Connecting with Students: City teachers respond to COVID-19

Submitted PhotoMary Corbin is a fifth-grade teacher at Sallas Mahone Elementary School.

PART II

EDITOR'S NOTE: Many teachers had their hearts broken when the announcement was made that school would not return this academic year. The Valdosta Daily Times reached out to teachers in both Lowndes County Schools and Valdosta City Schools to find out what they are going through. Today, The Times focuses on Valdosta school teachers; a story on the reactions of county school teachers was published in the Sunday, April 12, edition.

VALDOSTA – Christie Sermons is a fifth-grade teacher at S.L. Mason Elementary School and has been a teacher for eight years.

Since schools closed, Sermons has been using the same digital platforms she and her students were using throughout the school year.

“The most difficult thing for me has been not being able to reach some students over the phone or those who do not have access at home to reliable internet," she said. "As teachers, we’re fully aware of the importance of being in school and staying engaged in the learning and problem-solving process, but right now, I find myself wondering more about how my students are feeling and dealing with this current situation. 

"My hope is that they are all coping as best they can, and I want them to know I miss them,” Sermons said.

As a teacher, she is always seeking new ways to engage and reach students, but knows that during this time keeping students and the school community connected poses a challenge.

“There are positives to all of this. First and foremost, this situation is not a permanent one and we will make it through this difficult time," she said. "Next, this is a moment in time that truly lends itself to many of the important concepts and connecting themes students learn in school about the history of our nation and its people. 

"Real-life situations contribute to the most meaningful learning experiences and just because we are not physically in school does not mean learning is not happening”

Mary Corbin is a fifth-grade teacher at Sallas Mahone Elementary School. This is her second at Sallas Mahone. Previously, she taught at Headstart until she took an extended break to raise her family and direct a nonprofit organization serving children in and around the housing projects here in Valdosta.

When school was cancelled for the initial two weeks, Corbin hit the ground running looking for safe online instruction options. She spent that first weekend scouring YouTube for videos on how to use online platforms and resources.

“We connected in a live online class that first week," Corbin said. "It was such a joy to be able to see my students' faces and listen to their enthusiastic chatter. I love collaborative learning in my classroom, so I was extremely excited when I figured out how to create breakout groups with an online class. 

"I have encouraged my students to journal every day," she said. "This is a historical event, and their experiences will be valuable to look back on later. My goal is to provide interesting, uncomplicated, but still academically challenging assignments to encourage my students to keep learning. Social/emotional learning is also a priority for me, so there are times we meet for class just to allow the students to share how they are feeling, things they are worried about, difficulties they are facing and to offer support. 

"The students support one another, too, and I am so proud of them,” Corbin said.

Losing the ability to group student desks and losing accessibility to books was a hit to Corbin and she noticed the paradigm shift with online learning.

“However, the biggest impact of the change for me has been emotional. When I learned that they were canceling the entire school year, I was devastated," she said. "When I initially parted with my students it was only meant to be for a couple of weeks, so my focus was on keeping them calm and I kept my goodbyes casual. 

"I love my students, so obviously I wanted them to be safe, but I was heartbroken that I didn't get to give them a decent send-off into sixth grade.”

Corbin said fifth grade is a milestone year with the students missing their “senior walk,” dance, honors night, Wet and Wild Day and saying a proper farewell to elementary school.

“Mostly, I worry about the students who I haven't been able to contact yet, or those who do not have a way to connect online," Corbin said. "Even for those students who can get online, it can be difficult for them to complete their assignments independently for any number of reasons. Maybe they have additional responsibilities now that they are at home, maybe there is no quiet place to work, maybe they have to share a device with siblings, or maybe they and their families are completely overwhelmed right now. 

"I think it is important as educators to remember all those things and try to focus on the emotional health of our students,” Corbin said.

She kicks off her online chats with check-ins, such as asking how her students are doing and what is going on in their lives. Adding in fun questions such as “What is your favorite thing to have for breakfast?” is another element Corbin has brought to her online instruction.

“I think first and foremost, students and parents should know how much their teachers and principals truly miss them. The building may be closed, but we are still very busy teaching, learning and caring for our students,” Corbin said. “And, please, do not allow yourself to stress over academic achievement. This caught us all by surprise, but we will get it all figured out. The activities assigned are to engage the minds of my students, to keep them learning and to provide routine, which can be comforting during tough times. The last thing I want, as a teacher, is to be a burden on my students' families right now. Staying safe and healthy has to be the priority.”

Richard Smith is an engineering and technology teacher at J.L. Newbern Middle School. He is in his 26th year of teaching and his third year with Valdosta City Schools. 

He also taught local teachers here in the area for 13 years each summer through Valdosta State University education department under Dr. Brian Gerber through the MSP Partnership Grant (featuring math, science and technology hands-on training for educators).

“During the regular school year I prepared distance learning projects for teachers to do in their classrooms and thus get credit for the grant and for their teaching certificate," he said. "The other master teachers I worked with were also part of this in their area of expertise. In addition to the summer institutes, during the school year, we would film them in a studio doing their lessons with a live audience of educators, I would prepare the webinars online (including my own) and then the local teachers here would carry out the lessons in their classrooms, and then post to the site I prepared for the project." 

Visit http://goo.gl/1sVjl2 – password: "mymsp2018"

Smith works with a different group of students each semester, and for the 2019-20 school year, he devoted at least one half of a semester to getting students acclimated to learning coding and distance learning using a program packaged called TYNKER.

“It is aligned with all state standards and covers K-eighth grade at this time. The thought was that if I can get them used to being familiar with the coding that right now pretty much runs everything we use (phones, cars, planes, drones, game consoles, etc.), and to this type of 'distance learning' now so that when they get to college they will be ready to jump in along with the rest of society," he said. 

"I started teaching distance learning about 20 years ago as an adjunct faculty with Rio Salado College (Maricopa College District) in Arizona. It was in the beginning stages then and we used a program called First Class which was developed by the British at that time,” Smith said.

While he may have been prepping the students for college, he said he didn't think these students would be immersed in this style of learning so quickly.

“Welcome to our new way of life," he said. "Our new normal. No time to really prepare, just do it. Take a few risks, try something out, change it if it does not work. Well, that is what I am doing. This weekend, for example, I went to a few neighborhoods where I know some of my students live that I know many do not have on-line capability – of course practicing social distancing. 

"I let the students and some of their parents know that I, as well as other teachers in our school system, have lessons and activities online for their students to keep busy and active in school work. I let them know about the food drop offs and that packet work would be there for them as well in case they do not have online access. Some knew about it and some did not. I told them to keep checking the VCS website for updates.”

Smith didn't stop there. He created a website for both students and adults called “Smith's CORONAVIRUS Updates and Resources,” sites.google.com/view/engtechnms/coronavirus-update.

Desiree Carver is a reporter at the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be reached at (229) 244-3400 ext. 1215.

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