Teacher scales technological walls to reach students
Umatilla’s McNary Heights Elementary School still held its spirit week with themed days for online videoconferences. Second-grader R.J. Thomas has the full catcher’s gear for sports day. (Photo by Carrie Holmes)
A recent virtual classroom session opened with a joyful chorus of Umatilla second graders, thrilled to talk to each other.
A mother leaned over her daughter, helping her set up. Another student zoomed his camera until it showed just his eye. It was show-and-tell day for these McNary Heights Elementary students, and one girl wandered around outside showing off her sheep, although show and tell hadn’t actually started.
They bombarded teacher Karen Sheller and each other with happy chatter.
Once Sheller started her lesson, though, they quieted down, listening intently and taking turns unmuting themselves to speak.
Sheller and her class have settled into the daily distance learning routine. It’s been a steep climb and it’s not ideal, but learning is happening.
Sheller and her fellow teachers are figuring out how to make distance learning’s puzzle pieces, but they aren’t sure yet what education picture they will yield. Distance learning provides lots of freedom, but Sheller finds herself wishing someone had already perfected this and could just show them how.
A veteran teacher, Sheller considered herself reasonably tech adept, but she found the prospect of distance teaching daunting. She had never even used Google Meet or Classroom.
“I had absolutely no idea how to do this,” she said.
Sheller meets live with her students every day at 10 a.m. for about 30 minutes. She gives them a few minutes to chat among themselves before a short review and presenting online lessons she has recently created.
Before distance learning officially started April 13, Sheller absorbed great gulps of technology, learning how to create instructional videos and online lessons. There was little training, just how-to videos and leaning on colleagues.
Of her 22 students, 19 have internet access. The district northwest of Pendleton is still trying to get all its students connected. One student in her class can’t be reached at all.
Sheller averages about nine students a day on Google Meet. It fluctuates and isn’t always the same kids.
During a meeting, an older brother helps one child. A little brother elbows his sister, wanting to be involved too. Family members and pets wander by. One child has a TV on in the background. A video game is on the TV in the background of another. A student must leave at 10:30 because a sibling needs the computer.
The first two days went well and then on the third day Sheller’s microphone stopped working. It took her 30 minutes to figure out how to do a Meet from her phone. Troubleshooting everything from home has been a challenge.
“When you have 15 problems a day, you can’t text the IT people every time,” she said.
Sheller gives lessons all week, alternating math and reading days. Everything is due at 3 p.m. Sunday so parents who work can help kids catch up. She can see that 21 students are doing something, although a handful haven’t submitted any work.
Three students a week have turned in paper packets, either in addition to or instead of online work. The school lets Sheller know they were turned in, but she can’t review them for sanitary reasons.
The paper packets offer the same lessons as online, but Sheller can’t provide instruction.
Sheller worries about equity and “grading them on their home life.” She said she’s not even sure what the grading should be, how to calculate the level of participation necessary for a student to pass.
“The thing that bothers me the most about this style of learning is that it makes it difficult to differentiate and get on the level where each student is,” Sheller said.
She is working with colleagues in two-week chunks to identify the essential learning in their year-end curricula. They share videos, lessons and discoveries to lessen the burden. The learning curve can be overwhelming.
“We’ve all taken turns having the crying day,” Sheller said.
Other times, Sheller finds herself thinking how she can utilize her new skills when she is back in her classroom.
Sheller keeps office hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. but works into the night as needed.
“I can’t not answer a parent if they have a problem and they are trying to help their kid at 8 o’clock at night,” she said.
Carrie Holmes, mother of second-grader R.J. Thomas, said distance learning isn’t ideal but parents have to step up.
“Going in to next year if our kids are behind, it's on us,” she said.
Holmes set up card table workspaces for her boys, R.J. and kindergartener Rudger Thomas. R.J. can read and follow instructions to do a lot of work on his own. Rudger needs more assistance.
Holmes said Sheller’s Google Meet is the highlight of her son’s day.
Holmes works Fridays and weekends, allowing her to be home while her husband works. She said distance learning is going “really well” but later admits, “I hope this doesn’t become a regular thing. It’s been rough.”
Holmes must take her mother to Pendleton every afternoon. The boys must go because they aren’t in school. They eat their school-provided lunches in their truck during the medical appointments because the parks are closed. It’s a big chunk of the day, and Holmes doesn’t think they could fit in much more schoolwork than they are doing now.
Holmes said R.J. is progressing, “but if he was in school, he would be getting a lot more.”
R.J. said he misses everything about school. Sometimes his brother makes it hard to learn. Still, he said Sheller’s assignments are fun.
“I like learning at home because it makes me really smart,” he said.
Sheller knows the children don’t come to Google Meet for math and reading lessons. They come to see each other.
She sent whiteboards and markers home with the students’ belongings. During a Meet this week, Sheller taught double-digit addition. The students were engaged, quietly holding up their whiteboards to show their work. She didn’t even have to mute them.
“We all agreed it was fun because it felt more like regular school,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA