do weekly Facetimes with our students to check in on them, listen to them read to us and practice something they might need help on.”

Emmer and the rest of the teachers at Hillel understand if something doesn’t get done on time because they know that every family has different schedules, and they don’t want to add more stress to families during this time.

“We are trying to push out the best teaching and learning that we can get at this time because, obviously, it is a lot different than being in the classroom, but we don’t want that to get in our way,” Emmer said. “We miss our students, but we are so proud of them and all the work they are doing at home. We know it is challenging, but we continue to encourage them and give them praise so they can feel successful in their work from home and keep their motivation going.”